Getting to the Tag

by sbh on Thursday - 14 February 2008

in Uncategorized

Houdini in Cuffs

_If you haven’t read_ The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay _by Michael Chabon, you should. There are some minor spoilers in here — but you shouldn’t fret over them because I know you will go read the book prior to reading this post._

Occasionally, you read something that is so well-written, so tightly wrapped, that you marvel a little at it. I usually go through some sort of self-deprecating phase where I say: “Shucks…I’m never gonna write like that…what’s the use?” Grab a-hold of yourself, amigo. Buck up and chill out.

I recently reviewed The Final Solution by Michael Chabon. It had been some time since I had read anything by Chabon, who is one of my favorites (I know, he’s one of everybody’s favorites, right?). So, I decided to open up his biggest success, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, for a second time. I’ve only had enough time to get through the first part, but I am reminded once again of what a great writer Chabon is, just by these first 60 pages or so.

In his book _On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft_, Stephen King discusses the importance of brevity. In so doing, he talks specifically about finding the right level of detail. Too much detail and you lose your audience — they get bored. Too little detail, and the reader has no idea what you’re talking about. Finding that right level of detail is key.

It is precisely this that Michael Chabon is a master of. I admit, as I was rereading _Kavalier & Clay_, some 7 years after I first picked up, I asked myself: “Why is Chabon giving me so much? Is he just being clever?” With this attentiveness to detail that I have gained over the last 7 years, I began to wonder exactly what Chabon was up to. I became suspicious of a writer in whose hands I had always felt supreme comfort!

My fears were allayed, however, when I reached the end of the first section where Chabon throws a lovely little tag on a mostly bitter, but sometimes sweet story. He buttons it up into one taut piece of fiction, that pays great dividends.

The opening section of _Kavalier & Clay_ is about a young man named Josef Kavalier who is chosen as his family’s hope of escape from German occupied Prague. Josef has been trained in the arts of “autoliberation” by an aging escape artist called Kornblum. But he is not supposed to need these skills to escape Prague. Instead, his family has procured all of the appropriate visas — spending their considerable fortune to give Josef a shot at making it to America. When the plan goes awry, Josef finds himself secretly moving about Prague for three days, hoping to avoid detection by his family, on a clandestine mission with his former teacher, Kornblum.

Throughout all of this, Chabon weaves in the story of Josef’s time as Kornblum’s pupil. He also spends a great deal of time developing Josef’s relationship with his little brother, Thomas. It is during this relationship building that I began to wonder: “What is Chabon playing at? Why is he giving us so much?” Through these pages, Thomas becomes a well-developed character — a little brother who loses a great deal when his attempts to help Josef’s fledgling career go terribly awry.

One memorable exchange occurs over an illustration, a sedate skydiving, tea-drinking Houdini, that Thomas has drawn for the libretto of an opera he is writing. Josef dismisses this drawing as ridiculous. Many pages later, after a month of travel across the entire continent of Asia and the Pacific Ocean, Josef finds that it is this drawing that Thomas has stuffed in Josef’s clothes as he was saying farewell many weeks earlier.

Obviously, the picture of Houdini and what he represents serves the story as a whole — Jewish apprentice escape artist slips through the grasp of the Third Reich. Moreover, the picture ties the entire section together. A small detail, a minute moment in this history, serves a great purpose later on. It’s touching; it’s memorable; it’s good writing.

As I’m looking at the writing projects on my plate, I’m wondering what are the tiny details that could be used to great effect as buttons or tags that make the story feel as if it’s come full circle? For the moment, I’m not really seeing any. Why not? Because I haven’t created them. I’d love to think that I’m skilled enough to weave this yarn into a tapestry on my first attempt — but I’m just not there (yet?). Most of us aren’t. Instead, we need to rely on something that sometimes feels dirty, dastardly, and unwelcome:


Yeah, I know you’ve heard before: “The art of writing is rewriting.” We all have. It’s true though. I’m not going to create the masterpiece on my first attempt. In fact, I aim not to.

Rather than worrying about things like this as I write, though sometimes they happen, I save them for round two. As I’m writing a first draft, I want to get the framework and skeleton on to the page. I want the big picture, the broad brush strokes, whatever your favorite metaphor is. It’s on the second go ’round that flesh starts to stick to the bones, and tidiness creeps in.

The more revisions, the more layers we can add, the closer the story will conform to your vision — what you have in your head and heart. Unfortunately, it seems that this vision is an asymptote. Eventually, your returns on this investment will probably begin to diminish, and your ability to affect the piece will flat line. That’s OK — that’s how you know it’s done! When you just can’t conceive of what else to do to it, that’s when you stop, or seek outside opinions and help.

All of this is to say that if you find yourself marveling at other writers, don’t indulge that inner-critic that tells you you aren’t good enough. Screw that guy (or gal)! Just keep at it. Write, rewrite, rewrite again. You’ll get it right. It just takes more effort than we might be willing to admit.

Previous post:

Next post: