Friday, February 21, 2014

Patchwork, Pastiche, and Possibilities

By Art Taylor

This week's question is "If you could choose different aspects of famous writers, who would you use to construct your ideal writer?" and trying to patch together my own "Franken-author," as Meredith termed it on Monday, has sent me in a number of different directions—including one less focused on craft than on production and profitability: Erle Stanley Gardner's writing speed (a book a week!), Stephen King's bank account, Tana French's overnight success, etc.

From a craft angle, I first tried to browse my own shelves and see which books and authors both struck me on initial readings and have then stuck with me over this years, and from there I started to think about the white-hot energy of James Ellroy's writing and the coolly controlled intensity of Donna Tartt's, of the stylistic texture of Philip Roth's novels and the experimental structures of Mario Vargas Llosa's books, of the style and texture and structure of Ian McEwan's novels, of how full-blooded Scott Turow's characters seem and, since I've been rereading some Chandler lately, how there's something about the tone of The Long Goodbye that gets me every time.... and in the end, I didn't end up with a sense of what that collective author might be, but instead just realized that the books that have stuck with me are usually really long—and this from a short story writer. (So should I then think about short story writers? How about the combination of breadth and efficiency in Alice Munro, the wit and irony of Stanley Ellin (and those beautiful sentences!), the toughness of Grace Paley, the lyricism and humanity of Stuart Dybek, the mood and atmosphere of Poe, or any of about a zillion things from Chekhov?)

I think most of us, when we first try to write, start out from a point not just of inspiration but of imitation. Most of us (not all) are avid readers first; we recognize how we've been impacted by a book and an author, and so maybe we set out to build something similar ourselves, make that same impact on someone else. And the first step is that is a kind of mimicry of what we've read. I remember as a teenager being blown away by Ken Follett's The Eye of the Needle and Triple and The Key to Rebecca—and then setting out to write a spy novel myself, echoing the mood and the moves and the dialogue and.... well, echoing is about all I could do, since what did I really know about espionage or history or much of anything at that point?

But while such imitation may be the sincerest (if not the most successful) form of flattery, I've learned that it can also be foundational in developing and honing craft. In more recent years, in more formal writing programs at N.C. State University and then at George Mason, we aspiring writers were occasionally assigned to write pastiches: a page on such-and-such topic in the style of Chekhov or the style of Henry James or the style of Hemingway or whomever. Once—on my own initiative—I typed out the opening passages of Mario Vargas Llosa's Conversation in The Cathedral, then used a variety of different colored highlighters to mark the various moves I saw: exposition or summary, physical description, indirect dialogue, direct dialogue, interior monologue, etc. And then as a next step, I took the story I was writing and tried to write a short passage of my own that matched exactly the moves that Vargas Llosa made: the first sentence is a brief description of scene from the main character's point-of-view; the second sentence jumps inside of his head; the third moves to more objective description; and so on and so on. What resulted wasn't a good product but it did provide a deeper look at how stylistic texture is constructed, and while I don't at all write now in that style myself, I expanded my awareness of the kinds of possibilities available—looking at a text like that not just as a reader but as a writer.

It's worth remembering here, of course, that Harry Crews claimed he learned to write by dissecting Graham Greene's novel The End of the Affair, purportedly even ripping out pages and arranging them on the floor to see them better. As he said:
I've read Graham Greene very closely with the conscious idea of seeing how in the hell he did things.... So I took one of his novels and reduced it to numbers: how many characters; how many days did the novel take; how many cities were involved; how far into the novel did I understand the climax to take place; where did the action turn; how many men, women, children, room. Then I sat down and tried to write a novel using that skeleton.... Needless to say, the novel that resulted from this was an abominable piece of work—arbitrary, mechanical, uninteresting. At the same time, I think I learned a great deal from that exercise....
Unlike Crews, I don't think I'll ever be able to point to one book or even one author which taught me style and structure and character and plotting, and I don't think I could even parse out which groups of authors influenced the writer I am—anymore, of course, than I might be able to put together a conglomeration of authors that I'd like to be. Too many influences and possibilities to count, too much out there to draw from, and still so very very much to learn.




7 comments:

Meredith Cole said...

Great post, Art! It's so interesting how, even when you dissect and x-ray good writing, the magic of it still remains elusive... In my mind it disproves that whole infinite number of monkeys pounding on typewriters idea.

David Dean said...

Wait a minute, Meredith--you think I'm going to walk into that room and tell all those monkeys they're fired?

Great piece, Art. I'm with you on this--so many influences, and so clearly identifiable, yet so very difficult to quantify.

Art Taylor said...

Thanks, Meredith and David. I appreciate your kind words, even though I felt like this was a little bit of a mess—and side-swiping the question. But I just think of so many folks whose plotting, for example, I admire for so many different reasons... and I just didn't know how to begin trying to sort it all out. Probably overthinking it, but....

Robin Spano said...

I really enjoyed reading this. Clearly, our new criminal mind is not just a pretty face.

Susan C Shea said...

I'm not sure I'd have the patience to do it with a whole book, but I used to love the New York Magazine weekly contests to write a paragraph in the style of. Won a few of them too. The ability to maintain suspense without a knife at the protagonist's throat is a real skill and as often as I try to figure out how from a book I like, I can't quite catch how the magic works. Good post!

Art Taylor said...

Thanks, Robin and Susan—and congrats, Susan, on winning a few of those contests!
Art

كشف تسربات said...

Good post