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Giving chance a chance

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Richard_Powers.jpgIn his most recent novel, Generosity, Richard Powers expresses frustration at the role of the novelist:

I'm caught like Buridan's ass, starving to death between allegory and realism, fact and fable, creative and nonfiction. I see now exactly who these people are and where they came from. But I can't quite make out what I'm to do with them.
Michael Dirda, writing in The New York Review of Books, quotes this passage, and then continues:

He [Powers] confesses that he would really like to write the kind of story that "from one word to the next, breaks free. The kind that invents itself out of meaningless detail and thin air. The kind in which there's no choice like chance."
Dirda doesn't think much of Powers's aspiration - he calls it "more portentous than clear" - but I felt an immediate intuitive connection with Powers.  Having just finished a novel, I am currently traveling around the world in a relaxed and unplanned way.  Where am I going?  Wherever my friends or family are - or wherever my curiosity takes me.  When am I going?  Whenever it's convenient for my friends or family to see me.  How long will I be traveling?  I don't know.  What will I do afterwards?  I don't know.  

Why am I undertaking such a journey?  To this question, I have a solid answer: because I felt like it.  I had a strong, un-ignorable sense that this trip was the right way to fill my time at this stage in my life.  

Up until now, I've passed my days in a highly self-directed manner.  I decided what to do, and then I did it.  I wasn't easily distractable (I'm not one of those people who goes online to look up the spelling of a word and ends up frittering away two hours on trivial explorations).

For reasons that I can't explain, but which exerted powerful visceral force on me, I felt convinced that now I must change my approach.  I must surrender self-direction and float, like a jellyfish, wherever the ocean currents take me.  I must allow my life, from one day to the next, to break free; to invent itself out of meaningless detail and thin air.  Rather than deciding what to do and then doing it, I must accept that there's no choice like chance.

Powers' dilemma as a novelist is no different from anyone's challenge in crafting his or her life.  Humans make sense of their lives in stories, and each of us is, in a sense, penning a lived novel with our life choices.  Each of us is caught between allegory and realism, as we struggle to choose between actions that are symbolically meaningful and those that are practical.  Each of us ping-pongs between fact and fable, as we select the bases for our decisions.  Each of us struggles to keep creativity and non-fiction in balance in our lives.

I have just written a novel that was more planned than anything I've previously written.  I didn't allow myself the luxury of not "quite mak[ing] out what . . . to do" with my characters.  Practical in the extreme, the novel was strategically constructed to sell.  It's a fable that studiously ignores inconvenient facts; a creative act that required all the strength of a daily grind.  

Maya_Alexandri_swinging_from_a_tree.jpgLike Powers, I felt some frustration with this process.  But the character at loose ends by the end was me.  And the story that I wanted to allow to break free was mine.  For the sake of satisfaction in my life, and for the benefit of my writing, I needed to (re)invent myself out of everything in the world that I never allowed to distract me.  

Unscheduled time, chance, joblessness, disconnection from the rat race - these are the flotsam and jetsam of the modern world.  I am discovering what stories they yield . . . while I swing from a tree.

(Image of Richard Powers from Minnesota Public Radio website)

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This page is an archive of recent entries in the Powers, Richard category.

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