Friday, December 31, 2021

2022 New Year's Writing Resolution: Observe the Ordinary

Last year I made a resolution to re-read some of the books that have impressed me with their brilliant prose, their poetic insights, their ability to make me lose myself completely in another time and place. These are the books I hug after I get to the last line, unwilling to give them back to the library. Eventually, I will  purchase them to display on shelves where I can gaze upon their spines, and open them when the mood strikes me, to revel once again in the joy of fine prose.

Why then, do I keep devouring Anne Tyler novels? Between reading Cloud Cuckoo Land and Piranesi, both of which are magnificent recent contributions to the literary world, I read Anne Tyler novels - ten of them, to be precise. Tyler has written twenty-four novels. She churns them out every year or so like a litter of kittens, barely taking a breath before the next one pops out. There is no need for her to research her books. They all take place in Baltimore, where she lives. They all revolve around somewhat dysfunctional families and marriages, which I assume she has experience with. And they all have happy-ish endings. She even recycles her characters, dressing them up in new bodies, but keeping all their old foibles and quirks. I view these characters as variations on a theme, not as individuals. Indeed, I had a hard time remembering any of their names, even while I was reading about them. And yet, like popcorn, I couldn't consume just one of her books, even though none of them seemed to have plots.

Why are Tyler's novels so addictive? I believe the answer is literally as plain as the nose on your face. Tyler does not take us to another time and place. Nor does she delve into anything that is outside of our experience. There are no bombs about to explode, no hair-raising chase scenes, no imminent threats. There are no detailed descriptions of the siege of Constantinople, or excursions into the tangled prisons of a deranged mind. There are no new worlds to discover. Instead, her novels are loaded with descriptions of the familiar. Her dialogue is what we hear in everyday speech. Her characters are ordinary, not outstanding, or even memorable, much like strangers you might encounter on a grocery check-out line. And nothing of note ever happens to them. In short, her subject matter is relentlessly mundane.

That is precisely what makes her books so easy to read. It is their utter familiarity. With each and every phrase, we are reminded of things we already know. Reading is simply an act of recognition. The question is, how does one write a book that is as effortless to read as an Anne Tyler novel ... without being boring? Without being predictable? For it is unpredictability that keeps readers turning the pages.  

I have resolved this year to solve that puzzle. 

In 2022 I am going to pay attention to the mundane. I have to face facts: I'll never write like an Anthony Doerr or a Susannah Clarke. I don't have their talent. But what I can do is look around me, pay more attention to my locale, describe it in terms that are familiar, I can listen - really listen - to people when they talk. The content is less important than the style of their delivery. I can watch what people do in everyday settings. And I can try to find the unpredictable in life. There is certainly enough of it.  

Like all creative endeavors, the trick to writing is to make it appear effortless, natural, unstudied. Because it is only by entering into the familiar recesses of a reader's mind that people can forget they are reading. And that brief amnesia, my lovely readers and writers, is a writer's ultimate goal. 

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