25 May Pursuing the non-linear narrative
I only made it to one panel at the Sydney Writer’s Festival, with English writer, Geoff Dyer, and American composer Joshua Cody, whose debut memoir sic chronicles his frenetic journey through cancer.
I’ve blogged about Geoff Dyer before, particularly about his latest novel, Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi. But I wanted to relay more of what he said for those who didn’t make it to the session.
Dyer describes himself as ‘a pluralist’. He’s written four novels, several essays and travelogues, and six non-fiction books. According to his website, five of these are ‘genre-defying titles’.
I’m always struck by how he changes his voice depending on what he’s writing. In last week’s session, he described how it’s ‘the tone or voice of the writer’ that interests him, rather than the narrative story. He added, that he’s always been, ‘hamstrung by the inability to think of stories and plots.’
In Jeff in Venice… he wrote two very different narratives. The first, from the third person point-of-view (pov), is about a man having an affair at the Venice Biennale. Part two, from the first person pov reads like a travel memoir set in Varanasi. It’s never clear if it is the same man.
Dyer said he wanted to call it a diptych—that is, a work of two matching parts—but his publishers dissuaded him from the idea for fear all the reviews would label it ‘Dipstick’. Rather than try and link the two halves, with a ‘thick narrative rope’, he decided to ‘exacerbate’ their differences. Only some ‘echoes’ resonant between part one and two.
Some reviewers loved the result. Others described it as ‘two half books’. But this isn’t the place to discuss how Dyer deals with the critics.
I think it was a bold move on his part. There are lots of rules in writing and one is not to change point-of-view halfway through a narrative. Of course, those rules are there to be broken.
Last year The Guardian published a useful supplement on How to Write Fiction. It opens with Dyer advising writers to ‘stop worrying about what you can’t do and focus on what you’re good at.’ Such simple advice, yet so rarely heeded.
He writes, ‘Writers are defined, in large measure, by what they can’t do.’
Description might not be your forte, or perhaps you struggle with authentic dialogue. Dyer admits he can’t do plots and nor does he want to. This hasn’t stopped him and nor should it stop you.
One of my worst habits is comparing myself to other writers—and then feeling down on myself for not being as good / funny / add your own here. So I took to heart what Geoff Dyer said, and hope you do too:
‘I haven’t got it all. I make do with what I have.’
What about you?