The story is always smarter than you

By Richard Pelletier

Paying a visit to Material, an essay by the writer Lucy Corin

So there I was in my writing shed looking for answers. As one does. For reasons unknown, I pulled The Writer’s Notebook (Tin House Books, 2009) off the shelf. I made my way to page 75, Material. Not quite sure how or why I landed there, but I remembered being quite taken with Material at my first go around a couple of years past.

It is flat out astonishing. So I want to share just some of this material with you.

Lucy Corin: 

“Generally we are taught to value content over form, to have something to say and then to “find a form for it” as if one part of what we produce is our stuff and the other is a suitcase we bought to put our stuff in. You find the form to “suit” your content, your material. This is not an unhelpful way to think about things, but it is not the only way. I believe it is only because I have spent so much time working with words as material that I have come to have any idea of what I have to say, in words, to and about the world I live in. I learned from what I made, what I was making.”

That previous sentence is so good I want to read it again.

“I learned from what I made, what I was making.”

One of the things I think about as I try and finish a novel is, ‘what is here that I can’t see? What’s happening at the sentence level, or in the story, or in the structure…the way this beast is arranged, that I am not seeing but is probably hugely important and will doom me to humiliating failure? “What,” as Donald Rumsfeld would say, “are the unknown unknowns?”

Lucy: 

“We are also taught, on the sentence level, to make form as invisible as possible, in order that it not “interfere” with content. To do this we must gently/subtly/slyly vary syntax, sentence length, paragraph length, so as to distinguish it from an overly patterned, “less sophisticated” and “visible” text like See Jane run. See Jane sit. See Jane spit.  “Normal” prose – “Jane ran for a while, then rested on a bench, spit, and continued her run,” keeps the reader’s mind focused on the content. In this sort of sentence the form seems to float somewhere behind or below the material, which this sort of writing insists is the information, or the content of the sentences.”

As a long-time photographer, I think of myself as a visual person, and I’ve written about how photography has informed my writing. In the new book Dark Angels on Writing, I wrote about seeing and how important I think seeing is to writing. When I wrote that piece, I didn’t know the half of it.

I wasn’t thinking of the different ways to see and understand the arrangement of the words on the page. Lucy showed me. So did John Everett Benson, (world renowned calligrapher and stone carver) who wrote me the letter below regarding the piece I wrote about The John Stevens Shop in Established: Lessons from the world’s oldest companies.

Letter from John Everett Benson“All writing is some combination of visible and invisible forms, and the combination itself is a pattern that is meaningful to me, the rising and falling of my awareness of and attention to one kind of material—content, or what words represent—and another—visible words, ink, like paint, on a page.”

~ Lucy Corin

Lucy then goes on to talk about several different stories and novels in terms of their shape on the page and what that shape tells us about meaning.

Lucy Corin Material

“…you should look at the material you produce to find your material.”

~ Lucy Corin

The drawings on the right are, L to R: Waiting for the Barbarians, by J.M. Coetzee, and The Road, by Cormac McCarthy.

Lucy:

“The dialogue and paragraphs (Barbarians) are balanced, varied and integrated, but the scenes are short and visually marked (in this case with asterisks.) There’s a feeling, reading this book, of falling in and out of a dream, of waking, blinking, and then sliding back under after a breath. Cormac McCarthy’s The Road is similar in shape—short scenes with breaks—but the size and texture of the sentences and words are less varied than they are in Coetzee’s work, and that makes the atmosphere much more stark, the rhythms more overt, more about repetition, the sense of day in, day out, in the skeletal landscape in which this novel is set.

When form works, it is indistinguishable from content. Your material is your material.”

God, I love that.

* * *

There is an important, central-to-the-whole-thesis look at Flannery O’Connor’s A Good Man is Hard to Find, which Lucy says is a ‘superb example of a story in which every moment reads multiply and microcosmically, literally and figuratively, the epitome of a “tightly-crafted story.”

A lot of what follows depends on her look at that O’Connor story, but I’m going to move us along, while I urge you to buy The Writer’s Notebook and read the entire piece.

So let us get to the truly lovely part of this:

The story is always smarter than you.

Lucy:

“The story, I like to say and remember, is always smarter than you—there will be patterns of theme, image, and idea that are much savvier and more complex than you could have come up with on your own. Find them with your marking pens as they emerge in your drafts. Become a student of your work in progress.

Look for what your material is telling you about your material. Every aspect of a story has its  own story.” (italics mine)

This is pure dynamite. She is essentially saying two glorious things. First that all the little bits—they all have their own story and you can find those and work with them…. I think this is why fractals come up in discussions of storytelling.

And…that you have (most, if not) everything you need to take the writing to an even better place, if you can sort out how to investigate your own work, how to “see” what is being said, see into what is going on with the material and ‘play’ with it, so you can amplify some things, minimize others and create new kinds of relationships between various elements.

Toward the end of her piece comes, Try This:(this is highly abbreviated)

  1. Print out your story and put it on a wall. Put it up in a way that allows you to look at it all at once. You might or might not break it up between paragraphs, or scene breaks, or some other obvious element that is key to the piece. Look at the patterns of section, chapter, scene, and paragraph size…Try eliminating every ‘return’ in the document…
  2. Take a highlighter pen and start marking the metaphoric threads, the thematic motifs, the patterns of image, the way sound works or begins to work. Look for what drops off and accumulates. Ask every aspect you can isolate to have its own story.(italics mine) Ask for a beginning, a middle and an end.
  3. Look at the words and how they are arranged within sentences. Look for capital letters and longness and shortness. Look for the concrete words, look for the abstract words. See if they cluster…

Lucy:

“To make a beautiful piece means you have really witnessed it and really made decisions about it. So again, material is content: he makes a mistake, he makes a bigger mistake, etc. And material is also form: it’s tense; point of view; a story told in four linear stretches, each overlapping in time for one paragraph; point of view beginning very close third person, shifting gradually until almost wholly detached/omniscient; it’s a series of short clipped lines followed by a long graceful one; or a story told in three parts, five pages/one paragraph/six pages, etc. It’s also syllables, consonants, vowels, punctuation, and the white space surrounding everything.”

It’s been said a million times over that everything happens in the rewriting. And certainly that is where the screws get tightened. But for me, as I’ve been rewriting, I’ve also been searching and searching for a way to see more deeply into the thing I am making in order to understand what the hell is going on in the thing that I am making.

So thrilled to have found a way in… Thanks, Lucy.

The Writer’s Notebook Amazon UK

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