Category Archives: Showing and Telling


rooney-mara-thomas-whiteside5Another character sketch. Another exercise. This time, I started with this picture of Rooney Mara and then wrote from that. I’m not sure what I’m doing with these yet…

The two hours before dawn passed in half-dreams and worries. A couple of times a voice seemingly outside Jenny’s mind spoke nonsensically—one silly pronouncement, like “It’s too cold for that!”—loud, as if she still shared the room with someone. She took these random pronouncements as signals she’d fall asleep again, but noticing them meant awakening too. Lately inattention required will, effort to elude and escape her thoughts.

Jenny tried not to look ahead to a midday meeting with her boss and instead recalled a high school hayride. One of the boys in her English class, a football player and avowed Christian, asked her out, and, worn down by the many times he’d tried, she agreed. She pictured the truck idling in a scrubby field at twilight. The scene reduced to that openbed truck, and the other couples—they were all couples—huddled under blankets amid hay bales, breathing exhaust. Jenny didn’t know the month exactly, but the chill of winter lay weeks away. During the ride, a sheen of sweat gathered on her legs under the blanket. She remembered that. The boy’s arm over her shoulder felt like wood, like the yoke the oxen wore on the cover of her US history textbook.

Her husband died in spring. At the wake, Jenny’s brothers and sister repeated how mercifully short his illness was. He’d been going to the gym daily before the diagnosis and, even in his final week, his eyes possessed their usual vitality. Up until the end, as frail as his body became, he still seemed young, joking that he’d finally lost those few extra pounds he’d been trying so hard to shed. She laughed because she thought it might make him happy. Just after he’d gone, she left him with his family and went outside to cry, the first light of the pale sky impossible to bear, its ill-timed beauty taunting her.

“You have to be ready,” he’d said the day before.

“I know, but let’s not talk about that.”

“Tell me you’re ready.”

“I am… but don’t want to be.”

This morning, Jenny opened her eyes to light and roused herself. The alarm hadn’t sounded, but an early start meant missing traffic. Her closet seemed spacious since she and his sister cleaned it out. Jenny laid the new blue skirt, a blouse, and her underthings over the rumpled covers of her bed.

She sighed as she turned the shower on. Her work had fallen off—her last review was not nearly as glowing as ones from last year—but her boss would be sympathetic, asking how she was “holding up” before turning to instructions repeated with a pleading expression she’d come to hate. She’d prepared for that day’s meeting until very late the night before, assembling a presentation full of statistics and new marketing plans. She shouldn’t have to bring work home, she knew that, but revising her resume and reaching out to contacts used up hours too. Jenny felt tired of driving, tired of working.

Water met skin like summer rain, tepid and gentle as another day began.


Filed under Ambition, Anxiety, Depression, Desire, Doubt, Dreaming, Empathy, Experiments, Fiction, Fiction writing, Grief, Identity, Laments, life, Love, Meditations, Modern Life, Pain, Showing and Telling, Solitude, Survival, Thoughts, Time, Voice, Work, Worry

Just As

readingFor me, the most challenging aspect of fiction is dialogue—conversation that is not quite real, elevated and efficient and yet believable, brilliantly pointed but never clever, the sound of the last hour and still somehow special.

You can find plenty of advice on how to write dialogue, and some of it is quite good. As in most writing matters, however, nothing substitutes for practice. Below, you’ll find practice. Having read many samples of what’s online about dialogue, here’s what I’ve done:

“Some things can’t be called ‘unexpected’ because they’re never expected.”


Neither looked up from their reading.

“Here’s a person talking about an unexpected phone call, but how often do you expect one? That’s why phones ring, right?”

“Never thought about it.”

“It’s like—“

She glanced up to discover him facing the page, gesticulating, mixing the air with his one free hand in that familiar way.

“Like the weather. We’re having unexpected weather because it’s August and cool, but weather itself is always changing, so you don’t routinely think of weather as expected or unexpected. The nature of weather is to be changeable.”

“Why does it matter whether a phone call—or weather—is expected or unexpected?”

“That’s exactly my point. It doesn’t. People are always anticipating what’s next, what’s next, what’s next, and if it doesn’t match what we think, well…”

She’d looked away because he never returned her regard. His unfinished sentence lay between them like severed snakes.

“Well?” she said.

“Well, what happened to ‘Expect the unexpected’? Everyone is always planning and scheming. Humans never account for some supposed mishap being exactly what should happen. Or, if it shouldn’t happen, that it’s completely reasonable thing to happen.”


“Don’t say ‘which humans?’ You always say that.”

“You always generalize.”

“What else can I do? It drives me crazy people don’t learn. They just do the same stupid shit over and over.”

She snapped her book shut, and the noise alerted him to look up, his reading glasses reflecting her across the table, his gray eyes above them.

“Seems like you’d learn to expect that,” she said.

“Now you’re just being clever.”

He closed his book and pushed it to a spot between them.

“No,” she said, “you’re being clever. As usual. People do what they do. Deal with it.”

“I don’t have to approve.”

“No you don’t.”

His body tensed as if he meant to stand, but he didn’t. He stayed at the table, eying her.

“Because you never do approve,” she said, “just go on and on about stuff that won’t change, ever.”

He relaxed into his seat again, and a smile started to form on his lips.

“Don’t say it.”

“You don’t know what I’m going to say.”

“I don’t care what you’re going to say. There’s a difference.”

They held the silence between them a few more seconds, then pulled their books toward them, found their places, and began reading again.

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Filed under Aesthetics, Arguments, Dialogue, Experiments, Fiction, Fiction writing, Identity, Laments, life, Play, Showing and Telling, Thoughts, Voice, Writing

To Show For It

no-excuses-nike-football_1024x768_338-standard-e1327798385501Some people may see me as industrious—because I carry an overload in my already busy job as a teacher, because I keep up with four blogs and ten or eleven posts a week, because I sometimes make art on weekends, because I rise early to exercise, because I read, because I find time to watch Netflix, because I monitor Facebook and email and…

You see me stretch. The list changes from labor to leisure, fruitful to indulgent, necessity to caprice. Sometimes nothing I do seems positive. Passing time isn’t the same as productivity. Are my students learning—who knows? Am I writing anything worthwhile and is my writing improving—who knows? Is this weekend’s art any different from last weekend’s—who knows? Is my life enriching, evolving, satisfying? Um… not sure.

On Monday coworkers ask, “So what’d you do this weekend?” Most of the time, they mean to investigate fun, learn which social plans won the office-wide enjoyment contest. But the question doesn’t solicit agreeable responses. “I went to Home Depot…” someone begins, or “With the taxes due…” or “I’ve been putting off cleaning…” or “I needed…” or “I had to…” or, my favorite, “Ugh.”

When I see a play or travel or meet a friend, I’ll explain. Otherwise, I say, “Nothing.” What I did doesn’t stand out. I might brag about grading a bunch of papers. Mostly, my mind rewinds. What the hell DID I do? How did I accomplish so little?

America, we’re told, relies on industry, and no one ever accomplished anything without hard work and determination. Andrew Carnegie’s motto was “Honesty, industry, and concentration.” Benjamin Franklin said, “Sloth makes everything difficult, but industry, all things easy.” “The miracle, or the power, that elevates the few,” Mark Twain said, “is to be found in their industry, application, and perseverance under the prompting of a brave, determined spirit.”

You know you’re in trouble when even Mark Twain urges you to get off your ass.

My output seems inadequate, unsuitable for any report. I’d be culpable if I could have done more and/or done it better, but more frequently I’ve been busy as hell with little to recommend the time. The issue isn’t calories expended, but what I can show for them. How do I tell colleagues I wasted hours on haibun or how do I explain deleting an essay that, after five or six attempts, didn’t gel? The art I produce often fails utterly, useful only in what it indicates about what not to do next time.

So much, in other words, is spent in fumbling.

I enjoy painting and writing and creating in general yet recognize some product must blossom from all this effort. Maybe that expectation arises more from outside than inside, but I feel it. I’d like to be able to answer “What’d you do?’” with “Nothing” and not a jot of guilt. I’d like to say, “Stuff” and leave it at that.


Filed under Ambition, Anxiety, Apologies, Art, Ben Franklin, Desire, Doubt, Essays, Haibun, Identity, Laments, life, Showing and Telling, Sturm und Drang, Thoughts, Time, Work


breaking-wine-glassAnother fiction...

The broken glass lay at his feet, the base a disk and the stem and bowl a threatening tulip. Looking around, he saw shards several feet away. The red splash spread everywhere.

“Sorry,” he said.

Strides carried her from the kitchen. He assumed she meant to retrieve a broom, but, waiting, he realized she wouldn’t.

When he grabbed the broom himself, he saw their bedroom door closed.

The next moment, he found himself, hands and knees, plucking pieces of glass from the wine spill, the broom nearby, watching him. When he put his palm on a fragment, he felt the alert and lifted up immediately.

The pain reached his brain and still the blood flowed from the cut as from someone else. He sat back, disgusted, unconcerned he might be sitting in his own spill.

And then tears. What didn’t trouble him: the wine glass—it’d been a wedding gift and they’d been married 25 years, the mess—he’d made bigger messes and, no matter what his state of mind, had erased them, the kitchen—it’d seen greater debacles, greater tragedy.

He wasn’t quite sure why he wept. Lately emotion came from hidden places, great streams from untraceable springs, but no bounty. He found so little to be happy about. He didn’t know himself.

She might be crying back in their bedroom, and he’d have to say he was sorry again for something that meant little but stood for more. She’d told him. He’d known how little room he had for mistakes. She’d told him.

And still the moment spun.

“I’m well aware—“

“’Well aware?’ Professorial bullshit! And what are you aware of, exactly?”

“I’m only trying to explain—“



“You mean you’re only trying to excuseprofessor—“

He threw the glass—not hard, but he knew he did—and didn’t properly remember it. He returned to being fourteen, the fist thrown from oblivion, words spit like poison he couldn’t swallow. Once, in college, he’d discovered his hand covered in blood and hadn’t known if it was his. Once, after that, he’d opened his eyes to bodies towering over him, his jaw an ache.

Blood dropped in tears from the cut on his palm and still he collected the glass, piling pieces to create what order he could. He staggered from his knees and surveyed the scene.

“After I clean this up and she’s realized…” he told himself, “I’ll knock on the door. I’ll apologize again.”

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Filed under Anger, Apologies, Doubt, Experiments, Fiction, Grief, Identity, Laments, life, Love, Resolutions, Showing and Telling, Teaching, Thoughts

Open Your Notebook

spalding.jpg And Everything is Going Fine, Steven Soderbergh’s documentary about Spalding Gray, sat atop my Netflix instant cue for a few weeks this summer. I was saving it as you might save the last perfect peach or an unread novel by an author you love.

Spalding Gray is an author I love. Since his suicide in 2004, I’ve reread his work and appreciated it anew. Now little remains for me to read, but he still holds a prominent spot in my imagination and in the pantheon of writers whose techniques are worth admiring and emulating.

I associate the performance artist responsible for Swimming to Cambodia, Gray’s Anatomy, Monster in a Box—and others—with his notebook. I picture him sitting with it at a desk in front of an audience, holding them hostage with his funny, repellent, endearing, profane, horrifying, titillating, chaotic, and revelatory anecdotes.

The two times I saw Spalding Gray, I walked away wondering what I had seen, a performance or a personality. And I wondered, which came first—the voice or the script?

In the documentary Gray says (confirmed in an interview I found online) that he wrote his monologues first, in longhand, and then read them aloud into a tape recorder so the publisher could transcribe them. Though that method might seem to include an extra step—couldn’t he just send the longhand pages for transcription?—his technique makes sense. You can imagine him improvising, rearranging phrasing and pace, looking for the silences and the shouts. How else could he achieve such intimacy between words and perspective?

“I dramatize my life,” Gray says, but that statement seems too tame for the transmutation his life receives in that notebook. Here is a passage from Morning, Noon, and Night, which, besides being the sweetest monologue, may be my favorite. In it, he describes taking his son to David Copperfield’s magic show and what they encountered on the way:

Forrest and I were traveling by subway from SoHo up to Forty-fifth Street. On our way to the subway, we came upon a man sitting with a big telescope and, for only two dollars, you could look through this telescope and see Saturn with its rings. Both Forrest and I looked through it. I’d never seen Saturn and its rings before, and so clear. It was fantastic! There we were gazing at Saturn and its rings for the first time together. On a corner of West Broadway and Spring street—on the subway—four dancers entered and, putting their boom box on the floor just a few feet from Forrest and me, they began to break dance up a storm—Forrest and I were stunned. What a show, and what great seats. Then we got to the David Copperfield Show and it was—well, it was good, too. It was just a different kind of show.

Without the impetus of Gray’s voice behind it, this passage may seem ordinary. His prose is loose—Saturn and its rings, Forrest and I, we came upon, we got to, we were gazing—and none of it seems beautiful in any poetic sense. Yet, the content IS beautiful and funny, as if the rhythm of the prose, even its repetitiveness, communicates the boyish joy behind the moment. He sets up the punch line at the end of this passage perfectly because we anticipate that David Copperfield can’t be as good, and yet Gray’s formulation, “It was just a different kind of show” is fresh and direct.

To an attuned observer of prose, everything is a show.

And Gray’s immediacy, the sense that he just makes his confession on the spot, is, to me, supremely well-planned. In good writing what seems unstudied may be carefully and effectively edited. He worked hard to make his writing look natural and took up a deceiving challenge—telling his story while calling just the right amount of attention to the teller. He had so much to reveal in the telling itself, in the DNA of the prose, its rhythm and pace.

The last sentence of the passage above might’ve described Gray himself—”a different kind of show.” Homemade or homespun, Gray’s writing was full of ellipsis, repetition, and those sort of “A equals B equals C” moments that could easily be cleaned up and cleared up, but he added odd detail or led you into strange territory sneakily. A good part of his prose’s immediacy rose from its seeming in-process, but an equal portion came from pure strangeness.

In Gray’s Anatomy, in response to an eye-problem, Gray went to see an increasingly unlikely string of alternative healers and wound up a dietary specialist who started with a questionnaire about what he’d been eating…in the last six months. As Gray told it, the nurse started with burritos (Gray decided he’d eaten eighteen), then moved on to borsht, and, after saying he’d never eaten it—never come near it—remembered he went to Russia and ate it every day.

His revised borsht count, fourteen.

The absurdity of scenes like this one rest in the ordinary way Gray led a reader to them. Before you know it, a conversation has taken a strange turn into Arbitrariville or Cloud Cuckoo Land. And it wouldn’t work if the journey didn’t ride a steady stream of wondrous wording that—I’m assuming—was deliberately crafted to be appropriately loopy and imperfect.

Perhaps Gray wasn’t Tolstoy or Dickens or Twain. He certainly puts the lie to the bon mot and the right words in the best order. Maybe I’ve just had my head turned by the actor Spalding Gray. Maybe I’m prejudiced by my grief over Gray’s suicide, but something about his prose throws more crafted work into an odd perspective…

…much like the street entertainment that transforms David Copperfield’s magic into pure artifice.


Filed under Aesthetics, Art, Essays, Genius, Reading, Showing and Telling, Thoughts, Tributes, Writing

Artist’s Statement

Not the one I'm working on, but like it...

Every mark on my current pen and ink seems etched into my cerebral cortex. I’m up to fifteen hours working on it, and, when I close my eyes, it’s still there, the set of an endless play that features just one actor, me.  And no audience.

Writing and visual art fight for my attention, but during the school year, I don’t have obsessive time to paint or draw. Instead, my creative life is here. I write a post each weekend and add a new poem to derelict satellite.  Mid-week, I try to edit work from Joe Felso and post it. I’ve been spotty lately. I’ve been doing visual art instead.

For me, words cover subjects. Sometimes they fit well and other times indifferently, but only occasionally do they rise to high style or costume. They rely on the body beneath. Were I a more talented writer, I think I might do more than tailor. But most of the time I hope for a clever cut, something to highlight or hide familiar and immutable features.

Paintings and drawings create themselves. I stare at a blank sheet of watercolor paper until it becomes something. I do abstracts, but even when my work is more representative, fidelity often drops away until the subject I clothe is a ghost. Pens and brushes know no choreography. They move as spirit moves them, largely independent of intention, and reveal more in abandon than anyone, including me, might like.

I’m not any better at visual art or writing, but people sometimes ask me which one I like more. Moment-to-moment answers occur to me. The same motive inspires both—to make the mental physical—but, when I write, my ideas are already waiting there. Writing is true to me, a wife I’m absolute devoted to. I’ve embraced our covenant and made it my work. I honor it as the engine of my growth and evolution.

Visual art is my mistress.

Another from the same series...

This week, I received an email from Zatista, my cyber art seller, asking me to update my site. I haven’t added anything in quite some time, in part because I’ve sold very little. But the other impediment is the writing associated with each piece. I don’t mind the scanning, uploading, or the straight describing, but messages beyond dimensions and media defy me. I look at each image and think, “What do I say about this?” It all seems made-up. My wife would rather not introduce my mistress.

And sometimes I’m embarrassed. I think I could do without this second compulsion, might do more in my writing without another distraction, and wonder if, ultimately, these abstracts are indulgences that need hiding.

In the fall, I’m having an art show at my school. It will be another coming out, another airing of my sordid infidelity. I want to be proud and say “This is me,” but perhaps it’s the nature of visual art to reveal its author more fundamentally. That’s scary. There’s less dressing up, less hiding in folds and pleats and seams.

My mistress will be on display. I’ll be inside out and wondering how that can be flattering.

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Filed under Anxiety, Art, Blogging, Doubt, Ego, Essays, Identity, Laments, life, Love, Showing and Telling, Thoughts, Visual Art, Words, Writing

Seven Metaphors

Teachers are great sharers—or show-offs, depending on how you look at it—and they often compare the clever and cruel tasks they’ve given students. For me, these assignments float up, borne by celestial current into my neighborhood. I plot ways to use them.

An obstetric nursing teacher once told me she asked her class to come up with seven metaphors for childbirth. She wanted them to shift their assumptions, to see the process as something more than procedure, as something new. As is often the case with clever teaching, they hated their commission. Nonetheless, sharing the results was, she said, one of her best classes ever.

I can’t ask my class to find seven metaphors for childbirth—they would wonder who possessed their English teacher—but I might ask them to create seven metaphors for something as central to a literature class as childbirth is to obstetrics, writing.

As such assignments are easy to give and hard to do, I thought I’d try it first. What would my seven metaphors for writing, as I’ve experienced it, be? Here’s what I came up with:

1. a seam between mirrors

  • I lived in an apartment in college where the landlord chose two smaller mirrors instead of one large one. The wall beneath wasn’t altogether even, and, standing in the middle, you were split. On either side of the seam you weren’t quite the same person. From one perfect spot in the bathroom you could look at yourself and not look at yourself at the same time.

2. postcard postage

  • In the U. S. postal reality, something nearly the same size and weight but without an envelope costs a lot less. Either privacy has a price or saying what you need to say in less space and out in the open means you deserve a break. I’m not sure which.

3. a two week beard

  • For me, two weeks is the point when people begin asking if I’m serious. It’s also the point at which I wonder if I’m serious. Is what’s on my face a beard or questionable grooming? The person wearing facial hair is not always qualified to determine. Surprisingly, it’s often a matter of perception.

4. pocket yahtzee

  • My pocket sized electronic yahtzee game gets harder as it goes along. At first, I can easily believe a full house or straight will arrive shortly and somewhere along the way I WILL yahtzee. But hope never lasts. Abandoned games outnumber finished ones three to one, and even in your high score game, your total is never perfection. It’s still the best you could do under the circumstances. Maybe that’s what keeps me wasting time on such a silly gadget.

5. a key you have made for no lock in particular

  • Imagine making a key from scratch, not knowing what lock it’s truly intended for or whether that lock really exists—it’s more than a leap of faith, it’s believing in magic, a sense there’s an unrealized deficit in the world, a strange order that awaits your completing it.

6. the replacement idea

  • My working memory is much smaller than my stored memory, and I forget most of my good ideas. I walk around repeating them like incantations and still they evaporate. When it comes time to work, I’m left with the second best alternative, trying to find something to replace what I was really thinking and feeling. Sometimes I believe the second is better than the first, but is that only because I can’t remember the first?

7. the wooden frame beneath the arch

  • Studying arches, you discover the most dramatic structures began with wood to support them. The addition of the keystone makes it appear as though the arch simply happened, but that last stone—perfectly sized and shaped to fulfill its destiny—is what allows the frame to drop away.

Were this a true assignment, the next step would of course be explaining each of these metaphors. However, I’m feeling lazy.  I’ll leave the other half of the assignment—the meaning of these comparisons—to that most metaphoric creature, my reader.

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Filed under Art, Blogging, Education, Essays, Experiments, High School Teaching, Showing and Telling, Teaching, Thoughts, Writing


Sometimes he makes it no further than the first line.

An intruding task divides his attention as a freight train would divide a dirigible—if his imagination could ever position them to meet—then his start dies, all its stolen air escaping suddenly.  But, when he’s successful, he stretches and stretches his opening thought, attenuating it again and again until it’s a spidery thread that can no longer carry current.

Then he turns to a new paragraph.  He knows it’s a good idea to assure enough but not too much connection and to follow the figurative breath of a break with a novel direction, purpose, or voice.  Association, not logic, is key.  Perhaps objects that were whimsical or metaphorical in the last paragraph become more real-world in the next.  He references a task he never returned to… the bookmark three quarters of the way through The Education of Henry Adams or a promise to call back immediately that, seven years later, still hasn’t been fulfilled.  He doesn’t need to say how these stories apply.  He trusts readers.  Or they might follow a link.

The true subject, when it appears, stands apart.

And, once known, the narrative gains speed, carrying thoughts that rush after as if they were chasing the subject rather than being sucked into its wake like so many pages of discarded, dated newspapers.  The pace in this portion can seem disproportionate because the word “and” dominates, and many other words that are only slight echoes of each other appear, drawing from the same store in his finite mind, seeming to put meaning aside simply to achieve sound and prod the prose by compelling it forward and forward and forward.

A satisfying lull follows.  Is that the best moment for a rhetorical question?  Fragment.

But the longer the writer continues, the nearer he comes to breaking back against himself, questioning what brought him here and undoing his premises. He becomes a wave in a box—any force achieved ricochets into gray static.  While the effort to sort the shapes and shadows of his tiny sea might seem noble, more often the writing flirts with insincere invention.  Some resourcefulness celebrates only itself.

Meanwhile, at the bottom of the document window, the word count grows. 375, 376, and little purchase or progress suggests an endgame.  Ornate ideas grow more ornate.  Strong and clear signals become baroque.  Artifice proliferates fractally.

This cul de sac is all too familiar.  The single consolation: he’s there.  Having burned territory behind him, he will either escape or remain.

Thankfully, he can’t write this post again.

Then sometimes, only sometimes, desperation brings dusk. The end shows itself at last, and truth finds a way in.  Watchfulness somehow lured a deeper sincerity from shadows.  If he has prepared a reader well, a trap is set, a new quiet entices a strange but familiar animal into place for the essay’s final sentence.  The string is taut.  He finishes just before pulling the stick to bring the box down.


Filed under Allegory, Art, Blogging, Doubt, Essays, Experiments, Laments, Parody, Prose Poems, Satire, Showing and Telling, Thoughts, Writing

On Loving to Hate

The other day a student asked if I intended to read Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol. I took a moment to recall the opening of The Great Gatsby when Nick Carraway repeats his father’s advice to “reserve all judgments.”

Then I said, “No way.  Not a chance.”

I ought to reserve judgment—particularly of books I haven’t read and particularly with students who benefit from any reading—but, when it comes to Dan Brown, I can’t help having an opinion.  When I read The Da Vinci Code a few years ago, I hated it so much that I stopped reading with five pages to go.  I could have stopped on the fifth page but wanted to hate it from a position of strength.  I needed a way to express my contempt more vividly.

If you love Dan Brown, I sincerely apologize.

I think you should stop reading now.

As an English teacher, I see books as my business and generally celebrate anyone appreciating any book.  In the past, I’ve had colleagues who’ve rejected some of the novels we teach as second rate, but, for me, a book students like is a good book.  I keep my misgivings about The Lord of the Flies to myself.  I bite my lip when students praise Of Mice and Men because I assume they sense something I’m too jaded to see.  I’ve never wanted to be the sort of snob who thinks we should teach Crime and Punishment instead of The Joy Luck Club because everyone knows that anyone who has a brain recognizes that Dostoyevsky is the better writer.

I generally don’t like hating books.  Though I listen patiently and recognize every citizen’s right to complain, I barely tolerate students who want to tell me (usually over and over and over) how little they enjoy the book I assigned them.  The fault, I say inwardly, may be the reader’s and not the writer’s.  Every book, I tell myself, offers something redeeming for the person who searches for it.

So why single out poor Dan Brown?

My wife finds it odd that I can muster such hatred toward so innocuous a figure. It is a little like hating white bread. I find my hatred odd too.  I state reasons—the amateurish way characters discuss clues as they flee from gunfire bugs me, as do the barely differentiated characters discussing these clues… endlessly, in tediously informative baby-step bits.  I’ve taught eighth graders who write more engaging dialogue, and the telling-heavy, showing-short chapters always, always, always end in cheesy and/or clumsy cliffhangers.

None of these objections, however, account for my hatred.  I sometimes play literary activist and say it’s a crime better writers go unpublished.  That’s certainly true, but worse writers are published too.  It’s occurred to me that, though I don’t author accounts of century-old global religious conspiracies couched as thrillers, maybe my hatred is jealousy.

When people who love Dan Brown chide me for spoiling their fun, I do feel guilty.  What’s wrong with a little jigsaw solving—even if it is a puzzle of finite, identically shaped pieces?  My hatred is irrational, and, being a rational man, I know the cure.  I should buy The Lost Symbol, strap myself to a chair and read it, cover to cover.  While I’m at it, I’ll read Twilight and all those other novels everyone else talks about too.

But I can already feel a biological fireball gathering in my lizard brain.  Please, oh Lord, don’t ever let me meet Mr. Brown.  I’ll be nice, but I might have to keep my hand over my mouth to arrest the sneer overcoming me.

Which—I know, I know—is not my best expression.


Filed under Art, Dan Brown, Doubt, Envy, Essays, Fiction, High School Teaching, Laments, life, Opinion, Showing and Telling, Teaching, Thoughts, Writing

Showing and Telling Redux

Up the block, the L passes over our street and, if you’re talking when the train arrives, noise obliterates any conversation.  In my family, whoever is speaking gets to supply a concluding statement when the roar evaporates…

… and that’s why lettuce makes a poor undergarment.

… so Grandmother didn’t even need to swallow one goldfish, much less twenty.

… the moral of the story is, don’t let infants paint.

… then I decided “Chuckles” wasn’t a good wrestling name, after all.

My daughter says we could turn these statements into real fiction, but, as stories go, they seem flawed—all telling (no showing) and too easy because the teller never has to do the work of reaching that moment.

These endings, however, do spur me to think. What transforms observations or moments into a story? What makes a narrative?

The difference between narrative and lyrical poems seems helpful here.  A lyrical poem is emotional. As the term suggests, its underlying tone—its music, if you like—organizes its contents.  In contrast, while narrative poems have tone, sequence controls them.  Put simply, one event leads to the next.

But the difference seems more complicated. What’s an event?  What do you do with information like description or dialogue?  If you think of reading psychologically, every sort of information spurs the mind to search, looking for connections or leading to conjectures about anything that may prove important. Where is the narrative then, in the writing or in the reader’s mind?

As demonstration, consider this lyrical poem by William Carlos Williams, “Nantucket”:

Flowers through the window
lavender and yellow

changed by white curtains—
Smell of cleanliness—

Sunshine of late afternoon—
On the glass tray

a glass pitcher, the tumbler
turned down, by which

a key is lying— And the
immaculate white bed

The poem sidesteps events altogether, appearing to be pure description. It contains no real verbs, only participles functioning as adjectives—the flowers can be described as “changed” by the curtain, the tumbler can be described as “turned down,” and the key can be described as “lying” next to the bed, but they don’t do anything. Initially, the objects don’t even seem particularly interesting.  Flowers, curtains, a clean smell, a glass try and pitcher, some glasses turned over, and a key beside a bed. A pretty still life, but still.

Yet my mind makes these details into a story.  Nothing in the poem directly tells me so, but the key, the flowers, and the glasses turned over suggest a Nantucket hotel room.  I think of Nantucket as a place for visiting rather than residing, and those usually familiar flowers are “changed” here along with everything else.  These simple things cry for explanation.  I know the poet has used “glass” twice, but why substitute “tumbler” for an object containing liquid—why not “goblet”?  And what should I do with the secondary meaning of words like “tumbler,” which is also someone who performs athletic leaps, rolls, and somersaults… or the workings of a lock?  What about “immaculate,” which is not only absolutely clean but also Mary’s sexless conception?  Out of context, the word “lying” suggests something false or misleading.  Is that important?

And there’s also Williams’ characteristic voyeurism.  Is he outside the room or inside it?  If he is outside looking through those curtains, how does he smell cleanliness or see any detail beyond the flowers?  Which is imagined—how someone outside the room might envision it or how someone in the room might see all the particulars described?

I have a way to answer these questions—this poem is about an affair.  The room is a getaway.  The key is phallic.  That immaculate white bed awaits tumbling.  And though no one outside that window could imagine the lie, what happens when afternoon wanes changes everything, unlocking an entirely new life.

So I’m left with a big question—does the poem tell this story or do I?

Visiting Bloglily this week, I encountered her questions about flash fiction, stories that use 500 words or less, and I began to think how few words a story might require.  With the right words and an active imagination, could three words be a story—could one word?  I’m not suggesting we replace art galleries with index cards reading, “A man on a horse in the Alps” or “A block of blue in a field of black,” but what’s more important, the thing or our mind’s reading of it?

Put another way, what are we doing when we listen to music, hearing the notes or making the connections between them?

My family’s silly statements in the wake of the L are only stories if listeners supply what’s missing. Authors deserve credit for coming up with evocative detail—that’s their art—but perhaps they deserve more credit for what they omit.


Filed under Chicago, CTA, Essays, Experiments, Fiction, Fiction writing, Home Life, Showing and Telling, Thoughts, William Carlos Williams, Writing