My younger fellow novelists are greatly preoccupied with technique. They seem to think a good novel ought to follow certain rules imposed from outside.

I want to lace together snippets of François Mauriac’s 1953 interview in the Paris Review, specifically where he’s talking about the novel. I lived unaware of Mauriac until I read Gregory Wolfe’s Beauty Will Save the World. His best books I can’t even buy at Powell’s. He was highly influential for many of America’s esteemed writers.

My opinion hasn’t changed. I believe that my younger fellow novelists are greatly preoccupied with technique. They seem to think a good novel ought to follow certain rules imposed from outside. In fact, however, this preoccupation hampers them and embarrasses them in their creation. The great novelist doesn’t depend on anyone but himself. Proust resembled none of his predecessors and he did not have, he could not have, any successors. The great novelist breaks his mold; he alone can use it. Balzac created the “Balzacian” novel; its style was suitable only for Balzac.

There is a close tie between a novelist’s originality in general and the personal quality of his style. A borrowed style is a bad style. American novelists from Faulkner to Hemingway invented a style to express what they wanted to say—and it is a style that can’t be passed on to their followers…

I believe that the crisis of the novel, if it exists, is right there, essentially, in the domain of technique. The novel has lost its purpose. That is the most serious difficulty, and it is from there that we must begin. The younger generation believes, after Joyce and Proust, that it has discovered the “purpose” of the old novel to have been prefabricated and unrelated to reality…

The crisis of the novel, then, is metaphysical. The generation that preceded ours was no longer Christian, but it believed in the individual, which comes to the same thing as believing in the soul. What each of us understands by the word soul is different; but in any case it is the fixed point around which the individual is constructed.

Faith in God was lost for many, but not the values this faith postulates. The good was not bad, and the bad was not good. The collapse of the novel is due to the destruction of this fundamental concept: the awareness of good and evil. The language itself has been devalued and emptied of its meaning by this attack on conscience.

Observe that for the novelist who has remained Christian, like myself, man is someone creating himself or destroying himself. He is not an immobile being, fixed, cast in a mold once and for all. This is what makes the traditional psychological novel so different from what I did or thought I was doing. The human being as I conceive him in the novel is a being caught up in the drama of salvation, even if he doesn’t know it.

She fell in love with a Cuban General, had his baby, and then moved home to San Francisco because Cuba was no place to raise a child

I had a fascinating American Literature professor. Her favorite student was a psychology major and she allowed him to speak, but often cutoff anyone else who wanted to talk about meaningless things like symbols which don’t speak to anything at all in a story, so she said. (The image above is an example of a smug psychology student. Just judging everyone.)

She told us about how she fell in love with a Cuban General, having his baby, and then moving home because Cuba was no place to raise a child. She never did say Cuba. I guess it could have been Panama or something similar. But I met her son randomly at a friends house. I didn’t ask him about his biological father. He’d been discussing a trip he took with his adopted father, a doctor, where they volunteered at a clinic in Port au Prince.

But this fascinating professor talked longingly about teaching at a well respected university where she could have longstanding conversations about literature with her adept and well-attuned students. Instead of us–except for the psychology student–Portland students. She was Jewish, an atheist, and adopted two girls from China.

From her I learned about structures and tropes and that Gertrude Stein’s sentences are like branches upon branches.

Of my work she said, “I like your voice, but you need to say more.”

Which was nice because I want my writing voice to be liked and also because I have a little bit of pride for my holding back. And this might be a silly pride because I don’t often write beyond what I think needs to be said. Which isn’t much. I could stop here. I’m fighting myself not to stop here.

I’m an introvert. Whatever that means. But it doesn’t mean I don’t have things to say. It’s just that in order for me to form my thoughts I must write them out first. So writing is often more than just saying what I want to say, it’s also wading through my subconscious to figure out what I feel and believe. I am hidden from myself.

Again, I’m fighting. I feel like I’m through. I don’t have an opinion any more.

Last thought then: writing for me is hard because it often involves a super-concentrated form of thinking mixed with an unknown and hyperactive agent called feeling. I can write when I don’t feel, but it’s often dull and lifeless. But it’s close to impossible for me to write when I don’t concentrate.

So when I’m stuck, when I’m tired and I don’t want to think, I imagine my American Lit professor, turning away from the class and facing that smug psychology student and asking his opinion. And then I start writing. I start saying more. Because I hate smug psychology students who know so much about literature that they don’t major in it. And I also hate when professors condescend.

Another thought, now that I imagine myself in the class again: I wasn’t prepared for American Literature. I needed milk, but I was fed beef. I hadn’t prepared myself, that’s for sure, but I didn’t know how to prepare. I wonder if literature would thrive with more priming. I took every literature and writing class in high school. High-brow literature needs the equivalent of a gateway drug. Maybe that’s what they call Young Adult lit. Or maybe I’ve become smug.

My life as a writer began with motherhood

Still, and yet, my life as a writer began with motherhood.

Motherhood isn’t trivial; its activities may be trivial, but they put you in touch, deeply and immediately and daily, with the great issues of Life: heavy duty things like Love and Loss, Growth and Tolerance and Dignity, Control and Conflict and Power—which are the issues, incidentally, that make serious novels. I might have become a writer eventually without first having become a mother, but it’s hard for me to imagine it.

Molly Gloss author of “The Hearts of Horses

The next time you find yourself resisting time spent with your creative passion, draw on the wisdom of monks

From “The Artist Begins Again and Again” by Christine Valters Painter:

There will be days when we don’t feel like coming to blank page or canvas or the meditation cushion. There will be days when life seems to conspire actively against this, and we begin to believe that the creative life just isn’t possible for us or that our lives are too full to cultivate this kind of free expression. This is acedia talking, a kind of dialogue with the inner critic that haunts most artists and sabotages our sincerest efforts. When this happens—and it will happen—our invitation is to gently notice this and begin yet again.

The next time you find yourself resisting time spent with your creative passion, draw on the wisdom of monks and make a commitment to start anew right now. Hold yourself lightly, perhaps even seeing humor in your patterns. Humor is rooted in the word humus, which means earthiness and is also the root of the word humility.  Acknowledge that you are human and to be human means to forget sometimes our deeper desires. Embrace your imperfections as the landscape of your journey.

Each morning ask where you need to begin and start there with humility, compassion, and with holy anticipation. Everything else follows this.

Teenagers who read books are saving the world

From “A Generation of True Writers” by Lili Wilkinson:

Every time Nadia reads or writes or watches or hears a story, it deepens her understanding of the way narrative works. And this understanding of story, of the mechanics of story, makes her love stories even more. It’s like breathing in. And when she writes a story, or a blog post, or draws a comic, or tells someone a vivid anecdote about that thing her little brother did with the cat and the jar of peanut butter, then she’s breathing out. Everyone who loves stories does this.

The Wealth-Fantasy Lies About the Reality of Justice

Popular movies take pleasure in portraying wealthy characters.

The movie The Big Year, which I viewed with my wife last night, reminded me of this. Jack Black plays a 36-year-old divorced bird watcher with a full-time job. He relies on his parents to fund his year of breaking a bird watching record. He’s befriended by Steve Martin’s character, who plays a successful businessman desiring to retire with his wife to a Colorado cabin she designed. He spends most of his time bird watching. Although Steve Martin’s character flies coach and sleeps in the cheap hotels, without him and his wealth (he does have a jet), the two character’s would be unable to view some of the rare birds on their list. One such bird they view in the mountains only by flying on a helicopter. Without his money the story faces an insurmountable obstacle and the reality of failure. Money provides more opportunities for success.

Stories (and movies) can do whatever they want. I’m not here to critique them or their characters or the income levels displayed. (The Big Year is a good movie.) But realistic poor people stories don’t offer wormholes with money because there isn’t any money (I’m not talking about rags to riches stories which are success based on materialism).

I wonder what kind of characters Tony Stark or Bruce Wayne become without a garage full of expensive sports cars and superhuman hero suits. I’m comparing realism to a form of wealth-fantasy (an entertaining-sometimes-dramatic-sometimes-comedic form of fantasy that is sometimes super fun to watch) that robs characters of humanity. It’s a subtle robbery, but one which sets us in a garage full of Lamborghinis rather than a meth-addict’s kitchen. Our humanity and immortality are implied in the meth-addict’s kitchen (maybe even amplified), while being softly nudged aside in the warehouse of state-of-the-art weaponry.

The societal status and income level of our characters matter. I’m of course using movie-character’s for the purpose of analyzing our fictional characters. What can we buy with fictional money? What new/exciting experience can be conjured through a thick wallet? Stories steeped in realism will have to ask these questions. What kind of scenes can we create in the absence of wealth? What’s unique when illuminating the poor?

Working with low-income characters might feel like a constraint after viewing so many Hollywood films. But it’s also an opportunity to return the reader to the concreteness of our earthy reality. While the pangs of hunger and unpaid bills feel can be made into a Goodwill-suit-type-cliche, it also offers a rich world of feeling and subtlety and unseen particularity pregnant with tension on the very basis of its poverty.

We fantasize about the luxuries of a billionaire’s jet and avoid the meth-addict’s kitchen. While both provide a glimpse into an unseen world the former is more inclusive than the latter. It’s easier to economically move down than it is to move up. It’s easier to simply walk into a meth addict’s kitchen (not recommended) than it is to wander into a billionaire’s jet (if you do send me pics).

Here’s a scene that requires little money, just some chemicals, a barrel, and some fancy know how. This is unique and easily accessible:

This is unique and exclusive:

The jet scene will serve its purpose, but only with the access of money (unless the jet is stolen). But anyone, rich or poor can walk across an open field and view barrels shooting into the air.

If Cinderella feeds young girls the lie of the prince who sweeps you off your feet and saves you, then the wealth-fantasy lies about the reality of justice. Justice does not come from a microchip-kevlar-caped suit, but rather through interpersonal conflict based and set (and needed) among the least of us, the neediest of us, the most vulnerable of us.

The real example of justice in Batman, The Dark Knight, is of the prisoner who chooses not to detonate the bomb on the other ferry in order to save himself. Batman can’t be Batman without Bruce Wayne’s wealth, but a prisoner can fight for justice with only lint in his pockets and a jumpsuit on his back. The scene, however, was used as a side-note to Bruce Wayne’s belief in the goodness of common people.

This is the allure of the movie Winter’s Bone, where Ree Dolly, a young girl providing for and protecting her poor family in the Ozark Mountain community, is neither glitzed nor glammed nor monetarily able to reach her end goal of finding her father to save the foreclosure of her family’s home.

Her bravery is real, deeper felt, accessible.

Materialism used for good entertains us, but I’ll put stock into the bravery of the poor man or woman fighting for justice. That’s a story needing to be told. Super heroes, not in capes and suits and money-bought protection, but heroes in open fields and meth-addict’s kitchens, penniless and persevering.

Stories of barreling justice.

Most books today are selling only to the authors’ and publishers’ communities

From “The Ten Awful Truths — and the Ten Wonderful Truths — About Book Publishing”:

7. Most books today are selling only to the authors’ and publishers’ communities. Everyone in the potential audiences for a book already knows of hundreds of interesting and useful books to read but has little time to read any. Therefore people are reading only books that their communities make important or even mandatory to read. There is no general audience for most nonfiction books, and chasing after such a mirage is usually far less effective than connecting with one’s communities.

8. Most book marketing today is done by authors, not by publishers. Publishers have managed to stay afloat in this worsening marketplace only by shifting more and more marketing responsibility to authors, to cut costs and prop up sales. In recognition of this reality, most book proposals from experienced authors now have an extensive (usually many pages) section on the authors’ marketing platform and what the authors will do to publicize and market the books. Publishers still fulfill important roles in helping craft books to succeed and making books available in sales channels, but whether the books move in those channels depends primarily on the authors.

(Huffington)

This all seems new, but it’s not really new. It’s been apparent for years now. How many years? I don’t know, but still apparent.

A Manifesto for the Simple Scribe – Tim Radford’s 25 Commandments for Journalists

9. So if an issue is tangled like a plate of spaghetti, then regard your story as just one strand of spaghetti, carefully drawn from the whole. Ideally with the oil, garlic and tomato sauce adhering to it. The reader will be grateful for being given the simple part, not the complicated whole. That is because (a) the reader knows life is complicated, but is grateful to have at least one strand explained clearly, and (b) because nobody ever reads stories that say “What follows is inexplicably complicated …”

25. Writers have a responsibility, not just in law. So aim for the truth. If that’s elusive, and it often is, at least aim for fairness, the awareness that there is always another side to the story. Beware of all claims to objectivity. This one is the dodgiest of all…

(via the Guardian)

Could an educated, well-informed population, the kind that a functioning democracy requires, be difficult to lie to?

Epitomizing most of our childhoods.

An educated, well-informed population, the kind that a functioning democracy requires, would be difficult to lie to, and could not be led by the nose by the various vested interests running amok in this country. Most of our politicians and their political advisers and lobbyists would find themselves unemployed, and so would the gasbags who pass themselves off as our opinion makers. Luckily for them, nothing so catastrophic, even though perfectly well-deserved and widely-welcome, has a remote chance of occurring any time soon. For starters, there’s more money to be made from the ignorant than the enlightened, and deceiving Americans is one of the few growing home industries we still have in this country. A truly educated populace would be bad, both for politicians and for business.

(via NYR)

This of course assumes that stupid Americans will believe anything they’re told, which isn’t true. And I don’t even want to call it lying. Is it a lie when one believes what they’re saying? It’s more storytelling than lying. And the better stories will receive the largest audience.

I wouldn’t base future democratic intelligence on the stupidity of the populace, but on who is telling the better stories. I like stories with vision and hope and justice. Those are stories I cherish.

Obama was reported as saying he blamed Fox news for him losing white males. Perhaps Fox tells a better story. A story white males accept and trust and understand. It makes sense to them. (Not to me of course.)

But politics is the least needed place for better stories. We need better stories in our families, our marriages, our communities, our churches, our schools. Not stories of fear, but of courage, of new life, of love.