Thursday, February 14, 2013

Writing. Archaeology.

The more I think about my own writing and look at the literary works I admire, the more it occurs to me that what I'm seeing is the careful reconstruction of fragments.

A memoirist takes sherds of life and pieces them into something recognizable, something with an attractive shape -- and something hopefully true, neither ideal nor grotesque, not a Romantic portrait nor some sideshow monkey-fish mermaid, but a reconstruction of objects that once were, and by the artist's hand become knowable.

A translator picks apart fragments of meaning, or through damaged ancient scrolls, examining the text for its possible relationship to a new language, a new culture, accepting the losses of lacunae and all the poetry which is lost to translation, encouraging the poetry that may be born of it, creating pages that are not reconstructions but approximations and associations.

And then there's fiction, where mosaics are made of the jagged ceramics and tattered papyrus and human remains and ancient roadbeds and debunked theories and irrational numbers and cave paintings and bite marks on bone in the garbage midden -- but what is being made? It's not a re-construction of what was. It's not a re-imagining of what is.

It is a first imagining of what can be.

An experimentalist examines the functions and forms, examines the fragments themselves, pulls them apart and formalizes their function, exposes the processes within. In finished form, much of fiction looks similar to non-fiction or translation, but when we examine the process, there is something, in fiction, missing: a guide. Something that exists outside the process and that the writers are "held to" -- which the fiction author is not.

What becomes the guide? What stands in that spot? The author's "vision." Ideas. Concepts. Vague and hazy abstracts. "What I want to the reader to get." A scene that obsessed me. A phrase someone said. A character got in my head: I had to know where she led. In fiction the roots of the work are random, subjective, and ultimately unaccountable. Only the finished form can be held to task. And so form controls function in a way that is unlikely -- or at least, undesirable -- in a non-fiction text. Effect controls content in a way that is impossible -- or at least, unfaithful -- in a translation or adaptation. What is debatable in these other modes is, in fiction, de rigueur.

Writers of fiction are less fixed. We know that having many choices, while it sounds desirable, actually leads to pain (Dan Gilbert). And so in fiction all is pain, even the ideas at the center of a story, which necessarily evolve as the process of creating a story goes on. Everything is ether, until the form-final end. All fragments are optional and discardable, until the form-final end. All truths may be better told, until that form-final end -- and where is that end? Lost in the swells of this roiling sea, how can I see the shape of the ocean? Does a writer need someone to drag her away from the canvas, like Picasso said he did?

The archaeology metaphor breaks down. The scientist can't choose to discard the bones that undermine her theory, but the fiction writer can (and does) reshape the world to suit her vision. I can discard History, Language, Physics itself.

It's not without consequence, though: each omission leaves a space, some little nicks, some vast as lakes. I can remove Physics from my story, but the omission is an addition.

All I can do is get back to work.


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