Since early teen years the quiet battle between the Schlegel sisters with their bohemian ideals matched against the rigid conventions of the Wilcoxes in E.M. Forster’s masterful though deadly subtle novel Howards End patterned the narrative constellations of my literary horizon. I adored the accidental romance between Lucy Honeychurch and George Emerson and was both fascinated and disturbed by the chimera-like tales Forster shared in his Celestial Omnibus and Other Short Stories.
Like gazing at the sun too long, his nuanced tales burned into my retina, and, only later, would I come to realize Forster’s influence had obscured my literary vision. Katherine Mansfield once wrote, ““E.M. Forster never gets any further than warming the teapot. He’s a rare fine hand at that. Feel this teapot. Is it not beautifully warm? Yes, but there ain’t going to be no tea.” As much as his compassion stirs me, if I want to write urgent stories that “incite a naked hunger” as Ian McEwan once put it, I need to, once and for all, blow up E.M. Forster’s tepid teapot.
Inciting a naked hunger requires detonating a delicate piece of cookery with an ample supply of C-4. There’s no quiet compassion to be had when we’re gripping a set of explosives. We are, in essence, celebrating and embracing destruction, which is as every bit vital as creation. In his Atlantic Monthly essay, “Telling Tails”published in 2009, Tim O’Brien begins to outline how to incite hunger from readers:
In fiction workshops, we tend to focus on matters of verisimilitude largely because such issues are so much easier to talk about than the failure of imagination. And for the writer, of course, beefing up a character’s physical description is easier than envisioning a sequence of compelling and meaningful events in which that character is engaged. So we nibble at the margins, shying away from the central difficulty.
Another element of a well-imagined story, in my view, is a sense of gravitas or thematic weight. Inventing a nifty, extraordinary set of behaviors for our characters is not enough. A fiction writer is also challenged to find import in those behaviors…To imagine a next bit of action that is at once surprising and fitting, while at the same time reaching into the deeper chambers of the human heart, is always among the fiction writer’s great challenges…
Now Forster expertly creates thematic weight, and his gravitas is most inspiring, however his events are mildly startling, and its difficult, if not impossible to rev our own creative engines and unexpectedly rip and roar through the page while we’re taking cues from his mild-mannered characters, who’s most devious deeds are prodding a man too vigorously or not holding a baby tight enough. Forster’s transgressions are accidental not forceful. O’Brien dares us to catch air, which doesn’t mean to write weightless characters and stories, but to lend enough heft to pose real danger, so the narrative takes flight. Characters need be a force to be reckoned with, for themselves, for the reader and, especially, for the writer.
The best way to serve tea instead of dynamite is to create likeable characters and get hung up on their likeability. Fiction is not about playing nice but is every bit about playing dirty, and dirty does not mean cheap. Focus on the flaws. Forster certainly was adept at this, but we ended up empathizing with each of his creations and our empathy lulled us into too much compassion with very little visceral danger. He didn’t break skin or cut bone. Not that stories need to be violent. By no means are we advocating savage cruelty for the sake of cruelty, but we do want to think in explosive terms.
The joy of reading and writing, for that matter, is to keep all parties guessing. The author and the characters not just the reader, mind you, should have expectations explode in their face. So how does one make dynamite? When do we know when to set off the dynamite, and how much damage should be wreaked at any given point in the story?
The explosions need to be strategic and calculated. We are building mountains to destroy them.
As Virginia Jones said, there’s only two stories that readers really care about, when is she screw him, and when is he gonna die? That’s the core of every story. Procreation and expiration.
Mary Volmer, in discussion of her novel, Crown of Dust, explained that the story simply was about boom and bust, and she had to remember this during research, forcing herself to these directed verbs. She must have repeated the words, boom and bust, boom and bust, boom and bust, like a mantra during revision. This allowed her to keep her novel tight and focused, so she couldn’t wander too much from the center. The tighter the narrative, the faster the pace and the more ground a writer can cover. Think of the physics of spinning, if you’ve ever been in a spinning class, you realize the tighter you hunch the faster your legs can spin, the more distance you’ll gain. This is how we pack our explosions.
More on this forthcoming.
In the meantime, do you have any favorite writers who might have hampered your growth as a wordsmith? How have you tried to outgrow your idols?