The Three Trick

Perfectionism plague you? Or just indecision? In fiction or even in non-fiction narrative (e.g. memoir), there are so many choices, possibilities limited only by imagination (for fiction) and memory/ your druthers (for non) . . . Where to start? Where to end? What to include? What to make happen? How to introduce your characters? How to paint your setting? Drafting will, you think, nail down your story. But revision forces a new vision, and again, all doors open, all worlds beckon. You’d think that if the problem were an embarrassment of riches, the answer would be discipline, restriction. But no. The answer is to write more. Sigh. Isn’t that always the answer? Seriously, though: if you are trying to figure something out about your book, instead of struggling and reaching for the right, the best, answer, come up with a list. Three possible endings. Seven ways to up the stakes. Five ways to turn the scene. Sometimes, you’ll find a way to use more than one, and sometimes you’ll find your way to the one that excites and moves you. But you won’t be stuck anymore. And chances are, you’ll loosen up and arrive at options you would not otherwise have considered. This is how we move from trying to get it right to getting it...

Busy Making Other Plans: What Failed Dreams, Missed Opportunities and Narrow Misses Can Teach Us About Fiction, and Visa Versa

I’ll admit it. One of the things I love about Facebook is that it gives me the impression of being in contact with so many people from all phases of my life–elementary school classmates, lost friends from high school, college comrades who fought the good fight alongside me or worked at the Kresge Food Co-op with me or studied women with me (in class, you know), exes and colleagues and acquaintances and friends of friends all jumbled together on my home page. Warm. Cozy. Seriously, though, I love the crowd. Plus, I imagined I would always know these people all my life. Even the kids in school who teased me or the housemate of a boyfriend who annoyed me–I just thought the world was a lot smaller than it is. Or was–before Facebook. Still, getting the occasional or regular status updates is not the same as curling up on the couch for hours of talk, hot drinks in hand. It is not the same as taking over the highway together in our determination to stop the war. It is a lot shorter than a three-hour-long consensus meeting to decide what brand of toilet paper to use. Less detailed than surviving third grade side-by-side. More succinct than wandering the city in the middle of the night with feather boas askew. I just thought I’d have enough time to live the thousands of lives each connection and context promised. And I don’t. “Life is what is happening while you are busy making other plans,” is the line that has been attributed to John Lennon, though it’s uncertain he said exactly that....

What No One Tells You About Point of View: Part 1, A Primer

A student writes: I would like you to talk about point of view – even something as simple as an enumeration of the possibilities. I told my story from the point of view of an omniscient third person who knew the thoughts of the main character but of no one else. This was inconvenient at one point because I envisioned a chapter where [his] love interest goes off with [his] mother [for a scene]. I couldn’t do that directly because the storyteller only knew what was going on through the main character’s eyes. Did I make a mistake? Can an omniscient storyteller know everything? That was about the only place I needed that extra knowledge for the storyteller. Part One of my three-part reply: Usually, when people talk about point of view, they concentrate on the technicalities. Let’s get the technicalities out of the way. Generally, the point of view can either be * first person (“I walked down Salamander Street, hoping to see Charlotte, who owed me five-hundred dollars and an ex-husband.”) First person can be singular, as shown in example, or collective, as when a town or a family or some other group entity narrates, using “we.” This tends toward a more omniscient role, as the storytellers are often part of the setting more than they are the main character. First person singular need not be a main character, either. Madame Bovary is written in first person from the point of view of a classmate of M. Bovary who shows up briefly in one early pronoun and not much more if at all . . . *...

On Being Anything: Chris Rock, Borges, and Raising White Boys

Last night we watched part of the new Chris Rock comedy special. Let me say, first of all, that the man is funny as heck. We were laughing hard. He had a lot to say about Obama that was not only funny but astute and telling. He’s also smart–he can read the audience and respond to that “uh-oh” feeling that comes from listening to edgy humor that takes no prisoners. Angie and I were talking this morning about the part where Chris Rock said that if Obama were president, Black people could stop giving their kids the “you can be anything you want to be” speech every morning before they leave the house. He said, White people don’t give their kids that speech, because it’s obvious. This led Angie and me to discuss (not for the first time) the fact that we are raising two little white boys. They could be president, even in the old days (and let’s hope they are nearly over) when only little white boys could grow up to be president. Then we talked about whether having two lesbian moms would be enough of a handicap to prevent them from being president, and whether Clinton’s (Bill, that is) single mom and alcoholic step-dad were equivalent to having lesbian mothers. I said no; Angie said yes. This is what we do with our free time while the boys are with their babysitter. Then we go to the library, sit at the long wooden tables, and get to work. Around us, the economy is tanking, and taking us with it for the ride, I suppose, but we...

Secrets, Paranoia and Babysitting

In my post, “I Could Write a Great Novel If Only I Had a Story to Tell,” I neglected my own favorite kind of plot trigger: secrets. It’s funny, but writers do seem to revisit a certain theme. Michelle Richmond (at least in her last two gripping books) seems to write about the consequences of losing people for the people who feel responsible for their loss. In The Year of Fog, the young step-daughter-to-be is lost by the fiancĂ©e when she disappears from Ocean Beach while they are together. In No One You Know, the sister of a young woman who was murdered years before searches for answers about what happened that night, spurred on by a meeting with the man who was the sister’s lover, another character caught in the ramifications of loss. My own work tends to gravitate toward secrets–what we don’t know that we don’t know. I am gripped by the idea that something there, but hidden, unknown, has a strong impact–even on the ignorant participants in the situation. In Shy Girl, Shy Mallon’s mother has hidden her identity as a Jew and her past as a holocaust survivor. Lots of people doubted the veracity of this story when I began to write it, because of course we hear from the people who are not hiding, those who believe that remembering is our only hope, our strongest activism. But in fact, there are many secret histories like Mrs. Mallon’s. Survivors who learned a different lesson: that safety lies in remaining below the radar, out of view. My own father told me about coming to Berkeley (U.C.)...