04 July 2010

The art and joy of random riffs and references

One of the joys and frustrations (in equal measure) of working on a research-intensive writing project is that your brain becomes wired to look for connections and associations everywhere. Several times a day, I'll be reading a random newspaper article, magazine article, or blog post--purely for pleasure, not for research--and I'll suddenly stop and think, Wow, that's a great point about the World Cup/Sartre/local noise ordinances/the Fourth of July/pistachios/font design/NASA! I should work that into my book! 

[NOTE: This became an essay about the artistry of piecing together connections, and my own struggles with same. I suspect that most of my readers don't actually care to read 700 soul-searching words on the subject, so I've moved that section to a footnote at the bottom of the post, after the jump.]

About two-thirds of the time, I think for three seconds and realize, no, it would be completely ridiculous to quote this. Dude: Smurfs do not tell us anything about Paris or Parisians. And wherever you were going with that, it was probably offensive. But a third of the time, I write it down in hopes that, yeah, maybe I can do something with that. A few recent examples (sans my commentary on how it relates to tourism/travel/travel writing; I'll let you guess):

1. From this Associated Press story about travel in South Africa during the World Cup:
Like any worthy pilgrimage, the World Cup throws unlikely souls together and generates deeper understanding if not always deep conversations.
2. From Tad Friend's profile of Steve Carell in the current issue of The New Yorker:
Modern entertainment increasingly strives for an orchestrated spontaneity. Even as scripted comedy tries to seem unscripted, reality shows such as "Wife Swap," "The Hills," and "The Real Housewives" have evidently become "soft scripted," with their arcs and conflicts built in. ... Yet they all plan for unplanned moments, engineering scenarios that feel like life minus the boring parts.
3. From Nick Hornby's Fever Pitch (which I read when I was about 14, and totally did not understand, aside from the soccer references; now, at 29, I am halfway through again and laughing and crying on every page, mesmerized by--and profoundly jealous of--Hornby's storytelling abilities and artful, insightful connection-making, of which this is just one example):
There is a short story by the American writer Andre Dubus entitled "The Winter Father," about a man whose divorce has separated him from his two children. In the winter his relationship with them is tetchy and strained: they move from afternoon jazz club to cinema to restaurant, and stare at each other. But in the summer, when they can go to the beach, they get on fine. 'The long beach and the sea were their lawn; the blanket their home; the ice chest and thermos their kitchen. They lived as a family again.' ... [The story] manages to isolate what is valuable in the relationship between parents and children, and explains simply and precisely why the zoo trips are doomed. 
4. From Tim O'Brien's "How to Tell a True War Story," in his collection of connected short stories, The Things They Carried (probably my favorite book ever, and one I return to whenever I need to be reminded of what powerful, evocative, completely entrancing writing is like):
In any war story, but especially a true one, it's difficult to separate what happened from what seemed to happen. What seems to happen becomes its own happening and has to be told that way. The angles of vision are skewed. ... The pictures get jumbled, and you miss a lot. And then afterward, when you go to tell about it, there is always that surreal seemingness, which makes the story seem untrue, but which in fact represents the hard and exact truth as it seemed



I struggle with the artistry of association. Too many random quotes and tangents can lend a story a Google search quality, burying the message and narrative under a baffling barrage of not-really-related ideas. It becomes unfocused and maddening; it proves to the reader that the author is a good note-taker but a crappy writer, like a jazz improviser trying to riff on ten songs at once but failing to achieve any sense of melody or rhythm, succeeding only in being pretentious and hubristic. At its best, though, those riffs, those associations of seemingly-disparate ideas, can seamlessly build to something beautiful and harmonious, even transcendent, something that becomes not just greater than the sum of its parts but greater, more culture-probing and Big-Idea-creating than the original subject in and of itself, such that the subject becomes a metaphor or stand-in for broader themes. Any book, essay, or story of any merit uses these associations to build its thesis.

It's a tricky balance, made all the more so by the fact that not everyone will understand the references and tangents. When I called Munich's Glockenspiel "Ye Olde Chuck E. Cheese," most Americans of my or my parents' generation presumably got the reference. But you Aussies, Canadians, or Americans over 70? Possibly not. 

Should I care if not everyone gets the references, though? I'm not sure. At a writers' conference I attended a few years ago (tangent to build to the bigger point!), the author Junot Diaz talked about his mix of high-minded ideas (philosophy, politics) and lowbrow culture (comic books, street slang) as well as different languages, in his Pulitzer-winning novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. He said that he wanted his readers to be disoriented and to not understand all of his references and associations, or even entire conversations in languages they didn't speak. Because life is like that, inherently: you're constantly using your limited knowledge to piece together the story of your surroundings, but you'll never know exactly what's going on.  

I think it's a bit different for nonfiction, though: there's less room for artistry; the references need to serve the ideas, not the story. When I read Pico Iyer's The Global Soul, I was forever frustrated by his references to Derek Walcott and other poets, to the point where it became distracting, a showcase of an Oxford education rather than what it was supposed to be: a keen, focused commentary on the nature of home in a global age. In my case, I have all these temptations to work in references from my liberal arts schooling (hail the maize and blue!)--White Noise, Vinyl Leaves, Fast Food Nation, Being There, The Machine in the Garden. Eliade, represent! Eiffel Tower = tourist axis mundi! (Anyone? Holla!)  I even have this great theory about how Janice Radway's Reading the Romance--a critical examination of romance novels and, most of all, their readers' motivations for reading them--relates to the escapist fantasies of travel literature like Under the Tuscan Sun and A Year in Provence, to say nothing of the travel-writing-as-spiritual-self-help phenomenon that is Eat, Pray, Love

Honestly, though? You probably don't want to read it. Just a hunch. (Also, I do have an editor-mandated word count limit.) This is not an academic treatise; it's a book for a general market, a book that I'd like more than two people to read.  Though I may be writing about the confusing, wondrous, strange, alienating nature of travel and tourism, I really can't (or at least don't want to) get away with dropping superfluous quotes and riffs for their own sake, reader confusion be damned. 

If any of my references or riffs on this blog go over your head, please speak up. 

And for now, in the words of the great poet and philosopher Porky the Pig, That's All, Folks! 

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