Sunday, December 7, 2008

Hemingway's Iceberg

“If a writer of prose knows enough about what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water.” Ernest Hemingway

That book I mentioned a few blog posts ago? The one I’d failed at again and that was driving me crazy? I think I’ve figured out why it’s not working: it’s only a good idea. Here’s what I’m (presumptuously) calling “Shoup’s Corollary to Hemingway’s Iceberg” as explanation:

The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due not only what the writer knows about the novel she’s writing, but to how much is at stake for her, personally, by writing it. That is, the question that fuels the plot of a novel must be one that originates in the writer’s struggle to live her own life honestly and well. The process of finding and writing the story that answers the question must have in it the potential for some crucial insight about or resolution of an issue that has shaped the writer in some profound way and which she needs to try to understand to be able to move forward.

Caveat: This does not mean that good novels are true (i.e. factual, autobiographical). The range of fiction is vast: from a true story shaped by the writer to explore a question in her own life to a completely made-up one that reveals the writer’s actual life only in the question at the heart of the problems its character or characters must solve.

Robert Olen Butler says that yearning is at the heart of every successful story, and he is right. I don't mean to go all corollary on you, but it's also true that this yearning must be directly connected the writer's own yearning.

Anyway. When I started that so-far-failed book—lo, those many years ago—what interested me was the dissolution of a friendship. The death of Maggie's best friend Lydia, who had been in the process of dumping her since she'd been lured to the popular crowd, complicates the grief she feels about the loss of her friend and forces her to come to terms with what the friendship really was and who she really is. What I meant to look at through Maggie’s lens was my own grief at being dumped by my best friend, a a girl I adored, when a more popular girl decided she wanted her as a friend and how that shaped my idea of friendship for the rest of my life. (Okay. I know. I should be over junior high by now, but I’m not).

The major problem was, conceptual idea of the structure of the novel--an explanation of which would would make this blog post way longer than you’d want to read--made it impossible for me to bring it alive on the page.

It also didn’t work when I switched the point of view to Will, who became Maggie’s friend after Lydia’s death, and made it his story. What Will had going for him was a strong voice and a set of that problems were complicated by Lydia’s death and that might have been resolved in the process of allowing himself the vulnerability of entering into a real friendship.

Hindsight being 20-20, I see that yearning is at the crux of my problems with the novel. Maggie’s yearning grew from my own yearning for a lost friend; my failure to write the book I wanted to write was mostly a result of my inability to consider (or even realize that I needed to consider) a structure that would be able accommodate this yearning. The problem with the novel in Will’s voice was what he yearned for was never clear to the reader, and this was because it wasn’t (and still isn’t) clear to me. Yearning for a resolution to his estrangement with his twin brother or yearning to be befriended by someone who understood him would have been worthy yearnings, but were not in any compelling way connected to yearnings of my own. So I was trying to make a novel of plot and voice alone. This might, eventually, have worked on the surface, resulting in an entertaining marketable novel—which, God knows, is no small thing. But neither I nor the reader would have emerged from it knowing anything we didn’t already know—at least not anything that really mattered. This might be fine for a lot of readers. But, for me, writing is too damn hard to settle for that.

My insight about the part the structure of the first incarnation of the novel played in its failure is so new that it came in the process of writing this blog post. It needs to cook awhile. Maybe it will nag at me enough to make me revisit the novel in time. It probably will: abandoning my characters feels a lot like I think it would feel to abandon my own children. Even if I did abandon them, I’m pretty sure they’d be quite alive in my head, popping up regularly to remind me that I’ve failed them.

In the meantime, I'm living in Looking for Jack Kerouac—a book that was only a good idea until I one day a girl with straw blond hair and turquoise eyes standing behind the counter of a diner appeared in it, my sister Jackie at eighteen. Jackie had died recently, after suffering a long, terrible illness, and when I saw her in the incarnation of the girl in the diner I saw that I could bring her back alive again in a world where she would live forever. I saw, too, that the main character’s mother had died and flight from the confinements of his life was a desperate attempt to right the shift in his world that had occurred with her death.

I still miss my sister Jackie more than I can say. Paul’s yearning is my own yearning to come to terms with her death and to imagine my life in a way to remember her before and during the illness that doesn’t make me unbearably sad.

1 comment:

Lisa Chellman said...

God, woman, you say these things so well. I'll be keeping in mind these questions of yearning as I continue wading my way through the slush of my new project because I have, indeed, been feeling that it's "a good idea" without really knowing how to connect with the main character at the level of depth necessary to carry it off...

When I look back at my first couple complete projects, there were definitely some very strong personal emotions at work, and I know I didn't start with them; they started as "good ideas", too, and the emotional connection came later. Maybe that's why it takes me so long to find the story sometimes. I'll be looking for it now-- what am I yearning for?