Wednesday, June 29, 2011

More on Naturally Beautiful Novels: A Roundtable Discussion

Thank you all for your comments on Monday's guest post by Athol Dickson. Debbie is on a well-earned vacation, but the rest of us have jotted down our thoughts on some of the points that Athol made, and we share them here.

One of the elements Athol mentioned was Symbolism. One great source of information about biblical symbolism is the Dictionary of Biblical Imagery, whose subtitle is: An encyclopedic exploration of the images, symbols, motifs, metaphors, figures of speech and literary patterns of the Bible.

In order to provide what Athol also mentioned, Hope, an author needs to understand the theme of reversal as universal to good literature. A satisfying novel puts a character the reader cares about into a hopeless situation. (That's what the Bible is all about, right? Our hopeless situation without God.) Not sure how to use a theme like that? If you look up the theme of reversal in this dictionary, you can see how the best Author of all time, the Holy Spirit, demonstrated that divine theme in the lives of people like Adam and Eve, Abraham, Jacob, Esther, the Resurrection. Once an author sees how that pattern works, it's easier to emulate that satisfying pattern in one's own writing.

The Bible is fecund : ) with raw material for novels using its symbolism, as everyone from Faulkner to Francine Rivers has overtly demonstrated. I know that Bonnie has written an excellent book that uses the downfall of King Saul as her basis.

Beauty is many things to many people. As I read Athol's post, Ikeptthinking that perhaps "organic" would be a better word. Using "organic" wouldanswer the question of why such writing cannot be taught. Because it's already in you. It's defeating for a writer who is just starting out to believe he or she may be incapable of beautiful writing because of a lack of enigmatic gifting. Beautiful writing is honest. Stripped of pretense, it shines with naked humanity. Beautiful writing comes from the raw experience of life on the planet, and is tended to in the soil of the writer's soul. Organic writing can be harvested by anyone with the patience to bring it up a teaspoon at a time. You can only use a teaspoon because soul matter is dense with meaning, and complex in structure. One small measure at a time is all we can handle. Yes, we must all work hard on our craft. And when it comes to our art, we must practice organic writing -- hauling up the deepest truths -- and we will find our stories will be the beauty of bare honesty which touches the soul of everyone who reads them.

I love that Bonnie connected organic writing with beauty with truth. Perhaps the best part of good fiction is that it tells the truth -- not truisms, but something real we've scratched from our own soil, at cost to ourselves. That lovely feeling we get when we read great writing may be gratitude, that someone had the courage of bare honesty. It takes faith: the writer must believe that truth is always beautiful, no matter how it looks at first glance. I have a painting in my living room, painted by a Japanese artist my husband once knew, of a burnt tree in a snowbank on a winter day. It reflects an esthetic that finds beauty in sorrow and loss. In Brennan Manning's novel, Patched Together, the main character must walk through "the dazzling darkness of sheer trust," before he reaches the "Cave of Bright Darkness," where he meets . . . Well. The novel ends on "A good day. A very good day."

I've redoubled my reading since working at the library. One gift the library offers is the freedom to say no thanks to a less than beautiful piece of fiction, and while I've been as polite as possible, even favorite authors have been returned with pages unread. In my arrogance, I would add one more element to Mr. Dickson's essay: Truth. All of the other elements can be there, but without truth, the story structure collapses and the suspension of belief necessary to be immersed in a piece of fiction is broken.

In a novel, truth is honest emotion and justifiable motivations. I returned a book unread when a teen girl finds her mother dead in their home. Alas, the mother was a hoarder and an ill-tempered one at that, but the girl won't call for help until she cleans the house -- without the neighbors noticing. I understood the mortification factor for the girl, but what teenage girl do you know who would be comfortable with a dead body in the house? Not beautiful. Not true. Gone. I returned another book that resolved a horrific tragedy with simplistic, shallow really, answers. Books I loved this year for their beauty and truth were The Book Thief, Home, Half Broke Horses, and Mudbound.

When I first read Athol's post on Novel Journey, I was touched by his statement that, "Beautiful novels often take us deep into the darkest corner of the human condition, but in the end, they usually leave us with a sense of hope." I believe that as a reader and I believe that as a writer. There's no novel so satisfying to me, than a novel that does exactly what Athol described. It's that line that drew me to his post in the first place, but there was something in each of his points that spoke to me. In the paragraph on Simplicity, Athol concludes, "Beautiful novels are simple in the sense that they are easily read, but as every novelist knows, to write simply is anything but easy." That is so true. It happens when a writer is careful about every idea, every scene, and every word; the macro and the mirco of the work. Each part must count and carry its own weight. I love to happen upon a line in a novel that represents the idea that Athol put forth, when you know the author was careful to find the exact and unexpected word to make just the right point. I never pass by with pausing a moment in my appreciation.

In the paragraph on Rhythm Athol said, "The novelist who writes beautifully is constantly aware of how her words will 'sound' in her reader's mind" and will work to make sure the cadence is what it should be. By reading your work aloud, as Athol suggests, you'll find the glitches in your rhythm and cadence. A writer who led a critique group I belonged to years ago said if you read a passage aloud and subconsciously change the order of words or a word itself as you're reading, you should rewrite the sentence to read the way you spoke it. Because if you, the writer, stumble, so will your reader. That advice has stuck with me.

I could say something about each of the 7 points in Athol's article, but I've gone on long enough. I close by saying we hope you enjoyed this guest post as much as we did. It's one I'll print out and refer back to on a regular basis.

What one thing stood out to you in the article?


Wendy Paine Miller said...

Patti, I loved all three of those books. I think you ladies will like The Outside Boy too. Just a hunch.

I'm thinking of kicking one to the curb I picked up recently. It's sitting odd with me. I'll keep you posted.

This may sound so strange, but the way you capture how I feel and describe things...I swear, I feel like it would be a joy to bathe in your words.

Working on the rhythm thing in my edits. Reading it out loud truly helps.

I don't know how I missed the Monday post but I'm glad I got a taste in this roundtable.

~ Wendy

Anonymous said...

I loved how he wrote about rhythm. It was like music and I felt it in my body. That is something I'm trying to do in a script I'm writing. It amplifies the meaning of words.

I love the round tables, ladies! I'm learning so much from all of you. Thank you.

Megan Sayer said...

I've benefited greatly from your "unpacking" here.

I re-read Monday's post a handful of times and keep going back to it. Feels kind of like a teenage girl reading a teenage-girl magazine and then looking in the mirror to see if she is actually beautiful. Right now my WIP feels awkward and gangly and is turning around in its mother's too-big skirt, but here I can reassure it that it is still growing, it's not finished yet. Whether or not it will ever be called Beautiful is not for me to say, but I can tell it that it is honest, and truthful, and human, and that's all that matters at this stage.

I don't know if that makes sense to anyone else, but there you go anyway. Thankyou for your discussion.

Anonymous said...

Wendy, Susie, Megan, we always appreciate your comments. They add so much to the discussions here. Megan, I did the same thing with the article. Kept going back to it. I'm glad you enjoyed it.

Karen @ a house full of sunshine said...

Sharon, I loved this: "It happens when a writer is careful about every idea, every scene, and every word; the macro and the micro of the work."

Such a powerful concept.

I've thought a lot about what Bonnie said, too. How the idea of the gifting to write beautifully can be defeating to those who think they may not have it. It made me ponder because I guess a part of me has always believed that, as Athol said, there is a certain gifting that can't be taught. On the other hand, I also believe in growth and learning the craft and the constant struggle to improve.

So I've been weighing up the balance of these ideas and wondering where I fit between them. I think I've reached a sort of conclusion. I think it's about seeing. As far as I can tell, few writers start out penning golden words without some sort of slog and struggle. In that sense, it's about developing what we already have. But the best writers can see the beauty in the literature of those ahead of them. They have an appreciation for the nuance of language and the song of story.

That sort of seeing can't easily be taught. If you have it, you know that what you write will forever fall slightly short. You'll spend your life trying to reconcile your vision with the reality of your words. Still, your work will be better than the work of those whose craft is excellent but whose vision is near-sighted.

To create Beauty, you first must be able to see it.

Anonymous said...

Oh, Karen, so much of what you said is absolutely right on. Even the best writers slog and struggle -- I love that phrase -- and not just at the beginning. It's always a struggle, and I imagine they feel like they'll never measure up. And it's true that some things can't be taught. But excellent writing is the result of exercising the craft within us. It's like building muscle. Practice does lead to perfection -- though we'll always fall short of that. Keep at it, keep striving, because you are on the right path!