Sunday, January 28, 2018

Fiction Loses a Legend

Last week, at age 88, beloved author Ursula K. Le Guin, died. It helps a little to know that she had as healthy a perspective on mortality as everything else:
You will die. You will not live forever. Nor will any man nor any thing. Nothing is immortal. But only to us is it given to know that we must die. And that is a great gift: the gift of selfhood. For we have only what we know we must lose, what we are willing to lose…That selfhood which is our torment, and our treasure, and our humanity, does not endure. It changes, it is gone, a wave on the sea. Would you have the sea grow still and the tides cease, to save one wave, to save yourself? — The Farthest Shore
That book is fantasy, so maybe you’d think, “I don’t like that wizard, fairy, dragon stuff.” But, take care, because here’s what she said about the realm of imagination: 
People who deny the existence of dragons are often eaten by dragons. From within.
What did she mean?

Tip: Possibility is among our greatest creative gifts. Why reject it?

Her work gloriously intertwined myth, imagination, defiance, and poetry. You’d find a glimmer of revolution in everything she wrote or said. Here’s part of a speech at Bryn Mawr:
When women speak truly they speak subversively—they can’t help it: if you’re underneath, if you’re kept down, you break out, you subvert. We are volcanoes. When we women offer our experience as our truth, as human truth, all the maps change. There are new mountains. That’s what I want–-to hear you erupting. You young Mount St Helenses who don’t know the power in you – I want to hear you.
Quite timely in January, 2018. But gender issues have filled her books from the beginning, particularly the most famous one: The Left Hand of Darkness. It creates a fantastical world rich with suspense and some of the loveliest language ever put together. The novel raises questions about identity, society, and culture. How do we resist? What does it mean to love? How do we know who we are? 

She was a master of irony, as well. The Dispossessed is also more anthropological than supernatural. One of the worlds she creates prides itself on the wall that opens the book. What’s the big deal about a not particularly sturdy barrier? The people of Anarres don’t believe they’re hemmed in—they insist they’re protecting themselves from the outside. Voluntarily.

Le Guin’s talent combined keen understanding with enormous skill at expressing that understanding as no one else could. She was wonderfully modest and totally accessible to those who approached her at conferences. Not just a rare writer, but a rare human. 

And because of that, a great teacher.
Thanks to “show don’t tell,” I find writers in my workshops who think exposition is wicked. They’re afraid to describe the world they’ve invented.…This dread of writing a sentence that isn’t crammed with “gutwrenching action” leads fiction writers to rely far too much on dialogue, to restrict voice to limited third person and tense to the present.
She disliked misconceptions about writing as much as she disliked injustice or greed. This award-winning author devoted her life to nurturing the human capacity to create a reality more credible and moral than the actual one, saying, 
There have been great societies that did not use the wheel, but there have been no societies that did not tell stories.
At least we’ll always have hers.

Sunday, January 21, 2018

The Power of Richard Powers: Act II

Maybe you don’t read literary or experimental novels. Or you think novelists should leave poetry to the poets and lectures to the nonfiction writers. But. If you care  how your sentences sound, or have facts or beliefs to convey, Richard Powers can teach you lots. While you read.

All his novels have heft, but some are more digestible than others. Here’s why:
 One of my pleasures as an artist is to reinvent myself with each new book. If you’re going to immerse yourself in a project for three years, why not stake out a chunk of the world that is completely alien to you and go traveling? — from a Kevin Berger interview with Richard Powers, The Paris Review
What a great way to think about the writing of books, and what variety his readers get. Why not start with The Time of Our Singing? It links music with race relations and physics. At a concert on the Washington Mall by the black diva Marian Anderson, German Jewish physicist David Strom falls in love with Delia Daley, diva in training. In the racist world they inhabit, can music keep them united? Who will their three interracial children become? And, most crucially, what didn’t you know about your own racism? Not to mention physics.

The Echo Maker is also fairly conventional—except for its huge themes and heavenly voice. Here’s the opening:
Cranes keep landing as night falls. Ribbons of them roll down, slack against the sky. They float in from all compass points, in kettles of a dozen, dropping with the dusk. Scores of Grus Canadensis settle on the thawing river. They gather on the island flats, grazing, beating their wings, trumpeting: the advance wave of a mass evacuation. More birds land by the minute, the air red with calls.
This novel explores the brain injury resulting from an automobile accident, a plot which raises questions about “real” or “natural.” Then why cranes? As Margaret Atwood observes in  “The Heart of the Heartland” from New York Review of Books, Native Americans named these birds “echo makers” because of their call. For the protagonist’s brother, who thinks a stranger inhabits every familiar person, only an echo of the past remains. The novel conveys a moving story interspersed with psychology, neurology, and larger-than-life symbols. 

Orfeo has less plot. But if you’ve ever wondered why music affects us as it does, this is where to find out. The novel plumbs the mystery of music, the impact of silence, and the secret of creativity. Typically, Powers can’t restrain his sense of humor:
Bonner leans his forehead against hers. Zig when they think you’ll zag. Creation’s Rule Number Two.
     What’s Number One? Els asks, willing to be this bent soul’s straight man.
     Zag when they think you’ll zig.” 
So many brilliant novels by Richard Powers, so little space. Galatea 2.2 tackles Artificial Intelligence. Can a computer produce an essay indistinguishable from a scholar’s? As that computer becomes increasingly human, how does it feel? And what about the human teaching the computer to be something other than itself?

The Gold Bug Variations is the Powers novel I love best. Not much plot, but enough story and suspense to enliven passages about DNA, philosophy, and the history of science. Who wouldn’t love the synthesis of Bach’s Goldberg Variations with Edgar Allan Poe's “The Gold Bug”?  Here’s a sample. 
The loss of a great library to fire is a tragedy. But the surreptitious introduction of thousands of untraceable errors into reliable books, errors picked up and distributed endlessly by tireless researchers, is a nightmare beyond measure.
Tip: Want to stretch your horizons as a writer? Stretch your horizons as a reader.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

The Power of Richard Powers: Act I

This prize-drenched novelist isn’t for everyone, because, by his own admission in an interview with Alec Michod, he finds no distinction between novels focused on “thinking” versus those geared toward “feeling”:
We’re all driven by hosts of urges, some chaotic and Dionysian, some formal and Apollonian. The need for knowledge is as passionate as any other human obsession. And the wildest of obsessions has its hidden structure.
Most novels neither reveal hidden structure nor synthesize philosophy with plot. And often, readers associate the Apollonian world of music and hard science with nonfiction, and the Dionysian one with levity, drama, and passion. For this reason, the average reader generally gravitates toward literary novels or the more plot-driven, accessible alternatives. 

Obviously, we all get to read whatever we want, and many readers, and thus many writers, lack the patience for forays into abstractions like neuroscience, genetics, or music theory. If you’re up for that, though, the rewards of any novel by Richard Powers are enormous. What might you discover as reader, writer, and human being?

Powers, a former programmer, now composer, author, and teacher with boundless curiosity and humanity, says that
The brain is the ultimate storytelling machine, and consciousness is the ultimate story.
Let’s examine that. According to Lisa Cron in Wired for Story:The Writer's Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers from the Very First Sentence:
Story, as it turns out, was crucial to our evolution—more so than opposable thumbs. Opposable thumbs let us hang on; story told us what to hang on to.
Both Cron and Powers suggest that if if we’re going to label ourselves at all, we’re not rational creatures who convince with facts but folks inspired, driven, and completed by drama. In other words, the stories we tell make us who we are. 

And who is that? How constricted or broad? Powers continues with 
shared stories are the only way anyone has for escaping the straightjacket of self…We read to escape ourselves and become someone else, at least for a little while. Fiction is one long, sensuous derangement of familiarity through altered point of view…Fiction plays on that overlap between self-composure and total, alien bewilderment, and it navigates by estrangement. (Alec Michod interview)
Whether or not you ever read a novel by Powers (and the next blog will encouarage you to try), consider your opportunities and responsibilities as a storyteller.  You might want to view fiction a little differently.

~ Fiction performs its work by making the familiar strange and the strange familiar.

~ Fiction provides an opportunity to be less and more than oneself.

~ Fiction integrates the wildness of Dionysus with the reserve of Apollo.

~ Fiction convinces by synthesizing character and morality, action and idea.

~ Fiction introduces the grand possibility of uniting rather than dividing science and art.

Tip: Why limit the parameters of fiction? They can be as broad as you want to make them.

Sunday, January 7, 2018

More Real than Reality

Story depends on suspension of disbelief, which depends on creating a world that ironically boasts greater credibility and vitality than the everyday one. What’s the source of this term? A conversation between William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge about reaching an audience. 

Wordsworth focused on the intensity part, suggesting that the writer’s task is  
to give the charm of novelty to things of every day . . . the loveliness and the wonders of the world before us; an inexhaustible treasure, but for which, in consequence of the film of familiarity and selfish solicitude we have eyes, yet see not, ears that hear not, and hearts that neither feel nor understand.
Altering reader perception remains as important now as then. Coleridge, though. emphasized the capacity
to transfer from our inward nature a human interest and a semblance of truth sufficient to procure for these shadows of imagination that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith. . .
Without believability + electricity, readers won’t linger long. The novelist needs to heighten reality, producing one so acute that readers forget they encounter an imaginary one.

Is getting readers to accept this fictional reality difficult?
The reader picks up a book primed to believe the unbelievable. A reader knows a piece of fiction is fiction. He wants to be entertained by what-ifs and imagine-thats. The writer’s sole task, then, is to keep up his end of the contract, to keep the reader immersed in the reality of unreality. To do nothing to slap the reader into an awareness that what he’s reading is indeed impossible, improbable, and not worth imagining.  — Beth Hill,  “Convincing Readers Your Fiction is Real”
Tip: Unlike literal reality, fiction requires suspension of disbelief. 

Here’s why. Perhaps an author says there’s an animal resembling a miniature version of another animal. This creature is pale, not very big, and unusual in shape and features. The male gets pregnant and experiences violent contractions to deliver about two thousand offspring through a special stomach pouch. Does this seem a bit unreal? Provide a photograph and there’s no room for doubt.

But a fabricated creature is another story—especially when it appears in one. First, the creation of your own mind must be accessible to everyone else. You must convince your audience that the environmental factors of your novel’s world fostered this evolutionary outcome. Finally, this invented creature mustn’t prove too convenient, i.e. coincidentally materializing to produce threat or salvation. 

Fiction must prove itself, accomplishing this by changing the angle, nailing the details, designing the characters, and sharpening the causality. That’s why “but it happened that way” is no more strategic than why can’t they picture how “x” looks. Imagery is the writer’s job—not the reader’s.

Rely too much on reality itself (whom you know or what you remember) and you’ll have a harder time convincing readers to accept the reality you create. Instead, put yourself in your reader’s shoes. Is it vivid? Was it set up? What, given these circumstances, could really happen?

Readers want to accept fiction as a variant of truth. Don’t let them down.