Alice Mattison’s gift to aspiring writers

One of the remarkable characteristics of successful writers is their willingness to alice-mattison-credit-sigrid-estrada-no-text1share 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 longekiter 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]

—Alex McNab

Published in: on December 21, 2016 at 12:55 pm  Comments (1)  

Writing thoughts from a professional reader

From time to time the Fairfield Writers’ Blog (FWB) has spoken with published authors about what makes good storytelling and about the other challenges we deal with in our writing groups at the Library. Now it’s time to hear from a distinguished published reader.

Bridgeport’s Joe Meyers, book and film critic of the Connecticut Post and Hearst Media News Group, was presented with the 2012 Ellery Queen Award by the esteemed Mystery Writers of America (MWA) at its annual black-tie awards dinner in New York in April. In announcing the award, the MWA said, “Meyers writes about mystery/thriller books, reviews them, and blogs about them. . . .His reviews are thoughtful and perceptive, and his criticism is constructive. He is a scholar of mystery and crime fiction, attending conferences and moderating panels.”

Meyers’ reading extends far beyond genre titles, as evidenced by three of his recent “Book Beat” pieces in the Sunday Post. One covered Fairfield University Creative Writing MFA graduate David Fitzpatrick’s Sharp, a memoir of mental deterioration and self-mutilation. A second spotlighted literary novelist Alice Mattison of New Haven and her new book, When We Argued All Night, about which Meyers wrote, “We get a real sense of lives being led.” After speaking with him for an hour about what makes good fiction, it is clear that that is high praise indeed. And a third featured newcomer Maggie Shipstead’s Seating Arrangements (a novel the category-obsessed book business might label as commercial rather than Mattison’s literary). In our discussion a few days before his article ran, Meyers said that the book “gives you such a view of WASP culture. Middle-aged malaise. . . .The story is strong, but [Shipstead’s] grasp of character is really outstanding. For a first-time novelist, it blew my mind.”

Here’s an edited transcript of Meyers on other writing topics he spoke about with the FWB:

Keys of good fiction writing: “A story that grabs me. A setting that interests me. Human psychology and human behavior played out in believable characters. A key thing—you want to go to the next chapter. To me, if you have to work too hard at reading a book, there are too many other books that you don’t have to work hard at. Not to dismiss very dense, complex novels, but I put a high premium on good storytelling. The style of the writing, the dialogue in the story [should convince me] that the story I’m reading could really happen. That’s why one of my prejudices, and it’s a bad one, is that I veer away from science fiction—it’s never clicked with me.”

Criticisms of some current fiction: “People are rushing almost too fast to grab you with something outrageous. Especially in mystery and suspense. Caleb Carr’s first novel, The Alienist, was set just before the turn of the 20th century and was a big fat book. A lot of mystery writers or readers I know hated it because they felt like he wasn’t getting to the story fast enough. But in that case, the detail of what it was like to live in that time I found fascinating. I got swept up in it. A lot of people did. [The Alienist made bestseller lists and the paperback rights were sold for more than $1 million.] Another one of my criticisms is short chapters. That’s overdone. It’s like the writer is almost afraid of losing your attention.”

Common traits among successful authors he’s interviewed: “Perseverance is the major thing. A good proportion of them tell stories about how hard it was for them to get started. [Bestselling legal thriller author] Lisa Scottoline, who is a friend of mine, wanted to transition from being a lawyer to being a writer. She was a single parent and she wanted to work at home. She got rejected and rejected. She tells a story about an agent who sent her back her manuscript and said something to the effect of, we can’t take any new clients at this point but even if we could, I wouldn’t want to represent this. Some real crushing, mean stuff. They all seem to have an inner determination. They have to do it. And somehow they find the right agent or editor who shares their vision.”

Defining an author’s voice. “There’s a personality. There’s a world view. I was just re-reading Nora Ephron’s last collection of essays. Now there’s somebody who had strong voice. You felt like she was talking directly to you. And even if you didn’t agree with everything she said, you felt like it was a conversational tone. It was so appealing. Here’s a woman who was a daughter of Hollywood, wealthy beyond any of our dreams, mingling with the most celebrated people in the culture, but she had some kind of a common-sense take on things where you could relate to almost everything she wrote about. She did one of the things that’s most difficult in writing, humor. Funny. And self-deprecating. Boy, she was good. It’s a shame, in a way, that she spent so much time in Hollywood. What a writer she was as an essayist.”

Critiquing an aspiring fiction writer’s work in progress. “I’ve done it only a couple of times. And I’ve regretted doing it. I’m not a publisher. I’m not an agent. I’m not an editor. I wouldn’t want to say anything negative to a friend that would impact their finishing the book. Editing is such a skill, to see what somebody’s trying to do and bring it out of them. It’s a separate thing from what I’ve ever done.”

Books made into movies. “When I’m reading a book I like to think I’m getting something that I can’t get from movies or television. I think it’s apples and oranges. I do agree with people who say a lot of times that mediocre or not-so-good books make better movies because you can improve them. The movie ‘Jaws’ cut out the real crap in the book. ‘The Godfather’ is another classic case, where Francis Ford Coppola cut out all the junk and made it so much better. ‘The Manchurian Candidate’ is to me a case where the film is superb and the novel is superb. George Axelrod, who did the adaptation, was very faithful and had to really be creative because under the censorship of that time there were elements of the book he couldn’t use. I think Richard Condon, the novelist, was very happy with that. Another Condon book that was made into a wonderful movie was ‘Prizzi’s Honor.’ One of my favorite examples of a really good book and a really good film is a novel people have forgotten called Cutter and Bone by Newton Thornburg. The film ‘Cutter’s Way’ is terrific and the novel is terrific.”

Unpublished writers giving one-minute pitches of their books to agents and publishers at writers’ conferences. “I’m not an aspiring novelist. But that depresses me in a way. Because so many good things cannot be boiled down that way. That’s more of a movie thing—this meets that. Trend chasers drive me crazy—and people get sucked into it—because people in the business don’t know what the next big thing is going to be. No one saw The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo coming. No one saw Fifty Shades of Grey. No one saw The Da Vinci Code. And then for two or three years afterward you get all these copies. Rather than try to write copies, why not write something original and good?”

Writing characters of the opposite sex. “A problem with a lot of male genre writers—their women are often unbelievable. What I really admire about [bestselling suspense thriller and romance author] Sandra Brown is that she writes men as well as she writes women. She wrote a book about a football player called Play Dirty that, if you had taken her name off of it, I think you would have assumed it was written by a man.”

Writing violence. “The more that it’s off the page, the more effective it is. Suggested violence is much more horrifying than real violence. I’m not really into serial killers or psychopathic stuff. I think the movies took over serial killers. And they are such a blip on the reality screen. There are so few of them. The stories are so melodramatic and over the top. The other thing I’m not interested in, honestly—and I loved the first couple of Patricia Cornwell novels—is this CSI stuff, autopsies and all, I couldn’t care less. A couple of years ago a Cornwell book came in, and I said, well, I haven’t read her for years, she’s hugely popular, I’ll give this one a try. She did the lowest trick a writer can ever do, which is something out of a daytime soap. She killed a character and then brought him back to life. Give me a break.”

One crime novel worth reading.A Judgement in Stone. What Ruth Rendell does in the first sentence of the book is say, “Eunice Parchman killed the Coverdale family because she could not read or write.” So she gives away the perp and the victims in the beginning of the story. You think, why would I read a book when she’s telling me this? She violates the rules right in the first sentence. Then she backs you in right away to the fact that this woman was hired to be the maid to this upper class family that has a house in the country. The suspense becomes almost overpowering because she shows you how tiny slights that these people make, and the fact that this woman is hiding that she can’t read—it’s a very deep shame of hers—are creating a situation which is going to cause a violent collision. It’s fewer than 200 pages; I don’t think you could sustain it for much more than 200 pages.  But it is a classic of the genre because it doesn’t seem to follow any of the rules. It was made into a very fine French film by Claude Chabrol called ‘La Ceremonie.’ ”—Alex McNab