Point of Entry, Point of Departure

The longer I write, the more I’m intrigued by how a word can conceal as much if not far more than it reveals. Yet if regarded with care, any word can serve not as a wall but as a window to what it can’t further express.

One of my favorite books is The Hundred Greatest Stars, by the astronomer James B. Kaler, because he transforms the word “star” from a single encompassing category into something like a prism reflecting the light of a dizzying variety of stellar objects.

Take, for instance, the star V V Cephei. This red supergiant, a mere 2,000 light years away, is so large that its diameter is almost the size of the orbit of Saturn. How big is that? Well, take a look at this humbling comparison with our own star, the sun:

Another star, W Ursae Majoris, is an even closer neighbor, only 160 light years away, which places it practically right across the street from us in the galactic neighborhood. This is a double star system, though with a doozy of a twist—the two stars are so close together that they actually touch as they whirl around each other, forming, in essence, a strange revolving single object:

Kaler’s book is filled with white dwarf stars; double, triple and even four star systems; neutron star x-ray bursters; super magnetic stars; a whole panoply of cosmic difference. After reading his book, I’ve found it impossible to peer up at the night sky and see those scattered grains of light as anything resembling a uniform category. The word “star” now offers the infinite possibilities of the universe itself.

Our universe is a big place, though, so why not take a look at a word that operates on a more intimate level? A smile is among the most common of human expressions, one that cuts across all cultures. Yet the word “smile” implies a singular form that it is not and can never be. As Daniel McNeill observes in his book The Face, smiles “vary like a kaleidoscope. Turn the tube slightly, change a nuance here or there, and a new meaning arises.” Some languages are better at expressing this morphing quality than others. In Japanese, several words take on this challenge: “niko-niko, a smile of peacefulness and content; nita-nita, a smile tinged with contempt; ni, a brief grin; niya-niya, an often unpleasant way of smiling when suppressing joy; ninmari, a smile after achieving a goal; chohshoh, a sneer.”

The task of a writer, it seems to me, is recognizing that any word will take you only so far, that its core definition is simply a first step. Without this understanding, words can actually restrict your vision of the world.

As a teacher, I’ve become weary of the words “beginning” and “ending,” which I feel limit my students’ attempts to learn how to shape a story. Sometimes a young writer’s story will first feature reams of exposition, backstory upon backstory before a scene finally offers the drama we crave, all in the service of “beginning” the story in some chronological fashion. And sometimes that same hypothetical young writer will “end” a story with a flourish that implies, well, that’s that!

Yet there can be no “beginning” to any story, because there will always be a series of events that have come before, and as for an “ending,” the world simply continues on its way regardless of our attempts at closure, doesn’t it?

So I ask my students to think of their first page as the point of entry into an already unfolding narrative, and to think of the last page as their point of departure from that same continuing narrative. Charles Dickinson’s hypnotic short story “Risk” may take place entirely during a single evening while a circle of friends and acquaintances play a game of Risk, but its most central drama concerns the loss of a child that occurred one year earlier. On the other hand, Graham Swift’s story “Learning to Swim,” though it takes place within an afternoon’s half hour at the beach, dramatizes the moment when a child makes his choice of navigation between his two warring parents, a choice that will, the reader assumes, set the structure of the family for many years to come.

Where you enter a narrative and where you exit gives you the shape of the fiction you are trying to call into being. Or, to put it more bluntly, the bullet may be the wider world of your narrative flying along, but the apple is your story.

 Go to post page

February 18th, 2010 by admin

Any Novel’s Negative Twenty Questions

During the production of the movie version of The English Patient, the novel’s author, Michael Ondaatje, became friends with the film editor for the project, Walter Murch.  Their relationship eventually blossomed into The Conversations, a book of, well, conversations, Ondaatje and Murch’s back-and-forth about any subject under the sun, filmmaking, art, fiction, science, poetry.  A wonderfully intelligent and witty book.

One of my favorite sections is their discussion of the quantum physicist John Wheeler’s invention of a variation on the parlor game Twenty Questions, a variation he called “Negative Twenty Questions.”

In the normal version, someone leaves briefly while the remaining folks agree to choose a particular object that’s in the room. The returning person gets twenty questions to guess the agreed-upon object, with “Is it bigger than a breadbox?” being the classic opening gambit.

In Negative Twenty Questions, however, all the remaining folks privately pick their own objects, though the person returning doesn’t know this.  In fact, as Murch observes, “Nobody knows what anyone else is thinking.  The game proceeds regardless, which is where the fun begins.”

When returning Joe (let’s call him) asks the standard bigger-than-a-breadbox question, if the first person says no, then the other players, who may have selected objects that are bigger, now have to look around the room for something that fits the definition.  And if “Is it Hollow?” is Joe’s next question, then any of the players who chose new and unfortunately solid objects now have to search around for a new appropriate object.  As Murch says, “a complex vortex of decision making is set up, a logical but unpredictable chain of ifs and thens.”  Yet somehow this steady improvisation finally leads—though not always, there’s the tension—to a final answer everyone can agree with, despite the odds.

Wheeler thought this game reflected the structure of the quantum world, yet Murch observes that it reminds him of making a film: the casting will influence how the costumer will dress the lead actor, which will in turn influence the art director’s design of the set, which in turn influences. . .  and somehow, with all these subtle developing variables, a movie gets made.

Reading this section in The Conversations over again recently (it’s the kind of book that invites returning to and making rediscoveries), I was reminded of the great Brazilian writer Clarice Lispector’s description of writing a novel, from her Selected Cronicas:

“The book came together simultaneously as it were, emerging more here than there, or suddenly more there than here: I would interrupt a sentence in Chapter Ten, let us say, in order to write Chapter Two, which I would then abandon for months on end while I wrote Chapter Eighteen.  I showed endless patience: putting up with the considerable inconvenience of disorder without any reassurance that I would finish the book.”

How familiar this seems to me, various parts of a book calling to each other, unexpected connections reaching out.

I first became aware of this process when I was a graduate student at City College and studied with Donald Barthelme.  I remember him urging me during one conference to consider writing a novel—probably because at the time I mainly wrote prose poems that barely extended into the territory of the short story, and Don always liked to mix things up a bit.  The very idea, though, alarmed me. I couldn’t imagine ever writing any single thing that continued into hundreds of pages, and my squeaky timid protest to Don’s suggestion was, “I wouldn’t know where to begin.”

His response surprised me.  “Whenever I begin a novel,” he said, “the beginning never stays at the beginning.  It ends up in the middle, or near the end.  It never stays put where I started.”

I’d always assumed that one began a novel by starting on page one and slogging through to the last sentence, so this revelation served as some relief to me, and made the task of writing a novel appear a little more approachable.  Still, I don’t think I fully understood him until I began, years later, to work on my first novel, and found myself putting together its different sections like pieces of a puzzle that had as yet no defined borders, while trying to discover and answer my own secret twenty questions.

 Go to post page

February 1st, 2010 by admin