Benjamin Percy on Urgency

I'm only two chapters into Benjamin Percy's Thrill Mebut I love it already. I remember many years ago he came and lectured on craft during Fall for the Book, my MFA program's annual festival of reading and writing and writers. I hung onto every word. Some of that talk was about structure, about borrowing other writers' successful structures — typing their stories, absorbing the rhythms of their sentences, sure, but also, bigger picture, absorbing their structures, already tried and true. He then said to go ahead and just map your own story onto those structures. Sentence by sentence, scene by scene. Where they describe setting, you describe setting. Where they write dialogue, you add dialogue. Where they introduce a new character, you introduce one. I might be totally misremembering his advice, but that is what I took away that day. And it is advice I've attributed to him and passed on to my own students over the years. I am hoping, really, really hoping that one of the chapters in Thrill Me will be about this, so that instead of paraphrasing Percy I can direct students instead to his own advice in his own words. 

But until I do (or don't) get to that chapter (this extra layer of suspense is not lost on me, in the context of this post), I thought I'd write here, briefly, about what he says re: urgency. (Also not lost on me is the fact that the tissue holder pictured above is made out of cement, which is funny to me and maybe only to me, but anyway, one of the small things you're reading for in this chapter is the answer to the question: "How do you make a tissue dance?" You'll have to read Percy's essay to find out, though, because that's how/where so much of the power of his point comes through.)  

In this chapter, Percy gives us clear guidelines: 

  1. Establish a Clear Narrative Goal
  2. Human Urgency
  3. Create Obstacles that Ramp Up the Tension
  4. Create Lower-Order Goals
  5. Ticking Clock
  6. Delay Gratification and Withhold Information

As I've written in an earlier post, I love craft books because you can grow with them. Of the six points above, which Percy explains in detail, it's the 5th I needed to be told/reminded of today: 

"I work well under deadline. There is something about the watch on my wrist, the calendar on the wall, that energizes me. Because I have only so much time. This kind of urgency carries over to fiction, where a ticking clock — a sense of time running out — can make the pages seem to snap by with the speed of a second hand."

Toward the end of this section, he adds, "There is an expiration date, of course. What if Cinderella had until midnight . . . seven days from now to woo her prince? What if Jesus was in the wilderness for four thousand days instead of forty? What if the teenagers in Superbad had to lose their virginity before they graduated from PhD programs in Germanic literature instead of during their remaining days of high school?" 

For my purposes, this advice helps redirect my focus on the bal masqué scene or scenes for Fit Into Me that I have not yet written but started to recently think about here, although maybe I was already thinking about it here. Taken together, all of my recent blog posts on craft point to one thing: write these scenes.

Write them vertically: follow the characters home, live in their bodies.

Write them fantastically: because tonight she's in costume; tonight, she's Catherine the Great, and, later, when the costume's off and she's straddling her lover who says, "Jesus, it's a bloodbath," she's Aphrodite looking down at the body of Adonis gored through the groin.

Write them plainly: because, truly, the tea house woman's life is ordinary. And it's the essays, which I'll attend later — the nonfiction around her story — the prose tercets — that are stylized, that braid and twist and rhyme and intertwine and fade into these fictions I need to see through now.

Leslie Jamison on Commonness

In this craft/inspiration anthology, I also found and loved "On Commonness," Leslie Jamison's ode to Anne Carson's "The Glass Essay." In this essay, Jamison discusses simplicity — which I must admit I've never thought about in relation to Carson's books. Jamison points out that:

"Carson's mode of self-awareness doesn't apologize for its emotion She simply acknowledges that, whenever we feel, we do so in a way that anticipates the gaze of others — as well as anticipates the empathy or lack of empathy we'll encounter there. I feel some version of this happening when she writes:

When Law left I felt so bad I thought I would die. 
This is not uncommon. 

"These lines feel willfully melodramatic. [. . .] Carson's language is so surprising — you already know she can take any feeling and give it to you in some crazy, stylized way. Instead, she says, 'I thought I would die.' It's so willfully plain."

I love this: you already know she can take any feeling and give it to you in some crazy, stylized way. Yes. But Jamison's extended focus on some of Carson's most direct lines is exactly what I needed to read right now. I love both of these writers, so to get them together, one writing about the other, is like a double dose of medicine.

Earlier, I wrote about Lev Grossman's essay on fantasy in C.S. Lewis's The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. I've only seen the TV and film versions of their books, so the experience of reading Jamison's essay on Carson is entirely different. She's writing about one of my favorite writers, and showing me something new, something I hadn't considered, something that, now that I see it too, makes me shout, Yes! This!

"I really believe that there are extraordinary things to be said about deeply ordinary experiences. When I teach nonfiction, the biggest student conundrum around personal writing is: Why would anybody care about what happened to me? There's shame around just having lived an ordinary life. And it's not like they're wrong — it is going to be harder for them to get a book deal, say, for their memoir of living in the suburbs. But the paralyzing anxiety I hear students articulate, and also feel in myself, is what 'this is not uncommon' speaks to. The experience of trying to find words for an emotion that mattered so much, even while recognizing it's the most common thing in the world." 

Lev Grossman on Fantasy

A few weeks ago I checked out a ton of craft books. One I'll mention quickly today, because I read it quickly, is an anthology of essays that are less about craft and more about inspiration — about that book or that passage that transformed readers into the writers they would become. This anthology is titled Light the Dark: Writers on Creativity, Inspiration, and the Artistic Process

One of my favorite essays is Lev Grossman's "Into the Wardrobe, into the Self." Having watched the first two seasons of The Magicians on Netflix, I felt particularly in tune with what he says about the influence C. S. Lewis had on him. Here's one of my favorite passages:

"The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is a powerful illustration of why fantasy matters in the first place. [. . .] There's a sense of anger and grief and despair that causes Lewis to want to discard the entire war, set it aside in favor of something better. You can feel him telling you — I know it's awful, truly terrible, but that's not all there is. There's another option. Lucy, as she enters the wardrobe, takes the other option. [. . .] 

"But I bristle whenever fantasy is characterized as escapism. It's not a very accurate way to describe it; in fact, I think fantasy is a powerful tool for coming to an understanding of oneself. The magic trick here, the sleight of hand, is that when you pass through the portal, you reencounter in the fantasy world the problems you thought you left behind in the real world."

For a few different reasons, I needed to read this. Fellow teachers, this is a very teachable essay. And even as I sit here imagining all the scenarios that end with me giving this essay to a student, I am thinking of it as a teacher who's still (and will always be) learning and absorbing new lessons, too — especially those that find me when I need them most.

Because Fit is nonfiction with flights of fictional fantasy (even if that fantasy operates in the realist mode), I've been worrying lately about the role of these fiction fragments. Overthinking, I realize now. What Grossman says here is all I need — all that matters is, in fact, how the tea house woman, in her story, encounters different versions of my own problems. And because her story is the center and mine is marginal and inferior, her problems must be the more interesting. The ones I need to revisit, vertically, before pushing forward and reimagining mine.