Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Formalities

"If you think the gift of prophecy has been given you; then, by all means, write your bad poems, your insufferable fictions, enjoy the fame that easy ideas often offer, ride the flatulent winds of change, fly like the latest fad to the nearest dead tree; but do not try to count the seasons of your oblivion (Gass 35)."

Like virtually every writer at the ripe age of 25, I'm still working on my skills, finding my voice (in both fictional and non-fictional writing, and both on the page and in real life), and hoping to eventually be published. Whether this publishing comes via a short story in a magazine or as my first novel, it will be the culmination of many years' worth of effort. Most young writer scoff at mass-market reads, and in their determined, penniless states dream of creating art. This being said, I can only hope that William H. Gass is fully retired from criticism by the time I get published. After re-reading his excellent essay "Finding a Form" (from the essay collection by the same name), I realize that, because of my inexperience, a veteran like Gass would flick me aside like a cat toying with a stunned mouse. This is not to say that my first published effort will be bad, but after a few close readings of the essay, it's obvious that older, established writers have seen it all. The primary argument in Gass's essay is that the power of fiction lies in the craft of the sentences as opposed to the plot and the characters.

"In any event, and after many years of scribble and erasure, I came finally to the belief that sentences were containers of consciousness, that they were directly thought itself, which is one thing that goes on in consciousness, but they were other things as well, in more devious, indirect ways. Insofar as the words referred, they involved--through those designations--our perceptions; thus a good sentence had to see and hear and smell and touch or taste whatever it was supposed to see and hear and smell and touch or taste; that acuity and accuracy of sensation was, in those sentences that invoked it, essential. Even in sentences that describe a thought instead of a perception, the thought has to be well seen (Gass 39)."

That statement alone can lead to some very time-consuming yet relevant writing practices. This is an example I came up with, trying to put Gass's ideas into action:

1.) I like waffles.
2.) I like waffles with a little butter and maple syrup.
3.) Waffles are best when toasted to a light, almost wood-like brown, their squares containing just enough butter and maple syrup to combine the three distinct flavors equally.

Of course, I could keep going on with this example until I look like I have a waffle fetish. All kidding aside, sometimes the simplest sentences require long stretches of attention and snipping. A critic like Gass would be allowed to say "If you don't put enough attention into your work, then why should I put any attention into reading it?"

While I still have a lot of work to put into my fiction, I've often been complimented on my writing of dialogue, which Gass also places importance upon: "The finest writing is for the voice. There are several good, not to say decisive, reasons for this. No word is a word by itself. Every word is multiple, and not simply because there are homonyms and homophones hanging around, pretending to be friends. A word is made of sounds. A word is made of marks. A word is made of the little muscle movements in the throat which accompany our interior speech--that invisible, inaudible, yet clearly heard interior talk of which Samuel Beckett made himself a master...if we allow the written word to stand for the spoken one, and silent speech to precede both, then the written word words in three realms at once, not just one (Gass 42)."

His description here is almost scientific, whereas my personal emphasis on fictional dialogue is based more on sociology. How to people talk? What do they talk about? Yes, it's based on the characters doing the speaking. However, I don't edit dialogue as closely as I do descriptions. More often than not, everyday conversations don't have as much thought and editing. People speak quickly, and they occasionally say the wrong things. Gass's opinion and mine are in desperate need of a happy medium. Written dialogue needs to be given equal care, just like non-dialogue, yet it's sometimes easy to run the risk of a fictional conversation sounding "too fictional."

"Stories are sneaky justifications. You can buy stories at the store, where they are a dime a dozen. Stories are interesting only when they are floors in buildings. Stories are a bore. What one wants to do with stories is screw them up. Stories ought to be in pictures. They're wonderful to see (Gass 46)."

This is where I run into the most problems and confusion with Gass. I agree that the ideas of a plot can fatally override form and craft, but some of the greatest novels have strong plots as their backbones. It also presents a question as old as fiction itself: "Are art and storytelling inherently different, or can they be properly combined?" For example, Jack Kerouac can be considered both an artist and a storyteller. Another example would be Raymond Carver. Some of his short stories are long on delicate craftsmanship, with discernible plots being an afterthought. There are hundreds of critics and theorists with hundreds of different opinions, but I more or less agree with this broad summary of Gass's argument--As a writer, if you take care of the most important details, everything else will fall into place. Whether "the most important details" are sentences or entire pieces is up to the author.

Work Cited:
Gass, William H. Finding a Form. Copyright 1996 by William H. Gass.

1 comment:

Justin said...

Rather than pay attention to language in an academic way, I recommend eating more sandwiches and making friends with more Korean people. For me, at least, these activities have made me think more deeply about to what extent language "represents" an external reality rather than simply referring to itself. To my mind, Gass is too entrenched in abstractions to really provide a satisfactory response to the problem of composing sentences which are internally consistent and satisfying while still mirroring some kind of recognizeable experience. Case in point: Gass's novel The Tunnel, which took around twenty years for him to write. I can't help but feel that if a reasonably well-built Korean with a ham sandwich had punched Gass in the head every time he started thinking about language abstractly, he could have finished The Tunnel more quickly (in say a year) and maybe written other novels as well.