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A Writer’s Matrix: Lists and Piles

I write to dig my fingers into the mulch of my life. I’m talking physical objects here, not narratives, far less theories. I know what calls to me in life, but if I’m going to find out why it calls me, I need to roll in it.

So I start with the most basic principle of (dis)order: the Pile.

Think dragon’s hoard. Yes, dragons take only jewels and precious metals, but within those limits, anything goes. If the plundered castle contains a diamond-studded chamber pot – and any castle of mine would have one – into the hoard with it!

My childhood was filled with piles of treasure, or at least, the piles are what I recall most clearly. Take the old Peabody Museum in Salem, Massachusetts, which I visited weekly, alone, for hours. The Peabody hoarded curios of the Yankee clipper trade: Samoan canoes, Chinese porcelain, Indian bronzes. It also welcomed spears, pots, moccasins, anything looted from the local Native Americans, as well as booty from the tribes of the west.

Nothing changed at the Peabody from year to year, but I never came to the end of it. The “displays” were crammed, glass-fronted enclosures that did no more than corral the stuff. The glass kept kids like me from fingering the bead work and pulling the trigger of the flintlock, so I had to do the fingering in my head. The exercise shaped me for life.

(The museum has been modernized now. One or two objects are presented in a case, hedged about with respectful placards that nail down their meaning for you. This is held to be educational.)

You do grow up eventually. You become one of the people with the keys to the display case, and – alas – it is up to you to create some kind of order. This is where lists come in.

At their best, lists come close to letting you finger the beadwork. Your shopping list for Christmas presents, say. You may cross things off, but I’ll bet you don’t scribble them into illegibility. Possessing your list, you possess Santa’s sack.

In your fiction, lists drop the reader in at the deep end. Enter a room, be submerged in the agglomeration of a character’s possessions. If you avoid clichés like garish sofa pillows or boring nineteenth-century paintings, your reader can meet an original character even before she walks onto the stage. (Avoid reverse clichés as well, e.g., you enter a room starved of eccentricity, geometric, neat, and suspicion dawns. You cannot trust the owner. He is either hiding something or deeply neurotic.)

Chris Holm, who won this year’s Anthony Best Novel award for his thriller The Killing Kind, says that lists are where he hides his clues. The villain, ransacking his pockets for his Porsche keys, might turn out used Kleenex, coins, a rubber band, half a paper clip, crumpled receipts, cookie crumbs, laundry lint. While the reader tenses over the frustrated get-away, that lint actually means….

Once you have spread your hoard out before you and made your list, you have a basis for elaboration. My hoard for one book includes a painting titled “Mom and Dad at the Gates of Hell,” a rhododendron bush heavy with rain in a square in Dublin, a wooden shack over a spring, papered with appeals to St. Bridget, a silver rack of hot toast, two vodka gimlets…. I have little idea where I’m going with this. I shuffle and rearrange the list to own my great delight; sometimes I push some items to the left of the page, to become categories, or to the right, to dwindle into mere fragments of scenes. I’m sure there’s a cosmogony in there somewhere.

Pile-to-list requires a critical mass. Two items, for instance will not do. Your middle-school English teacher’s quiz instruction, “Compare and contrast” misses the mark entirely, as so many of her instructions did. But if you sort and imagine, shift and juggle, keep the right things and toss the wrong ones, there will be a story.

Of course, you might make it on structure alone. You could outline your story first, sub-outline your outline, sit down, type it over with “the” and “is” inserted where necessary. No one could argue that you haven’t written a book. Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code reads like a series of index cards, ordered plot points fleshed out with an albino monk here and there. He made $250 million. But I bet I’m having more fun.



Bad Reads

“Leave me alone. I’m reading.” We’ve all said it, and we haven’t said it half as often as we wanted to. Give us a good book, and the world can stay on hold forever.

But how about, “Somebody get me out of this book! Where are the telemarketers when you need them?”

Why do we keep slogging through books we don’t want to read? We of all people, wordsmiths, people of literary judgment! (And in my case, old people. I don’t have decades to waste.)

Lately, I’ve been buzz-bombed by these loser books. The worst of them was called The Matter of the Gods, by Clifford Ando. It purports to be a history of religion in ancient Rome. In a former incarnation, I was a classicist, and mythology was my specialty. So I bought the d***** book. Imagine the ghastliest academese prose, wrenched and decorated to sound arch, while avoiding the dreadful faux pas of actually suggesting any conclusions. That’s MotG.

Why did I finish it? Because every couple of pages, he’d quote an ancient writer I’d never read or drop in a factoid on Roman ritual that was new to me. Drop a trail of M&Ms and I’ll follow you anywhere. It’s the kind of reinforcement that creates drug addicts.

Running in tandem with MotG was Antidote to Venom, by Freeman Wills Crofts. Crofts was one of the most popular mystery writers of the Golden Age, God knows why. I bought it because I’m working on a book that involves snake venom. Crofts’ golden rule seems to be that every thought, speech and action must be reported at least twice. Plans must be explained at length, and then carried out at equal length, in the same sequence. Plod. Plod. Plod. And to top it off, one of his villains has an alibi so unbreakable that Crofts has to give him a religious conversion at the end, to elicit a confession!

Why did I finish it? Sheer bloody-mindedness. Not to be able to finish a book in my own genre and of the period I most admire was too shaming. Also, it had just been reissued. So publishers thought it would sell, right? I should see why, right? I still don’t know.

Then there are the bestsellers everyone else has read. A few years ago, I read Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84. It was 944 pages of I-still-don’t-know-what. It had something to do with domestic violence; I figured that much out. It had an alternate universe in it, only it wasn’t all that alternate.

Why did I finish it? This one was almost justified. Murakami’s prose floated me along in a mental state just like that of his confused characters. This stuff was just happening. You couldn’t do anything about it, so you just did the next thing. Which was to read the next sentence. Still, 315 pages would have been enough.

Don’t even ask me about books written by friends.

So, what to do, assuming that you find you can’t just toss the book? Here are my strategies:

  • Demote to bathroom. This worked, eventually, for The Matter of the Gods and Antidote to Venom. The time isn’t wasted, and page by page you get to the end. Please do not tear out completed pages and re-purpose them. That is cruel.
  • Learn to skim. This used to be called speed reading. It doesn’t really work, but you can pretend it does, and if your eyes have traveled over every page, you are only half lying when you say you’ve read it.
  • Arrange an unfortunate accident. This requires a degree of double-think, but what writer lacks that? Reading paperbacks in the bathtub is the easiest method. (Buy an oilier bubble bath.) Leave hardbacks on or near the recycle container. Forget them in waiting areas or on public transportation.

I’m about to start Chris Holm’s The Killing Kind. It’s about a hit man who only hits other hit men. I gobbled down three of his earlier books. I’ll have to find something else to read in the bathroom.

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