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?