Saturday, November 24, 2007

Words and Music

I attended a literary conference last weekend, Words and Music, which has wrongly been called The Faulkner Festival because it's sponsored by the folks at the Faulkner House bookstore, an elegant but expensive and often pretentious bookstore in the French Quarter. I should not speak disparagingly about Faulkner House because they let me attend the conference for free, and were instrumental in setting up a meeting for me with a literary agent. Ostensibly I was a volunteer, but all I did was press Play on a tape recorder, and then half an hour later turned over the tape and pressed Play again. Then I was relieved by another volunteer, and spent the next 2 days drinking coffee and scoffing at the grandiose pronouncements of self-appointed literary pontiffs.

My least favorite pronouncement: "Poets make the best fiction writers because they are sensitive to language and understand the primacy of the image." But in my experience, poets make some of the WORST fiction writers because they are self-conscious about language and overdose on image, while neglecting to tell a STORY. The pontiff who made that pronouncement then read his own work, which made my case. All image, no story. All style, no substance. I would re-phrase that pronouncement as "Fiction writers should read poetry."

I did hear good content too, good as in useful. Pulitzer winner Robert Olen Butler spoke eloquently about the relationship of the artist to the unconscious, in particular, to dreaming. I met him about 3 years ago and had a similar conversation one on one. He can get pretty out there, but having recently read Carl Jung's essay, Approaching the Unconscious, I was in a better frame of mind to appreciate Butler's ideas.

Right now I'm reading his Pulitzer collection of short stories, A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain, most of which are set here in New Orleans in the Vietnamese refugee communities. The stories are moving and surprising in their emotional range. Three years ago he said to me "Don't worry about the particulars of culture. Just make sure the emotion is real. You can add the particulars later." Or something to that effect. I take his advice to heart, because I do believe and practice the primacy of CHARACTER in fiction. Story arises from character, as does resolution. At least in the kinds of stories I like and try to write.

The meeting with the agent went well, although honestly, I'm not looking for an agent right now. I'm not there yet. I need to finish my first draft, let it cool, then write the second draft. Jeff Kleinman and I agreed that I've still got a ways to go (about 2 years, I estimate), but when I'm ready he wants me to send him the first 3 chapters. He liked what I showed him. He even said "wow, you can really write!" But when he wanted to discuss copy edits, like commas and parallel sentence structure, I cut him short and asked him not to waste both of our times. So we dug into the technical aspects of my work, in particular, Point of View.

POV is the THE technical challenge of my novel. Check this out: I have a first person "I" narrator, who is effectively omniscient, yet restricts each chapter to a different character's experience, which is called "limited third person." Have I covered all the possible POV choices?
  • First person
  • Omniscience
  • Limited third person
Yup, that pretty much covers it.

Why did I set the bar so high for myself? I really didn't choose to, per se. It is the strategy that makes most sense for an angel to narrate a story about a family. Kleinman did not criticize my choice, but said merely to tread carefully, which I am. It's taken me 13 chapters to finally feel I have POV under control. In the end, you learn to write a novel by writing it. Today I'm confident in Goodfriend's storytelling ability, that he won't confuse readers or disrupt the flow of a story by interjecting some personal observation.

Kleinman also gave me some wrong-headed advice. Although he certainly understands craft, he is not a writer in his orientation. He's an agent, a sales guy. He cautioned me to be aware of market forces as I write, and to avoid comparison to such and such a popular novel. I told him I plan to ignore that advice. I actually do believe and practice the Romantic Era notion of the bohemian artist and Art for Art's sake. That doesn't make for marketable fiction, but I'm just conceited enough to believe that when I'm finished with my novel, someone will think it's publishable on its own aesthetic merits, and not because of some market trend 2 years out from now that I can't anticipate.

If I really wanted to get published rather than create meaningful art, I'd write a memoir, like all the 20-something MFA graduates who write the story of their childhood abuse or teenage angst. Aside from Arthur Rimbaud, what does a 20-year-old have to say about the world that I care to read? Augustin Burroughs (of Running with Scissors infamy) is coming out with his 8th memoir this year. Dude, get an imagination.

I heard a new term at the conference that tickled me, the "mom-oir".

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