Saturday, June 4, 2011

Letters to a Young Novelist

A slim book by Mario Vargas Llosa is written as a series of intimate letters to a budding writer. It provides good insight from a Nobel Prize winner - meaning a seasoned and admired author as compared to the text book from the NYC Writing School. I appreciated the text book for its sensible and down to earth tone with chapters written by different authors though not as distinguished as Llosa. It is very useful for starting writers because it reads like a work manual in a style similar to learning about plumbing or carpentry. On the other hand, Llosa’s book is for the MFA candidate or serious readers or writers who read widely – preferably South American or European writers. Both books need to be read in sequence and a good way to end the writing workshop which used the NYC text book. Actually, Llosa’s book is in a caliber expected from a Nobel Prize winner and offers subtle lessons if one can move beyond the seemingly intellectual tone.

In the past weeks, I listened to Jonathan Franzen’s ‘Freedom’ and Sue Monk Kidd’s ‘The Secret Life of Bees.’ Franzen’s book is a broad elegant take on middle class angst and dysfunction. Kidd’s work is the coming of age story in the American South amidst the civil rights struggle of African – Americans in the 60’s. Kidd is the better work in my opinion by sticking to a highly effective first person narrative. Franzen’s is entertaining but possibly way to long. One just appreciates and enjoys Kidd’s work more. It’s the difference between the works of Llosa and the other lesser known authors who contributed to the NYC text book. But don’t get me wrong – Llosa is a master as is Franzen but the lessons learned requires a subtle understanding of the deeper themes that their work ascribes too. Kidd is an effective writer having plumbed an excellent story from her life experience and pushed to a masterful level. She is the inspired amateur.

Reading Llosa results in an urge to write. It’s like reading Dean Karnazes’ book or watching his movie ‘Ultra Marathon Man’ – there is an inspired urge to get out and run. It’s the effect of truly inspirational people who say ‘you can do it, too’. Kidd on the other hand is a singular story that can only come from her own experience. One cannot write that story except Kidd herself. There is a feeling of the inspired exuberance of the first time author similar to discovering sex. On the other hand, Llosa is a veteran writer in the same way that Karnazes is a veteran runner. The long hours of toil has brought them to a level of expertise that can be translated or transmuted into inspiration to their fans. Kidd is the inspired beginner with more hours to log before reaching the kind of guru status that envelops people like Llosa or Karnazes. Like me, she is the true beneficiary of the NYC Writing School course.

I am reading John le Carre new book ‘Our Kind of Traitor.’ This is probably one of his best works – not only plumbing new areas in the spy game but in the manner of relating a story with his well described characters. One can enjoy Llosa’s ‘Letters to a Young Novelist’ by applying his insights to le Carre’s book as John le Carre’s is obviously a master writer himself. The enjoyment one feels reading his work is not only due to the cloak and dagger stuff, the intricate plots, the relevance to international espionage and contemporary politics but also in the writing craft. He is like Herman Melville transplanted from the New England fishing village into the spy craft and intrigue of modern day London and the various international hot spots of the secret agent – Berlin, Washington, Hong Kong, Vienna and so on. The magic is in the point of view – possibly some middle-class Englishman educated in the public schools or perhaps college in Oxford, reaching a turning point in his life, a willing pawn is some global game or an actor in a plot orchestrated by an obscure but scholarly civil servant. His stories are authentic and have an internal coherence that Llosa writes about. Llosa is best understood when reading the works of great masters.

One achieved an epiphany after reading Llosa. Creative fiction is the art of persuasion - the ability to create a self-standing world that exists independent of the author. In fact, it’s the facility of imagination that is described. So what is imagination? Normally, it’s the overactive churning of thought that sees conspiracies in political events, paranoia or persecution in everyday work, fantasies and sexual innuendo in imagined couplings and the enjoyment of porn (a form of creative fiction) in all its manifestations. But it’s also the exercise of creativity at work; in crafting solutions, organizing projects, software programming, blogging, etc. It’s also living the new lifestyle in the modern computer age. So the challenge for the budding writer is to channel these everyday expressions of creativity and imagination into the writing craft. Hence, the skill exists but needs to populate new ground.

It is no longer the acquisition of new experiences or reading books but understanding the psychological underpinnings of creativity that matters. Creativity and imagination is alive and well but living in sin, paranoia, conspiracy theories and the enjoyment of technical diversions. The churning mind must be diverted into the creative pursuit of story telling. Perhaps one does not realize creativity exists which one accumulates subconsciously from watching movies or reading books or traveling. It needs to be brought up front into the blinding light of writing prose. It’s a surprising insight that one gets from reading Llosa’s book. The fuel needs to be brought to the right fire. The practice of a craft is the way to go – sitting down to write regularly (even if no prose is produced, perhaps an outline or any scribbling will do), having a place to write and fill out worksheets on characters and plot and so on.

After all one need to exercise every day, go to the gym and eat the right food to compete in a marathon. It’s getting into a regular habit in order to fashion the necessary skill. For the creative writer, the habit is churning out draft after draft until a mature manuscript is completed. Not the daily journal writings of a diarist. It’s the conscious application of creativity and imagination to the task of storytelling. Hence, the mechanical task of putting thoughts to paper (by dictation, by typing, by long hand via pen and paper) is just baby steps when compared to the craft of drafting, revising and editing. Sitting down to work even without divine inspiration is the sign of a mature writer. It’s the act of moving one’s imagination away from sin, paranoia, conspiracy theories and indulgent diversions towards constructive creativity.

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