Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Landscapes Revisited

With the words you’re reading here, the 49 Writers blog has featured a whopping 1281 posts. Figure an average of 600 words per post, and that’s 768,600 words, or enough for nine full-length books at an average word length of 85,000 each, a truly amazing collective accomplishment achieved by Alaska’s writers.

Blogger continues to beef up its stat reporting feature, and while it acts up once in awhile, it has overall become a fascinating source of information about who’s reading what on the blog. The top five 49 Writers posts with the most page views are an eclectic assortment that includes the “We have a key!” post announcing the opening of Alaska’s first writing center, a tribute to John Haines, a post on Amazon self-publishing, a Harper Lee Christmas story, and our most recent Ode to a Dead Salmon contest finalists.

It’s an intriguing assortment, but what’s of even more interest are some really great hidden gems that haven’t yet made the top five, or even the top ten all-time posts as measured in number of page views. One of my personal all-time favorites is David Vann’s piece on landscapes, posted all the way back in 2009.  It’s worth reading alone for Vann’s introductory comments:

The London Book Fair has been going on this week, and it’s one of those events that controls my future. I know nothing about it, though, except that my agents are there and several of my editors are there, and I do trust that they’re doing the most they possibly can for me. I’m extremely happy with my editors and publishers now, but I had a lot of frustrations with that first book.

All’s well that ends well, as one of the world’s best writers once said. That first book Vann mentions, Legend of a Suicide, went on to win numerous awards, including best foreign novel in both Spain and France.

But it’s Vann’s observations on landscapes that keep me going back to that post, because it’s there I first came to fully understand the objective correlative, something I’d been doing (sort of) without knowing the term for it. I’ll let Vann explain it, since he does it so well:

When T.S. Eliot used this term, he meant something larger (such as a sequence of dramatic events that, taken together, evoke an emotion in a reader), but in creative writing workshops it has come to mean this: by describing an exterior landscape from the point of view of a character, we are indirectly describing the interior landscape (the thoughts, feelings, and sensibility) of that character. This is the same, really, as what we mean most of the time by “vision” (how a character views himself or herself, the other characters, and the world), and since these are inevitably the most important moments in our stories, telling our readers what our stories are about, it’s also the same as “theme,” and because we’re saying something important indirectly, it’s also the same as “subtext.” It’s impossible to write a successful work in any genre without at least one of these moments. I mean that. If you don’t have a moment like this, of vision and theme and subtext, your work is not worth reading, and landscape description is the easiest way to create these moments.

For more of Vann’s observations, including how to see, how to describe a place, how to use landscape to build theme, and how to write a beautiful sentence, read the full post, which is partially a reprint of an article Vann wrote for Writer’s Digest. Whether or not it makes the top five all-time posts, you can be sure I’ll be reading it again and again.