Monday, November 29, 2010

I got a Kindle!

For my birthday I got an unexpected present: a Kindle. Now, let me say that I'm the sort of person who is content with things the way they are, mostly: I check out books from the library, I loan and borrow them from people, occasionally I buy them. I didn't see that I'd use a Kindle much, especially as I use my credit card for large purchases only. However, as the idea began to work in my brain, I could see a couple of advantages to having an e-reader. Magazines, for instance. No more clutter on the coffee table. No more wondering why some weeks the New Yorker comes on Thursdays and other weeks on Mondays. No more missing New Yorkers! (Bah! It turns out I can't switch my current subscription to the Kindle, I have to wait for it to run out and renew it via Amazon.) And there's the space issue, which is one reason why I don't buy a lot of new books. As it happened, my book club had just chosen Where Men Win Glory by Jon Krakauer -- a book about Pat Tillman. Not a book I would ordinarily make a long story short, oh so sinfully cheap on Kindle and I don't have to feel that I gambled buying a book I don't know much about. (Also, it turned out to be an excellent book which I don't regret buying.)
So I can see that this may, in fact, change some of my reading and buying habits. It will be interesting to see how much...
I still love books and I particularly love the cheapness and portability of them. I love that you can leave a book on a bus...or that you can find a book on a bus. When I was teaching I kept a library in my room and didn't try to keep track of who had what. Some of the books never came back, but I didn't mind -- I figured I was creating new readers. And I don't think Kindles will ever replace that.

I also want to say that I read an amazing book recently. It's written by a scientist called Iain Gilchrist and is called The Master and His Emissary. It's basically about differences in how the right brain and left brain view the world and how in the current era the left brain view (which is often fragmented and disassociated from reality and which views objects as having a fixed value) dominates. It's not exactly an easy read: there's a lot about Heidegger and the paradox of Theseus' Ship and other landmarks of the history of philosophy, as well as an entire section on brain structure. But definitely worth it. Among other things it kind of explains why it's so difficult, when you're revising something, to tell if it's any good or not. (Not that it helps you do anything about it, but at least you know why, after this book.)

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

...and stopped my mind from wandering

Yesterday I read this article in the Science section of the New York Times about daydreaming. It says, basically, that people who let their thoughts wander aren't very happy. This is the kind of study I'm always a little suspicous of: for one thing, they apparently measured happiness by contacting people every 15 minutes or so and asking them to rate how happy they were at that moment. ("Are you happy now?" How 'bout now?") Then they compiled all the yeses and found people were most happy during physical activity, when they brains were basicially turned off. When they had to think and they let their minds wander, they reported themselves as unhappy.

Maybe they should have talked to more writers.

I do sort of understand where this study is coming from. Thoughts can become repetitive, they can chase you around and around and they make excellent attack dogs, hanging on and never letting go until they've convinced you to do something stupid.

But honestly, some of the best moments of my life have been spent daydreaming. When I get blocked writing, my general procedure is to lie down and let my mind wander while I argue the problem out to myself. I can't imagine life without it.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Some thoughts on Showing and Telling

I'm going to go out on a limb here and admit that "show, don't tell" is one of those writing shibboleths that throws me a little. I'll even admit that I sometimes get the phrase mixed up and can't remember which one is the "bad" one. This may be because I understand "telling" to be as it is defined here -- vague language, lacking in detail and bolstered by cliche, language which doesn't add much to the story and which bores the reader. And yet lots of people seem to think that telling is any form of narration, or any kind of description without drama to it.
I'm hesitant to admit this, however, or even to ask other writers what they think, because so many people treat "show, don't tell" as the 11th commandment. So I'm going to go out a little further on the limb: I don't think it's a commandment at all. I think, like many rules, it gets a little complicated when you take a closer look.

Thought number 1. My son's English teacher recently gave him an assignment of writing "show" paragraphs on various emotions. In these paragraphs he couldn't say why he was angry (or happy, or excited) or what this emotion made him do. He couldn't use any "to be" words, either. She wanted sentences like "Furiously, I rifled through my papers looking for my missing homework." The paragraphs, as they ended up, were loaded with adverbs and over-dramatic language. And yet this was apparently what "showing" is -- at least in the teacher's conception of it. (Note that the article I linked above actually calls use of adverbs a form of telling.)

Thought number 2. People were writing good fiction for years before "show, don't tell," came along. Pick up Dickens or Austen and you get a fair amount of narration and digressive scene building. Try Jane Eyre -- lots of tell there (do we really care about Jane's cousins' religious beliefs?) Read a really bad 19th century novel and you'll get tons of tell. Standard practice in the 19th century was so express a character's thoughts/feelings via background description. The poverty and narrow outlook of a certain character, for instance, would be conveyed by a description of her room and style of clothing.
Then came the modernists, who rebelled against all that. Modernist writers wanted to capture everyday life by showing the interior world of their characters through emotions, memories and passing thoughts. The reader was not to be told anything. Classic modern texts like Ulysses and Mrs. Dalloway are nearly all showing -- the events unfold as they happen and the reader has to piece together who the characters are and the relationship(s) between them.*
To me, this puts a different light on "show, don't tell." It evolved at a particular time in a response to a particular kind of writing. Is there a basic truth embodied in it? Yes. Is it helpful to remember as you write? Absolutely. If by "telling" you mean vague descriptions and cliches, I'm all in favor of stamping them out.
But I don't think every single book has to be written the same way by the same rules. I don't think there's anything wrong with narration as long as it is detailed, not digressive, and well-written.

*Readers hate this, by the way. That's why so many people fail to finish Ulysses.