“It is the responsibility of writers to listen to gossip and pass it on. It is the way all storytellers learn about life.”
— Grace Paley
Reading Roxana Robinson’s latest novel, Cost, I was struck by how beautifully and naturally she writes about place, from the coast of Maine to the streets of New York. Consider this, for example – a coastal view from the perspective of a painter: “Julia’s studio was in the barn overlooking the meadow. Through the big picture window she had painted this many times, the rich rippling grass, the moving water beyond it, the glittering sea-bright light…. For the meadow, for that smoky pink grass, first an undercoat of dead green, for depth. Or maybe yellow, deep yellow, for vitality.” Or, later on, this visit to a drug dealer’s Brooklyn apartment: “The foyer was tiny, with scarred gray walls and a floor littered with Chinese restaurant flyers. The lock on the front door was heavily reinforced with metal plates, but the door itself stood slightly ajar. They went inside. There was no light, and they started gingerly upstairs in the dark.”
I wanted to know how Roxana approaches writing about place, and what she may have learned about her process over the years that could be helpful to others. So I wrote her and asked. Below is her thoughtful response:
When I teach, I tell my students that, first of all, you must write the scene so that your reader can see it. Sight is the sense we depend upon most, so, show us the room, or describe the forest path, or create the supermarket aisle, so that we feel as though we’re in it ourselves.
Place, the location, the setting, is integral to fiction. We’ll never forget the sense of openness and possibility, of well-groomed, natural loveliness, of the combination of freshness and candor with deep subtlety and venerability, that underlies the scene in “Portrait of a Lady,” when Isabel Archer has afternoon tea outside, on the lawn of an English country house. The velvet grass, the Persian rug, the tinkling cups. The glorious young woman, and the world before her.
But creating place isn’t simply a question of seeing, it’s a question of feeling as well. The way you feel about a place is the way your reader will come to feel about it – which is as it should be. So you must write from your heart about the place – about every place, a gas station on the New Jersey turnpike or your old kindergarten classroom. The way it makes you feel should be included in the description. Maybe you (or your character) are in a state of exaltation when you stop there for gas, and the way the sun gleams on the gas nozzles makes you giddy with joy. Maybe you hated your kindergarten teacher, the way her dress wrinkled across the hips, and her bad breath. Your feelings should go into the way you describe the wooden tables, the big windows, the boxes of blocks.
I often write about a place that I love. In my story collection A Perfect Stranger, the story “Assez” is, on one level, a love-letter to a part of France that I know very well. I wanted to write about that part of Provence, the way the wind sounds, the way the dark cypresses look, the way it feels to walk through a silent village late at night. So that part of the process of writing that story was really my own pleasure in remembering and revisiting a place I love so much.
In Cost, I did something similar. Much of the book is set on the coast of Maine, in an unnamed place. The book is centered on a shabby old clapboard farmhouse near the water, as the old saltwater farms often were. I have spend many summers on the coast of Maine, and it’s another region I know well and love, with its deep blue skies, bracing waters, staggering tides. But the house I describe is actually based on a particular saltbox cottage in Cape Cod, a place where I went as a child. So the book is, in a way, saying goodbye to a place that I felt very strongly about. It was a way of paying tribute to it, describing the place as I had known it. It was an opportunity for me to reveal, to the reader, the great delights of a place like that, for all its shabbiness and quirks. The house I knew was a place of great solace, solid and silent, peaceful, sheltering and beautiful in its deep connection to its surroundings: the lilacs outside the windows, the apple orchard gone wild in the meadow, the water in the cove, murmuring at the bottom of the hillside.
Because the house was so beloved, it became an integral part in the narrative. That wasn’t something I planned beforehand, but it somehow wrote itself into the story, because the house, and the landscape around it, were such a powerful presence.
Place should always be a part of the narrative – and it always is, really. What two people say to each other in a small stuffy bedroom will be very different from what they say to each other in a noisy train station.
And it’s also just as important for me to visualize the scene before I write it. I’m describing it for myself as much as for the reader, allowing myself to enter into that space, and those emotions. Here we are, I’m saying, this is how it looks. This is how it feels to be here. Now we’ll begin.
Roxana Robinson is a critically acclaimed fiction writer, author of four novels (including her latest, Cost) and three collections of short stories. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, Harper’s, and The Atlantic; it has appeared often in Best American Short Stories, and has been widely anthologized and broadcast on National Public Radio. Four of her works have been chosen Notable Books of the Year by The New York Times, and she was named a Literary Lion by The New York Public Library. She has received Fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the MacDowell Colony. Her website is www.roxanarobinson.com.
The experiment was intended to show what it’s like to have a baby, to approximate the feeling of constant vigilance that never leaves you once you have a child. Ultimately, of course, it was supposed to make hormone-addled adolescents think twice before doing something stupid.
As a mother of three, though, I wasn’t convinced by this analogy. A baby is nothing like an egg, unless it’s an egg that cries, wets itself, sucks on you constantly, and wakes up four times a night. But as my son described the feeling of carrying his egg – he named it “Rosalito” – around, I realized that it did remind me of something. “It’s always there,” Will said. “You can’t forget it or take it for granted. You feel protective and anxious all the time.”
And it dawned on me: Carrying an egg around is like being in the middle of writing a book. No matter what else you’re doing, the fact of the book is in the back of your mind. If you go too long without attending to it you get nervous. Maybe there’s a crack, a hairline fracture, you haven’t noticed! It is always with you, a weight solid and yet fragile, in constant danger of being crushed.
Like the egg, the weight of a book-in-progress is both literal and metaphorical. Within the accumulating pages, as inside the delicate eggshell, are the raw ingredients for something greater. But if you don’t nurture it properly you risk ending up with a mess.
My son’s egg stayed intact for a day and a half, largely because he swaddled it in straw. A spontaneous pick-up game of touch football, with Rosalito in his pocket, momentarily forgotten, spelled the egg’s demise. It was all right; in fact, Will said he was relieved. No way was he ready for that kind of responsibility.
Last week Bonnie Friedman found out something big …
As soon as I finished writing my guest post for this blog last week about how “people don’t do such things,” I put the computer in “sleep” mode, stood up, and the answer to the question I was secretly asking washed through me.
Why couldn’t I really believe that people in the world do mean and otherwise outrageous things (things that, if I could believe in them, I could let my characters do, as well)? Because my sister was mean and I couldn’t let myself know it. Voila! Also: not so earthshaking, since she’s my sister, not yours. But here’s the part that likely does apply to you. We all have blind spots — things that we can’t let ourselves know and yet which we write in order to find out. And if we don’t believe what our pens reveal, we have to keep writing the same thing time and again until we do.
What does the blind spot feel like? What does denial feel like? It feels like a numbness. It feels like the bloated anesthetized lip at the dentist’s. It’s large, it’s tingly, there’s a temptation to bite it and bite it again until one’s mouth drips. It feels like something is there, but you can’t say what. It feels like being stupid — others can see what you can’t. They even laugh at how obvious it is! And as you become more acutely aware that you are in denial, it feels like needing others for a verdict on your own experience, as if you have to steer your car by looking in a series of tilted mirrors rather than by looking straight ahead at the truth. There’s something there, you need to know it, but when you look it’s subsumed in fog.
Which is why many of us write. We want to get at that thing suffused in fog.
Why couldn’t I know that my sister was mean?
Because I loved her and she was suffering. She was a bossy, dear, acne-stricken, wounded girl who shared my bedroom and who frightened me. I thought she was right that my existence was an imposition on her. She’d been alive six years before I was born, and that proved in both our minds that I was an inconvenience she should not have to put up with. I cringed, I obliged, I believed I was a doltish, messy thing — as if I lived inside a gooey, disgusting jellyfish or as if the jellyfish was all over me. I was forever pressing my eyeglasses against my face, trying to see better through that jelly haze. I believed what my sister said. She was a clever, shrewd, unobliging sort, quick to point out others flaws. I’d gawp, astonished at what she’d illuminated. And I felt sorry for her, because her suffering was obvious. And if she were alive today I certainly wouldn’t be writing this. She passed away four years ago, freeing me to articulate and understand what before I’d had to keep concealed in the slam book of my heart, where I inscribed, under my observations about her, my own verdict on myself: wrong, impulsive, prone to distortion.
Even now it seems unkind and exaggerated to call her mean. Surely she was merely outspoken. Surely she’d only spoken rashly from time to time. The old denial wants to subsume me.
I could not see mean people in the world because I could not see a mean person in my bedroom. And so my writing was hampered by a certain obligingness, a certain vacillating wateriness, a certain wishy-washy tepidity. And it was only when I started admitting that certain people are bold and spiky and mean, or at least do mean things, and that I can trust my own perceptions, that my own world and writing acquired a greater clarity.
What would you see if you trusted your own vision? I ask myself. What preposterous things would you know are true? You are the person riding alongside the blind-spot girl. You are the tilted mirror she needs. Oh, believe the truth, believe it, I urge her. Because in her other ear is the old whispering voice, still suggesting: You’re wrong. You’re bad. You don’t know what reality is. Surely the truth isn’t as stark as all that.
This is the third in a series of three essays – including “The Novel Terminable and Interminable” and the above-linked “People Don’t Do Such Things” – that Bonnie Friedman has written for this blog this month. Her book Writing Past Dark: Envy, Fear, Distraction, and Other Dilemmas in the Writer’s Life, is a modern-day classic, and has been in print since it was first published in 1993.
Dani Shapiro explains why fiction writers shouldn’t think too much:
Over the weekend, I was talking with a friend about a particular writer who shall remain unnamed here for reasons which will soon become clear. She’s published quite a lot of books–fiction, essays, polemics–and in this case, we were discussing her fiction, which isn’t, in my opinion, very good.
“She’s a particular kind of too smart to be a good fiction writer,” I said.
My friend nodded in agreement. That was it. Too smart.
I’ve told my students for years that we need to be dumb like animals in order to write good fiction. What do I mean by this? To try to understand what I mean, I’ve been looking at my two dogs resting by my feet for the last few minutes. They’re relaxed but alert. Their ears are pricked, their bodies loosely spilled onto the floor, their eyes are open. They’re ready for anything–ready to leap to their feet at the slightest provocation. They see, smell, hear, taste, touch everything in their environment–or at least I think they do–but from a place of calm attention.
That kind of relaxed attention has a lot to do with writing good fiction. If I am thinking too hard, or too much–if I am layering thoughts and suppositions on top of the tender, frail beginning of story before I’ve barely begun, what I end up with is a collapsing heap of abstraction. When a writer is too smart for her own good, you can feel the weight of her thoughts on the page, like a truck straining uphill. You experience the author’s mental exertion, rather than the story itself.
The best writers, of course, are able to do both: feel and sniff their way through a story like a sure-footed animal through a thicket, and then, but only then, once there is a draft on the page, they’re able to think about it. To become first, willfully sensate and dumb like an animal, and then to become smart, lucid, clear-headed when approaching revision. We all know writers who are good at one or the other. The best writers are good at both.
It’s so easy to forget this. To think: I need to write something clever, something ironic, something The New Yorker might like. To think: but what’s the big picture? I need to know the big picture before I begin. The paradox of the big picture is that it’s only revealed one tiny picture, one small moment at a time.
Dani Shapiro‘s new memoir is Devotion. Her other recent books include Black & White, Family History, and the best-selling memoir Slow Motion. Her short stories and essays have appeared in The New Yorker, Granta, Tin House, Elle, Bookforum, Oprah, Ploughshares, among others, and have been broadcast on National Public Radio. She is a contributing editor at Travel + Leisure and guest editor of Best New American Voices 2010. This essay originally appeared on Dani’s blog, Moments of Being.