details, details

IMG_2027In the car yesterday, I was listening to the CD that came with The Writer’s Notebook. On it are two recordings. One was a discussion on character. On the panel were Ron Carlson, Dorothy Allison, and Dennis Johnson. There was no introduction; it just started. Some of it sounded familiar.

When I got home, I looked up my notes from the two summers I went to the Tin House Summer Writers’ Workshop. This recording was from the summer of 2005. I had actually been there.

What was sticking in my brain this time, though, was largely different from what I had taken notes on then. Ah, I thought, I’m in a different place now with my writing–hopefully a further-along place.

Which is an argument for rereading everything.  Who knows what you will notice the next time.

Which brings me to my point…This time, the main thing that stood out was Dorothy Allison saying, “I’m a watcher.”

Until I started writing, I was not a watcher or a noticer. Now I am. And that’s a good thing. Being a watcher helps me catch days. It helps make things stick. And character, as well as life, is all there in the details.

“She bought throw pillows, for example, and buying throw pillows is in my experience the single best indicator that a female human being is feeling pretty good.”  from Sight Hound by Pam Houston

“A pot simmering on the stove helps my father to believe we are still a family.”  from Fugitive Blue by Dani Shapiro

Details, details…

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playing with time

img_1340Starting with the prologue, in which the narrator calls on the spirit of Vladimir Nabokov, time is everywhere present in Dani Shapiro‘s Fugitive Blue.  I read the novel in January of last year so time is playing with me and my memory as well.

“Nabokov did not believe in time…But I find it impossible to dismiss time, the very thing which has so intensely failed me.”

Dani Shapiro creates the story in Fugitive Blue using three different time periods:

1) the time from which the narrator is telling the story, which is told in the present tense, in which time is also counted in the number of days since she has stopped drinking;

2) the narrator’s childhood, which is also interestingly told in the present tense, perhaps to show that her childhood is ever present to her, perhaps to make it more immediate to the reader, avoiding the distance the past tense would add;  and

3) the narrator’s recent past in NY, which is told in the past tense until the past catches up to the present, and then with a paragraph break, it moves into the present tense, all the while dipping back into the past when the story requires it.

The transitions are flawless.  The tenses flow seamlessly one into the other, as do the different time periods of the narrator’s story.  An early example from the childhood present:

“I don’t know this now, but in the single motion of removing my white knuckles from the steel handlebars of my bicycle–a feat of which I have been terrified for months–I am entering a lifelong habit of bravado which will end twenty years from now on the steaming pavement of a New York City Street.  I don’t have that information.  I can’t see the future.  I have no way of knowing.”

Even in the present tense, the narrator can see the future and know the end of the story.  Time is on her side, so to speak.

family history

Dani Shapiro is one of my all-time favorite writers.  She knows how to tell a story–how to slowly release details in order to build tension and lure the reader forward. The first book of hers I read was Family History, published in 2003, but which I did not discover until October of 2005.

How does a writer know what to start with?  When to reveal a detail?  What is just enough to keep a reader interested but not so much that the reader has no place in the process?

It begins:

“I lie in bed these days and watch home movies–a useless exercise, to be sure, but I can’t stop myself.  Ned’s an amateur filmmaker, and ever since we got our first video camera when Kate was born, he has documented our family’s life, not just birthday parties and anniversaries but smaller, more telling moments.

I recommend all her books.

  • Playing With Fire, 1989
  • Fugitive Blue, 1993
  • Picturing the Wreck, 1996
  • Slow Motion, 1998
  • Family History, 2003
  • Black & White, 2007