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Reeling and Writhing

Tony Kushner was speaking on the University of Chicago campus the other night.  He’s a very animated speaker, interesting to listen to, and incredibly thoughtful.  The University theater is staging his play, Illusion, in a truly riveting production.

In between listening awestruck as he delved into Shakespeare and Brecht and why universities should not offer undergraduate theater degrees, I also felt an unexpected kinship with some of his ways of thinking about writing.  “I run from things,” he said, “It slows me down.”  Half the time he spends thinking how crappy what he’s writing is.

The same thing slows me down, depression about how truly awful whatever I’m working on is.  At the same time, I do believe like Kushner that “your only obligation as a writer is to tell the truth,” to perform surgery on yourself so that you’re exposing your bone–if you can bear to cut that deep you will write the truth and then it will speak truly to other readers.  It sounds so noble, and yet so many petty fears and angers get in the way of diving deep into the soul that I sometimes wonder how I even write a coherent sentence.

Kushner says that the process of becoming an actor means taking apart your preconceptions about who you are and what you know about life and reassembling them in new ways.  An 18-year-old doesn’t know enough about herself/himself to begin the process, and by the same token, the process will either be superficial or destructive for someone that young.  At the same time, the chance to explore many ideas in depth gives you grounding for understanding great texts when the time comes to act.

A play changes every time it’s performed, and he loves the incompleteness of all plays–it’s why he loves the live theater.  I think novels are changed by readers, too, not as dramatically as a director and actor shape a text, but still, the experience a reader brings shapes the text in his or her mind.

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  • But I’ll bet that you also feel that, as Rumi said, “when you do things from your soul, you feel a river moving in you, a joy.”

    Just seems to me that once you, Sara, get past those initial self-doubts and you lose yourself in your work you must feel that river moving in you. You write like you do, anyway.

  • You’re meant to hate what you write. If you didn’t you’d probably be writing drivel. Just keep on doing it, please, because WE like it.

  • It’s comforting to hear just how common the experience of writers standing back, looking at their work and thinking ….. finally, it’s happened, I have been unmasked and found to be nothing but a false pretender. I’m beginning to realise that feeling is never going to go away, is it?

    The advice to cut deep and find and speak the truth is good advice – not easy advice, but good advice. I know that in Blacklist, when VI declares that her heart will break if the America she believes in is destroyed, you reached for and found just that kind of truth.

    That scene is also a perfect example of how books are shaped by readers in different ways as they bring “native” and “foreign” readings to the ideas. It provided such a powerful insight into an American sensibility, whilst simultaneously reminding this reader of the different relationship I have to my country – shaped as it is by a different history, different institutions etc.

    I have a bit of an interest in how readers shape texts. In my Masters thesis I compared VI’s iconic response with a scene in Ian Rankin’s, “Naming of the Dead”, in which Rebus faces a similar situation but reacts in a way that epitomises an entirely different sensibility – the Scottish coat of arms motto – “Wha daur meddle wi’ me?”

  • What a beautiful quote from Rumi. Thanks for putting that out there for all of us to think about. Pam, I’m curious about how you thought about the difference between Rebus and V I–maybe you could write a bit more about that. Bookwitch, the problem is–it all feels like drivel–and sometimes it most likely is!

  • Read your piece in the Guardian today. That was not drivel, either.

  • To put my ramblings in a bit of context I was looking at “place” in crime fiction.

    How often have you read that crime fiction has a great sense of place?

    I reckon it’s more complex and dynamic than just scenery. And it sparks the alchemy that, as Sara suggested, “changes” the novel as each reader experiences it. There’s the political place of author and reader, the influence of geographical place and political, historical, social and cultural factors and even the political place of crime fiction itself as a literary form.

    So, I reckon, Rebus and VI reflect their own and their writer’s very specific worlds. Blacklist and Naming of the Dead are good books to compare as they both dealt with the way western liberal democracies reacted to the war on terror. I also used a third book, Richard Flanagan’s thriller The Unknown Terrorist to throw in an Australian sensibility as further contrast.

    In each book, there is a point where the protagonist, has their collar felt by the “law” – that is the new law of the post-9/11 world.

    Blacklist strikes me as an elegy for a lost America, where despite the introduction of the Patriot Act, VI still clings to a basic respect for the institutions of law. She even tries to navigate her way through this new world, setting up systems to protect herself, like the phone calls to Mr. Contreras. So VI’s statement during her interrogation that “if the Bill of Rights is dead my life, my faith in America, will break” is – to a foreign reader – a sentiment that is just intrinsically American, embodying a stubborn patriotism that seems to spring directly from the history of the nation’s creation. VI is America at that moment.

    Now, when Rebus is abducted off the street by security goons, who chuck him bound and hooded in a cell for the night just because they can (Rankin basically describes a rendition) his reaction is “to remember their faces, the better to exact his eventual revenge” – which he does. It is tragic as in the rest of the novel he’s shown to be the only cop who could be bothered investigating the serial murders of a bunch of sex offenders. His investigation demonstrates his respect for the rule of law, despite his beloved city being invaded by security forces, politicians and protestors gathering for the G8. But when push comes to shove, he embodies the motto from the Scottish coat of arms “Wha daur meddle wi’ me” – No one attacks me with impunity.

    When one of Flanagan’s Australian victims is picked up under the anti-terrorism laws and interrogated, she recounts the event in an entirely different but sadly believable way: –

    ‘Since when can they hold people without charge –’ I started saying, and he just said since the Australia Security Intelligence Organisation Act was amended.
    ‘The what?’ I say.
    ‘The ASIO Act,’ he says …

    There’s an Aussie expression, “She’ll be right” which means don’t worry, everything will be OK in the long run, but so very often – it isn’t.

    So that’s a quick synopsis of what I call “the politics of place.”

    Though of course, as it is based on the idea of “domestic readings” and “foreign misreadings” – I am most likely completely wrong!

  • Idzan Ismail, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

    Ms Paretsky

    That was a good piece on Elizabeth Browning in the Guardian on Saturday (April 10).

  • genny from jersey

    Sara, has the writing process or your personal reaction to the process changed since “Indemnity Only”?

  • And here I was hoping that after enough writing, one might — well, if not shed the fear of drivel-production, at least be so accustomed to it that it would become just another thing to be acknowledged as part of the process. Laptop, check. Notes, check. Drivel-production fear, check. OK, time to write.

    I have noticed that the longer break I take from writing, the more paralyzing the anxiety…it’s circular, because the anxiety can lead to longer breaks. All I can say is that writers like you — and characters like V.I. — have certainly been an inspiration. The lines from Blacklist quoted above were special not just what they expressed but in the fact that they were expressed, and the lack of melodrama in the expression made it all the more moving. It seems to me that the image of Americans has shifted away from people like this to the fringe elements of our society — the ones who shout the loudest.

    pmnewton, I just read the Flannigan book a few months ago. I hard time connecting to the main characters.

  • Pam, I think that’s a most insightful essay. I wondered as I read your remarks if gender doesn’t also affect the way the writer sees place and the reader responds to it. I can’t quite pull that thought into focus here, but I did feel part of REbus’s reaction was very masculine–only then I thought of writers like Cornwell, so I’m not so sure.
    Bookwitch, thank you for reading my essay–the Guardian called me on short notice, and I don’t know whether that is a compliment or not. They run a regular feature on Saturdays on someone the writer thinks is heroic. For anyone who wants to read my contribution, it was, oddly enough, E B Browning. http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2010/apr/10/elizabeth-barrett-browning-sara-paretsky
    J N, you’re right about not staying off the writing horse too long. I’ve been proofing copy-edits all week and it’s a sick-making business, too much time with my own prose. Tomorrow is Shakespeare’s birthday, so maybe the muse will sprinkle a little creative dust on all of us

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