What I’ve Learned: Literary Musings

Dear Readers,
2017 has been exponentially (or is it logarithmically? Whichever is bigger!) busier since beginning the MFA program in creative writing at Warren Wilson. One of the greatest joys are the letters to our supervisors, in which we can expound on what we’ve read in a less formal way than our essays, much like I am used to doing here. Here are some highlights, based on what I’ve read. Thanks for reading!

-I feel that each piece of writing has a certain “secret code” to it, like a puzzle to be discovered, and once you understand it, the whole logic of the book becomes clear. I think that is what this MFA program is teaching us, to really look at great works of writing analytically and critically to see what is going on in terms of the craft. To look at all the seams and see how it is made. And of course, the best books are going to appear very seamless on the surface.
-Margaret Atwood’s Hag-Seed was absolutely brilliant, and I enjoyed every second of reading it. She is a genius, and she makes it seem so effortless. The novel is so complex, and yet we do not see the seams. It makes me really think about what angle to take about retelling classic works.
-Nabokov’s The Gift – what can I say? I picked up the book, read the first three pages, and then put it down because I was so awed by his writing, and thought “@#$%, why bother, I’ll never write again!” The man was a genius. Why he didn’t win a Nobel Prize is beyond me. Nabokov is a master prose stylist; just his use of language is stunning. That is what to read him for.
-I thought back on how in the 10th grade, we read Native Son [by Richard Wright] and how it blew me away with how powerful it was, how complex the emotions were, and how there were no easy answers as to who was “good” or “bad.” And then suddenly it hit me – that novel is a great example of how to write emotional dilemmas. I quickly started making notes about what I remembered from the novel and how Wright did this.
-[Upon reading Breakfast at Tiffany’s] Capote is a wonderful writer, I’m guessing a lot of those writers from that era in New York are really excellent craftsmen and women, not to mention intelligent and literary. My mother said that in the 60s he used to be on talk shows. Wow! Who do we have on talk shows nowadays, Kardashians?!
-[Upon reading Nutshell by Ian McEwan] What a gifted writer! Just the level of detail and intelligence and polish is amazing. I had the same reaction as I did with the Nabokov — I put the book down for a moment and just thought, “Oh God, screw it, why do I write?!” What I learned in reading Nutshell was that in retellings, you have to pick and choose. You don’t have to be so literal, and transpose everything from the original work into modern times. A retelling can be something that captures the gist of the original, or uses just a few elements from the original, or adapt certain things from the original to make it modern.
-Retellings [of classics] are all about choices you make as a writer, much as a director would with a script. What do you show and what do you leave out? What do you change? What do you add? How is it relevant for today’s readers? All very fascinating stuff.
-[Upon reading James Baldwin] There is no one else like him. It struck me, halfway through Going to Meet the Man, that Baldwin accomplishes the most important goal of a writer: to be thought-provoking. A man of letters, culturally significant, not just a literary writer. I admire him. That said, I don’t always like him. I find that there was a sense of bitterness running throughout. I think I admire the writers most who really get you to think, who aren’t just rehashing something or just telling a ho-hum story about something ordinary. George Orwell, Dave Eggers, Margaret Atwood — these are just a few people who come to mind. They leave a lasting impression on you. They are powerful. This is the sign of a great writer.
Bright Lights, Big City [by Jay McInerney] is an absolutely brilliant novel! So well written. Clean prose, nothing unnecessary, it tells the story so clearly and each word matters. Very entertaining, despite its flaws. I think for me the biggest letdown was the ending – I kept expecting for something major to happen to the protagonist. McInerney gives us these little climaxes here and there; he fails to give us one big boom at the end. And that really taught me something – you have to have a great ending. It’s interesting how Bright Lights is the story of a downfall. Downfall makes for a very effective theme in literature, a very strong theme; we see it in King Lear and so many other works.

The Role of the Writer

In titling the post as such, I am not talking about the writer’s responsibility to society, et cetera, as I have done before.  Rather, I’m talking about the character of the writer in various works of fiction and media.  It might be someone like Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby, Paul Varjak in the film Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Harriet in the children’s classic Harriet the Spy, W. Somerset Maugham himself in The Razor’s Edge, and even Charles Ryder in Brideshead Revisited, who is a painter, but like the other writers, a cool observer of a class other than his own. Purists might scoff at the mention of another fictional writer in the recent past on a globally popular TV series, Sex and the City, but the role of Carrie Bradshaw is completely in the same vein.

This writer figure is usually classless or middle-class, inevitably neutral, unassuming, a friend to everyone and yet somewhat cynical about human nature, and a boundary-crosser who mixes with many different people who are not of his or her kind.  The neutrality of the writer lends him or her much credibility, for the reader is willing to trust in this figure who has introduced the audience into a particular or private world.  The writer belongs everywhere, and yet nowhere.  S/he is invited to all the dazzling parties and events and often enjoys being there, while regarding the others with a degree of amusement, cynicism, or even contempt:  Nick Carraway is stunned by the lavishness of Gatsby’s fetes, but is horrified by the shallowness all the same. S/he is rather a non-entity, the sponge to absorb the follies and actions of the more strong characters. Paul Varjak observes the New York social scene while silently in love with the social-climbing Holly Golightly. Charles in Brideshead Revisited is surrounded by the staunch Catholic Marchmain clan and his fallen Catholic best friend, Sebastian Marchmain, and it is precisely his in-between position that causes such tension and draws the reader into the story. Some might even call the writer figure dull.  This may well be the case, but one must remember the author’s intentions of using the writer as the device for showcasing the more savory characters.

The writer character has more emotional depth, and wants to process things more deeply than the other characters in the story.  S/he must inevitably belong to the social circles about which s/he writes.  But what is seen at face value is not enough—-there has to be greater meaning within.  Carrie Bradshaw has to go home to her computer, if not a warm bed with a handsome man in it, to crank out her observations and homespun wisdom about the Battle of the Sexes.  Given that writing = reflection and depth, it is not surprising that a number of religious works are “told” to the audience or reader by a particular storyteller or narrator.  It is not enough for us to hear or read holy words; rather, they need to be handed down to us by someone more knowledgeable.

As long as human beings live on this planet, we must have fiction.  We need writers.  Our existence as human beings requires them, as much as we need to eat, sleep, breathe.  We need people who observe and then tell us the truth.  We need people who are willing to be in society, and yet able to observe it from without.  We need someone to put into words that which we see, hear, think, and feel.  Because nothing holds as much power over us as a story.