Learning About Words In Words: Out of Oz by Gregory Maguire

by Victoria C. Anderson

I really wanted to write a blog post about what I learned from reading Out of Oz by Gregory Maguire. I wanted to grow, as a writer, and one of the best ways to do that is to read critically, right? And if I knew I was going to write a blog post dissecting the work, maybe I would try to read more critically. Such was my thinking. I did not want to write a review, did not want to judge the book. I just wanted to highlight my takeaway.

Unfortunately, like my experiences in Columbia College Chicago’s Fiction Writing Department, this is a lot harder than it sounds. It is really fucking hard to pin down what you learned from a book, at the nuts and bolts level. This isn’t history, or science, where it’s dates and facts and ideas. This is something that I find exceedingly hard to quantify. It’s about the words, and the storytelling, and the characters. But it’s something more than just that, because a book is more than the sum of some characters doing things, it’s more than the way an author uses cliff-hangers or doesn’t. Or apostrophes. Or semi-colons (That’s me. I love semi-colons.).  Or bigger words.  It’s a whole entity, a framework of words. It’s a pattern, and a rhythm. Not heard, but… something else. Experienced. Thought. A rhythm of thought. In any case; it’s hard to describe what exactly you learned from a book in words. Or at least it is to me. I think I know what I learned; I can feel it in my gut. But ask me what exactly I learned, and I can’t quite explain it to you. I just know exactly it’ll feel in my own work.

It’s a bit like the way I write. A lot of the time, I feel like I’m navigating a foreign terrain with my eyes closed. I know what it’s supposed to look like (I do have an outline) but I’m still reaching out with my toes at every footstep, testing the ground, measuring it, trying to get a good sense of this place that I’m making. The same way with characters; I have character sheets drawn up, but I’m still working, every day, at sliding into their skins. I’m trying to feel my way into understanding them. And when I do finally find my way inside, that’s when I’ve found the right pattern of words to encapsulate them. And that’s when the words flow, when I’ve got this tenuous, fragile sense of who the character is, what the story is, and I’m holding it so carefully, afraid of crushing it.

But I’m getting off topic. This is supposed to be about Out of Oz.

So what did I learn? I learned something about the pattern of hopeless stories. I internalized the feel of an ending with no real resolution that was still vaguely satisfying. It felt very open-ended, and I’m still exploring whether I liked it or not. I also learned that if you have less resolution, people will end up thinking about your story more than if everything is very pat. I got a good look at some patterns of words that fit very well with what I generally thing of as ‘spiky’ characters – my favorite kind. Those will be particularly helpful with my novel.

But I think what I get the most from any book is a new variation on the structure of a story, a stretching of my idea of what a story could be. But this, of course, is a vague takeaway, and nowhere near satisfying. My apologies.

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