Syllabus, By Lynda Barry

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Lynda Barry sounds like one of those Americans I love to be around: a progressive hippie (I assume …) with a big heart and a boisterous laugh and depths of feeling in her work. I first encountered her name when I was UK editor for the fantastic books of Simpsons creator Matt Groening’s Life In Hell –  they became friends when he ran the student paper at Evergreen State College, where her first work appeared, and her name appeared in increasingly teasing dedications, e.g., ‘Lynda Barry is still funk queen of the galaxy’. She is well known in North America for her cartoons, which have appeared in indie newspapers since the 1970s.

More recently Lynda Barry has also created empowering workshops on creativity. Subtitled Notes From An Accidental Professor, her book Syllabus presents course materials she uses in an innovative class called The Unthinkable Mind that she teaches at the Image Lab of the Institute for Discovery at the University of Wisconsin-Madison:

Open to both graduate and undergraduate students from all academic disciplines, this writing and picture-making class is focused on learning about the basic physical structure of the brain and the particular kind of creative concentration that comes about when we are writing, drawing, or constructing something by hand.

A Lynda Barry syllabus differs from the usual document rattling over class aims and objectives in dreary Academicese in 12pt Times New Roman. They are full of questions and prompts and cheeky asides, and what’s more they are handwritten and illuminated in colour with her own sketches and doodles, which are works of art in themselves. As a Guardian profile says, her ‘collages are densely visionary compositions, as if William Blake had clipped out his cosmology from old magazines’. This graphic quality creates an enlivening and liberating experience from the moment you look at the cover then open the book. There’s a strong a sense of play, which is something Lynda Barry is all about.

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‘What is an image?’ asks a scary stick figure from the back cover. ‘How far can a pen, a composition notebook, and a burning question take you?’ The image, for Barry, refers to any thing, experience, or idea that is given form in the arts: ‘the formless thing which gives things form’, she says in one of her other books, What It Is. For any artist, the challenge lies in finding the form that expresses that thing, experience, or idea authentically. Drawing on research in cognitive science, Lynda Barry explains:

I was trying to understand how images travel between people, how they move through time, and if there is a way to use writing and picture making to figure out more how images work.

The creative tasks pursuing that aim in Syllabus feel commonsensical, rather than complex, tasking members of the class on ways to explore, free of inhibition, the sources of our images – our childhoods, our pasts, our everyday lives – and then to make the creation of art and writing in ways that are ‘unthinkable’: instinctive, spontaneous, and true. The priority here is not about produced finished pieces of art, but about stimulating creativity – though I’d venture to say (if we are allowed to think that way) that such liberating approaches usually arrive at the most successful works of art anyway, however we define success.

The class includes tons of activities and assignments to foster ease and spontaneity in our artistic process. Keeping a Daily Diary with lists of things done, seen, and heard every day as well as a quick sketch of something you’ve seen. Timed drawing exercises based on the deceptively simple cartooning style of Ivan Brunetti. Memorising Emily Dickinson poems. Listening to Grimms fairytales while you draw. Spontaneous writing exercises using in-class prompts. Writing exercises based on memories. Collaborative drawing jams where your peers pass around a 4 x 4 grid and fill it with the names of occupations or types of people, and then you have a minute to draw each character.

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All writing for this class is handwritten: students are tasked on filling lined composition notebooks (Syllabus amounts to a facsimile of one). Students also trace and copy pictures. And there is colouring, lots of colouring, especially while you are, e.g., listening to music or socialising. Barry was well ahead of the current fashion on colouring, and she expects students’ Crayolas to get worn down to the stub.

Another important lesson comes in doodling spirals, as students do not give feedback round the table in the style of a conventional writing workshop, but simply draw spirals while their peers read out their writing. It’s a good contemplative practice, with the focus shifting from judgement to expression, listening, and understanding. (I think there is a time for judgement and engaging the critical faculties, but that comes later.)

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All the students in her classes are assigned nicknames, e.g., parts of the brain such as Cerebral Cortex or Amygdala. I also like this classroom guideline: ‘Friendly Reminder: No electronic devices are allowed in our classroom between 12:00 p.m. – 4:00 p.m. Please do not check your devices during our break.’ (I was only saying to someone the other day that it would be great if, maybe, we only used Twitter and Facebook between, say, the hours of 4 and 6 p.m. every day, and then for the rest of the time we could get on with our lives, rather than have it mediated.)

And how about these for Classroom Rules?

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Barry offers many sassy insights and savvy aphorisms. E.g., on the ways that taste and judgement get in the way of creative production: ‘Liking and not liking can make us blind to what’s there.’ Much of what she proposes is about restoring the unself-conscious approaches to art and play that we enjoyed in childhood, and about establishing an easy and regular practice:

The only way to understand this is by making things. Thinking about it, theorizing about it, chatting about it will not get you there.

She passionately believes the arts are a matter of life and death, as she describes in a talk for Lynda.com (around 9:45) where she discusses the books or songs that change your life; the arts are ‘the corollary to our immune system’, or ‘our external organs’. One of my favourite Lynda quips comes later in that talk:

I hate art. I hate art galleries. They remind me of intensive care units. Doesn’t it seem like you don’t know what’s going on? Everything’s really expensive and clean.

That sums up her approach for me. Art is a living thing, and, at its best, like life art is messy.

And, importantly: art should be should be accessible to all.

One of my main aims in teaching and editorial coaching is helping writers to find ways to make good writing come instinctively. Syllabus is a real inspiration, and a book every writer and artist should read. Its lessons are deep, its method is fun, it is ground-breaking, mind-expanding, barrier-breaking. I could rave on and on, but it’s a book that is best experienced rather than described.

Lynda Barry is FOREVER the funk queen of the galaxy.

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And don’t forget to read her other books too – I can HIGHLY recommend her graphic memoir One! Hundred! Demons! as well as What It Is (extract here) and Picture This. All are gorgeously produced by Canadian publisher Drawn & Quarterly.

More on Lynda Barry in these clips:

Lynda Barry’s Tumblr

Creativity and Learning: A Conversation With Lynda Barry – video from Lynda.com (ESSENTIAL VIEWING!)

Lynda Barry Will Make You Believe In Yourself – New York Times Magazine profile

Lynda Barry: What Is An Image? – Guardian profile

Join Lynda Barry For A University-Level Course On Doodling And Neuroscience – review of Syllabus from OpenCulture, with lots of sample pages

Lynda Barry’s Wonderfully Illustrated Syllabus and Homework Assignments From Her UW-Madison Course ‘The Unthinkable Mind’ – another OpenCulture review, with plenty more sample pages

The Rumpus Interview With Lynda Barry

 

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Learning From Poets

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I use poetry a lot in my teaching, but I don’t consider myself a poet and I don’t edit poetry as such (my frequent response to a poem has been, ‘Couldn’t you make it a bit shorter?’). A few things have recently set me to thinking about what I, as an editor and writer, have learned from poets and poetry.

This last week I read posts by Isabel Rogers and Isabel Costello on Isabel C’s Literary Sofa, as well as an article by Trevor Conway on the ways in which we encounter and consume poetry. They interrogate something of an assumption that many of us have inherited: the idea that poetry needs defending, or apologising for, or a gentle easing in. Because poetry is obscure, dense, intimidating. Poetry is hard.

There is a fear of poetry. What’s all that about?!

A lot goes back to how poetry is first encountered in formal settings. Even my beloved English teacher Mrs Blakemore thought poetry might be too much of a challenge for working-class kids from the Black Country studying for their O-level in English Literature, so she schooled us in My Family And Other Animals instead (which remains one of my favourite books EVER, along with two other fantastic texts we studied – Huckleberry Finn and The Woman In White – so I can’t complain).

Maybe never getting that education in poetry at an early age, when understanding can still become instinctive, accounts for why I’m still not great with knowing a dactyl from an anapaest (but then again, I never learned my times tables either). I regret not having strong skills in recitation, though Mrs B did make us learn a couple of monologues from The Merchant of Venice, and I’m still able to summon some of them up today. ‘The quality of mercy is not strained …’

I mostly skipped through/over poetry during my BA in American Studies and an MA in English Literature, and when I worked in-house for a publisher poetry tended to be filed away under ‘Doesn’t Sell’ (along with, back then, vampires and nature writing).

But in my twenty-first century incarnation, I’ve engaged with poetry in more meaningful ways. An early lesson has been deciding that poetry should not be hard. Like Shakespeare (who is, after all, mostly poetry), it’s there to be enjoyed and understood, and if I’m not enjoying and understanding, I can either 1. try to understand, or 2. read something else. Goes for all literature, really.

Another important lesson: ‘poetry’ is a vast definition, so vast it’s almost meaningless. It many ways it is, basically, all of writing as art. It covers verse and prose, story and lyric and incomprehensible gibberish, haiku and epics and limericks. Talking of: limericks makes me think of the first ditty I memorised, via my grandmother:

There was an old lady from Ealing,
Who had a peculiar feeling.
She lay on her back,
And opened her crack,
And piddled all over the ceiling.

See: I had poetry in my blood from the very start.

My greatest gratitude for understanding poets and poetry came from the MFA in Writing & Poetics that I took at Naropa University. I had the opportunity to study at a couple of perfectly respectable and conventional (dull) English departments in Colorado, but I had already done that once before (dull English department); how could I resist a Buddhist university whose English department was founded by Allen Ginsberg and is called the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics?

I was in the prose track, but it was probably from the poets that I gained most. I hadn’t quite expected this, but I was immersed in a world where poetry was the dominant form of writing. I had brilliant fiction teachers in Bobbie Louise Hawkins, Laird Hunt, and Keith Abbott, but they all write poetry as well, and in some instances they are/were married to poets. Everyone at Naropa is married to poetry.

I discovered that Gertrude Stein is not difficult to grasp if read aloud or listened to, rather than consumed in silence. I took a semester-long seminar on Ezra Pound in which we read The Cantos in its entirety. I studied William Blake; I treasure the memory of a class discussing Songs of Innocence and Experience during a Boulder snowstorm, gobs of white swirling against a vast black sky.

I also took a seminar in Critical Theory, and one day next to a grade on a response paper received some of the most valuable feedback: ‘An essay is like a poem: every word counts.’ (A blog is like a poem, too, but it doesn’t stop me.)

Poetry remains a living thing for me today. My friend Mary Kite, whose haiku from Santa Fe I read most days on Facebook. Memories of Anne Waldman’s fierce performances at Summer Writing Programs. Jack Collom’s The Old Woods. Workshops where I use Carolyn Forché’s The Colonel (poetry? prose? do we care?). Rereading Patsy Alford’s magical Mrs God poems. (I think Patsy is my favourite poet from my days at Naropa.)

Something else that took me back to Naropa this week was reading a couple of wonderful pieces in the New York Times on Eileen Myles: such a funny and clever contrarian, and a wonderful stylist who writes heartbreakingly beautiful poetry to defy her slightly scary image. I feel very lucky to have seen her read: mesmerising.

The poetry world can be a supportive community; this is often the case in certain circles of genre and YA/children’s writing, too, but there is something quite captivating about the dynamics of eccentrics and weirdos in poetry circles. So I grew excited about the idea Eileen Myles mentions in one of those articles of a tv show about poets, which set me to dreaming of something in the vein of Looking or Transparent. Of course, any tv show about poets could not be written by a poet, hahaha! The poetry world can also be a bitchy clattering of egos (takes one to know one) that might seem best experienced from the fringes, though maybe that’s true for any community when it looks like cliques, and maybe it’s also true that any closed world is best observed from its fringes.

When I was (a student) at Naropa I used to joke with a few (fiction-writing) friends that poets were wankers (this was behind the poets’ backs, of course, and I contained myself when I became a teacher there). Maybe it was the fact that poets are writing in a shorter form (sometimes …) that they seem to have so many words left over for talking, and so often those so many words are about themselves?! Oh my – the introductions at poetry readings! We used to take bets on how long they’d run. Many of them were longer than the poems, and the a/c in the Performing Arts Centre was chilly when we were on the fifth slot of the night (plus intervals). I also never forget the gulping noises that came from a handbag the night its owner brought her pet guinea pig to a reading. Or the night a friend wanked her boyfriend off in the back row: now, did that really happen? Yes, I’m sure it did. That’s what I meant by wankers (too).

Some self-described experimental poetry – or maybe I mean experimental poets – can, for me, shift into the pretentious a little too quickly. I find a lot of the chatter about, e.g., language poetry or new narrative dry and reedy. Shut up with the theory, and transport me with the spell of your words, or tell me a story, okay? Just don’t theorise about it yourself. Or use the word body in your poems … nooooooo, total turn-off. Though I try to be kind, I think I’ve probably heard more than my share of what Isabel R calls ‘heartfelt, non-scanned, non-rhyming nonsense’. I know that poetry often needs to be unpicked and deciphered, and maybe I just don’t get it. But I also know that I don’t need to be patronised by gibberish.

I do find a lot of the contemporary British poetry I’ve been exposed to thin, stiff, and dull, though maybe I just need to get out more. When I studied poetry at a prestigious English department, most of the discussion was thin, stiff, and dull, even when we were talking about my favourite poet-to-be, Elizabeth Bishop. Maybe it’s a British thing. But then I read someone like Toby Martinez de las Rivas, and I remember poetry is a broad church, and I probably do need to get out more.

But the Isabels’ pieces made me think about other lessons. There are lessons in sound: rhythm, rhyme, the music of words. Lessons in precision (again: every word counts).

There are also lessons in mood. Not everything has to be explained in every sort of writing; a significant weakness in a lot of the prose I read is that it tries to explain too much, at the expense of suggestion and impression. Fiction isn’t like academic writing, or technical writing, or journalism, which needs to clarify and ass-cover comprehensively. Much in writing – and reading – can and should work through the act of interpretation.

Poetry also helps you see the world anew, as in the inadvertent yet compelling performance poetry of Sarah Palin. Poetry keeps us on our toes.

The greatest lesson I take from poets, though, is not so much from their work but from their ethos. They are writing it for the love of it. Poets embark on their writing fully aware that their writing is unlikely to sell. It might deserve wider circulation, but they know it’s highly unlikely they can make a living or even a pittance from it. But they write their poems anyway.

I guess writers in other genres write their writing anyway, but sometimes I wonder if beginning writers of fiction are grasping towards the idea of publishing a little too, um, prematurely, and the very idea of publishing is getting in the way. And the hard facts of our material economy mean that unless you are writing something that other people will want to read (and that really is a gamble), it’s going to be tough to make a living selling your own books. And there are plenty of other things out there vying for our readers’ time: gym memberships, Netflix, Pizza Express, blogs. Some of us do our best to help writers do their best to get their work out there, but no one owes you a living, and even an agent or a publisher will only owe you what you agreed with them when you signed on the dotted line. And I am sure most agents and publishers are only hoping for the best too.

Meanwhile the poets are there, in the coffeeshops, at the microphones, in the libraries, on the bus, scratching out their poems regardless.

Lesson: Write because you love it. That sounds corny and simple, but sometimes I think that core idea gets lost. And we always have to come back to that thing we love, because that is probably where the writing will come alive, free of anxieties (about pitching our books, about Amazon rankings). And maybe, maybe that is the writing that will attract readers, and get published, and then attract more readers …

Part of me is slightly embarrassed that I wrote this post, because it might be read by some of my poet friends. You’re not all wankers! And also because it seems a bit silly to behold poets as objects, and explain why poetry is good for writers. But then I tell myself that many writers do in fact resist the idea of poetry, and there is much to be gained from it. So go on: make the next book you read a work of poetry.

Two of the three books I’ve finished so far this year (with many others in progress …) are works of poetry: Citizen by Claudia Rankine, and Physical by Andrew McMillan. And this set me to deciding on a belated new year resolution of reading or rereading a book of poetry a week. My third is Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s Coney Island Of The Mind. My fourth will come from the stack in the photo above.

It’s a good resolution, because it’s probably one of the easiest to stick to if you love books and reading. There are plenty of short poetry books, after all, and maybe, maybe you can also fit in someone’s Complete Works, or some Homer too? (God knows I tried and failed with Moby-Dick – again – last year.)

Poetry is not just a means, but an end in itself.

Here are a few resources for writing as well as reading poetry, should you want to explore some more. Lot of free poems too – poets are generous souls.

Poetry For Dummies – a fun intro, especially for the fearful and the uninitiated, and the people who wrote it from the San Francisco Poetry Center are certainly not dummies

* Jack Collom and Sheryl Noethe, Poetry Everywhere – a super book for establishing a poetry practice using different forms

* Jack Collom’s brilliant Ecosystem of Writing Ideas

* Bernadette Mayer’s Writing Experiments

Poetry Society

Poetry Foundation

Academy of American Poets

* Electronic Poetry Center and its Library and Charles Bernstein’s Experiments

 

Books Of 2015

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I tend to shy away from judgements on published works on this blog (though not elsewhere!), but I thought I’d do my own year-end list of books: books I’ve enjoyed, books that left an impression, books I gained something from. Not all were published this year, and I’m sure I’ve forgotten other books I read in 2015, and this could be a slightly different list were I to write it yesterday or tomorrow.

Edna O’Brien’s memoir Country Girl is perhaps my favourite book of the year. 2015 could go down in literary history as the year I discovered Edna O’Brien. Yay! Love her.  A couple of months after reading, what I remember most: the lyrical prose, the stories of her family and her marriage, the celebs she describes (could be namedroppy in lesser hands, but here they just come naturally and deservedly). I was taken into another world with this book, which is one of my measurements of what a great book should do for me. What a star.

If that book has a contender for my fave, it’s probably Don’t Let’s Go To The Dogs Tonight by Alexandra Fuller, which I finally read back in February. A powerful family story, with a strong setting in time and place (Rhodesia in the 70s and 80s) and great political purpose. Searingly good, and so rich and so intense I eked it out a couple of chapters at a time.

Bill Clegg’s Did You Ever Have A Family is perhaps the novel that consumed me most this year. I can’t quite put my finger on why, as at times I found its central character and a couple of other players a little grating. But then there were other characters who really got under my skin, which makes me think that sometimes we have to set up certain things (grating characters) for other things to work better (characters who get under the skin). They certainly felt real as a result, and worked their magic – the voice and the tone really took hold of me at certain points.

I also enjoyed a reading where Bill Clegg described his process in writing this book: on returning to his hometown after a long time away, he started writing about it. He had a line – She will go – that would end up as the opening sentence of Chapter Two, in fact, but it took four years of accruing many pages in the voices and points of view of an extended community before he landed on the narrative device that would be placed at the start of his book and drive his plot. It took another three years to refine what went in the book (much went out). I think this shows in the deeply felt portraiture of people and place: this was instinctively assembled, bottom upwards, and we really experience a slice of these characters’ lives.

I’d been gripped by Bill Clegg’s first memoir Portrait Of The Addict As A Young Man when it first came out, and, having been impressed by his novel, this year I caught up on his second memoir, Ninety Days, which is about his recovery: whoa! Economical writing, and very powerful in its frankness. A very New York book, too, I thought.

Another economical read was Kent Haruf’s Our Souls At Night. It has a pretty simple setup (oldsters seeking company), and unfolds with a beguiling humour and depth of characterisation, and also a certain darkness. It took me back to the small towns on the plains of Colorado. This is the author’s last novel (he died a year ago), but I still have a few other books of his to catch up on. A lovely feature by him here: ‘The Making Of A Writer’.

Nina Stibbe’s Man At The Helm was probably the novel that charmed me most this year: her characters, her setting (a gossipy Midlands village), and especially her voice. We are there with her and her family in what turns out to be a funny and clever and bittersweet book. Funny is hard to pull off: funny is the mark of a clever writer, and when it’s combined with feeling it’s a powerful thing. And I love that she uses all the words (the effs and the cees), like a good writer should.

Damon Galgut’s In A Strange Room is a strange and unsettling book that held my attention with pretty ordinary events that delivered unexpected turns of suspense. Again, it is the style that wins my praise. He is unafraid to experiment or be something other than obvious, and he does so unpretentiously in a way that seems effortless.

I read a few dreadful (published) books too. I’m usually hesitant about parading harsh judgements on this blog, or even entertaining the idea of dreadful, because my job is about encouraging writers to find their way in the world of writing, and taste is so subjective, anyway – many books I enjoy might in fact be subject to others’ snootiness.

But: I hated A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara. It started off so well, and I did admire the book’s management of time – compressing, looping back, opening out as it went along – but I knew things had really gone irretrievably badly when [spoiler!] a character in a wheelchair got pushed down a stairwell by his violent boyfriend, and my visceral reaction was to laugh out loud. I found this book manipulative without being moving, and could not help but compare the misfortunes it melodramatises with any number of real-life stories (e.g., see Alexandra Fuller, above). The book is said to aim for a heightened reality, which sounds like the bold sort of deviation from representative realism that I usually love, but I’m afraid I was not persuaded, perhaps as its fans seem to have identified in very literal and mawkish ways with its cast of cartoonish characters.

It was its reception that probably confounded me most, especially on Twitter, where it sometimes felt as if emotional cripples – stunted by the limits of 140 characters, and craving reaction – were live-tweeting their readings. (Later, I imagined some of these readers were the same people tweeting that London Spy was the best and most heartbreaking thing on telly, even after that last – that word again – dreadful episode; it too had started so well …) So many publishing successes nowadays seem to be twysterically generated.

Maybe I’d not have felt so strongly about A Little Life had I not read the quote from the Atlantic saying this might be the ‘great gay novel’. Ultimately it felt to me like misery-porn for self-hating homos, a ghoulish fantasy for faghags who prefer their gay men as victims, abusers, consumers, or pastry chefs. Eventually I saw sense prevailing among some readers, such as discussion with Scott Pack on his blog. Daniel Mendelsohn’s exacting review in the New York Review of Books (as well as his even more exacting response to a letter from the book’s editor) must rank as one of the most thoughtful pieces of criticism I read in 2015 (and not just because I heartily agree with it). In a year in which personal attacks and trolling have continued to pollute social media, I resisted sharing my own negative responses so publicly. But eventually I thought that it felt pollyanna-ish not to speak about something I felt strongly about, and I note I’ve written more about it here than any of the books that I enjoyed; perhaps this is in fact my book of the year?! Much can be formed in provocation and opposition. And I did at least end up loving-to-hate this book, I guess!

I increasingly think that volumes of short stories should not be read all at once, and I’ve continued to read the short stories in Battleborn by Claire Vaye Watkins, which I started in 2014. I’m bowled over by her voice and style and sense of place. And in a year where so much discourse in identity politics has been marked by righteousness, I particularly liked how Watkins’s essay ‘On Pandering’ raised questions rather than sought offence.

I’m still working through the most excellent catalogue for the most excellent Celts exhibition at the British Museum, and I’m also a few chapters into Steve Silberman’s Neurotribes (I often read nonfiction in fits and starts). I also enjoyed many pieces I read on or via Literary Hub.

Another great discovery was Lynda Barry. I’d read about her before, but not read any of her books. Syllabus, which gathers together her classroom notes for a course she teaches on creativity at the University of Wisconsin, is called life-changing by its publisher, and I think the hyperbole is warranted. It was also refreshing for me to read something where so much of its energy came through illustration rather than words, and it prompted me to read others of her books: What It Is, Picture This, and One! Hundred! Demons! I should write a review for Syllabus on this blog sometime. Yay! All hail Queen Lynda! I also want to read more widely in graphic novels and memoirs.

While discussing books on writing and creativity, I should mention The Story Grid by Shawn Coyne, which I’m still working through (on pause till I finish my close reading of Silence of the Lambs, which it will discuss in detail as a case study). And I am also pleased that Ursula Le Guin’s Steering The Craft is now more widely available in a new edition.

Further special mentions go to two debut novels coming in 2016 that I was lucky to read as advance proofs: Joanna Cannon’s The Trouble With Goats And Sheep and Kit De Waal’s My Name Is Leon. Both have children as protagonists, and each delivers a certain unexpected bite, but they work their wonders in different ways. Both, I now realise, also have period settings in the Midlands (70s and 80s), which I think is very good indeed: we need more strong Midlands voices in contemporary fiction (okay, Nina Stibbe is another one too – yes, maybe I’m biased). I’d not be surprised to see either of these engrossing novels as prizewinners or book club selections, and I look forward to seeing what comes next from their authors.

There were a number of books I did not get to. I hope in the near future to read Sanjeev Sahota’s Year Of The Runaways and Marlon James’s Brief History Of Seven Killings and Chigozie Obioma’s The Fishermen; this was a good year for the Booker, it seems. Also Oliver Sacks’s memoir On The Move; his column in the New York Times was another moving read. And maybe sometime soon I’ll get to Elena Ferrante – I confess to starting the first volume several times now, and finding the translation a bit stiff.

I’d also hoped to finish Moby-Dick this year, nay this summer, but other things came along (not least, its mid-Victorian style of rambling and musing, which has its moments, but I’m wanting me some STORY). I’m 40 per cent of the way in, and finally (FINALLY) we’ve met Ahab and had a mention of the whale. More anon (I hope), though for now I think I’m going to take a breather with Anne Tyler’s newest book A Spool Of Blue Thread.

And I realise I still (after three serious goes) have not finished The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro; I was really looking forward to this, and thought it sounded like the sort of literary fantasy I should have enjoyed, but what I did read just didn’t grab me (and I only have sixty pages left to go – which says a lot): sometimes a bit heavy-handed, often a bit lacking (in spark? in magic?). Plus I am tired of the patronising conversations about genre fiction by literary authors and their readers.

The novels I’ve listed as enjoying here have been on the whole pretty straightforward works of realism. People and places and voices were what seemed to count in my reading. No plot-rich pageturners this year, or historical blockbusters, or escapes into fantasy: no Goldfinch, no Burial Rites, no new George R.R. Martin.

Despite my love of novels and short stories, I think the works of fiction I enjoyed the most in 2015 all appeared on television. Game of Thrones continued to entertain and surprise, and I’m looking forward to see how it departs further from the books in 2016. I’m currently watching the second season of Transparent, whose characters at first irritated the hell out of me, until I really fell for them. So Jewish and so Californian, and so many of the joys and misunderstandings of relationships and family life are drawn with truth. And The Bridge also gave surprises, especially beyond the usual resolutions of a police procedural drama – the last hour of the third series was the best hour of telly (and fiction) this year.

Happy New Year!

A Book Is Not A Film

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Texts on story structure are often recommended to writers with books in development: The Writer’s Journey, The Story Grid, Into The Woods, Story. They have many useful insights on how we can shape our content (e.g., inciting incident; events of mounting tension; a resolution delivering a payoff), but it can be frustrating that so many of their reference points come from the screen rather than the page. Star Wars, Thelma and Louise, Rocky, Eastenders. It’s only to be expected, I suppose – so many seminars on story are designed for screenwriters, after all.

But storytelling on screen is a very different undertaking from storytelling in book form.

First thing that comes to mind: the rollerskate dance in Heaven’s Gate. Now, I know that movie gets a bad rap (mostly, it seems, because of its production costs spiralling out of control – and I also know that some viewers have a problem with the likelihood of a roller disco in the Wild West, to which I say: this is fiction, and I’m not sure they danced ‘The Blue Danube’ at Harvard commencement ceremonies quite like a Hollywood musical either, but do we really care?!). But: this rollerskating scene took my breath away when I first saw it. The pacing, the buildup, the music, the acting, the energy of all those bodies circling around on roller skates. It’s a SPECTACLE. It assaults all our senses, like good scenes in movies often do. (Other highlights in this trailer.)

Films are visual storytelling. Books can’t complete with that. It might take several pages to fill in every last detail of a richly rendered scene that a film can impress on viewers in an instant, and thereafter develop through well-paced action, carrying us along into represented realities. Films work on several senses at once: sights, sounds, movement through time.

Many manuscripts of novels are written as if they are films: they’re all foreground action, with maybe a sweeping backdrop every now and then. And though action is important, and should even dominate most of many stories, it rarely needs to be the entirety of a piece of novel or short story. (I have another perspective on this, and particularly on the idea of the narrator, in a different post: Tell Me A Story.)

Books can’t prompt so many senses all at once, like a film. They just have words. Which sounds blindingly obvious, until I think about those manuscripts of novels that are all foreground action (‘overwrought Dr Who‘, I sometimes call it).

So: what can storytelling in words rather than visual storytelling achieve? Take the following paragraph from the second page of The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris:

Starling came from people who do not ask for favors or press for friendship, but she was puzzled and regretful at Crawford’s behavior. Now, in his presence, she liked him again, she was sorry to note.

I read that last night and asked myself: Why did that paragraph give me pause? What is it about that paragraph that can only be done in a book?

It comes after a page of description and dialogue, scene-setting stuff with a visual and auditory quality, where we are introduced to Clarice Starling at the Behavioral Science section of the FBI Academy; she has grass in her hair and grass stains on her windbreaker, and her hands smell of gunsmoke (fantastic word), and she has just been summoned to a meeting with a senior colleague she thought was ignoring her. All these aspects of narrative content. Then this opening is punctuated by the paragraph I quote above, which is what might be called editorialising, or commentary, and is, I guess, a form of telling in its flat-out assessment of someone’s personal characteristics. It’s not wildly specific or concrete (as we are often told to make writing), either.

But I like it. I like how a narrator steps in here with this pithy quality of omniscient observation, telling us where Starling came from; then we slip into her mind, but still observing her from the outside too. We can have both things at once, be inside and out, and enjoy weird and undefinable other things as well. Explanations, descriptions, a bit of an ironic edge, control of narrative focus and psychic distance. A voice, a style. Personality emerges in the writing as a strong narrator takes charge and speaks directly to the reader. It could, for some, feel excessive or unnecessary, but this is the gnarly little paragraph that hooked me.

In film, I imagine that something of these ideas could be suggested through mannerism in performance, and Jodie Foster of course made this part all her own. But a film is not going to give us that style of confident, worldly-wise know-all narrating that holds us tight in the way only a good book can, and voiceovers can seem clunky. (A good film does other things that a book cannot, like make you scream out loud in an auditorium full of 400 cinema goers. But let’s not go there.)

Another example from further in:

For a few seconds she had felt an alien consciousness loose in her head, slapping things off the shelves like a bear in a camper.

What a great little image. Lurid, a bit random perhaps – but surely that’s the point. Again, some of this – what is it? confusion? frustration? – could be conveyed on film through performance (Jodie grimaces), but there is something quite delicious in those turns of phrase and picture. A literal rendition of that on film would seem surreal, even comic. The great thing about prose is that we don’t have to pin things down literally. We can conjure up such an image, let it do its work, then zoom along.

A few tangents.

Something important about storytelling in words is that it is suggestive: the imagination is given free rein, and doing some of the work is part of the engagement of reading. Mood can be more important than explanation. Mood is important in film too, but so often it’s achieved through visual or sound effects: light, colour, music, animation.

In a film, the writer’s vision gets joined to those of the director, actors, camera technicians, lighting artists, musicians, the wig mistress, and all those other people whose names are listed in the credits. A book may offer a kind word or two in the acknowledgements for editors, agents, designers, readers, book doctors who gave input along the way. But it’s the author’s name and the author’s name alone that goes on the cover.

Plus film can become quite literal; if you’re a big fan of Jodie Foster’s earlier film Freaky Friday, for example, it might take a little time to shake off that association and immerse yourself into Starling’s world. World War Z might be set in Philadelphia, but what happens when you know Glasgow well enough to spot locations where it was shot?

Another tangent: reading is quite solitary, while watching a film is a collective event (unless you’re hermetically sealed into your iPad). Reading can be contemplative, even an act of communion: ‘the sharing or exchanging of intimate thoughts and feelings’. When we are writing stories to be read (rather than watched), how are we sharing and exchanging intimacies? Even a pageturning thriller such as Silence of the Lambs enjoys an entrancing quality of intimacy that spurs us on and turns the pages.

I’m inclined to think that storytelling is at heart quite instinctive, so maybe we do best by fostering the conditions in which that instinct soars and flourishes, and where mood and intimacy can be cultivated. In which case, maybe it’s more important to start with some of the other aspects of craft, rather than top-down theories of structure. How does story emerge from, say, voice, or character? As with: Edna O’Brien, my new goddess and inspiration. I just finished her Country Girl. It’s memoir, so it’s still story-as-words (though this book has a few photos too).

And such words! Such a voice, such lyricism. Flick to any page.

I would go out to the fields to write. The words ran away with me. I would write imaginary stories, stories set in our bog and our kitchen garden, but it was not enough because I wanted to get inside them, in the same way as I was trying to get back into the maw of her my mother. Everything about her intrigued me: her body, her being, her pink corset, her fads and the obsessions to which she was prone. One was about a little silver spoon …

The maw of her mother! What a leap! But we follow her. (And the following tale of the spoon sticks in the mind too.) Again, I see that blending of inner and outer worlds that is something only a book can do. And again, we have a direct mode of address.

And descriptions such as:

Our house was full of prayer books and religious treasuries with soft, dimpled leather covers and gold edging to the pages that glittered when the sun broke through the tiny windows in the pantry where they were stacked. There were ribbons of various colours, so that one could open a page at random and read the Seven Dolours of the Blessed Virgins, prayers to Saint Peter of Antioch, Saint Bernadine of Siena, Saint Aelrod, Saint Cloud, Saint Columba and Saints Colman of Cloyne, of Dromore, of Kilmacduagh and, most wrenchingly of all, the prayers specially addressed to the stigmata of Saint Francis, that he may crucify the flesh from its vices.

Such rhythms, such allusions, such punctuation, such poetry. Such gory imagery, such choice words. Such voice. This is what we call style.

Later we are told ‘Dublin was full of stories, some funny and spry and sometimes gruesome’. (Spry: what a great word!) Edna lets the stories just tell themselves.

So how does that help us? What happens if we don’t feel like born storytellers?! (Which does beg a question …) Well, I bet that Edna had to work at this, however natural her command of language seems, and in fact she tells us she did work at this from an early age.  Writing became an instinct for her. Even if we don’t have fields to write in, we can also make writing instinctive through regular practice.

Beyond that, I imagine that Edna’s preoccupation might not have been with calculating the right character arc, but with establishing the right feeling in the writing (she talked a lot about language and feeling in writing when I saw her read last week). This reminds me of my friend Bobbie Louise Hawkins, who in her teaching doesn’t really favour the idea of plot; she is also all about feeling – one of the classes she teaches is in fact called The Feeling Tone.

I’m also thinking of Stephen King in On Writing, where he states how he distrusts plot, because our lives are largely plotless, and because he believes ‘plotting and the spontaneity of real creation aren’t compatible’. He says stories are found things, and compares writing to fossil-hunting, making an analogy with digging for dinosaur bones. Writing is a process of excavation, getting intimate with your characters and situations, finding the best way to express what needs to be said, and actually working out what needs to be said in the first place: finding your way intuitively into and through your content, communing with your own words and ideas and getting them down on the page.

I really don’t know how a screenplay is written, but I don’t think we need an all-encompassing story structure as a starting point for writing a novel. Such a theoretical system might even get in the way of other things a novel needs (voice, mood, intimacy). Sometimes the finished work ends up feeling like writing-by-numbers.

A grasp of structure will most certainly be very useful for any writer at some point. Some people do like to plan out stories before writing them. And if the Master (Stephen King) says that plot is ‘the good writer’s last resort and the dullard’s first choice’, that last resort of a good writer comes in handy once you have finished a first draft, and are ready to extract the right slant or emphasis from your content. This sort of knowledge can be invaluable, though maybe it’s knowledge we understand deeply, but practise lightly.

And in fact the best texts on structure for novelists don’t ardently promote watertight narrative theories, but are open and non-prescriptive in their approaches. One helpful book that uses a lot of examples from prose fiction (and also film) is 20 Master Plots by Ronald Tobias. I also like The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler: its use of archetypes for characters and its steps in a story are easily grasped. The Story Grid is an enthusiastic analysis of various story types as well as ingredients of a story informed by Shawn Coyne’s own experience as an editor at a major New York publishing house; you do have to familiarise yourself with some technical terms, but he introduces them in a practical manner. He carries out a close reading of the book of Silence of the Lambs, among other things, and he does use a lot of references to films too – but these really seem to go with the territory, and I can’t speak, as I so often use The Wizard of Oz or Star Wars when I am talking story (yes, my points of reference in film are ancient too).

I might have to read Edna’s memoir against The Story Grid – I can think of a few inciting incidents that move her book along. And setting that analysis of narrative in the context of a memoir makes me think how so much in our everyday lives can also be defined in this way. Isn’t therapy a form of story structure?

There are other useful books on story structure – these are just the ones I find myself recommending most for their ease and common sense. But do remember that advice on visual storytelling might need adapting if you’re writing a book.

If you want to write a film: write a screenplay.

And if you want to write a book: know what a book can do that other forms cannot. In your own reading, look out for those tics of style, those gnarly little paragraphs where intruding narrators hook readers in. Then go away and write some of your own.

 

Enchantments

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It’s been a while since I posted (I had to pause to remember my login). I have been busy with other things. I did make time for a couple of fantastic outings this last week.

Last night I saw Edna O’Brien in conversation. She was warm, funny, and erudite, and without a shred of pretentiousness or preciousness. It was a profound evening, and despite a large audience intimate; it was well hosted by Alex Clark, too, who simply let her subject do the talking with a few choice prompts. Part of me wished I’d taken notes about the many things Edna touched upon, but maybe I just needed to be present, listening and soaking up the magic: attentive to those moments. But I do remember her talking about love, and the need for feeling in writing. And I also remember her describing writing – and reading – as enchantment. The spell of language.

I’m ashamed to say that I have never read a book by Edna O’Brien before, but on the other hand I now have many treats in store: more magic to come. Here’s a profile from the Guardian and here’s an interview from the Paris Review. And the new book sounds great. Much to look forward to. Thanks to Alice for bringing me along.

And then on Friday I went to the British Museum to see the exhibition Celts: Art and Identity. Thanks to Jenny for bringing me along. I can’t remember when I saw an exhibition so gorgeous, so respectfully provocative, and so intelligently assembled. It cuts through many of the clichés to present a more diverse and pluralistic view. Celtic art has long been a matter of give and take, of cultural exchange and fusion. I did not realise that the fine interlacing common to much Celtic art shows influence from both Germanic and Mediterranean traditions, for example. Several of the most striking finds on show came from the Thames – I shall no longer be able to cross the river from Waterloo without thinking of the Celts who went before.

And such treasures! They took me back to a time when I thought seriously about reading archaeology at university. We got to handle the goodies in the photo above (bronze is so dense!), and there were coins and flagons and bucket handles and hefty arm-rings and chariot linch-pins: the material objects that bear witness. We ogled torc after torc in gold and silver and bronze, spoilt for choice in picking our favourites. And maybe the highlight of many highlights was stepping up for a closer look at the strange beasts lining the remarkable Gundestrup cauldron from Denmark: were those creatures elephants and unicorns?

Celts also has an excellent catalogue that I’m already reading; this one won’t be left gathering dust on the coffee table. I’m particularly intrigued by the idea of Celtic art as a ‘technology of enchantment’ – ‘able to beguile and dazzle the uninitiated viewer through its highly skilled manufacture and complexity’.

Here we are again: learning the craft, making things, weaving spells.