Saturday, March 5, 2011

Worlds & Houses: Thinking about the Novel

The last month or so I’ve been trying to make myself write creative nonfiction-—skimming the surface of some ideas that are compelling to me for a variety of reasons. But I can't seem to engage.

The other day I took out a novel I started last fall, still in the early stages, and fell into it,as if into a whole different world.

It is a whole different world, and that is I love most about writing novels.

I also love teaching and writing about writing because of the way I have to try to get to the bottom of how writing works to make it as clear as it can be to students and readers so often enlightens my understanding of my own process.

This passage was in Novel Ideas: Contemporary Authors Share the Creative Process (University of Georgia Press), which I co-authored with Margaret-Love Denman:

You have seen or felt or dreamed something that you can't name, but that you know you can't live without. You set off on a journey to find it. There is no map; no one has ever been to this place. You barely know the people you are traveling with—your characters—but you know that they are the only people who know the way. You watch them, listen to them. You follow along, putting down the words to mark the path they make. It is a long journey, with many wrong turns and surprises. Every day, or as often as you can, you go to the world of the novel. Months pass.

Sometimes years.

Your journey through this world becomes an alternate reality. The people you "see" there every day are as real and confounding as your own family. You live with these characters, worry about them at unlikely moments. You are amazed, sometimes, at the way all kinds of things work their way into the story: newspaper stories you read, stories friends and family tell in passing, memories, ideas that delight you; the occasional glimpse of something beautiful, funny, or sad that you cannot forget; a passion for some person, place, or thing that you feel compelled to preserve—or that, perhaps, your life in the real world will not accommodate.

Sometimes you have to stop and do research; sometimes you have to stop and get a clear picture of what's there. Sometimes, like a recalcitrant child, the book just stops, and you have to trick and tease it into moving forward.

As the end nears, possibilities narrow, as in real life. This is partly comforting, partly appalling. The novel won't be all you hoped it would be, but you keep on anyway. To abandon it now would be unthinkable, like walking away from your own imperfect life.

And finally it is done. For a few days, you feel wonderful, free. You attend to business, clean your house, rake your yard, change the oil in your car, read, watch movies—actually pay attention when someone is talking to you. Then you begin to miss where the novel took you, the people in it, what it was. You feel anxious. There's nothing to organize your life around. What are you going to do? Have you written every single thing you know?

Yes, if you were doing it right.

But pretty soon you know some new things. You look at the book again, and you see that what you thought the book was the day you finished it and what it actually is don't quite match up. So you go at it again. And again, if you must. Until it is as close as possible to what you wanted it to be.

Trying to get to the bottom of why I can't resist the novel, why it almost always trumps the impulse to write creative nonfiction, pondering the completely different feel of the two processes, (don't ask me why) I started thinking about houses.

Writing creative nonfiction is like looking for something in a big house that has many rooms in it, each containing a mystery about my own life. The house is very much in the real world. What I'm looking for is mine, but I won’t know what it is until I find it. Some rooms lead to other rooms and sometimes back into rooms I’ve already visited, but all of the rooms are inside the house. The pleasure is in the possibilities, the connections, the insights, the release and resolution and, finally, the satisfaction of knowing that I’ve let somebody else in to the house and (for better or worse) made it feel like home to them. Maybe even made them see something they need to know about themselves. The house is, of course, my own mind.

Writing a novel, I have to create the world and find the house in it. Then I have to live in that house for a really long time with a bunch of people I might or might not like but have to get to know because they hold the keys--the clues--to the mysteries inside the rooms but won’t open the doors until I prove that I truly want to know what’s inside and won’t judge them, no matter what the rooms reveal—even if it’s something I don’t really want to know about myself. Paradox (lovely paradox): Though the house is not in the real world, once I find it I have to stay inside it to find the story.

The pleasures are in many ways similar to writing creative nonfiction—possibilities, connections, insights, release and resolution. The house in the alternate world is my mind, too—but maybe comparable to the difference between a seed and the flower that grows from it. Vivid, real—invisibly linked to its origin. The satisfaction lies in the knowledge that I’ve created a world that others can live in and believe in, and that may even hold some insight that will make it easier for them to live their own lives.

Each finished (and unfinished) novel has its its own physical feel--not unlike the physical feel of memories. Each is a whole world, a whole life inside my head. No so different from the feel readers get, first living inside, then remembering a book they love.

This floated up taking my dog, Louise, out this dark, rainy morning: A work of creative nonfiction is the story of a person thinking about the real world; a novel is the story of a person thinking about the real world…in metaphor.

The world and the house idea works for essays and stories, too—the worlds and houses are just smaller. A collection of essays that explores a particular world would be comparable to a collection of linked stories—the house of each essay or story in the same neighborhood.

What do you think?


Karen L. Simpson said...

I think all of this is correct.
And just a note my novel Act of Grace finally made it out into the world. Thank you once again for helping to comfirm Grace's voice. It was really nice seeing you at 826 during the Summer.

Karen L. Simpson

Barbara Shoup said...

I enjoyed seeing you, too--and good luck with Grace!

esf said...

This is very smart and helpful. I'm teaching the novel writing seminar again in the fall and will bring these ideas in to discuss..and I'm assigning Novel Ideas, of course!