Tuesday, February 07, 2012

on intimacy

My work-in-progress has this necessary, troublesome scene. A scene that Tom Spanbauer once taught me to see as the "horizontal" aspect of narrative. In my particular case, there are a bunch of characters having a formal dinner. Aside from marching the reader through a cumbersome occasion, the scene needs to convey multiple character interactions, introduce an important setting (the dining room) that will be revisited several times during the novel, and develop a few key relationships. There's also a chunk of backstory--which, as we all know, is like clamping a ball-and-chain to forward momentum.

My first pass at this scene left a residue of self-loathing so thick, it made me wish for a special sort of soap for writers. One that would cleanse the disgust from their self-concepts after they reread their shitty first draft pages. Lye would be a main component of the soap--and some sort of anti-fungus ingredient.

I'm always preaching to students and clients about cozying up to their characters, unpacking small moments. That old saw about God and the details. It always takes a while for me to follow my own advice.Typically, when I'm first looking at a scene where a lot of things are happening, I become a brain-on-the-wall. I think the scene through, filtering observation through intellect and distance. I am an anthropologist, observing and noting generalities in my moleskin. And then I become a psychotherapist, analyzing the reasons for behavior. Ergo, pages of expository blather.

I submit exhibit A (though, believe me, this is painful):

We had to earn a place at the dining table.  That came with age, decorum, and a willingness to be utterly silent, unless called upon.  I know that’s the cliché, the being-seen-and-not-heard part, but in our family, it was a game. 
Aunt Beatrice was the “server” on this occasion—the chore was split between the daughters, as the cook was busy with the children.  Ursula and I stood behind our chairs, as we’d been taught, waiting for Grandmother, my mother and Ursula’s mother, Candace, to sit down.  Aunt Beatrice placed the platters on the table, poured the wine, and then nodded for us to take our seats.

 That's the very opening of the chapter in an early draft. Starts out with an explanatory thesis sentence, and then goes on to explain who does what. There is reference to at least seven characters in these two paragraphs. The whole fucking thing reads like stage direction (get me that soap!). If you were my student and you gave me this paragraph, I'd be tracking "unpack" and "get closer to a particular action" all over it.

I've drafted this novel several times, and I'm pleased with many of its chapters, but this particular chapter continues to plague me with its formal language and circumstance. But. I'm getting closer. Now when I read the chapter, I am urged to reach only for the ginger-infused phosphate-free dish soap. Here's exhibit B:

The back of the dining chair cut into my sternum, but this was on purpose. I couldn’t shake the image of the Victorian anatomy model Grandmother had on display in the curio cabinet in the parlor. It had been a gift given to her father, and this summer Grandmother had decided the life-sized wax model with the bisected abdomen and long, braided hair should be visible to all as they sipped their toddies. The waxy woman was propped freakishly up by a rod in her back, her neck bent backwards, her eyes simulating recent death, and a section of her organs exposed. I pushed the rounded wood of the top of the chair back into me, imagining my own liver. Visualizing my very own dogcrap-brown organ, its rich, veiny lobes pulsing blood around, filtering out poisons. Meanwhile, Auntie Bea placed the platters on the table, poured the wine, and then nodded for us to take our seats, which we did, through the steam of the platters.

What I mean by "unpack" and "go smaller" is to find an action that illustrates a particular and unique aspect of the character. In this case, my main character--the one telling the story--is going inward while navigating the reader through the set up of the scene.Sure, it's a little shocking and grotesque (we are sitting down to dinner, after all!), but in evoking the Victorian anatomy model and the main character's liver, I hope to, literally and figuratively, expose her to the reader, and set up an intimacy with the reader that the other characters in the scene are not privy to. (That she's thinking about her liver is a secret between character and reader--nobody at the table knows this---yet.)

This intimacy is what Tom Spanbauer calls "the vertical" of the story. It's a plunge down and in, where the magic of the writer:reader relationship happens.We need a balance of horizontal and vertical to move through a book. The choreography is like dancing along a tightrope holding one of those ten foot poles. You want the audience to be holding its breath, not looking away, scared for you and for themselves. Disgusted and mesmerized and compelled to turn the page, but wanting to savor a passage. That's the ideal.

So, baby steps, yes? If you're so compelled, reach into your drafted work-in-progress, find an expository paragraph--one that begins with a topic sentence, and re-begin it. Use an action verb in the first sentence, rather than a concept or a declaration. See what happens.

This is fun, right?


  1. I love being let in on a secret like this. I'll be coming back again and again to this example.

  2. Ha! Yeah,exposing the underbelly of failure. Ugh. The beauty of a work-in-progress is it's a playground of experiment. I can't imagine a more fun sandbox--once I get over wanting to drop kick my computer into next Tuesday.

    Thanks, Lisa!

  3. Anonymous6:18 PM

    This is fabulous advice. I never thought of it in terms of horizontal vs. vertical, but that visual is just what I needed to get a handle on the concept.

    Lookout, scenes. I'm coming for you. Thank you, Suzy.

  4. Averil, that's great to hear! Thanks for the comment.

  5. I've never thought in terms of horizontal or vertical either, but will from this point. Some of my scenes are too distanced and this advice should help. Thanks for the great post, Suzy.

    Your pages are beautiful.


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