When I work on writing something longer than a blog entry, I like to read what other writers say about writing. One of my favorite sources of inspiration comes from Aspects of the Novel, by E. M. Forster. I'm not a novelist, and yet his insights are penetrating and repeatedly call me to better writing, to more honesty, to depth and complexity even while putting the words down one at a time.
I love, for instance, how Forster reveals the power of the written word in creating intimacy:
In daily life we never understand each other, neither clairvoyance nor complete confessional exists. (My note: I think letter writing gets close and may be a lost art in self-disclosure.) We know each other approximately, by external signs, and these serve well enough as a basis for society and even for intimacy. But people in a novel can be understood completely by the reader, if the novelist wishes; their inner as well as their outer life can be exposed. And this is why they often seem more definite than characters in history, or even our own friends; we have been told all about them that can be told; even if they are imperfect or unreal they do not contain any secrets, whereas our friends do and must, mutual secrecy being one of the conditions of life upon this globe.See what I mean? So insightful...
So as I get ready to write, I like to remind myself of what other writers have discovered on that bumpy path themselves.
Eudora Welty, a notorious southern writer (what is in their water? I swear, the South produces writing gods!) is best known for her short stories like "Why I Live at the P.O." and "A Worn Path." My favorite of hers is "No Place for You, My Love" (a less frequently taught story) which takes a pair of northerners who don't know each other and thrusts them into the hot, disorienting, sultry air and space south of New Orleans, where they share a series of secret moments that brings them to life, even if only temporarily.
Welty is an artist, each word chosen for its exact right placement. There are no misplaced words, no accidental phrases. I remember reading an interview with her in Vanity Fair years ago where she explained that she would type her stories up on her old keyboard, then put the pages on a bulletin board. With scissors, she'd snip individual words and move them to the new "right" place using push pins. Sometimes the last line moved to the front of the piece and the opening words would take cover at the end, for that final surprise.
She writes in On Writing,
Great fiction, we very much fear, abounds in what makes for confusion; it generates it, being on a scale which copies life, which it confronts. It is very seldom neat, is given to sprawling and escaping from bounds, is capable of contradicting itself, and is not impervious to humor. There is absolutely everything in great fiction but a clear answer. Humanity itself seems to matter more to the novelist than what humanity thinks it can prove....My writing takes me to the trepidatious (yes, new word) border land of my own family: giving them voice, actions, habits and attitudes according to my flawed perceptions, murky memories, shames and joys.
The first act of insight is to throw away the labels. In fiction, while we do not necessarily write about ourselves, we write out of ourselves, using ourselves; what we learn from, what we are sensitive to, what we feel strongly about—these become our characters, and go to make our plots. Characters in fiction are conceived from within, and they have, accordingly, their own interior life; they are individuals every time. The character we care about in a novel we may not approve of or agree with—that's beside the point. But he has got to seem alive. Then and only then, when we read, we experience or surmise things about life itself that are deeper and more lasting and less destructive to understanding than approval or disapproval.
It helps me to remember that even while I write about real people, they are also characters within the scope of my narrative. I'll let you know how it all goes! Monday: library, four hours without Internet. And so it begins....