Friday, December 21, 2012

It's a Wonderful Life: The Lost Image

Unlike most Americans, I didn't grow up watching It's a Wonderful Life every Christmas. In fact, I didn't see the movie until I was in my late twenties. Perhaps because of this delay, I remember the first clip I ever saw vividly: I was watching some morning news program, undoubtedly around the holidays, and the reporters had gone to visit the pool from the classic 1946 holiday film because it had just been refurbished. As in the movie, the gleaming gym floor retracted to reveal a multi-laned swimming pool. I was struck by how strange and cool that was, and when I watched the movie, I was watching especially for that crazy floor.

You remember the scene, right?


That's the amazing thing. It seems very few people do. I've talked to people who grew up their whole lives watching that movie and talked to them specifically about that moment, and, without fail, they look at me a little baffled or a little pityingly, and say something like, "you must be thinking of another movie. Carrie, perhaps?"

Just in case you're in that boat, here's the scene:

Wild, right? And memorable! Or, at least, it should be memorable... so why isn't it?

With the holidays coming and talk turning to holiday movies, I once again find myself thinking about this. The pool scene sets up so much of the narrative that will follow: the couple falling into trouble, the unexpected crash, the recovery through love.

And yet, for the average viewer, it doesn't have that resonance. It blurs in with a dozen other images from the movie and so ultimately what we remember is Clarence or, more probably, the poor child actor delivering her stilted lines, "Teacher says, 'every time a bell rings, an angel gets its wings.'"

Surely, this should be the throw-away moment. It's not nearly so wonderfully strange as that evocative swimming pool. We've seen dozens of lisping children and adoring adults. We've seen the happy ending. Yet this line, this scene seems to be what sticks.

What makes an image resonate? Why is one so readily forgotten while another sticks in our mind like Christmas tree sap sticks to our hands, refusing to easily wash away?

I first thought perhaps it might have to do with relevance. Perhaps the story of redemption here is more important than the initial fall.

I thought next that perhaps it had something to do with placement. We remember best what happens near the film's end.

I dismissed both of these ideas, though, because neither holds true for one of my other favorite Christmas movie images: the leg lamp in A Christmas Story.

The leg lamp is no more relevant to the central narrative of A Christmas Story is than the swimming pool is to the narrative It's a Wonderful Life. In fact, if anything, it's less so. We need Mary and George to fall in love if George is to have family at the heart of his crisis, but we don't need the father to own a lamp in order for Ralphie to get or not get his longed for Christmas present. So much for narrative significance.

As for placement, the leg lamp appears in at the middle, not the end of the film, yet if anything, we're far more likely to forget the Chinese restaurant Christmas dinner scene that closes the movie than we are to forget Ralphie's father's "major award." Clearly, an image's significance and memorability did not rely on when it appears.

The theories I'm working on now have to do with tone and the familiarity, for lack of a better word, evoked by the strange object. Here are the ideas:

Tone: Part of the reason we displace the memory of the swimming pool scene onto other films is that it seems out of sync with our memory of the tone and theme of It's a Wonderful Life. That movie is about suicide, forgiveness, and redemption, not about dancing schtick and surreal under-floor swimming pools.

The leg lamp, on the other hand, seems perfectly in harmony with the theme of repeatedly stymied and unspoken desires that drives Ralphie's desire for a Red Ryder Carbine-Action, Two-Hundred Shot Range Model Air Rifle with a compass in the stock and this thing that tells time. The discord in the family and the comedic tone through which it's filtered is summed up in the soft glow of electric sex that shines through the living room window. In other words, the tone of the image needs to be in harmony with the overall tone.

Familiarity evoked by the strange: A strange image has to evoke a sense of familiarity for the audience to connect with it. The world created in It's a Wonderful Life is a surreal one: angels walk among us and talk people down from bridges. In the context of the film, this is a necessary strangeness. Viewers resonate with the idea that divine intervention might help a man turn from his own despair. The swimming pool, however, fails to connect. It may be a real object from our world, but its strangeness is not necessary to the audience in the way angels are. We haven't taken that plunge while dancing, and we don't know if it's essential that George and Mary do for their love to culminate. The pool under the floor feels less familiar than angels.

By contrast, the leg lamp, as strange as it is, starts an argument between Ralphie's parents that feels familiar to most of us. We've watched our parents struggle with competing and incompatible desires. The strange, then, must create the familiar.

I can't help but feel, though, that the swimming pool under the floor is not done with me yet. As I try to plant my feet firmly on a theory of what makes an image work, I can feel the watery fluidity of imaginative lurking just underneath, inviting me to dive in and swim or drown or dance.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Why Art Matters

Yesterday, twenty-six people, including eighteen children, were killed at Sandy Creek Elementary School. That afternoon, my brother-in-law, the poet Josh Robbins (whose book Praise Nothing is forthcoming from University of Arkansas Press), asked the following question on Facebook: "I'm about to Skype about poetry with a high school class in rural Kansas. What would you say to them about poetry in light of today's violent tragedy?" The question has haunted my thoughts ever since.

It's not the first time the question has come up. After 9/11, I heard the story of an award-winning violinist who sold her violin in the wake of the tragedy. She felt that, with so much pain and violence in the world, art had become meaningless. As much as I respect that undoubtedly hard-fought decision, I cannot agree with it.

I've just wrapped up grading for the semester, and I've been thinking a lot about my courses, their strengths and weaknesses, and how I want to improve them in the future. I realized that, over the course of the semester, more than anything else, I've been pushing my students to delve more deeply into the psyches of their characters. In their excellent Tin House podcast, Steve Almond and Aimee Bender talk in great detail about the need to put characters into emotional danger, to explore their psychological complexity, and I've come to think that this, as much as language or story or theme, is what distinguishes great literary fiction. It's also some of the most terrifying work a writer does. 

My answer, then, to my brother-in-law's question what this: "You tell them this is why we write. The man who shot today had lost his humanity, his compassion. Writing is a plunge into humanity--that's why it hurts so much when you're doing it right, and it's why we have to keep writing as passionately and honestly as we can."

It seems paradoxical that imagining one's way into the mind of a killer or a pedophile or even just a typical lost and hurting human being performs any sort of good work. For writers and other artists, putting themselves in that kind of depraved mental space can feel like a descent into madness. After all, isn't this the same work that drove Heath Ledger over the edge? If so, why put ourselves and our readers in so horrific a frame of mind? And yet, some of the most important works of literature do exactly this. We inhabit Alex's mind in A Clockwork Orange as he beats and rapes and murders. We inhabit Humbert Humbert's mind in Lolita, knowing even before we open the book that he is a pedophile. We explore the violent west of Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian, knowing that what we see there will hurt. Why? Because doing the work of sympathizing--even with those we most abhor--is the opposite of doing works of violence.

Aristotle argued that we turn to dramatic tragedy so that we can experience catharsis, a sort of purging of our collective sadness, an airing of dangerous emotion. If so, it's no surprise then that we turn to art in times like these. We need that collective act of catharsis, but I believe we also need that collective act of sympathy. I know I was not alone in crying for yesterday's victims, for their friends and families. As much sadness as I feel, I know I cannot begin to understand their pain. God knows, we need healing right now. 

Writing feels like a small and useless thing in the face of such a tragedy. Yet, writing--art in general--is one of the things that makes us human. We need our compassion, now more than ever, in whatever form it finds.

Thank you to Josh Robbins for the following links:

Friday, December 7, 2012

Writing Slowly

or, "Sometimes, it's hard to love revision" (to be sung to the tune of "Stand By Your Man")

Lately, I've been knee deep in project revisions. Final edits for Borrowed Horses went to my publisher Monday, and I'm back to working on New Brighton, the novel I took to Sewanee Writers' Conference this past summer. Back at the end of July, I thought I'd be able to come home, knock out the revision to the book in a month of so, tinkering and tightening, so that I could begin querying before school got too crazy. As fall grew older and we headed into November, my students inspired me with their NaNoWriMo writing goals (a 50,000 word novel draft in a month), and I thought perhaps I could finish my revision before December hit. Now, I'm wondering if a goal of finishing before the end of Christmas break is overly optimistic.

The thing is, though, I really, really like the new stuff I'm writing for the novel, even though it's taking me so much more time to write it than I'd planned. I'm taking more emotional risks. The scenes are more immediate and intense. Over the course of my writing life, I've heard a lot of writers say you have to "trust the process," and for the first time in my life, I feel like I might know what that means.

(The picture on the sidebar is what I look like when I'm outside playing in the snow. The picture above is what I look like when I'm writing.)

My students know that I'm a big believer in the hand-written journal. I make them all keep one as part of their fiction writing course grade. The want to type them on computers and iPads, and I refuse. For one semester only, they have to try things my way. "Hand writing accesses a different part of your brain," I tell them, both because I know this to be true and because in this NaNo world, they need someone to remind them to slow down.

This year, I've been reminding myself that as well, using my journal far more extensively as I revise than I ever have in the past. And you know what? I was right. It may feel slow and inefficient to close the computer, but most of the stuff I'm most proud of in this re-write is coming straight out of the journal.

This morning, for instance, I was working on a scene in which the protagonist's mother returns to work for the first time in twenty years. Reading the scene on the computer screen, I could tell it was happening too quickly. A mother returning to work is a big thing. It needed space to become that, but I couldn't see where to put it in the draft as written. So instead of trying, I highlighted the passage on the screen ("he knew she was nervous"), giving myself an idea to riff off of and a place to come back to, and then I closed my laptop and opened my journal and wrote for an hour about only that one idea in that one line. And then I opened my laptop again and wrote this post. Why? Because the journal stuff is *good.* Because I now have the details to make the crisis real. Because I'm excited again. Because when I open my journal, I'm discovering, and it's what I love best about writing and what makes it live and breathe.

My fellow fiction writer Matt Bell posted this quotation on Facebook this morning:
"I write slowly because I write badly. I have to rewrite everything many, many times just to achieve mediocrity. Time can give you a good critical perspective, and I often have to go slow so that I can look back on what sort of botch of things I made three months ago. Much of the stuff which I will finally publish, with all its flaws, as if it had been dashed off with a felt pen, will have begun eight or more years earlier, and worried and slowly chewed on and left for dead many times in the interim." —William Gass
 I'm going to sign off with that quotation, one I hope to hold in my mind throughout the end of the revision of New Brighton--however long it takes me.

Friday, November 30, 2012

Why Green Eyes Are A Problem in Fiction...

The short answer is this: green eyes are nearly the only eye color that exists in fiction.

True, every once in a while a character might have "ice blue" eyes or "chocolate brown" eyes or, in some rare cases (including Anne of Green Gables and Katniss Everdeen), gray eyes, but none of these colors appear with nearly the frequency of green eyes. Green eyes are everywhere. It's as if an epidemic raged though the worlds of fiction, and the only noticeable symptom was a change in eye color. Even my own beloved Jane Eyre insists on having green eyes, though Rochester calls them blue*. From pop-genre novels like Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code to gorgeous, heart-breaking literary fiction like Aimee Bender's The Girl with the Flammable Skirt, novels seem bursting with green-eyed characters.

In a grad school workshop, I made this complaint when my major professor, Reg McKnight, began to laugh in the big-hearted way of his that made us all love him. "Why are you laughing at me?" I asked him. "I'm not," he said. "I'm laughing because I'm pretty sure I gave the main character in my last novel green eyes."

Even among the best writers, green eyes have becomes fiction's short hand for "pay attention to this person, s/he is *interesting.*" When I read that a character has green eyes, I think what I'm supposed to be picturing is something like this:

When I know full well that actual green eyes are probably closer to this: 

And don't get me wrong. This is by all means an interesting eye, but is it any more inherently interesting than this eye?

 Or this one?

And anyway, don't we all know that eye color no more determines a person's intelligence or charisma or abilities than their skin color does? To misquote Martin Luther King, Jr., I would like the chance to judge a character on the content of their character, not the color of their eyes.

I must add an aside here that I have no bias against green-eyed people in life, only in fiction. My husband has green eyes, and his eyes are, no doubt, among the reasons I find him so attractive... though his sideburns and inveterate love of flannel have a lot to do with it as well.

My point is this: I think as writers we have to up the ante for ourselves. If a character is interesting, we cannot attempt to show this by resorting to the least interesting of all fictional eye colors. We must instead show it in surprising but character-appropriate action and dialogue. In other words, if we want an interesting character we actually have to make an interesting character.

To prove my point, I give my student writers this challenge: write down the eye color of ten people you know well who are not in class. I then ask them to come back next time and tell me if they were right. They come back blushing, embarrassed not to know the eye color of the people whom they love best. But why be embarrassed? My students weren't paying attention to the eye color because they were paying attention to what mattered most about their friends and family. They were paying attention to the goofy way those loved ones laugh, or the way they substituted in nonsense words for curse words, or the way they rub a shoulder, or the way they pet their dog absent-mindedly as they're reading the paper, or to any other of a million gestures and quirks that show who they are and why we love them.

As writers, that's exactly what we want to be paying attention to.

*Note: Jane and Rochester's disagreement over her eye color is, for me, why Charlotte Bronte gets away with a green-eyed character. Whom do we trust? Is Jane unreliable? Or is Rochester just not paying very close attention to her? Either way, the disagreement isn't a throw away detail. Rather, it does some work in this narrative, suggesting more about these characters than just physical appearance.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Horse I Wish I *Could* Borrow

The current cover of the Hayden's Ferry Review is this image:

I'm trying hard not to be jealous of so gorgeous a cover--especially one that would be so perfect for my own book. Only my love of Hayden's Ferry saves me from thinking mean thoughts.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Heartbreakingly Beautiful

My friend Valerie just sent me the link to this Tumblr. I just want to stroke this big guy's nose. Nic Fiddian-Green, I'm a fan.

Monday, October 15, 2012

While we're on the topic of voice--a writing prompt

My Intro to Writing Short Fiction students got onto the topic of Monsanto topic--more specifically, onto the idea of patented genetic code. As I was trying to re-rail them back onto the topic of the day (narrative structure), one of the students called out, "can you imagine God coming into the office of the CEO? being all like, 'Yo, bitch, I own the copyright to all genetic codes.'" They laughed, but another, clearly worried about our irreverence, called out, "God doesn't sound like that."

"We're getting back onto structure," I said, secretly loving the idea of God sounding like Samuel L. Jackson in Pulp Fiction, "but I'm throwing that out there as a writing prompt: God confronts a CEO." I paused with them a moment to bask in the coolness of this idea, then added, "but if you write it, the voice of God is going to be a crucial choice, and it better not sound like anything we'd expect."

I'm throwing this idea out to the larger world. God's been given the voice of George Burns before, but what would God sound like in your story/poem? Make the voice specific to the context and let the language be determined by the personality in response to the situation. 

Thursday, October 4, 2012


I love having caller ID. When an unknown or an 800- number comes up, I rarely answer. I figure, this saves both me and the telemarketers trying to call me quite a lot of grief. Today, though, I'm waiting for the plumber to come fix my toilet, so when the unknown number came up, I took a chance and answered, thinking it might be him.

It wasn't. The call was from somewhere in the subcontinent, from a man who claimed to represent Microsoft. He asked, how I was doing? On this side of the phone line, I gaped, unsure whether to say anything. In fact, even as naturally suspicious as I am, it took me half a minute of silent gaping to realize I needed to hang up. I didn't know if he was from Microsoft. I doubted it. Everything from the series of numbers and letters that had appeared on my phone read out to the pause while it connected us to the distance in the line suggested that maybe I shouldn't trust this situation. All this was almost tipped by one enormous fact: the fact of his voice.

The lilt of it, the pitch of it, the seeming sincerity when he asked how my day was--it all reminded me strongly of a colleague at work of whom I am quite fond. That half-moment when I didn't hang up? It was consumed with the need to remind myself that this wasn't the man I knew, and that it was OK to hang up.

Still, I was strangely shaken. I felt I'd been discourteous to a stranger--this even though I myself have worked as a telemarketer to help support my family over the summers while I was in grad school. I know from experience that a hang up isn't an insult; it's just a reason to move to the next call. But that human voice... that unique timber that no robocaller has ever replicated...

Because I'm working on manuscript revision today, it struck me how crucial this element is in writing. If I can make a voice that personal on the page, it's hard to hang up on. Our love for the sound of our fellow beings is one of the things that pulls us into story, whether we know it or not. It's what we most enjoy when we sit round a campfire and speak of ghosts. It's what makes us crave stories when we're alone and need the comfort of voice.

As writers, we're the ultimate scammers and salesmen, pitching a line we acknowledge up front to be false, and expecting emotional payment regardless. Any number of craft elements help make this possible, but I rarely give voice its due. Today, I'm rethinking this.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Hit "Escape"

My friend Kirsten just sent me this link to an amazing horse made of computer keys. I love the detail of the shoulder--so smooth!

Somehow, writing a book about horses seems like a similar project--we both made a horse from computer keys; we just used the keys a little differently.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

I googled "unusual horses" and this is what I found...

I knew about the Akhal-Teke before, but still the pictures! They appear to be made of solid gold.

There was an Akhal-Teke show jumper a few years who was traded out of Russia to an American for the price of a washing machine.

This little guy looks like he'd be perfect to fit in my pocket:

And this one...

And this one...

But, dude. "There is a limit."

If I could ride this to work in the morning, I would.

To quote A Christmas Story, "he's... he's smiling at me." Or not at me from this angle. I am no less creepified.
...Why the toilet lid? Why the spigot?

There's just something about making horses out of stuff that isn't horses. (I still love the kitchen utensils and the ones made from fabric laid out on landscapes that I posted a few weeks back.)

On a totally unrelated note, I found this image at a site on trendy home decor. (Shhh! We're hiding our horse under the lampshade. No one must know!)

Seriously, it's OK to do this in my house? It is, in fact, trendy? Duly noted, my friends. Duly noted.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Anne Bradstreet, I feel you.

Not including little fits and starts of journal writing and experimentation that date back to my undergraduate days, I've been working in earnest on BORROWED HORSES since 2004. It's hard to believe all that work is coming to an end, and that by Monday, I'll have a mostly *final* draft. I feel like I could keep tinkering forever, still seeing imperfections and wanting to patch them. I may be starting to feel a little separation anxiety. Can any book ever realize the author's dream of the book?
"An Author to Her Book"

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Steam Punk Horse

Vermin Star
Here's his link.
(cool side note: "deviant art" sounds exactly like "deviant tart.")

Monday, August 20, 2012

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Friday, August 3, 2012

Plot, Structure, Through Line

From the 2012 Sewanee Writers' Conference

The other day, I was standing in a line of writers at Sterling's waiting to get a hazelnut latte when I heard two others talking about their workshop. "How did it go?" writer #1 asked. "Great," writer #2 said. "We talked a lot about plot. You know, it's funny, but we don't tend to talk a lot about plot in writing workshops. We talk about structure, but not plot."

Yesterday, I was listing to the Tin House writing podcast as I went for my morning run, and the subject of plot came up again. Steve Almond and Aimee Bender talked over many pitfalls writers face, one of which is giving a character problems (terminal illness, dying parents, etc) out of fear that if we don't, there will be no plot. Bender quoted Ray Bradbury, "plot is no more than the foot prints in the snow left after your characters have run by." (I believe she left out the end of that quotation, which is "on the way to incredible destinations." I suspect that ending is crucial for Bradbury [ahem, dinosuars; ahem, book burning--Bradbury is not exactly plot-light], but I'll leave it aside for now.)

In my own workshop with John Casey and Christine Schutt, one of the workshop participants mentioned a narrative having a "through line." Casey asked if through line meant the same as plot and the writer answered that no, he thought it dealt more with an idea running though the work (what we might also call theme).

With all this in the air, I've been thinking about the collision and collusion of our definitions of plot, structure, and through line, so I thought I'd do a little Internet browsing this morning to see what Dr. Google had to bring to the table.

I have to admit, my own definition of "through line" (admittedly one I invented from the contexts in which I'd heard the word rather than on scholarship) has much more to do with narrative threads and arcs than strictly themes. For me, the through line is closer to one of Aristotle's unities. For him, time and space helped define the story and give it a kind of cohesion. As we've abandoned that unity and opened narrative to longer forms, we've needed to find substitute unities. Yes, a story's themes are among these threads, but I would say characters, too, can be threads running through a story. Dickens, for example, wrote a cast of characters who were related in surprising and often absurd ways. As we've become increasing suspicious of coincidence, recurring images have added another thread. Asked to define a through line, I would have said that, like any good rope, it is a braiding of all these threads and to form the line that ultimately pulls us over the narrative arc (which I'm using here as almost synonymous with plot).

Thus, for me, a through line combines elements of character, imagery, thematics, etc to pull us over this mountain:

But checking in with Wikipedia this morning, I found that my definition, though pretty, is not accurate either. It offers this:

"The through line, sometimes also called the spine, was first suggested by Constantin Stanislavski as a simplified way for actors to think about characterisation [sic]. He believed actors should not only understand what their character was doing, or trying to do, (their objective) in any given unit, but should also strive to understand the through line which linked these objectives together and thus pushed the character forward through the narrative."

Here, the through line resides strictly in character and motivation, but if we lay Bradbury's quotation ("plot is [...] the foot prints in the snow left [by] characters") alongside this, we find ourselves back at the deep and abiding relation of plot to character.

A Google request for a definition of plot added this:


A plan made in secret by a group of people to do something illegal or harmful.

Now, I realize of course that this is not how writers tend to use the word "plot," but I kind of love the idea that something subversive is going on here. Hopefully, our plots are not illegal or harmful outside of the world of the fiction (honestly, I hope my writing aspires to do more good than harm), but it seems to me that, while writers may have a plan for our book, it often feels like something outside of us, something residing in the art itself, will not always allow us to follow that plan. Our characters don't always behave themselves. The subvert and foil our best laid plans. I'll argue that this is a good thing--a sign that we've just started to make the characters complex enough. The through line may be a way to simplify their personality into something comprehensible for a actor or writer, but it should never serve to make their actions any less authentically human, and therefore, surprising.

I'm no closer to parsing these definitions into neatly defined territories than I was was when I began writing this post, but somehow, I find the blur between these elements deeply satisfying and far more useful than easy classification would be.

Friday, June 22, 2012

In Defense of the Hook

It seems like it has become morally suspect to suggest that a book, essay, or story should have a "hook." The implication seems to be that it's a contrivance or a gimmick, and as such, I understand why it has become unfashionable to use the term. Still, I think there is something to be said for thinking in terms of a "hook," and so I'll try to say that something.

Perhaps the problem is the term "hook" itself, which implies the reader is a fish. The reader is not a fish. The reader is an intelligent human being with many demands on his/her time--but in abandoning the term hook, it seems like too many writers also forget this crucial fact of the reader's humanity. Too often, I see writers who seem to feel that the reader owes it to them to slog through pages or attempt to penetrate their word puzzles and mind games just because the writer bothered to write the pages in the first place.

The reader, however, owes the writer nothing. In fact, it's the reverse. If someone has been gracious enough to spend time and money to read our efforts, we owe them.

What I like about the term hook is that the metaphor implies the writer should offer the reader some morsel up front--something we can see and smell and taste just as much as we can see, smell, and taste the barbed hook itself. The writing needs to establish a reason for us readers to willingly sacrifice our time.

Ultimately, the hook should not be a gimmick. If it is, chances are the reader will be disappointed in the work. Readers will rightly feel cheated. Instead, the hook should offer readers a glimpse of what the rest of the piece promises to give: romance, tragedy, mystery, comedy, philosophical questions, etc. The hook establishes the art of the book. It is the offering the writer makes for the reader's time. The best hide hooks themselves because, like well-tied flies, they feel a natural part of the narrative landscape. When those lures are artfully done, I as the reader will bite every time.


PS. (ten minutes later)
After writing this I stumbled across Julie Ritter's poem "Ravi Shankar Hand Dip" at Synchronicity?

Quick as a fishhook flared into the water,
the way hip rubs against hip intentionally
unintentional on the dance floor, furtive
as a glance at someone else’s bank
statement, palmed like a cigarette in the rain,
the fingers exploratory, an insect’s antennae,
twitching to capture texture to populate
the hinterlands of a long winter night alone,
a maneuver not catalogued by the Kama Sutra,
but full of nervy frottage, pervy wattage,
a slip of skin on skin thin as a wine glass stem
and more circumspect, harder to unpack
than a tackle box and oft-deployed in subway
cars and murky bars – that’s the hand dip.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Tony Stark, "Gifted" Kid

I took a much-needed family day and saw The Avengers last week. I know I'm supposed to be all highly literary and stuff, and that as such I should probably be looking down my (always too red) nose and saying something caustic and disparaging, but I'm going to go ahead and admit off the bat that I thoroughly enjoyed the film. It's a popcorn movie, not a think-piece, and it embraces what it is without apology.

Which isn't to say that there's nothing thought-provoking about the movie. It was refreshing, for instance, to see scientists Bruce Banner and Tony Stark as heroes. Their alter egos may give them physical strength, but the real power of each of these men comes from their intellect, a too often neglected super power. And at the risk of making a HUGE over-generalization, I started thinking of the two extremes of what "gifted" looks like.

I'll back up here and say that I teach a lot of teachers and future teachers, and we often talk about how to engage gifted students. Often, they argue that you don't really need to work to engage a gifted student's attention. Gifted students, they argue, are self-motivated learners. Give them a task and a deadline, and they'll strive to exceed your expectations.

That's true if you have a Bruce Banner-style gifted kid. Unless some ugly, self-defeating inner turmoil is unleashed, they tend to be quite and studious and well behaved. The Bruce Banners of the world often succeed in even adverse conditions because they want to please. They tend to populate school honor societies and speak on graduation day, the proud valedictorians of their respective classes.

But I tracked into the gifted program myself, and I have since worked with a number of highly gifted students, and as much as teachers like to believe in self-motivation and discipline as inherent personality traits of gifted students, I know the reality is often much closer to Tony Stark. Gifted students are just as often easily bored, arrogant, and difficult to work with. While the Bruce Banners may mild-manneredly accept busy work, the Tony Starks recognize it as a waste of their intelligence, though they may not conceptualize or articulate their resistance as such.

The problem is, our schooling system (both public and private) does not tend to cater well to these students. As teachers are asked to leave no child behind and to focus increasingly on less creative kinds of work that will supposedly help students pass standardized tests--all the while seeing their class sizes continually rise--we're losing the very students who are most likely to be innovative in the face of enormous obstacles. We're losing America's potential leaders and inventors to boredom.

In my college classes, I've often had former high school dropouts re-starting their educations. More often than not, these drop outs are among the most talented students I've had the pleasure of working with--yet their attitudes and defiance had set their teachers against them. And though I'm happy that some of them are making it back to college, I suspect there's a far larger population that never does. I'd like to make a call to recognizing boredom--that is, not challenging students enough--as a prevalent cause of educational attrition. Too many Starks don't find the paths to becoming Iron Men.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

A Dragon For Spec Fiction: It's been a good semester, my loves

This semester, I ventured into terra incognita. Worlds unknown and becoming known. I dabbled with magic systems, mingled with strange races, and wielded sharp blades. In short, I taught my first course on writing the speculative fiction novel. Tonight, it came, with the semester, to a bitter sweet end. These students wrote their hearts out this semester, spilling them drop by drop onto the page in the best of all possible ways. They wrote with the passion of the faithful. (There was a curious lack of dragons, but we'll let that pass.)

I've loved teaching this class, which is interesting given its history. The course has never been offered before because, though the department knew there was student interest, no faculty member particularly wanted to read multiple chapters from early drafts of speculative novels. That's just not their bag, baby. And I understand their position. I, too, am a fan of literary fiction. It's what I write and it's what I read, but I think there's something to be said for teaching speculative fiction. So I'm going to say it.

A quick list, as it were, of just a few things writing spec fiction brings out of the students:

1) Passion. The students who took this class were a self-selected group. Many have been working on spec fiction novels from their early teens. These writers were absolutely committed to the job of writing, and dedicated to finding the awesome in their stories. Their passion rejuvenated mine as well, reminding me that, after all, finding the awesome in any story *is* what it's all about.

2) Knowledge. When I teach a standard literary fiction writing class, part of my job is to educate the students about the writing that's out there. Most of the literary writing students know is dated (Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Hemingway), and I have to bring them up to speed with recent trends--something that's difficult to do in a semester when I'm also trying to teach basic writing craft and workshop their stories. In this class, however, the knowledge of the literature was reversed. They know contemporary spec fiction far better than I, so I could teach them about craft while they helped educate me and each other about the current trends in the field. I did a ton of reading to prep for this class, but the students had years of lead time to out-read me. It created a great collaborative dynamic, allowing them to really apply what they knew to the writing they were doing.

3) Willingness to be challenged. I started this class with the premise that, if they were still working on Dragonlance-style fantasy hoping that it would be good enough, they were wrong. (And yes, there were some writers who thought exactly this.) We talked at least about how the field was shifting, how electronic markets and intense competition was driving the quality of writing and invention up, and how they were going to have to be better than they imagined possible to compete. Because they had the passion and the knowledge I mentioned, they drove each other and challenged themselves to levels of extraordinary growth.

4) Invention. Every fiction writer invents, but those working in spec fiction bare a burden of world building that I am happy to forego. The critical thinking these students did about everything (from ecosystems to governments to the cost of magic to space travel) was humbling. I often wished my peers in other departments (Biology, Economics, Physics, etc) could have been there to hear the application of so much college learning to fictional worlds. Fiction allowed these students them a place to put all their learning into action in a way that was truly exciting to behold.

I'm going to miss these kids. And so, here's a dragon heart for them, one that I hope will continue to breathe fire into them as they breathed their infectious passion into all they did this term.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

The Night Circus

Recently, The New York Times published "Your Brain on Fiction," an article that examined the neuroscience of reading imaginative literature, reporting that reading about smells and actions stimulates the brain in the same way that living those experiences does. In short, our brains treat the fiction as reality, showing that our long-standing metaphor of fiction bringing new worlds to life is, in terms of brain function, a literal as well as figurative truth. The article ends with the following lines: "Reading great literature, it has long been averred, enlarges and improves us as human beings. Brain science shows this claim is truer than we imagined."

A friend of mine forwarded The New York Times article to me as I was reading Erin Morgenstern's debut novel The Night Circus, and if there was ever an invented world you might be glad to descend into and live in a while, this is it. Morgenstern's novel is rich in precisely the kind of detail most likely to stimulate our minds: the dark caramel of a coated apple, the scent of popcorn on a clear night. Her novel imagines for us a circus more amazing than the most wonderful we've been to and brings the place to life through rich images that leave our mouths watering.

I've heard that the seeds for this novel began not with character or plot but with setting, the circus itself, and I believe it. Morgenstern peppers the novel with brief second person chapters that invite us in to new tents and passage ways. These moments reminded me strongly of Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities both in their image-driven beauty and their poetic language. (OK, maybe not quite so poetic as Calvino, but that would be setting the bar impossibly high, would it not? But they are rich and beautiful and finely wrought.)

What grounds the novel is the plot and characters that Morgenstern applied once she had created this amazing circus. Whereas Calvino's prose poetry collection is very loosely "plotted" with the story of Marco Polo explaining the places he's been to Kublai Khan, The Night Circus is more firmly grounded in a magicians' battle. Two children have been bound against their wills to compete for magical supremacy and the circus is their venue, the place where they test their skills against one another by creating ever more fantastical tents.

The result is a high interest page-turner with a literary quality, a novel that those who love fantasy and those who love language can enjoy equally.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

The Writer and the Mystery of Human Nature

Nothing makes me feel like a fraud faster than parenting. As a resident grown-up, I'm supposed to be able to help decipher human behavior, explain the quirks and eccentricities of friends, and navigate social mores. The problem is, I'm not very good at it. Whenever one of my children turns to me, looking for explanation at some strange response or behavior, I tend to find myself every bit as perplexed as they are. Maybe this is why Flannery O'Conner called her books of essays Mystery and Manners--because the two are actually the same. Our manners are a mystery.

I've been thinking about this a lot this weekend, as I found myself in the familiar position of being at a loss. Shouldn't I, a writer, be better equipped than most to understand human behavior and explain it to my children? Isn't that what Keats meant by "negative capability," that quality that Shakespeare and other great writers had to inhabit any person and understand their worldview and motivation?

The more I thought about it, the more it seemed that on the list of required job qualifications for a writer, "understanding human nature" was pretty high on the list... and here, I had just revealed myself once again to be utterly lacking.

As I began to cast about in this pit of despair, though, I realized something else: it is in large part my inability to understand behavior that brings me to the desk. Writing gives me a chance to try to inhabit those ways of understanding, even if I don't fully get them. It's a type of surrender, a yielding of biases and views in hopes of gaining insight.

The realization made me want to write. Maybe I can't help my children understand all the capriciousness or narrowness or whatever else that inhabit us from moment to moment, and maybe I can't understand it myself, but there's something expansive in the attempt. I suspect that this repeated experiment--trying to understand what motivates not all Mankind but rather one specific man or woman in one specific place and instance--is at the heart of the writing I love most and the kind of writing I hope to achieve.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Omniscient Point of View: A Re-Understanding

Writing Excuses recently did a podcast on omniscient point of view, and while I agree with much of what they said, I noticed that the show repeated a central understanding of omniscience that I've come to see as flawed. Because it's so prevalent, I thought I'd write on it.

When I first learned about point of view (POV) back in middle school and high school, I learned that there were three kinds: first person, third person limited, and third person omniscient. (Much later, I would learn about that other skipped person, that poetically favored person, the second, but I won't touch on that for this post.) First and third person limited were fairly clear and familiar, but third omniscient was more difficult to grasp. The way I learned it then and over and over in courses since then was much in line with this definition, found at About: "Third person omniscient is a method of storytelling in which the narrator knows the thoughts and feelings of all of the characters in the story." This definition is usually followed with the disclaimer that writers used to use third person omniscient more commonly, but that it has gone out of fashion. The problem was, I couldn't remember ever seeing it used in the works I read.

I've since continued to read widely in Victorian literature, and I can't think of a case of third person omniscient that adheres to this definition. In fact, the only novel I can think of that does attempt this is Peter Carey's 1999 novel Jack Maggs, and though it's been a while since I read it, my memory is that fairly soon after the opening, it adheres to one limited point of view and then another for sustained periods (becoming more like the floating third mentioned below). It strikes me that novels that truly allow simultaneous insight into all characters' minds are exceedingly rare.

And with good reason. After all, if a reader has insight into all minds at once, we lose some of our ability to engage with the text--that is, we don't get to participate by trying to understand characters' motivations from their actions. We're no longer in the position of the characters, trying to figure out each other from outside information (gestures, dialogue) alone. We're no longer in a human position at all. As the word omniscient suggests, we're put in the position of an all-knowing god, and that's not a position that's familiar or comfortable from which to read. It's also almost impossible for even the finest writer to manage. I've come to understand that third person omniscient, as it's typically defined (simultaneous insight into all characters' thoughts and feelings), is even more rare than second person.

If the traditional definition is not valid, I'd like to propose alternatives that are more common, though still more rare than first person or third person limited. I add a disclaimer that I don't think I'm coining any new terminology here.

Floating third person limited: when the writer deliberately and seamlessly moves us from the thoughts of one character into the thoughts of another.

Virginia Woolf was a master at the floating third person. In Mrs. Dalloway, for example, we'll move from the thoughts of our title character to war veteran Septimus Smith as she gazes at him across a flower shop. Woolf's point of view shifts are not haphazard or jarring, but methodical and intentional. We get a sense of how each character is isolated from the others by the way they fail to intersect at the very moments their points of view collide.  In this way, it's distinct from the point of view errors one might find in a new writer's work, in which we accidentally see or know something the point of view character cannot. With Woolf, it's never a slip-up. We move to the new mind and stay there for some time before moving on.

Writing Excuses refers to this as "head hopping," which is usually a pejorative term for poorly executed writing when the writer doesn't seem able or willing to commit to a point of view. I'd like to draw the distinction that floating third person is an extremely difficult POV to pull off, and only true craftsman tend to manage it well. (I suspect that Writing Excuses writers would back me up on this.)

Omniscient pronouncement: when the writer makes a grand pronouncement that seems beyond the scope of most human knowledge.

This omniscience that is correctly attributed to nineteenth century writers, who were not shy about making a sweeping statement in their work. Charles Dickens's "It was the best of times; it was the worst of times" in Tale of Two Cities or Leo Tolstoy's "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way" in Anna Karenina both fit into this category. More recently, and one of the more common examples given on Internet websites, Douglas Adams's narrator in Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy has knowledge of world history going back to the primordial ooze. Usually, this kind of omniscience enters the book only for short moments before we attach ourselves to a POV character through which our understanding will be filtered.

And yes, this point of view does put the author in a god-like roll, but not so much that it allows multiple characters' thoughts at once.

The Establishing Shot: when a book starts, like a film, with an establishing "shot," that is, a description that of a large setting that then zooms in on a particular set of characters which we will follow.

John Steinbeck's story "The Chrysanthemums" is a great example of this, starting "The high gray-flannel fog of winter closed off the Salinas Valley from the sky and from all the rest of the world. On every side it sat like a lid on the mountains and made of the great valley a closed pot." 

(Writing Excuses mentioned Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series. Those better read in fantasy than I will have to confirm or disavow this one.)

Shifting third person limited: when the point of view character shifts in clearly defined sections, such as chapters

Charles Dickens's Bleak House shifts between an unknown third person narrator to Esther Summerson in different segments of the novel. George R.R. Martin's Game of Thrones and George Eliot's Middlemarch similarly limit each chapter to one third person POV character, but which character that is shifts from chapter to chapter. Murder mystery novelist P. D. James uses this to great effect in most of her novels, as she shifts us into a new mind from chapter to chapter so that readers discover at her novels' ends that they've been in the mind of a murderer and never suspected them. Like the floating point of view, the shifting third person does not allow sloppiness. For the entirety of the chapter, the POV stays strictly limited to the person its writer has established.

While nineteenth century writers were still inventing the novel and, so, didn't have the wealth of craft texts that their work and subsequent writing has generated, by falsely attributing to them a point of view that allows simultaneous insight into all minds, we do them a disservice. I've come to believe they understood narrative tension better than this. While we can find occasional examples in which their point of view does not attach as rigidly to a single character as is now common, I cannot find so many of those examples as to suggest they are any kind of norm. Nineteenth century novelists allowed their readers more involvement in their books than this credits them for. They allowed readers to draw conclusions from the action and dialogue of non-POV characters without insight into their thinking. This restraint offers the pleasure of dramatic irony, in which we readers better read the dialogue of a character than the POV character him/herself.

Novel writing has changed a great deal in the past two hundred years, but perhaps not so much as our current teaching of point of view suggests.