Why Bother with Craft?

Browne,_Henriette_-_A_Girl_Writing;_The_Pet_Goldfinch_-_Google_Art_Project

“Craft” was a dirty word at art school, a subtle derogative. The college dropped “and Craft” from their name so recently that the signs on the highway still held those words. Once, in a class critique, a peer called a hand-painted map used to make a stop motion short “crafty,” and my face stung, as if slapped.

Now I deal with another kind of craft; not so much a dirty word but a kind of quiet discussion held among writers and readers. “Craft” is a fluid term; used in aeronautics and astronautics to speak of a single vessel, or the skill of deception, or a verb analogous to “make.” Craft in literature is comprised of narrative elements and literary devices: the nuts and bolts of what makes a story a story.

The first week in an MFA in creative writing, students were told they’d be studying craft and one student objected—said he couldn’t write a craft essay when the choices he made in a narrative were inherent.

They’re not, the professor argued; they’re studied and learned qualities, practiced until they become inherent, or second-nature. Craft in literature is the metaphorical and invisible toolbox you take with you. Like a filmmaker studies the nuances of cameras, microphones, and lighting to create a scene, a writer reads books for syntax, structure, theme, and studies the methods of employing devices like irony and metaphor as a way to point toward meaning, to elucidate a deeper truth. Jack Hart, author of Storycraft, said, “an awareness of all the different forms in which you can tell true stories using narrative techniques is important to succeeding with a broad variety of materials.” (Nieman Storyboard)Continue Reading

The Candles and the Soap: On Vonnegut, Death, and Repetition

Dresden, zerstörtes Stadtzentrum

Placed after a mention of death or dying, Kurt Vonnegut’s “So it goes” refrain throughout Slaughterhouse Five utilizes repetition to explore the inevitability of death. Early on in the book, Billy Pilgrim writes a letter to a newspaper about his experiences with extra terrestrials, and explains the origin of the phrase:

When a Tralfamadorian sees a corpse, all he thinks is that the dead person is in bad condition in that particular moment, but that the same person is just fine in plenty of other moments. Now, when I myself hear that somebody is dead, I simply shrug and say what the Tralfamadorians say about dead people, which is ‘So it goes.’

The phrase simultaneously dismisses and accepts the inevitability of death. “So it goes” seems so detached as to be irreverent and inappropriate. An incredibly simple three word sentence—so informal it catches the reader off guard in its plainness—is striking in juxtaposition to death. The phrase is so casual, it smacks of false familiarity and dismissiveness. It feels unceremonious, yet becomes ceremonious through its repetition, like the refrain of a song. It is so much more complex than just those three simple words; it admits the inevitability of death and offers a pause for the reader to truly consider the weight of what is written.

Only the candles and the soap were of German origin. They had a ghostly, opalescent similarity. The British had no way of knowing it, but the candles and the soap were made from the fat of rendered Jews and Gypsies and fairies and communists, and other enemies of the State.

Removing the repetition of “so it goes” from the text alters the book—note how the omission of it from the above paragraph makes the sentence so dark and depressing it’s almost impossible to read. Stripping the informal refrain of “so it goes” makes the book too formal, too gloomy; it robs the deaths their due attention, their pause, and removes the carefree yet careful acceptance of the uncompromising inevitability of death. Nothing can be done about death, and Vonnegut’s cool acquiescence of it serves as deeper advice than at first glance—a mantra of sorts.Continue Reading

Do-Overs: A Little Leary

Empire

Fox’s Empire really wants you to know it’s so King Lear. In the pilot, Lucious Lyon—music mogul, owner of Empire Entertainment and father to three sons—gathers his kids in the board room to talk about how he won’t be able to run things forever. “What is this? We ‘King Lear’ now?” his son Jamal asks, obtusely. Empire equals Lear, or so we are told. But how Lear is it?

Lear works well as a framework for a contemporary story. It’s territory that’s been covered successfully before, notably in Jane Smiley’s 1991 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, A Thousand Acres. Smiley sets her novel on an Iowa farm, opening with a powerful father divvying up his land between three daughters. As with Empire, the tenets of Lear are obvious immediately: the overbearing patriarch, the refusal of one of the king’s heirs to play a game of sycophancy, the misinterpretation of actions and whispering about intentions, and the spiraling downfall of the family. The richness of Smiley’s novel is in how she plays against readers’ expectations about plot and perspective. Smiley uses Shakespeare’s five-act structure as a platform, not a hard-and-fast rule.

It isn’t totally clear yet if (or how) Empire will follow suit. What is clear is that it’s a compelling soap-opera of magnanimous, megalomaniac characters. Everyone is plotting, everyone has something to lose. The magnetism that we saw between Taraji P. Henson and Terrence Howard in Hustle & Flow is alive and well. Is Empire kind of Lear? Learish? Sure. Its classification as such lent Empire some gravitas before the premier. And the soapy-ness of it all isn’t out of line: Shakespeare wasn’t above the draw of baser scenes and jokes to fill seats—or more accurately, to fill the standing area for groundlings whose excitement would rouse the elites staring down from the balconies. Each time Empire pushes sex, innuendo, violence or scandal, it’s right in line with the Bard.Continue Reading

The Passionate Lives of Writers and Readers

When my husband and I moved in together, one of the biggest challenges we faced was how to merge our TV-watching styles. For my husband, if the TV is on, you’re actively watching something. For me, if the TV is on, it means you’re home. (I need some kind of ambient noise, and why not have noise that includes narrative?) He’s more likely to suggest watching intense dramas like The Wire or Breaking Bad. I could easily throw on an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer I’ve already seen nine times.

Over the last few years, we’ve found a TV-watching schedule that works for us, including binge-watching a variety of shows with varied emotional content and stakes. One show we’ve been watching is Parks and Recreation with its cast of wacky characters trying to make a difference in Pawnee, Indiana.

Recently, I came across a quote by former Daily Show head writer Tim Carvell, who referred to Parks and Recreation as “criminally underrated and one of the best ensembles on TV. They figured out how to make comedy out of people who like things…Turns out passion can heighten things in the same way that conflict does.”Continue Reading

Round-Down: Enough of Genre Debate Already

MaryWollstonecraft

I’m a little disappointed in Jennifer Weiner. And not in the way you’d think. Certainly not in the same way as Jonathan Franzen. Rather, I’m disappointed that she’s seemingly buying into the genre vs. literary distinction while she (admirably and very hilariously) defends herself on Twitter against Franzen’s latest attacks.

One of the things Weiner recently wrote that left me shaking my head (rather than giving her the applause many of her other comments inspired) was this: “And yet, I end up saying it. Over and over and over again. Every. Single. Time. I should just get an I’M NOT LITERARY tattoo!” To me, that kind of statement, regardless of whether she actually believes it (and I hope the Princeton grad and prolific, bestselling author doesn’t), indicates that she’s upholding the binary belief that genre fiction is somehow less than literary fiction. I, for one, am over the genre vs. literary fiction debate, especially because it so often coincides with the discussion of the issue of gender imbalance in the literary world.

That said, I am monstrously upset at Franzen’s mansplain-y criticism of Weiner’s talent and simultaneous admission that he hasn’t actually read any of her books. He also clearly hasn’t read any of her many intelligent essays championing women’s issues–not just in publishing, but in health, image, and beauty (see one in the New York Times as recent as the Sunday after the Franzen interview broke). The more I read up on the Booth Franzen interview and its aftermath, the more annoyed I get—especially since, on one level, Franzen actually agrees with what Weiner has been trying to say all along.Continue Reading

Reading on the Go

Waiting for the 4Where and when do you make time to read? If your answer is “at Chipotle,” then you can leave now. This article isn’t for you. You should also just move along if your answer is “beside a crackling fire in my study.” I don’t know who you are. Why are you reading a blog? Isn’t there a hedge fund you should be managing?

No, for me there are only three acceptable, and interesting, answers to that question. The first is “in bed.” I can’t read in bed, but there are many who manage it with great success. A friend of mine says he read a whole J.G.A. Pocock book in bed, which must be a lie. I can’t even read about J.G.A. Pocock without at least my leg falling asleep. The second respectable answer is “while walking.” I actually do this pretty often when the weather is nice. There aren’t many of us who read books while walking. We’re a small group and quite proud of ourselves despite the fact we just banged our collective knee into a fire hydrant.

So that leaves the third, and I think most interesting, way to read: “on public transportation.”

Right now, no matter when you’re reading this, there are tens if not hundreds of thousands of commuters and travelers making time to read. Reading simply couldn’t have been done in this manner and on this scale in any other period in the world’s history. In the mid-nineteenth century, W.H. Smith & Son opened the first train station newsstands and bookshops, selling cheap paperbacks which were themselves a product of new industrialized manufacturing processes. They’re still the dominant model of English-language readership and bookselling, and none of them could exist without the affordable and rapid transit of people and goods via railway. That resulted in a new type of reading for a new type of reader.Continue Reading

Reading All the Things

A Tower of Used Books

Ahhh, new books. Nothing like the thrill of the pristine cover, the creaseless spine, the fresh pages free of marginalia, the story inside like a continent yet to be discovered. About a month ago, we bibliophiles had our new books arranged in a perfect mental stack. We contemplated them. We may have even planned the whole year around them, making wonderfully improbable resolutions to “read all of the things,” as internet lingo would put it.

But this year is a bit different for me. I’m working as a teaching assistant in a course on the Victorian novel, and that means I’ll be rereading more books than usual, some even for the third time. Like many bibliophiles, I have an ever-growing mental list called “Books I’m Ashamed I’ve Never Read.” I also have a Geiger counter up there that detects unread books in conversations and in other books and adds them to the list. As a result, I almost never reread unless I’m forced to. But so far, it’s been a nice break to slow down and switch off the Geiger counter for a change. And that’s made me ask myself a simple question: What have I been missing?

So I asked the professor I’m working with how many times she had read the first book of the course–Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray. She told me she had first read the book as a student, then ended up writing her dissertation on Thackeray, and has taught the book dozens of times since then. But when it came to how many times she’s reread Vanity Fair, she couldn’t say exactly. She said it’s not a question of how many times anymore. She doesn’t always pick it up and read it cover to cover. Instead, she often dips into a scene or even just savors a single sentence. She said she gets lost in things that grab her attention that she had never noticed before. Continue Reading

Since Feeling is First: Elements of Craft to Express Emotion

Plate_depicting_emotions_of_grief_from_Charles_Darwin's_book_The_Expression_of_the_Emotions

Emotions, feelings, desires—whatever you choose to call them—are central to writing. e.e. cummings wrote “since feeling is first / who pays any attention / to the syntax of things / will never wholly kiss you.” But how do we pay attention to syntax while retaining feeling?

There are countless elements of craft to aid the expression of emotion: sensory details, and the diction one uses to describe the world, can speak volumes about the inner landscape of a narrator or character, as can establishing background and setting the stakes.

Take, for instance, Paul Harding’s Enon. The novel follows Charlie Crosby for a year as he reels from the untimely death of his only daughter—an event revealed in the opening paragraph of the book. Immediately, Harding establishes this event, this background, and the reader waits to see how—or if—Charlie can recover. Knowing that his only daughter has died validates anything emotional the character expresses, ranging from numbness to excruciating physical pain. Grounded in what happened, none of his internal monologues wax melodramatic.

The landscape of the book also lends itself to Charlie Crosby’s grief. Enon is set in the fictional town of Enon, Massachusetts, where Charlie was born and raised. The rich bank of memories he has in this place confront him wherever he goes, re-experiencing and renewing the loss. His wanderings afford him reflections that lead to expression or repression of emotions. There is a depth and dimension to his grief because it’s inescapable.Continue Reading

Etymology as Pedagogy: How Words Teach Me to Live

mapWhen I learned, not long ago, that the word “daisy” comes from the Old English word “day’s eye,” referring to how the petals open at dawn and close at night, I was delighted. Here was proof that the English language can be governed by a beautiful logic. It was a happy reminder, too, that what I thought belonged to me did not. The words I use have been elsewhere, passing from mouth to mouth, me just a mouth in between.

A little later I learned that the word “squirrel” comes from Greek words meaning “shadow-tailed.” More delight. This was evoking in me, I realized, the same adolescent wonderment of discovering that my parents were not parents all their lives, that they were proud participants of the sexual revolution and also shoplifted more than once. What I thought belonged to me did not. It became clear that words are very much like people.Continue Reading

Proxy Narratives: Jennifer Clement’s “Widow Basquiat”

raamellzee-bep-bop I’m always looking for a stellar book come November. National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo for the uninitiated) is about as appealing of an idea as having a month-long dental procedure and about as equally fun to be around. So, I mostly hide away. I do the opposite of what you’re supposed to do in November—I take a writing break and read all month instead. Last year I read all of Larry Heinemann’s books. The year before that I dug into Rolando Hinojosa. This year, I’m reading and re-reading Jennifer Clement’s Widow Basquiat which is easily my favorite book of 2014, though it’s been around in the UK for years. It comes out in the United States this month. Continue Reading