Thursday, February 12, 2009

Narrative Momentum. What Is It Anyway?

Earlier today I interviewed Melissa Bank for the Writers At Cornell podcast. Melissa is a Cornell grad, and is in Ithaca filling in for me and Ernesto Quiñonez, who are on leave.

I didn't read The Girls' Guide To Hunting And Fishing back when everyone was raving about it. As Melissa and I discussed in the interview, the book had ridden a particular current of the zeitgeist, one that she had never expected to benefit from, and it was marketed as thinking women's chick lit. This of course is why I didn't read it. But I read it this week, and I liked it, and I liked her newer book, The Wonder Spot, quite a lot more.

The thing I like about them is something that you never read about in reviews of any book, and certainly not on the front flap of the dust jacket: they have an odd approach to narrative. They are not novels, and not really story collections; they're large narrative units composed of loosely arranged medium-sized narrative units, which are themselves made up of loosely arranged small narrative units. They're basically a bunch of anecdotes and jokes mashed together.

And yet, though there are no real plots to speak of, these books have forward momentum, and often that momentum is really compelling. In the podcast, Bank explains that she was trying to give the stories the shape of stories from life--discursive, off-kilter, but still purposeful. And she succeeded. But for the life of me I can't really tell how. The do feel very lifelike; during the interview I told her that, reading them, I never really realized I was being taken somewhere, but was surprised and delighted when I arrived.

One thing Rhian complains about a lot (and perhaps she will comment on this post) is her frustration at trying to make her ideas fit into an organizational scheme, and assume the form of a story. But Bank's books don't bother to do this, and they still feel like stories. And the more I think about it, the more I think that all the books I like have unconventional approaches to plot. Even the crime novels.

Maybe writer's block is the result of feeling detached from your story, from the model story in your soul. Life can do things to tear you away from it--tragedy, or the distractions of home and family, or the pressures of work. You may be generally happy, but the pieces don't fit in the obvious way they once did. In the parking lot of the Agway the other day, Rhian and I were talking about how, during times of stress and slavish adherence to our routines, we feel as though we don't have the small epiphanies we sometimes have, which show us, in an instant, new possibilities for living. Writers need these epiphanies, and they need to put themselves in circumstances that favor them.

I think that it's rare for a good book to have a structure imposed on it. The movement of the narrative has to find its natural shape, and the writer has to assume the state of mind that allows this to happen. I'm not big on "inspiration," the concept. Writing is work, to me, and sometimes it's rather dreary work. But the times that it isn't are the result of everything falling into alignment--the details, the emotions, your life, your story. You can't force it to happen. But at the same time, you don't know how to let it happen on its own. I think this is why really good, really consistent writers are scarce. Such people balance on a knife edge their whole lives, and barely even consider the possibility of falling off.

6 comments:

rmellis said...

Well, I don't agree that it's rare to find a good book with a structure imposed on it. Pretty much every book has *some* kind of imposed structure... But maybe good books don't feel ruled by their structure.

I like a book to feel organic and of a piece, as if it slid out of the author like a... newborn baby! But that's in illusion, of course.

amy said...

Like a newborn baby! Hm.

jon said...

I would find it hard to tease out the inspiration from the work. Novels take discipline, and you have to write constantly to get them done. Structure, plot, narrative, serve to keep both author and reader going. But I find structure to be something I don't impose on the story but rather to be one of the inspired elements of it. Character and voice appear to be the inspiration, but I don't have anything till I have a feel, not a thought, of how things go in the story. This isn't a destination so much as a set of inspired, natural constraints. In this narrative world, certain things can and can't happen. I suppose there are all sorts of writers, and all sorts of structures. For me, it's more riverine perhaps. Narrative flow occurs because there is narrative structure, i.e. a river bank. But like all rivers, there is a wayward element. I used to be paralyzed by structure, now I relax into it.

jrlennon said...

I used to impose structure very aggressively, and I think I came up with some OK stuff that way. But I've loosened up a lot over the years, and now I don't even outline anymore.

zoe said...

I really like just writing and seeing where it goes. If your characters are real enough to you they show you where to write them to next. It's all about the characters for me, they decide the structure.

Anonymous said...

there is something to that saying that real life is actually too crazy to write realistically...
that stories actually need to prompt us along almost in shorthand fashion...
was listening to the dialogue in the TV series,
"The Wire". Much of it is impossible to understand.
And yet, I am "feeling" as much as "getting" the story..
the narrative is coming from some kind of tempo, as in music...

-Nancy Fulton