Week twenty: Tell me a story

It is week twenty of 2019. How’s the writing coming? Here at the garret, it’s been a week of cold rain and sick kids and disrupted schedules. A stale, shut-in feeling has been threatening to close in all week, but I’ve managed to keep it at bay by focusing on stories. 

I wrapped up work on a short story with a deliciously unreliable narrator and a wicked twist at the end, and I started work on a promising historical novel which has given me the excuse to reread A Midwife’s Tale, Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s Pulitzer Prize–winning biography of an eighteenth-century American midwife. Reading about the intrepid Martha Ballard walking across the frozen Kennebec River on the way to a delivery, breaking through the ice, pulling herself out, borrowing a neighbor’s horse, and then riding on to get to her patient was just what I needed to pull myself out of my own self-pitying funk.

Perhaps it was the funk, but I found this week’s book, Janet Burroway’s Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft, uncongenial. I respect it and I trust much of its wisdom – but I did not like it. I spent a lot of time this week mulling over why, and I’ll circle back to that at the end of this newsletter, but let’s start with the nuggets of wisdom I excavated.

Burroway excels at clearly and thoroughly explaining the key principles of fiction writing and finding (or creating) examples that illustrate the principle at work. She identifies three kinds of dialogue (direct, indirect, summarized) and three uses for it (to reveal character, set a mood, move the action). Similarly, she outlines four direct ways to present character (“appearance, speech, action, and thought”) and two indirect ways (“authorial interpretation and presentation by another character”) and advises on why you would choose one method over another. Her discussion of point of view is organized around these questions: “Who speaks? To whom? In what form? At what distance from the action?” She presents the available options and shows the effects each one can have.

I particularly liked Burroway’s discussion of summary and scene, which she likens to the “mortar” and the “building blocks” of the story. Many beginning writers excel at scene but struggle with summary, in part because they don’t understand how to manipulate it. Burroway provides a helpful distinction between sequential and circumstantial summary. Sequential summary compresses a specific period of time, as Margaret Atwood does in this passage from Lady Oracle: “The snow finally changed to slush and then to water, which trickled down the hill of the bridge in two rivulets, one on either side of the path; the path itself turned to mud. The bridge was damp, it smelled rotten, the willow branches turned yellow, the skipping ropes came out.”

Circumstantial summary, on the other hand, helps writers generalize, setting the stage for the moment when events do not follow the usual pattern. Compare, for example, another passage from Lady Oracle: “My own job was fairly simple. I stood at the back of the archery range, wearing a red leather apron, and rented out the arrows. When the barrels of arrows were almost used up, I’d go down to the straw targets. . . . The difficulty was that we couldn’t make sure all the arrows had actually been shot before we went to clear the targets. Rob would shout, ‘Bows DOWN, please, arrows OFF the string,’ but occasionally someone would let an arrow go, on purpose or by accident. This was how I got shot. We’d pulled the arrows and the men were carrying the barrels back to the line; I was replacing a target face, and I’d just bent over.”

The purpose of both kinds of summary is to give readers the information they need in order to understand the significance of the scene you are going to show (that arrow in the narrator’s ass), and to do so artfully, weaving in hints about character or setting or theme.

I also admired Burroway’s insistence that fiction is driven not just by conflict, but by “a pattern of connection and disconnection between characters that is the main source of its emotional effect.” It’s the emotional effect, Burroway argues, that is the true power of a work like Romeo and Juliet, the element that “makes the otherwise trivial tale of a feud into a tragedy.”

And this point also explains, I think, why I found Writing Fiction difficult to like. Even though Burroway, a novelist herself, refers occasionally to her own writing practices and experiences, she’s hard to locate in the book. Writing Fiction was first published in 1982; the tenth edition was published in March of this year. While much has been gained in this update (Burroway and her co-authors draw examples from an admirably fresh and diverse group of authors), I wonder if the distinctive voice and perspective of the author has been lost. References to Ultrasuede jackets and telephone books sit uneasily alongside references to Snapchat. The former feel unmoored, left behind, while the latter feels obligatory, a calculated reference point for an assumed audience of college students. 

The original story of the book (nonfiction books have stories too) has been disrupted, and it hasn’t been replaced with a new narrative through-thread. Burroway, like myself and probably many of you, has lived in the Age of Ultrasuede and in the Age of Snapchat. What has changed about stories and storytelling and the teaching of storytelling in that time? Burroway reaches for an answer in the introduction – “We are, I believe, at a point in history where, the computer and the internet having reintroduced writing as a constant activity, the elite again becomes the demotic, with both good and bad consequences” – but the writing here is stilted, overly formal, and non-committal. She recognizes the influence of visual media like film and television on the novel, pointing out that while nineteenth-century readers were carefully shepherded from point A to point B by a solicitous, often chatty, omniscient narrator, twentieth-century readers don’t even blink when asked to walk from the deep POV of character A to the deep POV of character B across the narrow little bridge of a blank line or perhaps an asterisk or two. 

And yet Burroway largely portrays film, television, and genre fiction as an army of barbarians storming the cloister of literary fiction: “the tendency of recent literature is to move away from rigid categories, toward a loosening or crossing of story types—so-called genre-busting or genre-bending, in which genre fiction presses at the bounds of literary fiction.” Genre fiction is variously described as plot-driven, unrealistically and unreasonably optimistic about the inherent fairness of life, and written to appeal to a narrow range of interests – it’s positioned as the marker that writers should be steering away from and not toward. I think Burroway may be misreading the waters here, and that we are already at a point where the barrier between literary fiction and genre fiction is starting to crumble. Once you begin to see literary fiction as simply another type of story, with its own conventions and reader expectations, it’s hard to go back to the ranked dichotomy.

Burroway tells us that “creative writing must remain a college subject because, like philosophy and history (and similarly unremunerative studies), it is neither taught nor learned without pedagogical effort” and Writing Fiction has the feel of obligation clinging to it – the whiff of assigned reading and compulsory writing and joyless grading. 

Compare this vision to that of Chuck Wendig, who talks about “story,” not about “fiction,” and who, notably, writes everything from comic books to RPGs to novels: 

“Storytelling is a shared tradition. We all get to pass around the talking stick and the magic witch’s eye. It’s not just for the priests or the chosen few. Telling stories is a powerful common denominator. And listening to stories is as vital and as common as breathing. We are bound together by our stories. We share traits and tales through those narratives—and we also help to spread empathy and compassion and critical thinking through them. Stories are the ripples that carry water from my shore to yours, and yours back to mine.”

I love classrooms. I spent decades in them, long after I had to, both as a student and as a teacher. Classrooms can be the best place to question fundamental assumptions and break down barriers and experiment. But I think that, right now, I want to be at the campfire passing the talking stick, telling my story and listening to other people tell theirs and figuring out how they all work and what new ways of telling might emerge.

Here’s to passing the talking stick, y’all,

Next week’s book: James Frey, How to Write a Damn Good Mystery: A Practical Step-by-Step Guide from Inspiration to Finished Manuscript

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