Monday, December 26, 2011

A Kite in the Wind: Fiction Writers on Their Craft edited by Andrea Barrett and Peter Turchi

A Kite in the Wind: Fiction Writers on Their Craft
edited by Andrea Barrett and Peter Turchi

The novel I've written has languished on my hard drive for two years. Before that, I spent roughly four years and at least as many drafts working on it. A handful of people have read it, and it felt fairly close to "done" when I set it aside to begin the process of moving from Spokane, WA back to Great Falls, MT. And besides, I'd recently started reviewing books, which scratched a different critical thinking (and instant feedback) itch that I'd long neglected. For being a writer, I felt under-read. I would delve deep into one author's back catalog and would completely ignore others for no real reason. Reading a wider variety of writers — newer releases, especially — would help me better articulate what I loved about reading and why I wanted to contribute to the endless pages published. Still, I've struggled — not in the suspected, insecure "Why bother?" sort of way, and not over concerns of "mattering" amongst so many other writers, but struggling against my own foggy brain.

For over two years, my chronic fatigue has inhibited my ability to concentrate, and I have stubbornly used these reviews to fight against that symptom. I realize that I am luckier than those who can't even follow a few lines on a page, much less write about them, but I still hate that I have any trouble at all. With fiction, I feel like the muscle has atrophied. I've been trying to ease myself back into the mindset of my own work, and reading books like A Kite in the Wind have helped me to think about my novel again.

After reading over 100 books in those two years, and many of them excellent, looking back at 2009's version of my book is a little cringe-worthy. The story is there, but now I have to go in and make it better. I am only in contest with myself.

"With one part of ourselves, we would like to be better than we are, but another part of us would like to be left to live like a wild hog in the woods — and the constant, subtle pull between these two poles makes characters feel more like real people, less like illustrations or mechanisms to carry out the story's needs."
--"Self-Awareness and Self-Deception," Sarah Stone

A Kite in the Wind is not really for people just starting out with this whole writing-related madness because there's a certain knowledge base it assumes one has, but it is not an impenetrable read either. With contributions from former or current professors at the Warren Wilson College MFA Program for Writers, the book divides into sections: Narrative Distance and Narrative Voice, Revealing Character, Seeing and Setting, and Pattern and Shape. Though I somewhat recognized a couple names, I am not too familiar with any of the authors' work, and so I did not go in with any preconceived notions about what they might have to say.

My hunch regarding the quality and usefulness of Kite's discussion turned out to be correct, though — either I realized the ways in which I'd already done well with my manuscript, or I was able to make notes on what I should work on during this next draft. There are more good quotes than I can include here, but I will say that it's nice to read professional thoughts that would occur in an MFA program without, you know, actually turning up for class and having to listen to other students and such.

(Don't mind me; I don't even have a BA, and I'm sort of a shut-in.)

Because I tend to prefer character over concept, the chapters on narrative and character felt the most familiar. Exploring how and why people do the things they do, especially the misbehavior, is endlessly interesting to me, and I found many of my views on the process reflected by those sections. For instance, I don't know how many times I've read disparaging opinions on the first person point of view in fiction (which translates to unneeded hostility towards memoir and creative nonfiction, but that's a discussion for another time). The underlying message of these exhortations is that "serious" writers only write in third. Logically, we know this is bullshit, but writers are at once exceedingly overconfident and desperately self-conscious. Sometimes it's easy to forget that only blowhards say there's a limited "right" way to do something, so I particularly enjoyed Wilton Barnhardt's contribution, "First Person:"

Giving voice to central characters like these requires a degree of bravery. The writer may have to expose more of himself than he bargained for as he brings adulterers, social deviants, deadbeat dads, mothers ruining their children's lives, criminals large and small, from mass murdering generalissimos to cheerleaders spreading false rumors, to the page. Make sure when you choose third person close-in over first person you are doing it for greater context and perspective — and not because you're chicken!

First person tends to work out pretty well for me. I tend to live inside my characters' heads while working on their story, to the point where they might infiltrate my dreams and music selection. Because I borrow shamelessly from my own life, even if it's one sentence a person said to me six years ago, the mental lines between fiction and life become fuzzy quite easily. I like it that way; when it works, it really works. I am at my most brave in my writing, especially now, when my speaking voice trails off mid-sentence as my focus disintegrates. ("Did I already tell you that, or did I just think it?" is a frequent refrain.) To be honest, it's easier to think about my characters' bad behavior and wholehearted love, their damaged selves and goals, rather than trying to make sense of my own situation. With this illness, I cannot do much more than manage the symptoms, so in the meantime, if I can move one step closer to articulating the magic of romance, music, and the connections we have with one another? Well, then let that be my contribution.

"Intimacy redraws the characters' map of the world and their place within it. Intimacy snatches you out of yourself, shows you how small you are in relation to the rest of the world. Notice how different this idea is from some of our modern cliches about love — that it should make you "feel good" about yourself, feel confident, feel attractive, feel accompanied, feel, in a sense, bigger. Here intimacy causes the characters to feel uncertain,, off balance, strange, sometimes smaller, sometimes expanded in unexpected ways."
--"The Space Between," Stacy D'Erasmo

The best love is the kind that completely turns life upside down. I want love to knock me over and fill a hole hitherto unnoticed. I am interested in mind-altering, opiate-like love, where all the benefits and consequences are wrapped up in one inescapable and compelling mass. That is where I love having characters live — their attachments are going to be all-consuming, right into the pain that will come along with it. I want to take that enamored confusion and map out its environment. Love and lust for the chronically lonely — those are my favorite tales.

"[T]he habits of worry are borne out through repetition, soothed and then revived. Worry seeks to extinguish the hurt at the same time that it sustains the constant pleasure of the nagging pain. The management of hurt. The embodiment of ache. This is a story of ache, after all, of heartache, of heart hurt."
--"The Heart One Knows by Heart: Operating Instructions for Operating Instructions," Michael Martone

For the most part, Kite does not try to place value over one type of writing/reading over the other, but rather discusses what makes fiction as a whole more satisfying. Anthony Doerr says in his essay on suspense, "Fundamentally, story promises to order the unorderable, to impress a system on the unsystematic. Story promises to impose a meaningful structure on a universe that resists meaning and structure." And that's about as basic as one can get in regards to fiction. Both writers and readers do so in order to make sense of what they know, and also to find respite. We learn how to process the hand we're dealt, however unconsciously, through the art that surrounds us. Some people are stubborn to admit it, but any art can act as therapy, and there should be no such thing as a "guilty pleasure."

So when I came across Lan Samantha's Chang's contribution, "The Breakout Element: Unpredictability and the Novel," I could have really done without her repeated insistence that she once "read only for pleasure." Sorry, but are we supposed to excuse her and what she thinks is an embarrassing taste? Though she makes some good points about the usefulness of taking stories into unexpected territory, the underlying insecurity-masquerading-as-expertise was distracting. There's a difference between saying, "We are all unsure about our work sometimes," and making a big show about how much we've grown and look how knowledgeable I am. Maybe I'm being harsh, but parts of the essay seemed to imply that reading for pleasure was something to be looked down upon, and that once one becomes a writer, that pleasure is to be set aside. Some of us may genuinely like literary bran flakes, but let's not pretend that we should only eat for fiber.

Consider that versus the "Puzzles" chapter, where even though Peter Turchi says genre novels do "not open out into the world" and "It means to amuse us for a little while," he also says:

Genre novels work, to varying degrees, both to satisfy our expectations of form and to stand apart as unique creations. The plotting of a classic detective story appeals to our rational side […] The detective story offers the reassurance of order, of the human mind's ability to make sense of what, at some point, seems senseless. The detective story offers a world of answers and logic, a world in which problems cannot be avoided but can be solved.

Repeatedly, Kite stresses that novels can be both our medicine and our escape; that good writing is good writing, no matter the place in which it lives. During my brief stint in college, I had a grad student creative writing teacher who told us that we would not be writing "genre" stories in her class, with the implication being that they could not ever be "literary." More than one student took issue with this assessment outside of class, even if they were writers of what we call "literary fiction," but one of the more talented writers openly challenged her decree. His story (though I don't remember the specifics too well, a decade later) straddled the line between literary and medieval fantasy in such an outstanding way that it ended up being one of the class favorites. Still, he had to fight her for a better grade. Though I may not read a lot of what is considered genre work, the memory of that course keeps me from ever widely dismissing it. Again, good writing is good writing.

"The tales that come to us from Hans Christian Anderson and Charles Perreault and from the Walt Disney 'Kingdom' are great for us to read, by contrast, because they are more created than made, more designed than crafted. That is not to diminish their worth; I'm simply saying that they are different models we might learn from."
--"The About-to-Be Moment," Kevin McIlvoy

Learning and enjoyment can coexist quite nicely if we let them, for there's not much to be gained by treating knowledge like we did in high school — a drag which we must endure until we're given a diploma. Even if it's to learn what not to do, or to further articulate our tastes, there is value in all art. On the flip side, educating ourselves should not be a competition. Yes, taste is personal, and yes, some works are more universally applauded than others, but snobbery is counterproductive. "Irony is a form of protection," Charles Baxter says in his essay on lush writing styles, "and it's possible that we're now all over-protected."

At its core, A Kite in the Wind is a realistic exploration of what makes novels work. It does not try to prescribe one course of action, and for the most part, it does not come with elitism. Yes, writing well will always be a challenge, but during the process, we can remind ourselves of the satisfaction we get from reading a really great book. We can wallow in a character's life and allow ourselves the to find the truth in fiction. We want to hover in that space of transformation, of insight, and in the end, use art to make our lives full. We want to know that we are not alone.


This review is part of Pajiba’s Cannonball Read III, in which participants attempt to read and review 52 books over the course of one year. In order to make up for last year’s 51 books, I’m aiming for 53. The challenge ends December 31, 2011.

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