If you’re stuck in a story, have one of your characters tell a lie or a secret. Something will change and perk up. (It may be that this works when you’re also stuck in a boring conversation at a party.)
Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer is an amazingly rich book, excellent for readers and writers. (Get ready, Converse MFA students, this one will be on your reading lists!) She examines passages from a wide variety of novels and stories, with a focus on “classics,” to show how writers achieve depth and nuance in their work. And just when you think you have all the “rules,” there’s a wonderful chapter in which she shows us how Chekhov successfully breaks all these “rules.”
Here’s a quote from Chekhov himself that Prose includes in the book:
“It is time for writers to admit that nothing in this world makes sense. Only fools and charlatans think they know and understand everything. The stupider they are, the wider they conceive their horizons to be. And if an artist decides to declare that he understands nothing of what he sees—this in itself constitutes a considerable clarity in the realm of thought, and a great step forward.”
She goes on to write:
“The second mystery to me is how, without ever being direct, [Chekhov] communicates the fact that he is not describing the world or how people should see the world or how he, Anton Chekhov, sees the world, but only the world that one or another character inhabits for a certain span of time. When the characters are unattractive, we never feel the author hiding behind them, peeking out from around them to say, ‘This isn’t me, this isn’t me!’…
“But to me the greatest mystery is this matter he keeps alluding to in his letters: the necessity of writing without judgment. Not saying, ‘Stealing horses is an evil.’ Not to be the judge of one’s characters and their conversations but rather the unbiased observer.”
Super-smart book. Read it now!
I need a porch swing: it’s the perfect place to daydream, watch carpenter bees, listen to birds, ponder the problems of my struggling characters, and drink wine in the evening.