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Praise for The Kite and the String “Alice Mattison’s The Kite and the String is the best kind of ‘inside job.’ Though brimming with a practitioner’s reflective wisdom and immediately useful insight, it is never prescriptive—always acknowledging that ‘This worked for me. . .’ without ever presuming. But Mattison is so canny and experienced that her insights are hugely relevant for all of us who write. Indeed, this book goes right next to James Wood’s How Fiction Works on the shelf by the desk.” —Sven Birkerts, author of The Gutenberg Elegies and The Art of Time in Memoir“An indispensable writing guide by a master teacher, as tough-minded as it is encouraging. And Alice Mattison’s wit, erudition, and transcendent common sense make it a sheer pleasure to read and re-read.” —David Gates, author of Jernigan and A Hand Reached Down to Guide Me“The essays in The Kite and the String are brilliant, funny, and wise—everything that readers of Alice Mattison’s fine work have come to expect—and they will send you running to your desk with new insight and inspiration. Every page is a keeper.” —Jill McCorkle, author of Life After Life and Going Away Shoes“Wry and wise, the voice of master teacher and storyteller Alice Mattison carries us aloft in this useful, funny, and important book about writing and the writing life. Every student, writer, and teacher—of fiction, nonfiction, and, for that matter, poetry—will find new insights, old truths newly expressed, and aid and comfort as we pursue our difficult and glorious art. In this book, Mattison reveals what her colleagues and students have long known—that she is an indispensable writing friend.” —April Bernard, author of Miss Fuller “In this superb book about writing and her own surprising beginnings as a writer, Alice Mattison shows us how to create the vivid dream of successful fiction. If you want to be a writer, read this book.” —Susan Cheever, author of Drinking in America“Mattison analyzes how to write compelling fiction in this essential guide . . . a gold mine for writers across a spectrum of experience levels. Her conspiratorial ‘we the writers’ tone is charming and lively, and her breadth of knowledge makes her an effective and instructive authority. Perfect for aspiring writers or those trying to make it over a bump in the road.” —Booklist (starred review)“Unlike other guides on the topic, Mattison’s focuses on the process of becoming an author rather than the elements of a genre—finding story, not detailing its pieces. Anecdotes and examples from her career as a writer, mother, and MFA instructor make this a lively and provocative read. . . . The instruction is engaging and approachable, lending the feel of a writer’s workshop. A great choice for writers, particularly those with a day job.” —Library Journal (starred review)“Mattison offers thoughtful, encouraging advice. . . . She doles out guidance on crafting story, conjuring character, and keeping readers engaged, all peppered with examples taken from her own classroom as well as from the works of literary giants. . . . Novice writers can do themselves (and us all) a favor by dipping into this practical primer.” —Publishers Weekly“A generous, empathetic writer’s companion.” —Kirkus s About the Author Alice Mattison is a widely acclaimed author and longtime writing teacher. She has published six novels—including The Book Borrower, Nothing Is Quite Forgotten in Brooklyn, and When We Argued All Night, a New York Times Book Editors' Choice—as well as four collections of short stories and a collection of poems. Twelve of her stories have appeared in The New Yorker, and other work has been published in The New York Times, Ploughshares, and Ecotone and anthologized in The Pushcart Prize, PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories, and Best American Short Stories. A frequent panelist at AWP and other writing conferences, she has held residencies at Yaddo and the MacDowell Colony. She has taught at Brooklyn College, Yale University, and, for the last twenty-one years, in the Bennington Writing Seminars, the MFA program at Bennington College. Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved. Chapter 1 Writing with Freedom and Common SenseThe Sound of Storytelling Plenty of people—most people—don't write stories and don't want to. A few keep saying that one of these days they will write a story, a novel, or a memoir, implying that this task will be simple once they get around to it. That leaves those of us who regularly fool around—or make ourselves miserable—with sentences in which an imaginary person—or a real or sort of real person whom, at present, we are imagining—does something, sentences like "I opened the door." Or maybe, we decide, "The door, as I opened it . . ." or "Opening-in a hurry-the door . . ." We may not remember how this odd practice began—putting human beings on the page and making them suffer and fear, making them love, discovering that they are about to do something we never thought they might. Like sexual longing, the wish to write—to make any art—starts in the body and precedes coherent thought about it. We want to hold a pen, or to type. Our fingers tingle; they are full of words. We have an itch, a yen, and the world tells us what our desire is called and whether it's one of the allowable kinds of wanting in our particular culture. Writing is closer to sex than we sometimes think, and for the susceptible, making sentences they like, at least for the moment ("Trembling, I opened the door, and just outside . . .") may induce arousal. Making up—or remembering—story is alluring and dangerous, even subversive: although writing is legal, it's disturbing to people uncomfortable with the ownership of an imagination, and some will do all they can to keep us from it, even if we are people they love. Writers of fiction and memoir, more than writers of fact, must defend—sometimes fiercely—their art and the time they give it. (And it's even worse for poets.) As shocking as narrative-writing that tells a story-may be, however, this is a book about it, about those phrases and sentences we fret over ("Until I had opened the door . . ."). Fiction—sheer invention—may be most unsettling to unimaginative people: the lifelike nature of unreal people can be downright alarming. But the process of writing memoir isn't so different. When the memory comes, or the realization comes—"Here I must write down what Uncle Steve did!"—it is almost as surprising to the writer, as mysterious, as it would be if Uncle Steve weren't real. Even before we want to make up narrative, we may find we love the sound and feel of story, its texture against our minds. As a college freshman I read James Joyce’s story “A Painful Case.” The main character, Mr. Duffy, is a Dublin bachelor who writes, adding sentences now and then to a manuscript that we sense goes nowhere. He is incurably lonely: when he makes a friend, he becomes so frightened that he ends the connection, and the story is about his belated understanding that his withdrawal was wrong and harmful. He is not someone to emulate, except possibly for his moment of insight at the end. But at the beginning of the story, we learn that he “had an odd autobiographical habit which led him to compose in his mind from time to time a short sentence about himself containing a subject in the third person and a predicate in the past tense,” and when I first read this story, I was more struck by that sentence than by anything else. I too composed such sentences, also in the third-person past tense. I secretly narrated parts of my life to myself, as if I lived in the unexciting parts of a novel, the transitions in which characters get dressed or walk to the bus stop. Like a child realizing that others have heard of masturbation and even named it, I was amazed to learn that anyone else had this “odd autobiographical habit” or knew about it, and I wondered if Joyce had it too—if it meant I might be a writer. I’ve since discovered that when I mention my own reaction to that sentence to other writers, many will smile, flushing with pleasure and self-consciousness. Maybe Mr. Duffy's sentences are "short" because he's ambivalent about his imagination; perhaps Joyce meant that Mr. Duffy sticks to simple facts when he narrates his life to himself, and the sentences he thinks are something like "He ate his dinner." He's a rigid person who can't let himself live the freer life he is drawn to. For better or worse, my inward sentences, when I was a child, weren't short or truthful. "She carried the plate from the cupboard," I might begin, but then I'd go on, giving my life an old-fashioned, literary flavor, "and gently set the simple earthenware dish with its chipped glaze on the scarred wooden table"—revising my mother's Danish Modern stoneware and Formica-topped aluminum kitchen set. Whatever Mr. Duffy used his "odd autobiographical habit" for, I told my life to myself to pretend I was not just writing or reading a novel, but in one: I gave myself a narrated life. I think I wanted my actual life to be describable in the way that fictional lives may be described: I wanted it to suit the alert, androgynous, slightly acid tone of a sympathetic but sharp-eyed narrator, moral yet subtle, who observes and presents characters who may be flawed and confused but are worthy of our attention. It's a tone perfected in the British Isles, especially toward the end of the nineteenth century and in the first decades of the twentieth: For a minute or two she stood looking at the house, and wondering what to do next, when suddenly a footman in livery came running out of the wood—(she considered him to be a footman because he was in livery: otherwise, judging by his face only, she would have called him a fish)—and rapped loudly at the door with his knuckles.—from Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, by Lewis Carroll, 1865 At lunch her brother, seeing her inclined for silence, insisted on talking. Tibby was not ill-natured, but from babyhood something drove him to do the unwelcome and the unexpected. Now he gave her a long account of the day-school that he sometimes patronised. The account was interesting, and she had often pressed him for it before, but she could not attend now, for her mind was focussed on the invisible.—from Howards End, by E. M. Forster, 1910 Running below the beat and braying of the music was the steady needle-scratch on the gramophone record. Each sound had another underlying sound. She felt that if she could concentrate she would unpeel the outer sounds from the inner one, the one now buried, the last sound before complete silence—the tick of the blood in her wrist, she thought, turning her hand on the chair; the voice of her own mind.—from A Game of Hide and Seek, by Elizabeth Taylor, 1951 When I began writing fiction I had no idea how to do it. I loved fiction's capacity to depict subtle shifts in awareness and scrupulous ethical distinctions; action without interior life had no lure. However, all I had was my love of how narrative can reveal the inner life. Even after writing poems, after studying literature, after making up narrative sentences like Joyce's Mr. Duffy, I was stuck. I had no subject matter, no ready tales to tell. I hadn't lived much—hadn't been a bartender or a taxi driver or a merchant marine. I'd been a student, a camp counselor, a teacher, and a mother. One summer I'd been a salesclerk at Macy's. It would take me years to have the nerve to fake what I hadn't experienced. My education wasn't bad for a writer. I had learned to think about words, to hear their sounds. I wouldn't forget that writing is composed of words, not feeling or experience. And I didn't make the mistake some new writers make, imagining that if something worth writing about happened at 2 p.m. on Monday, the words that come to mind somehow are "2 p.m. on Monday," that the event has been reproduced, so if a reader says, "This doesn't seem real," the writer can say smugly, "But it happened." I knew about words, and a few other things. I knew that writing must be ambitious if it is to be any good: it must concern itself with what matters most. And I knew that often the sharply observed, objective detail, presented with understatement and maybe even irony, can convey feeling at least as effectively as the effusive abstract outburst. But though I'd read plenty of it, I had failed to notice what narrative was. What I loved most—the inner life on the page—was real, at least in stories that centered on character rather than action, which would inevitably be the kind I'd prefer. But I hadn't noticed that narrative is not just about interior life, that even when the action in a story, novel, or memoir would not interest a police officer or a military strategist, it is still action. The genius of narrative is not just to describe interior states but to embody them-to find an equivalent for them in the visible world. A woman who, in real life, might simply think envious thoughts about a friend's good fortune, in a story drops the coveted valuable object down a storm drain, and the moment when she pauses to flick her hair off her face, loosening her grip on the borrowed antique silver bracelet, makes us know and feel her rage. The novelist may invent the dropping of the bracelet; the memoirist may recall something that happened, something that will represent the emotion. All the inwardness that I loved notwithstanding, narrative is first (not always, of course) about the tangible. But for years my characters did little more than think and feel. It had taken me decades to stop focusing on myself and be interested enough in other people to invent characters at all. Learning to play in the world, to use its capacities when I made up story, came still more slowly. Also, I didn't know what a contemporary story might be like. However much I loved James Joyce and Henry James, as a late-twentieth-century Jewish woman from Brooklyn, I wouldn't write stories that sounded like theirs. I'd read little contemporary fiction and almost no stories or autobiographical essays; I believed that short stories were intellectual exercises with little surprises at the end that I wouldn't know how to come up with. Now, decades later, I learn each time I read Joyce's, James's, or any other good writer's stories, but then I needed models I could connect to more directly. Nowadays I often suggest that students read writers who have written about the places where they grew up, or the ethnic group they belong to, or the kind of life they've led-immigrant life, for example. It's important to read widely and deeply, all kinds of books—but it's also important to realize (it may come as a shock) that your own neighborhood and history, the particular way your aunt cooked vegetables, could go into your writing. Don't limit yourself to your own experience ("Write what you know" is only sometimes good advice; "Write what you don't know" is equally good)—but don't assume that your own experience is too humble and boring for fiction. As for me, browsing in bookstores, I at last came upon the stories of Tillie Olsen and Grace Paley. And in them ordinary people—urban women, sometimes urban Jewish feminist women like me—managed their lives despite the difficulties caused by ambivalence, divided loyalties, moral quandaries, and inner contradiction, not to mention poverty, prejudice, war, and the inevitable conflicts between private life and life in society. Maybe things did happen, after all, in lives like the ones I knew. Seeing that stories could talk about what mattered to me—to a woman with kids, a woman past first youth, an urban American woman—was the first step toward finding tone and subject matter. Controlled Daydreaming Writing anything—even if it's rational and factual—involves guesswork, intuition, and imagination. Something indefinable tells the journalist to talk to the short soldier before approaching the tall one; hunches guide the writer of science or history. Memoirists must also make choices they can't always explain about when to begin, what to emphasize, whom to leave out. The fiction writer, in addition, has the freedom to create people and events out of nothing, whether part of a story comes from life or not. Even when fiction writers start from a real incident, we change endings, compress people and events, and make up what we don't remember. The imaginative possibilities when you haven't sworn to tell the truth and nothing but the truth are dazzling. The essence of fiction is not that it isn't true but that it might not be true: it's a house with an open back door into which anything may come ("I opened the back door . . ."). The writer of fiction must be on particularly friendly terms with the unpredictable, welcoming the illogical way ideas come, the painful and embarrassing thoughts that pass through an unguarded mind. Setting out to write narrative, whether it's fiction or memoir, we make an agreement with ourselves to live—in part—irrationally, to honor impulse and hunches. We must follow whatever route leads us to the unprotected part of the self, from which good writing comes. And whatever we discover about the writing we do, we must never let ourselves confuse it with something accessible to directions and rules and methodologies. But if good writing is mysterious, illogical, and contradictory—if it comes from what's most essential and un-sorted-out in our minds—then how is it possible for us to learn how to produce it or to help others learn? We don't want to kill it with methods and rules, but the solution can't be to wait for inspiration, to proceed haphazardly. We've all met writers who do that—"I just write from my heart," they say—and it leads to cliché and formlessness. A few people write well without much effort, but I am not one of them, and you may not be either.
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