For this post I am once again turning to a book I’ve been reading for a while now: The Making of a Story by Alice LaPlante. It’s very long, and I don’t devote enough time to it during the week, but I’m still learning from it while I make meagre progress.
A couple of weeks ago, I finished chapter twelve, “What’s This Creative Work Really About?” In it, there is a subsection on page 510 with a title that harkens back to chapter three. It’s called “We Are Made of Dust”, referencing a quote by Flannery O’Connor.
The focus of chapter three is concrete details. On page 108 we learn that there is a difference between abstraction and specificity, between generalizations and attention to detail. LaPlante says,
“‘We are made out of dust’ is Flannery O’Connor’s way of saying that we belong to this sensory world, with its noise and dirt and various tastes and textures, and it’s in this sensory world that we have to spend most of our time as writers.”
A writer must be in the frays of the story rather than above them (109).
Going back to chapter twelve, it opens by bringing up the idea that once a piece is finished a writer needs to step back and ask themselves what the story they’ve written is really about. Your story can be about big truths and ideas, but it can’t rely on some sort of universal idea you might think exists. LaPlante writes,
“Emotions need to be attached to things of this world: things mundane as tables and chairs and trees and flowers. Innocuous things…until we’ve imbued them with the power of our imagination. What these images should (must) be: the outward manifestation of interior movement, or emotions. Not just physical objects, but truth” (510).
LaPlante provides examples, but I want to share my own. Recently I’ve read two books full of abstract ideas where the writers illustrated their ability to be dust. They scattered themselves into the marrow of their stories, turned these big ideas into particles to take with them, and expressed them in a way that was new but recognizable to the reader.
I’ll start with The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin since it was our recent Anxiety Ink book club pick –and it’s simply epic. An abstract idea that recurs throughout the novel is state control over women’s bodies. Syenite, who I’m going to call a witch for ease of explanation here, is controlled by the Fulcrum. The Fulcrum requires that all of their society’s witches be relocated and educated at the Fulcrum site because they are too dangerous to be left in the general public. Those who are not teachable or are too powerful are destroyed. The rest do as the Fulcrum decrees.
Syenite is powerful, but not too powerful. When we meet her, she is in the midst of a conversation with one of her teachers. She’s being ordered to do something and she’s being convinced it’s not so bad by this teacher. The subtext is a bit confusing until Syenite goes to introduce herself to her mentor, Alabaster, a very powerful male witch, who we quickly learn she has been ordered to breed with.
Neither Syenite nor Alabaster want to have sex with each other, it repulses both of them, but they do it. Because they have been ordered to. And the unspoken threat is always present: if they don’t do as the Fulcrum says, they will be hunted down and killed.
There are a lot of extremes in the world Jemisin created, but this particular idea is one women the world over have faced for a long time. In the U.S. especially, it is a debate that has flared in recent years.
I can’t say I know what it’s like to be ordered to sleep with someone twice my age and bear a child I won’t even get to watch grow, but I know what it’s like to be surrounded by people who think they know what I should do with my body. In each sex scene, Syenite focuses on some other aspect, usually some physical object or stray thought, to escape what she’s in the middle of doing. By focusing on the object or something else, she’s only augmenting the awfulness of what’s happening.
My second example comes from The Girls by Emma Cline. This particular book, set in the 1960s and the present day, follows a girl named Evie. We watch her a bit as an adult and listen to her tell the story of her time spent in a cult when she was 14 years old.
One of the big abstracts Cline plays with is female powerlessness. She weaves it throughout her narrative. For me, the final scene of the book is the most powerful depiction. Evie, in her 60s, is walking on a California beach in winter. It’s cold and nasty out so everyone but her has deserted it, or so she thinks.
She looks up and sees a man walking towards her. He’s a big guy, menacing looking in the distance. He’s nodding his head as though he’s angry and he’s coming straight towards her. His head is shaved, and she thinks he could be a person full of hate. There’s something in his hand, possibly a rock, that she knows he might use as a weapon against her. She knows no one will hear her scream should she get attacked.
So many vile things have happened to Evie throughout the book that this maelstrom of anxiety she’s creating is not far fetched. You as the reader know very well that these things could happen to Evie. Even as a woman, how often are we told not to walk alone? How often are we told not to go where no one knows where we are? How often are we told not to let ourselves be left alone with strange men?
We’re trained to fear. All Cline has to do is have this guy walk towards us and have Evie list the what-ifs, each associated with an innocuous item imbued with menace because this man is holding it. It doesn’t matter if her fears are unfounded, they’re possible, and every woman reading will connect with that fear of the unknown, that moment of total powerlessness even if it only lasts a second.
Both Jemisin and Cline use detailed sensory descriptions to bring their characters plight with these abstracts to life. The reader is witness to most of Syenite’s and Alabaster’s sexual encounters. The reader is witness to all the moments when Evie’s power is forcibly stripped away.
I strongly believe all stories have meaning, they all have a big truth they want their reader to grapple with. Obviously, I prefer a subtle hand. You don’t need to wax philosophical in your story for me to get your point. Turn yourself and the abstract to dust and show me the parts I can identify with.
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**And if you’re curious, this is the Flannery O’Connor quote:
“Fiction is about everything human and we are made out of dust, and if you scorn getting yourself dusty, then you shouldn’t try to write fiction. It’s not a grand enough job for you.”