On ghosts, bunnies, ghost-bunnies, and the relation between the experimental and necessity.
First, I wanted to thank Maria Popova at The Marginalian for this lovely essay on “A Swim in a Pond in the Rain.” The Marginalian is Ms. Popova’s brilliant labor of love, that runs purely on donations. As she describes it: “For seventeen years, it has remained free and ad-free and alive thanks to patronage from readers. I have no staff, no interns, not even an assistant — a thoroughly one-woman labor of love that is also my life and my livelihood.” Such smart, good-hearted, life-expanding writing there, always…
Now for our question of the week.
My question is about ghosts. Shakespeare had ‘em, you have ‘em, how does one make ‘em work?
In my story-in-progress, I’ve got a couple of thorny issues.
One is a character who has just now shown up—she’s not in the timeline of the story at all. She’s a dead mother (DM) who, through her powerful personality and pronouncements, exerts a lot of influence on her daughter, and to a lesser degree, on her granddaughter. This DM believes herself to be of noble heritage; she feels quite superior to those around her, although, of course, the glory days of her family are in the past. She tends to speak in iambic pentameter, oftentimes cryptically.
How can I present her in most of her glory and preserve her speech patterns and vocabulary without (1) having the other characters describe her in conversation, (2) having her appear in dreams, which is another way, I guess, of saying as a ghost, or (3) having other characters simply remembering and ruminating about her? These options seems to bring the narrative to a clunking halt (maybe if I were a better writer?—I’m working on that).
My other issue is sort of the same one: how does one present backstory effectively? How does one avoid the deus ex machina? (Since, actually, the writer is always the god in the machine.) (I’m already playing fast and loose with godliness by making most of my characters rabbits.)
I’ve just run into this snag/problem, which I naturally want to avoid, and which I usually do by stopping writing.
I don’t want to stop (now that you’ve showed how fun writing is!), so my plan today is to go ahead and write her as a ghost, with the mental note that this will all be fixed somehow by my subconscious in revision. This is the plan until I get better advice from you and my comadres and compadres in Story Club!
To cut to the chase, I’d say that your subconscious has already led you to what to do, or at least what to do first: she’s a ghost.
Not only that, she is, if I’ve read your question correctly, the ghost of a bunny.
A ghost bunny.
Now you just have to make that work.
And, as you suggest in your question, if you can’t make it work, some other course of action will present itself.
It’s always risky to advise without actually having read something – the devil really is in the details – but I thought I might use your question to talk about the more general connection between weirdness (whimsy, craziness, the unexpected) and necessity.
When I pick up a book of fiction, I know what it is: it’s something somebody made up. It’s all made up (even if it’s based on “reality”).
Knowing that, I read with, let’s say, certain reservations.
I know the writer is inventing a world.
So, the question naturally arises: Why is he?
If I feel it’s because he is trying to demonstrate his own cleverness, or be edgy, or show off, or evade the primary job of fiction (whatever we decide that is), then I resist, slightly. Even if I just sense some deliberate flouting of what I’ve heard called “consensus reality,” this might slightly put me off. (That is, if the story goes out of its way to say, “Look at me, I am happening in a universe not your own!”)
Or, to be nicer about it, let’s say I put a little mark in the “Against” column. It doesn’t mean I’m done reading, it just means….I’m reading with reservations.
This happens all the time, of course, even in the first lines of a great story like Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis”:
One morning, when Gregor Samsa woke from troubled dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a horrible vermin.
Reading this, I recoil, slightly; I feel: “Uh, no he didn’t.” But then – and this is a fundamental part of the fictive pact – I say, “O.K., Franz, let’s say that Gregor did wake up a ‘horrible vermin.’ I’ll grant you that. Now what do you propose to do with it? How are you going to make my suspension of disbelief worth my time?”
And this contract (this implied expectation) between reader and writer stays in place for the rest of the story.
Likewise, in this, the first paragraph of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s brilliant story “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings”, which begins like this:
On the third day of rain they had killed so many crabs inside the house that Pelayo had to cross his drenched courtyard and throw them into the sea, because the newborn child had a temperature all night and they thought it was due to the stench. The world had been sad since Tuesday. Sea and sky were a single ash-gray thing and the sands of the beach, which on March nights glimmered like powdered light, had become a stew of mud and rotten shellfish. The light was so weak at noon that when Pelayo was coming back to the house after throwing away the crabs, it was hard for him to see what it was that was moving and groaning in the rear of the courtyard. He had to go very close to see that it was an old man, a very old man, lying face down in the mud, who, in spite of his tremendous efforts, couldn’t get up, impeded by his enormous wings.
It is, of course, that last phrase “his enormous wings” that throws the story out of the realm of consensus reality and (slightly) puts us on our guard. It also, of course, thrills and delights us. Marquez has just upped the ante of the story; he has said, implicitly: “Yes, I have just made a request for an expansion of your normal system of belief AND I promise I am going to make it worth your while.”
The process in stories like this is: writer throws down gauntlet, reader notes this, waits for the writer to make it worth it.
Kafka could not have gotten to the crazy, true places he gets to in his story, and Marquez could not have made the beautiful poem that is his story, without these initial departures from reality.
In other words, in the end, we accept the departure because we understand it to have been necessary.
But, of course, a version of the same process happens with a realist story.
Every story declares, in its first few lines, its rules of engagement. And I’d say that, if we look closely at our minds as we read, we’ll notice that every beginning of a story elicits some version of what I’ve called above “recoiling;” it creates certain “reservations.”
We might just say that it causes some “reaction.”
A given passage puts us in a different place than we were before we read it. And it creates expectations about what’s to come.
Even a “realistic” story like Claire Keegan’s “Foster” (one of the most beautiful stories I’ve ever read, by the way, that first appeared in The New Yorker and then later in book form) declares itself in its early lines:
Early on a Sunday, after first Mass in Clonegal, my father, instead of taking me home, drives deep into Wexford toward the coast where my mother’s people came from. It is a hot day, bright, with patches of shade and greenish, sudden light along the road. We pass through the village of Shillelagh, where my father lost our red Shorthorn in a game of forty-five, and on past the mart in Carnew where the man who won the heifer sold her shortly afterwards. My father throws his hat on the passenger seat, winds down the window, and smokes.
Reading that paragraph, I feel that the writer is declaring her residence within a certain tradition: measured, realist, concerned with the actual, set in a very particular, and, it seems, rural, place. Do resistances arise? Sure. I feel, slightly, that the text is going to choose to ignore the modern and or urban/suburban world. I go (slightly) on alert: is this going to be too nostalgic? Is the writer sidestepping the complexities of things as they are, in order to stay within that diction? And so on.
This is a great tool for a writer: simply asking, “O.K., what is the nature of the “ask” I am making of my reader?” (We’re always asking something of her). Or: “What is the nature of the slight resistance a reader would be likely to feel, here after paragraph 1?” (Or actually, after any paragraph.)
Once we have a sense of where our reader is, the next move (in my experience) comes in the form of a gut feeling. Re-reading my work, I am imitating my reader, feeling what she feels - feeling this resistance/aversion – and then making an adjustment, intuitively, designed to assuage, or sidestep, or otherwise take that resistance into account.
Reader: Your opening is making me feel this way.
Me: Duly noted. I will take that into account in my edits.
Over and over and over…
In this model, nothing is unworkable. As in life, we just have to 1) notice, 2) accept what we’ve noticed, 3) adjust our “actions” accordingly.
Many writing issues have to do with neglecting one of those three items above. We might not have a good idea of what an ideal reader would be reacting to (as in item (1). Or we might notice an authentic reaction on our part, but, because this observation doesn’t fit with our plan, we might fail at item (2) (i.e., we deny what we’ve noticed). Or, having noticed and even accepted that judgment, we might be too timid to make the necessary change, thus neglecting item (3).
So, back to your ghosts (and mine).
Are ghosts allowed? Recommended? How about ghost bunnies?
Yes, yes, a thousand times yes – but everything comes at a cost. (Maybe “cost” is too scary a word. Is “consequence” better?) That doesn’t mean “don’t do it.” It just means “consider the cost as you proceed.”
Will the reader look askance, as the bunny mother comes back from the grave (if I am understanding things correctly) and speaks in iambic pentamer? Yes! Of course, she will.
Will the reader abandon ship? We hope not. Your job is to try to get her not to abandon ship. (While writing the ghosts in Lincoln in the Bardo (or “CommComm” or “The Wavemaker Falters” and many other stories, I was always doing this subtle calculus. “The reader sees that this is ghost, and recoils. What can I do, especially in the details of the ghost, to make the reader stay with me?”)
And what fun, if the reader goes through some version of this process: “I was about to jump ship but then the charms of the story persuaded me otherwise and, in the end, it was completely worth it.”
In other words, while considering the cost of a certain move, don’t neglect to consider the potential joys of it, too.
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I would love to read a story with a bunny ghost mother/grandmother speaking iambic pentameter. I think for a time I was not good at workshop / writers group feedback because I tend to be up for the ride. I've gotten better over the years at feedback and also recognizing the cracks in my own work that I previously tried to fix with a bandaid or hope that readers would just get past and/or not notice (partly thanks to these discussions and ASIAPITR). I do think there's something about attitude, though, in reading and writing. When I was a waiter years ago, I remember wondering why certain people bothered going out at all when they were so clearly out to have a terrible time. Not that there aren't times that end up terrible, but why start that way? I want to approach fiction (writing and reading) with curiosity and hope that it's all going to be worth it, which can lead to disappointment, but at least that mind frame means jumping on the giant bunny for the trip--otherwise you never even find out if the fried carrots with aged tarragon are any good. I guess that's all to say, for me, if the writer jumps in head first, this reader will, too, so please go for it.
PS Thank you, George Saunders. Thank you, Maria Popova.
So interesting! And what a coincidence! I'm working on another novel involved with ghosts, but ghosts in the traditional Chinese fiction genre. I teach in the Boston University Writing Program as an adjunct lecturer and write Chinese historical fiction novels and short stories (www.wanderingblade.com). If you are curious about the traditional Chinese take on ghosts in fiction do take a look at two books by the wonderful Chinese literature scholar, Judith T. Zeitlin, Historian of the Strange: Pu Songling and the Chinese Classical Tale and The Phantom Heroine: Ghosts and Gender in Seventeenth-Century Chinese Literature. Also, I'm a great admirer of your take on teaching writing and have attempted to adopt some of your ideas in my writing classes...thanks! Albert