One of the remarkable characteristics of successful writers is their willingness to share their expertise with those aspiring to join them. Over the past several years, the Fairfield Writer’s Blog has been fortunate to cross paths here in Connecticut—in a workshop and at author appearances—with Alice Mattison (right). She is a literary novelist, short-story writer, poet and faculty member at Bennington College’s low-residency MFA program. After publishing six novels, four story collections, and a volume of poetry, Mattison has written a book about writing, The Kite and the String: How to Write with Spontaneity and Control—and Live to Tell the Tale (Viking).
Mattison’s clear thinking, benevolent enthusiasm and engaging presence in front of a group make her a nonpareil writing mentor to aspirants of all abilities. In November, she spoke at the performance space at one of the great still-existing specialty shops for film fans and their fellow arts patrons, Best Video in Hamden, Connecticut. Her topic was ”The Pleasures and Perils of Writing a Novel.” In keeping with Mattison’s nurturing generosity, her enlightening and inspiring talk was not simply a reading, but a 30-minute or longer presentation—drawn from both her new book and well beyond—scripted especially for the evening’s event, followed by an equally long question-and-answer session.
The FWB suggests you check out The Kite and the String. Meantime, here is a short sampling of the wisdom contained between its covers.
The Dilemma: “Some [writers I meet] are so eager for rules and techniques that they can’t allow themselves the many messy stages of writing good fiction, the dreamlike, irrational state of mind that would let them write what’s senseless and only later, gradually, turn it into something that makes sense. Others write freely and spontaneously, but have trouble judging what they’ve done, or thinking in an orderly way about structure or plot.” [p. xiii]
The Title: “By keeping hold of both contradictory states of awareness—intense feeling and common sense—I could create stories that had some modicum of interest. . . .I needed abandon and control—a kite that takes off into the wind, a restraining string that’s unspooled a little at a time and pulled when necessary, a string that lets it fly, but not so far that it gets lost.” [p. 15]
The Challenge: “When we judge too quickly, we censor ourselves, writing nothing, or what’s unobjectionable but lifeless. We must slowly learn to drop our inhibitions when we write. . . .People who write freely but don’t stop and think may get down on paper scraps of the intensity of life, but what they write, in a fever, is not necessarily clear, not shaped, not given point and direction. . . .Strong feeling without common sense makes amateurs who may express what they feel to their own satisfaction, but can’t turn it into something a reader can take pleasure in.” [pp. 16-17]
The Process: “If nothing works, sit and do nothing. Suffer for a while. We’ve considered the need to waste time—waste some. Listen. Imagination will eventually present a situation or give you a person or a place—something, something to start with, which you can gradually add to. . . .” [p. 32]
The Crux: “Without trouble. . .there’s no story.” [p. 53]
The Time Line: “Violating chronology seems cool and sophisticated and sexy. . . .It would be boring, these writers conclude, to work out a series of chronological events and plod through them like some dodo. I disagree. Chronological order (interrupted, perhaps, by well-placed incidents from the past) is usually best. . .because it’s clearest, and because it allows us to wonder what will happen next, as we do in life. . . .Breaking chronology. . .makes the reader think of the writer, not the story. It’s usually preferable to think about who did what than how clever this author is. . . .Violating chronology merely in order to imitate the wanderings of thought often doesn’t provide enough benefit to justify what you give up: clarity and forward momentum. . . .” [pp. 136, 138]
The Backstory: If your novel begins with the most exciting event and then drops back six months or a year to tell how it came to happen, consider starting six months or a year back in the first place. . .so that when your exciting event occurs, it will happen to people we know and care about. . . .Knowing what’s coming, you can invent scenes that move you toward it.” [p. 146]
The Fallacies: “One of my colleagues says he became a better writer when he finally understood the value of a simple informative sentence, something like ‘Her brother was a landscape gardener.’ . . .People have told me sentences like that are boring—which is like thinking that ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ is boring if you hear it in answer to the question ‘Is State Street that way?’ It’s not boring if you want to know.
“There’s also the lurking ‘show, don’t tell’ fallacy: the belief that because creative writing teachers advocate showing rather than telling. . .it is somehow against the law to tell anything. . . .Fiction earns its keep by bringing people and places to life, sure—but not all day long, not in every damn sentence. . . .Use the simple informative sentence for the things we do need to know if we’re to understand your story: the facts will make clear what we’re seeing and forestall confusion.” [p. 158-159]
The Revisions: “The difference between writers and people who say they are writers but aren’t may be that writers assume they’ll revise. . . .To learn how to revise effectively, you must, to the extent possible, learn to see your work as a stranger would. . . .If, as you read, you suddenly realize the whole thing is garbage, I promise you, it isn’t. This happens, and it’s never real; you wouldn’t have devoted all that time to it if it were garbage. Put the piece aside for a few hours, calm down, and try again. Maybe then you can see clearly what it needs and what is all right as it is.” [pp. 191-193]
The Editor: “Writing isn’t something you can get straight once and for all, like tying your shoelaces. Dancers and musicians have teachers well into their professional careers. They expect and welcome teaching. Writers, too, can never entirely learn to see the flaws in their own work. That’s why editors exist. . . .There’s no such thing as a writer who doesn’t need editing. . . .It’s not bad news that your work needs revision; it’s the nature of writing. Just because you’ve revised your piece many times doesn’t prove it’s done. On the other hand, the fact that it’s not yet right after many tries also doesn’t mean it’s hopeless. We practice a difficult art.” [p. 200]
The Reader: “Writing isn’t really finished until someone reads what is written. . . .” [p. 208]
The Commitment: “Honor the work. It’s a matter of believing—or pretending to believe, even when you don’t—that you have the right to write, even if so far you haven’t proved that the world needs your stories.” [p. 212]