Tuesday, February 5, 2013

No, it Wasn't a Dark and Stormy Night

      Despite the best efforts of literary agents and bottom line-driven publishers, authors still still owe it to themselves to produce the best books they possibly can. Anyone who's been in the business longer than a New York minute can tell you there's often a huge difference between penning a good book that's actually worth reading and extruding one out that's brought into being primarily, if not entirely, in hopes of how salable it'll prove to be.
     Imagery is the one thing books most critically need if they're to compete with more visually-dominant entertainment such as TV, movies, video games and a vivid, highly interactive social media on the internet. It could be argued that books could be defined as movies for smart people. But if books are to be competitive in the entertainment/educational marketplace, they need to contain bright, vibrant imagery that frees up that crucial reader imagination that takes off where you necessarily leave off.
     In a 1980 essay entitled Imagery and the Third Eye, Stephen King had told us in no uncertain terms there isn't any such thing as "writer's block." That's a fictional bogeyman writers like to use like The Family Circus's Jeffy loved to blame the "Not Me" ghost for his mischief. So-called writer's block can be boiled down to three less than mysterious phenomena: lack of focus, laziness and story fatigue. Of all three, perhaps story fatigue will get the most sympathetic hearing from me. As the author of a novel that took me 13 years to write and revise, I can perfectly understand getting tired of a story after living with it for a long time. However, I'm also of the belief that a worthwhile story will tell itself when it's ready to.
     In King's landmark essay, one that had changed my entire outlook on creative writing, he stresses the need to make your imagery fresh and vivid and even proposes a writing exercise: Imagine a rainy city street and report what you see. Writing exercises such as this help free up a vapor-locked imagination (and a failure of imagination is, of course, another way of saying "lack of focus.") and also help sharpen up a lazy or wandering third eye.
     Perhaps without meaning to, King offers a couple of brief examples frrom his own writing, including this paragraph from The Shining and, in the process, helps recall a famous poem by Theodore Roethke, "My Papa's Waltz":
His father would sweep him into his arms and Jacky would be propelled deliriously upward, so fast it seemed he could feel air pressure settling against his skull like a cap made out of lead, up and up, both of them crying 'Elevator! Elevator'; and there had been nights when his father in his drunkenness had not stopped the upward lift of his slab-muscled arms soon enough and Jacky had gone right over his father's flat-topped head like a human projectile to crash-land on the hall floor behind his dad. But on other nights his father would only sweep him into a giggling ecstasy, through the zone of air where beer hung around his father's face like a mist of raindrops, to be twisted and turned and shaken like a laughing rag, and finally to be set down on his feet, hiccupping with reaction.
     It may even be King, a former English and Creative Writing professor, was thinking of Roethke's somewhat more famous and reprinted treatment of a similar childhood experience:

My Papa's Waltz

The whiskey on your breath
Could make a small boy dizzy;
But I hung on like death:
Such waltzing was not easy.

We romped until the pans
Slid from the kitchen shelf;
My mother's countenance
Could not unfrown itself.

The hand that held my wrist
Was battered on one knuckle;
At every step you missed
My right ear scraped a buckle.

You beat time on my head
With a palm caked hard by dirt,
Then waltzed me off to bed
Still clinging to your shirt.

     It would be easy to gently chide a younger King of having this poem in the back of his mind when he'd written that marvelous paragraph. Both vignettes involve little boys suspended in midair by happy, slightly-drunk fathers in a playful mood. But what's striking about King's and Roethke's alleged recollections is their brilliant use of sharp imagery.
     Both examples show both a striking vividness yet a balanced restraint that allows the reader to take off where the author ends. Neither paragraph nor poem are heavy-handed with eagerness to impart every single, last sensory detail. As King said, when he'd written his paragraph, he himself could vividly see the hairs on top of the father's head, his juvenile character perhaps noting, as children often do, at how much thinner the flat top was at the crown of the head as opposed to the sides or the back. Both scenes feature the unmistakable scent of alcohol, which will also be picked up by children unused to its sharp smell.
     But in these masterful examples of imagery, both King and Roethke stop short of overexplaining and are content to let the reader take off with their own imagination. It's not important to know what brand of beer King's father drank or what Roethke's own father did for a living. It's just enough to know one was muscular, the other having a scraped knuckle perhaps injured at work.
     The author is like a parent pushing a child on a swing. The adult merely provides the initial momentum for the child to extend their legs and maintain their own momentum. Sometimes one big push is enough, sometimes a series of smaller pushes are what's called for. But the author, especially the fiction author, must be respectful enough of their readers' intelligence and own imagination to stretch their legs, and their own Third Eye, so they can take over.
      As stated above, books are in a dire war with visual medium and, let's face it, Americans are a people with a highly-developed and sophisticated visual sense. In order to compete with visual media that takes a much larger role in providing imagination than to which any author should aspire, today's fiction needs to take a cue from poets, especially those outside of the United States (such as Latin America and Eastern Europe, for instance, two parts of the world with far richer poetic histories than the United States).
     Don't listen to doomsayers who say literature is doomed. Publishing is a roughly $25 billion a year business. It's print books that are on the way out. Electronic books sell by the millions every year. Yet while agents and editors harp on details such as what similar books to yours have been successfully published, authors insist, rightly, on showing the agent or editor how good the book is when all they want to hear is how much cha-ching it'll put in their pockets.
     Everything starts with the author and continues with the reader. If readers make it known what they want, editors and agents will follow suit just as they were forced to when surveyed readers reported about 25-30 years ago they were more interested in character-driven novels than plot-driven ones. 
     Of course, reaching those readers is another struggle entirely and it's just as daunting if not moreso for the independent author to reach them than it is for a writer trying to reach them and met with two jaded gatekeepers (agent and editor). But striking images that start the reader's pendulum of imagination, as well as vivid characterization and plain-old good storytelling, can put books back in their rightful place.

1 comment:

  1. Lovely essay featuring two pieces of literature.


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