Wednesday, January 26, 2011
Lemony Snicket: how to make things happen
Tonight Daniel Handler (also known as Lemony Snicket, of A Series of Misfortune Events fame) spoke on campus. This man is irreverent, brilliant, strange, and opinionated on the topics of story, plot, and honesty in literature. My understanding of him as a writer comes less from his popular children's books, and more from his novel Adverbs, which many argue is actually a collection of love stories. His prose is familiar both with itself and (it claims) with you as a reader. He often acknowledges his narrators, perhaps to beat us all to the punch, or to further the story in a way he finds interesting, or to add a finer, more textured experimental layer to the story.
I realized as he was speaking that he's exactly the inverse of the writer that often pops out of me, and maybe that's why I find him so easy to admire. He drew a diagram of the way he often imagines his characters intersecting, focusing less on their individual characteristics than the incidences that make them collide. His prose is often fast, funny, and furious; although it is clear that writing so clean can only be the product of laborious effort (he said that his first draft of Adverbs was 1000 pages long), he made it clear that developing full characters is only interesting when they operate in a plot- and problem-studded universe. Often when I try to write fiction, I get so absorbed in the very concept of a person, and his or her psychology, and the place in which he or she resides, that I have to weed out and around the outline of who they are in order to see the story at hand. There comes a time when being so conscious of character, and how he or she would react in any given situation, actually inhibits the writer from furthering an invented universe.
Handler quoted a fan letter that complimented him by saying, "I enjoy your books. I am always curious when things happen." He underscored the simplicity of that statement, and how the more interesting parts of our own lives, the parts worth retelling, are not morality tales or formulaic episodes, but rather the honest, bizarre and unexpected moments that arise when stuff happens.
When stuff happens. His great magic trick as a writer is knowing instinctively what "stuff" is worth happening, and what is worth leaving behind. I hope one day to understand that maneuver myself.