There are many different ways to avoid writing, even (sometimes especially) when the project is hot and there is nothing standing between you and the few luscious hours you could spend working on your book. I like to tell myself that I procrastinate in these times because I’m trying to stoke that fire even higher—make the writing irresistible so I can really dig in. The likelihood, though, is that I’m spending hours reading or on Twitter because I’m anxious that whoever I am on that day won’t live up to the work I need to do. Which is why I was really pleased to discover that the past few books I’ve read have actually been feeding my work—that even while I thought I was reading for pleasure there was some part of my brain that was actually preparing to get back down to work. Let me tell you about what I learned from Hunger Heart by Karen Fastrup, The Afflictions by Vikram Paralkar, I Have Some Questions for You by Rebecca Makkai, and The Swimmers by Julie Otsuka and how I plan to apply these lessons to my current work in progress.
The Space of Autofiction in Hunger Heart
I’m slow to adopt new ideas so when I started reading about autofiction (telling a story that is close to your real life using fictionalized details) I mashed it together with metafiction in my head and moved on because it just didn’t feel like where my creative energy was at. But reading Hunger Heart definitely opened my eyes to what autofiction can do. Fastrup uses a “fictional” character to delve into a period of her life when she was in and out of mental institutions with a diagnosis of borderline personality disorder. The book is interesting (not just because the Danish health system is so much more humane than the American one) and well written and I can see how allowing herself to tell what is essentially a memoir in a fictional way really freed her as a storyteller. She always had the option, of course, of telling the true details about her life in her book, but autofiction lets her streamline events and change the surrounding characters enough so that the book flows well and so that she’s putting the (interesting and sometimes uncomfortable) spotlight on herself rather than her then boyfriend or kids.
In my own book, Naked Driving to the Witches’ Graveyard, I’m currently writing about what it was like to be a teenager in the town I grew up in. None of the characters are me but they aren’t not me either, and I’ve been wondering as I write just how fictional I have to get with the whole thing. There are many decisions to be made still, but I appreciated seeing this example of how well autofiction allowed Hunger Heart to get to the heart of the story even if the truth was a little fuzzy.
The Structure of The Afflictions
All the blurbs on Vikram Paralkar’s The Afflictions reference Borges because, I think, the story takes place in a library where a librarian is introducing a visitor to a series of tomes on (imagined) afflictions. In truth, though, the book has a lot more in common with Calvino’s Invisible Cities in the way it anchors back to that conversation with the librarian at intervals while exploring lists of these afflictions in between as Invisible Cities returns again and again to the conversation between Marco Polo and Kublai Khan. This got me thinking about narrative structure because no one has upended my expectations about structure quite as much as Calvino.
I’ve wrestled with the structure for Naked Driving to the Witches’ Graveyard a lot (sometimes drawing narrative maps as yet another procrastination tool—though a productive one). After a year and a half of writing and 32,000 words, the flow of the first section (of three) is pretty solid as one chapter explores the devolution of relationships over a year and then individual stories start to emerge. I have no idea how sections two and three will be structured, but I’m sure they’ll tell me eventually. It’s a very different book than Paralkar’s, but I’m grateful to him for reminding me that my structural obsession is a valid one.
Memory and Nostalgia in I Have Some Questions for You
I’d actually been saving back I Have Some Questions for You because I love Makkai’s work and I wanted to give myself time to really enjoy the book. But we went away to Whidbey Island last week and it was the most compelling read I could take with me (and I ate it all up). This book is what prompted this blog post, honestly, because there was a lot I learned from this book. Set just before and during the pandemic, the action also includes significant portions of memory as the narrator, Bodie, reflects on the murder of her roommate while they were at boarding school in the 1990s. Bodie is revisiting that school as a teacher and reconsidering what may have actually happened.
Naked Driving to the Witches’ Graveyard is also set in the 1990s, a time that a lot of women my age are reconsidering in the wake of the #MeToo movement. At first Makkai’s references to that time were so spot-on that I got the “does my book even matter” blues. Her references continued to be spot-on but my anxious brain was soon immersed enough in the story that my creative brain could remember that there’s room for all kinds of books and that while I might miss this wave of 1990s nostalgia in the publishing world, that doesn’t mean my book won’t be relevant—whenever I’ve actually taken the time to finish it. There are many other interesting things in how Makkai handles the memories and misconceptions her characters carry that warrant a read of your own. My own approach (for the moment) is to have a gently retrospective voice with all of the action set in the past which allows me to retroactively re-frame some of the thinking even while the characters experience things as they were. Check out this video below for a little insight into what my generation is trying to process around #MeToo.
.@BrookeShields talks to Drew about the "Me Too" movement and being sexualized in Hollywood at a young age.
— The Drew Barrymore Show (@DrewBarrymoreTV) April 11, 2023
A Chorus of The Swimmers
I randomly picked The Swimmers from my to-read pile after I Have Some Questions for You because I’ve loved Otsuka’s other books. What I did not know was that she was working directly with something I’ve been experimenting with for this book (despite great fear)—the choral voice. The Swimmers explores the collective experience of a group of swimmers at a public pool from a “we” point of view.
“Most days, at the pool, we are able to leave our troubles on land behind. Failed painters become elegant brushstrokers. Untenured professors slice, sharklike, through the water, with breathtaking speed. The newly divorced HR manager grabs a faded red Styrofoam board and kicks with impunity.” – The Swimmers, Julie Otsuka
I loved the specificity here and the way Otsuka overlaps multiple individuals in this chorus without losing the particularities of each. The characters recur and we get to know them, somewhat, as individuals, though what is most important (from what I have read so far) is this shared experience.
Makkai did something similar in I Have Some Questions for You where she used the specific details of crimes against women to create an experience of the multiplicity as one greater event.
“It doesn’t matter which story.
Let’s say it was the one where the young actresses said yes to a pool party and didn’t know.
Or no, let’s say it was the one where the rugby team covered up for the girl’s death and the school covered for the rugby team.
Actually it was the one where the therapist spent years grooming her. It was the one where the senator, then a promising teenager, shoved his dick in the girl’s face. She was also a promising teenager. It was the one where the billionaire pushed the woman into the phone booth, but no one believed her.” – Rebecca Makkai, I Have Some Questions for You
This has the effect of reinforcing the terrible volume and banality that we’ve allowed these events to accrue. This agglomeration is an effect I am working with in my own book, Naked Driving to the Witches’ Graveyard, albeit for different reasons.
“We’ve traveled far enough now, in distance (for those of us who could leave) and time (for all of us) that the memories of who we were and why are starting to fade from everything but our yearbooks, gathered dusty in shelves and dank basements. Red, black, and white covers full of pages of mostly black and white photos. All of these rural-beautiful faces, posed gauzy (those who could afford it) in the outfits they loved best. Each one a mother’s child longing to be loved, remembered. But that one raped our friend and that one ran someone over, that one was shot in the face by drug dealers out of state, that one shot by a man on her doorstep because she was nice to him. That one made it to Broadway and that one is a mom who never left town. That one joined the CIA, allegedly. One sold pharmaceuticals and another played pro ball. Astrophysicists, exchange students, another whose weird face forever condemned him to outsider. The special ed kids we never saw except in a hospital hallway thirty years later when our parents were dying. Missing from the “we made it together” photo of those who attended all twelve years was the kid who died of cancer, the one hounded out of school for being gay, the girl killed by a moose. Those who stayed versus those who left, a decision made for us based on the size of our parents’ worlds. Some came to the city. Some slipped into the hills, only to be seen again at their infant’s funeral. So many now untraceable, nicknames lost to obituaries of whole families who died young, despite their Scandinavian heritage. Most of these faces are lost to memory. All of us repeating archetypes who thought ourselves individual.” – Isla McKetta, Naked Driving to the Witches’ Graveyard
What are you reading now? How is it feeding your writing? Tell me everything in the comments below.