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, Dawn Abeita: Virginia and Flannery Together Again

Virginia Woolfflannery oconnor

Last year I went on two literary pilgrimages: Great Britain/Virginia Woolf, and Georgia/Flannery O’Connor.

The juxtaposition wasn’t intentional. My husband had work in London and I tagged along, walked around the tiny corner of Woolf’s London called Bloomsbury, then got a car and left him there working while I rambled around Sussex where she later lived. Which is to say that I drove down lanes with hedges that constantly swatted my side view mirrors to visit ramshackle houses with frowsy and riotous interiors.

As for Flannery, I’d long intended to visit her houses in tiny Milledgeville only an hour and a half through cotton fields from my house in Atlanta. Flannery grew up in one of its biggest homes, all white-columned plantation vernacular, and lived out her last Lupus-maimed years on a dairy farm outside town.

Inspired by my travels I reread them both. First Woolf, whose work struck me again with its (at the time) radically modern stream of consciousness and melancholy air: a sense that memory of the past flows over everything in the present, nearly obscuring it. Then O’Connor’s work where I was reminded of what gruesome, moral car wrecks they are (in one famous case, literally).

It may not come as a surprise to anyone else, but I was astonished to find that these two writers have something in common. It seems that both write mostly about cognitive dissonance, about people trying to fend off anything that threatens their sense of themselves as they believe themselves to be. In other words, the guarded space between what people think is true about themselves and what is true.

In Woolf, the characters are so involved in their interior world that the majority of the books Mrs Dalloway and To the Lighthouse concern themselves almost exclusively with it. Out of curiosity, I sat down and pieced out how much dialogue there was in one long scene of Mrs Dalloway, the one where Peter Walsh stops by to see Clarissa upon his return to England from India. In my edition the scene runs for thirteen pages. Only about two hundred and fifty words (about a page’s worth) are dialogue that touches only on the surface of things. Like this:

Well, and what’s happened to you?
Millions of things. I am in love. In love. In love with a girl from India.
In love! And who is she?
A married woman, unfortunately. The wife of a Major in the Indian Army. She has two small children; a boy and a girl; and I have come over to see my lawyers about the divorce.
But what are you going to do?
Oh, the lawyers and solicitors, Messrs. Hubert and Gately at Lincoln’s Inn, they are going to do it. Tell me, are you happy, Clarissa? Does Richard…
Here is my Elizabeth.
How d’y do?
Hullo, Elizabeth! Goodbye, Clarissa.

Interspersed with this shallow conversation the remaining twelve pages contain the interior recounting of their respective dissonances – Peter’s that Clarissa had turned down his marriage proposal so many years ago and what she must think of his lack of success; and Clarissa’s that her life has not turned out well, that she is dry and useless whereas he is so alive and in love. The reader alone is privy to the clash between their various assumptions about themselves and each other.

In O’Connor’s work the characters are more involved in their exterior world, in trying to force it to cohere to their ideas of how it should be and their place in it. Their actions are determined by how forcefully they insist on their own assumptions, right up until those suppositions are revealed for the lie they are. It was part of O’Connor’s religious ideas that the world would provide a corrective to this misguided sense of self, that events would divinely grace the character with a realization of their true selves. Much of the time this grace is delivered ironically and only the reader realizes it.

Think about how in “Good Country People,” Hulga/Joy is full of noisy pride, seeing herself as different than her mother or the tenant farmer’s wife – that she is a more sophisticated, independent thinker – only to have the very assumptions she shares with them, such as that “good country people” are inherently trustworthy, lead to her literally and metaphorically losing both her false perspective and her false independence (ie: her glasses and her wooden leg).

This notion of cognitive dissonance may be useful as a key to understanding or creating character. Where does a character stands on this continuum of insight into the true nature of him or herself. And if false, does the character’s judgement turn outward, with little interior reflection? Or does it turn inward, with overly high regard for his or her own opinions. Or, perhaps, both. And more specifically, what contortions, mental or physical, do they perform to maintain their self-esteem?  Just something to think about.

PS: Despite this similarity in their concerns, the lives of Mrs. Woolf  and Ms. O’Connor could not have been more wildly divergent. One did her best work surrounded by the most inventive and amusing minds of her time and place. The other did her best work surrounded by screaming peacocks and lowing cows. I find their extraordinarily accented speech especially revealing of this divide.

Of course, being from the South, I find Flannery’s long A’s and swallowed O’s comforting. I only found this one recording of her, unfortunately not in conversation and so certainly the accent is flattened and so easy to understand.

And here the clipped and plummy voice of Mrs. Woolf also in a formal setting. When I listen to it, I have the feeling that I am translating from her English into my English, always lagging a word behind.

Guest Blog Post, Patrick Madden: Finding My Way

So without stopping to choose my way, in the sure and certain knowledge that it will find itself—or if not it will not matter—I begin the first memory.

— Virginia Woolf “A Sketch of the Past”

Patrick MaddenOne of the earliest writing lessons I learned (I refer to creative writing, not elementary school writing) is this: that I should allow my writing to guide itself instead of beginning with my conclusion already in mind. This is common advice, something you’ve likely heard yourself, but I repeat it here because I can remember how I struggled with it, how I tried to believe it in theory without putting it into practice. And I see again and again student pieces that seem to be transcripts (sometimes elaborations) of a predetermined narrative and meaning with no room for detours from “the point.” The writing in these is sometimes very clean, even beautiful, but it simply serves the goal, without being part of the process.

Now I would not say that I have arrived at any fully formed writing abilities, but I have learned to trust in the notion that I should write without knowing where I’m going. Whereas I once tried to express in words the lessons I’d already processed from highlight-stories I’d experienced, I now attempt to find or create connections between seemingly dissimilar things that flit into my consciousness coincidentally. The act itself is as fun as it is rewarding, and even when it fails, it gives me good exercise.

One recent example, among many, came to me as I was sitting in Montevideo’s Estadio Centenario watching the Uruguayan national team play a World Cup qualifier match against Ecuador. I knew I wanted to write something about Uruguay’s improbable and, frankly, amazing soccer tradition, going back nearly a century and including two Olympic championships followed by two World Cup championships, and I wanted to tie this to the team’s recent resurgence as a FIFA powerhouse. Soccer is a great source of pride for Uruguayans, and I, who’ve lived in the country for four years and who’ve married a Uruguayan, share the sentiment. But I did not want to write a straightforward narrative (“I went to the stadium to watch Uruguay play against Ecuador… It was a 1-1 tie… Let me tell you about Uruguayan soccer history…”). So I kept my eyes and ears open in the stadium for other entry points to help me essay the theme instead of simply writing the story.

I thought I found my hook when I was startled by a loudspeaker promotional jingle playing all through the stadium during the middle of the match. It was hawking ball bearings. How strange, I thought, that someone would think it worth their advertising pesos to blast such a commercial to a stadium filled not with auto mechanics or race-car fans, but futbol aficionados.

But just as I didn’t understand the advertising strategy, I couldn’t see how ball bearings and soccer could work together in my essay, other than in a superficial way (the one happened during the other). So I began to write. The sentences themselves suggested what might come next, and from the process of stringing words together I got to what I think is a halfway decent connection. I’ve not achieved literary brilliance, but I’ve discovered something I didn’t see before, and my essay is a new creation that never was in the world before. In any case, it’s reaffirmed the lesson about letting the writing find its own way, which I took so long to learn.

NOTE: The essay I refer to can be read at McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, along with others I’ve written, at this link: http://www.mcsweeneys.net/columns/dispatches-from-montevideo