Don’t Despair

In his excellent book How to Write an Autobiographical Novel, Alexander Chee at one point compares writing to being sequestered in jail by your own story: “You in a small dark room with no answers to any of your questions, and no one seems to hear your pleas, not for days, months, years. Indifferent the entire time to all requests for visits or freedom. Hard labor too.”

Or, as my student Christola puts it: “I’m writing at writing.”

They’re both describing a distressing place many writers end up in at one time or another. You’re not so much stuck as you’re lost. You type and type but you don’t get anywhere. You cannot see your way forward.

If you find yourself in that cell, don’t despair. Here’s a few steps you can try:

First, let your story rest. Put it away, and give your befuddled brain a break. Leave it alone as long as you can—a day or two if you’re on deadline; weeks if you’re not. As Stephen King says in On Writing, it should be “safely shut away, aging and (one hopes) mellowing [until] it looks like an alien relic bought at a junk shop where you can barely remember stopping.”

Next, write out—by hand, I’m not kidding, use pen and paper—a short list of things you want for this story. Avoid superlatives here, both grandiose (“Greatest screenplay about a meerkat ever,”) and self-flagellating, (“Nice plot, loser”).

Make this like a Saturday morning errands list, or if it works better for you, write it out as if it were an email to your best friend. Remember Grandma’s story about meeting Buffalo Bill, or Eat more eggs. 

Now that you have a guide with your hopes and goals clearly spelled out, go ahead and read your story. When something resonates with you, highlight it or underline it. Most likely, those moments are taking you closer to your hopes and goals. When you dive back in, build on them.

Keep an eye out for what’s missing, too. Where does your aim completely miss your target? Where have you missed ripe opportunities to introduce scenes or sentences that work in those hopes and goals in sooner?

Where is the first resonant line? And where is the first missed opportunity? How can you build a bridge between them? Start there.

Think of it as a rescue and recovery operation—decide what’s most important, look for the solid ground and the critical flaws. And get to work.

Kelly Caldwell, Dean of Faculty

Cues from Music

A sound, barely perceptible. Musical notes, quite high, shimmering in strings. So begins the Prelude to Richard Wagner’s opera Lohengrin, which I recently saw at the Metropolitan Opera.
Among Wagner’s many contributions to music was the development of the leitmotif, a recurring musical theme that represents an element in the story. For example, Lohengrin has leitmotifs for the Holy Grail and the Forbidden Question, among others.
You’ll hear leitmotifs in movie scores—assorted melodies crisscrossing throughout the show, giving psychological undercurrents to what you’re watching.
Writers, too, can make effective use of leitmotifs (or motifs) with words and images.
For example, in Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved, colors are used as a leitmotif, showing how characters fight against the deadly reality of slavery, even after freedom. Sethe, a mother, buys colorful ribbons and bows for her daughter. Beloved, that daughter, sleeps with a quilt that has two orange patches. And so on.
In Barry Jenkins’s movie Moonlight, there’s a leitmotif of water, representing change or perhaps rebirth. The movie opens and closes with the sound of water, and water appears at other points, most memorably when Juan teaches the boy Chiron how to swim—Chiron unaware that Juan is the drug dealer supplying his mother.
Moving on to another legendary composer: Burt Bacharach recently passed away. His music makes me smile inside, always has. It goes down easy, but is rather sophisticated, blending influences of jazz, classical, pop, and bossa nova into something unique.
A distinctive feature of a Bacharach song is the tricky rhythm. Lots of syncopation and shifting meters. In other words, it runs, then skips, then slides, then switches direction.
Here’s “I Say a Little Prayer,” sung by Dionne Warwick.
Playing with rhythm is an excellent way to wake up your words in writing.
In this passage from Chuck Palahniuk’s novel Fight Club, the narrator describes his soul-sucking office:
             Everything where I work is floor-to-ceiling glass. Everything is vertical blinds.
             Everything is industrial low-pile gray carpet spotted with little tombstone monuments
             where the PC’s plug into the network. Everything is a maze of cubicles boxed in with
             fences of upholstered plywood.

            A vacuum cleaner hums somewhere.                                                            
Notice the repetition of the four sentences starting with Everything, then a sharp break with that distant vacuum cleaner.
One of my favorite celebrity sightings happened about ten years ago. I’m riding the subway in NYC. And Burt Bacharach is sitting across from me. He was in his mid-80s, looking cool as ever. As I recall, he was chatting to a young woman who seemed to be a stranger.
Hey, let’s celebrate Burt and NYC with Burt’s “Arthur’s Theme,” from the movie Arthur.

Alex Steele,

Gotham President

Practicing Topophilia

Bentley: What is it, Major Lawrence, that attracts you personally to the desert?

Lawrence: It’s clean.

You might think of the 1962 film Lawrence of Arabia as an adventure story, or an epic drama, or even a hagiography of colonialism, but try thinking of it, instead, as a romance between a man and the desert.

It’s a story grounded in topophilia.

Topophilia, perfectly illustrated in the above exchange between Peter O’Toole and Arthur Kennedy, is a profound and deep love for a landscape, a location, a geography. It is a love for place.

Are you thinking of grandma’s kitchen, or your college campus, or the street corner where you fell in love?

Yeah, that’s not it. That’s place attachment, which is love for A Place. Place attachment is “a cognitive-emotional bond individuals develop toward places.” It’s love borne of experience and memory.

Topophilia is more mysterious and more challenging to describe. It doesn’t require much experience, and memory is optional. It defies logic and explanation, as love so often does.

And it’s so rewarding, and fun, to write.

Start, of course, with the landscape that brings you the most joy. Again, not a place you love because of special moments, but that you love, because it exists. Maybe it’s the plains, or the Sawtooth Wilderness. Maybe it’s Michigan. Maybe it’s anywhere with a waterfront.

Next, take novelist Chuck Wendig’s advice, and avoid describing the terrain and the climate and the feel or smell of the breeze. Instead, “Think of setting as just another character. It looks and acts a certain way. It may change over the course of the story. Other characters interact with it and have feelings about it that may not be entirely rational.”

Sarah Broom did this in her Pulitzer Prize-winning memoir The Yellow House, describing summer in New Orleans: “The malicious New Orleans heat could seem to crawl inside, affecting your brain so that walking felt like fighting air. New Orleans humidity is a mood. To say to someone ‘It’s humid today’ is to comment on the mind-set. The air worsened the closer you came to the Mississippi River and wet you entirely so that by the day’s end, my hair was zapped of all its sheen and my clothes stuck to my body in all the wrong places.”

Last, don’t explain; swoon.

“For most surfers…waves have a spooky duality. When you are absorbed in surfing them, they seem alive. And yet waves are of course not alive, not sentient, and the lover you reach to embrace may turn murderous without warning. It’s nothing personal. Wave love is a one-way street.” — William Finnegan, Barbarian Days.

Your turn, writers. Write us a love letter to your favorite place. Tell it happy Valentine’s Day from me.

Kelly Caldwell,

Dean of Faculty