Tuesday, November 10, 2009

A week in the writing life of Brian

I didn't write much this week, about an hour each morning. I spent the weekend at my parents' house and it's impossible to write there. I'm not sure why. I could have stolen away an hour or two, locked myself in a room. Maybe it's the sense that there's someone just outside the door, even if there isn't. A muscle memory from growing up, when one of my brothers could burst in at any moment. Even though we are now (nearly) old enough to be past that point, old memories die hard.

I've been tormented by a book called The Anatomy of Story, by John Truby. It's primarily about screenwriting, but it translates perfectly to novels. It's made me re-think everything about my book, and has left me marginally paralyzed. Truby argues that every good story goes through a series of basic steps, and if your story doesn't have these steps, it will fail. I'd like to dismiss this as a bunch of overthinking gobbledygook, but I can't. Because he's right.

I've been writing a lot with my sweatshirt hood on. Not because it's cold but because it blocks out Jersey, who always sits just at the corner of my vision field, pretending not to stare at me. She's distracting, that cat. Chester's technique is more simple and earnest; he just comes up and nudges his nose into my thigh.

I read two novellas by Jim Harrison -- Legends of the Fall and Revenge. Both of these 100-page stories were made into decent movies. Now blast those images of Brad Pitt and Kevin Costner out of your head: these stories are like Hemingway concentrate. So stripped down and far-reaching is Harrison's prose, the novellas read almost like synopses, but beautiful synopses. Writers are supposed to show and not tell but Harrison tells, with very little in dialogue or scene. It works because everything fits together in a way that propels the reader forward. And it works because nothing is extraneous; every line is a poem.

Stephen King published a story in this week's New Yorker. I read the story and it was okay. It's biggest attribute was that it wasn't too long like everything else in the magazine. Sometimes I wish I could be stranded on a deserted island with nothing but a subscription to The New Yorker. Only then could I ply the depths of all the articles, stories and poems before the next week's edition came out. I thought it was strange that Stephen King would publish there considering his aversion to literary snobbery but I Googled the situation and realized he's published a bunch of stories in The New Yorker, including some of the ones in his recent collection, Just After Sunset. If you pick up that collection, read the story about the guy who gets trapped in a porta-potty. Who hasn't thought of that happening? And why didn't I think to write a story about it? It's also worth noting that The New Yorker only publishes stories by authors who have a book coming out that month, and SK's 1,000-word tome Under the Dome comes out today.

And finally, I was stuck while trying to write yesterday and I picked up You Shall Know Our Velocity! and turned the page to the exact passage --finally -- I'd been looking for for the past two years, idly now and then, whenever I came across the book on the shelf. The part I was thinking of only turned out to be a paragraph instead of a dozen pages as I'd pictured it in my head; so largely does an image loom when we long to return to it. I don't know why this particular page resonated with me so much that I'd remember to look for it years later. It's hard to know why certain sentences, after all the words we've read, stick with us, sometimes forever. I think it's because we've experienced an event or a feeling just the way the author describes it. It might be a small moment (the scene I mention is just a guy hopping from rock to rock for no reason at all), but you've been there, somewhere, as a kid perhaps, and when a stranger explains something you experienced, or at least the way you'd like to remember it, it feels like magic.


  1. I'm also enthralled by The Anatomy of Story, but one issue keeps bothering me. Isn't part of the legend of Casablanca the constant rewrites, and lack of an ending until the last minute?
    TAoS holds Casablanca up as having an ideal structure. So, is it necessary to have that perfect structure in place first in order to create a powerful story? Casablanca wasn't written that way. Or, do you keep rewriting and rewriting and hope you finally magically hit upon it?

  2. From what I can gather, you don't have to have the perfect structure in place at first to create a legendary story. But if you don't have the steps in place, you have to get lucky. With Casablanca, I think they just got lucky.

  3. i know exactly what you mean, trying to find a passage and finding it smaller. it happened to me with franny and zooey, when she's looking at her hands in the bathroom stall--i thought that was the whole story, and all that stuff with her boyfriend and the restaurant was just for context. but you wrote described it really well, along with everything else in this post. the muscle memory of being home, for example.