Analysis for Synthesis

Last night I was speaking with an accomplished writer friend who teaches in a well-known low residency MFA program. She is a close friend, and we always like to talk about our experiences in studying writing and teaching.  I attended a low residency MFA program, Warren Wilson, where half (or more than half) of our work consisted of analytical writing. I told my friend that, though there was so much of this that sometimes it took away from time for writing fiction, nothing teaches a writer about craft better than analyzing the great masters. I mentioned that I learn best by doing, by writing and getting feedback from others and “tearing apart” fiction to see how it works. She immediately agreed. Her experience was studying in traditional, residential MFA programs, and now that she is in a low residency program that asks students to submit analytical work with every packet, she really admires this exercise in analysis. My friend said that she thinks it is a good way to learn craft that one eventually applies to one’s work.

At Warren Wilson, we called the analytical exercises “annotations,” which is really just a fancy word for craft essays. We had the freedom to choose a topic on the text we had been reading and write an approximately three-page essay. This taught me how to read for craft, how to read like a writer. What things jumped out at me from a particular story or [passage in] a novel? What was this “secret code” I had to crack to understand a particular writer’s skill? It became like a game, and I grew to enjoy it very much.

Here are some of the things I learned from my annotations. (Please DO NOT plagiarize this material or use it without direct permission from the author!)

-From Flannery O’Connor, I learned how dialogue works. It can serve to advance something with the plot or indicate something about the characters’ personalities. For example, in “The Life You Save May Be Your Own,” I found that dialogue was deception. The characters were not saying what they meant, which was indicative of their dishonesty.

-Vladimir Nabokov’s The Gift uses metaphors that anthropomorphize inanimate objects; this serves the key theme of the novel, which is that writing can bring to life that which is no longer living. Therefore, your craft and metaphors can affect the structure of your novel, the craft reflects the content.

-Shakespeare’s Othello shows how the careful choice of words (a.k.a. diction) spoken by Iago eventually linguistically poisons the title character, as Othello begins to repeat his words and believe the negative lies. We can find passages of dialogue repeated word for word. This is how Iago gains control over the situation, as we can see that he physically does very little (i.e., does not commit murder, stage a coup, etc.) So, a story or piece of fiction can be quite active even with very few actions taken. Shakespeare is always known for beautiful language, as is Toni Morrison, a modern master of diction.

-A “hologram” chapter. When I had to write a long paper discussing omniscience in two works (Pride and Prejudice and Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye), I noticed that both novels had something in common: a chapter that seemed to summarize all the key themes and events that would unfold in the novel, with key characters present. This chapter laid the groundwork for the whole book, setting up a reader’s expectations. When I discovered this, I thought it a brilliant structural device and was surprised at how these two very disparate authors were doing the same thing.

-Metafiction is more than a quirky, clever literary genre. If we look at Margaret Atwood’s Hag-Seed, it is a story within a story, about a director who has suffered a situation similar to the protagonist of The Tempest is putting on the play at a prison. It is self-referential, it calls attention to itself in a very enjoyable, even comic way. However, in doing this, we better understand the masterwork by Shakespeare, what sorts of choices a director needs to make when putting all the work, what the play is really about, and (in a retelling as this) what choices the author needs to make in terms of retaining elements from the original.

Atwood’s short story “Happy Endings” is a masterpiece of metafiction. On the surface, it is incredibly funny, a “theme-and-variations” gem that shows us how a woman and a man fall in love and how their story can play out comically, tragically, or something in between. But if we look deeper, Atwood is teaching us about plot points, what happens with the same cast of characters when put in different situations and environments. How do we get from point A to point B? How do we create a plot? She asks us at the end, as readers and writers, to “Now try How and Why.” This is one of my absolute favorite stories of all time, and it accomplishes so much in a short space.

These are just a scant few of the things I learned in analyzing fiction. One thing my MFA program taught me was how to be a better reader, and this helps with my own work as well as when I read the work of others. I can’t emphasize enough how critical this is for any writer, this process of deeply investigating how a well-established author is crafting their work. Give it a try, even if it seems daunting, and you might find that you have learned way more than you expected.

A Necessary Dose of Magic in Our Lives?

I am rereading 100 Years of Solitude by the phenomenal Gabriel García Márquez, and what strikes me from a craft point of view is the delicious “intrusions,” for lack of a better word, of an element of fantasy or magic. Dubbed “magical realism” by the literary establishment decades ago, Marquez’s style (along with that of other well-known Latin American writers) seems like realistic prose at first, but then there are superhuman or unnatural elements introduced. I don’t need to elaborate here, for readers are certainly familiar with García Márquez’s works (Love in the Time of Cholera is another marvelous novel.) But this has led me to think about literature and art that takes us out of the ordinary realm–something that feels necessary when so much modern fiction is based in reality and personal experience. Have we lost our ability to think, to imagine, to go beyond the ordinary?

Outside of genre fiction and fantasy fiction, which are indeed thriving, we do have some noteworthy authors who do not write strictly realistic fiction: Salman Rushdie and Margaret Atwood immediately come to mind. I feel we need to encourage writers to do more of this, to create worlds, go beyond the pedagogical cliché of “write what you know.” Perhaps that tenant has done more disservice to fiction writing, and would be best rephrased as, “write what you understand.” There is a significant difference: knowing implies a familiarity with a situation, a body of knowledge, a certain mastery of the topic. Understand implies an innate knowing, what one grasps, and one may have acquired that knowledge in different ways or simply through intuition.

In music, think about the phenomena of glam rock as well as 80s new wave bands, who were the former’s successors. In both genres, there is an exaggeration of appearance, of form, of fashion. Though he was later the Thin White Duke, David Bowie’s 1970s Ziggy Stardust was a unique creation, an alien alter ego who was not clad in Doc Martens and jeans. Even Led Zeppelin, who were certainly much more real and not glam rockers, brought an element of the mystical and poetic to their performance–after all, they sang about Viking raids as though they were a common occurrence. We see this continue today, with artists like Janelle Monáe or Lady Gaga (whom I feel is derivative and unoriginal and does best when interpreting others’ works, such as in her excellent performance in “A Star Is Born.”) A lot of ambient music and electronica has an ethereal or unearthly quality to it. Some of it is easier and more enjoyable to listen to than others. We cannot conclude without mentioning Icelandic visionary Björk, who is a mistress of reinvention and truly beyond the ordinary. Each incarnation she becomes is more revolutionary than the last, and we never know what will come next. Her music is almost impossible to categorize, and that is wonderful.

Painter Salvador Dali challenged us with his revolutionary surreal artwork. Why should there be an eyeball in a random place? Who cares; it is what it is, perhaps what our subconscious understands. Francis Bacon’s grotesqueries are certainly unique and far from ordinary: distorted faces and gaping mouths. David Hockney might be painting ordinary scenes of men and swimming pools or fields with flowers, but his use of color takes us out of reality into a vivid, multi-hued world. In the world of fashion, we have the bizarre brilliance of the late Alexander McQueen, who clothes were really more like costumes rather than typical runway or off the rack wear. Issey Miyake also creates works of art with fabric that just happen to be things one can wear on one’s body.

To be able to imagine and create in fantastical ways brings us back in touch with a part of ourselves that we had so strongly in childhood. Why be prosaic all the time, realistic, ordinary? These artists and more have challenged us to see and feel in a different way and have all created an aesthetic of their own. The best artists always do this, and that’s why we love them so dearly.

The 2018 Hay on Wye Lit Fest Part II

Here are some notes on the speakers I heard (due to illness, unfortunately I was not able to attend all the events for which I had registered). I took actual written notes on the two fiction authors; hence, my discussion of them is much longer.

Ian McEwan: One of my favorite modern writers, he addressed the question of how he would write a political novel. He said, were he to write a Brexit novel, he would inhabit the mind of a character – likely a pro-Brexit character, and take a sympathetic position to him/her. He said that inhabiting the mind of a character was imperative, else the novel would sound like a big polemic on the part of the author. This was extremely interesting to me, and has made me think about how to do such a thing in the future. One excellent example is 1984: if we think about it, we come to understand the oppression of society by Oceania only through Winston Smith’s experience of it. McEwan emphasized that we mustn’t treat novels as sociology: they are about particular people.

When asked about screenwriting the recently released “On Chesil Beach” he noted that the screenplay gave him a chance to add scenes that were not in the novel. McEwan also had high praise for the young actress Saoirse Ronan, saying that he sees her now in his characters she has portrayed when he rereads his novels. One very interesting point he made was about the form of the novella, and that novellas are perfect for adaptation. In McEwan’s opinion, Joyce’s The Dead is the most perfect novella ever written, and that it should have not been placed in Dubliners with the other stories. He praised John Houston’s film for being a perfect adaptation of the novella.

About five years back, The Guardian featured an article about McEwan losing his faith in fiction. When asked about this, about what he does when he feels jaded about literary fiction, McEwan said he goes back to an Updike novella with a line that reads something like “cognac…a knight’s move of consciousness” and this detail always inspires him. (I believe the original quote comes from Nabokov.) He also draws on Shakespeare, from whom he finds some phrase or nugget (“fondle the details”) that inspires him. McEwan said to always turn up at your desk, no matter what you feel. It is important for writers to feel a “determined stupor.”

Margaret Atwood: What a thrill to see the grande dame of letters talking on her seminal work, The Handmaid’s Tale! As always (from what I have seen in interviews), Ms. Atwood was elegantly eloquent and calm, good-humored, and tremendously intelligent and complex in her thinking. The lecture was begun by women who entered dressed as handmaidens in the red cloaks and white habits! She noted that The Handmaid’s Tale was written in conversation with 1984 (as that was the year she was writing her novel), and also with The Diary of Anne Frank and other survivor literature. She also mentioned that the novel was written around the time of the totalitarian regime in Iran, before the Shah was overthrown, the bombing of Afghanistan, as well as the beginning of the AIDS era. Everything has a historical referent in the novel, and she noted that the idea that we never know who’s on our side had cultural relevance. A film was made a few years later, and was launched at the fall of the Berlin Wall. East Berliners read the film politically, whereas West Berliners read it artistically. Not being allowed to read is a historical motif, she said, as there were 19th century discussions on how much education women should have, and also remember the fact that it was illegal to teach slaves how to read. The distortion of Biblical texts is a big part of the totalitarian control of reading. Various regimes and groups all misquote the Bible, Marx, Freud, etc. The novel also has origins in the ethos of the Puritans, who espoused a very rigid worldview and behaved oppressively toward others who did not fit their rules.

Atwood did not spend much time on discussing the techniques in writing the novel, but frankly, I was more interested in the discussion of the politics in the novel relevant to our current times. She did mention that the voice and tone are very strong in the novel, as the voice is so intrinsic to the idea of the plot. Writing and removing passages is what creates voice, according to Atwood. Her use of color-coding dates back to Medieval/Renaissance aesthetics, as the Virgin Mary is depicted in blue (which was an expensive color, given the dyes), and Mary Magdalene is red. She discussed the use of naming of the characters, such as Offred, and how she put Of- with various men’s names. Atwood joked that “Ofkeith” did not sound right! The novel’s heroine’s name also suggests “offered.”

The other major topic of discussion was about the new television series of “The Handmaid’s Tale.” I have not seen this, but have heard that it is done quite well. The interviewer asked Ms. Atwood her opinions and feelings about the way in which the television series diverges from the novel. Atwood first mentioned the film made from her novel in 1990, and how she had very little control over that, its release, and the various distribution issues. With this new television series, Atwood has had some input, but she was surprisingly relaxed about the fact that it is out of her control. She simply said that if you have an interpretation of a book that fits, and you can justify it, then it is valid. The end of the “The Handmaid’s Tale” series is not definite, hence why the series is continuing for a second season. Dickens wrote in serial form to keep readers reading, and used cliffhangers! So she understands why the TV series is structured differently than her novel.

Atwood also mentioned that the novel 1984 ends on a positive note: the ending section is written in the past tense to show that Newspeak is over. Thus Gilead ends at the end of The Handmaid’s Tale.

Atwood comes across as extremely well versed in international politics and socio-cultural phenomenon. This talk was extremely inspiring to me, as I have always been interested in the intersection of politics and literature (Salman Rushdie has discussed and of course written much about this). She is not only an important literary figure, in my opinion, but also a cultural figure who always has her finger on the zeitgeist or pulse of current issues.

Simon Schama: It is hard to know what to write on the brilliant history professor (and fellow Columbian!) Simon Schama. He seemed to take the ball and run with it when delivering the Founders Lecture, expounding on many different topics, all under the general theme of how art is what connects us as human beings, and promotes empathy. He cited the example of a well-known woman art historian (whose name escapes me) who encouraged Jewish children at the time of the Holocaust to make art. She then saved many of their paintings and drawings after the children were put to death, and the children’s legacy is something that leaves us hope that art is truly a force for good. Professor Schama also discussed various time periods and cultures throughout history and their creation of art. Schama is a famously animated lecture (an enjoyable contrast with classic British reserve) but also comes across as warm and generous, as when a young woman in the audience who mentioned that she will be attending Columbia University in the fall, she was met with great encouragement by the professor. Schama’s knowledge is simply encyclopedic, and we are very lucky to have such a man of letters.

Martin Griffiths: This Welsh astronomer who has worked for NASA but now spends time with his research and projects in Wales was truly a delight to listen to, not the least for his Welsh accent! Griffiths talked about the overlap between astronomy and Welsh mythology, about the constellations and myths. As someone in the audience pointed out later in the Q & A, it is rare that an astronomer will discuss mythology, combine science and the arts. I found it especially fascinating to learn about Welsh mythology, as it is not something that we have so much exposure to in the US. I also realized how in our modern world we have such a dearth of mythological thinking as part of our daily lives. Growing up as a Hindu, I really enjoyed (and still enjoy) mythology, as it link humans to something much larger, to universal themes and to Gods with extraordinary forces.

Griffiths is currently involved in anti-light pollution work, with Dark Sky Wales, and is a very active lecturer.

 

 

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.