AUGUST 28, 2016
MY FIRST EVER “in conversation” event with a writer was at a book festival in Los Angeles interviewing Jane Smiley, Pulitzer Prize winner of A Thousand Acres. In my earnest preparation, I discovered that Jane had once spent a summer on an archaeological dig in Crete, Greece. My inspired opening gambit was whether, for her, writing a novel was somehow akin to an archeological excavation, my voice rising with anticipation as my question neared its end: “… you know, fossicking for treasures in the dirt, digging for gold?”
Jane looked over at me totally deadpan and said, “No.” Nothing more. As if she’d never heard anything so ridiculous.
Quelling a desire to run for the door, I didn’t dare admit that I’d just completed my own first novel, written exactly that way — sifting for relics, rummaging around the subconscious, examining threads of dreams and memories for veins of language. In that fashion, I’d written a story I’d never have imagined if I’d outlined it ahead of time. But maybe I’d just gotten lucky.
While Jane surveyed the audience as though her odd Australian interlocutor was not her responsibility, I wondered whether writers are genetically predisposed to their approaches to (forgive the word) process. The more I talk with the ones I know, the more I realize we are made up of different breeds, like branches of a family: the outliners, like Jane, who, at least in their heads, see precisely where they’re going, and the outliers, like me, who prefer to dream and scratch around in the unknown. And then there are those in between.
In her new book, subtitled How to Write with Spontaneity and Control — And Live to Tell the Tale, Alice Mattison, poet, teacher, story writer, and author of six novels, explores this delicate balance between surrender and control, using the metaphor of a flying kite and its restraining string. As a student of nuance and an admirer of dimensionality in both writing and life, I was intrigued to discover how Mattison might propose negotiating this fragile tension.
The Kite and the String does not purport to be either a DIY manual or memoiristic musing. Rather, it is a guide to the stages of writing, exploring an approach which is essentially practical, human, and hopeful — words not readily ascribed to the experience of many of us lost in the bowels of our novels. Instead, the words that come to mind include fraught, quixotic, and foreboding.
For fear of appearing churlish, most writers shy away from sharing with audiences how they’ve struggled, but a friend once told me that finishing her book was akin to “shitting a pumpkin.” Painful lavatorial metaphors aside, I hoped Mattison might provide some salvation from our writing disorders, suggesting ways to make a meaningful shift on the continuum between grids of cards stapled along the wall and scribbling in longhand in our half-sleep, playing with the residues of dreams. Is there a middle ground? Can Mattison help us find it?
She begins by examining the primary temperamental qualities she herself brings to the table (or writing desk) — a push and pull between “irrepressible, irrational, intense feeling” and an abiding common sense, not taking turns but embodied in a kind of “double awareness.” By coordinating both intensity and practicality (two quite contradictory states of awareness) into a sort of Zen kōan, she appears to have successfully developed in herself a capacity to both create and control her stories.
In the abstract, such an ability — to let the kite take off in the wind and then wrangle it when necessary — sounds promising, yet I feared she might merely be projecting her own gifts and capacities onto the rest of us. When I’ve taught, I’ve usually found that most of us are unequally blessed with one or the other — a sound sense of logic or a rollicking imagination — and that our predilections typically fall where they fall. Still, I was open to being convinced otherwise. More than open.
Unlike those who believe writers are born, Mattison, who has taught for decades (she is a longtime member of the core faculty in the Bennington Writing Seminars), thinks that most of us can and do learn something essential from classes and writing groups, as well as from reading both books and criticism. She absolutely believes that developing the ability to make stories both lively and masterly is a matter of developing a balance between freedom and control (the kite and string). In the book, she explores purposeful daydreaming (invention) as a central act of writing fiction. She discusses the difference between the dramatic and the melodramatic, the use of coincidence, inhabiting characters, distinguishing story from plot, and direct and indirect narrative, using examples from Anna Akhmatova to Doris Lessing to Richard Yates. She presents ways to understand and experience the shifting tension between structure and the intangible elements that allow a story to breathe. In so doing, Mattison endeavors to plumb the relationship between the hand that holds the string and the wind that flies the kite.
As I read, I wondered how I, as a somewhat experienced writer, might internalize these lessons. As noted, my natural desire is not to control, but to form words and phrases from shards of memory and resonant images: a young cousin trying on hose for the first time — the glimpse of her thigh; a rusty spoon found in the ocean; being kicked in the chest by a horse. This is the method Annie Dillard advocates in The Writing Life — perfecting a piece of prose as it progresses, securing each sentence before building on it. And years ago, I was lucky enough to find myself in a workshop with the legendary Los Angeles writer and teacher Les Plesko, who, like Dillard, encouraged us to allow each word and sentence to inform the next. “Don’t have ideas” was his mantra, as if the desire to write toward a formulated goal was the greatest poison to creativity (as much as he hated that word). Today I still love the notion of shadowing a book, rather than standing out front and trying to haul it forward: think of Ulysses, perhaps the most famous stream-of-consciousness endeavor, or even more so, Finnegans Wake; both books are all kite and little visible string. While they may not be my favorite works of Joyce, I shudder to think what would have happened if he’d been in a workshop or an MFA program.
But never mind Joyce: what about me? I try to imagine what sort of writer I’d be if I’d come upon Mattison’s chapters on crafting story and conjuring characters as a beginner. I may have learned to write with more control, but I’m not convinced that would have been a good thing. Learning control seems easier than learning abandon. In spite of the good examples from Mattison’s classroom — Hemingway, Twain, George Eliot, and Tillie Olsen among the many she uses to examine approaches and styles — I suspect The Kite and the String would have ended up with those other books in my attic: Bird by Bird, by Anne Lamott; 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel by the aforementioned Jane Smiley; John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction; and Robert Olen Butler’s From Where You Dream. Butler suggests we literally dream around in our novels until they become complete in our consciousness, and can then be written (obviating Anne Lamott’s promotion of the “shitty first draft,” which always strikes me as a shitty idea). I was actually jazzed about Butler’s method until an author friend and I decided to try it. We soon became impatient — we wanted to write, not sit around thinking about it.
In the end, it’s Annie Dillard’s musings in The Writing Life that I keep going back to: “The reason to perfect a piece of prose as it progresses,” she writes, “is that original writing fashions a form […] any careful word may suggest a route, may begin a strand of metaphor or event out of which much, or all, will develop.” (So much for that shitty first draft.) And she also says, “The line of words is a miner’s pick, a wood carver’s gouge, a surgeon’s probe. You wield it and it digs a path you follow.” (I can feel Jane Smiley’s wry smile, imagining the years I’ve wasted. True, she has 30 books while I have only two and one on the way. Still, we all have to pull water out of our own wells. I couldn’t write her books; she couldn’t write mine.)
I’m not sure I’ll go back to The Kite and the String before any of those others, but I’m certainly glad to have read it, not just for the self-interrogation Mattison’s premise has stirred in me, but also because her close reading of various works of fiction is well worth every writer’s while. In particular, I found her chapter on Middlemarch fascinating. In a library at Harvard, Mattison came upon a notebook identified as the “quarry” used by George Eliot when she wrote the novel. In it were lists of scenes in the novel, dates, maps of the town of Middlemarch, and relationships to be explored. She describes the quarry as distinct from outlining — an organic and ongoing rethinking of the pieces of the book, reaching back and forth from large to small, taking
advantage of the way a mind feels as it moves through a thought: associating, getting ideas, coming to a new understanding, rejecting that understanding, trying another […] making a mess in order to make something orderly.
In addition to her insights into the work of Eliot, Mattison traverses the ground between surrender and control in the evolution of other readily recognizable works of fiction. She describes Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises as “an elevated highway” from which the reader is able to look down on a world of expatriates in Europe after World War I. And she presents Moby-Dick as an example of a book that knows precisely where it’s going, having to do with a single unrelenting question: “Where the hell is that whale?” There are no subplots here, only digressions which Mattison calls cul-de-sacs — they don’t move the story but are self-contained dramas, compelling in their own right (for example, when the Pequod encounters a whale that’s not Moby Dick). “In other words,” she writes, “this book has a story, in Forster’s terms, but not really a plot.” She goes on to describe this distinction as follows:
[A] hurricane followed by an election is a story — an event, another event — but if the government’s response to the hurricane affects a coming election then we have a potential plot, especially if the people caught in the storm start talking about the inadequate governmental response while the water is still lapping at their feet, or if the narrator hints about what’s coming.
Another compelling part of the book is Mattison’s parsing of the relationship between story and theme. Awareness of theme before you begin “makes for a predigested story, one that will be obvious to you and your readers too soon.” In the first few drafts, she tells us, there may be no apparent theme. “Only slowly do we realize what the story is about.” To further explicate this idea, Mattison uses Mark Twain’s unfinished work The Mysterious Stranger. The novel was created in three iterations. Only in the third was Twain able to turn away from his theme of a pitiful world populated by contemptible humans. Mattison explains:
We’re in an Austrian village again, but this time it’s 1490, shortly after the invention of the printing press. Printing, in this version, is the subject that Mark Twain needed. Printing itself doesn’t demonstrate the vileness of humanity or the cruelty of people who think they are moral. But it suggests characters and events: a story.
She is clear that only when we put theme aside can the story make a thematic point without feeling preachy. Would writing with more tension in the string reveal a theme sooner and allow a writer to shape his novel more consciously? Perhaps. But I delight in the possibility of a theme emerging on the page for a reader, unbeknownst even to the writer.
Mattison, I suspect, would agree. And there is much else to take away from her book as well, including a strong final section on the expectations, disappointments, and realities of writing and publishing, and how our egos undo us: “You won the prize or you didn’t — a prize you never heard of until last month, but now that you’ve heard of it and didn’t win it, you feel like a failure.” In this final swing, Mattison delves into such subjects as determining whether work is ready to be submitted, learning to read critically, revising without despair, knowing how and choosing where to submit, the benefits of teaching, even the vagaries of self-publishing, and, most profoundly, incorporating writing into our lives as a healthy element both financially and emotionally. She even has a chapter titled “Being Happy” that, among many things, talks about loneliness and the need for writer friends. Reading this book, I have the sense that Alice Mattison is a wonderfully wise and nurturing teacher and writing friend herself.
In the end what she advocates, so long as you have a long, sturdy string and know how to use it, is to venture out on the windiest of days and toss your kite into the air to see what might happen. She suggests that what pulls a kite to the ground is more likely panic than common sense. “Much in the writing business […] requires a certain amount of nerve.”
Success at the game depends, she writes, “on the degree to which you can let out what is inside you that you don’t quite know about and might prefer to keep on not knowing about.”
In this regard she’s maybe not so different from Mr. Don’t-Have-Ideas, Les Plesko, who could shape a piece of writing without suggesting any shape at all, just cutting anything away that wasn’t crucial, that didn’t somehow sing on a cellular level. From that, the lines of words might emerge into the story that only we can tell, no one else. If Les hadn’t been my guide, my first effort at a novel would have floated away from me: I’d have written myself into oblivion. Fifteen years later, I still have my writing group (all of us former students of Les) to reel me in. This gives me permission to write with kite in full sway, knowing that they will be my string, as I will be theirs. I believe Alice Mattison would approve.
David Francis’s second novel, Stray Dog Winter, won the 2010 American Library Association Stonewall Prize for Literature. His new novel, Wedding Bush Road, is being released by Counterpoint Press November 2016.