Guest Post, Marylee MacDonald: The Man in a Room Alone

The “Man In A Room Alone” Problem (And How to Solve It)

Marylee MacDonald bio pictureAll of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.— from Blaise Pascal’s Pensées

Writing teachers often tell students that it’s Death To Your Story to place “a man in a room alone.” Is this good advice, or, like “Show. Don’t tell,1” advice that is applied far more often than is warranted? Let’s look at the pros and cons.

Mrs. Dalloway and the Ticking Clock

In Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway time moves millisecond by millisecond while Clarissa Dalloway’s thoughts flit from flowers to passersby to memories to the meaning of life. Many scenes in this literary novel have no dramatic action and no other characters or events to bump the protagonist off course. However, the author’s goal was not to write a page-turner. Woolf’s project as a writer was to capture the ephemeral moments of time.

Laying her brooch on the table, she had a sudden spasm, as if, while she mused, the icy claws had had the chance to fix in her. She was not old yet. She had just broken into her fifty-second year. Months and months of it were still untouched. June, July, August! Each still remained almost whole, and, as if to catch the falling drop, Clarissa (crossing to the dressing table) plunged into the very heart of the moment, transfixed it, there— the moment of this June morning on which was the pressure of all the other mornings, seeing the glass, the dressing-table, and all the bottles afresh, collecting the whole of her at one point (as she looked into the glass), seeing the delicate pink face of the woman who was that very night to give a party; of Clarissa Dalloway; of herself.2

Clarissa Dalloway is doing what Pascal says is nearly impossible. She sits—and forces us to sit—within the glass bell jar of her own thoughts. The novel is both wonderful and (for many of today’s readers) incredibly slow. We’re stuck in nondramatic scenes where there’s little overt conflict. Characters rarely strive to reach a goal.

The Man In Bed (Alone)

No man is more alone—and no scene less dramatic—than one with a character awakening from sleep. One of my favorite novels— Paul Bowles’s Sheltering Sky— opens with a man in a room alone.

He awoke, opened his eyes. The room meant very little to him; he was too deeply immersed in the non-being from which he had come. If he had not the energy to ascertain his position in time and space, he also lacked the desire.

If it’s truly a no-no to place a man in a room alone, how could I have read that novel and taken any pleasure from it? I’m not talking the movie version with John Malkovich, but the actual book from which the movie sprang.

But wait! Bowles’s 1949 novel about alienation and despair isn’t the only novel opening with a touseled-haired protagonist.

A Woman In Bed (Alone)

The High Road, by Irish writer Edna O’Brien begins with woman in a room alone in bed:

It rose, swelled, then burst and dispersed in a great clatter of sound. First it seemed to be a roar inside my head, a remembered roar, a remembered summons, but then through the warmth of sleep it became clear that it was a roar being uttered at that very moment, either in the room or on the landing outside. I thought I heard my name—Anna, Anna—being uttered with malice.

My hand went instinctively toward the bedside table only to find that there was no lamp, nor table where a lamp could be, and then slowly and unnervingly it came to me that I was not at home, that I had come to this place, this new place, and gradually I remembered my walk of the evening before, the strange town, a mountain, and now this intemperate roar while it was still dark.

Not only is this gal alone. She can barely remember how she got there.

An Epidemic of Amnesia

Walk down a bookstore’s aisles. Open novels at random. A good many (about an eighth by my count) begin with a character emerging from sleep. Not only that, but a frightening number of fictional characters have amnesia. I mean, really, how many people have you ever known who’ve had amnesia? None, I daresay. 

Authorial Choices

Why do authors begin their novels this way? Two reasons:

  • It’s efficient.
  • We’re overly fascinated with our characters.

Let’s look at efficiency. When a book opens with only one character, readers have only one name to learn. The author can get the story rolling without the distraction of other characters and without over-much attention to setting. The reader watches the character’s teeth-brushing, hair-combing and staring-at-a-face-in-the-mirror. (That, too, has turned into a cliché.)  Essentially, the author has one ball to juggle, not three or four.

But I think there’s another reason authors open with characters getting out of bed. Very likely we authors got to know our characters by yanking back the sheets and saying, “Wake up! Time to get moving.” Like nutmeg on cappuccino, we sprinkle on amnesia. It’s purpose? To add tension.

An author who kicks off a novel with a character in a room alone, or who writes scenes such as those in Mrs. Dalloway, risks losing the reader to boredom. (Sorry, Virginia Woolf.) Adding amnesia doesn’t help. Readers think, “I’ve read this before.”

Coming Up With A Plan

Once in a while, having a character in a room alone is exactly what the story demands. Just as in real life, fictional people need to make plans.  Often they start planning right after an action scene, particularly if what they’d been planning before has failed.

In Pat Barker’s Regeneration, a novel about shell-shocked World War I vets, Dr. Rivers is desperately trying to figure out a strategy to fix soldiers’ psyches and return them to the battlefield. In this passage, he’s in his office considering what kinds of treatments might work best:

The change he demanded of them—and  by implication of himself—was not trivial. Fear, tenderness—these emotions were so despised that they could be admitted into consciousness only at the cost of what it meant to be a man. Not that Rivers’s treatment involved any encouragement of weakness or effeminacy. His patients might be encouraged to acknowledge their fears, their horror of the war—but they were still expected to do their duty and return to France.

After running through the difficulties of achieving his objectives, he comes up with a plan to try a new set of experiments. These involve “ice cubes, bristles, near-boiling water and pins.” If the reader hadn’t spent time with Rivers in a room alone, his new plan to try these experiments would strike us as cruel. Instead, when we witness his thought process, we understand that the experiments make ghastly good sense.

Calming Down and Processing

In the same novel the soldier/poet Sassoon has seen ghosts. He needs to process what he’s seen, and weighs the likelihood that Rivers will believe him or write him up as crazy.

The palms of his hands were sweating and his mouth was dry.

He needed to talk to Rivers, though he’d have to be careful what he said, since Rivers was a thorough-going rationalist who wouldn’t take kindly to tales of the supernatural, and might even decide the symptoms of a war neurosis were manifesting themselves at last. Perhaps they were.

Sasson goes to find Rivers, but an orderly tells him Rivers isn’t there and won’t return for three weeks. Sassoon, a man who ought to be talking to someone, faces this setback and must come up with a new plan. Again, he keeps his own counsel and makes his decision when he’s by himself.

Sasson went slowly upstairs, unable to account for his sense of loss. After all, he’d known Rivers was going…Sassoon collected his washbag and went along to the bathroom. He felt almost dazed. As usual he turned to lock the door, and as usual remembered there were no locks. At times like this the lack of privacy was almost intolerable. He filled the basin, and splashed his face and neck. Birds, sounding a little stunned as if they too needed to recover from the night, were beginning, cautiously, to sing.

As in real life, characters in fiction must let their feelings surface. It’s only when they’re alone—after the crisis has passed—that they can regain their equilibrium.

When characters have gone through an ordeal and we’ve seen that ordeal dramatized in real time, we should push them into a room alone. That’s when they can let their feelings surface, process what just happened, and plan what to do next.

Scene and Summary

Writers who want to capture a reader’s attention would do well to avoid the cliché of having an amnesiac character or one awakening from sleep. Similarly, if you write lengthy, nondramatic scenes with solitary characters, readers may lose interest. In summaries the opposite is true. Readers want to see how characters react and how they’re going to cope with what just happened.

Pascal was right about humankind’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone. We can take it, but only when we’re not forced to sit for too long. Passages of soul-searching and rumination are better handled in narrative summary than in scene.

  1. “Show” refers to scenes. The action slows down and the clock ticks in real time. “Tell” refers to summary passages. These are also called narrative or expository passages. It means that the story is crunching events that take place over minutes, hours, or days into a compact ball. Summary passages don’t try to simulate real time.
  2. Woolf, Virginia. Mrs Dalloway: (Annotated) (Kindle Locations 492-497). Unknown. Kindle Edition.

 

Guest Post, Kendall Pack: The Find

The Find: Discovering what characters care about

Christmas Eve means Silverado. It has since I was twelve and it will until I’m dead. For the rest of my siblings, the tradition of watching this (to be honest, average) Western late on Christmas Eve night has gone into the bin with all the other trappings of childhood. I’m twenty-eight, well past the days when it was reasonable for me to entertain extended bouts of childhood fancy, and yet I still go into every Christmas season, slogging through White Christmas and It’s a Wonderful Life and all the vast catalogue of classic Christmas films, all while keeping my heart turned fully toward Scott Glenn, Danny Glover, and the Kevins, Costner and Kline, shooting it out Magnificent Seven-style with some bad ranchers in the hours between Christmas Eve and Christmas morning.

There’s a line in that film that sticks out to me. Kevin Kline’s character Paden is sitting in a saloon while his friends are preparing to take the fight to the ranchers. The woman running the saloon knows Paden should be out there too but something is holding him back. She says, “There’s no telling what you’re gonna care about.” Paden throws her a glance that says it’s her. That if he steps out of the saloon, her life is in danger. Of course, it all works out and Paden gets to shoot a few bad guys along with everyone else. But the important thing is that idea of the things characters care about, especially when common sense says they shouldn’t.

This is a concept I’ve called The Find. It’s called a bunch of other things, but I call it The Find (for trademark purposes, because this is my retirement plan). I teach it in improv classes and in composition classes and in creative writing workshops as a way of establishing characters or, in the case of college essays, honing the thesis. It has become equally useful as a way to flesh out characters and discover landmarks in a plot. The basic idea is this: find one thing, the more seemingly innocuous the better, and then walk each character in front of it and write about their response.

What you’ll discover is that, while one character may see the item or event as meaningless, another might recognize it as the key to their success. Take for example the mosquito in amber, discovered at the beginning of Jurassic Park. We see a mosquito and we may have a variety of responses, but it is rare that we would see one and think: $$$. Richard Hammond sees that mosquito and thinks: dinosaur park. Had the team found, instead of a mosquito, a living breathing T-rex, the responses would have been too limited. It’s the wide range of possibilities that something as seemingly insignificant as a mosquito presents that makes it a great entry point to the film.

In our writing, we have to discover what makes a character react, especially disproportionately to other characters. Everyone reacts in the expected way when they see the Zapruder film or a YouTube compilation of puppies yawning. But imagine if your character, watching the Zapruder film, could only think of the irreparable damage done to the upholstery of the car, or if your character could only focus on the teeth of those puppies. These are things the common person wouldn’t care about, and the common reaction has no place in literature. We want people who act outside the norm, who see the world through a lens that they’ve developed through unique experiences. It’s hard to develop a character from scratch, one that feels lived-in and real. But by discovering how that character reacts to given stimuli, we can find motivations that we never knew our characters had.

I’m writing a novella that started as a joke. At first it was a series of fake book covers using stock photos of bearded men on motorcycles, and then I started to write blurbs for the back cover, and now I’ve written over twenty pages of the thing. It all broke loose when I got fixated on the motorcycle and asked myself, “What if someone stole the motorcycle?” Now I have the beginning of a less-than-serious novel about a man on a desperate search for his bike as he’s hunted by several shadowy figures and subprime government agencies looking for the same bike, all for different reasons. The bike made the story explode from a two-dimensional image to a full story. It isn’t destined to be a classic, but I’m having more fun writing this than I have many of the stories I’ve come up with in the last year.

That’s the most important thing The Find can do, get the writer invested in the writing. We want to know how far this impetus can take us. If a mosquito can be the start of the resurgence of dinosaurs (and a film franchise that has made its participants millions), then what can a typically overlooked object that appears in your character’s line of sight do to expand the scope of your story? A character must have something to react to, and their reactions will show what makes them unique. Rather than create a character by cobbling together a bunch of unique attributes that have become cliched by their overuse (looking at you, sexual deviancy and sons fearing they’ll never be as cool as their dads), discover your characters by having them react to the world around them in honest ways.

I’m still not sure why I’m the one who can’t stop watching Silverado on Christmas Eve while the rest of my siblings seem less and less enthused with each passing year, but I pursue that desire because it reminds me that each character has unique responses to the things they experience. If I let those things fall away, the characters lose the spark that makes them worth writing about. And that, like Kevin Kline missing the chance to shoot it out with a bunch of bad guys, would be a real tragedy.

Kendall Pack's family in front of the Christmas tree.

The author and his family. Kendall is the one on the back right, refusing to smile.

Guest Post, David Huddle: The Nine Strengths

David HuddleThe Nine Strengths: What a Story-Writer Possesses that He or She May Not Realize as Even Greater Strengths in Novel-Writing

You got to know that you know what you know.

–Michael Casey

“The Company Proficiency Test Average”

Obscenities

Beginning fiction-writers usually start with the short story–for the obvious reason that at least on the surface of it, shorter seems easier. But most story-writers also aspire eventually to write novels, and the conventional wisdom is that writing short stories is the apprentice work for writing novels. A stupid way that it’s often phrased is that writing short stories is for children, while writing novels is for grown-ups. However, the occasion of trying to write a novel turns out to be so intimidating for even accomplished story-writers that they can forget to use their most highly developed tools and most valuable habits of creative thinking. Something about all those pages, all those characters, and all that narrative time to be covered can make a would-be novelist panic, forget what he knows, and make unfortunate decisions he’d never make in writing a story.

This was the case with yours truly. I’d published five story collections and a novella before I managed to write a publishable novel. And it wasn’t for lack of trying. In the old computers asleep in my attic two complete novel-manuscripts have found their final resting places. The good news is that recently I’ve written a couple of novels, one of them in three months, the other in six months. Like everything else in writing, this productive phase was mostly just a matter of luck, but I also believe that I’ve finally come into possession of things I knew perfectly well forty years ago. I had the knowledge and the tools all along, but the monster that a novel appeared to be when I was trying to write one scared me out of using my strengths. Instead I tried to rely on my weaknesses–big thinking, abstractions, philosophizing, tricky plot moves, high drama, far-fetched characters, etc. What follows, out of my experience, is a brief discussion of some story-writing tools that I now understand to be even more well-suited for novel-writing than they are for story-writing:

1. A veteran story-writer learns when to leave off, i.e. when to tease, to engage the reader’s imagination by way of omission, to motivate the reader to keep going–in the story or in his or her imagination–in spite of frustration. This applies especially to story endings, but it also applies to sections of stories. Or even to sentences in the middle of a paragraph. E.g., the teasing withholding of how Curt Lemon died in Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried” makes a reader understand the deep significance of that death to the members of Lemon’s platoon.

2.  A first principle for story-writers–often so much an assumption that the writer him- or herself is no longer conscious of it–is that it is crucial not to be boring. “Leaving out the parts that most people skip” (as Tony Hillerman phrased it) is pretty natural for a short-story writer, but a beginning novelist will often foolishly feel compelled to fill in a lot of blank pages. The novel occasion can persuade one that one must throw everything into the narrative rather than judiciously leaving many things out.

3.  A story-writer often discovers both the pleasure and the narrative effectiveness of withholding something of narrative importance–of simply not overtly revealing a basic fact.  E.g., the narrative of J.D. Salinger’s “Pretty Mouth and Green My Eyes” refuses to say straight out that the woman in bed with the gray-haired man is the wife of the poor fellow who calls the gray-haired man to ask if he knows where his wife is.  Everything in the text points to that being the case, but the absence of a factual assertion infuses the story with ominous possibility and tension. John Irving employs a similar strategy with the death of a beloved child character in The World According to Garp.

4. Because short stories are such a specialized and highly refined literary genre, their practitioners assume that their readers are adults who have little patience for the obvious. Thus, story-writers take pleasure in challenging their readers. People who aren’t serious and skilled readers are not inclined to read contemporary short stories. Those who do read them are literary gourmets. George Saunders, Tobias Wolff, T.C. Boyle, Amy Hempel, and Alice Munro expect their readers to bring background, imagination, a deeply ironic sensibility, and linguistic alertness to the reading occasion. But the high-end readers a story-writer wants are the exactly same readers he wants for the novel he might write if he is lucky.

5. Because the main characters of short stories are almost always “outsiders,” story-writers learn to trust their own strangeness, quirks & kinks, improper thoughts, obsessions, etc. as “the good stuff” of a narrative. This is not traditionally the case with novelists who are most often concerned with mainstream or regular citizens. (In The Lonely Voice, Frank O’Connor argues that “the short story more than any other genre involves a protagonist who is an outsider and operates on the periphery of society.”) Contemporary novels, however, are more and more inclined to “involve” oddball protagonists. Story-writers rely on the oddball protagonist who lives within them, but all too often they think that weirdo can’t possibly help them write a novel.

6.  You do not become a short story-writer unless you possess a natural inclination to narrow the scope, to rely on a very small picture to bring authority to a big picture–to use mostly detailed accounts of scenes as the stuff of narrative. In fact I’m certain that the little-picture method of composition is the path story-writers take to discover whatever truth their work has to offer. Story-writers become synecdoche specialists. However, when they attempt the longer form, they can lose faith in this sophisticated and long-cultivated talent. My experience has taught me what now seems obvious–that the impulse to focus minutely is of as much value in making novels as it is in story-making.

7. Story-writers become geniuses of narrative transitions–or the writing of transitionless narratives–stories that use white space to represent time-gaps instead of conventional phrasing like “A week later,” or “In the days that followed.” Dead space, or lifeless language, in novels is just as deadly as it is in stories, but the beginning novelist may not think so. By the way, my all-time favorite transitionless moments in fiction occurs in Flannery O’Connor’s “Parker’s Back:

…Sara Ruth agreed to take a ride in his truck. Parker parked it on a deserted road and suggested to her that they lie down together in the back of it.

“Not until after we’re married,” she said – just like that.

“Oh that ain’t necessary,” Parker said and as he reached for her, she thrust him away with such force that the door of the truck came off and he found himself flat on his back on the ground. He made up his mind then and there to have nothing further to do with her.

They were married in the County Ordinary’s office because Sarah Ruth thought churches were idolatrous.

8.  After Hemingway, “show, don’t tell,” became the story-writer’s mantra. Contemporary story-writers (most extravagantly and brilliantly, Harold Brodkey), however, have shown the way toward both showing and telling. The show-don’t-tell template, though, never leaves the story-writers’ thinking, whereas it often doesn’t show up at all in the efforts of a beginning novelist. And story-writers making early attempts at novel-writing–because they don’t believe it applies to making narratives ten or fifteen times longer than a short story–are all too often inclined to switch off that useful little interior mantra that never stops whispering “show, don’t tell.” They explicate too much of what they should dramatize. I advocate both telling and showing, but I think I do a better job of telling because my habit is to err on the side of showing.

9.  The dynamic nature of the interior lives of individual human beings is the bread and butter of fiction-writing. The interior life is what fiction brings to art that the other forms either can’t manage at all or else have to try to accomplish in unnatural ways–e.g. voice-over in movies. Both story-writers and novelists understand this perfectly well. What a story-writer brings to the novel-writing occasion is a refined sense of interior-life management. Which is to say that the story-writer is less inclined than the apprentice novelist to indulge a protagonist in pages and pages of soul searching and mental noodling. Naïve novelists can be wildly indulgent when they open up their characters’ thoughts and feelings, whereas story-writers bring speed, agility, and tact to their rendering of their characters’ thoughts and feelings. Novel readers may want more pages, but they also want narratives that intensely engage them from beginning to end. Which is to say that just because they’re reading a novel they’re no more tolerant of literary fooling around than a story reader is. They want what we all want–the dream that is so compelling we don’t want to wake up.

Guest Blog Post, Samuel Kolawole: Where My Stories Grow From

Samuel KolawoleAn inscription written on the chassis of a crawling commuter omnibus triggered the beginning of my newly completed novel. The inscription appeared to me one hot afternoon in the midst of the rush that is often part of our lives in Nigeria. I think I must have seen the bus many times before then but that afternoon I took a few moments to ponder. It set off a notion of how I would tell a story with a bus as a point of confluence, where different lives, and hence different stories connect. What I had hadn’t been enough to crank out anything substantial. So I dropped it, and allowed the story to simply tell itself in its own time.

Traffic in Nigeria

Then it kind of bubbled to the surface again several months later while reading The Slap, a novel by Australian author Christos Tsiolkas and Column McCann’s Let the Great World Spin. I became interested in how a single event can reveal so much about the way people are, how our universes often run around one another and how things change when those universes collide. I began to connect the dots. Once the bits of ideas began to crystallize, characters suggested themselves, jostling for a place. With the characters came the backdrop of the story.

I often don’t choose what I write, what I write chooses me. The writing process for me is messy, organic, filled with uncertainties. Sometimes I write non-stop for hours, other times (this happens more often), it’s like pulling out a rotten tooth. I cancel each word, trying to make sense of what’s in my head, fearing that the whole project would fail. There is the silent process of discovering a new world on paper and the harrowing self-doubt that follows after the world has been discovered. I always ask myself the question after finishing a story, “Have I been true to this story?” “Have I told the story the best way I can?” That’s the source of my doubt not lack of confidence in the story itself.

This is the truth: I feel it necessary to tell the Nigerian story. I am proud of it, maybe even obsessed by it. I am not talking about what the West tells the world, or what Nigerian intellectuals sometimes try so desperately to defend but what I see and breathe everyday walking through the busy streets, eavesdropping on conversations. The tales of a land of overwhelming contradictions, and of immense possibilities. I love the power and the beauty of writing about a world the way I see it. The liberty to reinvent and explore the things I am privy to. I love Nigeria. Nigeria is where my stories grow from.