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.
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 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 feel very much part of the book’s design. 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 things leak out, resist definition.
Consider this in your own writing 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 think there are matters here that any writer can consider: character, voice, story, and what happens when things refuse to be pinned down.
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.
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:
- information gaps
- unexpected changes
- reversals of fortune
- jump cuts
- fragments sitting beside each other
- expanding horizons
- contractions in focus
- 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.