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Even If We’re Just Chatting in the Dark: Plot and Telephones

I taught my first Skype class last night, speaking with people as far away as Georgia and as nearby as Emeryville about how to plot a novel. There was a little technological brouhaha at the start, but that is probably the equivalent of my not knowing quite how the key works in the classroom door and then not being able to find the chalk while a few people wander in late or lost. And then we were off . . .

It was exciting. I started by having each person say something about his or her surrounds. It helped to imagine people at their kitchen tables or garage-offices, to know that this one had stacks of math books around and that one had the empty bowl from her pre-class snack. Are we gaining access to more people or losing access to the ones near-by? At any rate, I liked having the human context for the voices. I liked the voices, too. Regional accents and varying tonalities.

I used to love to talk on the phone, but these days I almost never do it. First of all, I am almost never alone. And we can’t make phone calls while driving any more in California. I mean, I can project a call into the car, but the sound-quality is so poor . . . and for some reason, raising my voice while holding the small device of my cell phone to my head seems so natural that I don’t even know I am doing it until I notice Angie wincing. But shouting in the direction of the dashboard in my car feels strange indeed.

I’m not sure any of the logistics are the entirety of why I don’t talk on the phone anymore. Another reason has to be the enormity of the shifts in my life in the past couple of years. I hardly know what to say in response to the simplest, “How are you?” that is both brief and true. I draw a blank.

I have so many experiences and feelings crammed inside me, like the whole wheat bunnies and sand and occasional sock you find in every crevice of the boys’ car seats. A phone call wouldn’t help. I need a vacuum cleaner.

But it was lovely to talk on the phone about plot. Made-up plots. We are all connoisseurs of plot, really. Someone starts to tell us a story and we have all the right questions at hand–not as critics or as writers, but as consumers of story. How do these events impact the protagonist? What happens next? What in this character drives her to take this action? And all the questions are about character and plot together, because we believe in what people do, not what they say.

Maybe this is another reason the phone isn’t doing it for me these days. Everything is in action, and I don’t want the voice-over narration. Come over and see my babies laugh. Talk to me while I wash the dishes.

Maybe I’m better in writing anyway. More eloquent. More honest. There’s a lot of getting in and getting out with a phone call, especially if you add in the need to explain that I am on call if a baby cries . . .

I think I’m complaining, which is a poor use of a blog. There is something else I want to say about plot:

Everything that people tend to hold up as against plot is right there in it: lyricism and place and theme and character and “real life” and whatever autobiographical fragments to writer brings to the book. The idea that plot is antithetical to these things is some bizarre misunderstanding of art. It is as if to say that a portrait that attends to perspective and framing, to shadow and light, to shading and line, cannot capture what matters about a person, about a life. People’s meanings and secret hopes and quiet desperations are yearning for expression, so much so that you can start anywhere–as many writers do–start with horror or parody or romance–and still you will stumble upon these things. And if the writer never makes it to the heart of the heart of the matter, don’t blame the lithe and limber plot. Don’t hate it because it is beautiful.

 [Please visit my web site blog: http://www.elizabethstark.com for more on writing, parenting, and a bit of politics. Thanks!]