Guest Post, David Meischen: Hiding in Plain Sight

Hiding in Plain Sight: How Ambient Noise and Clutter Feed a Story


Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf poster“Clink. Clink.”

We’ve spent an hour and a half with them at this point, with repeated eruptions—Martha savaging her husband, George setting off timed explosions from his store of resentments. Then suddenly: the voices go silent, no sign of George and Martha, of Nick and Honey, the bested guests. Moonlight through tree branches, a yard we see from above, as if from a bedroom window. In the background, stringed instruments, serene. Then Martha’s voice calling for the others and, before Elizabeth Taylor appears onscreen, the sound of ice cubes in her drink, something we’ve been hearing since the opening scene: director Mike Nichols’ brilliant use of ambient noise.

The dialogue dazzles, of course, thanks to Edward Albee, in this case so perfectly delivered that sometimes as I watch “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”—at least a dozen times I’ve indulged the pleasure of this viewing—I take the words, the execution, for granted and marvel at what the director is doing to riff on what the words are getting at. In the scene referenced above, I am not surprised to hear ice cubes clinking before the camera reaches Martha, meandering drunkenly across the yard to her car. The camera has not followed the station wagon here from the foursome’s drunken dancing excursion, but it feels as if we’ve seen the inebriate braking—front tires up over the curb at an angle so that the vehicle lists slightly, passenger-side turn signal winking, winking, winking, rear passenger door flopped open. Nichols doesn’t waste the turn signal. Martha staggers around the car, opens the driver’s door, reaches in, and the turn signals wink back and forth between each other before they blink out. Martha wanders the yard, then, calling out intermittently, her drink glass clinking the while. Finally, the screenplay gives a nod to what the director is doing: Martha says, “Clink. Clink.”


I recommend “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” to fiction writers. Consider it a tutorial in the uses of your characters’ environment, the details of their surroundings—indoor clutter, appliances, items of food and drink, features of the outdoor landscape, sounds so common (clinking ice cubes, anyone?) a writer might overlook them, and so forth. Always in this film there are things for George and Martha and Nick and Honey to do while they speak the language of wreckage.

In what is for me the funniest moment, Elizabeth Taylor leans into a cluttered refrigerator, opened by Richard Burton, grabs a drumstick from a platter of chicken sitting inside uncovered, grabs a salt shaker from the messy table Burton is clearing, salts and devours her piece of chicken, her mouth open as she chews, talking around mouthfuls. Then the perfect capstone: Taylor returns to the refrigerator, still open, tosses the chicken bone onto the same platter, and shuts the door, all without pausing in her run-on monologue about a movie Martha can’t remember the title of. We see a woman, her husband, their relationship, their way of life here. If you didn’t know a word of English, the details would tell you all you need to know.


A decade ago, I took a weekend fiction workshop with Daniel Mueller, author of the stunning short story collection How Animals Mate. Our focus was landscape, Mueller’s mantra:

Let the landscape of your story tell your story.

If a story stalls, look around. Something in your story’s landscape, its environment, will get it moving again.

As an exercise, Mueller asked participants to picture an odd item, oddly out of place in its setting. We went around the workshop table then, each participant volunteering such an item, all of us recording the items on our own list. Our assignment was to select an out-of-place item from the list and write a scene for it.

I chose a wristwatch buckled to the branch of a tree. I already had fragments for a story about a boy named Berndt whose father has committed suicide. For Daniel’s assignment, I imagined that Berndt’s father had taken off his watch on the morning of his suicide and buckled it to a mesquite tree branch before slashing his wrists. The scene I wrote was set several weeks later. Berndt is on his way to feed pigs on the family farm, when morning sun flashes off the crystal of his deceased father’s missing watch. Berndt unfastens the watch and beats it against the mesquite trunk until the crystal smashes, crying and cursing his father. This scene became the closing scene in a story about a mysterious watch and the riddle of a father who owned it. My challenge was to make the watch real and then to build a story around it, leading to the father’s suicide and his son’s subsequent discovery of the watch buckled to a tree.

What might have been peripheral, unimportant, became the story’s vehicle. The story of a watch becomes the story of a difficult father. A son puzzling over the watch itself provides a way of expressing an inner life that is not accessible to or expressible by the son himself. I loved writing this story, loved unfurling the watch’s story, letting the watch carry the bigger story of son and father. Unanswered questions about the watch stand in for unanswered questions about the father. The discovery of the watch, in the closing scene, provides a believable stimulus, without sentimentality, for the protagonist’s anger, his grief. When I was done, the watch even provided a title, “Center Wheel, Balance Wheel, Escape Wheel” (available at Prime Number).


This approach carries one of my first published stories, “In the Garden,” online right here at Superstition Review. A husband and wife converse over breakfast in their backyard. By increments, without intending to, they say things that can’t be taken back, irreparably damaging their marriage. Talking heads cannot carry a short story, at least not one I am capable of writing, so early on, a mockingbird sings out from a live oak near the breakfast table. Then the household tomcat slinks in from the creek. Turns out his name is Tyger, which opens a window onto the protagonist and his wife. The yard has room for a tomato garden, the wife’s—and a pesky squirrel hanging out among the cages. A newspaper at center table has a photo of Ronald Reagan above the fold, spurring an exchange that gives away the year—1982—when the husband says, “Look on the bright side. Two more years and we’ll vote him out.” The husband has a bit of a thing for his best friend; the wife suspects as much. This is a breakfast just for two, though—no reason for the best friend to drop by. Except then a repairman arrives to address hail damage on the roof. Wife notices that husband has noticed the repairman. Both turn at the sound of the repairman’s hammer. Then this: “A patch of sweat, like the map of a harbor Blake wanted to explore, darkened the blue of the man’s shirt in the space between his shoulder blades.” And so it goes. The conflict reaches a peak vicariously, when the mockingbird dive-bombs the squirrel and the cat leaps at the bird’s sudden accessibility.


Ambient noise is my personal catchall for the material stuff, auditory and non-, that surrounds us, often without our notice, the material stuff upon which we can launch credible and engaging stories. This “noise” includes any and all sensory details, any and all physical aspects of the landscape, any and all items at hand in your characters’ environs. A caveat, though. Ambient noise is not a fiction writer’s sole tool. A story can overwhelm itself and its readers with this kind of detail. Nothing impedes narrative momentum like a margin-to-margin thicket of details. Nothing is more tedious.


Watch “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” Let yourself revel in the many ways by which the characters interact with facets of their environment—ice cubes, drink glasses, liquor bottles, cigarettes, a platter of fried chicken, a child’s swing hanging in the tree outside, door chimes, a chain lock on the front door. . . .

Read good stories. Here I’ll mention only two—and very short. In “Say Yes” by Tobias Wolff, a husband and wife wash dishes and prepare for bed. That’s it. But the meandering path of talk over dishes leads this couple into a hypothetical question about mixed-race dating, with an answer that changes everything. A younger couple, five years married, figures at the center of “The Girls in Their Summer Dresses” by Irwin Shaw. As they walk New York City on a lovely day, the wife catches the husband more than once distracted by the girls of the title passing by on the street. Questions lead to defensive answers, and as in “Say Yes,” things are said that cannot be taken back, that change everything between man and wife.

Immerse yourself in the quiet noise of Wolff’s story, in the vibrant noises of Irwin’s city walk. Then settle into the noises that will tell your next story.


Editor’s Note: David served as co-editor of Wingbeats and Wingbeats II, collections of poetry writing exercises from Dos Gatos Press.

Guest Blog Post, David Meischen: Trusted Others and the Editor’s Eye

David MeischenOne morning about a decade ago, I sat down to recreate a summer day in my adolescence when my brothers and I built a fire to burn the body of a dead cow. Memory, creative energy, and whatever skill I could muster came together, and when I handed the resulting poem to my partner Scott Wiggerman, I felt that I had something. Scott lopped off the first dozen lines, called them a running start, and told me the poem started with line thirteen. I didn’t want to hear this. I was invested in the lines he suggested cutting; I wanted to keep them.

Luckily, though, I had learned to listen, even when I’d rather not. As I read and re-read my draft, I saw a kind of expository tedium in the lines Scott thought I could do without:

The Red Cow lay down beneath a tree
one summer day at noon and couldn’t get
back up again. Boys will be boys: we poked
at her with sticks. But her legs had quit.
For the hours left to her she would not move
from the dusty shade beneath this tree.
She didn’t try to, didn’t flinch . . .

By contrast, I could hear strength and confidence and momentum in the lines Scott said should open the poem:

Even our names for the cows who gave us
calves for sale and slaughter, who gave us milk
and cream and butter, who quit mooing soon enough
when we weaned their calves away from them—
even our names for them were blunt
and uninspired, unmarked by attachments
of the heart. The Red Cow, the Little Cow,
Brindle. We called one of them the New Cow
for fifteen years. And by the summer the Red Cow
lay down beneath the tree at noon and failed
to get back up again to graze among the others,
she was very old . . .

Scott was right: these lines know where they’re going. I cut the first dozen lines and went to work on the rest. The poem’s closing had a bothersome hint of sentimentality; I mused over that until I came to an image that closed the poem more effectively. I gave the poem a title: “Fire at Midsummer.”

Laurie Kutchins, a remarkable poet and my workshop director at the 2003 Taos Summer Writers’ Conference, looked over a packet of my work, singled out the cow poem, and suggested I send it to The Southern Review. I spent weeks selecting and refining four additional poems to go with “Fire at Midsummer” and sent the batch off. The Southern Review took the cow poem. It was published in the summer 2004 issue.

I tell this story here because I know that trusted others are essential to the continuing development of the editor’s eye, that the editor’s eye is as important to a writer as whatever propels each of us to put words on paper to begin with. I have called out Scott by name. Let me mention others: Debra Monroe, Twister Marquiss, Kirk Wilson, Stacy Muszynski, Gary Cooke. Debra was my professor and thesis advisor. Twister is a friend who shares my passion for well-crafted fiction. Kirk, Stacy, and Gary are members of a writing group that has perfect editorial chemistry.

Before I go any further, let me say a few words about trust. I have named the writers named above because their vision of poetry and fiction, as well as their skills as editors, intersect nicely with mine—also because without fail each is the kind of person who can be honest and decent, blunt and positive, all in the same breath. I need that. I think we all do. Cheerleaders are useless to the development of a writer’s skill, as are naysayers. About the former: we learn nothing from unadulterated praise. Personally I don’t trust it. I suspect a cheerleader editor of being insincere, of not doing the hard work of reading like an editor. As for hatchet carriers: do not show them even a line of your writing. The human psyche shuts down under meanness, even disguised as “helpful” criticism.

But what can I learn from trusted others? What can they do for my writing that I can’t do for myself?

My answer is twofold:

1. They help me get out of my own head. They help me see what hypothetical future readers might bring to the page. I confess that I want to see my stories published. I want them read. I want them praised. My trusted others help me see how that might be possible.

2. They refine my internal editor’s eye—so that when I draft a new story, when I plunge into revision, I bring new energy, new skill, new perspective to the process. This takes commitment, of course, but if I pay attention, if I think about what my trusted readers say to me I am rewarded with the invaluable prize of editorial distance from my own words.

I rely on trusted others to know me as a writer, to show me where a poem or story might go, to help me rein in a tendency to wordiness that I will carry with me to my grave. About the word might. Don’t show your work to others unless you have a strong sense of yourself as a writer, a confident vision of whatever you put before them, an understanding that you will weigh the editorial suggestions put before you, that you will decide whether a might becomes a must be.

When Debra Monroe reads one of my stories, for example, she is likely to mark it as would a line editor, placing brackets around words and phrases that might be left out. Debra knows me. She knows that I want to try out the available possibilities for conciseness. She knows I’m not going to chop everything she brackets—because the result would be a stilted mess, reading not like my work or hers but like butchery. That said, recently Debra read a 1900-word story that was near final form. By closely examining her line edits, I was able to shorten the story by 200 words—and improve its momentum, its tension, its music if you will.

Debra is also one of my best readers for hidden potential. Last year, I handed her a story I’d revised several times over several years, each time with the nagging feeling that something was missing. “Agua Dulce” was a very short piece, focusing on a young girl’s first sexual experience in a dry creek bed in South Texas. Other readers had taken the story’s time frame as a given—opening with the protagonist on a bridge in the moonlight, watching the approaching headlights on her boyfriend’s car, and closing the next morning, when she steps out of the creek bed and onto the road by the bridge where the story began. Debra said no, this story isn’t finished. She asked what if the protagonist arrives back at the bridge just as her school bus drives by? What if the bus stops and kids on the bus taunt her? What if, when she arrives home, her boyfriend is there, trying to soften the impact of her overnight absence? These questions lit a fire under me. I wrote both scenes and sent the story out. It won the 2012 Talking Writing Prize for Short Fiction.

This work with trusted others is like dancing. Sometimes it goes smoothly, and sometimes feet get stepped on. A recent story went first to Scott, who suggested only minor edits, then to Kirk, Stacy, and Gary, who identified flaws in characterization, as well as a key plot turn that simply wasn’t credible with them. I revised and sent the story to Debra, who suggested a scene in which the protagonist acts on his attraction to one of the other characters. I wrote that episode, but the explicit sex struck me as cheesy. I handed it to Scott again, and he agreed with me. I’ve since written a near-final version that leaves out the sex but makes the attraction more palpable than in earlier versions. If time allows, the story will go to Twister, who has an amazing ear for repetition, for helping me to hear felicitous—and jarring—echoes in my work.

I have a great deal of fun with this process. Odd word here, fun. But I love revision. I love stories. I love the dance that leads to a good one—the give and take between writer and trusted editors, between the energy that leads me to the page and the inner eye that looks back over it and says you can do better. And the process is reciprocal. Scott and I, Debra and I, Twister and I exchange work. Kirk, Stacy, Gary and I take turns submitting stories. As they read me and I read them, we become better readers of each other’s work and better writers of our own. As Debra said recently, quoting Malebranche, “We are not our own light.”

When you find trusted others for your writing, cultivate them. Editorial relationships have worked out very well for me. Take Scott Wiggerman, the poet who reads my work and asks me to read his. I married him last week. We didn’t write editing into our vows, but I think it was implied.


Editor’s note: David’s story, In the Garden, appears in s[r] Issue 7:

David also served as co-editor of Wingbeats: Exercises and Practice in Poetry, an August 2011 release from Dos Gatos Press.