People often ask me how I know when I have material that I think might work in a novel. It’s no secret that each of my five novels has been based on actual events from the news, but news isn’t what first seduces me. What hooks me every time is usually something that I have to invent—characters in the midst of moral ambiguity. Something in the news might catch my eye, but before I can commit to spending the time and energy it takes to write a novel, I have to play the “what-if” game, and that game always leads me to what I consider the center of the book, and that center is always located within character. A reclusive math tutor who adores one of his pupils fails her at the moment of crisis. An elderly bachelor lets a shameful moment from his past dictate his life, yearning for connection while at the same time protecting himself from the outer world. A young girl falls under the spell of an older woman and finds herself torn between what she knows is right and her desire for love and acceptance. A talented gardener has to decide whether to go along with the status quo or to stand beside his neighbors. The key for me, when I test material to see if it has the depth of content that a novel must have, is whether the central event will meet the main character in a place of uncertainty.
I believe it was Eudora Welty who said that one of her biggest challenges in writing was to get a character to walk into a room. Such is the small business that looms large in the writing of any narrative. How do we make our characters’ actions convincing and properly motivated? How do we know when it’s time for them to walk into a room, or perform whatever actions they perform in the course of a story?
(In memory of my mother on Mother’s Day, I re-post this from a couple of years ago):
My Mother’s Hands
Because my father lost his hands, my mother made a gift of hers. Cuticles ragged, knuckles scraped, fingernails smashed—farm work showed her no mercy.
Her hands were made for more delicate things, but she gladly sacrificed them because, really, what else was she to do? My father needed her, and she loved him, so she put her hands to work on our farm. She should have had the soft and beautiful hands more suited to her soft and beautiful heart, but life had other plans for her.
It’s that time of year again—graduation—which means the time has come to bid a fond farewell to another class of MFA students. On Saturday night, here at The Ohio State University, we celebrated, as we always do, with a gala event at which twelve poets and prose writers showed us exactly what they’d been up to these last three years. The readings they did were dazzling and proof positive that something can happen in an MFA program, something necessary and good. This isn’t to say that the MFA is the only path to writing success—not at all—but only to say that people who are dedicated and hard-working can leave a good MFA program better writers than they were when they began.
I’m posting early this week because I’ll be in West Virginia visiting two campuses of Southern West Virginia Community and Technical College, a land of mountains and switchbacks and steep roads that don’t run straight. On Monday, I’ll be talking to the students there—students who have been reading my work—even though it means I won’t be here at Ohio State for the year-end English Department Awards Ceremony. I’ll have to ask my students to forgive me and to know that I’ll be with them in spirit to celebrate the good work they’ve done. I’ll have to ask them to understand why I have to go to West Virginia.
Writers, like long-distance runners, tend to hit the wall at some point of the composing process, that point where the writing threatens to shut down, when we feel totally disengaged from our material, and the words are wooden, or won’t come at all. In my own case, this has led to hours of staring out windows and to much wailing and gnashing of teeth. We all know that feeling of wanting to write and not being able to. Norman Mailer once said, “Writer’s block is only a failure of the ego.” Here are some tricks we can try to get the writing started again.
I spent my teenage years in the small town of Sumner, Illinois, a town of around a thousand people. Before that, except for the six years my family spent in Oak Forest, a southern suburb of Chicago, where my mother taught third grade, I lived on a farm ten miles southwest of Sumner in Lukin Township. In the country, we could get two television stations—WTVW in Evansville and WTHI in Terre Haute. Sometimes late at night, we could draw in snowy pictures from stations in Harrisburg, Champaign, Decatur, St. Louis, and Indianapolis. It was big news when Terre Haute added a second station, WTWO.
When we construct a narrative, either in fiction or creative nonfiction, we have to build a believable world from the particulars we create or remember. Our first obligation, then, is to notice everything. Joseph Conrad says, “My task, which I am trying to achieve is, by the power of the written word, to make you hear, to make you feel—it is, before all, to make you see.” Consider the opening paragraph from Hemingway’s story, “Hills Like White Elephants”:
In 2003, the University of Nebraska Press published my book, Turning Bones, as part of their nonfiction series, American Lives. The book was a blend of fact and fiction. I used information gathered about paternal ancestors I never knew to invent them on the page and to find the intersections between them and me. Part memoir and part novel, the book straddles the line between fiction and nonfiction.
Today, I start with a memory of my mother in the kitchen on Sundays. She has prepared as much of our noon meal as possible before church, but she still has work to do. This is her day of rest, a day she doesn’t work in the laundry or the kitchen at the nursing home, but she makes sure we have a good dinner after church. She makes noodles, mashed potatoes, a roast, whatever is in season in our vegetable garden—corn, peas, green beans—and a pie or cake—angel food, apple, blackberry, chiffon. When my father and I sit down to eat, we never have to worry about wanting more. My mother is all about more even on this day when she shouldn’t have to be working at all. She makes sure we’re well-fed.