Wednesday, April 4, 2012
Defend the Process
Last month, fiction writer Jhumpa Lahiri wrote an essay in the New York Times about her fascination with sentences and described her writing process in this way: "I hear sentences as I’m staring out the window, or chopping vegetables, or waiting on a subway platform alone…. Over time, virtually each sentence I receive and record in this haphazard manner will be sorted, picked over, organized, changed. Most will be dispensed with. All the revision I do — and this process begins immediately, accompanying the gestation — occurs on a sentence level. It is by fussing with sentences that a character becomes clear to me, that a plot unfolds."
Lahiri's love of words, sentences and writing shimmered on the page. Her process isn't mine, (And only in my dreams do I compare my writing to hers.) but there are commonalities, and they lend a sense of kinship—writers are in this together. Most of my friends and acquaintances write, and I can't think of one who doesn't shut up and listen when awriter talks about his or her process.
Evidently my friends and acquaintances are a cut above.
A few days after publication of Lahiri's essay, a dissenting letter to the editor
was published. In it, a disgruntled writer suggested Lahiri's point of view misrepresents the craft of fiction writing: "…she perpetuates the notion that if you learn to write grand sentences, and string enough of them together, somehow — by magic — you’ll have written a story. It couldn’t be further from the truth. Language is the handmaiden of story, not the other way around. Master story. Everything else is gravy."
Thus speaks a plotter—in more ways than one. Admittedly, plot's critical, especially for commercial fiction, but isn't what comes first: plot/characters/sentences part of a process that's both the same and different for each writer?
The same day the dissenting letter was published in the Times, a senior editor at Mother Jones wrote an essay critical of some of the sentences in Lahiri's essay. "In an essay exploring her love of sentences in last Sunday's New York Times, the great writer Jhumpa Lahiri put together some awful sentences. I say 'put together' intentionally: The sentences themselves were mostly fine, at turns even terrific, but in several places they were assembled quite awfully. This surprised me in light of Lahiri's literary talent and the reputable publication to which she was contributing. Where the heck was her editor?"
Apparently a writer bold enough to admit an absorption with sentences makes her sentences vulnerable to attack.
The publishing industry is in flux, but Lahiri didn't address agency pricing, the growing influence of Amazon, the adversarial stance taken by some self-published authors toward those traditionally published--and vice versa. She dared to write about sentences.
Let's agree to disagree on agency pricing. Let's stick up for or rail against Amazon. I beg you, fellow writers, to join me in defending each writer's process as his or her own.