Monthly Archives: August 2016

From Anecdote to Story: Turning Life into Literature

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Note:  Because so many first attempts at fiction start out with stories from the past and from family, I have made the conventions of family life a touchstone for discovering freedom as a writer.  But everything I’m saying here applies to all fiction—and to all vague ideas for stories that strive for a universal component that will reach people outside of the sensibility of the writer.

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I bring you some water lost in your memory

 follow me to the spring and find its secret.

Patrice de la Tour Du Pin

One fall day when I was about thirteen, a neighbor who belonged to the Ladies Christian Temperance Union appeared at the door of our apartment. She was dressed in a navy-blue suit, wore a pill-box hat, and carried a large white envelope that bore the slogan Better government through faith. My mother, in her perennial green housecoat, smoked a cigarette and finished the remains of a sandwich. She put her plate over a copy of _The Nation_ on the coffee table.

The neighbor walked inside, looked around our small apartment. “I have a favor to ask,” she said, waving the white manila envelope at my mother. “Could your husband possibly drop this off at his office? It’s for the community.” My mother was a rabid atheist as well as a Marxist. When I begged to go to Unitarian Sunday school, she always bellowed: “Religion is sheer crap! The opiate of the people!” Now she took the pamphlet, smiled at the neighbor, then looked at me menacingly and pulled her skin below her left eye. This was my mother’s idea of a secret family signal. Sometimes it meant this person is peculiar. This time it meant shut up.

Later that year, I was assigned an essay called “The Most Amazing Epiphany of My Life.” “Without a doubt,” I wrote, “the most amazing epiphany of my life occurred when my mother turned into a toady for the Ladies Christian Temperance Union.” The mother of Tobias and Geoffrey Wolff, once said, quite wisely: “If I’d known my kids were going to be writers, I would have given them a very different childhood.” My mother, who had less perspective, found my essay and tore it into shreds. “Don’t you evah,” she said, in her most theatrical voice “write anything about us again! We are your family!”

It’s not an accident that I learned about the dangers of truth-telling in a family setting. Families are tight survival units, and have explicit and implicit rules about what can be told—both inside the family and outside. The injunction not to break these taboos evokes tribal culture when families can be murdered for breaking norms. Not all taboos are there for the writer to break publicly. Some may need to be respected. But the writer’s workroom should be a place that’s safe where taboos are broken.

Without a doubt watching my mother tear up my essay terrified me. But there was also another reason I stopped writing from personal experience, and this was because what I wrote seemed too easy: Revealing my mother’s hypocrisy was a delicious form of revenge; but it stayed within the form of an anecdote.

What I sensed, but couldn’t put into words, was that there was a difference between an anecdote and a story. When you relate an anecdote, you’re a found character and this creates an automatic tension between the “I” who is telling the story and the “I” who is in the story. Furthermore, most things that happen to people become “just so” stories on paper. They don’t transform, twist, or bend. Nor do they seem universal but are particular to the people in the anecdote. This is why so many stories that are verbally entertaining or deeply moving fall flat through the paper. It’s also why people buy ghostwritten biographies of celebrities: We’re already curious about the character. The promise of revealing secrets has enough universal appeal to create the sense of a narrative arc because going from knowing less to (supposedly) knowing more can feel like a delicious journey.

No Surprise for the Writer, No Surprise for the Reader

 I began to learn about turning anecdotes into stories fifteen years later when my first collection was being published. Most of the stories had elements of surrealism. But there were two stories based on my family that the editor discovered and loved.

Although I can tell shocking things about my childhood and love being outrageous, I’ve always shied away from writing about my life. In addition, the voice and content of these two stories didn’t fit with the rest of the book. I wanted to take them out, my editor wanted to keep them, and we argued endlessly. I lost the argument—but with a compromise: I would write a novella about my childhood as a separate part of the book. This would create a sense of balance and distinguish between the two voices.

When I began the novella, I was always surprised because even though the stories were faithful to the facts there were always few elements that were a slight deviation from what I remembered. I didn’t know where they came from but I always knew they belonged. In every case, I discovered they contained a crucial truth. And after I had written the book, I felt that I’d lived a slightly different childhood precisely because of these surprises.  (In a sense, the failure of the intended story guaranteed the success of the final story.)  (See Yuri Zalkow’s innovative rendition of this idea, after he interviewed me for The Rumpus http://yuvizalkow.com/videos/scribble3/)

There was one story, however, that I couldn’t write and had to write because it was crucial to the sequence. It was a story I’d told to several people—in the way I told outrageous stories about my family. I knew the events, but couldn’t make it a story.

The anecdote is as follows: When my father got a job in another part of the country, we set off in our car at nine at night against the advice of friends, who offered places to stay. My mother believed we would stop at a luxury hotel and didn’t seem to notice when we drove right by it. Eventually it was one in the morning and all the motels were filled.

After we left a town with apocalyptic smoke from a steel mill, my mother realized we hadn’t stopped at the luxury hotel and began to scream at my father. At one point she opened the car door and threatened to jump out. Chaos ensued.

I knew the sequence of events. But I couldn’t feel any tension or universal resonance until one day I heard the following sentence: My mother shouted that she was really leaving and opened the door so wide I could see the whole Midwest—far too real for the likes of us.

As soon as I heard this, I knew I had my story. At the time this was an intuitive understanding. A few years later, I understood why: My feeling about the Midwest being too real for all of us transformed my mother’s actions from something that was purely violent into a collective sense of being trapped as a family.  We were trapped together and also trapped because we had a sense of not being able to function in the real world.

In order to turn an anecdote into a story one must find the hidden story that runs beneath events like an underground river and eventually gushes up.   It’s this collision that creates a story that has universal resonance. Not every one has a histrionic family or mothers who try to jump out of cars. But every one has seen someone we’re close to lose it, and our feelings are usually a mixture of resentment and compassion, although we may not be aware of the compassion at the time. It can also have an element of identification that we’re not aware of.

An anecdote doesn’t need a hidden story to create tension. Your telling it is the tension. But if something on paper doesn’t have a hidden story, it won’t find tension or an arc.

Triggering and Generative Elements

The poet, Richard Hugo, wrote about the difference between

Triggering and generative elements in writing. Triggering elements are catalysts for stories and poems, but unless they generate new material, the piece won’t get off the ground. One might say that the anecdote never needs to go beyond the triggering element of memory to find a generative element that can reach all readers. This is because it’s an oral narrative. But to leap from the personal to the universal–i.e. to get your story on the page– you must be willing to let the triggering material generate. This means being willing to improvise, invent, and even omit cherished scenes. If you’re willing to do this, your story will be a slightly different story from the story you thought you were going to write. And if the generative material goes far enough, you’ll leap from writing about what is meaningful only to you to something that reaches a stranger.  You will also discover something about your life that you didn’t know.

Learning to turn anecdotes into stories isn’t a sure-fire formula for dealing with writing about family secrets. Even if you write a good story, there are times when you decide not to publish for the sake of someone else’s feelings. These are personal decisions every writer must make.

But when you ‘re writing drafts based on real events, you must feel free to write whatever you want to write and experiment with invention as well as ruthlessness. Otherwise, your writing room will be full of locked closets.

Just as there’s no map for revealing family secrets, there’s no map for turning an anecdote into a story. This comes to writers through grace, serendipity, hard work, and a willingness to discover something new about themselves and people or events in our lives. It also requires a slight irreverence for facts, and a fierce belief in the regenerative powers of the imagination. As the French poet, Robert Ganzo has written:

 

 

Invent. There is no lost feast

           /At the bottom of memory.

Avoiding the Linear Fallacy in Writing

 Unknown

Avoiding the Linear Fallacy in Fiction and Creative Non-Fiction

 The imagination is the weather of the mind

The mind is part of the weather–

Wallace Stevens Adagia

This essay happened because I wrote one book that took place in WWII and a lot of people asked me how I did my research. Research is a broad term.   But when writers talk about research, the word  funnels into a vision of 3×5 cards, deliberate reading, and carefully-planned interviews.  In truth, the hardest work you will ever doc in a good book is finding its shape, or to put it differently: The most difficult part of writing a book is finding the narrative arc.  Traditional research becomes important to most fiction writers and some non-fiction writers as the shape and the arc of the book takes place.  Traditional research happens through planned reading, interviews, talking to colleagues, and results in getting facts straight, including dates, chronology, spelling, and verifying events and scenes. Contrary to most thinking, this research is the easiest.   But in most cases this research should come last and when it’s the first things writers do, they often gets stalled.

The Prescience of the Creative Process

When I’d written just one collection of short stories, I heard a woman’s voice from deep below the earth. She was blond, in her thirties, and lived in Germany during World War II. I saw her helping multi-lingual prisoners answer letters to the dead. I knew her name and could feel her claustrophobia. I also heard some of the letters.  I wrote sixteen pages and stopped because I knew that this woman lived in a world with so many strands only a novel could do it justice. What I’d written were a few musical notes, surrounded by hours of silence.  But I only knew how to write short fiction and put the sixteen pages away.

I wrote other books, but the sixteen pages kept turning up in my studio, as if attached to springs. They turned up on the bookshelf.  They turned up in a tax pile. They turned up under my printer. They even turned up inside a flyer from my son’s school—a long flyer, pleading for ecologically packed lunches. They began to feel like the woman’s voice, impatient to tell her story. The paper grew more brittle. I began to use a computer and the typewriter print looked ancient.

Whenever the sixteen pages appeared, I felt drawn to them. But I never wrote another word.

A few years ago, someone at a Christmas party told me that the philosopher Martin Heidegger had a revelation that was catalyzed by his own eyeglasses.  As soon as I heard this, I saw the title Heidegger’s Glasses and knew I was going to write a novel.  I had no idea what it would be about, but was sure it involved World War II.  At this point the sixteen pages stopped popping up until the exact day I received final galley proofs from the publisher. They’d hidden while I was writing, but reappeared—again on invisible springs. The few passages I’d written were the same as passages in the novel. I also found some details in time to add them to the galley.

After I re-read the sixteen pages, I realized they were a DNA of almost everything that became Heidegger’s Glasses. Through stumbling and research, I’d linked an imaginary world to real events in World War II.

II

The Secret of Research: Avoiding the Linear Fallacy

Writers often ask how I write, and in particular how I dovetailed writing and research when I wrote a book set in WWII.

More than anything I emphasize I didn’t wait to do all the research until I began to write. I can’t emphasize enough how important this was and continues to be.  If I’d waited until I decided I had all the facts or knew how the novel was going to play out, I would have sabotaged myself because I’d already done a lot of research without knowing it.

To state it more abstractly: A book is linear. It starts on the first page and ends on the last and all the pages are numbered in sequence. But the process of writing a book is rarely linear. When John Gregory Dunn started The Red, White and Blue the only thing he knew was that the last word of the book would be Yes or No. It turned out to be No. Faulkner began The Sound and The Fury with the image of a little girl in a pear tree, looking in a window at her grandmother’s funeral. Her underpants were muddy and after he finished explaining why they were, he realized that whatever he’d written was going to be a novel. A non-fiction writer I know, Alison Owings, began interviewing women for Frauen, a book I used when writing Heidegger’s Glasses, before she knew she’d had enough information for a book. Many writers write the last scene and work backwards. Others start from the middle

But writers hoodwink can themselves by thinking they should start from the beginning. They also believe they should “have all the facts” and wrestle everything into an outline.. This may be true for short pieces of journalism. But it isn’t necessarily true for longer pieces and isn’t at all true for fiction or a work that mixes fiction with fact: Writers write to discover what they don’t know, not to record what they already know. (I would add that all during this hit-and-miss process, I felt unbearably stupid. In retrospect, I can’t thank myself enough for being willing to stay in this utterly thankless state.)

Faith-based research 

This is research that is random.  One doesn’t know quite why one is visiting a particular place or reading about the Napoleonic wars.  In my case, I did totally random reading about WWII–not really knowing why I was choosing some books or articles over others. Like someone going through a free-bin, I saw documentaries, read, looked at photographs and talked to people about Germany during WWII.

In the process of very random reading, I discovered two obscure facts that gave the book its narrative arc.  This helped me link a ghoulish procedure called Operation Briefaktion with The Reich’s interest in the occult.

I hoodwinked myself and thought I knew less than I did.  To the extent that I ploughed ahead anyway, I accumulated material.I would divide this sort of research into “stuff I already knew,” “unintentional research” and “life.” I realize it’s vague—but starting with what was vague allowed me to whittle things into concrete images and what we call “facts.”

Here are examples of this kind of research that turned out to be essential to Heidegger’s Glasses

Stuff I already know There’s a whole category of things I’d call “stuff I ready know or stuff I know how to do,” whether it’s the history of graphic novels or how to make an omelet.  To the extend that I plowed ahead in the novel anyway, what I already knew helped drive the novel.   To the extend that I thought I knew less than I did, I hoodwinked myself. In may case, “stuff I already knew” included Heidegger’s Being and Time, which blew my mind after dry undergraduate work in philosophy of science. WBy the time I heard about Heidegger’s glasses at the Christmas party, he was a towering, enigmatic presence–someone whose mind had made me walk around New York in an altered state of consciousness for two weeks.  I’d known Heidegger was a Nazi and often wondered how he could create a brilliant cosmology of being without an ethical system.

“Stuff you already know, or know how to do” is often the unwitting catalyst for being interested in a particular topic. It’s something writers discount.But without my background in Heidegger, someone telling me a story at a party would have been nothing more than an entertaining moment.

 Unintentional research: I’d also done the kind of reading many writers do when they’re drawn to a subject before they know they’ll write about it. A few years after I wrote those sixteen pages, I felt compelled to read everything I could about World War II without knowing why. I was also drawn to books. For instance, one day when I went to a bookstore to get out of the rain, I found a book on the bookstore’s bargain table called. The Lodz Ghetto: Inside a Community Under Siege, published in 1991.

Except for some photographs, The Lodz Ghetto consists of documents in chronological order. The documents detail the dissolution of Lodz, where 200,000 Jews were forced into slave labor before deportation to extermination camps. The documents alternate between coded diaries of prisoners and decrees from the Reich about food rations, round-ups and deportations. Many coded diaries were by writers enlisted by the Reich as official Scribes to praise life in the Lodz ghetto. A famous Austrian writer named Oskar Rosenfeld had an extraordinary depth of vision. His sensibility helped create an important character.

The book had diaries of prisoners alternated with photocopies of the decrees, so I had the sense of being a prisoner in Lodz with other prisoners, crowded around the decrees, reading to discover what was going to happen to me next. Each decree tightened the vise and pointed toward the cremation of everyone in the Ghetto. This gave the book a novelistic momentum and was the kind of serendipity that can come from unintentional research.

Life

All writers have things that happen to them that affect their interests and their research, although they may not know this until years later.

One hot summer day, in New York City, I brought my broken typewriter to Stanley Adelman, who owned Osner’s Typewriter on Amsterdam Avenue. I was young, in a state of sheer panic about ending a relationship, and in no condition to understand anything about machines. Stanley Adelman could see I was frazzled and only wanted to drop off my typewriter. But he insisted on explaining and re-explaining every gear and wheel until he was sure I understood what was wrong.

While he talked, I had the sense that he wouldn’t settle for anything less than absolute contact. His blue eyes were intense and telegraphed such an urgent demand that I understand, I began to listen until it was clear how a typewriter worked—a miracle since the mechanical world can elude me. From the periphery of my vision, I saw blue numbers on his arm. He must have been very young when he was at Auschwitz, but I could imagine he’d been in situations where he had to transmit and listen to information in a state of terror or near-terror (which is what I was feeling.) We became good friends and I got to know his wife. But he never told me that almost every published writer in the city brought him their typewriters: I found this out when I read his obituary in The New York Times.

I’d already started the novel and we’d lost touch when I moved toCalifornia. As soon as I read about him I remembered him in detail and felt a kinship between his sensibility and that of Oskar Rosenfeld, the scribe in the Lodz Ghetto. The two of them merged into a character who became Heidegger’s optometrist and was sent to Auschwitz. More importantly, however, I realized that meeting him was the beginning of my interest in WWII, and it set me on a path.

Although fiction writers and journalists may start from opposite ends of a spectrum, at some point everyone’s mucking about in the middle. I would urge all writers to understand that the imagination also has phalanges that reach into the objective world. It’s nourished by previous reading, thinking, and experience and has instincts that allow it to leap beyond the limits of what we think we know and travel to uncharted territories and distant centuries. Writing Heidegger’s Glasses was an adventure in discovering the fluid boundaries between the imagination and recorded history

 

Below are some tricks to avoid the Linear Fallacy.  I’m sure you can think of others:

If you’re contemplating a long piece, here are some questions to ask yourself:

1. Prior research

a. What prior knowledge has influenced what I want to write or reflects it now? b. What prior experience? c. people I associate with what I’m thinking about writing. d. Noteworthy conversations

2. Current strategies

a. If this were a work that depended solely on things I couldn’t look up, what do I think is the narrative arc?  (you probably won’t answer this question, but asking it will make you look for it)

b. What, scenes, characters, dialogue, etc. have I already imagined? Do some appear in what seems like the middle or the end?

c. Based on this, what scenes can I start to write? d. Have I written any of these scenes already?

Sometime you know part of the story in advance.  You may not know what comes before it, or after it.

In addition to drawing on all the unwitting research I’ve mentioned, writing before I knew how the novel would play out also kept me focused. The focus led to botched scenes that got better with revision. It also led to the right books, the right informal conversations, and the right interviews.

In Adagia, Wallace Steven’s phrases—the mind is part the weather and the imagination is the weather of the mind—aren’t presented as syllogisms. But it’s not much of a leap to say that the imagination is part of the world. That strikes me as a stunning miracle, because the imagination and consensual reality are always in conversation.