Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Read This: David Foster Wallace's "Consider the Lobster"

This well-known essay was originally published in Gourmet magazine in 2004, and was the title essay in the author's 2005 collection.

I'm primarily a fiction writer, but every writer should know what a really great essay looks like. We discussed this one in our Tuesday workshop.

What draws you into this essay? Where does it take you? Do you end up somewhere different from where you began?

I think one of the things that makes this essay so compelling is that the author takes us on a journey—intellectual, emotional—along with him, as he has the experiences he describes, as he researches and wrestles with the questions they bring up.

He starts out with an assignment to write a very specific kind of article: one praising the Maine Lobster Festival, for a food magazine. But instead of forcing the piece to stay within that framework, he instead follows his natural trains of thought, his honest lines of reasoning, and winds up in a very uncomfortable place, so that the essay turns out to be, in some ways, exactly the opposite of what it was supposed to be.

He does this not through any fancy conscious manipulation of style or structure, but really simply by being baldly honest about what he thinks, feels and sees—rather than by writing about what he is expected (by his editor, e.g.) to think, feel and see.

David Foster Wallace was, I think, a writer who had a big and obsessively curious mind, who loved language and enjoyed using a word like "apothegm" when "saying" would do. It might be easy to assume that his intellect and handiness with obscure words are what made him a great writer. But that isn't what makes this essay work.

Towards the end of it, he writes of the attempts of lobsters to escape being boiled alive: "There happen to be two main criteria that most ethicists agree on for determining whether a living creature has the capacity to suffer and so has genuine interests that it may or may not be our moral duty to consider. One is . . . whether the animal demonstrates behavior associated with pain. And it takes a lot of intellectual gymnastics and behaviorist hairsplitting not to see struggling, thrashing, and lid-clattering as just such pain-behavior."

Intellectual gymnastics is precisely what David Foster Wallace would have had to do to twist his experience into the essay he was assigned to write. And it's precisely what he refuses to do. Instead, he goes for honesty—telling us exactly what he experiences and perceives—and in doing that produces a surprising and powerful piece of writing.

Utagawa Kuniyoshi 1797—1861, Lobster

Friday, November 14, 2014

Read This: Two Incredible Stories with Simple Plots

(The first in an occasional series, "Read This," about things you should read.)

If you're still hesitant to streamline your plot (see my last post here) because you think literary sophistication = complexity, here are two incredible stories to help you see the power of a strong, simple structure.

These are both very short, and if you are by any chance doing NaNoWriMo this month, they'll give you a good shot of inspiration while fitting in with your busy writing schedule. Read them on the subway or in a waiting room—sometime when you can't be writing and would otherwise be looking at facebook.

Alice Munro, "A Red Dress—1946"

Ernest Hemingway, "Indian Camp"

Before you read them, I'll briefly give you another useful way of looking at plot. I call it the Hegel/Snyder model. You have the familiar old three acts, and you think of them this way: Act I: Thesis; Act II: Antithesis; Act III: Synthesis. Your character moves from the familiar, known world into an unfamiliar, upside-down world where everything is weird and different, and then in the end everything comes together. (Sounds so easy, right?)

Can you see that form in these stories? Where would you draw the act boundaries? How would you describe, in one sentence each, the thesis, antithesis and synthesis in each story?

And also think about them this way: In each story, what is the main character's journey from A to B? Notice how that well-defined emotional journey is the backbone of the story.

Antonio Rubino, illus. for Pippo Sizza Aviatore by Giuseppe Fanciulli (1910), via 50watts