On writing aesthetics: inferences and implications

Child of God by Cormac McCarthyHere I am recovering from another great Cormac McCarthy novel trying to figure out my take on aesthetics for this week. I finished reading Child of God the other day and I’m still piecing together what exactly it is about his writing I love so much. His style holds an intriguing dichotomy of illustrative scenery that grabs all senses juxtaposed with minimalist storytelling.

When I say minimalist, I mean it in the proper sense; McCarthy’s prose are not at all over-simplified, rather, they are tight and methodical. Every word of action and dialog is intentional, including every word he leaves out forcing the reader to engage. There is no room allowed for flowery superfluous language to gently carry the reader downstream. Such a passive reader would be lost on the first few pages blindly tripping over the gaps.

I had originally thought it was the lush environments and creative word choices I was enamored with. After deeper introspection I realized it was this minimalist technique inducing reader engagement. I like to be challenged as a reader, to connect implied situations to each other and draw conclusions, not once being told what to think.

McCarthy is a genius in this regard. I cared about the pathetic life of Lester Ballard – an uneducated 27-year-old cave-dwelling psychopath – despite his vile behavior and despicable actions. I don’t recall a single redeeming instance in this character’s life, yet I was vested in his day-to-day survival living on the fringe of a rural community.

Not once did McCarthy tell me I am supposed to care about the protagonist, nor did he tell me to hate him. In fact, most of what I learned about the character was indirect. Small details were leaked throughout the novel revealing just how screwed up this guy was, wearing the ill-fitting clothes and stitched-together scalps of his victims while collecting their corpses for his pleasure. Gruesome on every level. Only a few actual violent acts are fully depicted, yet the reader can infer these acts occur frequently at similar magnitude.

She was lying in the floor but she was not dead. She was moving. She seemed to be trying to get up. A thin stream of blood ran across the yellow linoleum rug and seeped away darkly in the wood of the floor. Ballard gripped the rifle and watched her. Die, goddamn you, he said. She did. (p. 119)

He’d long been wearing the underclothes of his female victims but now he took to appearing in their outerwear as well. A gothic doll in illfit clothes, its carmine mouth floating detached and bright in the white landscape. (p. 140)

Perhaps that is the root of McCarthy’s hold over me as a reader – the inherent aesthetic beauty of his writing – the fact that he produced for me subliminal responses on top of the conscious conclusions I was formulating. But there are multiple other levels to appreciate, beautifully crafted sentences and careful word choices to minimalistic story-telling.

Old woods and deep. At one time in the world there were woods that no one owned and these were like them. He passed a windfelled tulip poplar on the mountainside that held aloft in the grip of its roots two stones the size of fieldwagons, great tablets on which was writ only a tale of vanished seas with ancient shells in cameo and fishes etched in lime. Ballard among gothic treeboles, almost jaunty in the outsized clothing he wore, fording drifts of kneedeep snow, going along the south face of a limestone bluff beneath which birds scratching in the bare earth paused to watch. (pp. 127-128)

Was he cognizant of this capability to induce multiple response levels when writing the book forty years ago? Perhaps, I recall a similar reaction to reading The Road. I plan to read more of his work to find out.

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Writing Craft: Pastoralia by George Saunders

Whimsical, stream-of-consciousness run-on sentences portraying the inner workings of defective people facing situations outside of their comfort zones. Darkly humorous and grimly serious, George Saunders’s short story collection Pastoralia was unusual to read and hard to put down. Saunders nails the flawed protagonist’s portrayal in every story: egocentrics searching for self-esteem, self-deprecating narcissists looking for love, the last minutes of a troubled boy’s life, and a theme park living-history performer trying to get through serious life circumstances in the most mundane manner possible in a mockery of corporate America.

Saunders writes a seamless blend of inner thoughts and actions of the outside world. By varying run-ons with short abrupt sentences, he creates an organic portrayal of harsh reality in his characters’ observation of their worlds. Consider the following monologue from a motivational speaker helping an audience rid themselves of problem people from their lives in the story “Winky.”

“A certain someone, a certain guy who shall remain nameless, was doing quite a bit of crapping in my oatmeal, and simply because he’d had some bad luck, simply because he was in some pain, simply because, actually, he was in a wheelchair, this certain someone expected me to put my life on hold while he crapped in my oatmeal by demanding round-the-clock attention, this brother of mine, Gene, and whoops, there goes that cat out of the bag, but does this sound maybe paradoxical? Wasn’t he the one with the crap in his oatmeal, being in a wheelchair? Well, yes and no. Sure, he was hurting. No surprise there. Guy drops a motorcycle on a gravel road and bounces two hundred yards without a helmet, yes, he’s going to be somewhat hurting. But how was that my fault?” (45)

The setup of the speaker’s story is drawn out, like he is stumbling through his thoughts, though it’s all intentional from a motivational perspective. As the scope narrows to the point, “how was that my fault?” sentences constrict themselves driving the point’s emphasis home.

A similar structure appears in the following passage from the title story “Pastoralia,” in which the corporate leadership sends out one of many memos to the living history performers in a theme park. It starts out short, becomes quite long, then reigns itself in. It is a bit long, but well-worth reading.

Regarding the rumors you may have lately been hearing, it says. Please be advised that they are false. They are so false that we consider not even bothering to deny them. Because denying them would imply that we actually heard them. Which we haven’t. We don’t waste time on such nonsense. And yet we know that if we don’t deny the rumors we haven’t heard, you will assume they are true. And they are so false! So let us just categorically state that all the rumors you’ve been hearing are false. Not only the rumors you’ve heard, but also those you haven’t heard, and even those that haven’t yet been spread, are false. However, there is one exception to this, and that is if the rumor is good. That is, if the rumor presents us, us up here, in a positive light, and our mission, and our accomplishments, in that case, and in that case only, we will have to admit that the rumor you’ve been hearing is right on target, and congratulate you on your fantastic powers of snooping, to have found out that secret super thing! In summary, we simply ask you ask yourself, upon hearing a rumor: Does this rumor cast the organization in a negative light? If so, that rumor is false, please disregard. If positive, super, thank you very much for caring so deeply about your organization that you knelt with your ear to the track, and also, please spread the truth far and wide, that is, get down on all fours and put your lips to the tracks. Tell your friends. Tell friends who are thinking of buying stock. Do you have friends who are journalists? Put your lips to their tracks. (41)

Even though this is satire, I feel like I have come across similar self-aggrandizing corporate communications in the past, talking in circles, using many words to say so little. In this passage, the shorter, more specific sentences seem to be where the truth actually lies – the negative rumors. Whereas the positive rumors the author refers to are stumbling streams of thought aiming for justification by quantity of words.

Returning to the story “Winky,” this style of writing is used to depict the protagonist’s state of mind after finishing his session with the motivational speaker. His limited perception of wealth and his lack of worldliness are revealed through the process. Both humorous and sympathetic.

Yaniky had walked home in a frenzy, gazing into shop windows, knowing that someday soon, when he came into these shops with his sexy wife, he’d simply point out items with his riding crop and they would be loaded into his waiting Benz, although come to think of it, why a riding crop? Who used a riding crop? Did you use a riding crop on the Benz? Ho, man, he was stoked! He wanted a Jag, not a Benz! Golden statues of geese, classy vases, big porcelain frogs, whatever, when his ship came in he’d have it all, because when he was stoked nothing could stop him. (53)

The tragic story “The End of Firpo in the World” brilliantly captures the racing imagination of a mischievous, troubled boy, Cody, as he plans a prank on his neighbors while quickly riding his bicycle around the block to assess the situation. Again, it’s long, but showing an abridged form would not do it justice.

Well, it would be revenge, sweet revenge, when he stuck the lozenge stolen from wood shop up the Dalmeyers’ water hose, and the next time they turned the hose on it exploded, and all the Dalmeyers, even Dad Dalmeyer, stood around in their nice tan pants puzzling over it like them guys on Nova. And the Dalmeyers were so stupid they would conclude that it had been a miracle, and would call some guys from a science lab to confirm the miracle and one of the lab guys would flip the wooden lozenge into the air and say to Dad Dalmeyer, You know what, a very clever Einstein lives in your neighborhood and I suggest that in the future you lock this hose up, because in all probability this guy cannot be stopped. And he, Cody, would give the lab guy a wink, and later, as they were getting into the lab van, the lab guy would say, Look, why not come live with us in the experimental space above our lab and help us discover some amazing compounds with the same science brain that apparently thought up this brilliant lozenge, because, frankly, when we lab guys were your age, no way, this lozenge concept was totally beyond us, we were just playing with baby toys and doing baby math, but you, you’re really something scientifically special. (79)

So, what did I take away from the book that I can carry into my own writing? Like I concluded after reading Cormac McCarthy’s The Road a few months ago, breaking the conventions of proper sentence structure and grammar, the writing craft alone creates the mood and environment in which the story exists. The run-on sentences contrasted with the short abrupt statements, in this case, create a natural duality reflective of how people think and perceive the world. One idea begets the next idea, which opens a tangential thought and so on. The pathetic and tragic characters of Saunders’s stories, as whimsical as they appear, are real enough that I don’t question their identities and authenticity. My take-away is simple: creatively (i.e. break the rules) use the craft as appropriate for the story to give it credence; don’t hold back.

Finding Closure

Sandy’s leftover clouds in Massachusetts
Find me on Instagram: dtgriffith

I finally found a way to close a story that has been alive and with me – in the developmental sense – for fifteen months. It’s the longest, most complex story I have ever written, still qualifying as a short story or novella, depending on who’s rules you follow. It really makes no difference to me. The challenge was whether I wanted the protagonist to redeem herself, to live to see another story, despite her horrific actions and questionable behavior. My final answer: a resounding yes.

It’s amazing how vested I became with the character. I’ve heard of authors who take on extraordinary experiences to get inside a character’s head and comprehend their wisdom. I wonder how often writers find themselves questioning the fate of their characters, do they decide to kill their darlings or give them a second chance?

Series obviously allow a main character to live on, otherwise they wouldn’t work, unless there is something out there I don’t know about. Whatever the case, an entire industry of fiction based franchises exists for this reason alone. I’m not necessarily out to accomplish this, however. But I wouldn’t complain if I found myself there one day. Perhaps I am nascent, having been out of the writing loop for several years to focus on my initial visual arts career and start a family. It doesn’t matter, in the grand scheme, as my rugged individualist nature leads me down the path of nonconformity.

So back to this idea of finding closure. It’s not true closure, per se, it’s a turning point. An opportunity to end one chapter to begin the next. I know, not a profound thought, but authentic nonetheless. Closure of a storyline is more important for the audience, no one likes to be strung along and left hanging as the story ends. I hate when this happens to me as a reader or movie watcher. Closure is an obligation to the reader, so the author’s career may live to see another day.

Here I am, running in circles with these recent blog posts, finding all roads lead to Rome, so to speak. Finding closure is in line with my self-exploration in fighting creative fear and writing for the reader. So, why I am writing this? Besides the catharsis it provides to get it all out there, I’m thinking maybe others will realize they are not along in their struggles as they endeavor to be masters of the craft. If nothing else, it’s a small contribution I am happy to offer.

How many clichés can you count in this post? It surprises me how easy they are to write when not thinking about it, but that’s for another blog entry another day.

Writing Craft: Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson

The collection of short stories of Jesus’ Son is something of a paradox. The graceful and poetic language portrays dark and depressing situations occupied by people at their lowest points performing despicable acts. Fluid and sensuous prose carry the narrative forward effortlessly; the time it takes to read the book becomes irrelevant. This was my first time reading Denis Johnson’s work, and not knowing anything about him, I wondered if these vivid stories were pulled from real-life experiences. Either way, I was captivated.

Johnson makes a hospital orderly moving through his day in the story “Emergency” on a drug high sound warm and simple. He seemed to have reached a heightened state of bliss among a bleak and stressful world, while the dire risks of his actions were always prevalent.

Everybody had a different idea about exactly how to approach the problem of removing the knife from Terrence Weber’s brain. But when Georgie came in from prepping the patient—from shaving the patient’s eyebrow and disinfecting the area around the wound, and so on—he seemed to be holding the hunting knife in his left hand. (Loc. 694-696)

Duality is consistently portrayed in an illustrative storytelling motif throughout the stories through an inebriated perception of people and self, and their relationships to the environment. This is a polar extreme to the clichéd my head felt like a balloon and floated from my body and over the green pastures type of hack:

Under Midwestern clouds like great grey brains we left the superhighway with a drifting sensation and entered Kansas City’s rush hour with a sensation of running aground. (Loc. 39-40)

It was a long straight road through dry fields as far as a person could see. You’d think the sky didn’t have any air in it, and the earth was made of paper. Rather than moving, we were just getting smaller and smaller. (Loc. 451-453)

All senses are engaged. Johnson places the reader in the environment through deliberate figurative prose. Landscape description appear frequently, along with the integration of nature, setting the tone of the immediate physical world and then on a higher existential level consistent with the protagonist’s thought process. Consider these examples:

The road we were lost on cut straight through the middle of the world. It was still daytime, but the sun had no more power than an ornament or a sponge. In this light the truck’s hood, which had been bright orange, had turned a deep blue. (Loc. 753-754) 

What word can be uttered about those fields? She stood in the middle of them as on a high mountain, with her red hair pulled out sideways by the wind, around her the green and grey plains pressed down flat, and all the grasses of Iowa whistling one note. (Loc. 567-568)

Descriptions of settings often take on a stream of consciousness quality through the protagonist’s altered perceptions while incorporating actions and people as part of the holistic environment. In this way, Johnson effectively animates common activities like riding on a ferryboat or a subway train:

The day was sunny, unusual for the Northwest Coast. I’m sure we were all feeling blessed on this ferryboat among the humps of very green—in the sunlight almost coolly burning, like phosphorus—islands, and the water of inlets winking in the sincere light of day, under a sky as blue and brainless as the love of God, despite the smell, the slight, dreamy suffocation, of some kind of petroleum-based compound used to seal the deck’s seams. (Loc. 1000-1003)

I sat up front. Right beside me was the little cubicle filled with the driver. You could feel him materializing and dematerializing in there. In the darkness under the universe it didn’t matter that the driver was a blind man. He felt the future with his face. And suddenly the train hushed as if the wind had been kicked out of it, and we came into the evening again.(Loc. 948-951)

People are treated in a similar descriptive manner giving them identifiable realistic traits leaving no room to question their authenticity:

He stood hugging himself and talking down at the earth. The wind lifted and dropped her long red hair. She was about forty, with a bloodless, waterlogged beauty. I guessed Wayne was the storm that had stranded her here. (Loc. 560-561) 

He walked with a bounce, his shoulders looped and his chin scooping forward rhythmically. He didn’t look right or left. I supposed he’d walked this route twelve thousand times. He didn’t sense or feel me following half a block behind him. (Loc. 920-921)

I found the following quote in “Happy Hour” fitting to wrap up my take on Jesus’ Son. By intention or not it seems Johnson was poking fun at the style of his writing and its juxtaposition to the subject matter:

I stayed in the library, crushed breathless by the smoldering power of all those words—many of them unfathomable—until Happy Hour. And then I left. (Loc. 1147-1148) 

A writer’s maturation of character

Last week I wrote about drawing influence from published writers. Over the weekend, my latest influence revealed itself. Last week through Saturday morning I had been reading Robert Stone’s Fun With Problems, a collection of short stories dealing with heavily flawed characters existing in the darker side of humanity whether or not they even realize it. In some incredible feat, I spent at least ten hours on Saturday writing, rewriting, and revising a short horror story. I don’t get to spend that much time writing in one day usually, it was a strange feeling when I had wrapped it up for the night, like I had stepped out of time and reality. I didn’t want to come back at first, but my family came home, we needed dinner and so on.

The revelation came as I was reading the story aloud. Stone’s book influenced my approach to incorporating my protagonist’s backstories; slowly revealed details layered one on another creating a complex persona in as few words as possible. Without this awareness during the process, I found myself striving for new depths in character creation. Not to say I’ve never dug deep before; this was different.

I found specific intent in what I wrote about his past actions and their effect on the current-day storyline. Writing this horror story has become a psychological study of this heavily flawed character, seemingly laced with lessons in morality, maybe even spirituality. Good versus evil in this story became a thick pool of grayness, a viscous organic byproduct of several visceral systems malfunctioning in tandem. My flawless victim of circumstance born of mediocrity in the rough draft matured into a well rounded, wonderfully dark, and flawed character with the charm of a successful door-to-door vacuum cleaner salesman and the patience of a hungry cat. I leapt over a hurdle I never knew was there.

Perhaps my protagonist, as different as he is from me, is my reflection or a second personality buried in my subconscious. We shall see.