Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Describing the describer.

I didn't see Richard Powers when he came to Wellington (since I wasn't there) but I just received this from the IIML newletter: "On Saturday Victoria’s MA students had a chance to get some one-on-one advice on their novels when he presented a masterclass on narrative perspective, beginning with the notion that ‘a description always describes the describer’. Among the variations Powers offered on this theme was a scene from Damien Wilkins’ novel The Miserables, in which the main character’s view of Wellington from the deck of the interisland ferry reveals much about his state of mind."

Sounds not a million miles from describing the coffin, not the grief. I like his way of putting it, too. I think it's a great writing tip to keep in mind.


Anonymous said...

Powers was notable for his generous engagement with everyone he spoke to. He knew about the settings of some of the MA novels being written, and those writers he questioned responded courageously (in an otherwise silent, packed room) to his invitation to discuss. A couple of the notes I made:

This in regard to writing a protagonist who is a professor of philosophy: "The entry point into a profession you don't understand is to give him a very specific question that he studies every day - then you only need to know what he knows."

In the "perpetual demoralisation" of the planning stages, do whatever you need to do to keep your hope alive: tell yourself that something will become clear. (Presumably, what 'becomes clear' wouldn't be that your MS is a complete disaster...)

In response to a student who wondered about her authority to write about someone from a very different background, Powers talked about writing "In the Time of Our Singing", with its mixed race characters. He had concluded that he had the right to write about such an experience if he could inhabit that experience himself. The way to inhabit it, he said, had been to use his own conflict (presumably about writing characters of another race), to give those characters their own conflicts about their heritage. (In the novel Powers' characters have been brought up to love classical music, and on leaving home find that no-one believes they do.)

I don't think his solution is universally applicable. If everyone follows his advice, won't every such novel feature characters conflicted about their skin tone in some way? I'm sure he doesn't intend that. Of course a writer could transfer any kind of conflict to any character, regardless of colour. It'd be interesting to see how 'white liberal guilt' type of writers' conflict could be transmuted into, say, a character's 'can't stand my father' conflict.

Another solution is just to go all out & claim your right to imagine & write anything at all... (with a bit of research along the way).

Powers advised the writer of an historical novel not to include too much direct dialogue, but to use a 'double-voiced', extra-temporal narration and free indirect speech along with close, in-the-scene narration to achieve an (artificial) sense of reality.

Have to admit I've read none of his books but am planning to now.

Please excuse the length of this 'comment'. Maybe I'll start a blog.



Rachael King said...

Fantastic! Thanks for sharing that Susan - fascinating stuff. I'm going to have a really good think about all these points and how I can apply them to my own work.

Anonymous said...

wow, that is doing my head in, I think I shall have to print off and stick to my wall

Law and Order said...

It's wonderful to come onto your site Rachael and find these little snippets of information about writing. From one of your previous posts you mentioned "Describing the coffin, not the grief." I have it written in capital letters on the whiteboard above my writing desk. I ponder it each morning before I sit down in front of the laptop. I'll be looking for many more tips from you. Thanks.

Rachael King said...

Great Joanne! Glad to be of help. I'm teaching a couple of classes this month. I hope I can pull it off in real life!

Alis said...

'a description always describes the describer' - I agree. If you've just got a description for its own sake or so that the reader can 'visualise the scene' you're only making it do half the work it should or could. If you can use descriptions to shed light on your characters and make your text richer and more redolent, why wouldn't you do it. And 'describe the coffin not the grief' - a wonderful summing up of a similar technique. Love your blog, thanks!

The Paradoxical Cat said...

I'll add my thanks too, Rachael. I discovered your blog just a few weeks ago, and it has been required reading ever since. That 'describe the coffin not the grief' is just so evocative, and is in itself the perfect example of, and a better way to word, the old advice to "avoid the abstract in favour of the concrete"!

I really appreciate your generosity on this blog, and as I'll be at the Christchurch Festival I look forward to attending the Blog session. I'm a newcomer to blogging but have found that it inspires rather than distracts me.

Cheers :-)

Rachael King said...

Thanks for visiting! I love it when I hear my blog is helping people (even if it's just a bit of distraction)...