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How to Write: Lessons 24-26
Lesson 24: Epistolary Style, Lesson 25: Emotion
Lesson 24: Epistolary Style
Lots of people wrote books in the epistolary style, John Barth, Alice Walker, John Updike, C. S. Lewis, The Flowers of Algernon, Frankenstein, Dracula, You Know Me, Al, etc. Half of Chapter 15 is a long letter:
"Ginny liked going to Boulder Creek. I’ll let her describe it. Here’s a long letter she wrote from there probably in around 1967 or so, maybe even 1968. It was Fall is all I can say for sure. Oh, oh, when you get to the part where she says, “ect., ect., ect.,” that was the way she wrote it…it’s pronounced the same way it’s spelled."
I like it, the epistolary style. I used it. A lot.
In Chapter 16 I use parts of a diary:
"...North Beach. We’d gone up there to be at the Jazz Workshop at midnight. It was the two-year anniversary of the night we met — which brings me to a point at which I don’t have to rely quite so completely on what’s left of my piecemeal memory. Ha! Yippee! I have a little green diary of stuff I wrote about during the first nine days of 1965. The diary begins with a list of Ginny’s New Year’s Resolutions. They’re in her handwriting and no doubt speak for themselves:
Gerry will: 1) Persistently, unrelentingly, write at least 3 pages every day, 2) Tell the truth each day about the above, 3) Eat like a hog and become fatter, 4) Get the scholarship to Stanford by next year, (this means writing stories, attending State and APPLYING to Stanford), 5) Take me to a swank hotel once a month and out for dinner and to a culturally and intellectually stimulating event, 6) Keep his apartment clean and neat at least 5 days a week; this resolution may be waived only in the event that Gerry is immersed in writing — at which time slobdom is permitted, 7) Make money — lots of it, 8) Not be sexually narcissistic except if he is absolutely compelled by frustration for a period of seven (7) days, and 9) Read at least one book a week.
Hey, wait a minute, how come Ginny’s New Year’s Resolutions were all things I was supposed to do? What the hell was she was supposed to do? I don’t think either of us ever knew. Oh, well."
Later on in the same chapter I mention Herzog in one of the diary entries:
"When I got home, I took a long bath and finished Herzog. Beautifully done — writing and ideas.”
Saul Bellow had a bunch of letters in Herzog. It was published around the same time as Chapter 16 takes place. Maybe I stole his style, but I don't remember stealing his style. It was a good style to steal, I guess. That's what I mean about letting your brain soak up what it soaks up and letting the rest go.
Lesson 25: Emotion
The only way to show emotion in writing is to not show emotion. Nobody gives any kind of a rat's ass about anything or anyone who tries to tug at our heartstrings like Stephan Spielberg, like when our collective hearts start going out to that brave little extraterrestrial guy or when our spleens bleed with fear for those morons on that boat that very nearly gets itself eaten by a big, bad mechanical shark. There are no extraterrestrials. Sharks rarely eat boats. You can fabricate any kind of emotion to make a buck, like those poor fucking dogs out in the cold, all skinny, with nothing to eat and shivering, woe oh woe, send them nineteen dollars a month and none of them will ever shiver again, like those wounded warriors, woe oh woe, I have no arms or legs and half a brain but I fought for my country and the government has already spent millions of dollars trying to get me back to normal but I need money from you for food, etc., etc. You can't buy my love I can't buy yours. There are tons of emotions. In Chapter 17 Elliot tried to sum up lots of them at the same time.
“‘I closed my eyes. I wanted it all to just stay that way. Nice. Dancing. I was happy. Just before I closed my eyes, whatever I looked at twinkled from having tears in them…and when I opened my eyes again, everything was clear. Defined. Done. Understood. It felt like I knew and had always known…and would always know…what the world is like without me in it. I can’t explain it. The spiders weren’t fighting or dancing, either one — they weren’t even spiders. That’s the thing I can’t explain. Flowers weren’t flowers. Grass wasn’t grass. Clouds weren’t clouds. The sun wasn’t even the sun. Then I couldn’t remember what they were when they weren’t spiders. I couldn’t figure out what they’d been doing when they weren’t fighting or dancing.’”
I don't know whether it worked or not, but it worked for me. A little later he says:
"‘It was just a feeling. Laughing. Crying. Both. Neither. It was so stupid and tragic and sad and funny at the same time that I had about ten different kinds of tears in my eyes. How can you forget what you’d always know? How can you remember not being somewhere?’”
In Chapter 18, Elliot's father kills himself.
"Not long after our chat in Mrs. Rousseau’s parlor — and a week or so before Ginny finally just went ahead and had the abortion — Elliot’s father killed himself. I don’t remember his name. I always just called him Mr. Felton. His father killing himself knocked Elliot for a loop, another loop. He was always getting knocked for loops."
Balance stuff out. Find good things in bad people and the other way around.
"Elliot’s mother got the car and the house and everything in it, right down to whatever was left of the bottle of lemon-scented Joy under the kitchen sink. His father got nothing but the furniture that had been his mother’s furniture before the marriage. Mr. Felton also got nothing but sadder and sadder with each passing day. He was too sad to work and had to take early retirement. He was too sad to do anything. He didn’t have a house or a car or a wife or a job, and he had always been the kind of guy who only knew who he was by what he had. Now he had nothing. Now he was nobody. Even I felt a little sorry for the guy, and I’d always thought he was exactly the kind of cocky, brittle, know-it-all, authoritarian asshole who deserved to get shattered."
These two chapters sort of go together. 17 takes place in one night. 18 happens over several months. But they both deal with the opposites of the same sorts of emotions. They counterbalance one another. If you’re going to cry, make it get funny after a while. Then, after you’ve had a good laugh, go back to crying again. Over and over. That’s the way life is, like it or not.
Lesson 26: Dreams
The reason I’ve never given much credence to the whole idea of “writing” is that I’ve had a goodly number of dreams that surpass, in all the elements of writing, anything I could ever hope to write. Some of my dreams surpass anything anyone could’ve written. You never know when they’re going to come. That’s part of their charm. Why write anything when you can dream something better? That’s what’s so slick about being human. You have a brain. Anyone with a brain is capable of dreaming hundreds of the best books or movies ever written or produced. Anyone. Don’t diss some apparent loser standing ahead of you in line at the grocery store. That person has a brain capable of dreaming better works of art that anyone has ever made.
You can’t write a better chapter than you can dream but you can use dreams to get you started on a chapter you might end up writing someday. Chapter 34 did that. I had a dream one night of two of my dead friends frolicking around in a forest. It was rich and lush and full of overtones and undertones but all I remembered was two dead friends frolicking in a forest. So, I played with it and came up with this:
Dreams are slick. Use them. Write down as much as you can remember of the best of them and stick them into a drawer (or into a file on your iPhone) and let them sit there. Go through them when you get stuck. One of them might be just what you need to get unstuck.