The Art of Fiction:
Who Do You Love?
by Lisa Lenard-Cook
Lisa Lenard-Cook is a regular columnist for Authorlink. She is an award-winning published author and writing instructor. This is another in the series, The Art of Fiction. Watch for her insights every month on Authorlink. Read more about Lisa.
Sure, this is a column about writing, but this month I'd like to talk about reading. More specifically, I'd like to talk about your reading, and what it can teach you about writing. You may recall that last month I mentioned some of my own masters: Katherine Anne Porter, Alice Munro, Carol Shields, Ian McEwan. Every time I read and reread their work to learn more about the language of writing, I ask myself what it is about these writers that draws me. How do they forge their connection with me, the reader?
What I've discovered is that my favorite writers combine two sophisticated techniques, stream of consciousness and authorial intrusion, to work their magic. By showing you a bit of what some of these writers have taught me about writing, I'll reveal how you can learn from your own favorites, too.
". . . a third person point of view serves the author's purpose doubly well: It means she'll be able to intrude herself when she
wants to . . ." —Lenard-Cook
Stream of Consciousness
Did you read "The Jilting of Granny Weatherall" in high school? If so, you probably learned about Katherine Anne Porter and her trademark "stream of consciousness," where the reader is so far in the character's mind that it appears there is no author at all. To illustrate, here's the beginning of that classic:
She flicked her wrist neatly out of Doctor Harry's pudgy careful fingers and pulled the sheet up to her chin. That brat ought to be in knee breeches. Doctoring around the country with spectacles on his nose! "Get along now, take your schoolbooks and go. There's nothing wrong with me."
You'll immediately note that this is a third person narrative ("she"), which you may believe is at cross purposes with stream of consciousness. But no; a third person point of view serves the author's purpose doubly well: It means she'll be able to intrude herself when she wants to without the reader feeling jarred. Here's an example, just a few paragraphs down from that beginning:
". . . Porter has established Granny's voice so thoroughly that the story seems entirely in her point of view." —Lenard-Cook
Her bones felt loose, and floated around in her skin, and Doctor Harry floated like a balloon around the foot of the bed. He floated and pulled down his waistcoat and swung his glasses on a cord. "Well, stay where you are, it certainly can't hurt you."
"Get along and doctor your sick," said Granny Weatherall. "Leave a well woman alone. I'll call for you when I want you. . . . Where were you forty years ago when I pulled through milk-leg and double pneumonia? You weren't even born. Don't let Cornelia lead you on," she shouted, because Doctor Harry appeared to float up to the ceiling and out. "I pay my own bills, and I don't throw my money away on nonsense!"
She meant to wave good-by, but it was too much trouble. Her eyes closed of themselves, it was like a dark curtain drawn around the bed. The pillow rose and floated under her, pleasant as a hammock in a light wind. She listened to the leaves rustling outside the window. No, somebody was swishing newspapers: no, Cornelia and Doctor Harry were whispering together. She leaped awake, thinking they whispered in her ear.
Porter is such a good writer that she intrudes deftly, with mere verbs. These first paragraph verbs (and modifiers) are Granny's: felt, floated (around). And these are Porter's: pulled (down), swung. The reader doesn't notice the difference because here, only a few paragraphs in, Porter has established Granny's voice so thoroughly that the story seems entirely in her point of view.
"But, but, but," you're saying. It is in Granny's point of view, isn't it? Yes, it is. "The Jilting of Granny Weatherall" is a classic example of third person limited point of view. But the author's here, too, not just in every word and every phrase, but in the punctuation. Here:
…There was always so much to be done, let me see: tomorrow.
Tomorrow was far away and there was nothing to trouble about. Things were finished somehow when the time came; thank God there was always a little margin over for peace: then a person could spread out the plan of life and tuck in the edges orderly. It was good to have everything clean and folded away, with the hair brushes and tonic bottles sitting straight on the white embroidered linen: the day started without fuss and the pantry shelves laid out with rows of jelly glasses and brown jugs and white stone-china jars with blue whirligigs and words painted on them: coffee, tea, sugar, ginger, cinnamon, allspice: and the bronze clock with the lion on top nicely dusted off. The dust that lion could collect in twenty-four hours! The box in the attic with all those letters tied up, well, she'd have to go through that tomorrow. All those letters…
While she was rummaging around she found death in her mind and it felt clammy and unfamiliar. She had spent so much time preparing for death there was no need for bringing it up again…
Did you note all those colons? See how each leads to the next thought? It's brilliant, compact, and so easily done the reader just slips right by without realizing how s/he's being author-handled. And that exclamation point toward the end of the long paragraph! See how it stops the stream of consciousness and allows it to go off in another direction? ("The box in the attic…")
It's very hard for me to stop typing Porter's words: One of the ways I learned from her was to copy out whole sections of her work in my own handwriting. You might want to try this, too: Capturing your favorites' rhythms can help you learn your own.
"I've left a lot out, to show you as much as I could about the way Munro moves around a story." —Lenard-Cook
Ladies and gentlemen, Alice Munro:
I lost interest in Flora by then…
But I have thought of her since. I have wondered what kind of store…
(Or) She might meet a man. A friend's widowed brother, perhaps. A man who did not know that she was a Cameronian or what Cameronians were…
I might go into a store and find her.
No, no. She would be dead a long time now.
But suppose I had gone into a store – perhaps a department store…I imagine her listening… She is not
surprised that I am telling her this, but she is weary of it, of me and my idea of her, my information, my notion that I can know anything about her.
Of course, it's my mother I'm thinking of, my mother as she was in those dreams, saying, It's nothing, just this little tremor; saying it with such astonishing lighthearted forgiveness, Oh, I knew you'd come someday…
I've left a lot out, to show you as much as I could about the way Munro moves around a story. (This is from "Friend of My Youth.") After the astonishing section partially quoted above, in which the narrator imagines running into Flora, imagines a conversation with her (but, "No, no. She would be dead a long time now."), then realizes that "it's really (her) mother (she's) thinking of," Munro inserts one of her trademark line breaks, and then ends the story with a paragraph about the Cameronians.
That paragraph (I've not included it) seems to hang, separate, alone. What's it about? Why is it there? The answer is that it's authorial intrusion at its finest and most bald-faced, and the last line of this marvelous story reads, "One of their ministers, in a mood of firm rejoicing at his own hanging, excommunicated all the other preachers in the world." Not only does this line shed light on the quite different story that came before, it changes it.
I can't do Alice Munro justice here. My advice: Read her, and read her again.
" My favorite writers share an ability to move all over the place in time while the narrative hangs in a single moment." —Lenard-Cook
Time and Time Again
My favorite writers share an ability to move all over the place in time while the narrative hangs in a single moment. I've covered this extensively in my previous four columns about the mind of a story, but an example here will show you how I studied one of my masters to learn how she did it. This is Carol Shields, in Unless. We are at a dinner party at which a man, whose wife has recently left him, has been talking about the theory of relativity:
The theory of relativity would not bring Colin's wife hurrying back to the old stone house on Oriole Parkway. It would not bring my daughter Norah home from the corner of Bathurst and Bloor, or the Promise Hostel where she beds at night. Tom and I followed her one day; we had to know how she managed, whether she was safe. The weather would be turning cold soon. How does she bear it? Cold concrete. Dirt. Uncombed hair.
"Would you say," I asked Colin – I had not spoken for several minutes – "that the theory of relativity has reduced the weight of goodness and depravity in the world?"
Note how, using parallel construction (in this case, clauses naming places), the narrator leaves the table and thinks about her daughter, who has left college to sit at a subway entrance holding a sign that reads, "goodness." And note how the narrator skewers the speaker and his theories when she returns to the story's present. Oh, mastery!
"When you read something that knocks your socks off, read it again. Ask yourself questions about the writing: Why does this astonish me? " —Lenard-Cook
Work to Do
It's hard, of course, to capture precisely what each of these writers is doing from abbreviated quotations. My suggestion to you is this: When you read something that knocks your socks off, read it again. Ask yourself questions about the writing: Why does this astonish me? What is it about this writing that speaks to me? Copy the words in your own handwriting to feel the author's rhythms. Note the words the author uses, the way s/he arranges them, how they sound, how they feel. Note his/her use of punctuation, sentence length, tense, paragraphing.
And then, go back and read it again.
Lisa Lenard-Cook's novel Dissonance (University of New Mexico Press, 2003) won the Jim Sagel Award for the Novel and was a 2004 selection of both NPR Performance Today's Summer Reading Series and the Durango-La Plata Reads countywide reading program. Her latest novel, Coyote Morning (UNM Press, 2004), has been compared to work of Carol Shields and Sue Miller. Visit Lisa's website, www.lisalenardcook.com, for information about her books and more writing inspiration.