Archival research and reading poetry seem like unlikely companions, yet for a nonfiction writer striving to tell a factual story these seemingly divergent activities fit together. Research helps me get the facts straight, and reading poetry often helps me find the language I need to weave those facts into a story.
I’m very good at giving writing advice. I know how to be practical and inspirational all at once; I know how to make it sound easy. I don’t have anything revolutionary to offer, just the basics: You have to write through the bad to get to the good. You don’t have to write every day, but the longer you go without working, the harder it is to get back in. All of it boils down to this: just write. Write anything; fill up the page. Don’t worry about whether it’s good, or even if it makes sense. Set a timer, or give yourself a goal: one page, 200 words, whatever. It doesn’t matter. Just get something down. One word after another: this is the way that books get written.
But here’s the thing: when it’s time for me to write, it’s as if I’ve never heard any of this...
We read books featuring animals and rabbits, vampires and wizards, and can figure it out. Surely, we can read about people of color without substantial appendices.
When I write, and read, narrative POV is the first thing I consider and notice. I am not exaggerating when I say I think it is the most important decision a writer makes when writing fiction. (When teaching, it is always the first topic I introduce to students, via James Wood’s very insightful How Fiction Works.) There is not only the question of “which POV?”—first person (singular or plural), second person, third person (omniscient or limited)—but also narrative distance, reliability, consistency and/or shifts. When settling on a narrative POV(s), you are essentially determining the work’s “aboutness.” If you are writing from an unusual POV like first person plural (“we”) for instance, or, say, the second person (“you”), this is especially evident. Or if your narrator is unreliable, this is not simply a “formal” decision but rather a driving force of content/meaning as well. (Think of novels like The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime or The Remains of the Day, for instance.) Finding the right POV for your fiction is often, necessarily, a trial-and-error process (I read once that Ishiguro “auditions” various narrators throughout the entire first year of working on a novel); it happens simultaneously as your story and characters find their own aboutness. Form and content shape each other.
As a black fiction writer, I believe that the story of racism in America is the purview of all writers, not only writers of color. White, after all, is also a color. Enslavement in the Americas is European history, not just African American history or the history of indigenous peoples. It’s a collective history that needs all voices—perhaps especially white ones—to parse, deconstruct, analyze, and examine through fiction.
In his unreleased song, “Wastin’ Time (No More),” the late rapper Ol’ Dirty Bastard laments all the hours and days and years he threw away on womanizing, drug abuse, and incarceration. In the hook he pledges to never again “taste the drugs,” to “climb real high” and “feel free,” and most importantly to no longer waste time. I imagine the song was written and recorded in the spirit of triumph, that Dirty meant every single word, and that when he finished his lyrics, producers, studio engineers, collaborators, family members, maybe even record execs, stood and applauded, clapped Dirty on the back, felt good, really really good about the song, not just its quality, but what it represented: this troubled man finally getting right and coming out the storm. Alas, it’s impossible for me to listen to “Wastin’ Time” and feel triumph, to not feel sadness. Not long after recording the song, Dirty succumbed to the drug addiction he vowed to put behind him, taking with him every song he dreamt of recording but still left unsung.
I am a white American male, but the central characters of my last two novels are a Muslim-Indian cook and a repressed Japanese Buddhist priest, while my current work in progress is in the voice of a Spanish private banker who is dying. I have never accepted the classic writer’s admonition that we should write only about what is organic to our lives. The joy of writing, for me, is to step out of my mundane existence for a while and to romp around as someone entirely different from myself. Perhaps I have, in the loneliness and isolation that is the writer’s lot, an emotional need to discover what I share with people living in the far corners of the world, in lives very different from my own.
I talk over people when I drink too much caffeine. I either finish their sentences or cut them off to make my point. Bad manners aside, I miss what they have to say, or how they’re saying it. I also miss their silences, where Grace Paley claims “little truths growl.”
I can’t blame Diet Coke, however, when I talk over my fictional characters. Authorial intrusions are stealthy, insidious, and capable of sabotaging a perfectly good story, and what’s lost is the hard work invested in creating a character’s voice.
For example, my first novel, Washing the Dead, tells the story of a Jewish woman’s quest to return to her Orthodox community. In the early drafts of the book, my opinions about the custom of men and women sitting separately during services infested my sentences via snide phrases here and there. I grew up in a synagogue with such gender segregation, but during my first semester in college, writers Sandra Bartky and Andrea Dworkin opened my eyes to the myriad ways women are marginalized.
After I received too many rejections to count, a wise editor asked why my protagonist wanted to return to a spiritual home she found so distasteful. I felt as though she’d poured an ice-cold glass of Manischevitz over my head. “No, no, that wasn’t it at all!” I wrote her and proceeded to explain that my character yearned deeply to return to this warm, maternal cocoon of the women’s section of her synagogue. In responding to her comment, though, I realized that my protagonist didn’t give a hoot about Sandra Bartky; the term “feminist” was a part of my identity, not my character’s. I tweezed out every snarky phrase and in so doing learned that in order to move forward as a writer, I needed to muzzle the Greek chorus and abandon the various and sundry tags I’d assigned to myself.
An actor once introduced me to a technique called the “Y” model. She used it when she had difficulty relating to the Blanche DuBois character in A Streetcar Named Desire, but I think it’s even more effective when the biographical facts of the author and the character overlap. It works like this: the actor draws on her own emotions to tap into a character’s feeling-state, and this work can be visualized as the base of the letter “Y.” At some point, the actor/writer follows the character’s scent and grants the character the freedom to branch off in her own direction; her interpretation is connected to the scripted character but allows a portrayal unique to this performance. If this separation does not occur, then the actor/writer is at risk of “talking over” the character.
The “Y” technique helps me both grab a hold of my character’s heart and then let her go, bypassing internal squabbles between disparate parts of my own identity (e.g. Jew versus feminist). Of course, I never would have thought to set my novel in an Orthodox Jewish synagogue had I not spent the formative years in this community. I agree with Willa Cather that “most of the basic material a writer works with is acquired before the age of fifteen.” Yet my character had a right to her own reactions to her childhood experiences.
What I’ve come to learn, albeit glacially, is that in order for me to be the best listener, to both real and fictional characters in my life, I have to forgo the caffeine and focus on them, not on the things I might be waiting to say, and tend to their words with great passion, respect, and tenderness. Ironically, both Hasidic Jews and feminists have shared with me that they felt my portrayal of the women in my fictive community was a refreshing look at the role of Orthodox Jewish women and a feminist statement respectively. I do not tell them that this was not my intention because I can’t speak for my character in this regard either. She already spoke for herself.
Michelle Brafman is the author of Washing the Dead and Bertrand Court. Her work has appeared in Slate, Tablet, the Los Angeles Review of Books, LitHub, Fifth Wednesday Journal, and elsewhere. She teaches fiction writing at the Johns Hopkins University MA in Writing program.
In writing my second novel, I made a discovery about all novels, a discovery that has essentially become my mantra.
I wrote my first novel on my own instincts and an astonishing number of drafts, twelve years’ worth. That’s a common story; less common and more thrilling was that when I was finished, the book sold within 48 hours to Jonathan Galassi at Farrar Straus and Giroux.
Then it was time to write my second novel, far more complicated than my first. I kept getting lost among the cast of characters, and the time frame bedeviled me. So I took apart novels I was currently admiring to see the machinery at work. That’s what I do, or if I’m teaching, we do this as a crowd. I make tables and graphs like the nerd that I am, gathering and plotting craft and technique data.
Within books I’m drawn to, my first discovery was that every subplot restates the plot or theme of that book. For example, in a novel about a reasonable character at war with her instincts, the subplots might pit her rational nature against deeply felt urges, such as her emotional, artistic, or spiritual selves. This allows the author to amplify what our character is up against without being redundant: reason vs. love, beauty, lust, faith.
Looking in any direction revealed that what holds for plot/subplot is true across the board: every slice of the novel embodies the entire novel. The first line of a book is the whole book, as is the title, point of view, the characters, plots and subplots—even the verb tense and language.
I call this “the DNA of the novel.” It’s hard to believe that this notion didn’t come up in every literature and writing class I took, or that I didn’t recognize this earlier. I’m telling you: just as a fingernail clipping or a cheek swab contains all the information of an entire human being, just as the acorn carries the entire oak in its little nut package, so does every element of the novel contain the entire book.
The reader shouldn’t feel tangled in or even consciously register these strands (you don’t see your baby’s DNA; you see the expression of the DNA and find satisfaction in tracing the strands back to their sources—Mom’s eyes; Uncle Frank’s curly hair). Each decision the writer makes reinforces the others to support, layer, and add resonance to the novel’s emotional core.
I’m hard at work on a feminist immigration novel that centers around Yelena Gomelikoff. My working title, The First American, refers to Yelena’s status and her attitude: “Being the first American in the family is my badge of honor, and I know I sometimes make it sound as if my parents, Ekaterina and Gregor Federoff, crossed the ocean in 1898 to give birth to me.” However, the title also alludes to the treatment our country gave and still gives its first Americans, indigenous or immigrated.
Yelena has a foot in the Old Country because her family belongs to the Old Believers of the Russian Orthodox church; however, as a New Country citizen she sets herself against other immigrants in their coal mining town—be they Russian, Polish, Italian, or Irish. For that reason, the story is in first person; she’s the first person on this perch.
It’s also first person because these are my people and I can’t find any evidence of their literary footprint, despite this country’s rich tradition of Russian Jewish immigrant fiction. And so this book is personal.
After Yelena introduces herself, she narrates the novel in past tense, a choice I made for straightforward and devious reasons. The novel documents these immigrants’ experience and includes a visit from Teddy Roosevelt, a mining disaster, and women’s suffrage: history books are past tense. However, as in To Kill a Mockingbird, the past tense offers the reader false comfort: this story happened a while ago, back when folks were racist and sexist. So Yelena says on the novel’s opening page: “although I’d lived my whole life here, I was given as much grief as any foreigner,” way back when people looked down on children of immigrants.
Diction is challenging in a period piece centered around an immigrant family. Rather than give dozens of examples, I’ll share a pervasive one. “Ma made every effort for American to be my first language”—choosing to write “American” rather than “English” throughout the book uses diction to show the immigrants’ makeshift word choice and underscore their desire to be of this country.
Stumbling through my story, I often make wrong choices. Like a scientist, I have to discover what makes my book distinct; unlike a scientist, I have to invent it as well, while also creating the body that houses it. My job as a novelist, through many drafts, is both to identify the novel’s DNA and then hew to its expression so that every decision allows the book to be more and more itself.
Mary Kay is a novelist whose latest book, Man Alive!, was named a Washington Post Notable Book. She is the recipient of American Academy’s Rosenthal Award, James Jones Society’s First Novel Award, and numerous DC Commission on the Arts Fellowships. Mary Kay serves on the board of the PEN/Faulkner Foundation, helped launch DC Women Writers, and cofounded NoveltyDC, which offers master classes in writing and revising the novel. www.mkzuravleff.com