Tuesday, July 13, 2010

On Getting Lost [in a book]

It's been ages since I last got lost in a book. There are only a handful of novels that have so thoroughly and completely transported me to another place, another time, another life: The World According to Garp, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Virgin Suicides, The Secret Garden, The Hours*.

And now one more: The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon. I was up until long past my bedtime finishing it last night. I can't articulate just what it was about those almost 500 pages, but once I started reading, I was absolutely absorbed.

Is it a flawless piece of writing? No. If I was in graduate school, discussing it for a form and theory class, I'd say the author cheated by including an extended letter from a dead woman to reveal information that would otherwise have to be left out due to the limitations of the first person point of view. If I was reading the manuscript for a friend who wanted an honest critique, I'd say the pacing is off because the last 1/4 of the book is so compressed. If I was an agent looking over my client's newest work, I'd ask for some rewrites.
As someone who has both undergraduate and graduate degrees in creative writing, and as someone whose MFA thesis included a lengthy (65+ pages) critical introduction about the craft of writing, I am perplexed that a book with such major failings has so thoroughly grabbed me. I think I'm perplexed because it means that (for me, anyway) story trumps craft...a realization that calls into question much of my formal training as a writer.
This is a good wake-up call. It's a reminder that story--not perfect sentences and flawless structure and impeccable tone--story is at the heart of human experience, and thus story should also be at the heart of every piece of writing. Story is what captures the reader at the most basic level; craft simply serves to enhance it.*** As writers (and as editors), we'd do well to keep that in mind.

Push is sitting on my coffee table, a long-overdue read that can't be put off much longer because Sapphire is coming to town. I've been walking past the red cover all evening, delaying the moment when I turn to the first page and dive into another place, another voice, another story. I am not quite ready to leave Barcelona, Daniel Sempere, and the mystery of Julian Carax behind.

Isn't that what all writers dream of? To create something so real--so important--that readers want to linger in our words? I can only hope that I will one day be able to cast such a spell.

*In graduate school, one of my professors labeled this book TFPFW -- "Too f***** precious for words." (Actually, if memory serves, she had borrowed that label from someone else.) I can see it, I really can, but...what can I say? This was a book that made me feel in a way that few other books had. Sentimental or not, I was hooked.

***Not that craft doesn't matter at all, because it does. The greatest of stories can be ruined by poor execution and mediocre stories can be made great through excellent execution. I'm just saying that craft isn't everything and story is more important than us literature folk tend to give it credit for.

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