Cynthia’s Column March 2010
Lots of excitement at our house this week, as you will see as you read on.
First of all, I want to thank all of you who came to the reading of my new play The Wilde Boy at Artists Repertory Theatre. You were a wonderfully attentive audience and your feedback was brilliant. Thank you thank you thank you. I will keep you all posted on future productions.
I recently read a best selling novel that alarmed me. It is by one of my favorite authors, is her latest hard-cover best selling novel and it’s not very good. The book is Run by Ann Patchett. I had just finished reading her amazing memoir Truth and Beauty about her friendship with poet Lucy Grealy which instantly jumped onto my Top Ten Memoir List (alongside Liar’s Club and The Tender Bar.) Patchett’s novel Bel Canto was one of those great reads that grabbed you, held onto you, broke your heart and stayed with you for years. So how can a smart, deep, skilled writer come out with a book this flat? The sentences are good. The themes admirable. The characters are flesh and blood and fresh. What is wrong here?
To begin with, there is not enough conflict. The stakes are too low. And everyone is nice, and smart, and talented and kind or generally remarkable and yikes. We writers have to take this as a cautionary tale. If you don’t have a problem, you don’t have a story. The problem is the story. Without it, you just have people, going along, living their lives and stuff happens, but you know. No problem, really. Kiss o’ death.
At first there is an incident that makes it seem like there might be a problem. A woman is hit by a car (right away, so no spoiler here) and hospitalized. She could potentially die and leave an 11 year old daughter alone. But as it unfolds it becomes clear that one of two things will happen. Either she will pull through and Mom and Kenya will live happily ever after. Or she’ll die and little K will live happily ever after with her wonderful brothers and their family. All good or all good. Either one would be fine with me, actually. Doesn’t really matter which way it goes. See the problem? Next thing you know it’s a horse race we’re watching with not bets. Which horse wins? Who cares? A reader/audience can feel many things. “Who cares” should never be one of them.
A few years ago, reading The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon, I was so scared for an autistic kid (about the same age) walking through the streets of London by himself that I could not sleep. I was absolutely gripped by maternal anxiety and had to read on into the wee hours of the night to be sure he was okay. Past the first few pages, I never worried about Ann Patchett’s kid at all. She was obviously going to be totally fine. She didn’t need me.
For me, Ann P. made a few other mistakes that we can learn from here.
Point of view. When I first wrote prose, I resisted the idea that you could only be in one person’s head, or one at a time. Jane Austen bipped from one brain to another rather freely at times. Then why, oh Lord, cannot we? But the effect is soft and mooshy. If we are everyone, then we’re not really anyone very strongly.
Passage of time. In film we try to cover the shortest time possible in order to tell the story, but you can go too far with this. I may have mentioned in an earlier column how hair-tearingly frustrating I found Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment as it took hundreds of pages to cover two or three days. AAAGH! Same problem here. The entire novel covers about 24 hours. It feels like the minutes drag by at a sub-snail speed and … well…boredom…y’know…ensues. It’s like reading in real time. Taking an hour to read something that takes an hour to happen. This is just wrong somehow.
Years ago I was hired to write a film biography of Roy Orbison. I jumped at the chance. Here was a remarkable person, beloved and colorful with tragedy in his life. His first wife was killed in a motorcycle accident at 25. Then two of his three little boys died when the house burned down. But I learned the hard way that tragedy is not conflict.
Unless the tragedy creates conflict. If a person loses someone and as a result, has a breakdown, a drinking problem, a commitment phobia, fill in the blank, fine. Walk the Line was one of those stories where a tragic death (of Johnny Cash’s brother) lead to tons of internal conflict. Likewise Ray Charles losing a brother. Come to think of it, aren’t these almost the exact same story? Anyway this was not true for Roy. He had faith, fell in love and married again fairly soon. Had another son. In other words tragedy was followed by living happily ever after.
For a story to work, conflict has to have a beginning, middle and end. The struggle needs to not only continue, but escalate.
In Run Ann Patchett writes a character of an 11-year-old girl that doesn’t think or talk like any child I ever met. She didn’t feel like a real child. She felt like a character. Someone’s idea of how a child might be. A precocious child. You don’t have to have children to write children well. But you probably need to get to know some children. I didn’t believe little “Kenya.”
Obviously that Run is not a very good book is only one opinion, mine. Skimming down the Amazon.com page, the reviewers seem to have liked this book much more than I did. Luckily, though as writers, we can learn from everything, even a book we didn’t love. (Okay, or like.) We can learn from other writers’ mistakes, and hopefully make fewer of our own.
On a personal and much happier note, we have a wonderful new arrival at our house. My sister Laura (the novelist I have bragged about many times here) has adopted a newborn son, Robinson David Whitcomb, born January 29, 5 pounds 4 ounces. He is one foot four inches tall and adorable. A touching “coincidence,” he was born on our sister Wendy’s husband David’s birthday. David passed away in September. So now our house, in addition to being a writer house is also a baby house and we are blissful.