07 February 2005

Ellen Bryant Voigt on narrative vs. lyric

From The Flexible Lyric:

"In her [Karen Brennan’s] piece each action in sequence closed out the possibilities for succeeding action, and each descriptive detail narrowed the narrative circumstance: a STORY.

[By contrast, Kevin] McIlvoy’s scene-with piano was established and soon departed from, exaggerated, undermined, as the speaker bullied his sketchy opponents . . . Rather than dragging us forward inexorably . . . time was held in abeyance . . . Although there were many characterizing 'actions' planted shrewdly throughout, there was only a single consequential one, with the barest of circumstantial motivation, placed close to the end with the same deft efficiency as the couplet in a sonnet." [aka LYRIC]

Those were my brackets and my caps.

In my role as a fiction editor for a literary journal (Ink Pot), I read submissions that I reject because the writer seems intent on offering the world in a story instead of narrowing the world deftly to a single intense focus.

I read Voigt as saying that in narrative, aka story, the text acts as a funnel so that every action, every detail, further limits what may follow. A city becomes a street becomes a building becomes an apartment becomes a closet becomes a small child hiding in the folds of a winter coat. Now what? I have no idea, but I am intrigued. I know the story is about the child. I wonder whose coat it is. I anticipate the arrival of someone masquerading as an adult. This is all delightful compared to the story that begins with young people at a party talking back and forth, a scenario in which I don't know who matters and why and when they'll stop talking about football and sex and get down to one person and one problem I can care about.

Am blithering, but specificity is all, and as a writer, I respect the difficulty of putting only the relevant specificity on the page. Not a bar but this bar. Not young people but one young man, dressed in a gas station attendant's overall, limping slightly due to an accident with a parking meter across the street, irate at the noise level that has caused him to miss the cellphone call he's been waiting for since noon of the previous day.

Said another way, give away many secrets as fast as you can. Not only the existence of the secret, but the details of the secret. It's a fast way to funnel.

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