Friday, June 3, 2011

Residency: Friday

I did my reading tonight--from a work in progress--and there were two immediate benefits:
1. I got to wear my fabulous skirt that I bought for the story-telling event; and
2. I offered two title suggestions, and I was promptly and convincingly told which title I should use.
A very good night.

Earlier in the day, I was delighted to have the chance to hear the amazing Dan Wakefield talk about Kurt Vonnegut.  (Dan is the editor of the forthcoming volume of Vonngut's letters.)

Again, fortunately, you don't have to rely on my scribbled notes, as Dan helpfully provided a great handout titled "Kurt Vonnegut's 8 Rules of Writing."  I can't reproduce the entire document, but here are two of my favorites:

"3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.

"7. Write to please just one person.  If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia."

Dan also read some relevant sections of Vonnegut's interview with The Paris Review:

....All the great story lines are great practical jokes that people fall for over and over again.

Can you give an example?

The Gothic novel. Dozens of the things are published every year, and they all sell. My friend Borden Deal recently wrote a Gothic novel for the fun of it, and I asked him what the plot was, and he said, “A young woman takes a job in an old house and gets the pants scared off her.”

Some more examples?

The others aren’t that much fun to describe: somebody gets into trouble, and then gets out again; somebody loses something and gets it back; somebody is wronged and gets revenge; Cinderella; somebody hits the skids and just goes down, down, down; people fall in love with each other, and a lot of other people get in the way; a virtuous person is falsely accused of sin; a sinful person is believed to be virtuous; a person faces a challenge bravely, and succeeds or fails; a person lies, a person steals, a person kills, a person commits fornication.

If you will pardon my saying so, these are very old-fashioned plots.

I guarantee you that no modern story scheme, even plotlessness, will give a reader genuine satisfaction, unless one of those old-fashioned plots is smuggled in somewhere. I don’t praise plots as accurate representations of life, but as ways to keep readers reading. When I used to teach creative writing, I would tell the students to make their characters want something right away—even if it’s only a glass of water. Characters paralyzed by the meaninglessness of modern life still have to drink water from time to time. One of my students wrote a story about a nun who got a piece of dental floss stuck between her lower left molars, and who couldn’t get it out all day long. I thought that was wonderful. The story dealt with issues a lot more important than dental floss, but what kept readers going was anxiety about when the dental floss would finally be removed. Nobody could read that story without fishing around in his mouth with a finger. Now, there’s an admirable practical joke for you. When you exclude plot, when you exclude anyone’s wanting anything, you exclude the reader, which is a mean-spirited thing to do. You can also exclude the reader by not telling him immediately where the story is taking place, and who the people are—

And what they want.

Yes. And you can put him to sleep by never having characters confront each other. Students like to say that they stage no confrontations because people avoid confrontations in modern life. “Modern life is so lonely,” they say. This is laziness. It’s the writer’s job to stage confrontations, so the characters will say surprising and revealing things, and educate and entertain us all. If a writer can’t or won’t do that, he should withdraw from the trade.

You can read the whole thing here-- is great, but not quite the same without Dan Wakefield's gravelly voice and personal stories.  How lucky I am to be here!


DC-area author Leslie Pietrzyk explores the creative process and all things literary.