It’s impossible to learn how to write plotless books by operating a plow

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I watched an hour-long documentary with Richard Linklater a week or two ago, an interview that was done on some Austin cable TV show, which looked like one of those public access deals that they always had in Seattle in the mid-90s when I first got a TV, with a guest and a host or two sitting in front of a curtain, a grainy VHS-quality video feed with one of those title generators that did the blocky Amiga 500 looking graphics in a stripe across the bottom. Production quality non-withstanding, this was a pretty incredible interview, probably done in around 1994, mostly about his work ethic and the movie Slacker.

It talked a lot about his first film, It’s Impossible to Learn to Plow by Reading Books, which was the Stanley Kubrick film school experiment: he bought a camera and a couple of thousand dollars of film stock and started shooting, collecting footage for a year and then spending another year editing it down. And it wasn’t done as a calling card movie, which is what everyone does now: make a film like Clerks, and then shop it to studios and either get it distributed on the Sundance/indie circuit, and/or get a deal to make a real-budget picture. He did neither, except he got the experience to get ready to do Slacker. And that wasn’t a calling card movie either, although the fact that he made money on it made him instant fodder for the suits, and he parlayed it into Dazed and Confused.

Side note: I was obsessed with public access and the idea of making a film back when I was in Seattle in the mid-90s. I would tape almost anything interesting on the public access channel, and make these “cable hell” tapes which I then sent to Larry in Chicago and he would watch them in the background while studying for law school. My apartment also had a thing where you could go to a certain channel on your TV and you would see the security camera feed for the front door, so I would tape that, and then run downstairs with a sign and flash the devil horns and make a face or whatever, then run back up seven floors and stop the tape. That got old fast, but we used to love this strange chick that was on, a chubby nude model who was obsessed with Tori Amos and thought she was a painter, poet, ARTIST, whatever, and would paint her face or body with tempra paint and mime these bizarro dance numbers to obscure Kate Bush b-sides and then go on these babbling monologues about some personal drama. I did buy a video camera, but I never made a film, because I realized that filmmaking involves the herding of people and the scouting of places and the work of direction, which is probably one of my weakest abilities. That’s what I love about writing, especially now with self-publishing, because I can create entire universes on my own, and even as an extreme introvert, I don’t need to interact with other people to get shit done. (Selling books, that’s another story…)

One of the things that resonated with me about Linklater was his discussion about Slacker as a “kitchen sink” movie, how he was able to throw in absolutely anything that was in his head during that summer, any old stories or lost memes or friends of friends he found interesting. He’d read a short story by a friend and then ask to borrow one of the characters, and drop them in some other situation on the college campus town of Austin. He had this form he had to stick with, this idea of an entire day, moving from reality to reality, jumping into these individual movies of different peoples’ lives, but he could get almost anything to work within that. I like that a lot.

I think when I wrote Rumored, it became my “kitchen sink” book, because when I look back at it, there are so many little thoughts and notions that came out of email conversations and episodes in real life and stories that knocked around in my head since childhood. I had this framework, a specific form or scaffolding that I hung all of these things off of, and I struggled a lot with whether or not to stick to this format or try to remix everything into a conventional narrative. And I didn’t, although there’s a very subtle plot to the book if you read all 201 things in order, but I wanted to break that construct, and I did. But when I go back and re-read bits of it, ten years later, I notice where the pieces originated. I see a road trip I took in 1999 or a conference I attended for work or an episode where I got stuck in an airport or a recurring nightmare I had as a kid.

I don’t feel like books have to have plot, and I don’t feel like plotless books have to be unreadable. I know when people talk about plotless movies or books, first of all, that’s seen as an insult, a problem. I think people either relate it to a book that has a weak or bad plot, that plods along with no development. Or they think of the art film where a group of children with Down’s Syndrome throw ape feces at a wall covered with blank 1040 tax returns for six hours, and think, “what the fuck does this mean?” and it has to be some kind of artistic statement that you have to hypothesize that it’s a representation of the latent developmental problems of our capitalist society inflicting oppression on African countries crippled by IMF debt. Or whatever.

I think life itself is plotless, and when we transpose a segment of life (or fictional life) from the meatspace non-linear world to a linear, flat book, we use plot as a set of expectations, a contract with the reader to guarantee that we the author will provide certain events that unravel in a specific way that will make the reader continue the journey. When we write an act 1, we foreshadow what will happen in the act 2 and 3 to tell the reader that they should stick with it. There are only 29 plots or 17 plots or 3 plots or one plot, and by telling the reader that your book is going to follow a plot that they already know, you are giving them expectations on how things will unfold. There will be twists and turns, and that’s what makes things (slightly) different, but plot is what pulls a reader through the story.

I guess my problem with this is that eventually, every book will become the same book, and instead of becoming an experiment to challenge the form, you ultimately fall down this hole where your contract with the reader becomes so rigid, any deviation from it is blasphemy. And if you fall into the realm of genre writing (more on that some other time) you MUST adhere to these standards, and the more you do, the more the reader feels “rewarded”, which is asinine.

The hard part is coming up with the framework or system to write the plotless book, because you need to figure out some way to glue together all of those pieces in your kitchen sink to get to your few hundred pages of book.  And that part’s hard to explain.

Man, I need to go re-watch Slacker.

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One thought on “It’s impossible to learn how to write plotless books by operating a plow

  1. Pleased to be the first comment. You can see from responses here that the time-pressed average reader must indeed feel "rewarded," as you say, and he/she has, by virtue of this empty comment column, made his/her verdict on this, jkonrath's entry quite clear. Never mind; I find the entry rather refreshing. Yeah, plots can be great and surprising twists and turns may glue us to the story. But the unplotted story, if it can rise above inane stream-of-consciousness type of torrents, can also be most appealing. Indeed, life does not "follow" plots and I don't hold much stock in the idea of having chosen my road as the better one. Are we driving our lives or are we driven? We seem to be driving it with a lot of hindsight, and the same goes for plotted stories. Experienced reality serves up all the ingredients for the next – future – salad. All the "how-to" books come to mind, the assumed "driver" of even a whole society. Steve Jobs, etc. But don't we often feel driven by a lot of irrational, sudden factors some of which bear no analysis at all. As for myself, I like this idea and I am happy to view/read material produced in this vein.

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