I teach creative writing, which, for me, has a lot to do with creative reading (thanks for the term, Burroughs): how is this book structured? What’s the point-of-view? How does the writer deal with scene, time, transitions, character, movement, language, pacing—like how come Faulkner can go for nine pages without a period and it reads super slow but Selby can do the same thing and it moves like lightning? It has something to do with adjectives, I think; Selby rarely uses them, and Faulker uses three or four at a time—the rickety, water-soaked, creaking wagon wheel—AND, when he really wants you to slow down, he puts an and between each—the rickety and water-soaked and creaking wagon wheel—I’m thinking specifically of Light in August, but I’m sure there’s other shit going on in his other novels, especially if he’s in the first person … and tense! What about tense! After Tell Tale Heart, I thought I had the whole tense thing figured out, but I’ve since realized that having anything figured out in writing is the most ridiculous statement ever because somebody out there has busted open anything you thought you knew about anything. I just read this great essay by Francine Prose about how whenever she thought she knew what she was doing, she’d read something by Chekov that totally went totally the other way. Fucking Chekov. Rape Fantasies by Margaret Atwood did that to me, too: the whole story’s in past tense and then SHAZAM, on the last page we’re in present sitting in some bar??! And that Edward P. Jones story The First Day, which is in past for one sentence and then present-tense-little-girl until the end? WTF, Edward P. Jones?
Seriously, I LOVE this shit. I get super excited talking about it. I jump up and down in my chair. My students look at me like I’m on crack (until they start jumping up and down, too, which I know is when I’ve done my job right. When we all bounce) but then, then, then, THEN the question is, how can I use all this in my own writing? Like, what tense is my stuff in? What if I switch it? What if I yank out all the adjectives? What if I try this or that or that or this, and when you know that the solutions to whateverthehell challenge you’re having in your writing is there, in front of your face, sitting on your very own bookshelf! or maybe in a play you saw last week! or a movie! or maybe a TV show if the show is good (Hi, Keifer Sutherland! Hi, Lady Who Played Starbuck on BSG!) and the thing is—I could keep going. And going and going. This is, hands down, the most important thing about my life as a writer: having an understanding of craft. A love of craft. But in my life as a reader? Sometimes I want to turn that part of my brain off. I’m trying to think of it as a sort of control panel on the side of my head, like I’m a cylon or something, and can flip the switch to whatever kind of reading I’d like to focus on, subsequently canceling out the others:
Reading to study the craft.
Reading to learn the content.
Reading to critique the message.
Reading because I love to read.
Reading because I need a good laugh.
Reading because I want to make the world a better place.
Reading to my son.
Reading to escape.
Reading to relax.
So, I’ve been reading I See You Everywhere by Julia Glass, and what I want to talk about is the structure: multiple chronological short movements, each 3 years apart, in the lives of two sisters. I love that idea: to look at two characters through the lens of the most significant moments in their relationship. I love it, and I’m going to use it.
I’ve been reading I See You Everywhere by Julia Glass, and what I want to talk about is voice. It’s a dual 1st person, the narration jumping back and forth between the two sisters. Through my work with 2nd Story’s personal narratives, I spend a lot of time thinking about 1st person. We write our stories to be told aloud, and the language must be 100% authentic to how that storyteller speaks. Sometimes that feels really different from a more literary 1st person narration. There are times when these sisters speak and I’m like, That’s fancypants language, it’s not really her talking! And it’s not … it’s her voice on the page. But somewhere in the back of my head I’m like, Her voice on the page IS her voice speaking, and if it’s not authentic to her speaking voice—character that’s being created for me on the page—then I don’t buy it. But I don’t know if that’s a personal preference thing, or a solid rule (and if it is a solid rule, probably Chekov broke it, right?). Anyhow, it’s something I think about a lot, and look for in every first person narration. So much has to be taken into account: what time period are we in, who is this character, where are they from, what level of education have they had, etc.? How does that come into the voice on the page, and must that be authentic to the character’s speaking voice?
I’ve been reading I See You Everywhere by Julia Glass, and what I want to talk about is this struggle I’m having with how I read. You’re reading just to read, I told myself at page one. NOT to look at craft—but obviously, that’s not working. It’s the first thing I see, and actively shutting that part of my brain takes work (it’s totally like how Sookie in Trueblood is telekinetic and has to put in constant effort not to hear other people’s thoughts ’cause listening to other people’s thoughts all the time’ll drive a girl crazy. Shit, listening to your own thoughts all the time’ll drive you crazy; imagine hearing everyone?—That’s what I’m talking about. Except without the vampires [and while I'm on True blood ...WHY DO I HAVE TO WAIT A WHOLE YEAR TO GET THE NEXT SEASON IN ITUNES?] or awesome opening credits). I remember, back in grad school, and the crazy and necessary process of training myself to study craft, as opposed to metaphor or meaning. Like, instead of reading Moby Dick and arguing about whether or not the whale represented God, or The Man, or organized religion, or whateverthehell, maybe the whale could just be a whale for once and, instead, I look at how Melville dealt with vantage point and structure and model telling, ’cause those are the techniques I can use in my own work. Creative reading, indeed.
In an ideal universe, I’d read the book nine times in all sorts of ways, but who has that kind of time?
In an ideal world, I’d have that kind of time.