At his old school in Liverpool, Paul McCartney teaches songwriting. “And the first thing I say ... is, ‘Look — I don’t know how to do this.’ And it’s kind of true. Because every time I approach writing a song, there are no rules.”
The other day I bought “Looking Into You,” the double CD that’s a tribute to the early songs of Jackson Browne — and whose cover photo shows a roughly made wooden door, opened to a room that looks to be dominated by an upright piano. I’m assuming that’s either the actual doorway into the basement room where Jackson, young and struggling in LA, actually wrote his early songs, or else it’s meant to look that way.
I was interviewed online last week about my novel The Revealers, which deals with middle-school bullying, and about the effort to address that issue in schools that I've been plunged into since the book came out. My conversation was with ConvergenceRI, an online public-affairs newsletter in Rhode Island that is published every week by Richard Asinof, a lifelong journalist, writer and friend with whom I went to high school and worked on the school newspaper.
Richard asked some great questions! The full interview is here, if you'd like to see it. Here is the last question, which (as I hope you can see) really got me thinking:
I’m right in the middle of Suite Francaise, the celebrated, unfinished novel by the late Russian/French writer Iréne Némirovsky that transports you into the turmoil of French civilians’ experiences as the German army overran France in June 1940. It’s been said that this book is the first great literary work to have emerged from the war, because Némirovsky composed it in the midst of everything; she was deported from Paris to Auschwitz in 1942, and soon after died of typhus there, at age 39.
“Omission” is the title of an essay by the celebrated nonfiction writer John McPhee in this week’s New Yorker, and as soon as I saw that I knew I had to read the piece. For me, the key to writing anything that might connect and mean something has always been as much about what you leave out — or take out — as it’s ever about what you put in. This is lucky, because I’m much better at leaving and taking stuff out than I am at thinking of clever things to put in.
For over 30 years I’ve been both fascinated and baffled by the traditional teaching stories of the sufis, Islam’s teachers of the wisdom path. Best known and widely read in collections by the late Idries Shah, these stories have often, Shah tells us, been in circulation for centuries. He usually shares what’s known about their origin or authorship as he passes on the stories in books like Caravan of Dreams and The Way of the Sufi.
Edgar Allan Poe invented the detective story. “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” his first, came out in 1841 and featured an almost magically observant amateur detective, plus his his much-impressed sidekick narrator. Arthur Conan Doyle later based his better-known detective on Poe’s Parisian sleuth Auguste Dupin, and called Poe “the father of the detective tale” in his preface to 1902's The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. Added Doyle: “The secret of the thinness and also of the intensity of the detective story is, that the writer is left with only one quality, that of intellectual acuteness, with which to endow his hero.”
Without having read his stuff, I used to be snide about John Grisham. How could he be worth reading, I figured, if everyone was reading him? Then I actually read a Grisham novel, and now I have a different question. Why do we tend to assume that a first-rate storyteller can’t be a first-rate writer?
“A man once heard that he would attain to wisdom if he could meet the Happiest Man in the World, and obtain his shirt. It took him nearly all his life to find him. And then he noticed that the Happiest Man did not own a shirt.”
This may be my favorite story — it’s definitely the shortest one — in Idries Shah’s World Tales, a 400-page collection of traditional stories that have each emerged in various different cultures.
I’ve struggled to come up with the simplest way to get young writers going on writing a real story. By “real” I don’t mean non-fiction — I mean a piece of fiction that is a story.
I’ve tried going super-simple. “In a story,” I wrote on the board, “something happens.” But that was too general, too vague. Then I tried saying, “When your friend asks you ‘What’s up’ and you say ‘Nothing,’” that is not a story — but when you text your friend “OMG! You won’t believe what happened!” you are promising (and you’ll soon be telling) a story.”
But that didn’t give enough of a sense of what a story is. So lately I’ve begun saying, “First, create a character or two that you really find interesting. Then put them in a predicament. If you do that, then let your characters find their way out, you will have written the first draft of a story.”
This is the summer of Harper Lee, in our house and all over. My wife brought home Go Set a Watchman, Lee's new-published novel that was a very early draft of what became To Kill a Mockingbird, the most-read American novel of all time, along with the Lee biography Mockingbird and a copy of the classic novel itself, even though I’d told her I’ve already got one. (She wanted her own.) So I pulled out my copy and read To Kill a Mockingbird again, this time paying attention ... to the story.
It’s hard to imagine this was over 20 years ago: I was a freelance writer (then as now), and I was pretty beaten-down. I’d spent 10 years on a nonfiction book, a personal story of travel and conversation in Muslim Asia, that had been rejected 75 times and would never be published. In the many rejection letters I had received, some of which were quite thoughtful, one response had stayed with me. I needed to tell a better story.
This seemed good advice, but what to do with it?
A chapter book for kids came out in 1955 about a four-year-old girl, in an unexceptional but caring white family, who wants to make noise, be noticed, and have picture books read to her over and over and over about steam shovels. The third-person novel is told largely from the viewpoint of the girl’s dutiful older sister, whose name is Beatrice but whom everyone calls Beezus, and who is constantly being driven crazy by the noisy, creative, impulsive Ramona.
Ramona became famous.
There’s a type of story that’s really hard to write, and that as a reader I often look for when I don’t feel well or I’m struggling — and that’s the comic novel. I love Carl Hiassen’s riotous eco-morality tales set in Florida, for both YA and adult readers; I’ve enjoyed a couple of Christopher Moore’s contemporary novels, especially Fluke; and, as I’m about to drive from Vermont to New York City to see my agent, I’m overjoyed to have downloaded Dave Barry’s new novel Insane City. But the comic novelist I still love most is the late, legendary Englishman P.G. Wodehouse.
Why are we putty in a storyteller’s hands?
Jonathan Gottschall, an English professor and writer about evolutionary psychology, asks this in his 2012 book The Storytelling Animal, in the chapter “Ink People Change the World." He has just described how research shows we’re influenced, a lot more than we normally realize, by the fictions we absorb — not just by books but by sitcoms, films and so forth.
Story is for a human as water is for a fish — all-encompassing and not quite palpable.
This is from The Storytelling Animal, a relatively new (2012) book by Jonathan Gottschall, an English professor at Washington and Jefferson College, that is thought-sparking on a variety of story-related topics — why and how we dream, how children live so naturally in storyland, and why in the world we are storytelling animals. The survival value of fiction isn’t obvious, after all, but it must exist: humans have been immersed in story at all times, all over the world and in all cultures. And still today.
I've been serializing a chapter from my first, never-published book, The Heart of the Bazaar: A Journey into Islamic Asia. In Dubai in early 1981, having left my newspaper job to travel in the Muslim world and write about it, I took passage on the last ocean-going, regularly scheduled passenger ship in the world: the RMS Dwarka, a British vessel that ran from the Persian Gulf to Karachi and Bombay. This is the last of seven segments drawn from the chapter I wrote about traveling on the Dwarka from Dubai to Karachi.
At evening I’m standing by the rail, looking across the water (the Arabian Sea is dark — much deeper than the Gulf), when an old man comes out from the passageway and over to me. He is a workingman, cotton-clad. His face is grizzled, he is almost toothless, he wears a Muslim’s lace skullcap. He stops beside me and asks if he can see the book — Venture to the Interior, a book about Africa — that I have in my hand. I say, sure.
The Gulf is light green — the water is not so deep. The first morning at sea is bright, but misty far off. From the promenade deck I can see supertankers in the mist, crossing the horizon in a long irregular line.
They are a brush’s bare strokes on a watercolor horizon. Each one is a long, long stretched-out hull, barely visible above the waterline, and a bit of housing at the far back.