Guest Post, William J Cobb: Tolstoy v. John Gardner on Describing Emotions in Fiction

Bio photo of Bill CobbAnna Karenina Is a Junkie, and She’s Weeping.

Years ago John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction (1984) was a mainstay in creative writing classrooms, and was one of the first “writer’s craft” books I read. I remember arguing (via that little voice in my head) with much of it, but nonetheless inculcating many of his principles into my own rolodex of techniques, including the idea of fiction as a continuous dream, the need (and expectation) that literary writers follow a tradition, and most problematically, Gardner’s stance that emotions should not be described directly—a somewhat-more-rigid (and specific) take on the old adage of “show, don’t tell.” Even talking (or thinking) about this book makes me feel as if my very memories, undulating in wavy lines, are being superimposed upon Gardner’s (simple, elegant) book jacket.

Ah, the Eighties. When Raymond Carver was all the rage, and Stephen King was trapping us in a car besieged by a rabid Saint Bernard. We lived in ratty apartments where the toilet would never stop running, and were headed for divorce, rehab, and bankruptcy, or all of the above. Carver was the dean of what now seems the musty school of Minimalism or Dirty Realism, both terms that he rejected. It’s hard not to mention Carver when dragging Gardner’s skeleton out of the closet, since Carver was famously a student of Gardner’s, which Carver wrote about with great admiration in his essay “Fires.”

I’ll confess to being in thrall with Carver’s (and King’s) stories, and of starting my writing career by imitating both shamelessly—though only, in my defense, for a brief time. I was too young and innocent (then, at least) for Carver’s fictional demographics, and really just loved the rhythm of his prose, the bleakness, that whole American downer scene. Working-class writers of the world, unite! He made drinking problems cool, and was a bit like a cleaned-up version of Charles Bukowski—whose Ham on Rye (1982) is a masterpiece of gritty lit. (Even Stephen King’s greatest hero, Jack Torrance, suffers an Achilles’ heel of alcoholism in The Shining.) Carver not only learned from and admired John Gardner, he exemplifies Gardner’s emotion-describing reserve. There are many feelings seething in Carver’s wrenching moments, such as in “Are These Actual Miles?” (from Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? published in 1976), when a first-person narrator describes teetering on bankruptcy, letting his wife go out to sell a used car, an errand from which she returns with hints that she bedded the used car dealer dude to get a good price, or in “So Much Water So Close to Home,” when weekend fishermen discover a drowned girl in the water, and just go on fishing and drinking. But Carver doesn’t directly announce those emotions; he doesn’t tell us.

Tolstoy, on the other hand, not only tells us the emotions his characters are feeling, he goes to great lengths to do so, and describes them with play-by-play fervency, as if trying to be the Pat Summerall of calling the National Emotion League: “What are you thinking? What do you think of me? Don’t despise me. I’m not worthy of being despised. I’m just unhappy. If anyone is unhappy, I am,’ she said and, turning away, she wept.” (On another things-change-and-stay-the-same note, in Anna Karenina Tolstoy also complains about how the nobility drinks too much: “We go around saying that the people drink; I don’t know who drinks more, the people or our own class.”)

As for describing emotions directly or suggesting them, who is right and who is wrong? Hard to say. As far as wrong is concerned, neither is the easy answer, but they definitely produce different effects. For instance, Carver is famous for his understated alcoholic stories, such as “Where I’m Calling From,” in which a booze-hound’s girlfriend liberates him from rehab, and they end the story drinking champagne and eating fried chicken, with all the guilt, remorse, and shame implied, not specified. Tolstoy also wrote of addiction: In Anna Karenina (1878), after Anna leaves her chilly husband, Alexei Alexandrovich, for the dashing Vronsky, she becomes isolated and outcast, shunned by high-society, castigated by strangers at an opera, and takes morphine to ease the pain. (She’s also a writer, by the way: In a late chapter Tolstoy reveals that Anna is writing a children’s book, which sounds like a YA title, and an editor is exhorting her to finish it.) While discussing the possibility of divorce with her sister-in-law, Dolly, Anna says, “There isn’t a day or an hour that I don’t think of it and don’t reproach myself for that thinking … because the thought of it could drive me mad. Drive me mad,’ she repeated. ‘When I think of it, I can’t fall asleep without morphine.” Not long after that scene, Tolstoy describes Anna getting high to calm herself: “Anna meanwhile, on returning to her boudoir, took a glass and into it put a few drops of medicine, of which morphine made up a significant part, and after drinking it and sitting motionless for a time, grown quiet, she went to the bedroom in calm and cheerful spirits.”

The complex array of her feelings is delineated in great detail, and Tolstoy rightly gets credit for being one of the earliest practitioners of the “stream-of-consciousness” technique, when he describes her thoughts, feelings, and vision of the world shown through her inner dialogue, most famously in the passage leading up to her suicide, and in earlier moments, such as when she meets Vronsky on the snowy train station. Carver generally avoids descriptions of what the characters are thinking or feeling, and instead relies on situations from which the reader must parse out the feelings—a technique akin to T.S. Eliot’s famous “objective correlative.”

Carver was writing exactly one century after Tolstoy, though the trend toward closed-mouth portrayal of emotion began much earlier. Blame Ernest Hemingway, if you must, master of understatement and sangfroid. At times it’s portrayed as a male American-writer trait, but Flannery O’Connor rarely describes her characters’ emotions directly, and there are many other examples of female American writers as well. One of the finest practitioners of emotional don’t-tell is the great Cormac McCarthy, who effects a tremendous emotional tug in his novel Suttree when the alcoholic Suttree visits his ex-wife to attend the funeral of his son, and she physically attacks him for showing up. Tolstoy’s direct descriptions of emotions make sense in light of his seminal essay “What Is Art?” There he offers one definition of art as being simply “a communication of emotion.” But in that long (and long-winded) essay, he essentially expands or adapts the “show, don’t tell” cliché to the more expansive “show and tell,” emphasizing it’s the artists (especially those writing narrative fiction) task to recreate the experience provoking the emotion, and not simply to tell the reader that the character experienced it.

At this point you might ask: Why should writers care about this in the 21st century? Rereading Anna Karenina recently, I was struck at how easy-going and straightforward much of the story is. Tolstoy is, if anything, un-coy. His fiction seems more expansive than Carver’s. As much as I admire Raymond Carver, I rarely return to reading his work for fun—I know, a loaded term. Tolstoy produces a greater literary joy, perhaps in part due to his expansive, multifaceted approach. I suspect he would consider a reluctance to describe a character’s happiness, remorse, or anguish as being too reserved, a literary stylistic trait similar to the emotional frigidity of Anna Karenina’s husband Alexei. It’s never completely clear in the novel, but one suspects Anna had been taking those drops of morphine well before she met Vronsky, and her husband’s coldness plus her addiction may be the reason she ended up in another’s man’s arms. That might work for readers as well: If you’re too reluctant (or dogmatic) to describe your characters’ emotions directly, you might find your readers being seduced by a more laid-back, dashing approach, such as Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl (2012), which is not the most literary novel in the last few years, yet is certainly grisly fun. But the book I’m most looking forward to reading is Cormac McCarthy’s The Passenger (now rumored to appear in December 2017 or 2018), and he combines the best of Hemingway’s emotional understatement with Tolstoy’s expansive view of the world.—William J. Cobb

Excerpt From: Leo Tolstoy, translated by Richard Pevear & Larissa Volokhonsky. Anna Karenina, p. 1264, 1266, 1381.

Guest Blog Post, Elane Johnson: For the LOVE of the Language

Elane with FrappuccinoAs many writers know, we have to get a “real job” in order to keep those Strawberries & Crème Frappuccinos ® coming because those things ain’t cheap, and my thighs aren’t going to get fatter all by themselves. Wait a minute. That’s clearly not true. The longer I sit here doing jack, the more thunderous my thighs become. But I digress.

 

A real job. That’s where I was. There are many careers for which a writer would be a good fit, but just because we would be good at something doesn’t mean we should do it. Sure. I’d be the most celebrated WalMart manager south of Canada, but then I’d have to come home and self-flagellate at night to atone for the murder of my brain cells. So most writers without a multi-volume book deal about zombies coming of age during the apocalypse do that thing we do, which is teach.

 

I’ve many, many years of teaching under my tight belt, and there have been thrills and laughter and heart-warmth and breakthroughs and achievements and success and enormous paychecks that compensated me well for the services I’ve provided. Except for that last part. That’s bullshit. Anyone who teaches knows. Teachers—even those with an M.F.A. in creative writing—get paid squat to impart our wordsmith’s knowledge to hordes of students who may or may not capitalize the personal pronoun I. Yet we continue because A) We love our language and its beauty. B) We care about the success of our students. And C) Those Frappuccinos ain’t going to buy themselves.

 

The English language—while it is the most difficult of all the languages in the world to learn because of its plethora of rules and exceptions and integration of foreign words—thrills me with its lyrical malleability. My father and I played games with grammar all my young life so that I came to appreciate the ways in which a writer may play with the poetry of English. And my own children have blossomed in the linguistic soil their grandfather tilled. My younger daughter delights in learning and sharing new words. She recently dropped this one on me: Apricity. The word sounds lovely, and its meaning slays me. It is a perfect example of how the English language proffers just the right word for any instance. In this case, “the warmth of the sun in winter.” Isn’t that just breathtaking?

 

I rushed to the window that morning—the first of which in weeks the sun had finally burned through the snow-thick clouds—to luxuriate in the apricity.

 

Yes, yes. I know it’s an obsolete word and that we’ve moved on to such accepted terms as homie and vajazzle, for God’s sake, but still. Our language is a living entity, forever evolving (or devolving, it appears). But thank goodness our language throws back some of the “new” words that end up in its net, such as the words some of my students create because they learn primarily through hearing instead of reading. The most common, of course, is should of. Because those two words sound just like should’ve, it’s an oft-made error that makes me want to poke out my eyes with dull sticks. In the last week of grading papers, I’ve come across mind bottling and world wind romance. Lord, help me, but what the hell?

 

Aberrations like these are an affront to writers-who-must-be-teachers-in-order-to-eat everywhere! We poor, struggling souls toil like cats in a sandbox in our attempts to improve the writing skills of our charges. But c’mon! There is no excuse for college students NOT to capitalize I or to think that pit bulls have a “killer instant in them” or that “taking something for granite” means anything! The least that our students can do is to read, read, read excellent models of our language so that they can experience and emulate the right way to write (not the “rite way to wright”). And bringing us a Strawberries and Crème Frappuccino once in a while couldn’t hurt either.

Guest Blog Post, Anthony Varallo: SPACE, DOUBLE SPACE

Anthony E VaralloHow many spaces after a period, one or two?  Space or double space?  If you’re like me, old enough to remember typing your first research papers on your parents’ IBM Selectric, —ancient, even then, but thrilling nonetheless, the way the letters jumped from a center ball that spun and rotated across the page—then you probably prefer two spaces, even though, as you are becoming increasingly aware, typeset pages, like the ones you see in nearly every print publication of every kind, from the smallest circulation literary magazine to The New York Times, use a single space.  Only.  There is, as you must reluctantly admit, no such thing as double-spacing in print publication.  A single space presides after every period.  A space no different than the one after a comma or semi-colon.  Yes, you know this; still, you use two spaces after each period.  Why?

Because you took a typing class in seventh grade, for starters.  The class met in a room fitted out with twenty manual typewriters resting atop twenty desks, the typewriters wearing a vinyl cover that could only be removed upon the instructor’s permission and, at the end of each session, carefully replaced, requiring you to position the typewriter’s carriage just so.  The instructor was old, even by seventh grade teacher standards, and his voice shook as he called out the sentences you were to type, including—and this seems important—the spaces after each punctuation mark.  Comma, space.  Period, double space.  The sound of twenty space bars double-spacing: a basketball dribbled twice.  Failure to double space, a red instructor’s mark, a lower grade.

Because, in college, you upgraded to a portable word processor, heavy as a packed suitcase, but light enough to carry to the dorm lounge whenever your roommate had a visitor.  The word processor stored your papers—documents, you began calling them, without quite realizing it—on disks, enabling you to save your work for later, the words on the page and yet not on the page, either, since you hadn’t printed them out yet, a new phrase to put alongside documents.  Still, you wrote those words as if they would be printed out, because that’s what words aspired to, you began to realize, to be part of sentences to be printed out, and those sentences needed a punctuation mark at the end with two spaces after to give them their proper due.  A pause.  Breathing room.  Authority.

Because, right after you traded in your portable word processor—that old thing!—for your first personal computer, you began writing short stories, and sentences suddenly seemed something larger than words on a page; they became individual brushstrokes on a canvas framed by top, bottom, right and left margins.  Something to take time on, to linger upon, even for hours, as you did, drinking coffee late into the night.  A sentence was a slow-born thing, you began to understand, and to finish one was a kind of honor, one that required a double space, as if to say, There, done, yes, made it, now it is so.  The double space sent the cursor more forcefully into the blank page, to better accompany your mind, which suddenly had no idea how it had ever written a good sentence in the first place.  For each sentence completed only sent you into the next sentence to be completed, where all the old challenges cropped up again—word choice, tone, grammar, syntax, style, clarity, coherence, precision—the completed sentence offering no clues where the next was to follow.  Every sentence is a solo act.  A truth the double space only wished you to know better.  A truth a single space would rather you never learn.

Because you have tried using a single space, even though you won’t admit it.  A phase that only lasted a few months or so, right around the time you started noticing that your students, born in the era when you traded the word processor for the PC, used a single space after periods.  So you tried, for the sake of keeping up, for the sake of growing and changing, for the sake of not suffering potential embarrassment, always important to you.  You single-spaced after each period.  A feeling like walking on one foot.  Like looking left, right, but not left again.  Like parking bumper to bumper in a crowded lot.  You couldn’t get the hang of it, so back to double-spacing you went, and where you have stayed.  You can’t help it: you like the world a little bit better with double-spacing in it.

But what to do now?  You have two children, and they both use computers, both like writing stories and jokes; sometimes even a screenplay, which they film with their iPods.  Sometimes they need your help spelling certain words, help you are happy to give.  You stand beside them as they type the word and reach the end of the sentence.  You hold your breath after they type the period.  The cursor blinks.  Your children hesitate, about to ask another question.  Space or double space?

Guest Blog Post, Jerry Eckert: Land As Character

jerryeckertFrom Thoreau’s glacial puddle to Muir’s tectonic Sierras to Annie Dillard’s little creek, nature writers have sought for over 200 years to bring landscape into their essays with all the power of real characters. Arguably, with his landscape-laden Desert Solitaire, Ed Abbey launched modern nature writing. Those of us today who would write of nature, especially in the West, still have a vast supply of natural wonders and beauty around us to bring into our work. How can landscape become a character? Let’s ask what makes for memorable human characters.

First, more than cardboard cutouts, characters have texture and depth, and a good author will turn to several senses to capture these finer points. Sharp vision is always useful. But nature reaches us, often vividly, through touch, smell, sound, even taste in ways that humans cannot. Imagine caressing an alligator bark juniper with your eyes closed. Listen to how wind songs differ sliding through junipers vs. pines. Did you know Ponderosa pines are unique? Their bark smells like vanilla.

Second, great characters are alive, vibrant, never still. And so with Nature. Behind the pretty scenery, nature teems with dynamics for an author’s use. Nothing is static. Evolution is a work in progress, rending, rebuilding, creating wholly new forms from the shards. Even the lowly lichen, neither plant nor animal, sits there seemingly immobile on its granite boulder, quietly dissolving its host.

Characters have moods. To give Nature moods is anthropomorphic. But the experience of  Nature creates moods in others, in other characters, in the reader. The trauma and threat of violent storms are the easy parts. More challenging to the writer are Nature’s softer tones, the quiet promise of morning dew in Spring, the foreboding of a temperature shift in the breeze. As with humans, subtle mood changes wrought by Nature can run deep with meaning.

Characters interact with each other. Dominance, dependence, synergy, all abound in the intricately woven fabric of the natural world. The easy ones for the writer are the least interesting, when some natural element forces an altered path, a behavioral change in another character. The blizzard that drives a ship off course, a canyon that redirects the wanderer. More important are those bits of landscape that bring fundamental moral or intellectual change in a character. A mountain standing there, infusing strength into a quailing man, a bee alight on a columbine suggesting with fragile beauty the depth of our dependence on wilderness, the Milky Way blazing in darkest sky, telling us how infinitesimally small and insignificant we really are.

If we write the land into our essays as character, and the character that land interacts with most deeply is the reader, then we will have truly created art.

Do you have a recent story that might be enriched if you brought in the natural world?

Guest Post: The Secret to Getting Started


I love being a writer.  What I can’t stand is the paperwork. ~ Peter De Vries

If we all felt the way De Vries purports, the world would sorely lack reading material. I believe the great Mark Twain offers a solution to the daunting task we often ascribe to writing and the reason we procrastinate, telling ourselves we’ll do it as soon as we’ve finished X, Y or Z. According to Twain, “The secret of getting ahead is getting started. The secret of getting started is breaking your complex overwhelming tasks into small manageable tasks, and then starting on the first one.”

While Twain’s quote easily applies to myriad goals or projects, I firmly believe his advice also works well when it comes to the writing process as a whole.

I’ve found that for me, it helps to take a good look at the big picture and then put into practice what Twain suggests: break down the seemingly insurmountable goal into doable steps. But even more importantly, each stage must be easily attainable, or I will hesitate to begin the first one.

The following is a model for accomplishing Twain’s solution.

Step #1: Planning

  • Make time to come up with the gist of your story. This may occur through daydreaming, brainstorming or writing organically for a pre-determined length of time, and can take place anywhere you do your best thinking: working out, meditating, hiking or lounging on your chaise.

Step #2: Writing

  • Commit to write a minimum number of words a week. This requires you to put pen (or pencil) to paper, fingers to keyboard, voice to recorder — anything to get a word count somewhere other than the gray matter inside your right brain.
  • Set aside the required number of hours per day, preferably uninterrupted. Accomplish this by removing distractions; i.e., log out of Facebook, instant messaging, Google, Dr. Phil — whatever keeps you from the first part of this step. If you’re the type who’s inspired by a little Beethoven or Pit Bull, by all means turn up the volume on your iPod. Along these lines, don’t underestimate the power of your muse; keep it forefront in your mind (stay tuned for a future post on this concept). The short of it: if an ocean view is what you need to write, then plaster your surroundings with the sights, sounds and smells of a tropical paradise. And if you can bring the real thing to life, all the better.

Step #3: Editing/rewriting

  • Read drafts one at a time, making notes/edits as you go. Try to read your words with new, fresh eyes. Pretend you’re picking the piece up for the first time and gauge your reaction as if you’ve never seen it before. Be critical.
  • Schedule a day or a week to rewrite. This is where a lot of us lose steam. But it’s important to consider this just another part of your “job” as a writer. Take what you’ve edited in the first part of this step and get it done. If you don’t, someone else will.

These manageable steps can be adapted to any writing assignment, such as articles, short stories and blogs. It simply takes an idea and a commitment to see it through.

What is your secret to getting started?

Guest Post, Frances Lefkowitz on Frances Lefkowitz

franceslefkowitzFrances Lefkowitz is the author of To Have Not, named one of five “Best Memoirs of 2010” by SheKnows.com. It’s the story of growing up poor in San Francisco in the ’70s, going to the Ivy League on scholarship, and discovering the downside of upward mobility. Her stories and articles are published in The Sun, Tin House, Blip, Utne Reader, Good Housekeeping, Whole Living, Health, GlimmerTrain Stories,  and more. She has received honorable mention twice for the Pushcart Prize and once for Best American Essays. Frances now lives, and surfs, in Northern California.

 

Frances

Let’s start with the obvious question. How can you call these things essays? They read more like prose poems or flash fiction.

Frances

I let other people decide what they are, where they should be shelved. I’m not trying to cause trouble or blur borders, but right now my writing is coming out in little blocks of text that tell a story and some of those stories are true and some are made up. The two pieces in this issue, “Mine Sounded Like an Earthquake” and “Thorns” are true stories, which, I guess is another way of saying “essay.” And since they’re about me, we could even call them “micro memoir” or “personal essaylettes” or . . . ?

Frances

Do you ever get accused of being a poet?

Frances

Occasionally, but I always deny it. Recently I read at an event with Ishmael Reed; he approached me afterward and asked if he could publish one of my “poems.” I was honored but confused. Part of the reason I don’t think I qualify as a poet is that I know so little about poetic forms, and the old-fashioned nitpicker in me feels that a real poet should be able to write a cinquain or villanelle—or at least be able to recognize them.

Frances

OK, enough about categories. Let’s talk about self-absorption. As the author of a memoir (To Have Not), numerous personal essays, these new micro-memoirs, and now an interview with yourself, how can you defend against this charge?

Frances

For the record, I would like to point out that at least my fiction is not thinly-veiled autobiography. When I make things up, they’re not about me. Otherwise, my defense is that I see myself as a sort of Everywoman. So it’s not that my hobbies or heartbreaks are more interesting or important than anyone else’s. It’s that they are in many ways representative. I never called my book a memoir (here we go again with categories) until the publisher labeled it so. But I still describe it as not so much about me as about my take on the world. I use myself as a guinea pig, to explore how money, say, or lust, or geology, or striving, or other facts of life play out on a person trying to make it in this world.

Frances

Sounds lofty.

Frances

Nah, it’s just telling stories.

Frances

So you don’t set out to write about a social or psychological issue? In “Thorns,” for example, did you start with the idea to write about how love fades, and how the fight against that fading leads some people to extremes?

Frances

Not at all. I don’t start with an idea at all. I start with the urge to tell a story. Sometimes I don’t even start with that much; I just have a voice that’s demanding to speak, and the story unfolds as I let her speak. Later I can switch brains and see a theme or statement, but at the time I’m just following urgency. But the urgency is there precisely because the feeling or situation is universal and compelling, is much larger than myself.

Frances

So, write the story, then see what it’s about.

Frances

I couldn’t have said it better myself.