Wednesday, October 06, 2010

the waltz of authority and failure

One of the most important lessons I learned working with Tom Spanbauer and the brilliant minds around his table, had to do with authority. That illusive, seductive note in writing that forces the reader's attention to the page, and therefore, the world inside the page.

Tom had a fabulous way of ramming the concept home by example. He could isolate the moment in a passage where the writer disappeared and the narrator was now whispering in the reader's ear. So intimate. So breathtaking. And it was, Tom said, this very act of eliminating everything but the music--the song--between creator and receiver, that established the sort of authority that pulled the audience along the journey. It's the desire for this--oh, let's just call it what it is--lovemaking, that propels the writer forward, and also, keeps him/her coming back to the page to get it that much closer.

So last weekend Michael Cunningham had a terrific op-ed piece in the New York Times that spoke of this very thing. In his essay, Cunningham arrives at this haunting, and, sadly, all-too familiar experience for the novelist in regards to the way words end up failing to translate exactly what has been gestating in the mind of the writer:

"A novel, any novel, if it’s any good, is not only a slightly disappointing translation of the novelist’s grandest intentions, it is also the most finished draft he could come up with before he collapsed from exhaustion."

Okay, this is my Achilles heel, I'll admit it. It's what drives me, frustrates me, compels me and is responsible for more than one shattered ceramic mug and Rorschach coffee stain on my office wall. The thing in the head is never quite translated to the page, and when I go back and peruse my published stories and essays in books and journals, I am loath to the process because I invariably edit. As Cunningham admits, "It’s all I can do not to go from bookstore to bookstore with a pen, grabbing my books from the shelves, crossing out certain lines I’ve come to regret and inserting better ones."

Ah, but luckily I read on after that passage instead of nodding my head, setting the paper down, and thinking that I'd gotten the gist, and, indeed, agreed with the gist, end of editorial--because Cunningham offered a solution, and it was a solution that I longed to resist.

It seems that what helped Cunningham break through his solipsistic angst was to acknowledge "the other," e.g. the reader. And not just a generic reader either. He realized that in order to follow the arc of translation, a writer must consider a very specific niche of reader. For Cunningham, this was a co-worker at a restaurant where he worked at the time, and what she brought to the process was her own unique take, desires and opinions that were necessarily cleaved from those of the creator--him. Ergo, a concrete outcome for an otherwise overly existential process that never ends, which was Cunningham's method (I think) for arriving at a satisfying end to a given body of work.

So, with my latest work-in-progress, I'm at that very place. The Princess Chronicles is now in the hands of various readers who have offered and will offer suggestions for its improvement based on their own, as Cunningham puts it, "private, imaginary lexicon."

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