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.

Black Artists Matter

In a sense, it seems foolish to single out black artists, solely for the reason that a great artist is a great artist, no matter what her/his/their race is. However, given the recent tragic, violent events (that are still continuing), it is fitting to pay tribute to them. I think everyone in the arts has to have a personal canon, an individual pantheon of greats, follow a particular “lineage” (that will be the subject of a post in the future). Here’s a list of some of my favorite artists/works of art that made an impression on me, by artists who just happen to be black.

The characters on “Sesame Street.” Who didn’t have feel-good vibes from Gordon and Susan? (And then, as a corollary, Morgan Freeman as Easy Reader on “The Electric Company?”) This is so crucial, as from a young age, if we expose children to diversity, it becomes something very ordinary. Children don’t discriminate in the way adults do. A child will look with loving eyes at a black character simply because they feel love for that character, because that character puts them at ease. Sesame Street was groundbreaking in the way it featured a diverse cast, yet it was not something we children were conscious of. Gordon was Gordon, Mr. Hooper was Mr. Hooper, Maria was Maria. Decades later, it was an incredible thrill to see “Maria” on the street or on the bus when I lived in New York City!

“The Cosby Show.” Before we knew what a disgusting, perverse, frightening monster Bill Cosby was, there was his fabulous, entertaining, family-friendly show that we adored as kids and teens. My generation grew up with Bill Cosby, seeing him on commercials, hearing his voice on “Fat Albert,” watching him with the goofily-named marker Ichabod Mortimer on “Picture Pages” on the children’s show “Captain Kangaroo,” movies, TV shows, and then his own eponymous show. His gift for comic timing, clean humor, onomatopoeic gags, and physical comedy were nothing short of genius. The revelation that he was a drugging rapist feels, to many of us, like we were personally violated and betrayed. We grew up with The Cos, he was our dad, America’s Dad.

Reading Lena Horne’s autobiography in the seventh grade left quite an impression on me. It was quite long, and I was fascinated by her challenges and how she overcame them. She was also incredibly beautiful and talented.

Richard Wright’s Native Son. The sheer power of the novel, when I read it in the 10th grade, was beyond belief. It is a disturbing novel, and not without controversy (James Baldwin famously disliked it). As a writer, I strive for emotional complexity and like writing about emotional dilemmas. This book is rife with them, for there is no clear-cut good or bad. James Baldwin I only came to very late, but he is a stunning prose stylist and one of America’s top intellectuals.

Reading Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon for my AP English class was mind-blowing. It was not merely a book; it was literature. It was the first time I understood what literature was, something beyond two covers, something that was complex, full of symbols, unique prose, and transcendent.

John Coltrane. Hearing “Giant Steps” for the first time my sophomore year in college in a jazz theory class was nothing short of a revelation. We had been given the score, but the pace at which the saxophone line moved was like lightning and nearly impossible to follow. How did anyone have the genius to do that? How could anyone create those rapid chord changes and put a melody on top of it that still made sense, musically? When ‘Trane plays the sax, it sings. That is the ultimate compliment to give any instrumental musician. Coltrane also went on a spiritual journey through his life, one that was continued by his widow, Alice, a gifted musician in her own right. We lost him too soon. Thankfully, generations can enjoy his genius on recordings. As a lifelong jazz fan, there are too many favorites for me to name, but let it suffice to say that jazz is America’s contribution to the world, thanks to all the brilliant black musicians who have created an art form that has been inclusive and inspiring to non-black musicians of all genres.

Oprah. What can we say that hasn’t been said already? Oprah doesn’t do junk. Anything she puts in front of us is uplifting, of good quality. Consider her own journey–from unwed teenage mother to news reporter to talk show host, media mogul, America’s Mother Confessor to whom even the most difficult people will open up, and spiritual seeker who encourages everyone to look deep within, examine their issues, and operate from a place of healthiness and joy. There is no one in the world like her. And of course, we have to give a shout out to her longtime partner, Stedman Graham, who must be the most emotionally secure male on the planet!

The great opera singers. Highest admiration for my last voice teacher, legendary tenor George Shirley, who won the National Medal of the Arts from Obama a few years ago. Truly a great artist, and (literally everyone will affirm) a great human being. And of course, the other legends like Leontyne Price, Jessye Norman, Kathleen Battle, Denyce Graves, and even current stars like Lawrence Brownlee and Nicole Cabell (who is part black, white, and Korean and a truly beautiful person inside and out.) Black singers have made a huge contribution to the world of opera, no one can deny that.

Aretha Franklin. That voice from the pit of her soul–anytime I listen to “Respect,” I get goosebumps. I was fortunate to see Aretha perform in Detroit a few years before she died. She could’ve made a living as a piano player just as well. A voice like that was nothing short of a divine gift.

James Brown. I was also fortunate to see him perform shortly before he died, and as I watched him dance, I realized he had been given a gift of rhythm. This is not to discount his fierce work ethic (something that often frustrated his band), but even with all the hard work in the world, an artist of that caliber was clearly gifted with something.

Arthur Ashe. Not quite an artist, but an icon in the world of tennis. Tennis is one of the few sports I have followed since I was very little, and though I was probably too young to really understand much of what was going on, I remember Ashe being quite the star and a calm, well-spoken man who had to overcome many barriers. He died much too young from AIDS due to a blood transfusion. Watch any interview with him and it will move you to tears–it is heartbreaking to think of his early loss.

These are my canon of my favorite artists who are black; who are yours?

In Memoriam: Toni Morrison

This morning’s news broke my heart: the great Toni Morrison is dead. I found tears coming to my eyes when I understood that no more great works could come from this titan of world literature. I have only read two novels by Ms. Morrison, and I have seen and read some of her interviews, watched part of a documentary on her. But her impact and influence has been significant upon my literary development.

My senior year in high school, Morrison’s Song of Solomon was part of our AP English curriculum. I had begun working on a novel, been reading more sophisticated novels, and thinking seriously that down the line, I would be an English professor. Song of Solomon was indeed quite a hefty, challenging novel, and I sat with my pink highlighter in hand, trying to mark the important passages. And after reading chapter after chapter, something finally hit me: Morrison used recurring symbols and motifs. And in my late teenager’s mind, that’s how I realized what real literature was – it had symbols! There was something about Morrison’s language and imagery that was built into the structure of the novel in a deeper way than anything else I had read. It made a profound impression on me, and I would indeed say that book was what really taught me what Literature with a capital L was.

Flash forward years later to 2018. I am in my MFA program at Warren Wilson, in my third semester, and we are required to write a long analytical essay of 30-45 pages. I want to study omniscience, and I am adamant that I use Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice as my key text. My advisor concurs, but also insists that I add a second novel in which I will study omniscience. He suggests Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye and refines my topic to looking at how omniscience moves in scene and zooms in and out. I agree to that, as I feel I need to become more familiar with Morrison’s work, and knowing that she is truly one of the greats of modern literature. I’m also happy to have a second female author whose work I will analyze, especially a minority woman writer. Part of the challenge of writing my essay is that I have to select the passages I analyze myself.

Morrison’s novel is not entirely written in omniscience; in fact the omniscient passages are limited. Once I do hone in on the two chapters of each novel I will analyze and compare, I noticed that there is a parallel between the novels. In each novel, there is a “groundwork” or “hologram” chapter in which the themes and ideas of the whole novel are encapsulated in one chapter. This is usually fairly early on in the novel. I do indeed study how Morrison uses omniscience, and what also strikes me significantly is Morrison’s use of diction. Her word choices really do a lot to create the setting, work with the themes of the novel, and add a layer of complexity to her fiction. For example, the way she describes the Breedloves’ neighborhood and house is very detached and apathetic, the family dynamic is very detached as well. This is crucial, because this sets up the contrast to what will happen to young Pecola Breedlove in the novel, and how her community by and large ignores this tragedy. In one of the obituary articles I read this morning, Morrison noted that one of her goals in writing was to bring attention to one of the most vulnerable members of society: a young black female. This is exactly what she does in The Bluest Eye.

I recently returned from a Warren Wilson alumni conference where I taught a class on diction. Naturally, I used a few passages from The Bluest Eye. Morrison is really a master of language and diction, and anyone who is interested in this topic should read her work critically.

I recall that once in an interview several years ago, someone asked her about the canon, given that she herself is African-American and the canon has largely been white male and needs to be diversified and more reflective of American society. Her answer was simple–“add to it.” Morrison read all the greats of the old canon as a child. I think this is something all minority writers need to do, even if they choose to diverge from it or even bash it. Nobel laureate poet Derek Walcott (whom I got to see at a very small talk at the University of California San Diego several years ago) also was very well-versed in the canon, though he is considered a key representative of Caribbean writing.

The literary community has indeed suffered a devastating loss, but I suppose Morrison would want us to move forward while also understanding American history, specifically, Black history. She has left us a lot of good ways to do this through her writing.

 

What Makes for Good Writing (Part I?)

This post may have to be written in installments, as there are so many things to discuss about the subject. And of course, tastes will vary greatly — anyone in the arts knows that tastes are quite subjective. That said, if we look at certain elements of technique and craft, I think there are some constants or things that everybody would agree upon. Let us have a look.

-The prose. The use of language that makes us see things in a different way, or a more specific or creative way. Toni Morrison is a master of this: she phrases things uniquely, but her prose is always accessible and readable. Salman Rushdie creates his own lexicon and own language in his novels, a very florid, convoluted style to be sure, but he has such fun playing with the language that we cannot help but enjoy the ride. And then there are the Zen like, minimalist writers like Cormac McCarthy or Raymond Carver, who are able to create full pictures with a minimum of words. And let us not forget the inimitable Oscar Wilde
– the unparalleled wit masks a lot of wisdom!

-Metaphor. Consider Nabokov’s stunning line in The Gift, in describing a street where the protagonist lives, “… It rose at a barely perceptible angle, beginning with a post office and ending with a church, like an epistolary novel.” Upon reading the sentence, I put the book down and shut it, simply blown away by the brilliance of the metaphor, sitting in stunned silence for a few moments. Toni Morrison’s work is rife with metaphor, as we can see many times in The Bluest Eye. Symbolism, metaphor, allegory – these larger themes enhance a work of literature, expanding it beyond what is merely on the page.

-Omniscient narration. This has largely fallen out of vogue in modern fiction, but omniscience truly gives us an understanding of the overarching picture of various things in a way that only omniscience can. Tolstoy is the first writer that comes to mind for most people, his penetrating insight into characters and the human condition and social mores is astounding. Willa Cather gives us this, as does Jane Austen. It suggests a certain wisdom on the part of the author, an understanding of human nature that, as above, expands beyond the words on the page. It can make sweeping generalizations and sum up grand truths that are part of why we need literature.

-Sort of on the flipside, intimacy. Edith Pearlman’s stories are warmly intimate; we truly feel we are with the characters. Philip Roth hilariously and disgustingly pushes the limits of intimacy in his brilliant Portnoy’s Complaint, which is a case of Too Much Information. Even the popularity of books like Bridget Jones’s Diary show the human need for confiding in a literary friend who is full of foibles and wants to share it with the reader.

-Unique subject matter. Ian McEwan’s Nutshell is brilliant: the retelling of Hamlet from the womb is unlike anything else. James Baldwin’s stories in Going to Meet the Man show a fresh perspective on Black life at a time when Blacks were still seen as the “House N—–” or The Other, only beginning to be integrated into American society. Dystopian novels like 1984 or Brave New World are still appealing because they are stories like nothing else. And even the success of the Harry Potter books shows that readers love a fantastical world where there is magic, villains, heroes, and an underdog hero. J.K. Rowling created a world of her own, and in doing so, her work developed a universal appeal.

These are but a few things that make for good writing. Perhaps this post shall be continued in the future.