Monday, April 23, 2012

That Pot of Gold: What to Do About Endings

Whoever came up with that bit about the pot of gold at the end of a rainbow was a writer. I know this for certain because I’ve searched certain craft books only to find that their advice about endings is, and I quote, “Good luck.”

It’s true that nailing the end of a narrative arc feels as tricky as finding the end of a rainbow. It’s one of those parts of writing that’s simultaneously easy to over-think and prone to dismissal. Let’s deal with this last part first. Allow me to get in your face for a moment and say that to excuse yourself from the problem of endings by pointing to stories that seem to have none is nothing more than a cop-out.

Let me offer as Exhibit A two hundred (give or take) students at Sand Lake Elementary. As part of a recent program there, I offered a sneak preview of my forthcoming Black Wolf of the Glacier (2013). I decided to read only as far as the artist had illustrated, which happened to be this: The girl in the red coat searched the woods.  Her dog sniffed the trails.  He whined and barked for his friend.  But there was no answer.

Whining? Try howling outrage. They all demanded to know how it ended. No, this isn’t just because they are children. Any story worth reading has a well-crafted ending. It may not be the perfect ending. You may not like it. But a good story doesn’t just stop.

In a talk given at the 2011 Squaw Valley Writers Workshop, National Book Award nominee Diane Johnson notes the dread that develops as you read a good book, the fear that the writer’s going to somehow muck up the ending. All we want, Johnson says, are endings that are clever and surprising but also in line with what came before, endings that are neither gratuitously happy nor gratuitously unhappy, endings that offer both climax and resolution. Is that so much to ask?

In a word, yes. Endings are hard. Between us and our endings, Johnson says, come haste, fatigue, literary fashion, personal blocks, and denials. Even in a fresh book, she says, endings will fit into patterns we recognize:

  • Closure: This includes marriage, death, going home, or facing future more wisely.  Johnson warns not to sell out to cheap tears or easy laughs. Death can be poetic justice or indifferent; marriage a symbol of felicity. The traditional resolution of comedy, she notes, is the “triumph of hope over reason.”  Sometimes the hero is sadder but wiser.
  • The “serves them right” ending: These are characteristic of our time, Johnson says, and include ironic inversions operating in the realm of poetic justice.
  • Order is fractured or restored: This may of course include aspects of justice and/or closure. A force of nature may be at work here, engulfing or saving, but Johnson warns it can’t just take everyone out, no matter how much the weary writer may wish it were so.
Of course, conventions are meant to be ignored, and an unexpected ending is great as long as it works, which usually means there’s a set up. The ending starts at the beginning; in a good story, the tracks are laid, as David Vann says, in the first paragraph, but that doesn’t mean that we must write in such a linear way. My first novel began as an ending. I thought it was a short story until someone pointed out that if I told what led up to it, I’d have a novel. 

Sometimes writers are so concerned about endings that they won’t begin a project unless they can see their way clear to the end, in a formal outline or at least a fuzzy vision. Katherine Anne Porter, for one, said she wouldn’t begin a story until she knew the ending, and she always wrote the last page first. This sounds beautifully efficient, but it’s also possible that by committing to an ending before you begin, you pigeonhole the most interesting stuff that would otherwise rise up out of the subconscious. Other writers are more or less content to flail around until an ending rises up out of the narrative. This is not at all efficient, but sometimes the best route to truth is roundabout.

Every story or essay or poem has a great ending. The problem is finding it. Sometimes we’re just trying too hard. I was blown away in a recent workshop by how easily people who don’t write every day could in response to a prompt craft a full narrative arc, complete with ending, in fifteen minutes, while I was still loading my narrative guns. This has a lot to do with the pressing and urgent need to write, to spill ourselves on the page, a desire that people who write every day may have to fight to reclaim. Plus a little success yields lots of second-guessing. The uninitiated sometimes enjoy better access to their intuition, a direct connection to that elusive pot of gold.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Window on Your Characters

We all know how characters are revealed: by what they do, by what they say, and by what others say about them. Not a bad place to start, but for the writer it’s not enough.

Compelling characters also have self-regard. “Their emotions matter to them,” Donald Maass explains in Writing the Breakout Novel. “They do not dismiss what they experience. They embrace life. They wonder about their responses to events and what such responses mean. They take themselves seriously- and by the way, a sense of humor about oneself is the flip side of the same coin.”

Steve Almond one-ups Maass, warning writers not to settle for self-regard over self-examination. Navel-gazing isn’t enough, he says. Characters must look into the dark regions of their heart, those places they want to repress. Look no farther than Victorian fiction to see what kind of mileage writers get from characters who stifle their dark impulses. For that matter, look no farther than the modern tendency toward flagrant self-regard. Whatever reprehensible thing you might think, feel or be, you have only to out it and let everyone else figure out how to deal with it. (If you don’t recognize this attitude, you’re not paying enough attention to social media and reality TV).

Whether repressed or prideful, a character’s capacity for self-examination can be considered through the handy panes of the Johari Window, developed in 1955 as a tool for psychological assessment and more recently co-opted by business for team-building. After my characters have shown themselves strong enough to withstand my attempts to pigeonhole them, I break out the windows to help me figure out what they know about themselves and what others know about them. “Others,” by the way, doesn’t mean my readers or me. In the narrative universe, we’re demi-gods – able to see more than the players in the story, but never all-knowing.

The top left-hand pane of the window is the arena, or open area. Here reside those aspects of character that are visible to everyone. To its right is pane 2, the blind spot (sometimes called a bubble): those things others understand about the character while the poor schlep himself has no idea. Voice often resides here. As in real life, character aren’t usually conscious of how they sound.

Even the most introspective characters will be clueless about other aspects of themselves. When Rivka Galchen was working on her novel, she read a lot of real-life confessions, and what she saw time and again was how no matter how much people set out to confess, there were always some things to which they were blind, like Rousseau who confessed to nearly everything a man could, save admitting he’d fathered and abandoned five children. “That reading helped me understand how interesting it is to have someone be wrong about himself,” Galchen says.

Lack of awareness should never descend into pathos, but buffoonery works. “I think there’s a level of blind self-love in buffoonish characters and a level of delusion and a certain amount of well-meaningness that I find incredibly touching,” says author Chris Abani.

Pane 3 is where you put things characters know about themselves that others don’t see. This usually involves some sort of cover-up, either subconscious or intentional, which is why this pane is sometimes called the façade .“We are all telling the same two stories,” Almond says, “the one about who we want to believe we are, and the one about who we know ourselves to be. Nearly all the humiliating events in our lives (and, for that matter, in good prose) can be said to arise from the collision of these two stories.” When characters engage in intentional cover-ups, they’re taking themselves seriously enough to recognize the gap between these two stories and to try to conceal it; this subversion is in fact one of the first acts of “growing up.” In pane 3, we’re not playing around. It’s not bumper cars; it’s more like a nuclear reactor.

Pane 4 contains the unknown, those things characters don’t know about themselves, things no one else in the story knows about them either. But you – and your reader – may see them, or at least grope in that direction. There’s lots to mine in Pane 4. Deep shame and its counterpart mercy often lurk there. And while desire can fill any pane, it’s most interesting in this one. Ditto for grudges.  It’s because of pane 4 that we want to hang with our characters even after the story is over. Jose Manuel Prieto describes one of his characters in Nocturnal Butterflies of the Russian Empire “inexhaustible to me in his enigma.”

Once the unknown becomes known, it exits this pane for either panes 3, 2, or 1, depending on the character’s capacity and courage for self-examination. In this way, as Almond puts it, our characters become “unburdened of the glorious secret of who they really are.”

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

On the Road with Our Characters

A stranger comes to town. Someone goes on a journey. The old adage claims every story is either one or the other. But where are these characters going? Who’s directing the traffic? Does anyone have an itinerary?

These questions are vital to character development, a stodgy term that belies the dynamic nature of character. For insight, I turn to an unlikely source: the monks of New Skete. I’m not Catholic, nor am I Orthodox, as these monks are. My initial acquaintance with them had nothing to do with writing or spiritual thinking. My puppy was sweet but stubborn and often one step ahead of me. The monks raise and train German Shepherds, and they wrote a great book on bringing the best out in dogs.

If only characters were so easy to train. But training is hardly the point. We can all agree with Flannery O’Connor that the story form is organic. “The only way, I think, to learn to write short stories is to write them, and then to try to discover what you have done,” O’Connor says. “In most good stories it is the character’s personality that creates the action of the story. “If you start with a real personality, a real character, then something is bound to happen; and you don’t have to know what before you begin. In fact it may be better if you don’t know what before you begin.”

Fair enough. The writer is not a travel agent, mapping itineraries her characters. Technique becomes useful only when you’ve traveled a ways with them already, and you’ve got a story – at least a rough one – before you. But while there’s no surefire, step-by-step, 100% guaranteed process for discovering your characters on the page, there are useful perspectives. The journey is one, and that’s where the monks of New Skete come in.

In another book (not the manual on dog training), the monks address the inner work that leads to greater depth and breadth of happiness, which in one form or another is the desire of every character, even if some of them are determined to twist it into something else. Borrowing from the monks, we could say that the itineraries of our characters involve growing in consciousness, facing what reality demands of them, living more authentically and universally, and moving even incrementally toward self-knowledge. Along the way, they encounter a common roadblock: the impulse to save themselves even if the cost is their own full humanity.

You may infuse your characters with all sorts of emotions and launch them on a wild roller-coaster ride, but in the end emotion is only reactive. Your characters need spirit, or soul, or whatever other term you prefer if those sound too religious.

It’s on journeys that our characters become real, journeys in which they grow in consciousness despite the impulse to save themselves, journeys in which they seek happiness, whether they know it or not, and where they encounter authenticity, whether they mean to or not. How they get there is up to them, and to you. How they get there is story.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Metaphor: With All Due Respect

You have to love wikiHow.

Impressed by the abundance of metaphor in Karen Russell’s Swamplandia! and a handful of lines in a G.C. Waldrep’s “The Black Pickup Truck of Death is Driving Away,” I set out to discover what other writers had to say about figurative language, which is as intuitive as anything we do.

Straight up, Google offered wikiHow’s “How to Write a Metaphor: 7 steps,” sort of like “How to Paint Like Rembrandt: 7 steps” or “How to Think Like God: 7 steps.” “Metaphors are tough,” the Wiki author admits. “But if you follow these instructions, they can become the spice in the cuisine that is your written work!”

Oh boy.

Richer yet were the ads Google’s snoop squad slotted there, just for me.  Why Men Pull Away: Ten Ugly Mistakes That Women Make That Ruins [sic]Any Chance of a Relationship. The click-through: Right underneath was Turbo Tax Free Tax Advice: Our Professionals Are All CPAs, Enrolled Agents or Tax Attorneys! Yikes. For the record, I’m not shopping for relationship advice, and I finished my taxes last week, thanks very much. But there’s no denying the character potential implied in those juxtaposed ads. Self-destructive romantic seeks free tax advice. Tom Rachman would have fun with that one.

If Waldrep’s poem “The Black Pickup Truck of Death is Driving Away” were wiki-ized, it would be titled “How to Make Love, Not War: 7 steps.” In it, Waldrep says this about metaphor:

it is not a game,
… it is an alchemy of expression
of what it means to be human,
a bridge between the things that are human
and the things that are not,
between the living and the dead

If reduced to a recipe, reverence must be metaphor’s primary ingredient. The rest of it - freshness, clarity, depth of meaning, all without drawing undue attention – follow in proportions we pretty much have to guess at.

The easiest part is identifying those places where literal description falls short. Metaphor does the heavy lifting where you feel more than see what you mean. “I need something to serve as a container for emotion and idea,” Mark Doty says of metaphor. “A vessel that can hold what’s too slippery or charged or difficult to touch.”

The vessel may be large, a metaphor big enough to hold a whole poem. Or it may be slight and yet stunning. It may fall fresh and whole on the page, or it may demand some effort. I sometimes feel like I’m whacking away at potential metaphors like a blindfolded three-year-old at a pinata. A bunch of wild swings and then, boom, I’m scrambling to gather the bounty.

When it comes to metaphor, Karen Russell’s Swamplandia! is the fiesta of all fiestas. Consider lines like these.

The stage lights’ tin eyelids
Nights in the swamp were dark and star-lepered
The sapphire hairs of the Pleiades
Dozens of alligators pushed their icicle overbites
The Chief’s follow spot cast a light like a rime of ice

These are only a sampling from the first two pages of Russell’s novel. Plenty more follow, hundreds of fresh yet unpretentious metaphors. Russell’s not just playing around with words. It feels like she’s actually seeing this way, that ordinary movements and objects are transformed for her as if through some fantastical lens.

The simple definition – that metaphor compares two unlike things – isn’t all that helpful to a writer.  In “sapphire hairs” or “icicle overbites,” what’s being compared to what, exactly?  In Liguistics for Students of Literature, Taugett and Pratt define metaphor in a more helpful way: foregrounding through the use of anomaly. Foregrounding provides the motive – special attention.  Anomaly is how we achieve it, by bringing together two unlike meanings. The effect, paradoxically, is cohesion – sameness fashioned from difference.

As is so often the case, the writer’s job is to pay attention – to the places where the unspeakable hovers, to the freshness camouflaged by the everyday, to the unlikely combinations that when struck like flint yield new ways to see. “Our metaphors go on ahead of us,” says Doty. “They know before we do.” Metaphor earns its respect: as alchemy, as bridge, pressing in toward what makes us human.