Shop Talk: Inspiration = What Haunts You

I highly recommend a piece in the opinion pages of the NYT today, a conversation between Colm Toibin and Jeffrey Eugenides, “The Stuff That Won’t Go Away”. I’ve copied below the part that resonated with me. As I rewrite the ms-that-was-formerly-known-as-The-Hero’s-Wife (haven’t yet replaced the title) I’m  focusing on infusing each scene with a sense of urgency.

Colm Toibin: “It seems that the essential impulse in working at all is to rehaunt your own house, or to allow what haunts you to have a voice, to chart what is deeply private and etched on the soul, and find form and structure for it.
“Thus the idea of making experience seem urgent, vital and alive remains at the core of our enterprise. We can bathe this in irony; we can find metaphors for it; we can even invent it and disguise it. But it is there in the room when there is nothing else in the room.”

Jeffrey Eugenides: “If I’m really honest about it (another fine word), it is indeed that simple: you’re alone in a room with the stuff that won’t go away. I won’t say “haunts,” because memory doesn’t feel ghostly to me, or unwanted. It’s more like a lost Eden: Detroit in the ’70s, college in the ’80s, all those vivid sensations and terrible mistakes still there for me to revisit and reuse in order to make up stories that never happened. “Making experience seem urgent, vital and alive” is exactly what we do. We don’t have to justify it or philosophize about it, or to bring in “progress,” necessarily, because such ideas happen after the fact and are extraneous to the main enterprise.”

There is no substitute for reaching within and bringing forth that haunting urgency, moment to moment asking the question, what compels me about this scene, this character, this event? The point is not breathless action, over the top emotion, but a subtle urgency that draws me (and future readers) deeper and deeper into the story. It keeps me excited about the book, even in a rewrite.

That this query has to do with a sense of urgency came to me as I watched waves rise, curl, crash at Cannon Beach last weekend. I felt the suspense, I couldn’t look away–the stormy ocean mesmerized me. I forgot everything else. I was just there with the waves, caught up in their continual reforming, anticipating the next one, and the next one. That’s the effect of great storytelling, isn’t it? Anticipating the next thrill, chill, tear, aha!, sigh…. What serendipity to read the above “conversation” this morning.

2 Comments on “Shop Talk: Inspiration = What Haunts You

  1. In what I read and what I write, it is the gradual development of the plot, with its subtle hints of things to come that leads you inexorably on. Mini climaxes are necessary rewards as the story unfolds, but it is the weaving path, with the prospect of secrets around each corner, that holds the attention.
    I like to think of both writing and reading as a fishing trip. The scene is set by the lake or river and the groundwork is prepared lying spread out around you. The cast is made and with eager anticipation the float is watched. Thrills rush as the float jerks, tempting a premature strike from deliberate misinformation. You know there is a fish lurking, but you cannot be sure when and if it will take the bait. The climax comes as the fish bites and, struggling, is brought to the net where it is scooped out of the water. The final chapter closes.
    Maybe a protracted analogy, and of course, like the story it never ends. There will always be questions. Will the fish be taken home and cooked or will it be released to grub around the silted bottom? Will there be a sequel; another trip, another book?
    Oh I do hope so.


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