Much of the advice I get at writing conferences is to cut right to the action and tone down passages of thoughtful prose or backstory. How do you keep reader interest when you’re crafting thought-heavy prose?
One of the worst things an aspiring writer can do is go to too many writers’ conferences.
What one tends to see at such convocations is the well-meaning leading the mediocre to follow the . . well, let’s leave it at that. Almost nothing I ever learned at such conferences helped me so much as to write my signature, let alone something that might be worth reading. They might help one “get published” (although they did not even help me there; I was publishing before I went to my first such a conference) — though, let’s be candid: if one writes only in order to be published, one should probably not be writing at all.
To keep a reader’s interest, you need two things: first, some talent for writing originally and interestingly, and, second, something that fires you to blacken pages or screens all over with words: it can be indignation, anger, sorrow, love. But it must involve all your being.
If your passion is for action, then, of course, you must write about action. If your interest is in psychology, emotions, motivations, ideas (you will not be shocked to know that is where my own interests, or “passions,” lie), then you owe it to yourself and to your reader to write about them. Your passion, whatever it may be, if you have any talent for expression, will drive your reader’s interest.
Of course you will find that many readers are not, and never will be interested in what you care most deeply about; you must write such readers off as, not only hopeless, but potentially dangerous to your own cause. You are unlikely to convert them, but they will certainly try to convert you, “for your own good.” Never let such readers get close to anything you have written, because, with the best intentions in the world, they will do whatever they, with the kindest of intentions, can to destroy or distort it beyond anything you would recognize.
On the other hand, you may see an exciting challenge in trying to conquer them and win them over. And you might even succeed. Miracles, after all, do happen. If that is your passion (and only you can know that), well then — conquer them!
I had a few problems like those described when I first started. Some of my first efforts were highly “modernist,” even surreal. I was told that, before “breaking the rules,” I should first master them. And the suggestion was a sound one. I might have responded that I hadn’t been “breaking” any rules; I was simply playing by different ones. If you wish to master haiku, you will not learn to do so by writing a thousands sonnets.
On the other hand, it wouldn’t hurt, if you wish to write poetry of any kind, to know how to turn out a respectable sonnet.
The moral here is to be wary of, but also not to reject too hastily, advice from anyone who either doesn’t understand or has little sympathy with what you want to do. Most adults are wary of advice; however well meant, it is often useless, when it is not actually harmful. A fortiori advice regarding “writing.”
I’ve answered your question far too generally, I know, but I felt your question suggested premises I have trouble with, and so had little choice but to answer this way. My own writing has followed the procedures I recommend here (and yes, I spent a long time learning how to write sonnets and conventional stories before unleashing myself on more florid approaches to literature), and has continued thus since I fully “matured” as a writer, when I wrote my first completed major work: a short novel, called “The Hyenas.”
Do you use technique to do that, or do you simply have the courage to reject the advice of some professionals?
It depends on the professionals. If one intends to write anything of value, one must have moral and intellectual courage, and that means, among other things, independence of mind. It also means courage against oneself as much as against the world; one must always be on the watch against oneself, because vanity has an awful way of looking, in the mirror, like integrity.
As far as technique goes: I try to use techniques that would work for me as a reader. I’m the only reader I know intimately, the only reader whose reactions I understand with any depth, or even am able to understand, as long, anyway, as I’m honest with myself. I assume there are other readers out in the world who are like me; everyone is unique, but no one is entirely and in all respects. I write for those who see the world roughly the same way I do; for those who speak my language.
Romantic love seems a common theme in your writing. Why do you think that is? How do your characters balance the affairs of the mind and the heart?
Very interesting point! I have always thought of romantic love as a central theme of the world’s literature, from the Greeks and Chinese and Indian classics (the Ramayana is one of the greatest of all epics of romantic love), so I hardly think I need explanations as to why I write about it.
But let me offer some, as far as I can. The experience of romantic love is one of those experiences that, for me, justify human life, which, let’s face it, often requires a great deal of justifying! Other such existentially exculpatory experiences, though less intense, include the intellectual satisfactions of curiosity and the pleasures of artistic creation, the joys of family and friendship, and the successful achievement of strongly desired goals. But romantic love, in my experience, is the strongest, in its concentrated intensity, of all these. Indeed, it includes, and surpasses, in emotional, intellectual, and physical terms, all the rest combined.
But, as anyone who has gone through it knows, romantic love pays for its intensity and the comprehensive emotional involvement of the entire human person by being inherently, even violently, unstable, tipping over all too often into catastrophe, as almost any news website will show. Why are so many crimes the result of thwarted, disappointed or rejected love, or love that seem to have gone out of its mind after wrecking its heart? Romantic love, in my experience, sums up much of the human condition in the most intense way for the individual: its glory, its ecstasy, its comedy, its happiness, its disappointment and tragedy and despair. And so we see all of these things in it, compressed into the most intense forms within the human heart.
But of course “romantic love” is far from my primary focus; I would say that is the inherent ambiguities, frustrations, dilemmas, compulsions, the unending incomprehensibilities, of the human condition and how we deal, or fail to deal with them.
How do my characters balance the demands of mind and heart? I’m afraid the way most of us do: poorly! I have made my own peace with those demands, but it has taken a lifetime; my characters haven’t always had the same good fortune.
How do you, and how could society, find the strength to reject despair amidst the existential meaninglessness of life, and the impending threat of climate change? Or are you pro-choice on that question?
First, I reject the notion that life is “meaningless,” which always strikes me as both self-pitying and inaccurate. Life is where meaning occurs. If anything, life has too many meanings, many in conflict. As Meister Eckhardt put it: “I live in order to live!” Do you enjoy taking a deep breath of air, drinking a cold glass of water, taking a luxurious bath? Then you won’t worry much about the “meaning of life.” Life is its own meaning; everything else is irrelevant. (You’ll see I’m something of a “pagan”: I’m persuaded, so far, that this is the only world, and that, if we handle our lives well, it is the only world we will need.)
Humans are creatures that find and create meaning everywhere they look. (I would say the same for all animals, insects, sentient beings; perhaps even plants: when a blossom opens in the sun, it is finding “meaning” in its own expanding in the sun’s warmth and light, the air that surrounds it, the soil that holds its roots.) What did this blank screen “mean” before I started writing on it? And now maybe it means more than it should!
The meaning of my life seems clear to me: to enjoy whatever life offers of good, to help and spread decency wherever I can, to defeat or endure what hurts or harms, and to turn the daily evils I meet into what good I am able to (for me it can be writing something that seems beautiful or apposite, a snarky diary entry, a little dreamy lyric — or just thinking up a sharp, clearly expressed idea and grinning to myself with an irrepressible feeling of satisfaction).
Life is an endless chain of problems for which it is one of my jobs as a human being is to seek solutions that work for me and, with luck, for others. That I don’t always succeed is merely part of the challenge.
As for the climate emergency: I have been aware of this for as long as most people living: since the early 1970s, when I first began reading about “global warming” and decided what I read made strong, if terrifying, sense. I have lived ever since with that knowledge (I believe we can call it that now, which was only an uneasy surmise at the time) as an essential part of my worldview. It has not, I admit, endeared the human race to me. I did not realize how stupid, cowardly and mendacious human beings could be; now I know, though I have suspected as much since I reached the age of reflection — and I can tell you: it is not always pleasant to be proven right.
I have written about global warming since the late 1970s. I used to think I invented the terms “ecocide” and “the holocaust of the species” in a short essay I wrote around 1980, but I am assured I did not, at least in the first case.
At some point (we are seeing it now, especially with the great awakening of the young) we will realize the peril we are in because of two and a half centuries of reckless exploitation of our fellow living beings and the earth itself. I am certain we will act. Though I have read enough history to know that mankind only believes in catastrophes when they happen.
Like the worry of so many today, mine is that we will do too little, too late, to spare us a nightmare we still can barely conceive.
But we will act.
How do you develop characters?
Generally through the usual means of dialogue, action, and reaction, also internal monologue (“stream of consciousness”) and descriptions of fantasies and dreams; rarely through descriptions by an omniscient narrator or by way of independent observers (as in Henry James).
I don’t think one should be too concerned with character development as such; I try primarily to invent, or find, characters I find strongly interesting; then anything they do or say is likely also to be interesting to a reader, assuming a basic power of expression and a general sympathy and agreement between reader and myself — my job is to convey the strength of my own interest, and hope for the best. That is job enough.
What comes first to you when you’re writing: a concept, a character or two, a setting, or dialogue?
It’s mysterious, as it rarely goes the same way twice. I’m convinced that creative ideas come from the same place dreams do, though the “ideas” are more tightly locked into waking experience of the world, oneself, other people. Sometimes a phrase will pop into mind, usually starting a poem off, though where the phrase goes, or even if it remains, differs in each case. Sometimes a general idea floods the mind, sometimes a character or several, sometimes a specific scene starts haunting (the origin of Voyage to a Phantom City), sometimes a page or two of randomized words and phrases will suggest a complex of ideas and emotions that I can see growing into something much larger (this is how what is unquestionably my most significant work, my novel A Spy in the Ruins, started: an early morning of almost random writing that led to an almost ten-year journey and a work I still feel a little astonished to think came out of this head).
I used to write plays, and at the time I carried inside my mind a small, rough, dimly lit stage on which I would start “seeing” (or often rather “hearing”) characters speak; many a play grew from such fantasy dialogues.
Some of your work seems to reflect the modernist sensibility of the early 1900s. Was that intentionally cultivated or do you simply feel intellectual camaraderie with thinkers of that period?
That’s a little anachronistic, though certainly not wrong. The modern literary avant-garde (which has strongly influenced some, though not all, of my writing) began roughly in the mid-19th century, with writers such as Baudelaire, Mallarme, Rimbaud, Ducasse, Whitman, and Melville (especially his novels The Confidence Man and Pierre, or The Ambiguities). It reached its first peak in the early 20th century, with writers and poets like James Joyce, Gertrude Stein, Apollinaire, and the surrealists, a number of whom wrote both poetry and novels.
A third wave of modernist exploration arose in the 1940s, with Nathalie Sarraute, Samuel Beckett, Alain Robbe-Grillet and the nouveau roman; also a number of Latin American authors from the same era (Jorge Luis Borges, Julio Cortazar, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Miguel Asturias, Pablo Neruda, Cesar Vallejo, etc.). Those writers, along with such writers as the Austrian Thomas Bernhard and the Spanish Juan Goytisolo, and American writers such as Thomas Pynchon, William Gass, and Gilbert Sorrentino, dominated this period of modernism and so-called postmodernism.
I was deeply impressed — to be frank, was quite swept away — by many of the writers of this third wave of modernism, which I found by far the most interesting writers of my youth, and many of them were active into the late 20th and early 21st century. Juan Goytisolo, with whom I had a correspondence, and who is the dedicatee of my latest novel, Meditations on Love and Catastrophe at The Liars’ Cafe, died in 2017.
I have always preferred writers who combine intellectual courage, aesthetic adventurousness, and poetic taste. And I miss the philosophical and literary confidence and courage, the sheer audacity, of that generation; I grew up believing that this is what writers naturally always did, were supposed and expected to do: to confront, to challenge, to defy their time. The following generation, which sometimes seems terrified of its own shadow, has seemed, shall we say, disillusioning.
Modern writers certainly have their merits, even if artistic daring is not always one of them (there are a few exceptions in the Bay Area. but the refusal of the national literary establishment to even, in most cases, recognize their existence merely helps demonstrate my case). Most modern writers seem to wish to tell good stories, which is something never to be scorned, as long as they and their supporters do not limit themselves or others to that. It is not the only interesting thing that literature can do.
My writing, I hope, will continue a tradition where aesthetic invention (after all, the first rule of any work of art is to be original, and one cannot be original without being new, even painfully so) is wedded to honestly exploring the human condition, a condition that, as we have seen in the last several generations, is constantly changing and so must find ever-new means of exploring and expressing it.
But I recognize the effort may have to be its own reward.
Christopher Bernard’s new novel Meditations on Love and Catastrophe at the Liars’ Cafe is available here. Will be released from Regent Press soon.