There is a MOOC being run by the IOWA Writing University and Jonathan Lethem gave a talk that I have abridged below. The full version is available at the following link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8QOnEumMvjk It’s all about how when work loses Fizz just add causality.
‘First of all… a lot of the stories that interest us, a lot of the novels that interest us, fundamentally take two unrelated things, two autonomous ideas, situations, possibilities, and shackle them. And in many ways this initial impulse can seem quite arbitrary, because what you’re taking are things that aren’t necessarily related, and you’re placing them together, that’s the juxtaposition. What takes this operation from being something…sort of abstract or absurd or pointless is the second term of my concept, and that’s the causality.
So what’s causality? Causality is basically the word “because,” … the stakes of the story are going to relate the two things urgently and extensively.
So what do I mean by this? I’m going to give you an example from my own writing. When I conceived the book Motherless Brooklyn, which is a novel about a private detective who has Tourettes…it’s also very much about my own childhood in Brooklyn and growing up in a certain neighborhood at a certain time and place. In some ways it felt as though two different books were announcing themselves to me simultaneously. But rather than resist that, or sort the two out, or think they were incompatible, it seemed to me my funny, sort of willful, post-modern conceit about the detective with Tourette Syndrome, and my intimate, confessional, passionate love letter to the city where I grew up could be combined, and ought to be combined, and not only shouldn’t I do them at the same time, but that I was going to make it seem necessary…I was going to make it seem urgent and obvious in a way that the only place that this detective with Tourettes could tell this story, the only place he could have come from, was Brooklyn. And, you know, once I make this assertion…so I’ve got my juxtaposition, right? Tourette Syndrome, hard-boiled detective story, and the autobiographical material, this really involved setting, time and place, that mattered enormously to me…the public schools I went to, the streets I walked, the slices of pizza I used to eat on Smith Street…the things that reminded me of growing up in that place, and that I suddenly wanted to say a lot about.
So there’s the juxtaposition, I mean, you could even argue that it was a triple juxtaposition because, you know, what are hard-boiled detectives and Tourette Syndrome doing together? But anyway, so I smashed these things into one project, and then I’ve taken the next step, I’ve inserted the causality, I’ve said… he becomes emblematic to them of Brooklyn, he seems to them to exemplify something that’s already true about this place, which is that language is exploding everywhere, that because of the varieties of classes and cultures and races that were all living together in Brooklyn, and the kind of frenetic, sardonic, intense, and sometimes very insulting street language was typical…that his Tourette Syndrome just seems like Brooklyn raised to the nth degree.
things that you wouldn’t think of as being compatible or coexisting or related to each other have been electrified, like the parts of Frankenstein’s body by the bolt of electricity.
I’ll give you another example outside my own work, one of the most grandiose, of course, is totemic book of modernist genius, is James Joyce’s Ulysses, which takes Homeric myth, takes Odysseus wandering home after the Trojan War and relates it to the events of a day in a neighborhood in Dublin. Now, you know, we take this for granted now…of course, well it’s Ulysses, those things belong together, but when Joyce conceived this they had no relationship, it was the bolt of electricity that he flowed between them that made them into one unified thing forever…and now we take it as a commonplace thing that these things are married together.
Where do writers get their ideas? Was it the character or was it the setting? Did you think of the voice first or were you more concerned with the plot and set pieces? Were you thinking about a theme or were you thinking about things in your life, people you wanted to write about? The answer is almost always, when you press a writer and they have time to expand on what they were doing, the answer is always more than one, it’s always both. And I think that you can seek this doubleness, … in your own… unfinished stories, … if moved into a conjunction with these other things, it might suddenly become something.
…I want you to look around for things that … haven’t become stories…aren’t active on their own, and try taking more than one of those and just relating them. …juxtaposition…causality.’
Go check out the MOOC, it’s GREAT