I want back inside the box!
Too much outside-the-box thinking lately. I’ve lost my focus; I’ve misplaced my intent. My eyes are no longer on the prize; moreover, the prize itself has shape-shifted into something I can no longer identify.
It all started when I read a bad review of a book by David Shields called “Reality Hunger,” in which he writes, “Bold new forms of prose are out there,” and also proclaims, “the novel is either ‘moribund’ or ‘dead.'” I’ve since read a more positive review of the same book, in which the reviewer agrees with Shields:
There is an artistic movement brewing, Shields writes. Among its hallmarks are the incorporation of “seemingly unprocessed” material; “randomness, openness to accident and serendipity; . . . criticism as autobiography; self-reflexivity; . . . a blurring (to the point of invisibility) of any distinction between fiction and nonfiction.”
The operative word for this blended process is collage – pieces of reality combined to create new realities – but this is not a new concept at all. Filmmakers have been doing this for more than a century – it’s called editing. Visual artists like Max Ernst also did it long ago, as described in his essay “Inspriation to Order:”
I began an impartial exploration, making use of every kind of material that happened to come into my field of vision: leaves and their veins, frayed edges of sacking, brush strokes in a “modern” painting, cotton unwound from a cotton reel…Then I saw human heads, many different beasts, a battle ending in a kiss…vaccinated bread, conjugal diamonds…the meal of death, the wheel of light….a solar coinage system.
So what would we call a collage when using pieces of text rather than paper or celluloid images to create new realities?
It’s the essay, says Shields, not the novel, that points the way to our writing future: “a container made of prose into which you can pour anything.”
The substance of writing, the content, has always originated from multiple, far-flung sources. We get ideas and process them; our mental efforts often lead to another idea, and another. Meanwhile the substance of the world around us is continually battering our eyes, ears and brain, forcing ideas of its own to blend with what we still pretend is sacred and original. By the time a story is written, its an amalgam of facts, notions, quotes, not-quite quotes (or unattributed quotes). We can call it a novel, or an essay – but the lines between these literary forms have become increasingly blurred.
A traditional novel is driven by its narrative; all characters, all events must embrace and advance the plotline all the way to its climactic fusion. An essay can meander more; its elements can be more diverse and less connected – but it still must carry the reader forward and ultimately must offer a sense of completion.
I’m not sure whether I’m writing a novel – which I set out to do – or whether I’ve created a 300-page essay. Although based on some actual characters and their histories, I’ve smoothed and blended the realities I’ve researched with fictive characters and made-up events in their lives, never satisfied that my “blend” is successful. At one point, I added a series of “tidbits” (that’s what the computer file is called where I saved them), morsels of reality from which my story arises – facts about astronomy, Victorian mores, space exploration, women’s liberation and more.
But I wasn’t sure whose “voice” this was. Mine, the author’s? Some authoritative asshole trying to explain more than is necessary? Some remote, omniscient narrator who can’t help but be our “tour guide” through this story? Or possibly even a commentator who cannot be trusted, sometimes offering truth, sometimes not. Taken as a whole, the tidbits may be considered as a “meta-voice,” annotations compiled from here and there, coupled together as an open umbrella curving above the entire narrative that makes its way down below.
For a while I thought these disparate tidbits were the key to my novel. Soon, however, I stopped thinking that and removed them all. Why annotate a novel unless I want to cite the pieces of reality as something separate and apart from my narrative? But what if the annotations are themselves fiction? Does that change the shape or color of my umbrella? Is the narrative journey below still assured?
Here’s a tidbit I love, for instance, based on a phone interview I conducted:
The space-themed beauty contest was an actuality at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory during the sixties and seventies. Retired JPL employee Thedra MacMillian recalls several versions over the years, including her favorite, “Miss Guided Missile,” which she refused to enter.
And here’s another that I just made up on the spot:
History provides far more examples of male explorers than female “adventuresses.” Whether cultural role modes, biological limitations or degree of financial independence are responsible for such disparity is not known. Reproductive distinctions may provide provide a viable argument: the male disseminates his sperm and the female receives it. The entire space exploration program might be interpreted as a series of ejaculations.
But back to my original metaphor, the box – the container. Is it a novel or an essay? Either, neither, or both? And why does it even matter?
Both are baby steps only toward our writing and publishing future, which I see as a collage-strewn, erratically winding, more-or-less nonlinear pathway leading to a destination that may not yet exist. My tidbits may or may not belong in my narrative. Maybe that’s a choice I’ll give the reader. Maybe the story takes in multiple forms with infinite meanings, depending on how the pieces are assembled along the route.
Quoting my character Lulu:
I will travel on faith alone, believing with all my soul that the place where I will terminate my journey will be built in time for my arrival.
In the expanding universe of fiction and reality, how should a writer pack her suitcase – which is really just a traveling box – for the journey?
Don’t leave anything out, I say. You’re liable to need it along the way.
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