About a decade ago, I read Peter Turchi’s Maps of the Imagination: The Writer As Cartographer. The book had a big impact on me, so I was delighted to be asked to interview him last month at the Texas Book Festival about his new book, A Muse and a Maze: Writing as Puzzle, Mystery, and Magic. I recorded our discussion and edited it down (liberally) to the post below. Enjoy.
Kleon: Let’s talk about teaching. A Muse and a Maze — the Maze is the construction, that’s the thing that you can make, and the Muse is, well, the Muse. You say that usually we teach the Maze part, but do you think you can teach students to let themselves be open to The Muse?
Turchi: I don’t think you can teach it directly, but I think you can incorporate it into teaching, to acknowledge it, and to appreciate it. For instance, the default mode for writing workshops, at least when they’re not going very well, is: everybody reads the work in advance, they find something wrong with it, then they come in and they probably, you know, announce that they found something wrong. The writer, of course, knew all kinds of things were wrong before the discussion, so it’s all depressing for everybody. And then we meet again next Tuesday! [laughs]
But ideally, it works a little bit differently, and we go in understanding that the work isn’t finished, understanding that we’re looking at work in-progress, and among other things, we have to recognize that the thing that looks most flawed, might, in fact, be the most interesting thing in the work. So we’re not looking for the thing that functions best, because to do that is to only reward the most conventional and most familiar moves the work makes. But to try to recognize the thing that excites us the most, or intrigues us the most, which may be something the writer doesn’t even understand.
I can give you an example: a close friend of mine, Robert Boswell, a wonderful novelist who I went to school with, and still exchange work with all the time, he sent me an early draft of one of his novels. In the first chapter, which is set in Mexico, there was a corpse of a dog in the middle of the street and a bird was eating its innards. And I thought, “Well, I know Boswell enough, he’s not going to just put a dead dog in the middle of the street for no reason.” And so, I thought about it for a while, and I really had no idea what it was doing. I thought, “It’s pretty graphic, it’s pretty deliberate, but I’m at a loss.” We’ve known each other a long time, so I said, “I know you’re up to something there, but I have no idea. So maybe if you could fill me in, I could tell you how it’s working?” And he said, “I have no idea either, but it seems to me it could be useful!” [laughs]
I think you have to allow for those things. And then sometimes, of course, you say, “Well, it’s just a dead dog,” and other times you realize that you might be able to put it to use.
So what I try to do is work away from the fact that every day we have to have a finished Maze, that every day we have to have a finished thing, and the closer we are to looking finished, the better the work is. I don’t think that’s true. I think sometimes you can have a thing that looks completely finished, but has no life in it at all. It just looks like a story, smells like a story, but isn’t really terribly interesting.
Kleon: One of my heroes, the cartoonist Lynda Barry, she calls it “The Image.” She learned from her teacher, Marilyn Frasca, that there’s something in art, writing, music called “The Image” that’s alive, that kind of magic thing you’re talking about, that unknown thing. I wanted to ask you about imagination. People make imagination into this lofty thing that only artists need, but, you know, I think about imagination when I’m watching House Hunters and the people go into the house, and the first thing they say is, “I hate the carpet. I hate the paint!” To me that’s a perfect illustration of a lack of imagination. You quote Jacob Bronowski: “To imagine means to make images and move them about in one’s head in new arrangements.” Is there a way to teach that?
Turchi: Oh, sure, absolutely. To give credit where credit is due, I got that second-hand from Marcel Danesi’s The Puzzle Instinct, a history of the world through puzzles. It’s a phenomenal book. I believe Bronowski was talking about math, but that notion that we need to be able to hold images in our head and shift them around to get to new understandings seems to me to apply to writing perfectly.
One of the things that is hardest — and most important — to teach writers is patience with revision. It’s only understandable that everyone wants to get something done. Occasionally, you’ll do great work in a day, but in my experience, and in the experience of most of the writers that I read, it takes longer than that, and in fact, what you want to do is transcend your first impulse, transcend the first idea that you have, not necessarily to think about it more, but to spend more time with it.
Boswell, for instance, my friend, he easily goes through 50 or 60 drafts of just about everything he writes. (Except for email.) He really lives with the work in a way that adds all sorts of texture to it, that readers might not be aware of immediately. You feel it in the writing, you feel it in the authority of the writing, because he knows the work so well.
Image is one of the tools that can help you break away from the overly explicit, certainly metaphor does that. I mean, metaphor is what I deal in, for the most part, and then juxtaposition and association—all the tools that kind of invite you to combine ideas without necessarily anticipating the results.
Metaphors are incredibly useful tools, but they’re most intriguing to me because they’re always bad fits. My love is not a rose, my love is like a rose, and in some ways, it’s not like a rose. So it’s the similarity, and yet the contrast, that sparks the interest. You start to fight with the idea even as you start to explore it.
Kleon: And both your books are metaphors: they’re about approaching writing through this other lens, which is what I found so fascinating about them. I was just listening to this interview with Brian Eno, and he said what he likes to do is what he calls “import/export.” He likes to take an idea from one field and see how it works in another field. I loved that.
Kleon: For me, writing got truly interesting to me when I turned it into a game.
Turchi: I’ve noticed!
Kleon: Can you talk about the difference between a puzzle and a game?
Turchi: Uh… we’ll see. I try to remind my graduate students — because the undergraduates usually still remember it — that they started writing because it was fun. And then some days, you see them looking like they’ve been beaten and sent to class, you know, they have to produce another 15 pages or whatever it is, and it’s so miserable. And I say, “You know, you’re not going to keep this up if this is the way it feels. So try to reach back to find whatever love or passion or excitement got you into this.” Because I think it’s hard to continue without it. That doesn’t mean that the subject is necessarily passionate or fun on the surface, but even the pleasure of writing a good sentence, even the pleasure of composing an effective paragraph or image… that’s the kind of reward that we write for.
A great many writers were interested in puzzles of some sort. Nabokov wrote chess problems. Lewis Carroll was interested in logic problems. Poe was interested in cryptograms, or coded languages. Georges Perec was interested in jigsaw puzzles and crossword puzzles. Ellen Bryant Voigt, who just won a MacArthur Grant is a big puzzler, which makes sense, because she’s also written a great deal of formal poetry. If you write formal poetry, you’re solving puzzles all the time. Right? You’re thinking of poems as puzzles in some way. Not in a reductive way, but a useful way.
I know not all writers think of themselves as puzzle makers, and readers as puzzle solvers, but at some point, whatever you write, whether it’s a memoir, whether it’s a poem or a story — certainly if it’s a love letter, or a quest for a raise — you’re thinking about the other person, you’re thinking about what information they have in their heads, or what perspective they have, what information to put first, and how to tilt it, or how to slant it, or color it to your own ends, and what result you want. There is a kind of gamesmanship involved in that kind of communication. It’s not strictly a puzzle, but you are trying to lead the person to a certain solution, ideally one you’ll share.
Games exist and interest us because of their constraints, not in spite of their constraints. It’s the things that make games difficult that actually interest us. If all you had to do was carry a ball a hundred yards and sit it on the other side of a white line, nobody would watch football. But instead, there are eleven pretty beefy guys trying to keep you from doing it, and suddenly it’s interesting. (I mean, if you like football it’s interesting.) But it’s the opposition that makes it interesting.
Kleon: Constraint is what appealed to me about turning writing into a game. Could you talk about Chuck Jones’ “The Rules of the Road Runner,” which you reference in Maps of the Imagination?
Turchi: I try to make use of what’s going on in my life. When our son was very young, he was completely enamored of Road Runner cartoons. So I ended up watching a lot of Road Runner cartoons as a young parent. In his autobiography, Chuck Amuck, Chuck Jones talks the rules he gave the animators for the Road Runner cartoons:
It reminded me that it’s usually the popular art which works under the greatest constraints. If you wanted to put a song on AM radio, unless you’ve got “Stairway To Heaven,” it better not be seven minutes long. You know, it’s gotta be 3 minutes and 20 seconds, give or take 5 seconds. If you want to put a movie in a great number of theaters, and you’re coming from Hollywood, it better be 90 to 110 minutes. If you make a 125-minute movie, you better have a good reason, because you can’t show it as often, and you can’t get as many screenings in a day, and so you’re going to get less people into the theater, less popcorn sales, all that. So, popular art tends to have the most constraints on it, even though we tend to be a little less aware of them as consumers.
Kleon: I have two young sons now, and I love the story you tell about when you used to read to your son before bed, it wasn’t about the amount of stories you read, he just wanted to fall asleep reading. Reading is kind of in the background of these books, and you talk about re-reading as being the metric of whether a work is really worthwhile. (Mary Karr says that in her new book on memoir: it’s really when you want to re-read a book that you know it’s good.) Could you talk for a minute about your own reading habits and whether there are any tips or things you’ve learned about how to cultivate a reading habit?
Turchi: When I was young, I was a very fast reader. I consumed books. But you know, I was eating things like Hardy Boys books, I was devouring books that were meant to be devoured. Then, for some reason, my father wanted to take the Evelyn Wood speed reading course. I was then reading phenomenally quickly. I could read Jaws in seven seconds, or whatever they said in the ads, and it gave me no pleasure at all. Absolutely none. (Although, it was kind of entertaining.)
I started to engage with books differently when I slowed down a little bit. I realized that I’m actually a pretty dumb reader. My wife will always be sitting next to me at a movie, or if we’re reading the same book, she’s always thinking ahead, and she’ll say, “What do you think? Is it going to be that or that?” I say, “I haven’t gotten that far, I have no idea!” I just don’t think that way.
I’m usually looking at phrases, I’m taking pleasure in individual moments, and the larger whole accrues for me pretty slowly. So, usually when I get to the end, I have to go back and look at things and mull it over, and think about what I’ve got. And even though it can be frustrating sometimes to read slowly that way, and to only see the pieces for a long time, it has provided some pretty rich reading experiences for me.
There’s this book club phenomenon — my mother-in-law is in a book club and now my wife is in a book club — and so I’ve heard any number of people say they get the “gist” of books. They haven’t read the book. They say, “I read enough to get the gist.” Just, no. Don’t. I can’t engage in that conversation. You don’t get the gist of Jane Austen. You either read Jane Austen or you don’t.
I guess, if I have advice for reading, it would be to feel like it’s ok to slow down and enjoy things in their parts.
Learn more about Peter’s work at peterturchi.com.