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A Writing Exercise and Some Words on Demon Copperhead
All books require a spine—some element that holds the whole together and that allows the writer the strength to “hang” other things off of it. That spine might be a first-person narrator and the character arc that is constructed, an intricate plot, a central theme, or a number of other of possibilities that give a book structure and shape. In a consultation with a coaching client the other day, I found myself referencing what I saw as the spine of his book. Then, mixing my metaphors, I morphed that spine into talking about the idea of the “thread,” that element which, if you “pull” on it, all the rest of the book unravels because it is so integral. One of the strengths we can develop is by finding the way this thread is replicated in other elements of a manuscript: the way multiple characters fit a theme or share some unlikely connection, how an organizational device reveals central ideas, the way a setting reflects aspects of the characters, among other possible notions. There may be one continuous thread that holds the book together, but it also weaves together all these other patterns. Being purposeful or even exploratory with how some of these other elements help form and interact with what is central in a book can open the manuscript up for you and help you see other opportunities and, quite possibly, solutions to problems you are encountering.
Here's one specific example from a manuscript that I’m working on, followed by an exercise. In a manuscript with the working title of A Different Breath, a historical novel set during Prohibition, the core theme—my thread—is the idea that blind love can indeed be blind, that passion in love for another, or love for an idea, or love for a belief absent an inclusion of the more practical requirements of loving someone or something, can lead to disaster. For one of my three main characters, a singer-songwriter of seemingly unearthly talent, his love for the woman in his life is so blinding that he risks not understanding who she really is or recognizing she has an identity outside their relationship. For her part, her fixation with fame and with the notoriety and money that can come with it, makes her look past much of the joy in her present life and her needs for other kinds of emotional and intellectual nourishment. For a priest who accompanies the couple on their travels, his questions about the blindness of the faith required of him leads him to a kind of existential crisis. So you see how the theme I’m exploring has applications in all three lives, but it’s also present in the lives of those who become swept up in the devotion they feel to the singer’s music, finding in it the promise of lives and loves different than the ones they live. One thread, multiple strands.
So here’s an exercise that might open your own manuscript to you and help you see other potential elements of it. First, identify, in a single sentence, what you believe is the central thread holding your manuscript together. Then, whether you make it up on the spot or you focus your attention on something present in your writing but not currently developed, find some aspect in which you can explore that thread anew. That might be through a minor character, a metaphor, a setting, a parallel idea. Make a deal with yourself that you will pursue this potential “thread within a thread” (remember good yarn, like good rope, is constructed from numerous smaller threads) for a set number of pages on your computer or in your journal or for a set amount of time. Write fast; try not to edit while in process; you’re hoping for discovery here with this exercise, as with most.
The Notion of Trying on Other Skins and Barbara Kingsolver’s Demon Copperhead
I’m late to the game on this extraordinary novel, which has been on the New York Times bestseller list for over a year now, and Kingsolver doesn’t need another champion, having already garnered the Pulitzer, among other prizes and countless fans. I have always loved and respected Barbara Kingsolver. The range, beauty, and intelligence of her novels is rare and has been consistent across her career. But in this retelling/reimagining of David Copperfield, she’s accomplished something truly miraculous. It is the kind of novel—difficult as it can be to read because it’s depressing for so long—all kinds of readers should enjoy and learn from and the kind of novel writers should study closely. I was late to the game in reading Demon Copperhead in part because while I read physical copies of ninety-five percent of the books consume, I typically have one audio book going as well, which was the case here. Because I primarily listen to audio books in the car, and because I’m a writer, which means my daily commute is about twenty feet, or on the occasional mornings I write at my friend’s bakery, a ten-minute bike ride, my reading is fragmented. As much as I loved this novel, that fragmentation proved useful, for the book does offer a good deal of emotionally difficult material and weighed me down in despair at times (but don’t let this put you off on the novel; it’s totally worth the journey and its darkness is entirely necessary and ultimately productive to the story she is telling and to its themes and subject matter).
Last week, the exercise I shared focused on this notion of “trying on other’s skins” and the usefulness and discovery you can find from coming at your work from other perspectives. This aspect of Kingsolver’s novel is one of its most extraordinary accomplishments, for the book is told from the point of view of a young boy and follows him through his teenage years. Kingsolver’s narration is consistently on point, and she has successfully channeled a male’s perspective with accuracy, understanding, and compassion. If this were the only achievement of the novel, it alone would be remarkable, but consider the other demands she placed on herself with this project. Because the novel is a reimagining of another novel, that necessarily places restrictions on the author because of this source material, its essential story, and the elemental plot and character arcs. Then add that the novel is a kind of ode to Kingsolver’s homeplace of Appalachia, specifically to the hill country of southwest Virginia, and she balances her love of the place, its people, and its injured beauty with a realistic portrayal of how often the place has been left behind when it comes to education and economic diversity, the kind of place where others come in, strip it of its resources, leave little but scars behind, and disappear. Into the vacuum in our most recent age has flowed oxycodone and meth, adding to the despair and hardship. That Kingsolver has written such an unflinching examination of the place is part of its power, and as much as your heart aches for many of its characters (and withdraws in horror from others), you never loose sight of the complexities of their environment or of their humanity.
Kingsolver is, rightfully, one this country’s most celebrated novelists and the novel has captured a monumental following. If you’ve not read the novel, I encourage you to do so, and if you are trying to write, there is a lesson awaiting you on every page.