Wish you were here.

One of the brilliant readers of this blog recommended a book to me — a *gasp* NOVEL.  And I READ it. You all know how I like to keep about 100 yards between me and any work of fiction? Because I hate the stuff?  Well, this novel wasn’t all that bad. It was about a novel writer with writer’s block, so we-the-reader get to peek into the workings of a fiction writer’s mind.  

Here’s what I learned:

I learned that when a fiction writer see an interesting stranger on the street, her mind wanders into an ether of self-concocted back story: the fiction writer starts making up what the interesting stranger had for breakfast, how her marriage is doing, which of her kids is in rehab, what the state of her finances are, what kind of car she drives, etc. The fiction writer becomes detached from current reality (forget having a decent conversation with a fiction writer under the influence) until someone yells  “Hey! Lady! Watch where you’re going!”

I never do that. When I see an interesting stranger, I stalk them. I focus my attention on them, take note of mannerisms, try to overhear their end of a cell phone call, watch how they pay for lunch (maybe they have a crummy coin purse, maybe they have a spiffy wallet), notice how they walk, see if they have a nice laugh, hope they are carrying a book or a shopping bag that gives clues as to who they might be, until someone yells “Hey! Lady! What the   @#*!  you  looking at?”

It’s two different ways of looking at the world. The fiction writer invents details, the non-fiction writer observes them. I happen to find vividly observed detail much, much more interesting than vividly made-up details.

In reading this book, I also thought a lot about plot. Novels, you all know, have plots. It is one of their most annoying features.  The kind of books that I enjoy reading — travel memoirs, journals, narrative non-fiction — do not have plots.  (Neither does real life.)   Reading a book with a plot was a new experience for me; it was hokey. Corny. In contrast, when I read a non-fiction book whose narrative is made coherent by a skilled writer with the vision to bring all her various self-contained elements together (story, characters, events — none of which she has any control over) I am left feeling thrilled for having been in the care of an intelligent, authentic guide.

No, if I have to read a book with a plot, I prefer it to be outrageously hokey, outlandishly fiction. Something like Slaughter House Five,  by the great Kurt Vonnegut.

(I once had a hot shot Japanese-American architect fall in love with me, he said,  because I was the only woman he’d ever met who had read and loved Slaughter House Five. True story.)

I bring up Slaughter House Five because if you are looking for a mission statement  when it comes to art journals / visual journals (whatever we’re calling them these days)  you need not look any further than page 88 of this great novel. The outer space people called the Tralfamadorans are showing the Earth man, Billy Pilgrim, one of their books:


Billy couldn’t read Tralfamadoran, but he could see how the books were laid out — in brief clumps of symbols separated by stars. Billy commented that the clumps [of symbols] might be telegrams.

“Exactly”. [said the Tralfamadoran.]

“They are telegrams?”

“Each clump of symbols is a brief, urgent message — describing a situation or a scene. We Tralfamadorans read them all at once, not one after another. There isn’t any particular relationship between all the messages, except that the author has chosen them carefully, so that, when seen all at once, they produce an image of life that is beautiful and surprising and deep. There is no beginning, middle, or end, no suspense, no moral, no causes, no effects. What we love in our books are the depths of many marvelous moments seen all at one time.”


Readers, remember the Tralfamadorans as you put together a visual journal. Remember that what you want to give your Billy Pilgrims is a view of life that you  have created, one page at a time, so that the total effect is a record of your experience and observations of situations and scenes around you. It’s all about observed details, about how you — marvelous, one-of-a-kind you — pays attention to what you think is beautiful, valuable, surprising, and deep.

See that picture way in the beginning of this post?  That’s a post card I made about 14 years ago, back when I was reading Slaughter House Fivefor the third time and thought I’d like to take a stab at making a Tralfamadoran book. So I made a bunch of post card-sized collages (instead of telegrams) and I put them together with notes about stuff I thought was beautiful and surprising and deep. 

On Wednesday, I could put up a little slide show of my Tralfamadoran-esque postcards — there’s about a dozen of them.  Or is the whole Tralfamadoran book  thing a bad idea?

9 comments to Wish you were here.

  • candice

    Love the collage and yes, I’d like to see more of that series.

    As someone who writes novels (but won’t call herself a novelist because it’s a conferred title and not a job), I do both: create a life for people I see in restaurants, the grocery store (I stare at what they put on the conveyer belt so long it borders on rudeness), at traffic lights (a nose-picker!). I envision a life for that person, but also study their things, thinking that one might be an endowed object–like the ratty coin purse in the Coach bag. Was it the last Christmas present given to her by her father before he died?

    I will tell you it is trying living with someone who writes fiction. Just ask my husband who would rather I listened to him in the restaurant instead of watching me strain my ears backward to hear the conversation in the next booth.

  • Deborah

    Your architect might have liked me, too. I am familiar with Vonnegut as a fellow Hoosier — even had front row seats to hear him speak a few years ago, close enough to see the spittle fly when he spoke with emphasis.

    Here’s one of my favorite quotes of his:

    “Writing allows people who are patient and industrious to revise their stupidity, to edit themselves into something resembling intelligence.”

    It goes well with a quote from Larry McMurtry that I also like:

    “The difference between life and art is life has no editor.”

    They both seem to relate to what you’re saying, the need to edit things into something coherent, whether it’s a single page, or the whole book. Right?

  • Jennifer

    I have a recent fondness for homemade postcards after receiving the book Griffin and Sabine as a gift from a dear friend. If any of you are unfamiliar with that small but captivating book, I’d recommend checking it out. So, yes, I’d love to see your other postcards. Even more so because they were inspired by Tralfamador!

    Fiction is a tricky beast. I think that the best fiction comes from authors who are exquisite observers of the “real” world around them who have also spent many hours contemplating philosophies and psychologies. The best fiction writers then turn those observations into stories that illuminate the absurdities, the depths of emotion and the banalities of our human condition in unexpected ways. The craft of creating outstanding fiction is amazing to me, and rare.

    Did you ever read the classic Ray Bradbury book, Dandelion Wine? For some reason, that one just popped into my head. For me, just thinking about that book conjures up vivid colors, flavors, smells, air textures and sounds and feelings.

  • Rachel

    Well I certainly want to see your Tralfamadoran postcards. And I am very excited to understand from your explanation why I so much prefer non-fiction books.

    Do you know about Japanese New Year’s Postcards, nengajo? They are sent instead of Christmas cards, all are delivered by the post office on New Year’s Day itself, and many Japanese design their own cards to send. http://japanese.about.com/library/weekly/aa120900a.htm

    Apparently painting ones own postcards as travel souvenirs is also very popular in Japan. http://www.stutler.cc/sketching/articles/postcard.html

    As always Vivian, you were ahead of your time.

  • Unlike you, I actually prefer fiction. I think that really good fiction can be better at telling the truth than non-fiction. That may not make a lot of sense, but these words by Tim O’Brien say it better than I can:

    “I want you to feel what I felt. I want you to know why story-truth is truer sometimes than happening-truth.

    “Here is the happening-truth. I was once a soldier. There were many bodies, real bodies with real faces, but I was young then and I was afraid to look. And now, twenty years later, I’m left with faceless responsibility and faceless grief.

    “Here is the story truth. He was a slim, dead, almost dainty young man of about twenty. He lay in the center of a red clay trail near the village of My Khe. His jaw was in his throat. His one eye was shut, the other eye was a star-shaped hole. I killed him.

    “What stories can do, I guess, is make things present.”

  • Hey! What about Barbara Pym?

  • Jennifer

    To Cheryl: The Things They Carried is on my short list of books that have affected me deeply.

  • I just plain like to read, but if it sucks it WILL get thrown up against a wall.

    Meanwhile, wanted to let you know that because of the cool comments I got on my art/visual or written journaling post last week, I have constructed a new piece … truly hope you sound in, as I quoted you (hee).

  • Wow, you have the smartest readers of your blog. But I am curious what the novel was that a reader recommended that encouraged you to recall “Slaughterhouse Five”?

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