A New-Old Thought on Writing Fiction

I remembered this after reading an article, I think in Poets & Writers, about how fiction is all about characters, creating believable, memorable characters & that didn’t seem right to me. That doesn’t locate what I seek or what I find in fiction.

One of the things I have to keep reminding myself of is that there are many models for fiction. Writing fiction seems daunting when I think of it in the journalistic sense – telling a story “straight”. Or when I think of writing historical fiction, with its copious research and endless opportunities for making a mistake. Or character-based fiction, that requires a consistent psychology. The reasons I don’t like reading Henry James (blasphemy), or the kinds of books we pick for my book club, once in a while (novels like The Girl Who Fell from the Sky).

But then I remember that I’ve always preferred alternative models, not through any willful posturing on the side of the experimental, but rather because of how those books struck me at a gut level. It’s about what the writing does rather than any personal attachment to the characters. For example, Kundera – it was the author’s insertion of himself into the story, the philosophical perspective he took that struck me, the gesture of standing back and moving the characters around while asking questions (The Unbearable Lightness of Being). Cortázar – the collage aspect of Rayuela, the play with words, play with form he enacts through the course of a single novel (and his sense of humour of course). Virginia Woolf – the intensely internal feeling of her narrative, the shifts in perspective (Mrs. Dalloway). And then alternative models like Violette Leduc & Marguerite Duras, something between memoir, journal & fiction, an unflinching voice that comes through. Anais Nin’s diaries, Julian Barnes… The writing stays, makes its mark, more than a straight-shooting noel.

(There are some exceptions. James Baldwin’s Another Country I love, J.D. Salinger’s characters are like people to me. Lorrie Moore’s stories.)

I have to keep this in mind when forging forward with writing prose, so it feels like a place I’m welcome in & like it’s something I want to do.

Related reading: more Lydia Davis!

Piano Solo

Since a man’s life is nothing more than action in the distance,
A bit of foam sparkling inside a glass,
Since trees are nothing but trembling furniture:
Nothing but chairs and tables in perpetual motion
Since we, ourselves, are nothing more than beings
(Just as the god himself is nothing but the god)
Since we don’t speak in order to be heard
but rather so that others will speak
And the echo precedes the voice that produces it,
Since we don’t even have the consolation of
chaos in the garden that yawns and fills with air,
A puzzle that must be solved before dying
In order to calmly resuscitate
When a woman has been used in excess
Since there is also a heaven in hell,
Let me do some things, too:

I want to make a noise with my feet
And I want my soul to find its body.

–Nicanor Parra (quick translation by echoseeker, alternate translation by W.C. Williams here

Slow, bitter animal

Slow, bitter animal
that I am, that I have been
bitter from the knot of dust and water and wind
which, in the first generation of man, would plead with God
Bitter like those bitter minerals
which in the nights of precise solitude
—damned and ruined solitude
without one’s self—
scale up the throat
and, scabs of silence,
suffocate, kill, resuscitate.
Bitter like that bitter voice
prenatal, presubstantial, which spoke
our word, which walked down our path,
which died our death,
and which we discover at every moment.
Bitter from inside,
from what I am not
—my skin like my tongue—
from the first living thing,
annunciation and prophecy
Slow since centuries ago,
remote—there is nothing behind—
distant, far, unknown.
Slow, bitter animal
that I am, that I have been.
–Jaime Sabines
translation by echoseeker

The To Read List:

My own indulgences:

The Bell Jar (again)

Lydia Davis short stories

The Mammal’s Notebook – Satie

Cesar Aira

Essays on Madame Bovary

Cortazar’s letters

Anais Nin’s diaries

James Wood – essays

The Mirror – Russell Edson

Grace Paley

Alice Munro

Eat-your-vegetable reading:

Dostoevsky – The Idiot & Notes from Underground

On my shelf to read:

Djuna Barnes, Christopher Isherwood, Nabokov (The Gift), Guns, Germs & Steel

To check out, seen around a lot:

Leaving the Atocha Station – Ben Lerner

Mavis Gallant

Poets: Ungaretti, Pavese, Mina Loy

Ya que también existe un cielo en el infierno,
Dejad que yo también haga algunas cosas:

Yo quiero hacer un ruido con los pies
Y quiero que mi alma encuentre su cuerpo.

del poema “Solo de Piano”, Nicanor Parra, Poemas y antipoemas