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Craft of Writing, Reading, Speculative Fiction, The Writer's Life

Writing from the Heart of the City

Sometimes, when reading a book, a single passage makes you stop and take note of it, dog-earing the page, highlighting the lines, or as in my case copying it into file of maxims and similar memorabilia.

I’d been enjoying—immensely—Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, one of a slew of classics I’ve set aside to read now that I have a little more time, but a description towards the end of the book truly resonated.

For those unfamiliar with this work of fantasy, it’s based on imaginary conversations between Marco Polo and the Tartar emperor Kublai Khan. Polo relates his travels as a series of descriptions of the cities within the empire—cities that the emperor has not seen, and which may be invented instead of real. Each is a metaphor for an aspect of human behavior.

In the preface to the report of the city, Cecelia, Polo addresses Kublai’s reproach that he always jumps into the heart of the city, and never describes the space between cities. He wants to know all the places in his empire. But Marco replies that the cities are what he knows—what’s outside is irrelevant to him. He uses the example of a goatherd from the country, who knows every nuance of the land outside the city, but once inside, quickly becomes lost.

How like the choice we make when we write. Some writers establish a starting point—the center of their city—and explore from there. Others fill in the details of the journey to get to that point, describing the land beyond the borders, blending the past and present.

One of the criticisms I sometimes get from members of my writers’ groups and from editors at lit journals[1], is they want more—more background, more motivation, more feeling. I used to take that to heart and spend days or weeks adding detail about character backgrounds to address those areas. But lately I’ve moved away from such compliance.

When I read, I enjoy the challenge of parsing the author’s world based on the information provided. I don’t think a writer is under any obligation to explain that world, only to make it believable. If backstory isn’t there it doesn’t bother me. Personal knowledge and experience provides a foundation on which the story can build. This, I believe, is one of the reasons flash fiction works in our modern world—mass media has expanded peoples’ knowledge base, backgrounds don’t need to be explained. So if I can relate to the situation provided, I can move forward—the background is, frankly, irrelevant.

Some readers prefer the slow run-up. They want the explanations made clear. Nothing wrong with that. But like Polo and Calvino, my spaces are left intentionally blank, like the desert between two cities. The story is the story, and it’s up to the reader to fill in those gaps.

[1] You know those “nice” rejections—we really liked your story, but we wanted more…


About Joe Ponepinto

Co-publisher, with Kelly Davio, of Tahoma Literary Review. Author of "Curtain Calls," a featured Kirkus Review. Married to Dona. Dad to Henry, the coffee-drinkin' dog.


14 thoughts on “Writing from the Heart of the City

  1. I too loved “Invisible Cities”–it has always made Calvino one of my favorite authors. Try “The Castle of Crossed Destinies” too; it’s another fine and complex work of imagination. I was in residence in graduate school when Calvino died, and I can remember crying on the elevator when I heard about it, and how puzzled a friend of mine was that I took it so badly. But I really think Calvino is one of the geniuses of our time.

    Posted by shadowoperator | June 1, 2013, 1:19 PM
    • I found it fascinating how Calvino got away with creating a setting of medieval China and writing about modern cities with indoor plumbing and traffic medians. But that’s what genius can do. Thanks for the recommendation of “The Castle.”

      Posted by jpon | June 1, 2013, 3:21 PM
  2. Wonderful post, Joe. I agree that the reader is smart enough to fill in the gaps. Too much backstory can be boring. I haven’t read the book, but if you love it, and Shadowoperator cried when Calvino died, I must put it on my TBR list.

    Posted by Darrelyn Saloom | June 1, 2013, 1:45 PM
  3. I read Invisible Cities in high school and understood almost none of it, but that was actually just fine because the treatment of the language was enough for me at the time. Reading it again after MFA was a totally different experience though! Anyway, I completely see what you’re saying here and I commend your firm stance on this one–sometimes the negative space is just as powerful as whatever backstory you might drone on about. Well done, my friend.

    Posted by tanyachernovTanya Chernov | June 1, 2013, 3:04 PM
    • Thanks, Tanya. I’ve been intrigued by the use of negative space in stories ever since Gurov and Anna sat in silence for 30 minutes in Chekhov’s “Lady with the Little Dog.” What were they thinking during that time? It’s so open to possibilities.

      Posted by jpon | June 1, 2013, 3:17 PM
  4. I understand what you mean, Joe. There’s always too much of this, or not enough of that. It took me a long time to become confident enough in my own work to say more often, “No. Just no. This is what I want my story to be.” Just like not everybody will like me, not everybody will like every story just as they are. And that’s okay.

    My god, I feel like I just wrote a Stuart Smiley quote.

    Posted by Teri | June 1, 2013, 6:03 PM
    • I’ve been on both sides of this fence. As a writer, I’ve tried to be accommodating to editors, but sometimes it’s clear their edits miss a critical point of the story, and that’s when I have to stand my ground. That’s why as an editor, I tend to let writers’ work stay as it is unless I see a clear error. One of the best writer/editor experiences I’ve had was with an Australian journal. The Fiction Editor and I emailed back and forth, discussing the fine points of the work. I could tell he really enjoyed the collaborative process. Other times I’ve ended up wondering why, with all the changes suggested, an editor took a story in the first place.

      Posted by jpon | June 2, 2013, 12:09 PM
  5. But sometimes, Joe, when we say, “We want more,” it’s because we didn’t want the story to end. We wanted to live in the story-world a little longer. And that ain’t all bad.

    Posted by Jon Zech | June 1, 2013, 8:12 PM
    • It’s an interesting feeling, like when you get to the last 20 pages or so of a book you’re loving, and can’t wait until you get to the climax. But you slow down because you don’t want the story to end.

      Posted by jpon | June 2, 2013, 12:11 PM
  6. Calvino’s Baron In the Trees is one of my favorite books, all-time. He has an uncanny knack for building worlds, doesn’t he?

    Posted by girl in the hat | June 2, 2013, 3:49 PM
    • I was amazed at his world-building imagination, and yet every one of his cities, as he says in the book, is really aspects of the same city.

      Posted by jpon | June 2, 2013, 3:52 PM
  7. I agree. Thanks for this. Calvino is a thrilling writer. Try COSMICOMICS next… linked short stories about the history of the universe and evolution too.

    Posted by Stephanie Barbé Hammer | June 2, 2013, 7:49 PM
  8. Generally speaking, I agree with you: negative space is a beautiful thing.

    Posted by Averil Dean | June 3, 2013, 12:29 PM

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