Posted tagged ‘Harper Lee’

Occam’s editing razor

July 14, 2010

I was discussing the plot of The Sleep of Reason with one of the people who was kind enough to read and critique it. Specifically, we were discussing why things happened in the story as they do. The “reason” behind the plot turns out to be strange and extraordinary but credible. Yet I leave that for the reader to figure out based on implications and ambiguities. I don’t spell it out, but I don’t leave it out either.

Yet as we talked, I realized that the story was open to an alternate interpretation that allowed for a plot driver that was far less fantastic, far less complex, than what I had in mind when I wrote it. That possible, alternate explanation for why things happen the way they do in the story is also available to the reader, and it would work. (Plus I’ve thought of a couple of lines I could add to the story that could foster such a reading.)

They say that once a story is published, it no longer belongs to the writer. The reader can understand the story however he or she wants. And, every understanding is legitimate.

There is a mental exercise among law students that posits that in To Kill a Mockingbird, the accused man, Tom Robinson, is actually guilty and that Atticus Finch got it all wrong. This is not so much an alternate reading of the story as it is a thought experiment designed to torment young law students. I really doubt that Harper Lee had such a notion in mind, but the telling of that story does allow for such an interpretation. And ultimately, it doesn’t matter what the writer “intended.”

Occam’s razor might call for my story to be read with the simpler, less fantastic explanation for the plot, but that will be the choice of the reader. And the simpler explanation, in this case, is far less savory and fun than the more complex one.

A Room of One’s Own

April 27, 2009

Virginia Woolf famously wrote that a woman who wished to be a writer needed a room of her own and a sufficient income to be free to do so. (Her essay, born of a series of lectures she gave, asked whether a woman could write works comparable to Shakespeare, but I have to ask if any men have since written works comparable to Shakespeare. Her point stands, though. A woman of sufficient gifts in Shakespeare’s time would not have had the opportunity to develop her talents.)

For a long time I felt ambivalent about Woolf’s assertion. Most writers I know, and know of, have to steal time from all of their other responsibilities of living to write. I know that I do. Yet writing gets done. Woolf would sensibly counter that women of her age, and much more so in Shakespeare’s age, would not have even had the opportunity to steal time for writing. It’s not just for writing that we can be glad our society has changed.

Still, I often wondered just how much difference financial and social independence made for a writer. Then I came upon a revealing anecdote.

It seems that a young woman was working menial jobs in New York and lamented to friends that she could not get her writing done because she didn’t have the unbroken opportunity to concentrate on it properly. One Christmas her friends surprised her with a check in an amount equivalent to what she earned in an entire year. They told her she was now free to write, and so she did. At the end of the year she came forth with a manuscript entitled Go Set a Watchman. After a couple of title changes (and two and half years of work with her editor) the woman’s novel was published: To Kill a Mockingbird.

Of course it isn’t merely the opportunity to write that brings forth works like To Kill a Mockingbird. There has to be a story to tell, and there has to be sufficient talent to tell it well. Nonetheless, I became a believer after hearing this story.

There is a similar story about comedienne Carol Burnett and how she was given sufficient money to travel to New York and begin her singing and acting career. Author Michael Pollan explores this need for a room of one’s own quite literally in his nonfiction book A Place of My Own, which is an account of the construction of his writing cabin. (Pollan has since gone down a tangent in his writing to explore food, and while I’m sure it’s as well written as his earlier works, it doesn’t interest me much.)

I intend to use Woolf’s feminist theme of women lacking the opportunity to cultivate their creativity in my own novel Finnegans Deciphered. I continue to make extensive notes about it, but I want to be sure I’m ready to write it before I steal the time to do so. Means is just as important as motive and opportunity when it comes to writing.