You Go Toward That Tone: John Berger and Michael Ondaatje in Conversation

During a recent weekend trip to a small town on the north coast of Lake Erie, in a used bookstore that also sold antiques, I stumbled upon Writing Life, a collection of essays about writing by a variety of authors. One of my favourite kinds of books.

Writing Life, edited by Constance Rooke

I’ve been working through it slowly and this afternoon read the conversation between John Berger (of Ways of Seeing fame) and Michael Ondaatje, in which Berger tries to describe what his books are like before the writing begins:

“Well, I can only describe what happens, which doesn’t make much sense, but before I really start writing a story, like you there is something there. There is Venice or a date or a character, but that’s only a starting point. The story is my mind is absolutely not verbal. There are no words for it at all. Nor is it visual, it’s not a series of shots or a painting. It has something in common with music in the sense that it is complex and can be held in the head like a whole musical composition, although it can never all be there at any one given moment. I haven’t any words for it. It is perhaps in a way geometric, but it’s not, because I think that implies an incredible precision. Perhaps it is algebraic in a way, but it’s much more chaotic than that; and the strange thing is that, for a long, long time when writing, I check it against the inarticulate, totally amorphous thing, and it can say with certainty, ‘no, what you’ve just written is false” or, occasionally, occasionally, ‘yes, perhaps that’s not too far away.’”

Ondaatje replies by describing it as an “an unfinished ideal … not at all verbal, it’s sort of like a tone of music. … You go toward that tone.”

There’s also a great exchange about characters unexpectedly breaking into a story. And I loved Ondaatje’s description of how in the process of writing a scene you’re kind of waiting for things to happen:

“When I’m writing a scene, I will not know the eventual arc of that scene at all. I am waiting for something to happen, waiting for someone to say the wrong thing, change his or her mind, do something odd, pour some milk over somebody’s hand. Odd things like that are outside the normal behaviour of a scene.”

I’m getting close to the end of my latest first draft (yes, still on a first draft, again), but it still feels like every scene I write has this possibility inherent in it. Possibilities both in the scene itself and in each character. I’m close to the end but I still don’t know what’s going to happen. Enough of the time, something halfway good has emerged when I stay open to whatever might happen next, whether it seems to fit or not. So all I can do is keep trying for that, again and again.

You can watch or listen to this conversation between John Berger and Michael Ondaatje in its entirety on Vimeo.

My Favourite Books of 2018

Continuing my tradition of insatiable reading, I read 112 books in 2018. My reading goal was originally 66 books. I started the year planning to slow down, to make more room for writing, but that’s not how it worked out.

It’s not always easy to pick favourite books, because it’s not as simple as listing out the books I gave five stars. The best books are not quite what this is about, exactly. It’s more about what engaged me significantly or affected me strongly while reading, what stuck with me after finishing, what I want to keep thinking about long after closing the book.

Writing a short summary of the month’s reading in the newsletter has been a useful exercise in giving a little extra thought to what I read. Some books I forget very quickly, but forcing myself to write a sentence or two about each one helps to put them in perspective and makes them seem less disposable than I am sometimes inclined to treat them.

Since I’ve been working on a novel or three all year, my perspective as a writer very much informs my reading experience, of fiction in particular. I respond differently to books which include some element — story, style, structure, tense, voice, narration, whatever — that resonates with what I’m aiming at or dealing with in my own writing. Which is not to say that I only read fiction of the kind I want to write (I try to read diversely but definitely skew more literary than genre), but that I often enjoy novels more when they teach me something about my own writing, even if I can’t articulate exactly what that is.

So let’s go: my favourite books of the year, in no particular order:

How Fiction Works, James Wood. This book deserves its own post, which I plan to give it at some point.

To Say Nothing of the Dog, Connie Willis. Such a romp. Historians travel to the past to track down an object needed for the recreation of a church. Of all the purposes time travel might serve, in this universe it’s reserved for the needs of academic historians in Great Britain. Things get pretty confusing as the end approaches, but it’s fun and funny enough not to matter.

Spinning Silver, Naomi Novik. A follow-up (not sequel) to Uprooted, another favourite, which did not disappoint. Totally engrossing and engaging. Beautiful storytelling and world-building.

All This Reading: The Literary World of Barbara Pym, Frauke Elisabeth Lenckos and Ellen J. Miller. I love Pym’s novels (of which I re-read three this year), and these essays were such a pleasure to read. They provided new insights into some of my favourite books and made me think a lot about my own writing.

The Best of Everything, Rona Jaffe. A classic novel about women and careers and relationships and friendships. Totally engaging.

The Friend, Sigrid Nunez. A book about grief and writing and friendship and dogs. A case where the prose is lovely and the story, such as it is, is good, but then the structure and the bits about writing elevate it to something special.

Early Work, Andrew Martin. When I try to describe what this book is about, I start to think it must have been worse than I remember it being, but I really loved the experience of reading it. It was funny and horrible and sublime.

Motherhood, Sheila Heti. I had a long conversation about the decision to have kids with a friend early one Saturday morning in a McDonald’s while killing time before an ultimate frisbee beach tournament. I told her about this book and meant to lend it to her, but I had dog-eared so many pages and kept meaning to write down the passages that struck me, but I haven’t gotten around to it yet. I’m not sure this novel helps with the decision-making process at all, but it’s a fascinating engagement with the question.

Boddhisatva Mind and Taking the Leap, Pema Chodron. I list these together because a lot of the content is very similar, although one is an audio lecture and the other is a short book. Full of ideas I return to again and again.

An Everlasting Meal, Tamar Adler. Immensely pleasurable to read and encapsulates a philosophy of cooking which I’d like to follow more than I do. In 2018 I cooked more than I have in a long time and began enjoying it in a new way. Both watching Salt Fat Acid Heat on Netflix and reading this book have inspired me to keep experimenting and enjoying the practice of cooking food.

Aside from these favourites, there were several books I really enjoyed which definitely warrant a reread: How to Write an Autobiographical Novel by Alexander Chee, Pond by Claire-Louise Bennett, Kudos by Rachel Cusk, The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron (more here), Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson, The Wrong Way to Save Your Life by Rachel Stielstra, The Wisdom of Insecurity by Alan Watts, A Monk’s Guide to a Clean House and Mind by Shoukei Matsumoto, Your Money or Your Life by Vicki Robin and Joe Dominguez, and My Private Property by Mary Ruefle.

I could continue listing more books I liked, but I’d quickly end up listing pretty much every book I read, with the exception of maybe ten. So I’m ending it here and wishing you, dear reader, happy reading in 2019.

Writers and Words: Creating a Universe with Words

Writers in conversation and interviews with writers are among my favourite things to read on the internet, whether I’ve read their work or not. I’ve been sharing them in my monthly newsletter for the last several months, but there just isn’t enough room for all of them, so I’m sharing some of them here on the the blog.

Nicole Chung guest-edited Two Bossy Dames with Elena Yip and wrote about her memoir All You Can Ever Know:

“As harsh as I can be about my own stuff, I know writing can be worked on. I know it can be improved. I see it every day, as it’s my job to try to help other writers with it — to believe in the potential of a story and believe the necessary words do exist. So when I was most anxious about or frustrated with this book, I would try to remind myself to trust that process.”

Meg Wolitzer and Andre Dubus III exchange emails about the writing process (all the quotes are ADIII’s but the whole thing is worth a read):

“I am constantly in awe that if we just show up to the desk in an open and receptive state, with faith that something will come, something always does. How do I start a book? Slowly, even with that ‘wired excitement and fear’. I’ve noticed that it tends to go better for me, creatively/artistically speaking, if I know very little before I begin.”

“I write like this until I have a beginning, a middle, and an end, trying to find the causality that makes story itself. This can take me three to five years, working five to six days a week. After all that, is when I begin to fully commit myself to the final structure of the book, which means I start cutting sometimes hundreds of pages, and rearranging the sequence of scenes (plotting, as you know), until I finally end up with what feels like the leanest and truest shape of the story. If I do this structuring too early in the composition process, though, I find that I’m prematurely anticipating someone reading all of this, which keeps me from fully surrendering to the story itself, which I know will lead me down paths and whole passages and characters I will ultimately end up cutting.”

“Because this entire act of creating a universe with words, it seems to me, is not about the writer at all, or even — in the first stages of the novel’s creation anyway — the reader; it’s about unearthing and setting into flight these nearly sacred beings called characters, no matter how flawed or reprehensible many of them may be. Blaise Pascal writes: ‘Anything written to please the author is worthless.’ Such a harsh line, but true, I believe. This is not to say that we writers cannot take pleasure in the daily act of writing; I certainly do, and I know you do, too. But it truly does seem to me that if a life of writing creatively is nothing else, it is a sustained act of practiced empathy, where we keep stepping into the question: ‘What’s it like to be you?’”

Barbara Kingsolver and Richard Powers in conversation at a farmhouse in the Appalachian Mountains of southwestern Virginia where BK lives:

BK: “As novelists we’re looking for the universal that makes a reader understand that a human person is a human person regardless of where and when and how.”

RP: “Very few people writing now are as absolutely, viscerally persuasive at the level of the scene and the character and the transactional vignettes while still in the service of grand architecture and a thematic preoccupation that manifests itself in all kinds of ingenious ways across the journey.”

BK: “That’s one of the many things I love about revision: Any weak parts, if their motivations aren’t clear you can back up all the way to the beginning, and you can begin building up motivation right from the start. And you get to connect things across time, across place. I would so much rather revise. I wish I could just pay someone to write my first draft, and then I would just revise.”

Alice Adams asks, Why does anyone write?

“Writing a novel is a painful and bloody process that takes up all your free time, haunts you in the darkest hours of night and generally culminates in a lot of weeping over an ever-growing pile of rejection letters.”

Ursula Le Guin on labels:

“Where I can get prickly and combative is if I’m just called a sci-fi writer. I’m not. I’m a novelist and poet. Don’t shove me into your damn pigeonhole, where I don’t fit, because I’m all over. My tentacles are coming out of the pigeonhole in all directions.”

See also: Labels be damned.

The novel and short story in dialogue.

Authors on the stories behind their novels. 

A bonus for anyone needing more books for their to-read list: One month reading feminist classics, and a thread of the best overlooked books of the last ten years.

Taking Notes, Wondering What Happens Next

1

I wrote last month about the first stage of my first serious attempt to revise a first draft. The plan involved reading the draft from top to bottom and taking notes along the way without making any revisions, not at the paragraph, sentence, or word level. (I confess to adding paragraph breaks where they were needed and fixing obvious word choice errors and typos; that’s it.) The point was to see where I was and try to figure out where to go before I start to rewrite.

I’m nearly done (6 pages to go) and starting to suspect that this was probably the easy part.

2

Taking notes is fun. Too fun, perhaps, because the notes are threatening to become the volume of a novel themselves. I’ve been avoiding thinking about what to do when it’s time to read them. I’ll probably end up taking notes about the notes, and then more notes about those, in a never-ending cycle of notes from which I and this manuscript will never emerge. When will I get back to writing?

3

One of the best parts of taking notes is that I get to use my editor brain. I imagine my comments to be those of a great editor, incisive and insightful. I imagine I have ideas that no one else would have, that I can find nuggets of splendour in the pile of rubble that is my first draft. But most of the notes are rambling and wondering and questioning. No great insights, nothing clever or sharp. In fact, the notes are mostly questions.

I can’t stop my writer brain from responding in questions to what my editor brain has to say. It’s eager to please, to have an array of solutions to the problems my editor brain points out, but it doesn’t know the right answer. Neither editor nor writer know the answer yet, because of course that’s not the point. The point at this point is just to ask questions. The answers will come.

4

Being consistent with this practice has been harder than the practice of writing every day. Writing first thing in the morning, especially if you’re not all the way awake, is a special kind of thing. Reading your own work and applying critical thinking skills to it and then taking notes about it is something else. Morning is perhaps not the best time.

It’s strange to think not about forming sentences and paragraphs, but to step back and think about the story. What’s really happening. What should be happening. Does what’s happening make any sense. Instead of focusing on what am I going to write today, I’m thinking how am I going to turn this into a good story.

Many mornings, I give up before I start. When I can’t summon the critical thinking skills, when I have other things to worry about, when I’m at a part of the novel I know will not survive revision. The easiest thing to do with such a mess is to ignore it.

Reading your own writing can be weirdly vulnerable and unnerving. I don’t like being exposed to scrutiny, not even my own. I want to cringe and look away. I get so ashamed of whatever idiot wrote that paragraph or thought up that plot twist a few months ago. Whoever wrote that sentence is clearly full of themselves, braindead, tone-deaf. But it’s useless to think that way. Every morning is practice for standing back and looking full-faced at what is there. Taking it for what it is and dealing with it. Doing it more often can only make it easier, right?

5

I know my story, or what my story might be, so much better now. I think I know what I want to say, but I don’t want to focus on that part. I need to focus not on what I’m saying but on what the characters are doing. What action makes sense? Where are the conflicts and how are they resolved? I think too much about what things mean. I want to focus on the concrete things that happen because of what things mean.

6

Perhaps I’ll do something like Olivia Laing’s serial killer wall or a subway map or some other method that’s probably less effective than it is evidence of an unhealthy obsession with office supplies. Something that makes me feel like a detective with some serious crimes to solve or a tourist with some serious sights to see or my mom with serious errands to run on a Saturday morning.

Before I start rewriting anything, I need to do more work. The notes aren’t enough. I need an outline. Something complicated and layered and scalable, to make sense of this jumble of ideas. I need a frame that can adapt to what I need it to be, that will remain strong enough as I build on top of it, remove pieces beneath it, and replace everything that hangs upon it.

So, index cards. Maybe another spreadsheet first. I’m not trying to do anything innovative with the story structure. The plot isn’t supposed to be complicated. But figuring out the mechanics is something I’ve never been good at, and it’s something I want to do better. I’m trying to follow the rules, but I also want to be able to feel my way through it, the way I’ve always done. It still needs to feel right.

7

I’m trying to remember that none of this writing is really me. It’s just a story, just a bunch of words I put together, and every time I look at it is an opportunity to make it better. But it’s not me that’s getting better; it’s the story getting better.

Every morning is darker than the last, and it’s only going to get worse. I’m trying to imagine how I might deal with index cards on the couch under a blanket on these dark autumnal mornings, with just the floor lamp nearby for light. Maybe it’s time to get beyond the couch. Maybe it’s time to migrate to the dining room table.

Reading, Revising, Rethinking

That draft I’d been working on since June? And trying to finish in August? I wrote the conclusion mere hours before leaving for our trip to Nova Scotia. It ended up at about 64,000 words, 111 pages, with a scene I had not in any way planned to write. But it got done.

Over the last month, I’ve reread the first 44 pages, making notes as I go. I’m not revising or rewriting, not yet. I’ve technically started the revision process but not made any changes other than maybe five words that were so incorrect I couldn’t let them be. But I haven’t been paying attention to the sentence level or the paragraph level, much less the word level. I’m not debating word choices or wondering if the dialogue works. All that will come later, in this master plan I’m creating as I go along.

Revising is like a foggy road

A foggy road in New Brunswick

For now, I’m reading to see what I have and figure out how to make it better. Add a new character, find a stronger motivation for this action, add more action instead of describing what a character thinks and feels. (Show, don’t tell.) I’m trying to see the story with a bit of distance to understand whether it works or not. (It doesn’t, not yet.) And think through the possibilities of how to deal with the problems and simultaneously figure out what the story’s about. All while taking copious notes.

And notes are indeed copious. I have a spreadsheet where the first column is the chapter, the second is the page number, and the third is a brain dump of critiques and ideas relevant to what’s happening on that page. Most of the notes are rambling thoughts about whether some element of a scene works, whether a character’s thought or feeling is convincing, how this part is connected to this other part that I still need to figure out. Most pages have a few rows.

Every time I write a note in a cell that goes beyond what a single row displays, I let the words run on into oblivion. There are many more words in one row than the spreadsheet can easily display. I don’t expand the cell to show the full text of what I’ve written. There’s no wrapping. I let the sentence end where it will. It’s not easy to reread the notes, because I’m not planning to do that for a while.

For the notes that seem the most important, the ones with ideas that appear significant, I put an asterisk in the fourth column, cutting off even more of the text than in the rows above and below. Showing less of my run-on thoughts, hiding them away for the time being, as a way to signal their importance to my future self, who will have to bring it all together and make some sense of it. And to reassure my present self that I don’t have to think about it just yet.

There’s a separate worksheet for notes that aren’t related to anything on a specific page. Overall structure, related plot threads. Research notes, character ideas, themes. Comments that wonder how the pieces fit together. A random collection of the things you’re compelled to put down when you’re trying to will a novel into existence.

The spreadsheet idea is something I heard on a forgotten podcast or blog post or essay. You read the first draft and write down everything you want to change before you start the second draft. That way you get a full picture of what you have and what you have to do. You wait to make decisions about what to change until you have a grasp on the whole, rather than trying to rewrite it from top to bottom or piece by piece. That sounded like solid advice to me, an excellent alternative to the stacks of unreadable comments in a Google doc, so I’m following it.

I wish I could remember where I heard about this so I could thank them. Or maybe I should wait until I know whether it’s actually been useful or not.