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 Post, Elizabeth Sheets: The Illusion of Ascending

dad readsI’ve always been a reader. I don’t know if this is my parents’ fault or not. Recently I found a crayon drawing and questionnaire book I made when I was in elementary school. On one of the pages it asks what my parents do during the day while I’m at school. My answers were: My Dad builds Rockets. My Mom sits on the couch all day and reads love stories. I don’t think that was entirely true, I mean, my Dad read books too. In any case, I do remember that prior to puberty, trips to the mall were exciting for two reasons: first, because I could climb up and sit in the conversion vans in the car dealership that was actually in our mall; and second, we got to go to Walden Books. My family didn’t have a lot of money, so we didn’t buy a lot of new books there, but it was a thrill just to be there and look around. I knew that eventually the books on those shelves would find their way to our city library.

As a kid, I was fairly well read. Once I got beyond Dr. Seuss, I enjoyed Roald Dahl, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Scott O’Dell, Louisa May Alcott, Franklin Dixon, Carolyn Keene, the Choose Your Own Adventure Series, and of course, Judy Blume. There are a few in that list some might consider literary, but many fall into the category of good old genre fiction. I still have many of them because I saved them for my children. And now I’m saving them for my grandchildren, because I don’t think I was as successful as my parents were at passing down the love of literature.

As I got older, I dove harder into genre writing. Once I could get books from the library that didn’t have the purple dot on them, my literary world was blown wide open. I devoured everything from Jean Auel, Piers Anthony, and Marion Zimmer Bradley to Stephen King, Dean Koontz, and Anne Rice. Some of these authors I still read today. Because they’re good, and because I can get lost in the worlds they bring to my mind’s eye.

Once I started my degree program, my literary world was blown open again. Even with all of the reading in my youth, there was much that I missed. Memoirs? Whatever were those? Well, all of those English Lit classes filled me in, and filled me up to the brim with writing on every social topic I could imagine, and a few more besides.

Writing classes and workshops introduced me to the short story, and the idea that writers who don’t get paid are somehow of more value than those who do. I’m not much for martyrs, but I bought in. In my few years in school, my professors helped nurture in me a love of the short story, and an appreciation for the craft of drawing them out of myself and others. And so now, my private library grows full of chapbooks and short story collections. To my list of favorite authors I’m adding Roxane Gay, Aimee Bender, Stacey Richter, Matt Bell, Dan Chaon, Tara Ison, Margaret Atwood, and so many more.

But for all my education, and my editorship with a literary magazine, and my degree in English and Creative Writing… I still read Anne Rice. In fact, she might just be my very favorite person ever (not that I know her personally, but I do follow her on Facebook, so I feel like that counts… anyway).

I’m reminded of this funny thing that happened recently.

modest houseMy husband and I raised our children in a suburban neighborhood of the sprawling Phoenix Metropolitan Area. We had a modest income, and a modest house. We drove practical cars, and our kids went to public schools. There was a house of worship a half mile in any direction from our house. Our neighbors were diverse. To the east was a family of folks who spoke little English, had obnoxious barking dogs, and always had parties in the front yard instead of the back. To the south were the drug dealers. The husband rode a very noisy Harley and cut his entire lawn holding a Weedwacker in one hand and a beer in the other. His wife had no teeth and only wore a bra on Sundays. (I guess they weren’t very good drug dealers.)

We lived in that house 15 years, and our kids came up just fine.

And just a couple of months ago, we moved. Since our income has doubled, so has our mortgage and the square footage of our new house. Our new block is glorious. The neighbors all cut their grass on Wednesdays, and everyone drives a new car. There are bunnies and quail everywhere, and no one parks in their lawn.

School just started a couple weeks ago, and as I was driving past the elementary school on my way back from my morning Starbucks run, I noted that the crossing guard drives a Jaguar. A Jaguar.

This is it, I thought, we have definitely arrived. All of that hard work, education, ladder climbing, etc., has all paid off. Finally. Now we can live among the educated folk. People like us. Cultured people. People who read. If the people across the street are drug dealers, well they’re damn good ones because their kids drive BMWs.

And then I turned down our street. It was a Thursday. Blue barrel pick up day. About three houses in, out came a neighbor down his drive way, pushing his barrel out to the curb. He was wearing a pair of very snug fitting, bright red boxer briefs. His hairy belly was spilling over the waistband, and his tangled bedhead hair pointed in all directions from his unshaven face. He looked up as I drove past. Smiled.

I about choked on my chai.

But it’s okay. I’m glad I saw him. It’s a great reminder: there’s room on the block for everyone.  He cuts his grass, he parks in the garage. Maybe his wife builds rockets.

Guest Post, Darrin Doyle: The Dirty Truth About Film Adaptation

When I was in 7th grade I read Stephen King’s The Shining and it terrified me in the best possible ways. A few years later I watched Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of the novel, and it also scared the bejeezus out of me. While I probably re-read the novel again at some point (I can’t remember), I certainly re-watched the Kubrick movie numerous times in the ensuing years, reveling in the spooky music, the awesome sets, and of course Jack Nicholson’s insanely funny and disturbing performance.

Years later I heard that Stephen King himself was no fan of the Kubrick film. Apparently he found Nicholson’s scenery chewing over-the-top, and he thought the movie didn’t ground the Jack Torrence character as well as the novel did.

Even this film, which is considered one of the most successful book-to-movie adaptations – well, ever – failed to live up to the novel, at least in the author’s mind.

However, King remains in the minority. Most people agree that The Shining is one of the finest horror movies of all time. My belief is that the reason The Shining is a successful movie is because while adapting the novel, Kubrick did what any filmmaker should do: as odd as it may sound, he made a movie, not a book.

In other words, he changed the story so that it translated to the screen. He didn’t try to keep everything the same as it was in the novel. He substituted the topiary animals with a hedge maze. He changed the ending (no spoilers here). He largely skipped the backstory of Jack Torrence and let the Overlook Hotel become the star.

GodardThese days whenever a novel (or series) gets made into a big Hollywood film, I hear people mainly discussing whether or not the movie included everything from the book(s). It’s as if the movie is reduced to a visual checklist, a dumping ground for the events of the novel, and as long as it contains every major scene and keeps all of the characters, etc., then it is deemed a success. Rarely is a movie adaptation judged by its artistic merit. And if it strays from the books (such as adding female elf Tauriel to The Hobbit) then look out: the fan base may be sorely disappointed. This seems to be the tack that Stephen King took toward The Shining.

The problem is this: no film can be a novel. Plain and simple, writing and filmmaking are vastly different mediums, employing vastly different tools to tell their stories. If for instance a person wanted to adapt a painting into a dance, then quite a few creative alterations would be needed. Everyone knows that a painting isn’t a dance, but for some reason there’s a popular belief that a movie is essentially the same thing as a book. All a filmmaker needs to do is to put what’s on the page onto the screen and – voila! – a novel in pictures.

Unfortunately it’s not that simple. And unfortunately, as a teacher of fiction writing, I see all too often the effects of the belief that a movie (or a TV show, or a graphic novel) is the same thing as a novel.

At times I feel like one of those old-fashioned dolls with the pullstring on its back. Again and again during our workshops the string gets pulled and I end up saying, “Tell us what’s going on inside the character’s head. Use point-of-view to tell the story. Use summary. Use your tools.”

That’s because so often these days my students are writing a movie. By this I mean that they assume that whatever they (the writer) see in their minds, we (the reader) will see: the settings, the physical descriptions of their characters, the body language and gestures. On the page, however, the writers provide scant detail, focusing instead on dialogue. The dialogue becomes the main (and often sole) vehicle for showing character motive, backstory, conflict – for giving us the plot. These students, I’m fairly certain, are falling into this trap because it’s how movies do it; it’s what TV does.

Movies and TV, however, use dialogue because they have no other choice. Well, not no choice, but different choices. Visual media depends heavily on dialogue. However, visual media also lets us see the faces of the characters; we see them fidget with their napkins and stare distractedly into space when they’re in business meetings; we see the landscapes that the characters live in.

As writers we must create these landscapes from scratch. Our primary goal is to paint a picture, to immerse the reader in the world we want them to inhabit. And for this, we need words. Our words are our cameras; we need to use them.

Most importantly, fiction has the ability to do something that visual media cannot: It can read minds. It can inhabit a character’s psyche fully. It can probe her memories, her regrets, her desires, her insecurities. It can perform this trick moment-by-moment and line-by-line, putting the readers inside the characters, letting us inhabit them. This is a trick no movie or TV show can pull off, and it’s the reason so many adaptations of novels are ultimately unsatisfying.

As a storyteller, it’s great to draw influences from wherever you can – I’m as big of a movie buff as anyone out there. But if you want to be a writer, then the stories you should be watching . . . are books.

Guest Post, Katie Cortese: In Praise of (Short) Exercise(s)

I don’t want you to keep butting your head against the stone wall of technical problems that are beyond your present means to solve. I’ll admire anyone who does that—and gets groggily to his feet, lowers his bloody head, and runs again. But I know there’s a law of diminishing returns in such blind gallantry. I have a notion that there may be exercises which, sometimes, may point a way around or over the wall.”

R.V. Cassill, “Finger Exercises,” Writing Fiction

I’ve long believed writers are the best sitters in the game.

Sure, there are the 9-5 workers to compete with—their In-and-Out file trays neatly labeled and cubicles guarding them from distraction on three sides—but they are easily lured from their work stations with the promise of snacks in the break room, or a quick smoke out back, and we’re all familiar with the fatal pull of the water cooler.

Bus drivers are a concern, sure, but it takes muscular engagement to keep opening those accordion doors, and the long-distance ones will even exit the bus to help passengers load their luggage. When you think about them as a group, they’re not really contenders at all.

Pianists are decent, especially the composer double-threats, but even they are subject to rhythm. Behinds may not elevate from benches all too often, but all that swaying and bobbing and finger thrumming have to be stimulating oxygenation and blood flow, and even toning lats and abs and biceps. We might as well say it: composers are the athletes of the sitting class.

Writers of all genres, on the other hand, are subject to the trance-like, long-haul, two-ended-candle, sleep-is-for-the-gainfully-employed, just-one-more-page, numb-butt marathon that crafting a poem, essay, story, or novel can entail. There’s no other way to get the work done except by putting fingers to keys, backside to chair, and sticking it out. And that’s on the good days.

I’m here to talk about the bad ones. The days the words won’t flow. The days we sit and type and delete and continue to stubbornly sit, fueled by nothing stronger than blind faith and cold coffee. The days when we should give it a rest and take a walk, but don’t because deep down, in our basement selves where we’ve stashed the shoeboxes full of dried petals from our high-school-wallflower days, where the words from every journal rejection are graffitied across the walls, down in that musty, self-defeating place, we believe rest equals surrender. And whatever else we may be, quitters we are not.

We are being crazy, of course. A walk would undoubtedly help. A banana, too, and some water.

But since writing is no place for reason (at least not until we’ve entered the revision stage), and since most of us will persist in sitting, working, and agonizing over the words that refuse to scan whole and perfect from our crystalline visions to the neutral rectangle on the buzzing screen, I offer this tidbit from a recent New York Times article by Gretchen Reynolds on, of all things, exercise:

There’s very good evidence” that high-intensity interval training provides “many of the fitness benefits of prolonged endurance training but in much less time,” says Chris Jordan, the director of exercise physiology at the Human Performance Institute in Orlando, Fla.

In a rare alignment of transferable truths, exercise physiology finally has something to teach us sedentary mental gymnasts (either that, or I’ve finally grown desperate enough to listen to what the scientists have been saying for years): the antidote for those slugfest writing days is exercise. Or several. But never fear, you need not rise from your chair as you navigate to the toolbar of your word processing program and open a blank page. Below, I will suggest a few easy warm-ups, intermediate techniques, and expert maneuvers to ready you for re-entry into the writing rat race, but first, here are some benefits you can expect from setting aside 5-10 minutes a day to experiment on the page:

  • Practice Basic Skills: Feel insufficient at dialogue? Have a hard time sticking with descriptions of more than one line? Give yourself a task to deliberately stretch your writing wings, and don’t color in the lines. No one ever has to see the results, so flex every feather.
  • No Risk, Big Reward: Writing something of sustained length or complexity is always going to keep the stakes feeling high. While you may be the type not to worry about trashing a failed novel (like Pulitzer-Prize-winning novelist Paul Harding, who said in an interview with The Southeast Review: “From my point of view, it did not take any courage to pitch what I saw was a crummy book. Who wants to toil on something that obviously stinks?”), many of us would find that a hard decision. If you write a three-page exercise that never coalesces into something publishable, however, it’s no great loss of time or effort, and the great likelihood is that you discovered something in the process that will come back for you in another way.
  • Save the Scraps: Every time I meet a new challenge in life, before expressing sympathy or advice, my mother always says, “Well, it’s fodder for your writing.” Exercises can work the same way in that the material you discover there enters a storehouse of salvageable scraps to be harvested later, whether it’s a concept, character, or lovely turn of phrase. In his commentary regarding “Encounters with Unexpected Animals,” a story anthologized in the 2013 Best American Short Stories, Bret Anthony Johnston says he had “tried to get the phrase ‘a trickle of water tracking through pebbles’ into just about everything” he’s ever written. He held onto the phrase and eventually, it found a happy home.
  • Stay Loose: To return to some scientific language, you may recall from gym class—albeit reluctantly and through a haze of shame and lingering discomfort—the temporary results of “lactic acid buildup,” which causes in muscles sensations ranging from a tingling burn to a stabbing cramp that makes further exertion impossible. Stephen M. Roth over at Scientific American reveals the reason for this phenomenon: “This often painful sensation … gets us to stop overworking the body, thus forcing a recovery period in which the body clears the lactate and other metabolites.” If a long, serious, emotionally-taxing, or otherwise weighty project is cramping your writing style, an exercise can give you a necessary breather.
  • Play: The brilliant teacher and prolific writer Julianna Baggott has this to say about writers who switch genres: “… the most important thing that writing in a new genre offers the writer who’s been focused in another genre is that it takes you out of authority, lowers the stakes, and allows you to play again. The lessons come in sideways.” Short writing exercises can offer the writer of any genre, I believe, the same benefits. They offer an opportunity to set aside past accomplishments, future goals, and current projects to rediscover the joy in playing, creating, and inventing for an audience of one. If an exercise takes on a life of its own and becomes a short, long, or novel-length work, that’s an added bonus, but the main point should be learning to love the game again so you can look forward to spending all those hours—productive, frustrating, and every one of them worth it—in your chair.

A Week’s Worth of 3-Pager Prompts:

  • Go Back to the Well: There’s a reason Romeo and Juliet works in every time period from the reign of Queen Elizabeth to 1990s “Verona Beach” to a zombie-occupied post-apocalyptic nightmare-scape. Let the Bard, the brothers Grimm, or another classic word-weaver take care of the basics, but tell the tale in the way that only you can.
  • Ripped from the Headlines: If Law & Order can do it (not to mention the likes of Joyce Carol Oates), then we certainly have license to find inspiration in the dramatic doings of those around us. Pillage newspapers of all types, and scan for drama during the nightly news.
  • Found Dialogue: It’s not eavesdropping if done in the service of art. You may not want a whole conversation (most of us have pretty boring ones, filled with “ums” and “likes” and pauses), but the right tidbit can sometimes spark a whole narrative, so listen up.
  • Another Man’s Trash: Annie Proulx’s novel Accordion Crimes follows one green accordion from family to family for generations. Stephen King’s Christine is about an animate, and angry, car. Visit yard sales, flea markets, and secondhand stores to search for things—inventory items—that seem to have lives and possibilities all their own.
  • Dear John: Letter-writing is almost as old as old as written language itself, and one of the first proto-novels, Samuel Richardson’s Pamela, was composed in epistolary form. All you need are two characters, at least one of whom has something to say to the other.
  • Mission Impossible: Don’t limit yourself to writing within the bounds of what we know (or think we know) to be physically possible. Write a piece featuring an extraordinary event.
  • Horse’s Mouth: This one requires abdicating your writing chair for an hour or so. Take yourself somewhere you’re likely to find experts in a field you’re unfamiliar with, and talk with them about their industry (it may be necessary to set up an appointment prior to your visit). What does it take to become a cobbler/rancher/carnie/auctioneer/botanist/chef? Write about a person in that profession, or an issue connected to it.

Additional Resources:

Check out these programs and sourcebooks for even more exercises that will spur your writing forward and help you rediscover a love of your craft. Many of them are focused on fiction-writing, but with a little imagination can be applied to nonfiction and poetry as well. I hope you find some of them useful, and in the meantime, I wish you courage, persistence, joy, and a comfortable chair!

Guest Blog Post, Brian Ted Jones: Second Grammar

Brian Ted Jones1.

One of the greatest teachers of literature I ever had was a mathematician named Michael Comenetz.  A spare-bodied man with a close white beard and a brown, bald head, Mr. Comenetz (who still teaches at my college, St. John’s in Annapolis) sort of resembles Don Quijote in looks, though in spirit he has more in common with Cervantes–patient and thoughtful, gentlemanly, with those subtly glittering eyes you see in people who are both very wise and very funny.  Mr. Comenetz once interrupted a discussion, I think it was on Homeric heroism, by whistling the theme from High Noon, until all of us fell silent, one by one.  At my college, seniors must read a good chunk of Marx in the late spring; if you have Mr. Comenetz for this, he will insist that your whole class sing a rousing rendition of The Internationale.  There is a fragment of Heraclitus’s which puns on the Greek word bios, a word which can mean both “life” and “bow” (Guy Davenport translates it, “A bow is alive only when it kills.”); after reading this fragment, Mr. Comenetz asked that we at least try, to create, in English, a similar pun out of the many homonyms attached to the spelling “bow.”  We were wildly unsuccessful, but of course success didn’t matter to Mr. Comenetz’s method.  He was challenging us to engage with high culture at the most playful level possible.  He is, himself, a supreme technician of letters (he writes an excellent blog; you can read it here), but one who understands that literature, even great literature, is nothing but a chest of toys.  He co-authored a translation of Paul Valery’s The Graveyard by the Sea, and was the first person I ever heard tell that joke about Vassar girls, the one where they’re laid end to end, and no one is surprised.

Well, so one day, Mr. Comenetz gave an informal talk on the subject “Maps and Similes.”  A map, after all, is a simile of the world, or a small part of it.  (See, e.g., the Eschaton episode from Infinite Jest, where catastrophe breaks loose because one player ruthlessly lobs a ball at another, misunderstanding that the player’s body is not the coalition of countries she represents, but rather that coalition’s presence on the map, a simile for it.)

I asked Mr. Comenetz, “Why similes? Why not metaphors?”  His answer was something like this:

“Well, I don’t really trust metaphors.  They are necessarily untrue, aren’t they?  Saying this is this?  Of course it isn’t.  This is like this, sure.  But the servant’s brow is not a moody frontier.  King Edward hasn’t actually sped up the seasons, and made summer out of winter.  There’s a kind of preposterousness, you see, at work in every metaphor . . .”

2.

All apprentice writers struggle with finding their “voice.”  By voice, I think we mean the peculiar stamp that separates my writing from yours, and yours from hers, and hers from his; in other words, it’s one of those Potter Stewart-type things:  hard to define, but you know it when you see it.

Contrarily, one of the quickest ways to tell that a writer isn’t ready yet–that he or she still needs work–is when the writing can’t be separated out from the writing of others.  I see on the Twitter the complaints of people (slushpile trusties, for the most part) who are seeing page after page of transparent imitation:  lots of Cormac McCarthy wannabes, I hear; even a few Tao Lin apers, for reasons passing understanding.

To these writers, I could not be more sympathetic.  My earliest serious attempts at fiction-writing were themselves parrotings of Cormac McCarthy that would curl your toes.  Here, let me show you:

The young man’s steady, rhythmic cries were the dominant sound in the room, as if he held the floor in a parliament of grief.  Steadily those of his wife seeped in, filling the spaces between his with her coarse, dynamic sobs.  The man’s cries like grunts and the woman’s like moans, the silence of the elders surrounding and supporting them like as the cold bleak of space to a chaotic and liferidden planet.

Ye gods:  “like as the cold bleak of space”?  “a chaotic and liferidden planet”?

In my defense, however, this is how it gets done.  Remember in Finding Forrester, how Sean Connery jumpstarts the young guy’s writing by having him re-type one of his (Sean’s) old essays?  We’re all doing that, in the beginning.  We imitate writers in order to learn.  Hunter Thompson used to copy out lines from Gatsby on his typewriter.  He wanted to feel the rhythm of those words, as they came out, letter by letter; he wanted to know how it felt to have prose like that jump into being, underneath his own fingers.

This is natural, this is what John Cheever called “the parturition of a writer.”  Each apprentice takes bits and pieces of the masters and builds up a kind of jury-rigged scaffolding, like one of those wobbly towers made of pianos and bird cages you see in old cartoons.  You can reach a nice altitude on something like that, but it’s treacherous.  To create good and original prose, one needs sturdier footing.

3.

Mr. Comenetz’s preference for simile over metaphor is idiosyncratic, reasoned, hard to argue with, and slightly, just slightly, insane.  If one is abandoning metaphor because all metaphors are preposterous lies, then one must abandon all fiction, if one means to be consistent.  Clearly, Mr. Comenetz didn’t mean for his point to go that far.

This preference of his, however, is a perfect example of the little stylistic choices a writer must make, the scruples of taste she must develop, in order to gain a voice.  In short, I think a writer’s voice is simply what happens when he or she applies private rules–a kind of second grammar.

It will be easier to elaborate if I give an example from my own private rules.  Me, I adhere as strictly as I can to the common notions of spelling and punctuation.  This wasn’t always the case with me.  Back when I was drunk on McCarthy, I slammed words together and ditched quotation marks all day long.  This was not a stylistic choice, however; this was not the application of my own private rules.  I had not worked through any process like the one by which McCarthy decided to use enjambment-coinages like “scabbedover” and “rubymeated,” and neither did I have any good reason to leave off punctuation marks.  I was imitating, superficially.  I wasn’t getting past the appearances to find the solid form beneath, and that was fine:  I hadn’t earned that yet.  I hadn’t done enough reading or enough writing to earn that.  By the time I had, though, I’d learned an important truth about myself:  I need as much structure as I can get.  I need the safety of it.  I’m not a tightrope walker:  I take hiiigh steps anytime I get off an escalator.

And it hardly needs to be said, but my way is not your way, nor should it be.  Faulkner, for instance, was a tightrope walker.  Lord only knows what that man thought this thing “;–” meant, but he used it all the time.  If that’s your way, too, then you’re in good company.  I do think these choices should be deliberately made, though, and the reasoning behind them should be both sound and personal.  It’s not enough to abandon traditional punctuation merely out of homage–the choice must be original, and guy-lined by the writer’s personal vision.  Faulkner, I think, did it because he sensed a great fracture in the world, a brokenness, an incommensurability between truth and regulated description.  It won’t cut the mustard to do the same thing just because it strikes you as cool (which, if I’m being honest, is why I did it).

4.

The more one reads, the more one sees these little rules, these underlying knowledges, at work in all the great writers.  Charles Portis, like Jerry Seinfeld, works clean:  you’ll find very few curse words in his books.  Portis also seems to think that any time two characters are talking, they might as well be fighting.  This is not a bad rule to test out, in your own work.  Alice Munro nearly always tells you what her characters look like, but not always the first time you meet them.  There is a great insight into the manipulability of the short story in this; it displays a powerful understanding of how the mind and heart meet imaginary people, and of how an invented person comes to be cared for by readers.  Stephen King hardly ever lets his narrative voice depart from that of The Friendly Co-worker, the kind of guy who’s quick with an easy joke or a breezy bit of small talk; this is powerfully American of him, and when future generations want to know how the post-World War II middle-class talked to itself, they will miss the mark wildly if they don’t consider King.

Here’s a question:  What’s the point of writing fiction if another medium could serve your material just as well, if not better?  It’s a critical concern for all of us, and I think the answer to that question is one of the rules that guided David Foster Wallace in his writing.  I don’t think he ever wanted to do something that a filmmaker, showrunner, painter, or musician could do, too.

E.g., when Wallace employs long block paragraphs of narration, with a rotating perspective, he’s doing something it’s impossible to do except in fiction:  he is creating a slow-motion, extreme close-up, Altmanesque crowd scene.  Re-read the final locker room segment from Infinite Jest (20 Nov. Y.D.A.U.).  Ironically, when all those characters are tossed into long paragraphs together, jumbled up in that big wall of text, we can see more vividly each of the little things they’re all doing.  Wallace starts with a packed room and moves closer; he takes small character movements–each one a part of a sequence, each sequence a little story all of its own–and makes each of those movements central and enormous for the length of a phrase or a sentence; he goes from one character to another, to another, to another, then moves back.  The effect is a rigorous re-mapping of life into narrative, and it just can’t be done any other way.  You’d have to paint some huge Boschian canvas and then animate each character as it acted out its own peculiar torment, or whatever.  Even then, the artist would have no control over sequencing; and with a canvas large enough to present sufficient detail, a debilitating physical distance would arise between the viewer and large parts of the painting:  one might see the lower third fine, but the middle third poorly–and the top third hardly at all.  Even Altman couldn’t do something that Altmanesque, because time in a movie, at least in a scene like that, has to move at normal speed–you miss things when you can’t slow down, re-read, when your eyes have to dart all over the screen to keep up with what’s happening.  Fiction has limitations cinema doesn’t–as McCarthy noted in conversation with the Coen brothers (published in Time, but only available to subscribers), you sort of have to believe what you see on a screen, because you see it; that’s not at all true of what you read on a page, so problems of belief-suspension are trickier for fiction writers than for filmmakers.  Of course this cuts both ways, and a movie could never cooperate with a mind as intimately as a page of prose can–the stops, the re-do’s, the run-backs, the skips-forward:  all these little tools a reader can wield when breaking down a text are exclusive to the form.  (And thank God, because writing needs all the help it can get.)

5.

A breakthrough has to come before imitation gives way to real influence.  There have been plenty of young writers–God bless them–who’ve gotten drunk on DFW, the way I got drunk on McCarthy.  Y’all on slush detail know who they are, from the footnotes and the ambitious vocabulary, to the funky little tri-particle transitionals, (“and then so” “but so then” “so now but”), that Wallace was so fond of and used so well.  And like I said, that’s fine, that’s normal–it’s like kissing poorly the first few times you do it.

Perhaps that’s the correct metaphor for an apprentice writer copying a master:  a person who’s never kissed before making out with an accomplished osculator; there will be learning done, but it will be of limited general utility.  Everyone else is going to be different, because kissing means different things to different people.  Until a person understands what kissing means to them, they won’t be able to share that meaning with anyone else; nor will they be able to find out if what kissing means to another person matches what it means to them.

This is a small model for how the writer learns the craft, because it’s a question of learning why the craft matters.  You copy the work of others, trying to see what it meant to them, until you’ve learned what it might could mean to you.  And even then, you aren’t complete.  You need what Franzen calls material, what Updike called his assignment.  And that is a discussion for another day.

Still, it’s possible that learning what rules one wishes to apply to one’s material–the process, I’ve argued, of finding one’s voice–is a journey that goes hand in hand with learning why you want to write in the first place.  Both these things are part of the larger project that all human beings are engaged in, of seeking to know ourselves.  In Barry Hannah’s great conversation with Wells Tower (published by The Believer; you can read it here), Hannah says a thing you don’t often hear said about writers:  that they are, for the most part, good people.  Sure, some of us are jackasses, but Tower has to agree with Hannah, remembering that there’s a humility which gets beaten into your head, when you’re working at becoming a writer.  From humility, goodness tends to follow.

The crushing humiliation of straining your soul, over and over again, only to produce hundreds of dog-gagging sentences (“like as the cold bleak of space to a chaotic and liferidden planet”) is the gauntlet you must run before you can become a better writer.  It is possible, let us hope it is possible, that this and everything else you go through might also, in the end, make you a better person.

Guest Blog Post, Elane Johnson: So You Want to Be a Writer…

Elane JohnsonI was destined to write. My grandmother always told me I’d be a writer, and she had an uncanny ability to see the future. She said, “If you clown around in those roller skates and fall down on that rough pavement and scrape your knees, you’re getting no sympathy from me.” And it happened exactly the way she predicted. (I’d just like to know where she was with her front-porch-rocking-chair advice when I really needed it? Like, “If you marry that idiot you’ve only known two months, it will turn out bad.” Stuff like that, I could’ve used.)

After years and years of Mama’s reverberating prognostication, I tiptoed gingerly to the edge of the cliff of artists’ angst and submitted my first piece for publication. Of course, she proved to be an accurate soothsayer yet again when I was the first nine-year-old to have a poem published in The Daily Sun. Unfortunately, at forty-three, I’d yet to have my second piece accepted for print. So I decided to sail head-first and backwards off that damned cliff and get an MFA in Creative Writing. Since then, I’ve started my own irreverent blog, Blu-hoo, and I’ve had a few pieces published. Mostly for free.

Look. I’m the last one to burst your bubble, but let me tell you: Get a day job. Unless you’re independently wealthy, you’ll have to have another source of income because writing doesn’t pay all that well. Yes, the enormous success of some first-time writers is enticing. But for every J.K. Rowling, Stephenie Meyer or E L James, there’re thousands of writers toiling to get noticed. One thing I’ve discovered is that dreaming about writing doesn’t make it happen. It’s hard work unless you are a celebrity or a statesman. However, there are things you can do to improve your chances for success.

Write. A lot. While it may seem impossible to squeeze one more second out of your compacted day, sleep is really overrated. Write instead.

Bone up on your grammatical skills. As Stephen King posited in On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, the most brilliant guide to the art of writing ever, “Grammar is not just a pain in the ass; it’s the pole you grab to get your thoughts up on their feet and walking” (114). No one wants to read error-filled drivel. And for heaven’s sake, capitalize the personal pronoun I, or somebody’s going to get hurt.

Read. For example, since I write primarily creative non-fiction, I’ve read a slew of memoirs to determine things that work and things that don’t. I love Haven Kimmel’s memoir, A Girl Named Zippy, so much that if the state of Indiana allowed matrimony between people and inanimate objects, I’d marry it. (Since the state currently doesn’t recognize unions between people with identical 23rd chromosome pairs, I don’t hold out much hope.) Reading Haven is like listening to her talk. She creates metaphors so stunning you want to poke your eyes out with a hot fireplace tool, but her cadence is easy like an hour on a front-porch swing. Augusten Burroughs, master memoirist, also employs a believable conversational tone that makes you feel like you’re sitting right next to him—comparing hardships—in some wino-breath-scented dive while your own vomit chunks flake off your shirt. When you read exceptional writing, you learn to emulate your role-models.

Get followed. Unless you have a substantial Twitter/FaceBook/Tumblr/Pinterest following, it’s hard to pique a publisher’s interest anymore. If you already have a fan-base, you’ve got an advantage. But. You still have to be able to write. And write well. Be fresh. Exciting. Create magic.

It’s also helpful if you’re able to divine “the next big thing,” so that your writing will ride the wave of whatever is popular. Fortunately, topics tend to be cyclical, so by my calculations, it’ll be 63 billion years before vampires are hot again.

If all else fails, become a celebrity. Shoot. If Honey Boo Boo can do it, so can you.

Honey Boo Boo

Reference

King, S. (2000). On writing: A memoir of the craft. New York: Pocket Books.

 

You can read Elane Johnson’s word essay in issue 6 of SR.

Guest Blog Post, Anthony Varallo: Read Elsewhere

Anthony E VaralloIs there a better book than the book read elsewhere? Why are so many of the books I remember best strangely wrapped up in my sense of having read them elsewhere, away, far from home, outside the classroom, or miles from my bedside nightstand, where all those books I’ve been meaning to read—books I will likely read there, before sleep and not nearly elsewhere—lie unread?

For me, Stephen King’s Pet Sematary will always be the Book I Read on a Paddleboat, when I was 13 years old and staying at my aunt’s house in the Pocono Mountains. My aunt owned a house on a lake, and permitted my friend, cousin and I the use of a red paddleboat we had to unmoor from a dock slick with the splashes of kids in lifejackets, the boat always on the verge of sinking, or so we joked. The three of us would paddle to the center of the lake and read the books we’d purchased on the drive in, at a bookstore shaped like a log cabin, all mass market paperbacks, Dean Koontz, Louis L’Amour, and of course Stephen King. I chose Pet Sematary because it had the scariest cover, and because Stephen King had blurbed it himself as a book so scary it terrified him while he was writing it, and who wouldn’t want to read a book like that? My memory of that book is of a child getting hit by a truck while speedboats and water skiers sent our paddleboat rocking in their wake.

Rabbit, Run is the book I read while studying abroad in London, the book purchased the moment before I’d run out of money and was feeling homesick for Delaware, my unremarkable and not terribly literary home state, which, in the opening pages of Updike’s novel, is only a few minutes away from Brewer, Pennsylvania, where Rabbit Angstrom works a bad job, argues with his wife, and recalls his days of basketball glory. I remember reading the book in our student flat at the top of a stairway that led to a rooftop we were forbidden to explore—hidden away—as Rabbit, in the opening chapter, goes on a solo drive through Pennsylvania, taking a series of turns that nearly takes him to Delaware. I turned the pages, thinking Rabbit was surely about to pull up in my driveway.

I read The Old Man and the Sea while staying at a friend of a friend’s house in Connecticut, part of some road trip I took the summer before I left for college. I’d been put in the guest bedroom, which had a twin bed and a desk with a bookshelf on top: I’d always meant to read The Old Man and the Sea, but had never gotten around to it, and was always sort of afraid that someone would ask me if I had read it—you mean you haven’t read The Old Man and the Sea?—and part of the pleasure of reading it now was my realization that no one would see me taking it down from the shelf each night and hence would never know that I’d just read it in the span of a weekend, and could now answer yes if anyone asked me about The Old Man and the Sea, a power I now felt I held in reserve, at the ready.

I’m traveling again in March: I will have to pack some of those bedside books, the ones I’ve been putting off forever, so that they might be read elsewhere.