The Portland Diaries, Part 3

Add this your list of great last lines in literature:

“When I hung up I felt as if I was an astronaut who had completed his orbit of the earth and now I was pulled by some new gravity into a cold clean darkness.”

That’s Walter Mosley at the end of A Little Yellow Dog.  I stood in my pretty little Tin House apartment this morning after I read that and said it out loud three or four or a dozen more times.  Saying it out loud made me feel like I should run around the block, so I put on my shoes and went outside and ran around for a while.

That’s what Walter Mosley will do to you–he’ll make you feel like you have to go run around until you shake it off, or to take it in, one or the other.

Thank you, Mr. Mosley.

A few years ago he wrote a book called This Year You Write Your Novel.  He filled it with lines like “You will find yourself in the cell with more than one murderer,” a terrifying but useful piece of information. I love books on writing written by household name-type authors.  Theirs are the only how-to books I really trust.  (sorry, Natalie Goldberg.)  Mosley advises first-time novelists to write about a thousand words every day, to tackle a short novel their first time out, and to write in the third person because it’s easier. The first draft will take about three months. It’ll be a mess. There’s more work to do after that, and he will tell you how to do it.

This is practical, useful advice, which is why I collect these sorts of books. Elmore Leonard’s gifty little hardcover 10 Rules of Writing includes this gem:

“Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.”

You have no idea how useful this is for nonfiction writers.

I also have books on writing by E.B. White, Stephen King, and Anne Lamott. But my favorite might be Janet Evanovich’s How I Write, in which she gives such (perhaps unintentionally) hilarious advice such as her strategy for working out difficult plot problems by opening a bottle of Champagne and popping a bowl of popcorn and then just thinking of something.

Which turns out to be a good way to solve any sort of problem. Drink enough Champagne and eat enough popcorn and something will occur to you.

(When asked by a reader whether her characters sometimes do things that surprise her, she says something like, “Of course not! I’m the one writing the book–you understand that, right? It’s fiction. I decide what they do.”)

So speaking of advice, I learned the most amazing thing in drawing class this week. Our professor had us draw a face, but leave out the eyes, nose, and mouth.

That’s right.  Everything but the features.

You have to understand that faces are incredibly hard to get right.  We are so tuned into them that it is almost impossible to really see them for what they are. Our idea of what a face is gets in the way. So that’s why she was having us draw everything but the parts we tend to focus on.

You wouldn’t think there would be anything left, but that was her point. A face, if you really look at it, is made up of all these lumps and hollows and flat planes. So she had us draw those. We started with the big planes–the forehead, both cheeks–and then did the smaller planes, like the bridge of the nose, the chin, the temples.  Soon we had all these rough shapes worked out, and when we stood back and looked, we realized that all that was left were these little spaces where the features go. Suddenly it was remarkably easy to put them in.

So.  Draw a thing by drawing everything but the thing. And then, in the spaces that are left after you’ve drawn everything else–that’s where the thing goes.

Huh.  I’m pretty sure there’s useful advice for writers in there, too. I haven’t quite worked out what that would be, but I’m thinking about it.