Water Ways

On Saturday a lovely group of writers came along to Water Ways, the newest of the Four Elements workshops that I’m running as a series with Kellie Jackson of Words Away.

Among the Four Elements, Water is identified with feeling, and as the workshop approached I realised the field of emotions presents a pretty HUGE and amorphous subject as a topic within writing. Given my ambition slash weakness of needing to be comprehensive, how would we cover it ALL?!

So we approached the subject of emotion through a few specific lenses. We started by discussing memory and symbolism as ways to activate, contain or convey feeling in writing. Inspired by Lynda Barry, we also gave ourselves watery names for the day – with my teacher hat on, I became Professor Newt.

We then looked at methods of crafting narrative tone, paying special attention to perspective and sentence structure and examining the emotional shifts within a particular scene in Brokeback Mountain. A good scene will contain CHANGE, especially in the feelings of characters – and readers. We also looked for Proulx’s use of water imagery.

And I forgot to ask: where in the story do Ennis and Jack say ‘I love you?’ What does that say?

Thinking about tone in relation to pitch, it also occurs to me now that we use the word pitch to describe that brief description we use to sell books. Which makes me think how a good sales pitch really goes to the heart of a book, and ideally grows out of the narrative tone and voice and style of telling the story.

We ended the day looking at the emotion created within the intimate space of a letter with reference to works by Ocean Vuong and Tove Jansson. And then we wrote thank you letters of our own.

I wish we’d discussed the idea of the unconscious a bit more. But it was certainly present; we talked plenty about Ocean Vuong, and only now do I realise: the clue is in his name! OCEAN = WATER, right?! There: the unconscious in beautiful action.

A highlight of the day was our brilliant guest tutor and resident wavemaker: author and illustrator Sally Kindberg. I am really keen in this series of workshops to experiment with practices and viewpoints from creative fields that rely less heavily on verbal forms, because words are so often the problem with writing – words can get in our way, just as writers often need to get out of their own way too, and it often makes sense to develop writing without actually doing any writing. So on Saturday we drew.

At the start of the day, instead of a meditation we did a contemplative drawing exercise using our hands and lines. And then in her drawing workshop Sally got us to make some (hilarious!) self-portraits, and, using her magic top hat, guided us through the creation of characters that we took on adventures in four-frame comic strips. Clouds became potatoes, and much mirth was had. Under my student pen name of Simon Seahorse, I was very pleased to learn how to draw wings in flight.

Comic strips also prompted a brief discussion about yonkoma manga and kishōtenketsu, and we bonded in questioning the necessity of conflict as the central drive in writing (an idea that many of us are fed up with – more on that anon).

Sally inspired me so much I spent the following afternoon watching the wild and brilliant Studio Ghibli classic Porco Rosso and then playing drawing games with a friend who’d come to visit. Thanks, Sally! I finally got to art school.

And thanks again to Sally for bringing drawing into our class so purposefully, and to everyone who came for joining in so fully.

Our next Four Elements workshop is Earth Works, where our guest earthshaker will be dancer and Physical Intelligence expert Claire Dale. It’s held on 21 March, which is the spring equinox; I promise we shall be marking the wRites of Spring in appropriate style!

 

 

Only Connect: Writing Experiment No. 74

1.

I saw Bhanu Kapil reading at the LRB Bookshop on Friday. An intense but joyful event – tales of migrants, tales of violence, tales of family, rites of mud and glitter. Also: birthday cake on the summer solstice: that magical.

Bhanu posed a question – two questions – directly, simply in her writing:

What did you inherit?

What did you reproduce?

Inheritance and reproduction: energies to seek out in our writing.

2.

I am reading Ocean Vuong’s debut novel On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous. And O! It really is gorgeous. I also recently read the profile Ocean Vuong’s Life Sentences in the New Yorker, and noted the following description of his style:

The structural hallmarks of Vuong’s poetry—his skill with elision, juxtaposition, and sequencing—shape the novel, too, and they work on overlapping scales: passages are organized by recurring phrases, as are the chapters, which build momentum as a poetry collection does, line by line. Most of the novel centers on Little Dog’s childhood and adolescence, but Vuong roams in non-chronological circles through a wide field of intensified memory. The narrative occasionally extends backward, to visions of Little Dog’s mother and grandmother in Vietnam, before he was born, and it briefly reaches forward, in a few passages that signal that Little Dog has become a writer.

(Update 25 June 2019) I’ve since completed the novel. It really is gorgeous, and brilliant, and in so many ways. I’ve also since read a couple of reviews – one of which comments on how in the book ‘a lot of information … comes to the reader in a jumble, out of sequence, as remembrances after the fact’.

Now: this response suggests that this book might not be for every reader, particularly those who want their stories laid out clearly in the manner of representative realism.

But: for me these very dislocations and refusals are part of the book’s design – they are its essence. I think some things in this book – scenes, images, statements, fragments – operate outside of the usual conventions of rendering time and space, lacking obvious consequence.

And that’s fine by me. In fact, that’s more than fine. This is a novel that among other things is about the Vietnam war, immigrant experience, gay lives, and the limits of the body. It’s inevitable that such things leak out, resist definition.

Some writers might consider this in their own work with caution, perhaps. This is after all a novel written by a poet and some of its forms and gestures will feel more familiar to readers who’re comfortable with some of the conventions of experimental poetry. But I strongly feel there are matters here that any writer can consider: character, voice, story, and what happens when things refuse to be pinned down. This should have an appeal to any reader or writer who lets themselves be: open.

Ocean Vuong talks more about some of these matters in a podcast with Barnes and Noble. I quote one selection:

Desire plus powerlessness is momentous feeling. I wanted the characters to move a little and feel a lot … The [fiction textbook] is all about plot: what’s the plot, and secondly: what’s the conflict? That’s also the formula: you need a plot to move through, and you need conflict.

And I was very suspicious of that. Perhaps because I’m a poet, in many senses we are plotless. And I thought: I don’t know if that’s how I feel as an American, as a person. I wonder if I live in a linear plot? To me it feels much more like proximity. The way we sit beside our loved ones. The way we move through the world, meaning tension and drama happen simply by proximity. The way chemistry works, you have oxygen and hydrogen: fine on their own. Put them side by side and all of a sudden: water. That was how I thought of the structure of the novel. It was blind faith. It was not the go-to form.

But I wanted something more faithful to what it meant to live as an American, in which we move from space to space, and meaning, drama and the substance of our lives happens because we are side by side each other, not because we are in a linear plot device.

3.

I relate these ideas to my recent blog post on alternatives to conflict in plotting.

Whether you are writing something that’s non-chronological or something that’s more linear, have a go at this writing experiment:

* Take some index cards and some Post-it notes. (You could use Scrivener or some mind-mapping software, if you prefer, but I really do think there is a great value in physical interaction.)

* Use the index cards to write down the chapters and/or scenes of your book, identifying the key CHANGE that happens within that chapter or scene. What takes the story forward?

* Then lay the cards out on a table or desk. (Or if you have lots of cards or not enough desk space, do a few at a time, perhaps moving through a stack of cards you keep at your right then gradually stack to the left as you work through them.)

* Next, using the Post-its, identify the CONNECTING ENERGY that fills the space between each of the index cards, and how that energy is achieved. It might be an overt matter of cause and effect: what happens in one chapter might lead to the events of the next. Or it could be more subtle, or the jolt that comes from a twist, or an abrupt shift of setting or point of view that delivers some reward through juxtaposition, or the question that’s raised at such a point (it might be as simple as: why are we now here?). Consider, for example, the energy arising from:

  • twists
  • information gaps
  • surprises
  • unexpected changes
  • reversals of fortune
  • turns
  • recurrences
  • variations
  • juxtapositions
  • elisions
  • chronology
  • jump cuts
  • flashbacks
  • flashforwards
  • overlaps
  • frames
  • contrasts
  • dislocations
  • mosaics
  • fragments sitting beside each other
  • alignments
  • questions
  • inheritances
  • reproductions
  • expanding horizons
  • contractions in focus
  • refusals
  • leakages
  • reactions by characters
  • cause and effect

That last one – cause and effect – strikes me as an important one overall.

For these points, think about: spikes of energy; connections; questions that prick our curiosity. How are these scenes/chapters and connections SEQUENCED? How might a CONTRAST create a forward propulsion? I am also thinking how both Ocean Vuong and Bhanu Kapil are writing narratives of migration that are made up of smaller pieces, even fragments: how do your own stories possess a quality of MOVEMENT that arises from the whole being greater than the sum of the parts?

Do this for both scenes as well as chapters eventually. It’s useful to consider both the connections between bigger units of narrative, and also those closer up, scene by scene.

Once you have finished this exercise, you might want to spread out all the Post-its in order, and see what you have: what patterns emerge? You might want to tabulate the connections and energies you find into a list. Are there gaps that could be made into something more interesting, or could the very fact of their gappy nature be heightened and made into a feature of the work? Are there points where the writing feels a bit too chronological (ploddy): might it increase the energy to introduce a gap or a disruption between two chapters or sections? How can the larger work gather MOMENTUM? Consider the types of connections listed above, and others of your own reckoning. See what you can find.

What’s the mud and glitter that holds together your work?

If you want to take this exercise further: use your index cards and Post-its to compose an outline in narrative form of a next draft.