Curious Attractions: Essays on Fiction Writing / Edition 1

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Curious Attractions: Essays on Fiction Writing is a book about what makes fiction work. In nine entertaining and instructive essays, novelist and master teacher Debra Spark pursues key questions that face both aspiring and accomplished writers, including: How does a writer find inspiration? What makes a story's closing line resonate? How can a writer "get" style? Where should an author "stand" in relation to his or her characters?

While the book will have immediate appeal for students of writing, it will also be of interest to general readers for its in-depth reading of contemporary fiction and for its take on important issues of the day: Should writers try to be more uplifting? How is emotion best conveyed in fiction? Why are serious writers in North America wedded to the realist tradition?

When she was only twenty-three, Debra Spark's best-selling anthology 20 Under 30 introduced readers to some of today's best writers, including David Leavitt, Susan Minot, Lorrie Moore, Ann Patchett, and Mona Simpson. Almost twenty years later, Spark brings this same keen critical eye to Curious Attractions, discussing a broad range of authors from multiple genres and generations.

A collection of essays in the belles-lettres tradition, Curious Attractions offers lively and instructive discussions of craft flavored with autobiographical reflections and commentary on world events. Throughout, Spark's voice is warm, articulate, and engaging as it provides valuable insights to readers and writers alike.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780472068975
  • Publisher: University of Michigan Press
  • Publication date: 5/20/2005
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 184
  • Product dimensions: 5.40 (w) x 8.40 (h) x 0.60 (d)

Read an Excerpt

Essays ON Writing

Copyright © 2005

Debra Spark
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-472-09897-2

Chapter One The Trigger


Here is my mother, in the early 1970s, with a group of Camp Fire Girls in Boston's Museum of Science. She is in a darkened (probably womblike) room with photographic displays of a developing fetus. As my mother tells it, and she does, often, in the years to come, the Camp Fire Girls are like so many kid ducks, waddling from photo to photo as she narrates the story of how babies are made. Other children, attracted by the explanation, wander over. An army of baby ducks! What my mother doesn't say but what I remember is that I am the laggard duck, ready to leave the exhibit. The Miracle of Life, I'm thinking. Yeah, yeah. Unlike the other girls, I've heard it all before. My mother is not uptight about the facts of life. For me, the cafeteria French fries, perfectly crisp and greasy, are the museum's greatest mystery. I'm wishing it were lunch. But we're still only three months into the wonder that is birth.

"OK," Terry says, finally. She is my across-the-street neighbor whom I envy for years for her early use of lipstick, her familiarity with boys and cigarettes. But today she is just a little girl. "OK," she says again to my mother, "but what I still don't get is how does the sperm get to the egg?"

Expectant faces. The Camp Fire Girls are now a different sort of baby bird. They are nestlings, necks craned upward, ready for a final worm of knowledge to be dropped into their open beaks. "Yeah," they might be chirping, "what about that?"

"OK," my mother says, brightly, "OK, everybody! Lunch!"

There is, after all, the moment of conception, and then there's the moment of conception, which no one wants to explain, good God, especially to children.

And so ... with writing and the simple, yet hopelessly awkward question of where things start. Simple because there's an easy enough answer to "Where did that come from?" And the answer is, "Oh, an anecdote I heard, an image that came to me, a crazy article I started (but didn't really finish) in the newspaper." And hard because that's not the full story. It leaves out what my mother left out, and I don't mean the mechanics of sex but the whole messy issue of attraction.

MY HABIT, when writing about writing, is to proceed by a sort of benign plagiarism. I take the question at hand and get on the horn with my writer friends, make them answer. Once I've found a way to embroider their quotes together, I have my essay. But when I pose the "What gives rise to a story?" question, half my friends answer with irritable "I dunno"s. And who can blame them? Talking about the origin of a story is a bit like talking about the origin of a successful relationship. It only makes narrative sense in hindsight. ("At first, I thought he was such a jerk, but then ...") Ideas for stories, until they prove themselves, are just another bad date, another fruitless notion flitting through the brain. ("At first, I thought nothing of the idea. The truth was ...")

And there are other reasons we hesitate to talk about story origins. One is that it's not like talking about, say, point of view. It isn't an issue only of craft but of psychology. Ours. And we may want to keep that hidden. What's more, such talk seems presumptuous. Sure, John Updike can do it, but the rest of us-baby writers, all of us, we're all always baby writers-may feel like we're assuming too much when we talk about our process. We're assuming we're real writers, and as soon as we do that, we're bound to be punished for hubris. The punishment, naturally enough, will be that "it" will be taken away. Inspiration will flee. Permanently.

I went back to my old high school, recently, to sit on a panel with other writers. We were asked to talk about narrative, our individual narrative processes. I had a fuzzy hold on what this meant. I kept thinking, "My narrative process? You mean, how I became a story?" Then the youngest among us confessed that the question discomfited her, for she feared that introspection would ruin everything, destroy the magic. And I thought, "Yes, that's why I can't make myself understand the question: because I don't want to answer."

Just because I don't want to tell, though, doesn't mean I don't want to hear. I'd have abandoned all thoughts of French fries if I thought my mother was going to answer Terry's question. The truth is: I like hearing how people got their story ideas, just as I like hearing about how couples met. The same properties of attraction and repulsion, interest and doubt, seem to be at play. Then, there are the wrong turns and misperceptions along the path from there to here-here being the point at which the tale is finished and the story of the story has its own narrative.

Not that this knowledge helps me, exactly, when I sit down to write. After all, anything can occasion a story: an overheard conversation, image, sentence, family story, or book. Triggers are ubiquitous. They're also idiosyncratic: one person's method is never going to instruct another in how to go about "finding" a trigger.

My mother and me, on the phone, twenty years ago:

My mother: I met your father at a Hillel mixer, so why don't you just head over to-

Me: No, Ma, no. You just don't get it.

Still, triggers have some common characteristics-not in content as much as form. And we can learn something by looking at these shared traits. Perhaps we can even discover markers that will suggest whether our seeds have the potential to grow and blossom.

JOHN FOWLES'S The French Lieutenant's Woman started with a visual image: a woman standing at the end of a quay and staring out to sea. "That was all," Fowles writes in "Notes on an Unfinished Novel." "This image rose in my mind one morning when I was still in bed half asleep. It corresponded to no actual incident in my life (or in art) that I can recall."

According to Henry James, Ivan Turgenev's fiction started with "the vision of some person or persons, who hovered before him, soliciting him." These were characters whom Turgenev imagined fully, in all their existential complexity. Similarly, Joan Didion's Play It as It Lays began with a "picture in the mind," an image of a woman in a white halter dress walking across a Las Vegas casino to pick up a house phone. "Who is paging her?" Didion wonders aloud in her famous essay "Why I Write." "Why is she here to be paged? How exactly did she come to this?" Unlike Fowles's image, Didion's came from "real" life. One day, while sitting in a casino, Didion saw a vaguely familiar woman paged to a phone. Didion explains that "it was precisely this moment in Las Vegas that made Play It as It Lays begin to tell itself to me."

But plenty of curious images, real or imagined, don't trigger stories. Some good material becomes ... nothing. For example, yesterday, my husband, two friends, and I walked by a deer's head in the bed of a pickup. The head was unmounted, severed from its body, staring pointlessly up at the sky. Last week, I had lunch with a friend, and the squirming legs of the ladybug she found in her salad looked like an animated false eyelash. I don't feel inclined to embroider these images with anything more than a simile.

But these two friends from yesterday: one is an old friend of my husband's, the other is his lover of two years. They both have AIDS. The lover has a rather florid face. I don't know why he's so red. Perhaps it's just his complexion, or maybe the drugs he's taking. His wife died four years ago; he'd infected her with the virus. I sometimes think the red of his face is a form of combustion. He's aflame with grief and guilt. Both emotions-he doesn't need to say it, it's too clear-are consuming him. I wonder, I can't stop wondering, how it all worked out. The marriage, I mean. Was he always openly gay? Did they have an agreement? Or did he lead two entirely separate lives? The man and his wife were together for thirty years and had two children, whom he still sees on a weekly basis. Do they blame him for their mother's death? Or are they touched, as I am, by how he speaks of how much he misses her? He mentions that in the end a Kaposi's sarcoma grew over her eye, so she couldn't quite open the lid. But I wait for him to volunteer all this. I don't ask much.

What I do ask is, "How did you become an architect?"

His lover says, "Watch out. She's a writer, anything you tell her might go into a story."

I think: The dirt on how he chose a profession? No. Though I can see plundering his life for fiction. I'd have only to answer the questions I'll never ask. So a generalization that might help: triggers give rise to questions. They're "triggers" because they're incomplete, because they require elaboration. The red of that man's face leads me to the heart of what I most wonder about his marriage, and since I won't ask, it leads me to a mystery that only my imagination can resolve.

Melanie Rae Thon says that her story "Punishment" sprang from "a double mystery." While reading an article about slavery, Thon came across a sentence about a woman hung for the murder of her master's son. Thon first wanted to know what the article didn't say: whether the woman did it. When Thon had pursued the fictional version of the slave's life long enough to realize she had, Thon wanted to know why. The answer seems easy to me. I'd say "hateful repression" and leave it at that. What's incomplete for one person isn't necessarily incomplete for another, which is why the anecdote is a trigger for Thon and not for me. On hearing the basic facts, I don't ask a question. Of course, this doesn't mean I wouldn't want to read Thon's story, just that I don't have the curiosity necessary to write it.

MOST PEOPLE who have tried to write-and shared the fact, if not the product, of their efforts with others-have at one time had an acquaintance lean over a dinner table and confide, "Oh, I have a great story idea for you." This happened to me just last night. I was with a group of friends, most of them young Ph.D.s, talking about the academic job market. One friend-a hip, supersmart English professor, given to saying things like "Man, Thomas Hardy rocks my world"-encouraged another, a French instructor, about her job prospects: "You've got great publications, you've been teaching in a good school, and now you're going to run an overseas program." The French instructor smiled dismissively, in the way of those uneasy receiving compliments. "I should be your agent," the English professor added.

"It's going to happen soon," the French instructor enthused, "agents for Ph.D.s!"

The English professor turned to me, "Debra, this is a great idea for a novel. This would make a great farce."

She wasn't truly serious, and it's just as well, for ideas like this are invariably not great. Packaged up, unmysterious, they begin and end life as a dinner anecdote, unable to grow into fiction because the work of comprehending the funny, queer, horrible, or touching moment has already been done by the teller.

Joyce Carol Oates's disturbing story "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?" was inspired by an article about a serial murderer known as the Pied Piper of Tucson. When Oates's story became the movie Smooth Talk, Oates published a short essay in which she recalled purposely not reading the full account of the Pied Piper since she didn't want to be "distracted by too much detail."

Now, obviously we need to have a decent grasp on the world to write well. At the same time, reality-at least at the moment of germination-can hamper the imagination. This realization is presumably behind Virginia Woolf's claim that for the writer, "There must be great freedom from reality."

People sometimes say that the problem with writing from life, with using autobiographical material, is the instinct for veracity: we can't stop ourselves from being true to the experience, even when that sort of truth is no good for the story. The problem may actually be that a true story provides too much material; it doesn't leave enough out. Henry James held this to be so. "Such," he wrote, "is the interesting truth about the stray suggestion, the wandering word, the vague echo, at touch of which the novelist's imagination winces as at the prick of some sharp point: its virtue is all in its needle-like quality, the power to penetrate as finely as possible." Anything more than this, and the effect is ruined, and if the suggestion is offered "designedly," as James puts it, "one is sure to be given too much."

IN "MAKING Up Stories," Joan Didion reveals that Joseph Heller's most famous novel began as a line so mysterious that it had, like an algebra equation, an "X" for which the author needed to solve:

Joseph Heller described the conception of Catch-22 this way: "I was lying in bed when suddenly this line came to me: 'It was love at first sight. The first time he saw the chaplain X fell madly in love with him.'" The "X" turned out to be Yossarian, but Heller didn't have the name, didn't even know that this "X" was in the Army. "The chaplain wasn't necessarily an army chaplain," he said. "He could have been a prison chaplain. I don't understand the process of imagination though I know that I am very much at its mercy. The ideas come to me in the course of a controlled daydream, a directed reverie."

In her journal, George Eliot-just starting to write fiction and concerned about her ability to move beyond "mere" description to dramatic narrative-recalled, "One morning as I was thinking what should be the subject of my first story, my thoughts merged themselves into a dreamy doze, and I imagined myself writing a story, of which the title was 'The Sad Fortunes of the Reverend Amos Barton.'"

This notion of controlled daydream, directed reverie, or waking doze lies behind the "guided imagery" exercises that I sometimes use in my fiction-writing classes. Novelist Janet Beeler Shaw first introduced me to this technique. She learned it, in turn, from instructors at Illinois's Columbia College, who apparently rely heavily on this method. In one variation, a teacher asks students to close their eyes and imagine they're standing on the top stair leading to a basement they know well. Slowly, she guides them down the staircase, asking them at length to open their eyes and say what they "see" in the basement. After everyone has answered, the teacher instructs the students to close their eyes and imagine descending the stairs again. This time, she tells them to picture a person in the room, a person doing something, and when they next open their eyes, she has them write, as fast as they can, about what they see.

The exercise has endless permutations: a teacher asks students to imagine a long drive to an unfamiliar place, then to describe the first thing they see when they step out of the car; a teacher asks students to imagine themselves in a place of great darkness, then to describe the first light thing that strikes them; and so on.

What surprises me each time I do these exercises is the strength of the written responses and how favorably they compare to the pieces on which students spend time, the "at home" assignments.

The pedagogic notion of guided imagery is linked to what Joan Didion describes as the essential act of writing: "the process of thinking, of plugging into that electrical field of image and making an object out of the flash and the clatter."

And how do you plug in? How do you open yourself up to worthwhile material and then select from it?

First, the clatter. It's not always easy to see, to be, as Henry James says, "one of the people on whom nothing is lost!" In fact, it may be harder for us than it was for our predecessors. There's more clatter around. Or so it seems: an MTV world, ready to assault us, even as we devise ways to retreat.

And for young people, media garbage may be the biggest obstacle to writing truly. At the small Maine college where I teach, I have a student whose life has been nothing short of astounding. He is cheerful, energetic, gay, born-again Christian, and black. His mother was an addict. I believe she beat him. A few years ago, in the midwestern city he still calls home, his twin brother was murdered on his way home from a card game. At first, whenever this student wrote for me, he wrote soap operas-Danielle Steele fantasies of treachery and big business, luxurious cars, and perfectly attractive women.

"What do you do," people sometimes ask me, "with a student like that?" But it is only too obvious. I say: Tell your own story. This young man did, but only once, when he wrote about his brother, and then the story turned on the author's singing voice, a tenor that people tell me is achingly lovely.


Excerpted from Curious ATTRACTIONS by DEBRA SPARK
Copyright © 2005 by Debra Spark . Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

The trigger : what gives rise to a story? 1
Getting in and getting out : first words on first (and last) words 16
Speaking of style 33
Cry, cry, cry : handling emotion in fiction 55
Curious attractions : magical realism's fate in the states 74
Aspects of the short novel 89
Border guard : fabulism in Stuart Dybek's "Hot ice" 105
Stand back 123
Cheer up - why don't you? 145
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