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February 22, 2010

On "Inspiration": A Look Into P&W Jan./Feb. 2010

by David LeGault

pwjan2010.jpgWrite about what you don't understand. Write about what you can't forget. Write about your regrets and your outrage." This advice comes from John Dufresne in his article, "Writing Your First Novel," in the Jan/Feb. "Inspiration" issue of Poets and Writers.

And the article does provide a nice amount of cheerleading: he explains that a novel can start anywhere, he outlines the unexpected ways that a few well-known novels found their star (Louisiana Power and Light began as an attempt at understanding place; The Sound and the Fury began as a story of a funeral; Ragtime began in the midst of writer's block--Doctorow started describing the wall in front of his desk and eventually found a novel).

In this sense, the article is fairly uplifting: any one of us can find the inspiration to write our own timeless novel as long as we continually practice our craft, writing every day for as long as we can stand. However, Dufresne falls flat when he outlines "Nine Ways to Begin Writing." Every listed prompt, though helpful for generating content, seem more likely to producing formulaic stories than anything innovative or challenging. This isn't a problem just with this article, but a wider issue across literary fiction today. I'll go through the list and try to better explain the problems with the traditional prompt:

1) A Line--Dufresne suggests that the right line can pull us from the real world into an imagined one. Although this is possible, the idea puts a lot of value on a single line, particularly for a novel, which could benefit more from meandering/experimentation. Furthermore, the suggested lines in the article come from other established writers: will piggybacking off another's work help the new novelists create a unique voice or emulation?

2) A List--Admittedly, I'm fairly open to lists as a generative tool, though Dufresne uses it primarily as a means of character sketch (what character would make the list, why, etc). Although characters could certainly use lists as a way of furthering a story, I think characters will flesh themselves out without creating an arbitrary backstory from the get-go.

3) A Title--He suggests that titles can be symbolic or suggest a theme. In either case, starting with a deeper meaning in mind is writer's poison.

4) A Character--A character can be a good way to get into a story, but it can also take away from the story. There are too many novels where nothing happens but the interior struggle of a character, and this prompt seems to encourage this type of non-action.

5) A Situation--A good idea, but it's more of a non-prompt: I don't think you can go into a story without a situation in mind, so suggesting that "a situation" will help you begin writing is equivalent to saying that you need to put some words onto paper if you plan on writing.

6) An Event, 7) An Image, 8) A Subject--These are all equivalent to starting with a character or a situation: these subjects will develop naturally, and will be far more interesting if they aren't planned from the start.

9) An Oddity--Essentially, an oddity is defined as a weird event or image. Nothing new here.

Over at Virginia Quarterly, we're hearing about "The Death of Fiction," which outlines why literary fiction, particularly the literary journal, is no longer culturally relevant. Really, the problem is that most of the writing coming from these journals (ironically, the Virginia Quarterly is a major offender here) is becoming as formulaic as the dreaded "genre fiction" we find ourselves writing away from: how often do we read about the interior troubles of the university professor (or, alternatively, the professor/student affair)? The silent struggles of domestic life? As an editor for dislocate, going through the slush pile, I see a many new writers trying to emulate what the "big-name" writers are doing, which leaves us with a lot of uninteresting, uninspired knockoffs of already boring prose.

I think mainstream literary fiction is becoming so dull because we're writing in circles: we're writing about the same subject matter with the exact same approach. We need something new, something experimental. I'm thinking of projects like Danielewski's House of Leaves (a journal that uses typography/design to overlay at least three voices into the same narrative in interesting ways) or Joe Wenderoth's Letter's to Wendy's (a collection of letters written on Wendy's comment cards which manage to develop character and narrative in surprising ways). These projects manage to take a different approach to the traditional story and to breathe some life back into a genre buckling under the weight of tradition. Dufresne's list of prompts indirectly outlines a lot of these problems.

What we need is a better way of envisioning writing, particularly the ways in which we approach our subjects. For example, instead of using lists as a means of character outline, push the form to its limits. Here are a few examples (in list form!):

  1. Write an entire story in the form of the list. Don't worry about transitions or order.

  2. Regardless of the subject, never make a list with less than 100 points (if you make a list of 100 locations, the last 15 will push you in the most unexpected ways, giving you access to ideas you wouldn't normally encounter).

  3. Dufresne suggests writing about an oddity, but I'd prefer to make lists sprung from oddity: write a list of good reasons to burn alive; write a list of broken homes.

In any case, writing prompts should have some purpose outside of generating writing: they should give you direction, should get you thinking about the written word in unexpected ways.

For the next few months, dislocate will be publishing a number of writing prompts that will ideally fulfill this purpose. Be sure to regularly check dislocate's columns, articles, and Twitter posts for experimental prompts.