“Dead pigeons don’t pray”

My second workshop of the semester, focusing on the second chapter of the damned bird novel, was Tuesday night, and it went down better than the first.  There was lots of fawning praise and little to criticize.  In fact, I was a little disappointed in the lack of novel feedback, and maybe even annoyed at the recurrence of a couple criticisms.  A couple students complained about pace, not understanding why some scenes were in the chapter, and maybe the POV switching, but they were in the minority.  No, the only real points I took away from the other night are:

  • Some of the people in the class are still having problems figuring out what these characters look like.  Feathery bird heads on fleshy human bodies?  Bird heads on human bodies but completely covered in feathers?  And what about these pigeon chicks that hatched out of the eggs in the beginning?  What do they look like?
  • Some of my sentences are, I don’t know, too much?  One particular classmate, for whom this is incredibly uncharacteristic, said “Less is more.  Your writing is wonderful, but we need less of it.”  Other students and the instructor have taken to calling it my “jazz riffing” or just “riffing.”  Too much description.

Example 1 of this latter criticism:

It was midday, and the brisk mid-autumn morning air had given way to a light, stale smog.  A thin layer of dinge built up on the undersides of the handful of cumulus clouds that scraped their asses over the city.

Here it’s the “that scraped their asses over the city” that was problematic for a couple of folks.

Example 2 is when the protagonist is at a suspected murder scene.  It’s a completely bare room–no bodies, no furniture, nothing.

Shofe pulled the goggles back on, clicked off the light, and went about spraying the room until he ran out of luminol. The entire floor was a bioluminescent sea of fatal transgression. He shuddered thinking about the indeterminate inch-deep puddles of blood, mixed from all four–five–bodies that must’ve flowed through the room. The walls, however, told a much more precise story. Where everything ran together on the floor, the walls showed discrete splatters from discrete individuals. Different heights, in different directions, some as thick high-velocity globules, others as fine floating aerosol mists. Each reaching out to Shofe, grabbing at his consciousness, desperate to reveal to him their final fates. Where among these individual spirits who’d gathered here is that ancient prophet who might drink from this well of misery and remember our fates?

Everybody marked something different in this paragraph, but they were all unanimous on that last sentence.  Even when Amanda went through a prior draft, she’d written “Ugh!” next to that line.  And I was embarrassed and felt incredibly pretentious when I tried to explain the whole biz with Odysseus going to Hades to visit Tiresias.

But, you know what?  Upon reflection, screw all that.  At no point in my workshop did anybody ask me why I had that line in there.  Nobody asked what was I trying to do.  This is how all the workshops have gone: everybody nitpicks your adjectives, plot ordering, characterizations, etc–low level stuff.  The instructor and a couple other students love to remind everybody that we should “be mindful of what you put into your story because it will have meaning.”  But nobody has asked what that meaning is.  This is what this workshop class has been like all semester.

Which brings me to what I’ll leave you with, the opening paragraph of James Wood’s review of David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks from a year ago:

As the novel’s cultural centrality dims, so storytelling—J. K. Rowling’s magical Owl of Minerva, equipped for a thousand tricks and turns—flies up and fills the air. Meaning is a bit of a bore, but storytelling is alive. The novel form can be difficult, cumbrously serious; storytelling is all pleasure, fantastical in its fertility, its ceaseless inventiveness. Easy to consume, too, because it excites hunger while simultaneously satisfying it: we continuously want more. The novel now aspires to the regality of the boxed DVD set: the throne is a game of them. And the purer the storytelling the better—where purity is the embrace of sheer occurrence, unburdened by deeper meaning. Publishers, readers, booksellers, even critics, acclaim the novel that one can deliciously sink into, forget oneself in, the novel that returns us to the innocence of childhood or the dream of the cartoon, the novel of a thousand confections and no unwanted significance. What becomes harder to find, and lonelier to defend, is the idea of the novel as—in Ford Madox Ford’s words—a “medium of profoundly serious investigation into the human case.”

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  1. Pingback: Last draft of the semester is due next Tuesday | Strange Projections

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