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It’s okay to try this at home…

Not so "by the book" by today's standards

Rebecca Berg, who on Monday starts teaching Reading as a Writer: The Lush Novel (featuring William Styron’s Sophie’s Choice) is very gracious when you bug her on a weekend. I e-mailed her yesterday to ask, Why Styron, why now? Today she sent me this note:

Our emphasis as fiction writers is so often on creating an effect of “immediacy.” It’s gotten to the point that we almost think of narrative distance as a mistake.  Sometimes I think we see the classic “talky” novelists as imperfect pioneers of a technology that has evolved since their time–as in: now we know better. Or maybe we tell ourselves: “Well, Styron was a great writer, but don’t try this at home.” Or maybe we think: “We’re in the age of Twitter–complexity not allowed.” Disempowering stuff.  So my “Lush Novel” fascination is a little bit in the spirit of defiance: Remember, lots of people love to read those fat novels. And here’s the thing about Sophie’s Choice: it manages to speak about the unspeakable, the Holocaust. It breaks another rule, too: a lot of that unspeakable history is outside the author’s direct personal experience. The novel claims the right to do that. To exercise the imagination in that way. And one reason I think Styron brings this off is the various distancing techniques he uses. You don’t see much of the sun by looking at it directly.
Now you see why it’s always good to ask Rebecca questions. I welcome her perspective–I fall to my knees to hug it, in fact–as someone who’s genetically incapable of writing a story under 7,500 words. Nobody wants a stinking 10,000-word story! (If you doubt this, I have links.) Today’s mandate to “say it all quickly” (to mollify or at least coexist with the Twitterati, the short attention spans, the hostilely bored, the polyconnected with multiple outlets and earbuds,  etc.) makes me chafe a bit. At my most petulant, I’m reminded of those old schoolteacher sayings meant to combat peer pressure: “If everyone else jumped off a cliff, would you, too?” Only now, the cliff is the 140-character Tweet. And people are jumping into it, not off of it. But still. Some of us are just long-winded, right? And maybe we even wish we lived in a world where 140-character Tweets could share the bus with 150-character Tweets.  (The poor things, brutally truncated before sense even has a fighting chance to materialize.)
So I vote we join Rebecca’s spirit of defiance! Write long-winded stories, complicate all the complications, write compound-complex sentences! Take on a taboo or seven, while you’re at it. (But, just a quick note from the Lighthouse Department of Disclaimers:  We don’t recommend looking directly at the sun.)

18 comments on “It’s okay to try this at home…

  1. Jan Erickson
    February 7, 2010

    Hey, thanks for this! As a signer-upper for this class, who can’t wait for it to begin, I’m eager to be lush with story development, complexity, long-winded narrative excursions, and breaking rules.

    Thanks for lifting up this class and the value of being a lush. I wonder if we could begin to name other lush novels that succeed so well….

    Bridge of Sighs
    All the King’s Men

    …two others I read this week.

    What else is recent?

  2. Rebecca Snow
    February 7, 2010

    Well said Rebecca & Andrea! I’m reading Home by Marilynne Robinson–she’s definitely not afraid to take the reader on a slow, beautiful stroll scene to scene until the characters feel as real as family members you’ve known intimately your whole life. (How’s that for a long sentence!) Body language–wow she gets the body language!

  3. Cara Lopez Lee
    February 7, 2010

    I’ll always be grateful to Rebecca Berg for making me less afraid to “Write What I Don’t Know,” as I tackle fictionalizing the history of my grandmother’s family. I never lived in rural China in 1910, or in the US in the Great Depression, or in Hong Kong in World War II. But she taught me that, when I reach the point beyond which history books and travel cannot take me, I shouldn’t be afraid to just imagine with confidence. I dare say I’m also attempting a little abandon.

    Andrea, I think you and I have talked before about the pain of trying to cut our work. My memoir manuscript started at about 750 pages. Now that it’s at 425, I’m still trying to convince my editor to cut it. Why? Fear of the modern attention span, and whether people will pay the higher price to expand theirs. But reading your post, I wonder if I’m thinking about this all wrong. Maybe I’m not self-indulgent, but rather, a rebel against the machine!

  4. andreadupree
    February 7, 2010

    Rebecca & Jan — Thanks for the book recs and engagement with this issue. Part of me thinks that this bias against the “quiet” story only applies to new writers, not to those who are already “in.” Because I’m so immersed in stories, I immediately think of the short fiction of Alice Munro and others who write short stories that can sometimes stretch upwards of 50 pages. Some of them might be called “quiet.” (Though these writers can also write stories where the plot is crazy and far-fetched, they do it with a kind of smoldering energy.)

    Cara — your story sounds phenomenal. I can’t wait to read the fiction, and the memoir at 425 pages sounds downright tight when you compare it to the 750 (greedily, I wonder what we’re missing because of it; I’ll bet it’s good stuff).

    Thanks, you three, for finding and reading our top secret blog!

  5. Rebecca Snow
    February 7, 2010


    Just minutes ago (quite literally), I decided to put aside my novel re: my grandmother/family history in Norway because I don’t know the history, the people, the country well enough. The idea of research overwhelms me. I’d love any recommendation of how/where to start! Maybe I should research for a year or two and THEN let my imagination soar? So far I’ve just based my book on family stories. It’s hard to get myself to read historical non-fictiony stuff.

    • Cara Lopez Lee
      February 8, 2010


      I feel your pain. The idea of research tends to overwhelm me. But, although I dread it, I’m the obsessive type, so once I do start researching, I often go too far.

      I’m heading back to China in April to do a bit more on-the-ground research for my novel. I’ve already visited there once, plus El Paso, plus the streets of East LA. (By day of course; I’m not crazy.) I’ve probably conducted 50 hours of interviews with family members and others with information on the people, places, and time periods involved. And I’ve bought about a dozen books on the history of those places.

      So far, I’ve only read about a hundred pages of those history books and transcribed about five hours of interviews. But here’s what I’ve learned from some wise Lighthouse instructors, as well as my own neophyte experience: I don’t have to read every page of those books, remember where to find every pithy sentence every interviewee said, or recall all the details of that farm I visited. I just have to immerse myself in enough of the feeling of it all, find a few of the fun details that bring things to life, and rely on my personal experience of life and human nature to fill in the gaps.

      I know the best part of this novel will ultimately come from my deep love for the real life family stories I’ve heard over the years, combined with the excitement I feel when I let the reigns go on my vivid imagination.

      I’ve heard it said that if you do something you love, you’ll never work a day in your life. Maybe for some people that’s true, but in my life I’ve found that idea to be a crock. Although I love traveling and interviewing people, I hate transcribing interviews and reading history books. But if that’s what it takes to write this story I love, I’m ready to do the dirty work. Actually, a couple of the segments in one history book surprised me by being more interesting than I expected

      My comments might not give you much comfort, but I hope it helps you to know you’re not alone. And I hope you decide to go for it!

      • Rebecca Snow
        February 8, 2010

        Thanks so much, Cara–that does help. I do wish I could afford to travel to Norway and interview relatives! Maybe there’s a way I can do it long-distance . . . Most of the older generation aren’t very computer/tech (or English!) savvy. I’ve also been trying to get myself to learn the language. Maybe I can somehow get copies of letters and translate them myself! Thanks again. Your dedication is inspiring!

  6. Rebecca Snow
    February 7, 2010


    Just to clarify–I decided to put my novel aside BEFORE I read your post (not after)!

    • Cara Lopez Lee
      February 8, 2010

      Hahaha. I did notice that it could be read that way, but don’t worry: I didn’t!

  7. John Wilson
    February 7, 2010

    I can nly read comedy books or ducumentary books, as i have very little short term memory so i lose track of whats going on, infact I cant remeber why I was writing this now.

  8. Lane L.
    February 7, 2010

    Three cheers for long-winded-ness! Or maybe four or five…While there will always be a place for brevity in the world, a long, rich story will forever be my fave. That’s true whether it is in print or in video form. I am grateful to writers who have more than a few words to give us. Someone has to continue to do it, right, if only to make sure the style survives? Or to service the millions of us rabid, residual fans, or to instill in new readers and media consumers that a story well told can be every bit as enjoyable as one told quickly. Just like slow brewed tea and micro-waved coffee, each should be appreciated for what they do best.

    Life will always be about choices, and we, as writers, are lucky to have so many formats in which we can tell our stories for others to enjoy – no matter how much or little time they have oavailable. There are multi-story series, novels, novellas, short stories, short-short stories, the many forms of poetry, tweat-tales, and even Haiku. It’s simple evolution. Can you imagine a yet-to-emerge style that will one day involve a story of a single word intended for deep, personal reflection and/or meaning-recitation by the reader? And “word clubs” forming to gather and discuss the latest word-of-the-month on Oprah’s future successor? I can. We all should. But we should also understand that a slow, sensual, carefully undressed plot will always find a panting fan.


  9. Lisa Kenney
    February 8, 2010

    I was disappointed that my work schedule wouldn’t allow me to join this class. I loved Sophie’s Choice when I first read it and over the last year, I’ve been caught up in the big novels. I’m three of seven volumes into Proust’s masterpiece, tackled Infinite Jest, Gravity’s Rainbow, The Savage Detectives and am halfway through 2666 right now. There is something about our culture that has made us altogether too impatient to rip through a novel and move on to the next. I hope more readers stumble across the delight that is slow reading.

    On the other hand…I do Tweet and I love the “Twitterati” I’ve met on Twitter 🙂

  10. andreadupree
    February 8, 2010

    Lane: bring on the word club. I’ll even volunteer to be secretary! Thanks for your thoughts.

    Lisa: Great recommendations. Let me know your take on 2666 when you get a chance. I saw another of his works was just translated…. Oh, and I hope it didn’t sound like i was bashing Twitter (we somehow Tweet, too!).

  11. andreadupree
    February 8, 2010

    PS Lane, ITS NT 2 LT!

  12. Jan Erickson
    February 8, 2010

    This is a really cool conversation. As to the whole research issue, especially when it involves other cultures and expensive trips abroad. I’m writing a novel that has a lot of Polish reality in it. I’ve found that travel isn’t as expensive as one might think. And beyond that, I’ve found facebook groups, boldly made facebook friends who can help me with things I don’t know, and I have four shelves of books about Poland in my study. Given the benefits of the internet, I suspect I could’ve saved a ton of money but heck, I LOVE buying books. There are some Norwegian novels in translation and some history — you can extrapolate. Frankly, I took a fragment of our family history and have imagined / invented the details, the inner life of old relatives, and, like a novelist, just make up crap. Depending upon how much of the novel is dependent upon accurate detail and how much is more related to ambient settings, you can get by without “knowing” a lot.

    Cool, you’re writing about Norway. And also about China. Good luck!

    (Sorry to go on but isn’t that the topic here?!)

    • Rebecca Snow
      February 8, 2010

      Hi Jan–

      I couldn’t help looking you up via the internet, and wow–the synchronicities are a little astounding (to me, at least). I’m also writing about healing after TBI (poetry though, not prose), and my novel re: Norway is centered around my great-grandfather, a travelling preacher (Lutheran, of course!), Matias Orheim. Looks like you have some definite experience with the Lutheran church. I’ll have to tell my dear friend Dominika about your book (she’s from Poland)–and, what else? You have books about Norway!! Please do let me know titles you’d recommend. Your name sounds very Scandahoovian 😉 I hope we can correspond some more. I’m also on Facebook. If you don’t see this reply here I might bug you there 🙂 Ah, and I’m looking forward to taking Brehm’s class on Wislawa Szymborska. Do you also read Polish poetry?

    • Cara Lopez Lee
      February 8, 2010

      Thanks for sharing your road to research, Jan. Easy to get lost in it all, isn’t it? The traveling is definitely my favorite part. Ahhh, I would love to visit Poland.

      I love that you said, “…like a novelist, (I) just make up crap.” From now on when people ask me, “And what do you do?” I’m going to say, “I make up crap.”

  13. Pingback: Yes, Polonius, wit does have a soul « The Lighthouse Writers Top-Secret Blog

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This entry was posted on February 7, 2010 by in Delusions, Good Books, The Scoop, The Write Idea, Uncategorized.

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