PH: No Easy Way Out
For those writers who, unlike my dear prolific author pals who drop books like dogs in a puppy farm, I thought it might help to start a discourse for those who are more interested in talking about the process instead of the calendar. This is for the writer struggling with time and creativity and the process of unpacking a worthwhile story.
The book on my nightstand, actually sitting here at my desk at this instant, is Motherless Brooklyn by Jonathan Lethem (1999). Esquire calls it “The best novel of the year . . . utterly original and deeply moving.” Since my current WIP, Painted Dresses, is populated by a peripheral character who is one-tap-off-center, I was drawn into the worlds of books like Motherless Brooklyn. (A faith-based novel offering a mentally complicated protagonist is Finding Alice by skilled author Melody Carlson.)
Motherless Brooklyn unfolds in first person, so Lethem’s language is coded by the mental Tourette’s Syndrome explosions of thought and repetition. Motherless Brooklyn cannot be squashed into a genre; yet it feeds the hunger of the detective fan while satiating the palate of the reader who is easily bored with genre fiction. Try and fit this onto a front cover take-away line: The story is a detective/sort-of-satirical literary fantasia; oh, and a multi-layered humorous murder mystery about orphans in the city.
I like novels that drive the publicity person nuts with worry over how she’s going to pitch it to the public. There’s no easy way out with Lethem’s books. His protagonist defies archetypical fictive models. (I think I just made up a word.). Each one is unique, a personal aesthetic exploding from a fertile imagination. Lethem’s artful trick was to create a character like Lionel Essrog with whom the non-Tourette’s afflicted reader can identify. At first glance, you might think that that’s all Lethem is giving us, a detective with Tourette’s. But he’s also giving us, well, us. The character is confessional, therefore comfortable describing himself, so we’re invited freely into his world. “There’s a lot of traffic in my head, and it’s two-way.” His environment is everyday life, but described artfully: (I woke up early, having failed to draw my curtains, the wall above my bed and the table with melted candle, tumbler quarter full of melted ice, and sandwich crumbs from my ritual snack now caught in a blaze of white sunlight, like the glare of a projector’s bulb before the film is threaded.) His worries about others' perceptions of him are also accessible to us, another transcendent element. But Essrog’s curious perceptions of life draw us into his colorful interior monologue because he’s not like us; a protagonist’s unique perceptions and inner conflict is prerequisite for compelling fiction. When Lionel talks, the words coming rapid fire like paint bullets energizing the story with color, we know we’re entering a world that rises above the genre of a detective novel. He makes it look so easy and that is the beauty of a unique fictive world. I don’t know how long Motherless Brooklyn took to write, but there are five years between Lethem’s novels.
For a story to rise above genre becoming art, it has to be given time to breathe. It needs both the wild as well as the transcendent elements that act to surprise and satisfy the reader. There are times when a story will pour out of you, but then, because your expectations are high or because you’ve temporarily lost your way, you have to set it aside and let it season or marinade or simmer, or whatever you prefer to call your time of reflection. (I garden) A novel doesn’t season parked in a hard drive. It seasons inside the imagination of the writer, occurring when you reflect on life outside of the fictive world you’re creating; slowing down and returning to look at the story after a bit of time has passed will make the difference in your perception. You might be missing a key element that will spring up from seemingly nowhere after a time of waiting. But if you had rushed through it without reflection you might have missed the whole mystery of process. No easy way out.
Patricia Hickman writes tales of hearth, home, and havoc—wild and warm stories of faith. She blogs about road trips in bad cars at http://www.wordsunwired.blogspot.com . Painted Dresses is probably coming out November 2007.