Wednesday, September 7, 2011

What's the Big Idea? - pt. 2


I took a playwriting class in college, which I did not understand at the time.  Our professor was a towering figure, nine feet tall and carved from granite, with glaciers for eyes and rough leather catcher’s mitts for hands.  I also seem to recall him breathing fire and talking to God on the telephone, but perhaps I’m confusing him with someone from the English department.  With a few rare exceptions, he spoke only in riddles.  Despite all this, one of the first exercises he had us do for the course seemed almost laughably simple: he told us to write a story in one or two sentences and read it out loud to the class.

Yet it wasn’t so simple after all.  Again and again, as we went around the room, he informed us that the words we’d read were not, in fact, stories.  They were characters, or settings, or descriptions, but they were not stories.  I became frustrated and confused.  It seemed impossible to me to tell a story in one or two sentences.  I did not know what he wanted.

Years passed.  I graduated from college.  I legally drank alcohol out of a flaming dish shaped like a volcano.  I moved to a big city.  I bought a futon and dragged a coffee table into my apartment from the street.  A tiny dog appeared on the floor of my kitchen, yappily demanding things.  I did not get any smarter. 

So many rites of passage.

And then, one day when I was in MFA Skool at Columbia University, the administrators of the program announced an upcoming event: the agents’ party.  Combining the most terrifying aspects of a job interview and speed-dating, the event threw a dozen or so agents into a room crowded with an enormous herd of sweaty, overdressed would-be authors in various degrees of inebriation.  The cacophony that then filled the place to the ceiling may have sounded like the death bleats of learned goats in an abattoir, but it was in fact the sound of those authors, myself included, attempting to “pitch” their books in one or two sentences.  Our volume in delivering these “pitches” was only matched by the disdain with which we set about the task of composing them. 

For me, at least, such crass salesmanship seemed fundamentally at odds with the work I was doing in the program.  In workshop, we read each others’ novels in chunks of no more than thirty pages at a time.  These pages gave us plenty to talk about, and talk we did: about the need to dramatize a moment in scene vs. describe it in summary, the appropriateness of a metaphor, the tangibility of a setting.  Sometimes a person’s comments would veer toward the larger structure of the novel: “Where is this story going?” someone would cry, as if waking from a dream to discover the landscape outside the windows had changed.  But these questions, being unanswerable, largely went unanswered.  These books weren’t even finished yet; it was far too early to ask what they were about.  That was a question for readers, scholars and critics especially.

Before we met with the agents, we attended a mandatory prep session, where a faculty member gave us a crash course in the art of the pitch.  My memories of these instructions are hazy, but the gist was that a pitch was supposed to be a couple of sentences, tops, and yet somehow encapsulate the whole whirring carnival in which I’d installed the better parts of my soul.  It was, in fact, virtually the same exercise from that long-ago playwriting class, only this time, instead of inventing a story, I was meant to explain one already in progress.  It might have crossed my mind that the task should seem less puzzling to me by now, that perhaps my befuddlement indicated a lingering gap somewhere in my knowledge, but I did my best to ignore these thoughts.  Instead, I called bullshit, decried “selling out,” and told my significant other that I planned to start my conversations with agents by saying, “I’m obsessed with clowns” (a worthy profession of which my protagonist numbered).  He gently suggested I might want to try harder to appeal to the “clown neutral” reader, and I grudgingly set about cobbling together a less off-putting introduction to myself and my life’s work.
I still say that if you find this guy "scary," you're out of your freakin' mind.

It didn’t occur to me at the time that asking a writer to convey, in words, what her book was “about” might in fact be a perfectly reasonable question.  It didn’t occur to me that, perhaps, it was important for the writer to know the answer to this question herself.


Meredith said...

He's not a "scary" clown, but a sad drunk hobo clown.

scott g.f.bailey said...

John Wayne Gacy, on the other hand, was the stereotypical scary clown.

A lot of writers seem to resist thinking about their novels in a concrete way, as if doing so reduces it to something less than Art. Or, maybe, it's fear: fear that beneath all the pretty language there's nothing really there. Nobody wants to confront that idea. It's scarier than clowns.

Though, honestly, it made my head swim to write my first query letter, but later I realized that the headswimming was because I was trying to figure out what an agent would be tempted by, not what the damned novel was about.

Nowadays I tell people to think about the primary emotional arc of the story. "A guy in a love triangle commits a murder out of jealousy" or whatever. The fact that the guy is a highwayman, fleeing with two other criminals from the English army through the wilds of Virginia in 1749 comes second.

scott g.f.bailey said...

Having thought about this all day, I like the idea that writers avoid thinking about the core idea of their novels out of fear that there is/are no core idea/s. People like to write, are attracted to the marvelous things you can do with language, but don't necessarily have anything to say. First novels especially often lack a solid center because there's just so much to learn about putting together a novel, so much to learn about fiction and having a Big Idea to hang all those lessons in craft on is pretty daunting. And, you know, when you're starting out and don't possess all that craft, writing seems like a mysterious black art that can't actually be analyzed in rational terms, and to try it might seem like you're pushing your art out of the room. Or something.

A lot of first novels are written with no idea what the book is about. "I'll figure it out as I go along; I'm just being true to myself, man" et cetera. Though it's actually true, at least in my case, that while I know what my Big Idea is when I write a novel these days, I try not to examine it too closely because I don't want the story to become about just that one thing. So I always tell myself that the novel is about the Big Idea among other things. It's also possible that I've learned the forms but still lack the substance in my books. I hope not, but I can't rule it out. (Once my agent sells a book, though, look for me to be making Pronouncements From On High.)

The Chawmonger said...

Hey Meredith & Scott, thanks so much for reading and responding.

Scott, spoiler alert, but what you said in your last comment ("writers avoid thinking about the core idea of their novels out of fear that there is/are no core idea/s") is more or less what I conclude by the last sections of this essay. It's certainly true for me, anyway -- the idea of getting to the end of a whole huge project and realizing I didn't really SAY anything is paralyzing, so it's my natural tendency to avoid thinking about it. Of course, this is a case where ignoring the problem just makes it a thousand times worse.

Anyway, stay tuned: more to come tomorrow...

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