ON WRITING: THE TERRIBLE
Note: John Rechy has conducted
creative writing courses as guest author at Occidental College and UCLA.
He currently teaches in the Masters in Professional Writing Program at USC.
He also holds private workshops for professional-level writers. He
has lectured on writing and other subjects at Harvard, Yale, and Duke
Universities. From time to time, he will contribute short essays on
writing. This is the first.
A condensed version of this full-length
essay has appeared in the Sunday Los Angels Times Book Review.
The three most often repeated "Rules
of Writing," recited by rote and left uninvestigated and unchallenged
in virtually every writing workshop, English course, and composition
class, are capable of doing terrible damage to good writing. The
Terrible Three are:
1. SHOW, DON'T TELL. Major
nonsense. Good writing involves "showing"--that is,
dramatizing--as well as "telling"--that is, employing
exposition. An avoidance of "telling" may convolute and
interfere with providing clear motivation (to be exemplified by
"showing"). It disallows setting. It obfuscates
situation. "It was the best of times, it was the worst of
times." In that line Dickens immediately identifies the
situation he is now free to develop in "A Tale of Two Cities."
Soon after, dual settings are established. Through exposition:
"There were a king with a large jaw and a queen with a plain face on
the throne of England; there were a king with a large jaw and a queen with
a fair face on the throne of France."
Do we speak of "story-showing"?
No. We speak of "story-telling." Many great works of
literature are largely expositional, including Swift's "Gulliver's
Travels," Cervantes's "Don Quixote," and--try this one--Proust's
"Remembrance of Things Past" ("In Search of Lost
Time"). In the latter, Proust roams, in exposition, through the
inner landscape of the child Marcel's need for his mother's nightly
bed-time kiss. Now he can move on to
exemplify--"show"--the drama of his foiled attempts.
Later, in a passage of sweeping exposition he explores Swann's complex
love for Odette and by closely observing its vagaries,
renders it universal. Thomas Bernhard's masterpiece, "Concrete," is
all gasping exposition until at the end he opens his narrative into eerie dramatization.
The effect of
"scenes"--showing--may be created through refined
"telling," as in Garcia Márquez's "One Hundred Years of
Solitude," which is in major part exposition, with very little
dialogue, often used as dramatic punctuation: "The earth is
round, like an orange." Try to "show" this line
of blunt exposition: "Call me Ishmael!" (Still, the
famous line that opens Melville's "Moby Dick" is memorable only
because of the name Ishmael. Call me Tommy? Call me Sally?
Not nearly stirring.)
A good way to add life to exposition,
especially to long passages of it, is to pause to capture a dramatic
moment, to allow the reader to hear someone speak, see someone move,
act--yes, show--since time is the accumulation of moments.
Even in film, the quintessential art of
"showing," Ingmar Bergman and other great directors (Kurosawa,
Billy Wilder) often use bold exposition. Alma, the nurse, in
"Persona" announces, "I am a 24 year old
nurse--" etc. The psychiatrist involved informs us that an
older actress went silent during a performance of "Electra" as
we see the actress's anguished face. A mysterious male voice
tells us that the nurse and the actress were advised by the psychiatrist
to go into the country, as we see them moving along a jagged landscape
that visually projects (á la Robbe-Grillet) the emotional entanglement
they are moving into. In one of the most erotic scenes in literature
or film, in a long monologue Alma tells the actress--no flashback, no
"showing"-- about a sexual encounter on the beach.
2. WRITE ABOUT WHAT YOU KNOW.
The moody spinster who left the English moors to travel to London only
once in her lifetime fled back to her seclusion to write one of the most
passionate love stories of all time. Emily Brontë's "Wuthering
Heights" illuminates a love so spectacular that it finds its only
safe place within hell, not possible to be contained in a bland heaven.
Many great works of art would be cancelled
if the author had restricted himself to what he "knows."
Think about crime novels--Raymond Chandler, James Cain, Dashiell Hammett.
What about Dostoyevsky's "Crime and Punishment"?
Stephen Crane never saw war, but he wrote "The Red Badge of
Courage." Purportedly, Vladimir Nabokov was outraged when
little girls started popping up at his door one Halloween, inferring that
he wrote in "Lolita" about what he knew. Flaubert, asked
how he came to understand Emma so well, answered, "Madame Bovary,
c'est moi." The good fiction writer relies primarily on
imagination, not information, not investigation. Certainly intimate
knowledge--plus imagination--have produced many works of grand literature.
The writer doesn't deal with
"reality." He deals with verisimilitude. He conjures
his own "reality." We would be just as jarred if, along
the weary way to California, Ma and Tom Joad encountered crazy old Dorothy
skipping along the water-starved earth of Oklahoma as we would be if crazy
old Dorothy encountered Ma and Tom Joad trudging along her yellow brick
road. In both instances--Steinbeck's "The Grapes of Wrath"
and Frank L. Baum's "The Wonderful World of Oz"--it is not,
respectively, reality, nor fantasy, but verisimilitude that would be
A better admonition might be: Write
about what you feel. Too lofty. Write about what you feel you
know. Too elevated. This is it: Write about whatever the
hell you want to write about.
3. ALWAYS HAVE A SYMPATHETIC
CHARACTER FOR THE READER TO RELATE TO. Shakespeare's Macbeth,
Lady Macbeth, King Lear, the annoying Hamlet--none grasps our sympathy
entirely, at best sporadically; nor does Othello, even if he is black.
Albert Camus's "The Stranger" is no lover of humanity to relate
with. In Greek tragedy, just as in popular bestsellers, the most
villainous and unsympathetic characters are the ones we remember,
including Medea (about whom this writer, however, wrote sympathetically in
a novel, proving that Jason was the villain). Ellen Berent in that
magnificent underrated "popular novel" "Leave her to
Heaven," by Ben Ames Williams--no snobbery here--is chilling and
unforgettable; she blithely kills everyone who comes close to her husband,
including, finally--grasp this!--herself. Blanche DuBois
is sympathetic until we imagine her taking up quarters in one's own home
(covering all the lights with Chinese lanterns, steaming up the bathroom
on a hot day, singing sappy songs as she sprays her assertive perfume
everywhere, dousing the air with stray feathers from her boa). Then
surely, our sympathy might transfer to villainous Stanley. Willy
Loman is often irritating. Lolita is dumb but cunning, and Humbert
Humbert is a pervert.
We love hateful, selfish, manipulative
characters--Scarlett O'Hara, Rhett Butler, Lago--yes, Dracula.
Catherine and Heathcliff are horrors (and still manage--at times--to tear
our hearts out). Whom do you sympathize with in any of Kafka's
books? Henry James's governess in "The Turn of the Screw"
is a driven demon. In Carson McCullers's perfect novel,
"Reflections in a Golden Eye," it is instantly apparent that the
author despises every one of her characters, with the possible exception
of the horse involved--although she does give him a severe flogging; and
so the reader despises them, too, but one reads on.
frightening, wicked--but fascinating. That's the
key: Fascinating. Write about characters,
good or evil, who fascinate.