Years ago, I participated in a symposium called “Women and Popular Culture” at Brown University. In the morning, I sat on a panel with two other novelists. In the afternoon, professors presented talks on the depiction of women in film, TV shows and music videos. One professor analyzed a rock music video, claiming it was a meditation on Christianity because of all its “cross” imagery: the singer’s crossed arms, a crucifix-shaped earring, the X-shaped intersection of two spotlight beams. The speaker went on and on about how the people who created the video were making a subliminal religious statement. When she said this, one of the novelists from my morning panel muttered, “Or else they were all high on cocaine when they were filming it and they said, ‘Hey, that looks cool!’”
I was reminded of that comment recently when a friend sent me a link to a writing coach’s dissection of Karen Stockett’s novel, The Help. The essay explained the book’s phenomenal popularity by breaking it into scenes and beats and showing how Stockett had constructed her novel with the plot’s first turning point occurring exactly one-fifth of the way into the story, and each chapter containing a specific and uniform number of scenes, and so on. I couldn’t get through the essay because I was laughing too hard. For all I know, the writing coach may have conceded later in the essay that The Help’s huge success had something to do with its being a beautifully written book about a group of smart, sympathetic women who change the world for the better. But he was obsessed with the precise, mechanical composition of the story.
Perhaps some authors create their novels the way these academicians seem to think we do: Graphing the turning points to make sure they’re exactly one-fifth, one-half, and three-fourths of the way through the story. Counting the beats. Inserting symbolic imagery at regular intervals.
But that’s not the way I write.
I’m a sculptor, not an engineer. For me, the process is intuitive. It’s possible that my stories have their turning points located exactly where a calculator says they should be, but if so, this happens purely by chance. I don’t write with a straight-edge and a compass. I write the way a sculptor creates a statue, kneading and molding, chiseling away this part and slapping some more clay on that part, then stepping back to assess what I’ve created and thinking, “Hmm, it needs something more here and something less there,” or “I like the way that part is shaped,” or, if I’m very lucky, “Hey, that looks cool!” (I should add that cocaine plays no part in this process.
My next book, Good-Bye To All That, has five point-of-view characters. I start a new chapter each time I enter a different character’s point of view. When I was writing the manuscript, I never counted the chapters and tallied whose turn it was or how many pages I devoted to each. Instead, I thought, “I’ve spent enough time with Jill. Let’s see how Ruth is doing now,” and opened the next chapter in Ruth’s point of view. It was a thoroughly organic process. I switched chapters and viewpoints whenever it felt right.
When Good-Bye To All That comes out next March, some academician may post a meticulous analysis of the novel, explaining how masterfully I paced all those point-of-view changes, how cleverly I used Diet Coke as a symbol of Jill’s attempts to reinvent herself, how brilliantly I deployed Brooke’s and Melissa’s hair styles as a metaphor for the emotional turmoil in their lives. I’ll read this analysis and laugh myself giddy, thinking, no, I used Diet Coke because Jill just seemed like a Diet Coke kind of woman, and the hair thing fell into place because Melissa was dating a gorgeous salon employee and I needed Brooke to make Doug jealous, and anyway, hey, it looked cool!