Little Dorrit

Dickens’ Outlines

Robert Olen Butler has said,

The one thing that other aspiring artists have over writers is that many of them can view their mentors at work. A painter can sit at the back of a studio and watch her mentor paint, a ballet dancer can watch his mentor rehearse and perform. But you can’t really observe the creative process of a fiction writer. It’s never been seen.

Atlantic Monthly, 6.14.04

It is a cherished fantasy of writers: if only a wise mentor could be with me at the moment of creation, looking over my shoulder, teaching me how to apply the chisel to the stone. The essence of a writer’s work is mysterious even to himself. Ask any writer how he creates his stories, what is happening inside his head as he types away madly, and watch him stammer. The only honest answer is “I have no idea.”

Olen Butler tried to capture the process on tape once. He recorded a series of videos for creative-writing students in which he sat at his computer and composed a short story. He would stop every sentence or so, describing the word choice or plot decision he was mulling, the options available, the reasons he might go one way or the other. The experiment did not really work. The videos are fine as a pedagogical tool and I admire Olen Butler for trying to capture the ineffable, but the constant interruptions seemed to short-circuit the creative process, and the story he wrote frankly was not very good.

If anything, Olen Butler’s experiment demonstrated that writing is intractably internal. It can only happen invisibly in the writer’s unconscious mind. The moment you look at it, it disappears. The moment you say to yourself, “I am writing,” you stop.

That is one reason why creative writing is so hard to teach. A writer can only show the product of his work for an after-the-fact review. He submits his pages to be judged, thumbs up or down, often in a “workshop” (the very name bespeaks writers’ desperation to recreate the studio experience available to other artists). His inadequacies cannot be corrected, only pointed out, because there is no “correct” way to achieve a given literary effect. Technique must be learned by trial and error. No one knows how it is done, even fellow writers; they only know it when they see it. It is as if a tennis coach could only tell a talented young player “you won” or “you lost.”

Still, we try. I have a voyeuristic interest in how other writers work. So when I run across a passage like the one below, from Michael Salter’s Charles Dickens, I stop to study it. This is the closest we can get to Olen Butler’s fantasy for young writers: a chance to look over the great man’s shoulder as he works. If you are not a writer, you may as well stop reading. The subject of how Dickens outlined his novels will not interest you. But if you are a writer, this sort of detail is gold.

The year is 1846. Dickens is 34 and already firmly established as England’s best and most celebrated writer. He has left London for the peace and quiet of Lausanne, Switzerland, to begin his novel Dombey and Son.

Dombey is the first Dickens novel for which there exists a complete set of preparatory notes for each monthly number (an isolated set, quoted above, exists for Chuzzlewit IV), a working practice Dickens followed for all his subsequent novels in this format, as well as for Hard Times which was published as a weekly serial but planned in five monthly numbers.

For each number he prepared a sheet of paper approximately 7 x 9 inches by turning it sideways, with the long side horizontal, dividing it in two, and then using the left-hand side for what he called “Mems.” These were memoranda to himself about events and scenes that might feature in the number, directions as to the pace of the narrative, particular phrases he wanted to work in, questions to himself about whether such-and-such a character should appear in this number or be kept waiting in the wings (usually with some such answer as “Yes,” “No,” or “Not yet” added later) — in short, what has been succinctly described as “brief aids in decision making, planning and remembering.” Among the “General mems for No 3,” for example, we find that wonderful image for little Paul’s desolation at Mrs. Pipchin’s, “— as if he had taken life: [sic] unfurnished, and the upholster were never coming” … and “Be patient with Carker — Get him on very slowly, without incident” (DS XII).

On the right hand side of the sheet Dickens would generally write the numbers and titles of the three chapters that make up each monthly part and jot down, either before or after writing them, the names of the main characters and events featuring in each chapter. with occasionally a crucial fragment of the dialogue like little Paul’s “Papa what’s money?” in chapter 8 [of Dombey and Son], or a note of significant events like “Death’s warning to Mrs Skewton” in chapter 36.

— Michael Slater, Charles Dickens, pp. 258-59

Here are Dickens’ “mems” for the first chapter of Little Dorrit, which opens with two men in a dank prison cell on a broiling summer day in Marseilles.

Waiting Room? No
Office? No
French Town? Yes
Man from China? Yes
Prison? Yes
Quarantine? Yes

— Source: Modern Philology, August 1966 (oh, the wonders of the web!)

I look at these scant notes and I see a writer accustomed to improvising in the moment. Only the bare essentials are drawn in beforehand. He may simply have known where he was going well enough that he did not feel the need to create a detailed outline (as I do). But Dickens must have known, too, that no matter how much planning has been done, when you finally sit down to write, it is time to put away your outlines and research, and keep only a few simple notes on the desk before you. The real work of creating will only be distracted by all this external stuff.

Also, I look at that joyous little double-underline when he hit on the idea of setting the scene in a prison cell and I feel his happiness. How many hours went into that breakthrough? How much of the writer’s private triumph is expressed in that little emphasis? Go, Charles!

Image: Detail from Dickens’ portrait by photographer George Herbert Watkins, ca. 1861. (The original, full portrait is here. Look here for more information.)

“Little Dorrit”: Dickens’ Teeming World

I’ve just finished Dickens’ Little Dorrit and my first thought on closing the book is how big and sprawling it seems next to our own spare, miniaturist novels.

Not all of today’s novels are written this way, of course, but scan the Times bestseller list and you will see that generally the Raymond Carver/New Yorker style — lean, controlled, underpopulated, understated — has won the day. Young writers today are drilled in restraint. Be subtle! (“Show, don’t tell.”) Be concise! (“A rifle hanging on the wall in act one must be fired by act three” — must!) Cut, cut, and cut some more! (The novel, as Hemingway would have it, owes its “dignity of movement” to being like an iceberg, nine-tenths hidden under the surface.)

The result of all this decorum is that there is an artificial, circumscribed quality to a lot of our storytelling. Realism just doesn’t feel like reality.  John Updike once noted, “People in novels rather rarely eat; their health is not often of concern to them; earning money isn’t nearly as important to them as it is to those of us in the real world.” Real life is crowded, overstimulated, harried, sprawling, noisy, messy; realist fiction generally is none of these things. It is Art — oy.

Dickens breaks every rule of modernism, of course. His iceberg floats proudly above water. Yet at 152 years old, Little Dorrit feels more alive than most of those Times bestsellers. Why?

One reason is that Dickens employs a much larger cast than modern writers typically do. Whole brigades of characters swarm the stage. Dickens manages the crowd by a familiar set of tricks. He has a gift for making a character come alive with a single gesture briefly described. One unnamed character is seen at the dinner table “wiping some drops of wine from his mustache with a piece of bread,” and in that moment the character lives and breathes. Also, Little Dorrit is politically engaged. (But no less relevant: it is hard to imagine Mr. Merdle without being reminded of Bernie Madoff.) And of course, to prevent the whole invented world of Little Dorrit from spinning apart, Dickens contrives connections and coincidences that, to a modern reader, feel bogus and melodramatic.

The reward is the very scale of the story. Little Dorrit’s capacious, complex, multi-thread plotting — its bigness — conveys some of the complexity and interconnectedness of Dickens’s world in a way that today’s slimmer novels simply can’t.

It is interesting that this sort of sprawling multi-thread, multi-character drama still thrives on TV. Some of my favorite shows, The Sopranos, The Wire, and Mad Men, are crowded ensemble pieces. The Wire, in particular, has often been called “Dickensian” and for good reason: it uses a big canvas because it is trying to capture a big subject, an entire city, just as Dickens did. Multi-thread storytelling was a brief fad in movies, too (Pulp Fiction, Traffic and, less successfully, Crash) but the trend seems to have petered out, lamentably.

I am not suggesting we go back to Dickens’ style of plotting. Today’s readers don’t have the attention spans for big Victorian novels, or the interest. But if the complaint about novels is that they feel less vivid, three-dimensional and immersive than “new media,” then maybe we should consider that some of the smallness is in our storytelling style. In a world that feels increasingly speeded-up, hyperlinked and complex, a style that is hermetic and spare feels badly out of tune.

This is not a new idea. The internet is not the first threat the novel has faced. Confronted with a similarly disruptive technology, film, John Dos Passos tried to mimic the jangled feeling of his time using a montage of styles and characters in his U.S.A. trilogy. I have even used a multi-thread plot myself in The Strangler, and for a reason similar to Dickens’s: to create a more panoramic view of a vast, complex place.

I have a fantasy that I will write a big, shaggy Dickensian novel myself one day. It would weave multiple threads from various parts of Boston to capture the sprawl and intricacy of a vast, living city. For now, though, my Big Book will have to wait. I have a mortgage to pay and kids to put through college, and who reads Big Books anymore, anyway?

Rest and Re-creation

Reading Little Dorrit the other day, I came across a sentence describing Mr. Pancks as a man who rarely “appeared to relax from his cares, and to recreate himself by going anywhere or saying anything without a pervading object” (ch. XXV).

This obsolete sense of recreate, meaning to refresh or energize, obviously shares a common root with our noun recreation. The American Heritage Dictionary helpfully explains that there is a distinction in pronunciation which is preserved in the surviving noun. When you mean recreate in the sense of “to create again,” the first syllable is pronounced reek; when you mean “to take a break from work in order to play,” the first syllable is pronounced wreck.

I have never heard anyone use the verb recreate in this sense. The OED lists a couple of oddball examples from the 1970s (e.g. “The President plans to recreate on Labor Day,” from something called Verbatim magazine in 1978), but for the most part the usage seems to have lapsed by the end of the 1800s. Today the word is as dead as Dickens.

The root in both cases is the Latin creare, “to create.” I quit Latin after three years — that is, as soon as the Roxbury Latin School let me — but a quick web search turns up a few alternative definitions for creare: “to elect to an office” or, of parents, “to bear or beget.” Nothing about play, refreshment, or relaxation.

All of which is a long, pedantic way of saying, What a strange, awful idea that your work would destroy you so that you would need to withdraw from it in order to be literally re-created. Personally I don’t feel this way. It is precisely my work that energizes and “creates” me, and I hate to be dragged away from it for vacation or anything else. (I’m with Cormac McCarthy on this one.)

Categories: Odds & Ends    Tags: ·

Dickens and Me

I have been reading Little Dorrit the last couple of weeks and I am engrossed, even though life has been a little chaotic. I have been working feverishly on my own new novel, cranking out the last few chapters in rough draft. At the same time, my kids are on school vacation and our house has been unusually tumultuous — which is saying something.

Still, nothing in my life could possibly compare to the tumult in Dickens’s. He was roughly my age when he wrote Little Dorrit, completed in 1857 when Dickens was 45. (I am 46.) Here is Edmund Wilson’s description of this period in the great man’s life.

Dickens at forty had won everything that a writer could expect to obtain through his writings: his genius was universally recognized; he was feted wherever he went; his books were immensely popular; and they had made him sufficiently rich to have anything that money can procure. … Yet from the time of his first summer in Boulogne in 1853 [when Dickens was 39], he had shown signs of profound discontent and unappeasable restlessness; he suffered severely from insomnia and, for the first time in his life, apparently, worried seriously about his work. He began to fear that his vein was drying up.

It is hard to imagine a novelist achieving this sort of stardom today, even one whom Wilson considered the best England had produced since Shakespeare. It is poignant, too, to imagine a man so fantastically successful yet so intractably unhappy. Dickens’s life disproves the romantic notion that writing is good therapy: he fictionalized his painful memories in book after book but was tormented right to the end.

I am dying to learn more about him. Next up for me will be Michael Slater’s new biography, apparently wonderful, Charles Dickens: A Life Defined by Writing, fortuitously published just as I go on a Dickens kick.

(For the record, the quote is from Edmund Wilson’s essay “Dickens: The Two Scrooges” (1939), available in the Library of America collection of Wilson’s Literary Essays and Reviews of the 1930s & 1940s.)

Categories: Writers    Tags: ·

Dickens vs. the Snarks

I am reading Dickens’s Little Dorrit at the moment, inspired by the rebroadcast of the wonderful PBS/BBC mini-series. (It is being rebroadcast here in Boston, at least. I don’t know if this is true elsewhere.)

At the same time I am spending endless hours, as usual, idling on the web, particularly on blogs, where a different aesthetic prevails — hyperbolic, sarcastic, terse, frantic, distracted. A recent blog post by Ben Casnocha defines the web prose style pretty well:

In school anything you write or do will be read and graded by a teacher paid to do so. In the real world nobody wants to read your shit, and you have to earn their attention every single day.

Last year in a post titled You Have to Make People Give a Shit, I extolled blogging as a way to learn this value.

One way blogging makes you a better writer is it forces you to work hard for your readers’ attention. On the web, it takes less than a second to close the page or click a new link. Your readers are busy and distracted.

This means you must engage the reader out of the gate and take nothing for granted. If you start sucking in the second paragraph, you’ll likely lose the reader’s attention. They click to a new page.

It’s brutal. It makes you better.

It certainly is brutal, but does it really make you better? Alternating between Dickens’s elegant slow-cooked style and the fast food of the web, as I’ve been doing this week, I’m not so sure. Here’s the thing: after snacking on blog after blog, link after link, article after article, I do not feel any of the satisfaction or pleasure or transport that I get from even the dullest passages in Little Dorrit. On the contrary, all that hyperlinked, hypermanic prose on the web leaves me feeling drained and a little down.

Maybe it is just the skittish nature of the medium. The very connectedness of every screenload of words to every other makes everything I read online feel provisional and slick. There is always another article quivering unseen behind every link, another article which may be more interesting or more fresh. And then another and another.

I don’t mean to knock Ben Casnocha. Actually, I agree with him: in the raucous atmosphere of the web, it is probably necessary to write as if “nobody wants to read your shit.” In fact, when I first started to think about this post, I intended to say something similar, that web writing is shaping today’s novels by training modern writers and readers alike in a more compressed, hurried, no-nonsense prose style. I still think that’s true.

But I’m not so sure it’s a good thing. When I turn off the computer (as I am about to do) and go back to the peaceful, unlinked, timeless world of Dickens’s London, it will be a relief. Dickens does not have to “make me give a shit.” I already do. I don’t want to feel “busy and distracted” while I’m reading, as I tend to feel when I’m reading online. And if Dickens starts to suck in the second paragraph, well, I’ve got time. What, after all, is the hurry?

Disconnect. Slow down. Read at your own pace, for your own pleasure. The web will get along without you for a while.