First Why I Left Wattpad--and I did so with this note to my 10.6k followers:
Dear followers, Readers, Friends, As I have said previously, Wattpad's mission is far from support for—even a small space—and, for lack of a better word, "literary" fiction, memoir or essay. I remain grateful for my time here, but have now decided to take down all that I had previously posted. With special thanks to Zoe DiNovi, who found me, supported me and made this spot in life and time a heartfelt and deeply creative place, I take my leave. Thank you, Zoe, dear. I wish you and all my previous readers the best. Stay well and shoot for the moon! I add this wisdom, not from my pen, but rather from the marvelous actor/playwright Sam Shepard after publication of his book of short stories entitled Great Dreams of Heaven in an article by Mel Gussow in The New York Times: Once free-form in his writing, he has become carefully disciplined. “It’s a strange thing about form,” he said. “When you’re younger, you tend to believe it doesn’t exist, or that you can ignore it or reinvent it. Slowly you begin to understand that there are certain essentials that have to be honored.” He added: “Horsemanship is the same way. You don’t just jump on a horse, spur him and hope for the best.” I hope for the best for all of you, my friends, my readers, my followers. With profound sadness, Mary L. Tabor
That's why I left. Here's why I joined:
You're probably asking, What is Wattpad? I discovered Wattpad through the Business/Technology section of The New York Times, in an article by David Streitfeld that begins “Not since the heyday of Dickens, Dumas and Henry James has serialized fiction been this big.” I took a look at Wattpad and that's how I got hooked--but that was a long time past now.
First, I’ve written a memoir in the form of short chapters—kinda the right format for serialization. It’s titled (Re)Making Love and is the real life story of what happened when my husband said, oh-so-Greta-Garbo, “I need to live alone.” Lots of lovely, even terrific reviews on Amazon but, to my publisher’s dismay, not many sales—some, but not many. So, I’m thinking, Why not?
The encouraging discovery back then in 2014 discovery writing, live! (not all great, but all earnest and in a safe place to take a chance, to invent.
Click on David Streitfeld to read for yourself The New York Times article about Wattpad's formation, and large financial backing then.
First thing that happened as soon as I posted the first two chapters of (Re)Making Love: a memoir was that Zoe Pollock Di Novi found me, read me and decided to Feature me among others and my memoir on Wattpad.
Then Danielle Thé asked me to do a writing tip for #JustWriteIt: You can still find that at the top of my website. I even wrote the first 14,000 words of a novel live on Wattpad —and the ms. is almost finished offline.
Here are all the writing tips as they roll in:
Zoe is a former senior editor at The Dish with Andrew Sullivan, the well-known, highly respected British author and writer. After she got married, she moved to Toronto where Wattpad is headquartered and they discovered her and hired her as a content specialist. She’s a delight, very smart. Here’s an article she wrote before she left (click →) The Dish.
Don’t you just love her after reading that?
|Zoe Pollock Di Novi|
Then a writer whose moniker on Wattpad is @SeeThomasHowl wrote me this message:
“My name is Jason. Just wanted to drop by and say hello. A good amount of my buddies around here are pretty crazy about your being here, so I thought I'd come introduce myself.”
He’s a super cool, smart and generous man with a fabulous website: http://www.howlarium.com/ where he writes, but—so like Jason—he features a poet he virtually met on Wattpad, .
She found me too and I found her: a truly gifted poet. She is just one of the finds on Wattpad.
He then asked if he might interview me and I agreed. Here is that interview where I mention many of the other finds—and they just keep coming. At the end of this interview, I will give you a list of more great writers and readers.
Jason Howl asked me a series of questions for his "Fear and Love Conversations" (he has since removed this wonderful series, but you may read my answers here or go here for the what follows and more on Goodreads.
1. My first question, Mary, has to do with personhood as it relates to writing. The feeling that I get by reading you is that the person you are informs the style of your prose. If prose could be said to have values, to what degree are your prose's values also the values of Mary L. Tabor the person?
The pro forma answer casts back to the wisdom of Flaubert who famously said, “Emma c’est moi” about Emma Bovary. But what did he mean? Does he mean that Flaubert would have committed adultery flagrantly, spent money unrestrainedly? I suspect not.
What I think his famous phrase means is that a writer’s consciousness writes her prose. I am inside all the work. But my search is not for morality, it is for discovery and a search for “the good”.
That for me means that I go places in my fiction where I am less likely to venture in my memoir (Re)Making Love that is non-fiction.
In one of the stories from my book notes the coolness of the relationship in the fictional marriage inside the story and how the burglar might be the sexuality missing there. I saw then how in writing fiction I had indirectly discovered an “emotional truth” that surfaces in the memoir I am posting here, after my marriage had indeed failed.
You know the old saw, “Truth is stranger than fiction”? I wonder if fiction is more likely to find that so-called “truth” than non-fiction if the writer is willing to risk heart and soul on the page.
In either case though, I am sure of only this: My personal “writing values” are in search of discovery—through the good, the bad and the foolish.
2. Lewis Hyde's The Gift is a book important to both of us (and many many others). Is the laying bare for the reader your search for discovery where the "giving" comes in, would you say? What do you hope is the transaction between yourself and the reader via the work?
The phrase “laying bare” should not be confused with “catharsis.” Let’s reserve that for the therapist’s couch or for our journals. When I write, I attempt to make something “other.” That seems to me not a solipsistic—or in the vernacular “navel-gazing”—act that rarely, if ever, gifts another.
I can best explain by how I receive the gift from others. Reading great writing, often difficult, challenging writing is transformational for me. I feel gifted for having received from another the unexpected journey that extends and informs my own experience. The act of reading is transformational when that happens. From the canon: Nabokov, Bishop, Auden, Joyce, Woolf are writers who have given me this gift again and again.
When I write, the gift I wish for the reader is to have been along for the journey with me, to feel the experience as it unfolds. If something happens for the reader, something both emotionally and intellectually significant, the gift has moved forward.
Here’s how Hyde explains more eloquently, “… [M]ost artists are converted to art by art itself. The future artist finds himself or herself moved by a work of art, and, through that experience, comes to labor in the service of art until he can profess his own gifts. Those of us who do not become artists nonetheless attend to art in a similar spirit. We come to painting, to poetry, to the stage, hoping to revive the soul. And any artist whose work touches us earns our gratitude.”
3. When you say the attempt is to make something "other" I would assume this is where craft comes in? Or is it process? Maybe the two go hand in hand. When I think of writers like Nabokov, Joyce, Woolf (and I've heard you mention Grace Paley elsewhere) I think of writers who were, first and foremost "sentence-makers". When you write Mary, is the ideal to work your way forward sentence by sentence? Discovering the next sentence as you write it? Or is there a more plan-ahead action involved?
Studying the craft is a primary task when learning, say, in the dreaded “workshop” but that workshop mentality has little to do with the process of invention.
The key for me as a student of the art and for my teaching has been lifting the curtain on the “continuous dream” the writer strives to create. That’s why when I teach—and I still do, pro bono and via phone or Skype—I insist the emerging writer come to me with a desire to read published fiction, meaning, yes, anointed “great stuff.” We then take apart, working together, to figure out how the writer “did it,” the so-called “craft” that the gifted writer may in fact never have consciously thought that much about.
The process of invention is crippled by the so-called “toolbox” of craft. Once we learn it, we need in some real sense to “forget” it and what I mean by that is this: The writer must trust what he knows—and I think all great artists have loved and have read challenging work. What the artist learns by reading “great stuff” lies somewhere inside him. He’s got it and he’s gotta trust it.
The plan of action is to move forward “not knowing” and that means without a plan, without an outline, without knowing how the story will end. I trust the “not knowing” because that’s where the invention takes place.
I do move forward sentence by sentence, but I keep moving forward. Once the story takes on a life of its own, I let it go wherever it wants. When I “hit” it, I don’t know how I did it. I praise the genie or muse. I bow down in gratefulness. And I wonder, How will I ever do it again?
4. So the first task is to "not know". How might you go about helping along a lovely and well-intentioned emerging writer who finds "not knowing" frightening? Say, for example, this writer finds it safer to remain loyal to preformed "ideas" and her writing process is to, more or less, transcribe those ideas. Yet at the same time she finds her writing is not quite making it into that higher register because of this method, and thus becomes understandably cross-footed and frustrated. Is this a situation you have come across in your teaching before?
In teaching workshops at the university and graduate levels, I consider this the “elephant” in the room. There sits that big lug and nobody’s talking about him. So what to do to help? First, I tell my students, those I’m working with now and all those from all my years of teaching, “If there is no risk, there is no writing,” wise words from the French philosopher Edmond Jabès. With a good teacher, the student will find the safety to take a chance. To risk, means a willingness to fail—in the best sense of that word.
The worst outcome of the creative writing workshop is the “competent short story”—the one that follows all those so-called rules, but doesn’t cut to the jugular, no heart bleeds on the page. The writer has to find his voice by selling his heart and no analytical work will achieve this. Analytical work is the work of studying accomplished fiction, the study of craft—and all good writers do this work. They read. They read everything they can get their hands on.
But invention comes only when the writer is willing to risk. When you find that on the page here on Wattpad, you know it. You see it. You can’t help but comment if you are already reading and studying literature. And if you’re really lucky, you’ll find a mentor/teacher who will tell you when you “hit” it but who won’t throw the invention out with the bath water. When I see that glimmer of invention in work here, I want more than anything to comment, to say so—to say, I see it, go for it!
5. As a segue, I'd like to re-purpose the elephant-in-the-room concept to talk about social media promotion a little bit, which is almost always an awkward and unpleasant thing to talk about; but I bring it up because I'm really heartened by the way you employ Twitter (and now Wattpad). You seem to genuinely look to broadcast the work of others with your apparatuses, and it doesn't feel forced or false at all. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about your views on social media as they relate to your overall writerly presence online.
You know the old workshop line, “Show, don’t tell”? Maybe the best way to explain is with a concrete example. When my novel Who by Fire came out from a small press, the publicist for the book Tyson Cornell suggested I go on his Rare Bird Radio Blogtalk station. His idea was that I talk with other writers who were promoting a new book—in other words, unknowns talking to unknowns about themselves. Could we get any more boring, any more self-promotional than that? I don’t think so. And maybe it works. But it didn’t suit my way in the world.
Here’s what I suggested: Why don’t I ask folks I’ve read, find fascinating and see if they’ll come on the show. I’ll do research about them, read everything they’ve written, watch every film they’ve made in the case of the indie directory Henry Jaglom, for example. The show will be about others, not me. Tyson thought this was a great idea and he reached out for starters, through their agents if needed, to poet Dana Gioia, poet and memoir writer Molly Peacock. He also created a Goodreads (you have to join this site also for the link to work, hope you're already on it—it's cool)—anyway, he created a Goodreads book club for Who by Fire. Here’s the link and if you're a member of Goodreads, when you click on it, you may decide if you might like to join: https://www.goodreads.com/group/show/82279-who-by-fire-online-book-group. All the radio shows can be found there and on my website at this link: http://www.maryltabor.com/2013/10/radio-interviews-updated-list-of.html
Over the course of a year, I did 20 radio interviews about other artists: poets, novelists, essayists and filmmakers, including Gioia, Peacock, the filmmaker Henry Jaglom and many others: all about them, nada about me. The show became quite popular.
Did I sell any books? Probably not—even after the editor and CEO of Shelf Unbound: What to read next in independent publishing, Margaret Brown found my book at Book Expo in Manhattan and featured it in her magazine with an interview she did with me. I later interviewed her on the show, too—probably the only person I interviewed who had actually read my novel.
So, you might ask, what was the point? And that brings me full circle to your question about Lewis Hyde’s The Gift, to why I read voraciously, to why I write: The folks I interviewed have given me the gift of my own transformation through their work. When I write, I experience this as well—even if no one is reading.
Do I hope some day that the book club and the radio show would be about my novel Who by Fire or my other work, the memoir? Sure I did!
But I also believe that generosity in the world, humanity in my exchange with others, kindness as a hand reached out to others remake the world—even if I never get rewarded with whopping book sales.
Your interview here with me is a perfect example of what I’ve tried to explain. You’ve given me a gift and I thank you from my heart—and I want to read you, as a result, and promote you on social media to get others to read you.
For me, generosity and appreciation of others is the way and serves as its own reward.
6. The generosity you talk about seems to me very important. So often, whether it be with writing or with social media usage, we do it because we want something from someone else. Usually attention, recognition, or money. And there's nothing wrong with those things, but it seems to me much more lasting to take a more giving stance. Not to get too sappy about this, but a generous action is going to ripple outward sort of endlessly and keep affecting the world long after the person who generated it is gone. When the writer's giving and the reader's giving meet there on the page, is this what provides literature its moral dynamic, would you say?
I like to call this ripple you refer to, this giving that moves and gives again and again, the Butterfly Effect. Edward Lorenz, who worked on the physics concept, the chaos theory, gets the credit for this phrase entering our vernacular. I’m no physicist but here’s my way to understand it: The unheard move of that delicate wing whispers on the wind. It ripples and is heard somewhere else. Some say a flick of the wing can start a hurricane.
You may be right that I have just defined literature’s “moral dynamic.” But I find the word “morality” to describe this effect of transformation between writer and reader a bit troubling, a slippery slope I don’t care to be sliding on. Let’s take for example Nabokov’s Lolita, a book that was once banned for its pederasty. And certainly Humbert Humbert is an awful man. So now let’s briefly examine the morality of this novel. The journey we travel on with Nabokov and Humbert Humbert’s sexual relationship with a pubescent young girl is hardly moral. But the book is a search for the “good,” as part and parcel of its horrid journey.
Nabokov closes the novel with a prose elegy to the voices of children at play and to the unheard voice of Lolita from that concord. Nabokov’s flawed hero, for lack of a better term, speaks at the end of the novel of the children’s “vapor of blended voices,” of the “spurt of vivid laughter, or the crack of a bat, or clatter of a toy wagon” and his elegy on the sounds of childhood ends this way:
I stood listening to that musical vibration from my lofty slope, to those flashes of separate cries with a kind of demure murmur for background, and then I knew that the hopelessly poignant thing was not Lolita’s absence from my side, but the absence of her voice from the concord.
The so-called “moral” reading of this book was to ban it. The empathic read of this book is to understand that the love of childhood and its loss, stolen from the young Lolita, are palpable by book’s end.
The transformation between writer and reader is more aptly termed “love.” We love a great book, we love its author even if we never get to meet him or converse with him.
The joy of Wattpad in 2014 was how I engaged with the readers of my memoir and one of the short stories from my collection. We talked to one another through comments and private messages. I admit that I was transformed by these exchanges. I even felt a bit in love with some of my readers because they read me so generously, because they revealed themselves to me as they identified with my journey—and they told me so in private messages in great detail after they’ve commented publicly.
When we know that the author’s search is a search for the “good,” we want to join him on that journey and we fall in love along the way.
Full disclosure here: I wrote an essay about Love and the Butterfly Effect for the Internet publication www.FactsandArts.com—and, by the way, I write for the editor Olli Raade for free. So, readers may go there and see what I had to say.
But the pointed answer here for me is that the gift exchange is a transformation equivalent to love.
7. I want to talk about your work in specific here shortly but the subject of empathy seems worth sticking with a second longer. I guess what I meant by "moral dynamic" was that what you said got me to thinking that if empathy is a good in the world, and generous writing and reading can foster empathy, then maybe that in itself is a moral action. Even if the narrator (as is the case with Humbert Humbert) isn't a morally defensible character. But I'm not sure about that, and it is a slippery slope (as you said) and I'm feeling that even as I type now.
What I'm wondering is what you think about fiction that isn't necessarily interested in fostering empathy, per se, but has the agenda of offering the reader escape or pure titillation instead? So called "genre" fiction or "commercial" fiction in other words. Do any of these books appeal to you as a reader? If so, why? And if not, why not?
I define “genre” fiction as any story that follows predetermined “rules” so that the reader isn’t challenged, a story that totally fulfills the reader’s expectations, meaning, no well-earned and character-driven conflict—what great stories achieve. Such genre fiction includes the romance novel, the vampire story, horror, fantasy. But that doesn’t mean those categories don’t produce great work. In all these so-called genres, sterling examples of great writing that does entertain and does also challenge and as a result is transformative for the reader are on my bookshelves and in my heart. I love these books and many of them have been made into wildly successful films.
Let’s get specific to explain. Two terrific books I once used in an advanced fiction writing class are Stephen King’s Misery and John Fowles’ The Collector. Both books deal with the subject of an abduction. Both books were made into successful films. And both books are in my view literary and genre, if you will. The reason Misery is so good is best explained by Stephen King himself. Here’s what he says in his book On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, a fabulous read that is more memoir than toolbox, a terrific close-to-the bone story. He is talking about his addiction to drugs and alcohol while writing Misery and his decision to get sober: “I did think, though— as well as I could in my addled state— and what finally decided me was Annie Wilkes, the psycho nurse in Misery. Annie was coke, Annie was booze, and I decided I was tired of being Annie’s pet writer.” His struggle to get sober underlies the force of this novel. John Fowles’ The Collector is arguably more lyrical in its telling, but it’s still a horror story.
The romance novel—not the bodice-buster predictable story—but novels with layered conflict and social commentary include Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights and Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind. John Fowles’ The French Lieutenant's Woman might be termed a gothic or Victorian romance novel. It might also be termed meta-fiction with its choice for the reader of two endings and I think it’s brilliant—also a fabulous flick.
I argue that for fantasy and science fiction the bar is raised even higher to create a continuous dream for the reader and human, layered conflict. Writers who have succeeded include of course Tolkien and Margaret Attwood who is a master of the dystopian story--and once was a contributor to the early Wattpad. Some folks label her as writing science fiction, but she is better labeled, simply brilliant—and I read her. I have one of her books open right now, Surfacing. Ray Bradbury was a master of science fiction: Who can forget Farenheit 451? I must admit though that my favorite of all his books is the tale of his childhood Dandelion Wine.
I read widely and voraciously. The one thing I’m seeking is narrative with more than one story in it, layered, complex and written with the heart bleeding on the page. No matter what you call such writing, it rises over its genre category, to, for lack of better term, literary fiction or memoir.
I close this answer with this thought: Reading everything I can get my hands on has saved my life all my life. What could be better than that?
8. Forgive me for cherry-picking here, but something in that Stephen King quote leapt out at me. With so many books being published these days it makes sense for the "genre" author to turn to the multi-novel series as a tactic to sell books. The idea being that Book 1 gets the reader "hooked" and guarantees the purchase of Books 2-6 (or what have you). If I'm honest, something about this arrangement rings sort of sad. I've likened it in the past to a kind of dealer/addict relationship. And I've been struck by the behavior of some rabid readers toward their dealers of choice when the next fix doesn't come quickly enough. Whether it be a George RR Martin fan responding to a photo of him on vacation with his family by tweeting: "Get off your fat ass and go write the next book," or droves of Charmaine Harris readers leaving suicide ultimatums on her Facebook page when the release of one of her new novels was delayed. I even know of Wattpad writers who have received PMs (private messages) containing content like this when their ultra popular romance serials were not updated speedily enough for some readers. Not a fun thing to find in one's inbox.
But the most poignant example of the Addicted Reader, to me, has always been the textual Annie Wilkes and her psychic dependency on the Misery Chastain series in Misery. So that quote about King saying that, to him, Annie Wilkes was his coke-and-booze habit personified sort of knocked me on my ass.
My question is, in your own work, to what extent do you consider "hooking" the reader to be part of the job? And when does hooking a reader become some form of authorial manipulation?
Actually, I would be pretty excited to have fans who were waiting for the next book. I suppose I have some fans, as the reviews of my books on Amazon show—but sales decidedly do not. One of the gifts of Wattpad is that I’m engaging with my readers. For anyone who takes the time to write a comment, I reply and often in considerable detail. I’m in their debt. I feel as if I owe them. I feel heartfelt gratitude.
Now to your more direct question: The idea of working to “hook” a reader only operates for me in the sense that I know how good writing works. On the macro level: I read great fiction and memoir and poetry. On the micro level: I know, as one example, that the first sentence of a story needs to do a lot of work—or forget it. Your reader is already gone, out the door.
However, and more to your point, the real problem for me—if I were ever in the fortunate position you describe—is that “hooking” a reader based on my last book, would be an act of “selling direct.” And I think the work would be “idea” driven. Ideas are not conflict as we understand the nature of conflict in fiction or memoir. Good memoir and fiction don’t operate that way. Let me explain this way: Newspaper op-eds sell direct—the idea drives the essay. Stories that sell direct—and no, I won’t name names here—only wear the clothes of good fiction and good memoir.
A story takes on the feeling of experience for the reader when it’s told inside the character. In the memoir I’m posting here, I am indeed the foolish, broken-hearted woman who lived the tale to tell it. My readers know I’m telling them the story from inside me, as the character on a journey. I’m not pulling punches. I’m on the page here in a way I could never be in person or in any social situation.
Now, do I have hopes in taking these risks on Wattpad, in giving away my story for free? Sure I do. I hope my readers here will want to read my novel Who by Fire that tells this real-life story through fiction—and a very different story it is: For one thing, the heroine is dead in sentence one. In whatever sense my novel is autobiographical—and maybe Freud would have a field day with this one—I kill myself off at the get-go. I suppose I felt as if I had died when the man I love left me. In this fictional account I go to the place of hard emotional truth in a way that my memoir can’t do because of its hold on the facts, on what really happened. I hope readers who get to know me here will want to read that book and my fourth book, assuming I’m able to get a publisher for it. It’s in the works.
But if the only thing I get out of my Wattpad experience is the connections I’ve made here, as my father would have said, Dayenu—It would have been enough.
9. In your memoir (Re)Making Love there is a passage that reads:
"When my mother was seventy years old, shortly before her stroke, I was applying her make-up for her birthday. She and I were looking in the mirror at her aged face. She said, “I still see the nineteen-year-old girl.” ... She was obscured by the shrubbery of age. We could both see her through the trees of time. There was no noise while the nineteen year-old girl slid behind the trees.
There was no noise while my hair grew. There was no noise while my daughter tamed the hair follicle with a curling iron.
There was no noise when the avalanche hit in Chamonix, France."|
What struck me was the poetry here -- poetry made not just of imagery but of (seemingly) associative connection.
Make-up and hair-growth can both obscure a person and enhance her, the way an avalanche obscures a landscape and enhances it. And, of course, age as an overgrowth that costumes us in some way.
Can you talk about this passage some, and what it meant to you to write it?
What a lovely way to describe my writing. I don’t think of myself as a poet and I greatly appreciate your insights into the lyricism you see in chapter three of the memoir.
The only thing I truly remember about writing this—well, of course, I can’t forget my husband saying to me oh-so-Greta Garbo, “I need to live alone”—I remember that for sure. But as to how the short passage got constructed, I recall only opening The New York Times one morning and reading about the avalanche.
Once I get started writing and I’m in that inventive place we talked about earlier, I enter a dream-like state and don’t actually recall the writing. I have a dear friend who has read everything I’ve ever written, and we’ll be at dinner somewhere and he’ll quote a line from, say, “The Burglar”—perhaps even the line you’ve told me you like so much: “Nakedness had nothing to do with what needed doing.” To type that line here, I had to go back to the story to find it. I don’t remember writing it. I can’t quote my own work for that reason.
Still, I have thought quite a bit about your question and here’s what I come up with: The writing when I’m in a state of “flow” is like a pianist who has learned all his scales, practiced them, knows how to soften the sound, who understands how the sound board of the piano resonates, who knows how to glide through the piece of music and make it his own.
What I’ve studied from reading all my life since I was a child, what I’ve learned about how good stories get made lies somewhere inside me.
When the story comes, it comes willed by something “other”—and I’m grateful to have been the vessel that brought it to the page. To tell you the new-age-y truth, I’m not even sure I should get the credit for doing it. I’ll take the credit, though, for the editing after it’s cooled off from that heated dreamlike state of invention.
10. Is this where "write what you know" goes wrong? Most people take that advice to mean "use facts from your own life and re-purpose them for your fiction" but maybe it's more useful to think of it as "make use of fictional invention to explore your own emotions"? Emotions can be taken and implanted into any setting or character, regardless of how unfamiliar, whereas facts are so much more beholden.
But that brings me to the question -- if your novel Who by Fire goes places emotionally that your memoir couldn't go, which things might (Re)Making Love do that your novel is unable?
“Write what you know” in fiction does not mean “write your life.” It’s better explained by acknowledging that artists who write close-to-the-bone rely on the unconscious mind to do the work of invention. You can tell when you’re reading work that does that. One extraordinary example is the unforgettable and brilliant work of Gabriel García Márquez. One Hundred Years of Solitude feels so real that nothing can compare with its brilliance. I am quite certain that even as Gabo invented, he wrote from his own unconscious knowing.
As I said in answer to your first question, I am inside all my characters. My novel is a fictional tale—the narrator is a man and well-versed in Physics, in Quantum Mechanics, in finance. He plays the piano. I can barely balance my check book and I don’t play an instrument, but I did years and years of research to create my narrator’s voice and to think the way Robert would. In this way fiction released me to write the story as if I were my husband who had left me and then lost me, meaning totally lost through death.
I am every character in the novel. I tell stories about myself all through this novel, stories I don’t actually know. My daughter, who is in fact a philosopher, accuses me regularly of remaking the past.
Memory by its very nature is flawed. Revisiting memory again and again is the way we search for the narrative of our lives.
William Faulkner says in Light in August, “Memory believes before knowing remembers.”
The difference between memoir and fiction is that memoir is bound to the facts. Fiction, on the other hand, when it is startlingly good often reads like memoir in this sense: We believe it as if it is happening as we read. A gorgeous example is Lydia Davis’s The End of the Story.
In the memoir (Re)Making Love, I recall events. I cannot make up those events to suit the narrative. I cannot lie in the book. But, for example, the psychiatrist in the chapter “Something Old for Something New” would surely not tell the story the way I have—with the notable exception of the phone conversation between us that he recorded, transcribed and then e-mailed to me.
The reason I chose memoir as my form for this tale is that, in this case, the truth is stranger than fiction. I don’t think anyone would believe my story if it were written as fiction. In that sense it’s a romantic comedy that really happened—but was deeply wounding to live through.
11. When you talk about that "dreamlike state" it makes me curious: do you write in the morning? First thing? How important is time-of-day to the flow of your work?
I often tell my students when they are stuck with a writing problem or are having trouble finding the invention that builds on the craft they’ve learned, “Go to sleep,” “Take a nap.”
I keep a lighted pen and a journal by my bed. When I am in the midst of the invention and don’t know where to go, I read the last passage I’ve written before I go to sleep. Dreams are a great source for me of imagery. They provide solutions. The old saw, “Sleep on it” is right on the money.
If I tell myself before sleeping that I need to dream, I awake after the dream—I may not be wide awake, but I write down the narrative of the dream, not worried about grammar or punctuation or form. In the morning I copy the dream into my journal. Somewhere along the line that dream will serve me. The power of the dream is that dreams are non-verbal; they’re like watching a movie in your sleep.
My most vivid dreams occur right before waking. So, yes, early morning writing is key for me. But I’ve been a day-dreamer since childhood. I can bring on the dream-like state pretty much at will—sometimes to the annoyance of those close to me. “Where are you?” I’m asked. I’ve drifted, for sure, but I know that I’ve been working. I know the story is in the dreaming.
When I’m in the midst of the invention, I like to visit a museum and stand before one painting and look. I used to live near The Phillips Museum in DC. The museum has a Rothko room. I went there often while writing Who by Fire and as a result, Rothko’s paintings are key to the novel.
Seeing is key for writing. I dislike tours through museums because someone else is talking, invading the process of perception and telling me what to see. I like to stand before a single painting until I’m able to write something about it, not move on to the next. Instead, to see, to be attentive, awake.
The paradox here is that sleeping, dreaming, and focusing on art are key to being awake. When I’m writing, I’m awake and in the dream of creation.
Being awake is such a moment to moment struggle. I'm glad we have reading, writing, and dreaming to help us do it. Boy am I.
Well we've talked about a lot here Mary, and since this is the Fear & Love Conversations, I'd like to wind us down with a completely open question.
Can you tell us about anything at all in life that you fear, and anything at all that you can't help but love?
On fear: I am on alert for the conclusion that I have with age achieved wisdom. As, T.S. Eliot reminds us in “East Coker” of The Four Quartets, and as I quote him, with, not-so-by-the-way, the paid permission, in chapter 18 “Something Old for Something New” of (Re)Making Love:
Do not let me hear
Of the wisdom of old men, but rather of their folly,
Their fear and frenzy, their fear of possession,
Of belonging to another, or to others, or to God.
The only wisdom we acquire
Is the wisdom of humility: humility is endless.
On “can’t help but love”: I fall in love with writers here on Wattpad or anywhere who take a risk on the page and bare the soul by asking the probing questions of existence. I am hooked the way I’m hooked on Job in the Bible, Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex and Shakespeare’s King Lear. I look for writers who search without the knowledge that they know. Here’s what I mean: Good writing, powerful thought reveal the extraordinary unity in man’s questionings throughout time and the unique ways in which he has attempted to answer the unanswerable. Job on the ash heap cries out for a rationale for his punishment; Oedipus is caught in a world that he attempts to understand and control, but is doomed inevitably powerless; Lear in his madness cries, “Is man no more than this?” From my reading, from my teaching, and from the struggles I face in my own writing, I learn, I search, I question, I try to understand—and, you can bet on it, the best of all, to fall in love again.
If you've read this far, you may find my interviews of interest: More than twenty interviews the year my novel Who by Fire was published. You can find links to all those radio interviews with the famous, the emerging and the loveable by clicking → Mary's Radio Interviews.