Sunday, July 26, 2009

Vermont College of Fine Arts July 2009 residency, and the galloping 60-second lecture

I really did mean to post from charming Montpelier, but somehow (crazy schedule? Lack of sleep? Brain overload?) I just didn't. But the intrepid Julie Larios did, on her wonderful blog, The Drift Record. See her posts with lecture notes and a picture of College Hall on the green, commentary on Good and Evil Day, and more.

But she lost the notes from my lecture.

Julie. How could you? (Only kidding--of course I know all about losing stuff. Like my mind, after one of those amazing, exhausting residencies.)

Anyway, here's the condensed version of my lecture. You must read it at a brisk clip, in the manner of 60-Second Shakespeare. Ready?
Tools and Techniques for Accessing the Inner Life of Your Novel. You think you have one mind? Wrong, you have two. Creative, critical--don't laugh. Dorothea Brande's ghost may be listening! You need both those minds--don't be fooled into killing either. What? No, no! Never bring them onstage together. Don't you read labels? Creative's tagged "draft," Critical's "revision." Get it? Look, just give yourself permission to manage them in your head. Or on paper or even (gasp!) your computer. Whatever works for you. Use any stage directions you like, that's all those organizing tools are: outlines, timelines, calendars, maps, charts, graphs, visual plotlines of all shapes and sizes. Synopses. Try a synopsis that reads like flash fiction. Fool your creative mind into cooperating. It's not against the rules, you know. Dickens outlined. Could it be he knew a thing or two? Thomas Hardy drew maps. Because honestly, it's hard to keep an entire novel in your head. Plus who said the outline had to be Roman-numeralled and indented and pretty? Who said you had to do it before you wrote the novel? Who said? Point is, you're in charge. Figure out when to use those critical mind tools and when to toss them. Remember the organizing tool is not the art form. Stop. Save yourself years of fruitless tinkering. Just take the time to figure out the creative-critical balance you need. The end.
There. Clear as feathers?

Sunday, July 05, 2009

Reading, Writing, and Trust

We're going to be discussing Margo Lanagan's fascinating novel, Tender Morsels (a Printz Honor book) at the VCFA residency. Margo (who talks about the book on her blog) will be visiting as well--I can't wait to meet her.

Tender Morsels wasn't easy reading at first, not because of the dark subject matter but because the novel demanded a great deal of trust from me as a reader. To be honest, much more trust than I am accustomed to give to YA novels as a rule. I had to quit trying to create my own logic out of the unfolding story, and instead let the text carry me along, like the "smoke...cauliflowering out of the fireplace." I had to hold the easy judgments ("I like this" or "I don't") for later. Once I'd let go my need to make meaning immediately, something very interesting began to happen. The story started settling into place, and it was startling, disturbing, and very, very beautiful.

It left me with so many questions. Do we ask too little of readers when we try to place too much on the page? Isn't it necessary sometimes to leave dots unconnected, to define less, to leave more room for the emotional self to create meaning rather than the logical mind? Isn't that the only way that young people can really grow as readers, constructing the story for themselves in deep and meaningful ways that go beyond the plot steps of one event following from another ? Something that has to do with the very mind of the story, the deepest truths it can tell, the ones that drove the writer to craft it in the first place.

Writing is all about trust. Trusting the story enough to get myself out of its way. Trusting it enough to see when a rejection is simply a matter of taste, not a reason to put the work away and deem it worthless. Trusting my vision of it enough to know that when a reader says, "I don't understand this" the solution is not always to change the confusing parts, but to aim for a larger plausibility. Lanagan's book suggests all this and more.

Tender Morsels has apparently awakened controversy in the UK about its "appropriateness" for the young--note that it's not a "children's book" but one for "young adults" and older. When I grew up in the India of the 60's, my parents who were quite strict in lots of ways, nevertheless practiced a kind of benign negligence in the matter of my reading. That meant I scoured the shelves for everything there was, and read it, usually more than once. From that I learned one thing--the content I was unready for just wafted right over my busy head. Years later, I'd think, Oh, that's what that meant. When some things scared me, I just closed the book. When you trust the young, they learn to trust themselves.