Tuesday, 27 September 2011

Understanding Narrative

I am using the month of September while my son, J, is at nursery from 9 until 3.45pm and my daughter, M, is at school, to make sense of the drafts of my book written in 2004 and 2005, and the copious notes which accompany the dusty archive. So far, I have gone through both drafts (one of 40,000 words - part one of the novel, and one of 80,000 words, part one and two of the novel combined) and then put the scenes into a rather analytical spreadsheet, called plot overview. There is a column for: scene; characters; point of view; location; conflict; theme; time; what does it show? and finally, anything worth noting. Into this spreadsheet I have inputted important historical events that happened during the time period that might be referred to in the story.

My next task is to experiment with narrative and point of view so that I can decide what privileges I am going to give my narrator. At the moment, the first draft is told from the point of view of a child, but she is able to communicate using adult language, so this is not technically ‘correct’. If she is privileged with this insight, and vocabulary, then one option is to adjust it to the point of view of an adult looking back at her childhood.

This is done most memorably in L.P. Hartley’s The Go-Between which seems to be enjoying a recent renaissance in the Review sections of the broadsheets as far as I can see. There are lots of good books on technique out there, the classic being Wayne C. Booth’s The Rhetoric of Fiction. For a digestable read on various writing techniques, turn to David Lodge’s The Art of Fiction, which is a collection of his articles that appeared in the Independent on Sunday.

Last night, by chance, I picked up a copy of the memoir or novel (depending on whose side you fall on - see wikipedia link) Running with Scissors by Augusten Burroughs and delved in, reading his first chapter very closely. This morning, as a writing warm up, I have gone back to it, and re-examined the first page of text to dissect his technique, and then appraised it. Below appears the text along with my ‘dissection’ notes.


Understanding Narrative

From Running with Scissors by Augusten Burroughs

Chapter One – Something Isn’t Right

My mother is standing in front of the bathroom mirror smelling polished and ready; like Jean Naté, Dippity Do and the waxy sweetness of lipstick. Her white, handgun-shaped blow-dryer is lying on top of the wicker clothes hamper, ticking as it cools. She stands back and smoothes her hands down the front of her swirling, psychedelic Pucci dress, biting the inside of her cheek.

In this paragraph, Burroughs uses the first person present tense: it is immediate. However, we also have the benefit of an adult’s vocabulary (psychedelic, Pucci) so we can deduce that this is an adult looking back at child’s world. Notice that the objects he is describing would be at eye-level for a young boy (a blow-dryer on top of the wicker basket), and also how Burroughs employs the senses (smell – Jean Naté perfume and Dippity Do hair cream; sound – ticking of the blow-dryer; touch – biting her cheek; smoothing her hands; sight – mirror; handgun-shaped blow-dryer). Also, although I don’t know anything about this memoir, I’m betting that the handgun-shaped hairdryer is anticipating an event later on to do with a real gun, or at least, death. The psychedelic dress tells us something about the era. Looking up Dippity Do hair cream, I notice it was a product that came onto the market in 1973. This is certainly set in the 1970s. What does the scene tell us about the relationship between mother and son? Let’s read on.

“Damn it,” she says, “something isn’t right.”
            Yesterday she went to the fancy Chopping Block salon in Amherst with its bubble skylights and ficus trees in chrome planters. Sebastian gave her a shag.
            “That hateful Jane Fonda,” she says, fluffing her dark brown hair at the crown. “She makes it look so easy.” She pinches her sideburns into points that accentuate her cheekbones. People have always said she looks like a young Lauren Bacall, especially in the eyes.
            I can’t stop staring at her feet, which she has slipped into treacherously tall red patent-leather pumps. Because she normally lives in sandals, it’s like she’s borrowed some other lady’s feet. Maybe her friend Lydia’s feet. Lydia has teased black hair, boyfriends and an above-ground pool. She wears high heels all the time, even when she’s just sitting out back by the pool in her white bikini, smoking menthol cigarettes and talking on her olive-green Princess telephone. My mother only wears fancy shoes when she’s going out, so I’ve come to associate them with a feeling of abandonment and dread.

Again, we are privy to what the young Augusten is noticing – reflections, glimmering plant pots and, above head, bubble skylights. These details are innocent next to the abrupt sentence, ‘Sebastian gave her a shag.’ We imagine that this is something Augusten has overheard, and probably - we hope - as small child, does not understand. We are introduced to his mother’s friend Lydia via her feet, and fetish for high heels. Colours are starting to come through, and they are not complex – white (innocence), red (the colour of family), olive-green (naivety). As Burroughs was recalling when he was young, colours would have been a powerful resonator, triggering recollections of scenes. We are beginning to understand more about the mother and son relationship – that Augusten’s mother goes out occasionally, and when she does he feels abandoned. This makes us ask ourselves where his father is when she goes out, and why he dreads it. Does she come back late, drunk, with a different man every time?

            I don’t want her to go. My umbilical cord is still attached and she’s pulling at it. I feel panicky.
            I’m standing in the bathroom next to her because I need to be with her for as long as I can. Maybe she is going to Hartford, Conneticut. Or Bradley Field International Airport. I love the airport, the smell of jet fuel, flying south to visit my grandparents.
            I love to fly.
            When I grow up, I want to be the one who opens those cabinets above the seats, who gets to go into the small kitchen where everything fits together like a shiny silver puzzle. Plus, I like uniforms and I would get to wear one, along with a white shirt and a tie, even a tie-tack in the shape of airplane wings. I would get to serve peanuts in small foil packets and offer people small plastic cups of soda. “Would you like the whole can?” I would say. I love flying south to visit my grandparents and I’ve already memorized almost everything these flight attendants say.

We don’t yet know how old Augusten is at this point in the narrative (he is nine, we later learn), but we can sense that he’s still at a vulnerable age – he feels a metaphorical umbilical cord still exists between him and his mother. He can only conjecture where his mother is going; there is even the possibility she’ll fly somewhere. However, this fact doesn’t fill Augusten with dread; in fact this thought causes Augusten to think about the opportunity of flight, and of seeing his grandparents again. He obviously feels safe with his grandparents, and we ask ourselves, does he want to get away? The innocent appeal of being an air steward and being able to make everything ‘fit together’ tells us a lot about his home life, where we can assume things are disjointed and falling apart.

Wednesday, 7 September 2011

The challenge: write a novel in the space of one year two days a week between 9am and 3pm

I was lucky enough to be awarded a bursary from Literature Wales last year to facilitate finishing my semi-autobiographical novel. The bursary period commences in a month, and I have a four week's lead-in to break into my routine. Two days a week for six months, I will drop off my youngest son, J aged 2, at nursery at 8.45am, and my daughter, M aged 4, at 8.50am. The times are important, in case you are wondering. By the time I get home I have just under six hours at my desk - read kitchen table - to get back into writing, and maybe even finish a book by next year. Not something I have had the opportunity to do - or even think about - much with two kids at home for four years.

The book was started in 2004 officially, though I have never written about anything else, really, except my own childhood. I hope I can get it out of my system: it would be nice to populate a novel with characters purely imaginary, scenarios the product of daydreams for once.

I didn't expect to feel the sense of loss I have felt these past two days in dispatching M and J into the hands of others. Empty nest syndrome, I suppose, but labeling feelings don't soften them. And suddenly I can remember my own experiences as a four year old in getting ready for school: my own mother tugging at my hair while knotting it into plaits, demanding keep still!; the warm smell of sandwiches, having been parceled up for three hours in a hot classroom, as I open my lunch box; nice cold, ice cold milk at eleven o'clock.

Luckily, I wrote down most of the bare bones of my novel before I had children; I see, now, how we live and see through our own children once they are born. My school days feel distant in a way that they didn't when I was in my mid-20s, able to hot hoof it off to Paris for a week to write. No such luxury now. I write between nine and three.