I finished a book this week -- Hell by Rob Olen Butler. I don't write much about the books I read, probably because I read more than I write. My brother (who is also reading it, as is my wife) described the book as Dante's Inferno for the 21st Century -- a more accurate description after finishing the book would be Dante's Divine Comedy for the 21st Century without the terza rima.
A theme throughout Hell is the inability to actually get inside someone else's subjective, interior thoughts. Satan in all his anticipatory sadistic power can't do it. The denizens of Hell certainly can't do it, but with Butler's post modern irony, the reader of Hell gets to spend a lot of time in everyone else's head -- well at least Butler's head.
This isn't the first time Butler has played around with the concept of what is going on in someone else's noggin. An earlier foray takes the phrase "in someone else's head" quite literally in Severance, a compilation of short 240 word epigraphic epitaphs of the last words going through the minds of the beheaded (apparently you have enough oxygen after being beheaded to get through 240 words before it is lights out.). Butler goes a step further in Intercourse giving the reader the internal monologue of participants in the sex act.
Writing itself is an act of disclosure, an act of placing at least a portion of one's thoughts on the screen or page. Imagine your last 240 words after the knife slices through your neck. Remember your last internal monologue in the throes of passion. Imagine what your own hell and your own redemption would be like. Remember the darkest or scariest thought you don't dare speak.
The writer's hell is the rejection of the interior. The writing gets thrown out in a desperate attempt for readers to accept the internal and often fractured offerings of the author. Every time I type a word, I want someone to read it and even more importantly, understand me, but somehow writing and reading is more transformative. Intaking the words through reading alters the words into a new subjective reality that is far beyond the author's control or ability to anticipate.
My wife is a writer. She's married to me because she is a writer, because she put her words out there for me to read. For a bookish soul like me, maybe that was the only way to change me, by getting her thoughts inside my head in a form I was used to. This week she finished her latest novel, TDTM. The book has been created from out of the mist of our daily life together and those pieces are scattered throughout. Our discussions about the book have influenced the plot. When I read it, my internal thoughts will register something different because of that experience, but it will connect me to other readers as we share the communal aspect of having heard the same story.
A book is the closest a human can come to entering someone else's mind.
Great writing organizes the subjective thoughts of the author, but remains true to the interior mind as the thoughts are edited on to the page. The trick of great writing is to create enough flow with the reader that you hijack their thoughts. The writer also wants to create a parallel thought pattern in the reader -- See, here I am writing, you are reading, we think similarly and you know where this can go and you know what it means and you listen to what I write, knowing this isn't your thought, but mine, but you understand because you think like this too at times. Pulling it off with one stream of conscious sentence if easy. Maintaining it for the length of a book is hard.
JulieAnn's friend, Emily Pearson, has written a memoir, Dancing With Crazy. Of all the writing, a memoir is by its nature the most personal. Every word in the memoir has impact and meaning for the author, because the author knows what every word represents -- an entire interior reality is constructed around each word, each paragraph, each incident. The problem is that the reader doesn't have access to all of that interiority. As the three of us discussed her memoir, there was agreement for the need for an edit from the right editor to give her work its full impact. The editor would help bring her distinctive voice to a much wider audience.
I'm nearly 50 years old and for the first time I think I finally understood why an editor is so important for a book. The great editor, like the great writer, helps organize the words so the interior thoughts of the author come through on the page. The editor points out the author's own internal blind spots and brings to the book something the author doesn't have -- an external point of view. The combination of the editor's external and the author's internal is the bridge from the writer's mind to the reader's interior.
Again, with a writer for a wife, I get to see this editor/writer dance. JulieAnn recently finished line edits on her book that is about to published, Falling Back to Earth. The editor's comments and changes at this juncture are the fine tuning on the book's ability to connect to the reader. The occasional editorial aside that a scene is suspenseful or moving makes me realize that something magical is taking place with JulieAnn's words, someone else is seeing the beauty, depth and struggle that I have become so familiar with in our marriage.
Which brings me back to Hell. All week long a phrase that I have uttered often and with heartfelt meaning has been transformed by another human being. Robert Olen Butler has taken up occupancy in my head. He appropriated a word and amplified it for me, so that I hear nuances I was deaf to before. I don't know that this is what he intended or even if it is what he meant, but it is what he did to me. For a writer and for a reader, this type of Hell is heavenly.