Today I went to dinner at the East Buffet, a place that serves good food at such low prices to so few customers that I always wonder what they’re fronting. As I was minding my own business, getting out of the car, an adult guy in a Superman suit ran by, his ankle-length red satin cape flowing behind him, parallel to the ground. He had a smile on his face.
What if this guy showed up in my story? He certainly surprised me as he flew past, his cape flapping in my face. Randomness helps writers to move off the dime, forcing us to accomodate something unexpected, something we hadn’t planned. Madeline’s appendicitis. Babar’s trip to Paris, of all places. Robert Frost said, “No surprise for the author, no surprise for the reader (“Robert Frost: The Art of Poetry No. 2, The Paris Review, interviewer Richard Poirier, Summer-Fall 1960, No.4). One of the problems with literature that doesn’t rise to the level of art is stodginess, a story that goes along predictably to its predictable end, never deviating to any deeper a level or any higher a plane or any more unusual a sidetrack into the woods.
I knew a writer who always planned her entire novel down to the details before she wrote a word. An editor told me that he could tell whenever the story escaped her death grip–those passages exhibited a new energy, but she always shut it down, unable to tolerate the loss of control. We and the people we write for may be reassured by familiar stories that plow no new ground, but people look for novelty as much as comfort. Give us a new idea or a new image we haven’t seen a thousand times before. (“She froze with fear.” “Her stomach tightened with anxiety.” “She swallowed her chagrin.” Yikes. The next time I see “she froze” in a manuscript, I’ll die of ennui.)
Poitier asked Frost about Lionel Trilling’s lecture on the darkness of “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” Frost replied that his poems had plenty of darkness in them and then went on to speak about contrasts, “the thought that evil shows off to good and good shows off to evil.” He quoted a couplet he had composed on the fly: “It’s from their having stood contrasted / That good and bad so long have lasted.”
I think of Frost’s “Fire and Ice”:
Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.
Every word is simple. The unexpected insight about human desire’s and hate’s equal destructiveness surprises me, though, and so does the rhyme scheme, Frost’s supple craft. That craft is what gives me the most pleasure.
Frost went on about surprises:
“…So many talk, I wonder how falsely, about what it costs them, what agony
it is to write. I’ve often been quoted: ‘No tears in the writer, no
tears in the reader. No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the
reader.’ But another distinction I made is: however sad, no grievance,
grief without grievance. How could I, how could anyone have a good time
with what cost me too much agony, how could they? What do I want to
communicate but what a hell of a good time I had writing it?
The whole thing is performance and prowess and feats of association. Why
don’t critics talk about those things—what a feat it was to turn that
that way, and what a feat it was to remember that, to be reminded of
that by this? Why don’t they talk about that? Scoring. You’ve got to score.
They say not, but you’ve got to score, in all the realms—theology,
politics, astronomy, history, and the country life around you.”
In “scoring,” I think Frost is talking about creating an impact. The good time he’s talking about is in his playing around with words and ideas, the fun that comes from plying a skill you have spent years sharpening, even if the the impulse and the content of a work is darkness and grief, even if you’re talking about desire, perishing, hate, and destruction.
If I didn’t keep the Superman scene in my Victorian novel, what would his presence in the scene have taught me about my characters? How would his presence shake up the plot? What similar surprise, more in keeping with my Victorian setting, would provide a jolting contrast that would serve the story well?
We won’t make an impact and we won’t have much fun if we don’t look for surprises. More randomness. Less death grip. More Superman. More fun.
Thanks, Jane. Frost's "No surprise…" mandate is tacked above my computer to try to write by, because I know that when I read something unexpected, on a micro or macro level (even if dark), I'm delighted in such a way that my brain opens up a little! An author who can do that is worth reading.
Thanks so much for your reply, Ann. I think about your novel, which has lots of surprise, and you, and your dad. Courage.
Last year at the Hamline residency, I went out to Whole Foods and met a fellow wearing a pink tutu with spaghetti straps, a yellow fall of hair, and high heels. Which I silently commended him on, since *I* can't even wear high heels. But you have some very interesting folks up in your neck of the woods. And I think it's lovely.
If that's the guy at the Whole Foods on Fairview in St. Paul, I've encountered him several times. Once I described him in his heels and very very short shorts to a couple of teenage kids. A few minutes later, the kids careened around the display of strawberries to tell me, "He's here! He's here!" Try putting him in a scene in your novel. (But maybe not in your raccoon novel.) I love life in the city, where nobody cares much if you want to dress up in Superman suits or tutus. Life briefly in the Twin Cities suburbs made me long for the long, flowing gowns of the Somali women and the trattoria and the Norte Americano restaurants.
Thank you for replying, Melinda. And congratulations on your darling little boy.
Thanks, Jane. I didn't realize that he was a regular — that's even more awesome! I really do like that aspect of life in the city, with all the many different varieties of people to see and meet. Though the city could sure use more trees.
Yeah, it would be tough to walk through a forest wearing high heels and a tutu.