Showing posts with label Raymond Queneau. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Raymond Queneau. Show all posts

27 May 2016

Update: Raymond Queneau


By Art Taylor

As I've mentioned a few times before, I often start a writing session with a little bit of reading—most frequently from a writing guide of some kind, to ease me into thinking about craft. In a column earlier this year, near the start of the semester, I talked briefly about Raymond Queneau's Exercises in Style, which I had begun delving into a page or two a day. Here's what I wrote then:

Though I'm only partway into the Queneau, I'm already fascinated by the project—which reminds me of the Giacometti anecdote but also takes things a step further. Exercises in Style presents a very short story about a man on a bus—an argument, and a chance encounter later the same day, the whole thing barely a half a page in length—and then retells that story 99 different times, determined in each case by certain approaches. "Notations" is the headline of the first version, which presents the story as fragmented notes. "Litotes" tells the story in understatements. "Retrograde" tells it backwards. "Metaphorically" tells it... well, you can see where this goes. In addition to underscoring the fact that there are many, many, perhaps innumerable ways to tell any story—and tell it well each time—Queaneau's project also reminds us that writing is or can be or should be fun, playful even, which is something that I sometimes forget, I'll admit. That's a lesson for my students as well there, some of whom might be as fretful as I often am about my chosen craft.

That page or two every day or so has continued intermittently over the semester—as has my writing, I'm sad to say (too intermittently)—and there's still a good chunk of Exercises in Style left to go. But I've finally decided to put the book away without reading it in full.

As even a quick glimpse at the book's cover reveals, Exercises in Style has its champions. Italo Calvino said that the book "gives rise to a whole range of wildly diverse literary texts," for example, and Umberto Eco compared it to "inventing the wheel."And while that back cover quotes the original Washington Post review, the Post review of this new edition declares the book simply a "revolution."

I'll agree. There's something exciting about the variety of approaches Queneau employs in telling the story, the range of storytelling techniques and tones, the way that all of it opens up a little wider the world or writing, our understanding of that world. "Apotrophe" begins "O platinum-nibbed stylograph, let thy smooth and rapid course trace on this single-side calendered paper those alphabetic glyphs which shall transmit to men of sparkling spectacles the narcissistic tale of a double encounter of omnibusilistic cause." A few pages later, "Telegraphic" offers something drastically different: "BUS CROWDED STOP YNGMAN LONGNECK PLAITENCIRCLED HAT APOSTROPHISES UNKNOWN PASSENGER UNAPPARENT REASON STOP...." In between are brief exercises in the senses, among them "Olfactory" ("In that meridian S, apart from the habitual smell, there was a smell of beastly seedy ego, of effrontery, of jeering, of H-bombs, of a high jakes, of cakes and ale, of emanations, of opium, of...."), "Gustatory" ("This particular bus had a certain taste. Curious, but undeniable."),  and "Auditory" ("Quacking and letting off, the S came rasping to a halt alongside the silent pavement").

All these are terrific and provocative. But then I hit several sections of "Permutations" including "Permutations by groups of 2, 3, 4 and 5 letters," which begins "Ed on to ay rd wa id sm yo da he nt ar re at pl rm fo an...." And I'll admit I'm not sure what to do with it—or more to the point, how reading such passages might help boost my own writing, though I'm sure even these specific passages might well have sparked other writers' imaginations.

After hitting that section, I found myself browsing ahead rather than reading straight through. And now I've found myself putting the book aside.

A couple of questions for others here:
  • What craft books (I use that term very loosely) have successfully sparked your writing?
  • And how often do you put aside books—any books, not just writing books—without reading them in full? 
I'm curious particularly on that latter question—since readers tend to have very strong opinions about whether a book once started absolutely needs to be finished.

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IN OTHER NEWS: I was very pleased that my fellow SleuthSayer Rob Lopresti chose my story "Restoration" from Crime Syndicate Magazine's debut issue as the "best mystery story I read this week" over at his blog Little Big Crimes. "Restoration" was a real departure in many ways for me—a quick foray into more speculative fiction—and it struggled for a while to find a home, both in more traditional crime fiction publications (too much science fiction) and in the few science fiction magazines I submitted to (not enough for them). Given all that, I was thrilled when it found a home at the edgy and excellent Crime Syndicate and especially pleased now that it's gotten such a kind reception at Little Big Crimes. Thanks so much, Rob!

And finally, a quick plug for an upcoming event between now and my next column here—a very special one for my wife and me. On Monday, June 6, at 6 p.m., my wife—Tara Laskowski—and I will be giving a joint reading at the Easton branch of the Talbot County Free Library in Easton, Maryland. Tara will be reading from her new story collection Bystanders and I'll be reading from On the Road with Del & Louise. While it's not entirely uncommon for Tara and I to appear on the same program, what makes this event special is that June 6 is our seventh wedding anniversary! At least we'll be together for the evening, right? Anyone who's in the area, please do come out to help us celebrate. :-)


22 January 2016

The Possiblities Are Endless


By Art Taylor

This week marked the start of the new semester at George Mason University, and except for an immediate snow delay Thursday and the cancellation of classes Friday (and potential syllabus reshuffling), all has been going well.

One of my classes this semester is a fiction workshop, and on the first day, I invited the students one by one to introduce themselves, to provide some background about their writing, and to say what they hoped to get out of the semester ahead in terms of honing their craft. Several of them mentioned various elements of fiction—character, plot, setting—as areas they'd like to focus on, but one student's response seemed particularly frustrated. She said that she simply had trouble finishing her stories.

I asked for clarification about that, since—to my mind—there were at least three different things she might be saying, specifically: 
  1.  I have trouble writing full drafts of stories.
  2.  I have trouble writing endings in particular.
  3.  I can write full drafts and get endings, but no matter how much I revise, the story on the page ever feels done, never seems good enough, never seems like it matches what I pictured in my head, etc. 
Turns out the answer was a little of all of that.

I assured her and the class that many writers have struggled with these same issues. Endings are indeed, for me, often the hardest parts of the story to write. And I'm a constant reviser—even after I've submitted a story for publication, I often keep tinkering with it—so I understand that sense of a story never feeling like it's entirely finished.

I've written elsewhere before—in other blog posts and interviews (so excuse me if you've heard it)—about a lesson I took from the work of sculptor Alberto Giacometti and specifically his Women of Venice series. Back when I worked at the North Carolina Museum of Art, we hosted an exhibition that included one of the sculptures (the series as a whole is pictured to the left), and I was fascinated not just by the artwork itself, the texture of it, the existential starkness of it, but also by the story of how Giacometti created the series. As I understood it, all of them were cast from the same mass of clay, clay which Giacometti worked and shaped and reworked and shaped until eventually it reached a form that he found suitable, at which point he called his brother in to make a cast of the "finished" product.

And then he began working and shaping that same clay again.

In the end, Giacometti ultimately created ten sculptures, each unique in its own way, each with a kinship, clearly, to her sisters, and each—here's the key—equally finished, perhaps equally perfect, as the next in the series.

Over the years, as I've thought and reflected on this anecdote (and hopefully not transmuted it in my own mind from the truth of it), it's become core to my own sense of process. Certainly we can and should keep searching for the best word, the best rhythm of a given sentence, the best flow of a paragraph, the best structure to a story, etc.—but after a point, we could keep working and reworking any choice we've made as writers and it might be tough to say with certainty which revision is better.

I'll likely bring up this story to my fiction workshop later in the semester, and as we embark on the revision section of the course, we'll study Raymond Carver's stories "The Bath" and "A Small Good Thing" in their various incarnations—the same story told in two dramatically different ways, and each with its own strengths and weakness, to the point that in the past when I've taught them, no class can agree which is better, which more finished or complete than the other.

It's not only the new workshop that has me thinking about this, but also a book that I've recently picked up. As I mentioned in my previous post here at SleuthSayers, I like to kick off a writing session by reading a little something about writing: craft essays, exercises, etc. Having finally completed Rules of Thumb, the book that had become a regular companion in that regard, I've just started browsing between two other books: Patricia Highsmith's Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction (a rereading in that case) and Raymond Queneau's Exercises in Style, which was recently recommended my way.

Though I'm only partway into the Queneau, I'm already fascinated by the project—which reminds me of the Giacometti anecdote but also takes things a step further. Exercises in Style presents a very short story about a man on a bus—an argument, and a chance encounter later the same day, the whole thing barely a half a page in length—and then retells that story 99 different times, determined in each case by certain approaches. "Notations" is the headline of the first version, which presents the story as fragmented notes. "Litotes" tells the story in understatements. "Retrograde" tells it backwards. "Metaphorically" tells it... well, you can see where this goes. In addition to underscoring the fact that there are many, many, perhaps innumerable ways to tell any story—and tell it well each time—Queaneau's project also reminds us that writing is or can be or should be fun, playful even, which is something that I sometimes forget, I'll admit. That's a lesson for my students as well there, some of whom might be as fretful as I often am about my chosen craft.

Queneau's Exercises also remind me of something else too, an idea inherent in all of this: Style is constructed out of a series of choices.

Yes, we hear folks talk about a writer's style as if it's a natural part of their being, or about a writer needing to find his or her own style, as if it's waiting there for each of us if we'll just look hard enough. And maybe after a while, each of us does have a set of approaches and mannerisms, etc. that become like second nature—a part of who we are as writers and instantly recognizable to readers too. But at the same time, I think it's worth recognizing and remembering that the development of that style reflects a series of preferences and opinions and decisions; and an awareness of those preferences, opinions, and decisions—of the impact of those choices—enhances our skills as writers.

At least I hope.

Maybe.

In any case, I'm enjoying the new book, and I'm curious if others have read it—and curious too about a number of other questions. How would you define your own style? Is style something that you have self-consciously cultivated? Do you shift styles depending on the project at hand? Would love to hear, of course, about others experiences!