Tag Archives: Writing Fiction

Ars Longa Vita Brevis

Twenty years ago this summer I went to Vermont for the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. I heard some literary luminaries speak and read—Philip Levine, Francine Prose, William Matthews, John Irving, Nancy Willard, and many others. The setting was beautiful, and I made good friends there. I enjoyed just about every lecture and reading despite the hard benches and forced silence. I was thrilled to listen to authors whose work I’d taught. Tim O’Brien, fresh off the success of The Things They Carried, led my workshop.

But, for all that, the moment I recall best is a low point in my writing life.

I understand Bread Loaf is very different now, but, oddly, I did no writing when I attended the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. The “Writers’” in the name of the conference weren’t me. They were stars I saw eating lunch or standing in a circle of fans between talks. I said seven actual sentences to Tim O’Brien. He signed my book. The only you-time was the half-hour participants spent with writers assigned the task of reading their work, and every late afternoon I sat in those famous Adirondack chairs anticipating the thirty minutes a writer would look at me and not the other way around.

I was writing short stories then, just starting my second writing career having given up creative writing since college. I’d written poetry before but decided I needed to hitch my out-sized aspirations to something more likely to make a living.

The trouble was, I was terrible.

I have a habit of taking myself too seriously, adopting avocations with secret assurance I’ll instantly become great. Soon, I’m laboring at an impossible pace and speaking without self-consciousness about my “process” and “work.”

The summer of ’91 I was especially frenetic because my wife was pregnant, and I was running out of time to take my rightful place in Literature. For six months I produced story after story I was sure were equal to anything I taught. Tragically, I couldn’t see the difference. My readers were my wife, my boss, and another beginner, a colleague’s wife—no one predisposed to criticize an amateur. Had I been more honest with myself, however, I might have heard their saying, “Make it simpler “ as “Make it less pretentious.” I wanted to believe I’d be famous.

I try to be the pessimistic realist who lowers his expectations when he sees his anticipation can’t be met, but the day of my appointed conversation, I didn’t. I walked in to find my reader most of the way through my story and frowning.

There must have been a polite greeting I can’t recall. She complained I’d given her too much to read, meeting the page limit by changing the margins and spacing and reducing the font by one point.

“Even if it had been the proper length though,” she said, “I couldn’t have finished it.”

The catalog of basic errors took most of our time—my language was imprecise and stale, my characters were flat, my plot was cumbersome and unlikely, the story was nothing I could know anything about, and my resolution was derivative and insincere. Along the way, she paused to ask, “You see that, right?” and each criticism twisted her voice a little higher. By the time she reached the story as a whole, she was shrill, half laughing. “You know what it reminds me of?” she said, “pornography written by a young adult author.”

That’s when my eyes flooded. I did see how very bad the story was. Her criticism cooled my work, made it someone else’s, an ugly object. But I wasn’t crying about that. I thought about the years I’d lost. On the brink of being a father, I figured my chance had passed.

I said so, and she looked at me indulgently. Only the accomplished can deliver the perhaps-this-is-not-for-you-speech with such conviction and impact. You can’t even hate them.

Those stories are upstairs somewhere. I still move them from house to house but don’t read them. When I returned to poetry a few years later, I put aside greatness. Accepted into a low-residency MFA program at Bennington a few years after that, I left every expectation behind, determined simply to get better.  I’m still at it.

But my third semester at Bennington, my appointed reader joined the faculty, and I remember my heart sliding a little seeing her across the cafeteria. A classmate said I should introduce myself and tell my story, show her she hadn’t crushed me after all thank-you-very-much, but I didn’t want to.

Low moments groan in memory like ship horns in fog. They shake you without being seen and, though their warning can seem distant, they still speak to you particularly. You can’t always know what course changes these encounters create, but the course continues. And maybe you’re moving in a better direction. No circling fans, not a writer the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference refers to, maybe somewhere better, locked in another pursuit.

In any case, when I passed my appointed reader on Bennington sidewalks or stairways, in gatherings or lectures, she didn’t know me.

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Teaching Interpretation

“Interesting,” the student begins, “But did the writer mean to do that?”

I’ve heard the question thousands of times in thousands of forms… some not so deferential. Students are naturally skeptical about which insights belong to the teacher and which to the author, and, understandably, they want to know… how much of writing is intentional and how much is discovered?

Last year, we invited Joe Meno to our school and, in anticipation of his visit, read a few of his short stories. Class discussions revealed all sorts of interesting connections between his imagery and themes, between dialogue and the particular fate that befell characters, between phrasing and meaning. Subtle distinctions all.  However, when a student asked Meno, “What do you think about when you’re writing?  Do you plan?” the author said, in effect, “I let the story tell itself. I don’t plan at all.”

A few minutes later, he’d explain how important revision was to his writing, all the hours and millions of choices that go into making a story exactly what you want it to be.  By then, however, the damage was done.

Back in class, students wanted to talk. Some took Mr. Meno’s answer in stride.  Whether he intended what we’d discovered or not, they said, it didn’t negate our thinking or make our careful reading any less valuable, admirable, or fun for us. I heard the comparison I’ve heard so many times—a work of art is like a child. Once it goes into the world, it’s on its own, no longer the parents’ charge.

They were defending me, trying to reassure me I still had a job.  But other students said, “See? I told you we over-read everything,” and meant, “See? English is bullshit.”  My most defensive students crowed with vindication.  They’d been saying, “If I don’t see it, it can’t be there,” and “reading should be pleasurable. It shouldn’t require resourcefulness or insight.” Now they had proof.

I was just as defensive, only in a different way. I wanted to believe Mr. Meno was disingenuous and was playing the classmate I knew in high school who told me he never studied a minute for the AP European History tests. He thought greater virtue came from success—or greater protection from failure—if he hadn’t really tried.  Truth was, he studied as much as I did (a lot)… he was just cooler.

Mr. Meno, however, was being honest.  I couldn’t explain his answer away so easily. My own writing experience helped me picture the method he described, sitting down with little more than a clever phrase, a curious moment, or echoing anecdote.  I could imagine an unphrased question I wanted to answer that still can’t be phrased after pages and pages of composition.  Anyone who’s done any writing knows we write to think just as much as we think to write.

Yet, what do you tell young writers who rely exclusively on serendipity, who look for any excuse not to revise, rethink, or refine work?  How do you convince them writing can be work—and that good writers don’t mind the work?  How do you help them balance the accidental and intentional yin and yang of creativity?

In the months since Mr. Meno’s visit, I’ve been rethinking the way I approach interpretation. Though Joe Meno’s stories may seem unrestrained and unstrained, I suspect he plays AND plans. He may be open to possibilities as he composes but would be foolish not to take advantage of happy accidents as well. Revision creates that pull to focus, develop, and enhance what the subconscious churns up.  And Meno, like any author, must at least sense when an image, metaphor, or line of dialogue is right.  Even if authors don’t know why, even if they leave it to readers to explain their choices, the words and phrases they allow to remain have been approved, ratified as what some subconscious or conscious part of them wanted, intended.

I’m teaching creative writing this semester and am finding more comfort in this answer.  Talking about choices instead of intentions may be semantics but, discussing what authors say instead of asserting what they are trying to say is more relaxing.  If a writer can’t know his or her intent fully, a reader has to guess too.  It’s only fair.  I don’t want to stir up anyone’s defensiveness (theirs or mine) by providing “solutions” anymore.  I’d rather address why this word, line, or sentence seems right, how it contributes to the pleasure of interpretation.

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After This

I’m teaching creative writing this term and will ask my class to write a short short story (less than 750 words).  I’ve never felt fiction was my particular gift, but I wanted to try the task before I assigned.  This piece is a sketch, really…

Tom drew three superheroes in the margins of his math book.  An asterisk emblazoned the upper left of Footnote Man’s chest—toxic waste granted him the power to offer background information. Columns and rows covered the unitard of his friend Categorizer, who magically knew the proper place for everything.  In the background, drawn lightly in pencil, stood The Grey Metaphor.  One arm outstretched and pointing, he explained a murky issue in an equally murky way.

Tom smiled. He was staying in the school library as long as he could, worried he’d arrive home to find his mother getting drunk instead of snoozing on the couch.  The librarian would throw him out about five and then he’d dawdle.  Maybe he’d take the bus several stops too far.  If his mother was awake, that’d be his excuse—he’d absent-mindedly looked up and discovered himself well past home. He hadn’t used that story.

But his twenty pages of Huck Finn were read.  He filled the blanks of a worksheet on Jacksonian democracy.  He completed problems 7-31, odd.  He had nothing else to do but draw not-so-superheroes.

The librarian woke him from his reverie. “Tom?”

“I know.”

He stacked his books before sliding them into his backpack.  He never locked eyes with Ms. Coulter.  Their eyes were similar magnetic poles, repellent, slippery.

She said, “Wait, Ms. Davis and I will be here for a half-hour or so. It’s just that…”

Tom recognized a question forming in her tone, concern brewing. He needed a getaway.

“No, I’ve got to go, actually,” he said, “My mom’s probably outside already.”

“Where’s your jacket?  It’s cold out.”

“In my locker.  I’ll grab it.”

November waited outside.  It fit Tom’s heroic code that he go without a coat.  Last year’s didn’t fit, but he’d borrowed as many stray fives as he dared from his mother’s purse.  Just out the door, the wind whipped up Tom’s pants’ legs, and he flinched.

A stranger Tom knew stood in the bus shelter. He remembered him because he was about his father’s height and build.  Tom could ask his dad for a coat, but since the remarriage and new baby, his father’s promises seemed more half-hearted. And Tom didn’t want to nag.  Tom’s dad paid for Catholic school, and his biggest promise—college—loomed. Tom replayed a scene he’d imagined many times, his dad glancing over acceptance letters and praising Tom for bearing up so well. Almost two weeks had passed since he’d spoken to his dad. Tom’s cell phone was dead, and he hadn’t told him yet.  Climbing on the bus after his bus buddy, he resolved to go to his room and call his dad as soon as he got home.

Usually, Tom walked in and turned off the TV to rouse his mother. They’d sleepwalk through a frozen food dinner.  He’d set the table, bringing forks from a drawer beside the unused stove.  Last night when he’d shuffled through the drawer, his mother held her head and groaned. A divider once kept the silverware apart, but that’d been lost in a move.

She didn’t like work. He didn’t like school. They found little else to talk about.  Occasionally, she smiled and patted his hand as they sat silently, and he smiled back. He believed he was past blaming himself for how she was and consoled himself with being gone soon, but sometimes he worried.

And his stomach ached, as if the furnace burning there used its fuel and still raged, baking its sides to a red, pulsing glow. At the thought, he doubled.  His father’s doppelganger looked up from his crossword and began to form a question with his eyes before returning to work.

He was fourteen when his mother took him to a diner to tell him his father was having an affair and had moved out. Tom couldn’t watch his mother crying, so all he remembered were shuffling salt and pepper shakers as he rolled them around in his two hands, placing one and then the other ahead. She blamed his dad. His dad blamed his mom. Tom wanted out most of all.

Tom closed his eyes, and the city’s lights crossed through his eyelids.  He pictured the room he’d dreamed for himself, books spread out over his bedcover in a neat rainbow.  In this scene, he laughed over something his invented roommate said. As always, the still was of a time after this.

He looked up to see his corner bus stop fly past.

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Talking to Bartleby

Another experiment…

“Bartleby, the Scrivener” is a long short story by Herman Melville about a narrator’s encounter with a legal copyist who first refuses to review copy—his famous line is “I prefer not”—and then declines to work altogether.  Though the narrator is solicitous (and some readers think he’s too solicitous), Bartleby can’t be rescued.  The narrator’s solution to the mystery is the news that Bartleby worked in the dead letter office before joining him, but many readers find that clue inconclusive.  Bartleby remains an enigma.  As I was teaching the story recently, I started thinking about Melville’s character and wrote this response.  I’m not sure it helps at all with the story, but it collects some of my thoughts about it…

Don’t blame the question.  The question was simple, calling for just a word or two and not particularly unusual or striking ones.  And don’t blame him.  The quiet surprised him as much as us.  When he reached into his word-hoard—paltry as it was—he found it entirely empty.  He had nothing to say.

Looking back, we might have guessed.  Many words and ideas are recycled, echoes of ones we’re presented.  His phrasing followed patterns discernible in retrospect, subtle grammar but grammar nonetheless—noun, verb, noun and the like—inventive only in seeming novel.  Truthfully, we’re all form.

He might have thought, “There’s nothing new under the sun” and swallowed the cliché before it emerged.  He might have said, “I have nothing to say” but decided on action.  He can’t tell us.

Perhaps some shift in vast invisible forces slid wheels and cogs into place and closed a great dam.  But, if so, nothing was behind the wall—not a finger-wide stream, not a trickle deep in the sand, not a drip of pooled dew on rocks—nothing gathered.  He wasn’t holding back.

We want to blame his standards and tell him anything is fine, but his eyes have answered already. They’re focused on some other inexpressible surface, a place words don’t describe.  He looks on from elsewhere.

Prodding won’t do.  We have no recourse but to watch and wait, hoping he walks a circular path that returns before he dwindles.  Every moment, however, takes him away—each silence another step into a darkness between stars vast enough to make escape probable.  We want to pull him from quiet, but there’s nothing to grab.

Soon we’ll forget he ever spoke and wonder if we dreamed him from dust instead, a new Adam from an Eden wholly imaginary.

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Another Other

At first, he wasn’t sure if he blinked away film on his eye, saw the shadow of a plane pass over the window, or caught a reflective object at an odd angle.  His brain, he thought, misinterpreted some momentary phenomenon.

But soon he learned to predict the circumstances.  Standing in a doorway preoccupied with a newspaper, food, a note, a pen, his phone, he sensed a flicker, a change of light and then a positive thing, an entry for his exit.  From the beginning he knew, though he couldn’t say how, that he and the other couldn’t share a room.  His presence pushed the other out.

Just as you’d predict, he altered circumstances as soon as he noticed them. He put distractions aside and rushed into rooms after feigning a move in the opposite direction.  That’s how he caught him, or began to.  More than a flicker, the solid image disappeared not quite instantly enough—a flash, but real.

At first, he couldn’t have told you much.  Like a crime victim, he couldn’t recall detail.  Clothes, height, or any distinguishing features evaporated.  He was a he, that’s all, and, though he tried to stay calm and take it all in, every encounter surprised him equally.

You’ll ask why he didn’t go see a doctor to be checked out, but weeks passed between the early encounters. At first he hoped he’d experienced the last.  That doesn’t entirely account for his neglect, though.  Looking back, he always knew what was happening.

Later, he saw him when others were around.  He asked, “Did you see that?”

“What?”

He couldn’t answer, and, by the time he could, he also knew no sane person would ask.  He should have gotten help.  He meant to.  But other necessities took over.  The moment of intervention passed. Then the lingering presence of another made their meeting inevitable, desirable even.

Less time fell between encounters, and one day he woke believing he was seeing himself.  The next episode confirmed it.  He looked at his own back leaving.  He’d never seen his back of course, but he knew it.

If you’re scoffing, perhaps you should examine how impossibility seduces us. What seems a long way to run or an excessive sum can become ordinary. Habits can seem peculiar, but not to those who live them.

Only his nervous system rebelled.  His stomach leaped as if he teetered on being discovered in an error, a lie, a scheme, an affair.  You need to know—he almost thought he wanted that feeling.  Perhaps his dwindling life needed another, so he crept into rooms, hoping to find himself already there.

One day, he heard a voice in the next room and came in to discover an old friend in an armchair, a sheaf of papers in his lap.  The friend gave him an odd look and said, “That was fast—so you found it?”

“No.  No, I forgot what I was looking for.”

Recovering from awkwardness was easy until great absences pocked every day.  Life became waking from sleep. Dimly remembered afterimages of dreams faded so quickly he stopped trying to retrieve them.  Anything that seemed impossible to piece together—almost everything—he fled.  He knew someone would be around soon with a remedy.

You’ll see sense.  You’ll know what happened next.  He exited and always exited.  Maybe he traded one dwindling for another, but you might too—the challenge became being gone, staying gone.

For his friends and family, nothing changed—this transition no different than the daily shift from day to night.   But he knew.  He wouldn’t be seen again.

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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.

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