Bend Sinister: A Handbook for Writers

Alice McDermott | October/November 2000

"As much as we eschew them, we all want 'How tos'. We want some help writing these stories that no one can tell us how to write."

I am wary of any advice to fiction writers that smacks of "how to."

I am happy to see fiction writers gainfully employed and serially published, but I am always hit with a wave of disappointment when a fiction writer I admire brings forth a book or an article about writing fiction.

I have never been a student in a writing workshop where the phrases "a short story must never" or "a novel must always" didn't fill me with the determination to write a story that did what it mustn't or a novel that didn't do what it must.

And in the 20 years I've been leading writing workshops I have never answered any question that begins, "Are you allowed to." or ends, "Can you do that?" with anything more precise than, "You can do whatever you can get away with."

In a recent workshop at Sewanee, Ernest Gaines said—I think it was on the very first day—"No one can tell you how to write your stories. They're your stories. You have to write what you have to write your way. No one can tell you how." He said it so reasonably, and dismissively, that I could immediately see heads nodding all around the room, one whispered Of course being exchanged with another. And then, a split second later, across those same nodding faces, there passed a shadow of utter dismay—a series, one after the other, of shifty-eyed glances. "Then what the hell are we doing here?" was the unmurmured murmur that filled the room. "What the hell are we paying for?"

As much as we may eschew them, we all want "How tos." Instruction manuals, guidebooks, handbooks. We want some help writing these stories that are indeed our stories that no one can tell us how to write. I have written four novels thus far, and each one of them, in the midst of its composition, has felt to me like groping in the dark, going down blind alleys, building castles in the sand at 3 a.m.—choose what cliché you will, but make sure it is a cliché that refers to darkness, uncertainty, and a numbing sense of utter futility. For the first half of the composition of each of my novels I have been consumed by a sense of not knowing what I'm doing, and for the second half I have been consumed by the certainty that I know exactly what I am doing and should not be doing it.

I have at these times longed for handbooks myself—something I could pluck off a shelf, check the index, find my particular problem (characters are boring, plot is missing, author is questioning the meaning of her existence), refer to the proper pages, read, nod, and then return to the writing with the solution in hand.

No such handbook exists, of course, and if it did I wouldn't waste my time reading it or taking its advice, since such handbooks must, by their very nature, be as general and precise as a horoscope, and since I am a fiction writer and harbor in my heart—as we all do—the conviction that no one can tell me how to write my stories because no one who has lived my life and thought my thoughts has ever written this story before.

(I've noticed, as a matter of fact, in my years of teaching, that one of the most subtly disconcerting things a writer can say to a student goes something like this, "John Cheever (or Updike or Chekhov or Flannery O'Connor, or Munro or James or whoever) did exactly what you're attempting here in a story called." That slow burn you can detect behind the student's enthusiastic nod as she diligently copies down a title is, I believe, the one true indication of a real writer, a real writer who even as she obediently copies down the suggested reading is thinking, No one has ever done exactly what I'm attempting to do here, you stupid ass.)

No one can tell us how to write our stories. But I do find that we can be shored up at those dark moments during the composition of a work of fiction by taking from a shelf a great novel or short story and reading again something that made us want to get into this racket in the first place (because we're all readers first, and we all become writers because we have been inspired to try our own hand by something we have read). I find, too, that I can illustrate, if not illuminate, my advice to other writers that in fiction you can do whatever you can get away with by directing them toward novels and stories that do just that. Nabokov's Bend Sinister is quite often, for me, one of the first novels to come to mind.

I will not presume to lecture you on the merits of Nabokov's novel. I will not pretend to understand or even to appreciate fully all of its wordplay and allusion and cross-language sleight of hand. The foreword Nabokov wrote for the novel in 1963, contained in the Vintage edition that seems to be available everywhere, is quite enough to set you agape at his brilliance even before you've read the first page, and I must confess that I seem to be one of the readers he refers to in that foreword when he says, "Most people will not even mind having missed all this" (that is, the cross references, the wordplay, the hidden codes and themes); "well-wishers will bring their own symbols and mobiles and portable radios to my little party."

What I bring to each reading of this wonderful novel (besides my humble hat in my hand and my delight to encounter once again each delicious morsel) is my conviction that if ever there was one, this is a handbook for writers.

And at the risk of oversimplifying a complex and indescribable work of art, it is as a handbook for writers that I'd like to refer to Bend Sinister today.

I'll begin, as most handbooks do, with "Beginnings" or, for the less stouthearted, the more gentle "Getting Started" or, if our handbook is to appeal to the more commercially minded writer: "Drawing Your Reader In On the First Page" (which might be followed by the warning that the world is full of distractions and if you don't catch your reader's attention with the first page, you may never catch it at all!).

Here is how Nabokov begins his novel:

An oblong puddle inset in the course asphalt; like a fancy footprint filled to the brim with quicksilver; like a spatulate hole through which you can see the nether sky. Surrounded. I note, by a diffuse tentacled black dampness where some dull dun dead leaves have stuck. Drowned, I should say, before the puddle had shrunk to its present size.

(A first sentence made up of three phrases joined by semicolons, followed by a single-word sentence, "Surrounded." Blatant alliteration, second person, and first person in a novel that is to be predominately third person, a detailed description of a puddle—can you do that?)

It lies in shadow but contains a sample of the brightness beyond, where there are trees and two houses. Look closer. Yes, it reflects a portion of pale blue sky—mild infantile shade of blue—taste of milk in my mouth because I had a mug of that color thirty-five years ago. It also reflects a brief tangle of bare twigs and the brown sinus of a stouter limb cut off by its rim and a transverse bright cream-colored band. You have dropped something, this is yours, creamy house in the sunshine beyond.

When the November wind has its recurrent icy spasms, a rudimentary vortex of ripples creases the brightness of the puddle.

(Are you allowed to have the whole first page of the novel go by without any indication of who, what, when, where, or why we should keep reading?)

Two leaves, two triskelions, like two shuddering three-legged bathers coming at a run for a swim, are borne by their impetus right into the middle where with a sudden slowdown they float quite flat. Twenty minutes past four.

View from a hospital window.

November trees, poplars, I imagine, two of them growing straight out of the asphalt: all of them in the cold bright sun, bright richly furrowed bark and an intricate sweep of numberless burnished bare twigs, old gold—because getting more of the falsely mellow sun in the higher air. Their immobility is in contrast with the spasmodic ruffling of the inset reflection—for the visible motion of a tree is in the mass of its leaves, and there remain hardly more than thirty-seven or so here and there on one side of the tree. They just flicker a little, of a neutral tint, but burnished by the sun to the same ikontinct as the intricate trillions of twigs. Swooning blue of the sky crossed by pale motionless superimposed cloud wisps.

The operation has not been successful and my wife will die.

Who could formulate the advice that would produce such a beginning? The writer takes you by the scruff of the neck and, first and foremost, makes you see. A world forms before your eyes even before you know what or who the novel is about, a world of color and light and shape and voice—"taste of milk in my mouth. You have dropped something, this is yours... poplars, I imagine"—voice that insinuates itself so subtly into the description that we are hardly aware of it, hardly aware of the way it transforms a scene being observed into a scene being observed by someone until the devastating single line "The operation has not been successful and my wife will die" appears (bringing with it, by the way, plot, story) and we can sense, if we can't quite see, how those first person references have set us up to receive its full impact.

This "I," this stranger, this creature wholly unknown to us four paragraphs ago when we first opened this oddly-titled novel by some Russian guy whose name nobody can seem to agree about how to pronounce, this "I" became human for us when we tasted, with him, tasted the memory of that milk in the blue cup of his childhood and observed, with him, the details of his reflections, the reflection in the puddle seen from the hospital window where the operation was not successful and his wife will die.

Beyond, a low fence, in the sun, in the bright starkness, a slaty housefront has for frame two cream-colored lateral pilasters and a broad blank unthinking cornice: the frosting of a shopworn cake. Windows look black by day. Thirteen of them; white lattice, green shutters. All very clear, but the day will not last. Something has moved in the blackness of one window: an ageless housewife—ope as my dentist in my milktooth days used to say, a Dr. Wollison—opens the window, shakes out something and you may now close.

The advice to writers, of course, is to take your reader by the scruff of the neck and make him see the world you are calling forth, remember the appeal of language used well and the necessity of voice, of the human, in the simplest descriptions, and remember, too, that this is fiction you are writing, where every detail is chosen and every word purposeful and a necessary part not only of the sentence it is contained in but of the entire work as well.

The puddle here, for example, is not merely a narrative snapshot, a random subject upon which the talented artist/author can self-indulgently lavish minute details like so many swirls of paint, but a thematic tool as well.

Here is how the author refers to it in his prologue:

The plot starts to breed in the bright broth of a rain puddle. The oblong pool, shaped like a cell that is about to divide, reappears subthematically throughout the novel, as an ink blot in Chapter Four, an inkstain in Chapter Five, spilled milk in Chapter 11, the infusoria-like image of ciliated thought in Chapter 12, the footprint of a phosphorescent islander in Chapter 18, and the imprint a soul leaves in the intimate texture of space in the closing paragraph. The puddle thus kindled and rekindled in Krug's mind remains linked up with the image of his wife not only because he had contemplated the inset sunset from her death-bedside, but also because this little puddle vaguely evokes in him my link with him: a rent in his world leading to another world of tenderness, brightness and beauty.

The puddle, the novel's first image, resounds too in the choice of the title, which Nabokov further points out is a term from heraldry, a bar or band drawn from the left side, a title meant, he writes, "to suggest an outline broken by refraction, a distortion in the mirror of being, a wrong turn taken by life, a sinistral and sinister world."

Advice to writers: know what you've written and why it belongs in a work of art, where what actually exists and what really happens or has happened is mostly irrelevant, where how each detail is a part of the whole is all that really counts.

Helpful hint: you do not need to know this before you begin to compose, or even while you compose, you should aspire only to know it when you have brought your work to a close and have had a chance, yourself, to grasp the meaning of your work, in its entirety.

Borges said that "good readers are poets as singular, and as awesome, as great authors themselves," and he called reading "an activity subsequent to writing—more resigned, more civil, more intellectual."

It seems to me that in the course of the composition of any work of fiction there comes a time when the writer must become a reader. This time may occur after the white head of inspiration (or, for those of us who hesitate to apply such words as inspiration, the white heat—or maybe just the glowing embers, steadily puffed upon—of simply getting down a first or second draft); it may be—more likely—interspersed between a number of such moments—but whenever it occurs, it is that necessary time when the writer sits back (breathless, no doubt, wiping a brow) and the calm (more resigned, more civil, more intellectual) reader in the writer takes over. It is this calm reader who must ultimately make sure that in the overwhelming rush inspired words are correctly chosen and fully meaningful and that the piece of fiction works as a whole.

Chapter Two of our handbook might be headed: "Character." Or, for the egomaniac mad scientist in all of us who write fiction, "Bringing People to Life."

Once again, Nabokov first and foremost makes you see. You can haul out E.M. Forester's labels for flat characters and round characters, you can distinguish major from minor, bit players from stars, but, let's face it, when you are caught in the spell of a work, when you are a reader absorbed, you only notice there or not there. Nabokov characters are there.

The housekeeper in Krug's apartment—a bit player, to be sure, meant only to look after his eight-year-old son while Krug is staring out of a hospital window, negotiating the mad crossing of a bridge guarded by the imbecilic soldiers of his country's new imbecilic police state and returning home a widower—is blessed with full life in these two sentences: "She had been in the family for several years and, as conventionally happens in such cases, was pleasantly plump, middle-aged, and sensitive. There she stood staring at him with dark liquid eyes, her mouth slightly opened showing a gold spotted tooth, her coral earrings staring too and one hand pressed to her formless gray-worsted bosom."

I love the economy of this description; background is there, as is the acknowledgment of the character as a type ("as conventionally happens in such cases"). Only her eyes and mouth and bosom are mentioned, but nevertheless we see her perfectly—and those staring coral earrings that manage to convey a sense of her life thus far (before she makes her brief appearance in the novel) as well as her present fear and heartache and astonishment.

And here is another character coming to life, old Professor Azureus from the same university where Krug is a famous philosopher. It is a description without the precise physical detail of eye color or earring, and yet it is as vivid and revealing of character as any I've read:

Old Azureus's manner of welcoming people was a silent rhapsody. Ecstatically beaming, slowly, tenderly, he would take your hand between his soft palms, hold it thus as if it were a long sought treasure or a sparrow all fluff and heart, in moist silence, peering at you the while with his beaming wrinkles rather than with his eyes, and then, very slowly, the silvery smile would start to dissolve, the tender old hands would gradually release their hold, a blank expression replace the fervent light of his pale fragile face, and he would leave you as if he had made a mistake, as if after all you were not the loved one—the loved one whom, the next moment, he would espy in another corner and again the smile would dawn, again the hands would enfold the sparrow, again it would all dissolve.

Eye color, hair color, the color of his pants or his vest—none of this needs to be told about old Azureus because in this one paragraph the reader has met the man and taken his measure. And the beaming wrinkles, the pale fragile face are not merely parts of a catalog of physical features that another, earnest author might relate in order to make a body vivid—they are the physical details that reveal the character of the man, even as they make us see.

Nabokov's brilliant physical description of Adam Krug in the same chapter is a guide to exactly what is required of the fiction writer in order to bring characters to life, a kind of metaphor for the depth of awareness the writer must have in order to make his characters live:

He was a big heavy man in his early forties, with untidy, dusty, or faintly grizzled locks and a roughly hewn face suggestive of the uncouth chess master or of the morose composer, but more intelligent. The strong compact dusky forehead had that peculiar hermetic aspect (a bank safe? a prison wall?) which the brows of thinkers possess. The brain consisted of water, various chemical compounds and a group of highly specialized fats. The pale steely eyes were half closed in their squarish orbits under the shaggy eyebrows. The ears were of goodly size with hair inside. He wore a badly creased dark suit and a bow tie. the not so recent collar was of the low open variety, i.e. with a comfortable triangular space for his namesake's apple. Thick sided shoes and old-fashioned black spats were the distinctive characters of his feet. What else? Oh, yes—the absent minded beat of his forefinger against the arm of his chair.

Under this visible surface, a silk shirt enveloped his robust torso and tired hips. It was tucked deep into his long underpants which in their turn were tucked into his socks; it was rumored, he knew, that he wore none (hence the spats) but that was not true; they were in fact nice expensive lavender silk socks.

Under this was the warm white skin. Out of the dark an ant trail, a narrow capillary caravan, went up the middle of his abdomen to end at the brink of his navel; and a blacker and denser growth was spread-eagle upon his chest.

Under this was a dead wife and a sleeping child.

A catalog of physical attributes, of course, but the master novelist understands, too, what is at the center—the soul, the heart of each player, minor or major, flat or round—and subtly, carefully, in every description he writes, reveals all.

I'd like to title another chapter in this handbook for writers: "You Can Do Whatever You Can Get Away With." You've already seen—I hope—that kind of audacity in the first paragraphs of Bend Sinister, but let me just cite another example (the novel is full of them) that would never pass muster in any number of writing workshops: the unwarranted person or point of view shift. (Those of us who are paid to do such things generally write "p. of v." in the margins of your unrepeatable, unprecedented, irreplaceable stories when this occurs.). Here is Krug calling his friend Ember on the night of Olga's death:

Ember might be out. The telephone might not work. But from the feel of the receiver as he took it up he knew the faithful instrument was alive. I could never remember Ember's number. Here is the back of the telephone book on which we used to jot down names and figures, our hands mixed, slanting and curving in opposite directions. Her concavity fitting my convexity exactly. Extraordinary—I am able to make out the shadow of eyelashes on the child's cheek but fail to decipher my own handwriting. He found his spare glasses and then the familiar number with the six in the middle resembling Ember's Persian nose, and Ember put down his pen, removed the long amber cigarette-holder from his thickly pursed lip and listened.

"I was in the middle of this letter when Krug rang up and told me a terrible thing. Poor Olga is no more."

An unlawful shift of both point of view and person, as well as a nontransitioned total change of scene, that saves both reader and author from the pathos of the actual phone conversation and allows Ember the chance to recollect and thus reveal the history of his friendship with Krug, so smoothly executed that only those of us who read with red pencils in hand will know it even happened.

Further examples, as I said, abound: the manipulative use of dreams to give background and develop character. Long, delightful, but didactic passages that however briefly put the story on hold to explore the nature of thought, God, Shakespeare, school yard bullies, the futility of translation.

A chapter that begins: "'We met yesterday,' said the room. 'I am the spare bedroom in the Maximov's dacha. These are windmills on the wallpaper.' 'That's right,' replied Krug."

A final blatant, authorial intrusion that should prove E.M. Forester's claim that all such intrusions decrease the "emotional temperature" of the piece but that manages, nevertheless, to do quite the opposite, leaving the reader (leaving this reader) still quite warm, thank you, fully involved, amazed at how that initial rent in the world, the little puddle glimpsed from the hospital window, has given way to another place, "of tenderness, lightness and beauty"—the room in which the author writes.

We'll need a chapter on detail—not that the use of detail hasn't already been mentioned, and not so our handbook can belabor the obvious, i.e., detail is good, precise detail is better, precise detail with many layers of meaning that contributes to the harmony and shape of the whole work is better still—but so we can understand the meaning of detail as used by fiction writers.

Here is Krug, crossing the bridge on his way home from the hospital:

Presently, he stopped again. Let us touch this and look at this. In the faint light (of the moon? of his tears? of the few lamps the dying fathers of the city had lit from a mechanical sense of duty?) his hand found a certain pattern of roughness: a furrow in the stone of the parapet and a knob and a hole with some moisture inside-all of it highly magnified as the 30,000 pins in the crust of the plastic moon are on the large glossy print which the proud selenographer shows his young wife. On this particular night, just after they had tried to turn over to me her purse, her comb, her cigarette holder, I found and touched this-a selected combination, details of the bas-relief. I had never touched this particular knob before and shall never find it again. This moment of conscious contact holds a drop of solace. The emergency brake of time. Whatever the present moment is, I have stopped it. Too late. In the course of our, let me see, twelve, twelve and three months, years of life together, I ought to have immobilized by this simple method millions of moments paying perhaps terrific fines, but stopping the train. Say, why did you do it? the popeyed conductor might ask. Because I liked the view. Because I wanted to stop those speeding trees and the path twisting between them. By stepping on its receding tail. What happened to her would perhaps not have happened had I been in the habit of stopping this or that bit of our common life, prophylactically, prophetically, letting this or that moment rest and breathe in peace. Taming time. Giving her pulse respite. Pampering life, life—our patient.

That's why we use detail, to tame time, to step on life's receding tail. We use precise detail in fiction not merely because it makes for better, more vivid writing; we use detail because the moment of conscious contact holds a drop of solace.

And then there's plot. Yes, sooner or later our handbook will have to have a chapter about plot.

The easiest piece of advice to follow in regard to plot might be to proclaim yourself a literary writer, the author of "serious literature"—which our author refers to in his foreword as "a euphemism for the hollow profundity and the ever-welcome commonplace"—and declare plot irrelevant, bourgeois, false, unnecessary, regressive, whatever, and then dispense with it entirely—leaving your readers and your colleagues to wonder if your disdain is authentic or only a response to your discovery that developing plot is so damn hard.

I've been trying to avoid, you may have noticed, telling you too much about the novel as a whole, because I would really love for you all to read it yourselves, and there's nothing worse than bringing someone else's lame description of a story to your own first reading. (You know that any book review in which the reviewer says, "I won't be giving too much away by saying." usually does.) In fact, I think my own initial thrill at discovering the work of Vladimir Nabokov can be attributed to my never having heard anything about his work before. Thanks to my less-than-rigorous, rather spotty education in literature, I first took a book of his short stories from the local library only because I had a vague idea that I had seen his name before—I may actually have been thinking of Turgenev—and once I began to read them I felt I was a regular Columbus, my delight in the prose almost matched by the self-satisfaction I felt in having rescued this poor unknown, exiled-in-Switzerland, and clearly disappointed old writer from total oblivion.

But there is a good deal to be learned about plot in Bend Sinister, and so for the briefest and vaguest plot summary available, I'll go to the Vintage edition again, not to the author's foreword but to the editor's jacket copy:

A haunting and compelling narrative about a civilized man and his child caught up in the tyranny of a police state. Professor Adam Krug, the country's foremost philosopher, offers the only hope of resistance to Paduk, dictator and leader of the Party of the Average Man. In a folly of bureaucratic bungling and ineptitude, the government attempts to co-opt Krug's support in order to validate the new regime.

If this sounds very little like the novel I've been quoting from all along, then the first and foremost lesson in plot offered by Bend Sinister is coming clear. Without the particulars of Nabokov's language and wit and intelligence, the bare outline of the novel's plot seems rather bare indeed, certainly familiar enough, something like a number of other works that have dealt with the behind-the-Iron-Curtain/through-the-looking-glass madness from Solzhenitsyn to Kundera to Koestler and on across any number of political thrillers and propaganda tracts. It may even sound, from our vantage, a little dated. (The novel, after all, was published in 1947-helped along to its publication by Allen Tate, by the way.) Cliched, even, in summary, what with the dictator Paduk being a petty beast, a former schoolmate of Krug who was, in the author's words, "regularly tormented by the boys, regularly caressed by the school janitor," a bitter and tyrannical child, a darling of the disenfranchised, suddenly made ultimate ruler, with the predictable results: mad bureaucratic entanglements, the sudden disappearance of even the most benign characters, the sudden transformation of others-deadly tantrums at the top.

And while it is easy enough to say that it is Nabokov's language and wit and intelligence that make the novel unique and raise it from familiar and commercial fiction to "serious literature," there is an aspect of the plot—an aspect not cited in the dust jacket description—that in reality (or in my opinion, whichever comes first) accounts for the novel's importance, and brilliance.

Nabokov himself says, "The story in Bend Sinister is not really about life and death in a grotesque police state. My characters are not 'types' or carriers of this or that 'idea'... The main theme of Bend Sinister... is the beating of Krug's loving heart. the torture an immense tenderness is subject to."

We've been shown that heart, quite literally, in the physical description of Krug, but it is not the presence of a beating heart in any given character that makes the difference; it is the fact that this heart is at the very center of the story itself, that it shapes the story, determines the plot, remains the novel's primary reason for being. The plot moves, turns, develops, not in order to accommodate the author's cleverness (and there is much cleverness in contemporary fiction), but to reveal, to record, the beating of Krug's loving heart.

Without that beating heart that shapes the story, the language, the wit, the allusions, the wordplay are reduced to mere moments of highly intelligent cleverness—delightful, yes, amusing, entertaining, funny (you have to read Krug's interview with Paduk), brilliant—but subject, finally, to the vicissitudes of time and politics and taste. Touching, finally, on nothing that—to use Faulkner's word-endures. It is the beating of Krug's loving heart that makes Bend Sinister great.

Advice to writers then: without that heart at the center of your fiction, advice can't help you. If it is there, then no one, no one, can—or needs to—tell you how to write your stories.

From Sewanee Writers on Writing, edited by Wyatt Prunty (copyright ©2000 by Louisiana State University Press). Used by permission of the publisher.


Alice McDermott's most recent novel, Charming Billy (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), won the National Book Award. Her other novels include That Night, At Weddings and Wakes, and A Bigamist's Daughter. She teaches in the Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins University.

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