Tuesday, 11 May 2010
Which came first? Craft or creativity: guest blog by Michelle Hoover
I've been teaching fiction writing for fourteen years, moving from the short story to the novel as my own work meandered nervously from short to long. What I return to again and again, what I find most helpful to my students, is an exploration of the formal structures on which fiction relies.
These of course begin with Aristotle, his idea of 'one action,' and how this single action, introduced at the beginning of the play and carried through to the climax, like the far shore of home that Odyssues never takes his eyes from, conveys both physical action toward a tangible desire but also the interior (and conscious) motivation behind it. Aristotle himself argues that plot is more important than character, but I think his idea of plot, of one action, is so character-based as to make the two elements hopelessly intertwined. If we carry the idea forward, we find Henry James and his assertion that 'character determines incident, incident reveals character.'
For James, 'motivation' is more closely (and helplessly) tied to the character's fundamental flaw, a flaw that leads the protagonist inevitably to an incident that will test this flaw, bring it more into the open, on stage if you will, than ever before. And of course, how the character reacts to this incident only complicates our understanding of the desperate hold the flaw has on this character, or which the character has on it.
For centuries, authors have repeated these ideas, attempting to pin down exactly what a plot is and how a fiction writer can invent one without feeling stupid or blandly commercial. John Barth's essay 'How To Know Whether You've Got a Plot or Not? is one of my favorites, as it stems from an author I consider a rebel. Even Barth doesn?t take his ideas so seriously that he can't mock them.
The essay's main title is 'Incremental Perturbations' - try to say that three times fast. Better yet, say it in front of a classroom, where for me the words morph absurdly into 'Ecumenical Protuberances' or even 'Imperturbable Excrements.' Barth describes plot as 'the incremental perturbation of an unstable homeostatic system and its catastrophic restoration to a complexified equilibrium.'
In all its ridiculousness, the definition still nails it. What better term than 'complexified equilibrium' for the necessity of a story to have reached a new (and often terrible) resting place after it's been jarred from its opening instability. You hear readers complain that 'nothing happens' or workshops moan that they detect little to no emotional 'shift.' The complaint is about a lack of budding complexity, in event, character, or theme, isn't it?
Like the looming self-help sections in bookstores, authors now fill walls with books on craft, whether they are successful fiction writers or not. The laugh is that craft books sell far better than any fiction, though one hears a painful hiccup as the author slips on the discarded peel of his soul before he deposits his cheque.
But beyond Barth's breakdown of plot and a handful of other 'practical' guides, I find most authors speak so abstractly about craft that few beginners have a clue what they're talking about. The author may list examples, claim that here is good dialog or, oh, look, what a nice gesture, but the examples are either so dull or uniquely brilliant that students will never want to, or never can, identify such elements in their own pages. They will never, like Barth puts it, understand if they've 'got it or not.' Knowing the difference may be the test of talent. It may also simply be luck.
Take for instance Steve Almond's wonderfully defiant collection This Won't Take But a Minute, Honey. His 'Quick Definition of Plot' claims 'Plot is the mechanism by which your protagonist is forced up against her deepest fears and/or desires.' Simple. Direct. Yet I've had any number of students try to apply this line to a published piece of fiction and fail. What does it mean, 'to force' a character against something so abstract? My students point at a story and say, there, the character is showing emotion, or there, he is revealing his desire. But Almond's idea is far more complex. Still, if a student can't identify such a plot in someone else's story, how will they ever be able to identify it in their own, where they forgive everything?
In truth, Almond's idea is only a more emotional extension of James' character determines incident. A character's desire or fear must be challenged. It must be brought out in a shameful, semi-public, and dramatic way, and the character must act to cover that fear or expose it further, to fess up or lie, to grab at his desire or let it go. As Aristotle might say, the character must do something, because the fear or desire is such an integral part of him, he can't do otherwise. Whether good or bad, it's all he's got in the world.
But what about stories that don?t work this way? Of course, the best are never obvious in their choices. And yet, I've found Barth's definition of plot at work in authors as diverse and astonishing as Borges and William Gass. The structure follows that of fairy tales, and the structure of fairy tales is what feels most natural to us. We have repeated these rhythms for centuries, independently, all over the world.
I tell my students to take such 'rules' with a grain of salt. Know them before you break them. And if you break them, if your story's inherent qualities 'as opposed to laziness' lead you in that direction, try to understand what you're giving your reader in return.
In my 'Plotting the Novel' seminars, I advise students to simplify. Once you know them well, employ such 'formulas' with as little consciousness as you structure a sentence: subject, verb, object. Plot is simple. In many ways, plot is boring. There's little use for fancy stuff. Why waste your energy? Use it as your story's invisible skeleton, and save the best of what you've got for the harder, more important stuff, for character or scene, passion or shame, happiness or ruin, the amazing complexity of it all.
Do ideas about craft deaden creativity? I wonder at times. Look at Paul Yoon's immaculate story collection, 'Once the Shore', and we immediately know that the stories do not follow Barth at all. But Yoon has his own kind of recipe, one based on the quiet assuredness of the narrator's voice, on the single setting around which his characters live and yearn, and yes, there's the trick on one character matched with another, a constant coupling of foreign and familiar personalities, both of whom suffer from losses so enduring and serious that they're transformed into physical scars, a broken ankle, a lost limb, a weak heart. This very coupling brings complication. But formula? I wince at using such a term. Yoon's stories are far too haunted and mysterious. Their power is innate to the author's vision, his sense of consequence and pain. Yet in the end, isn't consequence as a result of action what Aristotle was writing about? The desire, the instability, the flaw - these things launch characters forward into the incident that will mark them for the rest of their lives. A story captures the moment in which a character fully reveals himself, in all his human ugliness and charm. And sometimes it's simply plot that forces us writers to put our characters in the terrible situations this revelation requires, the situations we would otherwise attempt to save them from.