Exercises, Chapter 1, Sources for Fiction

Sunday, May 8, 2005

1. Your favorite books. Explore why you remember each one. Was it a particular scene? A character? A memorable phrase or insight into life?

Ah. At least we start with a question I should spend more time discussing. I’m an easily influenced reader, and some of my favorite books were other people’s favorites that they thrust on me.

Example: My former boss Doug introduced me to David Foster Wallace in the form of Infinite Jest, DFW’s monumental work that kept me alternating between wanting to strangle him, become him, and laughing so hard, I wasn’t sure which. My favorite scene involved the main character, an aspiring tennis player. DFW wrote the scene in a footnote (he loved footnotes). The MC was speaking with his brother, a former aspiring tennis player—their parents ran a childhood tennis school, until the father committed suicide, that is. His brother realized that with his overdeveloped leg, he could make a better living kicking a football than playing tennis. They talked about their screwed-up family on the telephone. During the conversation, the MC described to his brother how he’s flinging his clipped toenails into a wastebasket. He’s working on a record, having hit the wastebasket with his first six clipping (i.e., the clipping flies off his toenail when he cuts it—not flinging the clipping into the wastebasket after cutting it). The protagonist was concentrating on the record of ten clips, only to admit, at the end of the footnote, that he’s still hovering over clipping the first one because he’s too nervous to get started. I don’t do it justice, but I reread that three-page footnote (in small type) three times because it was that good.

Another recommendation was Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead. I’ve heard mixed reviews of this book. Some people claim that her books do nothing but push her philosophy, which I fully admit is quaint and unrealistic, in a black-and-white and unrelenting way, with one-dimensional characters that represent the different players within her philosophy using dialogue that is trite and unrealistic. Me, I liked her characters, even if they were one-dimensional. I particularly enjoyed her main character, Howard Roark, an eccentric architect who is an uncompromising believer in his art. While the entire world wanted Roark to fail, it was his inner belief in his own art that propelled him to success. Sure, the characters were unrealistic—particularly Peter Keeting, Roark’s counterpoint, a socially upward individual who has no architectural artistic ability but succeeds, at least initially, by using Roark’s ability and claiming it as his own. I’m trying to read her follow-up book, Atlas Shrugged, but I’m having trouble because the characters are even more one-dimensional—which I would have thought impossible—and she sacrificed the story to the alter of her pseudo-philosophy, in this second book. In that way I agree with the critics. But her first book was redeeming because of Roark, and my enjoyment of his quirky (if overdrawn) character.

I’ve read these two books in the last few years. When I was younger, I focused exclusively on fantasy novels such as David Eddings’ The Belgariad series, which I reread close to twenty times. This five-book series was a beautifully simplistic look at a young orphan, who grows up to be king. Here was a book that made every young boy who read it feel special, as he imagined himself in the MC’s role as savior to the world. It had magic, swords, majesty, and gods. The characters were all broad paint strokes on the book’s canvas, and every time Eddings introduced the supporting characters Silk and Barak about halfway through the first book, chills and goose bumps covered me.

2. Books you have always wanted to read. If you draw a blank or even if you don’t, go to a bookstore or library and add at least ten more to your list. Go out of your way to visit the library’s rare book room or a good used-book store. Go to a fiction reading or buy a literary magazine. Do it because you are a writer.

I’ll skip the editorializing of the questions because it’s too easy.

This list is ever changing for me. I buy books based mostly on recommendation or cover design. I love browsing through used bookstores and finding the $3 books; reading all the works of an author that I fall in love with; running to amazon.com to order a book I hear about on the radio or from a friend; or buying a book after spending a few hours browsing through bookstores.

Besides the books listed in my current reading, the only book I’m waiting to read is Gone with the Wind. I watched the movie for the first time this past week, and now I’m working my way through the commentary track. Any book that caught the imagination of that many people (it is one of the bestselling books of all time), I have to see what the fuss is about. I loved the movie. There’s something about evil, conniving women that interest me, and Scarlet is the epitome of that type of character. I’ve never seen a movie with such interesting characters or as sweeping a story.

''3. Ten expressions your mother/father/family/best friend uses regularly, especially those you don’t hear anyone else use. For example, my mother used to say, “’To each his own,’ said the old lady as she kissed the cow.”"

This was is more difficult. The easy answer, at least for my family, is the Brooklyn accent my mother and sisters tote around. The general rule of Brooklyn-speak: Any word that ends in ‘R’ drops the ‘R’ and any word that ends in a vowel gets an ‘R’. Example: ‘idea’ becomes ‘idear.’ Not that my family curses much, but when I want to drop into a Brooklyn accent (very useful for trash talking during basketball games), I curse a lot. Adding the word ‘fuck’ to any sentence somehow gets me back into my Brooklyn days much faster.

I’m sure there are many other sayings that my family uses. I’ll be watching for them and adding them to my lists. This is something I’ve not done in the past, and seeing as my memory is—what’s that word—pathetic, this will be a good exercise.