Fearing the albatross

My fellow workshoppers and I-- back when I was taking graduate writing workshops-- spent a lot of time telling each other what not to write, often without really meaning to. I remember one friend whose big beef was cliché. She was an extremely gifted writer and a sensitive, intelligent reader-- one of the people I enjoyed working with most, and to whom I'd go first when I needed advice. But clichéd language bothered her; it worried her to the point that she'd mark not only the real clichés she found in a piece, but any combination of words which seemed at all familiar. I still have drafts of stories of mine with cliché scrawled down the margins, almost every other line, in her friendly, sprawling script. Whenever I revised, I would dutifully remove the passages she'd marked. I knew I could trust her judgement.

Those revisions, more often than not, really would result in cleaner prose, or more vivid imagery, or clearer narration. It took me a long time, though, to understand that I didn't have to feel ashamed whenever I caught myself using some phrase or image which seemed a cliché. It took me a longer time to understand that familiar images and phrases, and even certain clichés, aren't always a bad thing-- so long as you realize what it is that makes them clichés in the first place. Even now, I still haven't quite got my head around the fact that every cliché, at some point in the past, seemed a fresh insight to those who first encountered it: to them it would have been something startling, bold, and new. A cliché becomes a cliché through overuse-- and oversimplification, perhaps, as it's used and then used again. Like a game of telephone, the original message degrades; things get lost in translation. That doesn't mean the original idea no longer has any worth, or that we shouldn't revisit the idea when we write.

Sometimes writers fear to write certain kinds of stories because they don't want to risk Being Hokey. I think it's one reason so many academics, and writers who have been through MFA programs, feel inclined to shun fantasy and science fiction-- or at most approach it warily, like some strangely compelling insect, and prod at it with a long stick. It's where terms like "magical realism" come from; they're ideas which appear to explain why on earth any self-respecting writer would venture down some odd imaginative path that others might not. I'm reminded of one professor of mine, who taught a seminar on satire. She'd studied Pope and Swift for years, she told us, but just couldn't understand what satire was, or why it worked. How could great literature be so silly, and still be great? Can you really have a character wee all over a miniature village to save the tiny people who live there from a fire? Can you have tiny people? Can you really do that-- and still be writing literature? For adults? How?

Sometimes the joke is a deep one, and worth probing. And sometimes it's funny because it tickles. That's an important idea for a writer to remember-- and can be equally difficult to accept. We fear to Be Hokey, to make jokes in poor taste, to tell stories about things that can't possibly be-- and sometimes we're right to listen to the voice that would reign us in. But sometimes that voice is more about ego than with writing or "crafting" stories thoughtfully. Sometimes there's truth to be found in a Hokey, if you can shine the right sort of light on it.

Chapter nine of
Steering the Craft offers an optional exercise called "The Expository Lump"; it's essentially an exercise in working extraneous-yet-necessary background information into a narrative. Here, Le Guin provides a couple of alternatives: to write a narrative around a specific fantasy scenario she provides, or to write a scene which involves some complicated, detailed activity the writer knows how to do (say knitting a sweater, or baking a cake, something like that).

I chose the fantasy option, because it scared me more. You may have gathered by now that while I certainly enjoy reading fantasy, writing it really isn't my bag.

Option One: The Fantastic Lump

Study this piece of false history and invented information till you're quite familiar with it. Then use it as the foundation of a story or scene. As you write the scene, "compost" the information, break it up, spread it out, slip it into conversation or action-narration or anywhere you can make it go so it doesn't feel Lumpy. Tell it by implication, by passing reference, by hint, by any means you like. Tell it so that the reader doesn't realize they're learning anything. Include enough of it that the reader can fully understand the situation the queen is in. This will take, I think, two or three pages, possibly more. (Le Guin 134-5)

The kingdom of Harath has not had a ruler for twenty years, since young King Pell disappeared in a battle on the border of the kingdom with the Ennedi, who are magicians. (The people of Harath have never practiced magic, as their religion declares it to be against the will of the Nine Goddesses.) What became of the king is not known. He left no known heir. (Harath used to be ruled by queens, but since Pell's grandfather's time, men have ruled and women are not permitted to.) Succession to Pell's throne was disputed by various members of the royal line and by a powerful minister, Jussa, who declared himself the Queen's Guardian. Battles between these factions have left the kingdom impoverished and demoralized.

At the time of our story, the Ennedi are again threatening to invade on the eastern border. Jussa is keeping the queen, a woman of forty, imprisoned in a remote tower under the pretext of keeping her safe. In fact he is afraid of her, and alarmed by rumors of a mysterious person who managed to visit her secretly while she was in the palace. This person might be the leader of a rebel faction who is said to be the Queen's illegitimate child, or it might be King Pell, or it might be an Ennedi magician, or.... (135)*

When Areth Met the Albatross for the Last Time

"But what is it you want?" asked the albatross, shifting to one side of the sill. "More than anything?"

It took Areth a moment to answer him. She sat with her mouth hanging open, and stared at the bird. He preened idly at a wing, then stared unsteadily back, bobbing his head a little this way, then that, never sitting quite still, and frowning in an odd way-- if indeed an albatross could frown.

"Well-- I. I. What sort of question is that?" she said.

"An important one. They used to ask queens what they wanted." The great bird hopped beside her onto the window seat, and cocked his head. "They used to give it to them."

It was uncomfortable, sitting that near the bird; Areth could smell warmth, and seawater, and fish. She leaned out over the sill and looked down. It was impossible to make out the bottom of the tower in the dark. "They used to let queens do magic, too," she said, "but they were wrong, and it was a long time ago. I don't want anything from anyone." She peeled a long flake of soggy, mouldering paint from the window frame and turned it over in her fingers, holding it up to the light-- it was drab white on one side, damp black on the other, with little slivers of wood sticking to it. The thing curled in on itself as it dried. "Mind you," she said, and smiled a little, "I'd like to get out of this tower."

"More than anything else?"

"For heaven's sake," said the queen. "How should I know what I 'want more than anything'? How do you want anything at all? Yes, all right, I'd like lots of things. Who doesn't? Getting out of the tower would be high on my list. I'd like to walk in the gardens again. I'd like to find Pell. He can't be dead. I won't believe it." She twisted the strip of paint round her fingertip, first one way, then the other, till it split. "But it's not about what I want, or what anyone wants. Some things happen, others don't. Sometimes you're pleased when they happen or don't happen, other times you're not. That's all."

"Would you have him come back?"

"Of course I would! He's my husband. Why wouldn't I want him back?"

"And what would you do then?"

"Tell him to get rid of that Jussa, for a start. 'Queen's Protector' my-missing-foot," she grumbled. The bird clacked its beak; it wobbled its head. If Areth hadn't known better, she'd have sworn the albatross was laughing. "You wouldn't think it was so funny if you'd lost your foot," she said.

"Can't shackle the leg that hasn't got one," said the bird. He bobbed his head toward the open window, at the horizon. "Here they come."

Areth squinted at the little lights that began to appear, one after another, far across the harbor, out in the open sea. They grew, skipping and dancing toward them on the waves. At that speed, the Ennedi would be upon them within the hour. She hoped they wouldn't use firebombs. They'd be sure to hit the tower first.

"Do you think Pell's with them?" she whispered.

"Hard to say," said the albatross, and nibbled at a stray feather with his beak. "I'm afraid this is where I'll have to leave you." He hopped onto the sill, flapping his wings a bit to feel the wind.

"No, don't." Areth put out a hand to grasp the bird by the tail. His feathers felt like silk, not like real feathers at all; the bird shifted a little to free himself. He twisted his head and fixed her with one big, beady, frowning eye.

"There isn't anything I can do for you now," he said. "But there's something you might. If you want it badly enough."

"You're cruel, that's what." Areth spat at the bird in spite of the lump in her throat. "You're an insult to albatrosses," she blurted. "Jussa thinks you're a man."

"Well. Everyone knows that birds can't talk," said the albatross. "Now can they?" He opened his wings and dropped off the sill. In a moment she saw him rise again, climbing into the sky, soaring out over the harbor like a shadow; Areth wanted nothing more, at that moment, than to leap over the windowsill herself, fling herself into the air and follow him, fast as she could, into the dark.

For some reason I had a hard time narrating that sequence in a way that satisfied me-- i.e., with what seemed to me enough sensory description, not to mention that meandering interior narration of the sort I like to read in other stories. I have trouble punctuating dialogue sequences with detail; I often end up with talking heads. It's a tricky thing to get right. Of course, I'm pickier with my own stuff than with the stories other people write.

Next: slice, chop, whackity-whack.


*Le Guin, Ursula K. Steering the Craft: Exercises and Discussions on Story Writing for the Lone Navigator or the Mutinous Crew. Portland: The Eighth Mountain Press, 1998. p. 134-35.


spacedlaw said...

I think you did well with the exercise.

Re: clichés. Not everything has to be bold, inventive, shiny and new. That can come out as mere gibberish and arrogant prose. What you might want to have now and then is an expression that feels like an old pair of used slippers, comfortable and able to bound immediately with the reader, who will know immediately what you are actually meaning instead of trying to figure it up by attempting to sort out your shiny inventive - but potentially thoroughly alien - baubles.

That was rather a lot of adverb, wasn't it? I'll blame the French in me for that and go cook dinner.

Jess said...

Thank you. It was fun to write. Adverbs, shmadverbs-- well said! :) You're right. Sometimes that kind of thing is just the result of looking too closely at things for too long-- it's hard to know when to stop. It's like tweezing your eyebrows. Stand too close to the mirror for too long, and you might yank one too many. Then you'll have to draw them back on with a pencil.

Oh Dear God, what a hideously tortured analogy. Forget I said it. This comment never happened. We all dreamed it.

Anonymous said...

Here's a suggestion... perhaps people shy away from things such as clichés because they've heard so often that they are bad. It's for a similar reason that so many people say 'Tom and I' when they really should have said 'Tom and me'. They've become allergic to the 'and me'.

At school we were told we shouldn't repeat ourselves too much in a piece of writing, so we script dialogue with that in mind... 'he said, she replied, he laughed, she gloated' and it just sounds horrible. Would be much better to stick with the 'he said, she said'.

It's not always that we have decided for ourselves that something is bad; it's more likely that, in our minds, we imagine a critic saying "but look at all those he saids, she saids! What a poor writer." Or so I reckon. :-)

Jess said...

Hi, Diddums! Welcome. :) I think you're right-- that's certainly what happened amongst myself and m'colleagues in the creative writing program, and I've seen it happen in other workshops, too. It always begins with those rules and standards that get hammered into us at school; they can be hard to break away from. Which isn't to say that the rules and standards aren't any good! But I think it can be easy, especially in a piece of creative writing, to sometimes let the things we've learned hold us back to the point that we can't get anything down on paper, let alone finish it. :)