Saturday, July 25, 2009

Sleeping with Anne Lamott

Several months ago, my brother John and I got into a conversation about writing process and Anne Lamott’s work on the subject of writing process. John happens to be writing a novel and is actually the writer-friend referred to in this earlier post.

Out of that conversation came the post I just linked to and also a review of Lamott’s Bird by Bird, in the category Revisiting a Classic, at Readworthy Books.

Below, the conversation continues, as I find good reason to recommend Lamott’s Hard Laughter.

Janet to John

I did not suggest the Anne Lamott chapter on plot treatment [in Bird by Bird] with the intention to send you off in any particular direction. Just thought a pause to plan might help -- an outline, a treatment, whatever.

With the caveat that I've never prepared a novel-length narrative, I do think Lamott gives a pretty complete description of what a 'treatment' is, as she uses the concept. (That is, a chapter by chapter paragraph-style outline, noting 'where' the characters are at the beginning, what happens in the chapter, and where they are at the end.) But that is not to promote that particular concept.

In advertising, we used to talk about ‘a treatment.’ And sometimes what we saw resembled -- this worried me in earlier conversations -- a writer trying to talk the story into existence, ala your Joplin-writer-friend’s praise for what you had NOT done. So...

I have known writers -- listened to narrative writers talk about their process -- who say they start with 'just a feeling, a sense, a character and no idea where the story will go' and others who always know the end as they begin. I've never had the privilege to hear any of my personal heroes talk about this and I admit, the 'I know the end' types I've heard have tended to be category fiction writers. Dilemma. I don't much care about category fiction beyond the genius who created the category! But you are working on mainstream fiction with some aspirations to literature...

On the other hand, having 'listened' to people like Lamott and Cameron, who --notwithstanding Lamott's Plot Treatment chapter -- clearly advocate starting anywhere and following your characters' lead, I decided to look at their fiction results.

The first Lamott novel I could get my hands on was Rosie, which I found highly forgettable except for a couple of violations of my personal pet peeves: using a novelist as an important character and verbal cliques. I've just started to read a second Lamott novel, which happens to actually be her first novel, Hard Laughter. I am only a few pages in but already am much more impressed, even though there are writers who are important characters. (The key writer is dying. I guess that is a good thing – from the point of view of creating a story. Yikes!!)

In between the two Lamott pieces, I read Cameron's Mozart's Ghost. (I do not know where this piece fits in her body of work.) This piece is very imaginative. If I were asked to rank Lamott's Rosie against Cameron's Ghost, the latter wins. But in the absence of a personal interest, I probably would not recommend either of them to anyone.

Then again, I wouldn't likely recommend any Mary Higgins Clark, who I heard say she always knows the end point when she starts.

So, who knows what all that means!

I am impressed and excited by the developments you have described in your own novel. Whether you decided to outline or 'plot-treat' the story arc -- or just wade on -- I am sure you are going to get there. Maybe it doesn't matter whether the route is more or less direct.

Janet to John

Since I placed Lamont's Rosie behind Cameron's Mozart's Ghost, I feel it is only fair to mention -- I did find a quote in Rosie worth holding onto and perhaps sharing and there was nothing like that in Ghost. Specifically:

“You’ve just got to remember sometime you’ll be on an upswing, everything’s coming up roses, and sometimes you’ll be on a downswing, a broken heart or depression, but although you never believe it at the time, you’ll start an upswing again.” From Rosie, by Anne Lamont

While hardly a unique observation, it's a good idea to revisit often.

John to Janet

I've never read Rosie and after your remarks I probably won't. I think I've
read four books by Lamott: Bird By Bird, Hard Laughter, Operating Instructions, and Crooked Little Heart. (She produces great titles, certainly.)

The main character in Crooked Little Heart is named Rosie. I wonder if this is a younger or older version of the main character in Rosie? Crooked Little Heart is, by far, my favorite Lamott book, but I really like coming of age novels and excellent portrayals of coming of age kids.

I'm particularly fond of coming of age books about girls. Elizabeth Berg's
Durable Goods is a girl's coming of age book; it's probably nowhere near great literature, but I just love it. I've given it as a gift several times.

That was really all to say, I would recommend Crooked Little Heart, and I'd be VERY INTERESTED in knowing your reactions to it.

Janet to John

The last time we talked about Anne Lamott's work, I had just read a few pages of Hard Laughter and you were recommending Crooked Little Heart.

I have finished Hard Laughter and would recommend it without reservation. Here are my journal notes from the morning after I finished it.

Recently I’ve a spat of wee-hour sleep disruptions. Again last night, a physical frisson, a body buzz like a small electric shock, woke me. A momentary distress is made more distressful by the growing knowledge that the sensation augers a bout of late-night wakefulness.

I reached for my tiny reading light and the novel on top of my Chinese herb cabinet turned bedside table. It’s an Anne Lamott novel I’ve discovered helps me ease back to sleep. Not, however, what that sounds like.

It is not boring. Rather, it engages me at exactly the right distance: familiar but not personal. Reading it is pleasantly effortless. The vocabulary, period and culture are known. The experiences are familiar enough, yet comfortably distant from my own particular present difficulties.

Having completed Hard Laughter, I quickly located a copy of Crooked Little Heart. After all, this waking up at 3 a.m. thing could continue!

Read a few pages and can tell you now that the Rosie character in CLH is the same girl, a few years later, who lends her name to the title of the earlier novel.

Reactions will be forthcoming.

No comments: