Guest Post, Doug Cornett: Shut Up and Walk

Portland skylineI teach 11th grade English at a high school located in downtown Portland, Oregon. I see my students every day, and as you might imagine, I have my ups and downs. Some days, when the lesson plan is solid and I’m properly caffeinated, I feel like I’m nailing it. The conversation is great, kids are forming opinions and getting passionate about the subject matter, and any minute my trophy will arrive for teacher of the year. But other times, I can’t help but wonder why somebody hasn’t come along and yanked me off the stage already.

I do a lot of talking to the students, and in turn the students do a lot of talking with me and with each other. Mostly, we talk about literature and writing. Stuff like tone, character, plot structure, symbolism, the works. How we feel about the characters. How we feel about the author. How we suspect the author might want us to feel about the characters. I really do love it, and I consider myself incredibly lucky that I get to have these conversations all the time with people who are engaged and informed and excited to learn.

But when it comes to writing, there’s a limit to the value of talking. At a certain point, I truly believe, you have to shut up and listen, and not just to other people, but to the world itself.

So on one particular afternoon, when I saw that the conversation was dragging, the eyelids were getting heavy, and the post-lunch yawns were on the creep, I decided that it was no longer time to yap. It was time to take a walk, as a class, around the neighborhood.

Before we set out, I laid down the rules. No talking. No cell phones. Avoid forms of nonverbal communication with each other (e.g. poking, tripping, massaging, mouthing curse words, etc.). We were going to shut up and walk, taking note of anything that we might come across. This, I hoped, was going to be an important lesson on writing.

A few nightmare scenarios ran through my mind just as we set out. The sky might suddenly open up and cast down rain, hail, lightning, brimstone, etc. upon us, sending my tightly organized and mindful class into a frenzied, save-your-own-ass stampede. One of the many disenfranchised individuals camping on the street might decide it’s the right time to take issue with my face. A student might get so absorbed in the present moment that she wanders into the middle of traffic. Or, more realistically, the whole thing will feel weird and just…kind of silly.

But there we were, walking out of the school building and onto the busy sidewalk. We made our way through the city streets silently, a slow-moving mass emitting no sounds except maybe the rhythmic pads and clicks of our shoes against the pavement. On the first block, we carried with us a kind of shrugging sheepishness; we’d pass by people and greet their puzzled expressions with half-smiles, all too aware of our unusual noiselessness. This was a new thing, to simply observe without the distraction of conversation or the filter of a Spotify playlist or podcast in our earbuds. It felt awkward.

Gradually, we settled into it. It’s a totally bizarre and worthwhile feeling to move in a silent group. You feel calm, reflective, but also sort of badass. Based on their quizzical expressions, the people we passed by on the street were unnerved by us. How often do you see a group of 20 teenagers just walking? Not talking, not looking at their phones. Just walking. Were we some kind of cult?

As we waited for the walk signal at an intersection, a blue BMW with tinted windows boomed and rattled past us. From its slightly cracked windows blasted UB40’s “Red, Red Wine.” The car’s presence was enormous. We resisted the immediate urges to laugh, dance, sing along, or scoff. Instead, we just watched as it trundled down the avenue, rippling its effects across the afternoon.

When you’re doing nothing but observing, every movement in the world becomes a story, and every image becomes a composition: construction workers framed by the cubic bones of an unfinished apartment building; the catch and release of cars at a four-way intersection; the violent hock-hock-spit of a red-faced jogger. And, to me at least, an ineffable humor becomes apparent. From a detached eye, the disparate elements of an urban street corner can come together in a cosmic and gentle punchline.

Now, in full disclosure, I have no idea what my students felt about this exercise. I kind of lost track of time, and when we finally arrived back to the classroom the period was just ending. I dismissed the students with a thank you and a nod. Maybe some of them were wondering why we just wasted fifteen minutes of class time. Maybe some of them were just happy to get outside for a little bit. But I prefer to think that a few of them, at least, were genuinely moved by the experience. Maybe they saw the same old neighborhood with a completely new perspective. And that is as good a place as any to begin writing.

Guest Post, Doug Cornett: The Reader Who Knew Too Much

What is perhaps most admirable about the thriller genre is its unwavering devotion to the Almighty Plot. Things are going to happen, damn it, whether we are ready for them or not. Chekhov famously insisted that if a gun is introduced in a story, it must go off. James Patterson might update the rule as such: if an illicit arms deal is set up, it must be botched, an unknown third-party must be tipped off, and the s.o.b.’s responsible must pay for it with blood. In either case, closure must be achieved and expectations must be satisfied. For the thriller reader, unanswered questions are lepers to be banished. A loose end is the unseemly uncle to be covertly photo-shopped out of the family portrait.

The Third ManAfter all, while thriller readers may want to travel to another world that bares only the most superficial of resemblances to our own, we also want to return from it. To do this, we must be properly guided through a compelling and plausible (that is, plausible within the world of the particular story) sequence of events, and eventually be deposited back where we began, all questions answered. Uncertainty, to the extent it is allowed in a thriller, is primarily a plot device. We are uncertain who sent the ransom note, but you better believe we’ll find out.

In literary fiction, however, uncertainty is coveted like your neighbor’s better-manicured lawn. Answers? Don’t insult us. We readers desperately need to not know things. We don’t mind if plot has to wait in the car while characterization, theme, and irony conduct business inside, because we like to speculate on everything that’s happening. Please, put us to work.

Take Herman Melville’s classically stymieing “Bartleby, The Scrivener,” for instance. The title character “prefers not” to do his job, or leave the business once he is fired, or sleep, or live at all. As readers, we aren’t offered a definitive reason for this unusual behavior, and therefore we come up with our own explanations for him: it’s an existential crisis; it’s the extreme dehumanizing effects of capitalism; it was a bad ham sandwich he ate for lunch. We could do this all day. Hell, we’ve been doing it for over 150 years and we’re not even tired.

So uncertainty, or mystery, holds very different offices for literary fiction and for thrillers. To illustrate this, look at two types of mystery stories: mysteries of events, and mysteries of situation. In the first, an event has occurred—a murder, robbery, disappearance—which sets off a chain of subsequent events, and the novel ultimately moves toward the disclosure of what caused the event, who, and presumably why. Airport bookstores are littered with these mysteries, and a quick sweep of the local movie listings will reveal their film counterparts. Take, for example, Stieg Larsson’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. A girl goes missing, and the protagonist is called in to help solve the mystery. From there, the plot slaloms toward a climax, which arises from the revelation of the original mystery. The moment we find out who is responsible for the girl’s initial disappearance, we are already prepared for a final showdown. No funny stuff, no allegories. Keep your looming unknowns to yourself.

Make no mistake, there is a very specific art involved in crafting such intricate yarns. Contrary to what some might believe, they do not just write themselves. However, the problem with popular mystery novels like these is that, at some point, the mystery needs to be solved. Once this happens, the reader almost immediately loses interest in the story (unless the revelation is accompanied by a car chase, gun fight, or sex scene—an especially talented author might give us all three—which holds our attention only for so long). If, though, the mystery does not get solved, the reader becomes frustrated; we feel that we’ve been cheated out of a resolution, and we type nasty things on the author’s Amazon page. Of course, when a simple solution is promised, a simple solution must be delivered. Ambiguity, the literary writer’s trusty old friend, doesn’t play much into popular fiction. Sure, there may be moments of moral ambiguity with respect to a character (e.g. was he a bad guy for kidnapping that bus full of orphans or just a victim of his own abusive childhood?), but on the whole, popular fiction must make good on what it promises: cold, hard answers. Until the sequel.

Readers ponder more what we are not told than what we are. This is for the very simple reason that when we are given an answer to a question, we no longer have to figure it out for ourselves. Because of this, popular mysteries, or mysteries of events, tend not to “haunt” us in the way mysteries of situation can. In this type of mystery, the events of the story are set into motion as a result of a setting or milieu that is inexplicably off-kilter. Because there is no single cause for the mystery, the expectation of a tidy, single solution is never aroused. No breach of contract can be claimed. Instead of asking “who is responsible for all this stuff that’s happening?” we ask “what exactly is all this stuff that’s happening?” The author’s task is not to give us an answer, but to give us enough evidence to apply our own. Therefore, the reader might be less illuminated by the solution to the mystery than by what their interpretation of that solution says about themselves.

One purveyor of such mysteries is novelist and short story writer Steven Millhauser, whose settings are tinted with an unmistakable and sometimes unsettling offness. Unlike in conventional mysteries, the cause for this effect remains unspoken. In the short story “The Disappearance of Elaine Coleman” (from the collection Dangerous Laughter), a very different kind of “missing person” story is told. We see not the kidnapping or escape, but the literal dissolution of a young woman inside a locked apartment. If no one person is the culprit, then where does the blame lie? This is a strange scenario, but we readers intone that the strangeness arises not from an aberrant central character, nor absurd series of events, but rather from a world that looks like, but is not, ours. “But what is the meaning of all of this?” asks the thriller reader who has taken a wrong turn and ended up in a Millhauser short story. But Millhauser, like your deaf great-grandmother, offers no reply.

Or does he? In the prefatory author’s note to his 2011 collection, We Others, Millhauser offers a Bartleby-esque sentiment: “What makes a story bad, or good, or better than good, can be explained and understood up to a point, but only up to a point. What’s seductive is mysterious and can never be known. I prefer to leave it at that.”

That’s what I prefer, too.

Guest Blog Post, Doug Cornett: The Most Frustrating Story I Ever Overheard

Doug Cornett

Generally, it’s never a good idea to frustrate your readers. Though you may be fleetingly proud of yourself for eliciting an emotional response, nothing good can come of it. First, there’s the crushing sense of failed responsibility to your reader, who gave up a not insignificant chunk of her life to read your writing, and who next time will opt instead to spend that time hunting neighborhood pets, or getting liquored up and driving through golf courses, or watching reruns of Scrubs. Secondly (and more importantly), there’s the hate mail you’ll be forced to ignore.

To avoid these consequences, I’ll give an example of the most frustrating story I ever overheard, followed by some advice on how to achieve the right kind of ambiguity.

I’m riding the bus to work one morning, and I overhear this guy telling another passenger a story. He’s gesturing wildly, his voice alternating between a haggard shout and a hushed whisper, and he keeps referring to the guy next to him, a bearded, cavern-eyed redhead, as his “renowned companion.”

The story is about how they met three days ago on the other side of the country, and how they came to end up here on this bus. It’s a funny story, he keeps saying, but by the tone of his voice it doesn’t seem like he believes that.

Three days ago, this guy is driving his truck away. Away from what? He asks rhetorically. Away from his job, his wife, his lousy bills. Away from everything. It starts to rain, and as the guy flips his wipers on, he sees a hitchhiker on the side of the road. He picks the hitchhiker up, because who would want to be in that rain? He points to his “renowned companion,” who is staring straight ahead, eyes fixed on nothing, and says, soaked like a dog in the deep end.

As they drive through the rain, the guy tells the hitchhiker about his great escape. Sometimes you just have to move. Momentum, you know? The hitchhiker doesn’t have much to say, but the guy can tell he understands. In fact, the guy feels this strong vibe with the hitchhiker, a feeling like he knows him from somewhere.

The guy asks, “Have we met?” The hitchhiker just smiles. Right here, in the bus, the hitchhiker smiles again.

“Of course,” the guy on the bus says, “I didn’t know who he was at that time. I hadn’t figured it out yet.”

He goes on: “I start to get tired from all driving, so I ask my companion if he wouldn’t mind taking over the wheel while I grab a snooze. We switch places and I’m out, dead asleep, just like that. I have a dream where I’m underwater and everything smells like smoke. The deeper I dive the stronger the smell becomes. I wake up and guess what? The hood is on fire.”

The woman to whom I thought the guy was telling the story shakes her head and says, “I can’t do it tonight.” She’s on the phone. I realize that I have no idea who this guy is talking to. Everybody and nobody, I guess.

“I jump out and start running,” the guy continues. “I get maybe five feet away from the car when boom, it explodes. I’m thinking, oh crap, the hitchhiker! But my renowned companion isn’t in the truck. He isn’t anywhere. Vanished. That’s when I feel something small and weighty in my pocket. It’s a smooth little stone, and it has an address written on it in black marker.”

In the bus, the guy pulls out the stone and holds it up. Next to him, the redhead companion grins, and a little whimper of a laugh ekes out.

“I start walking,” the guy goes on.  “It turns out that the address on the stone is a little house, just up the street. When I get there and the house comes into view, I am smacked, just blasted with this sense of recognition. I know this house. And then it all comes to me. How I know the house. Who my renowned companion is.”

A dull ding overhead. A sign lights up at the front of the bus and the driver announces the next stop.

“This is us!” the storyteller yells, whacking his renowned companion on the knee. The two stand up together, gathering their bags in a hurry. The bus reels over to the side of the road and the two guys tumble out onto the sidewalk. As the bus pulls away, I watch them look around in every direction, confused, unsure about which way to head next.

I’m five minutes early for work that day, so I stop and grab a coffee and a croissant.

And that was the most frustrating story I ever overheard.

To state the obvious, the reason this story is so frustrating is that it arouses certain questions—who put that rock in his pocket? How does he know the old house? Who is his renowned companion, and why the hell is he always grinning?—that are never answered. Of course, the storyteller hopped off the bus before he could answer these questions, but too many writers (myself included, so many times) hop off the bus before they answer their own questions.

For a fiction writer, ambiguity is a lot like a microwave: if you use it right, it makes life so much easier; if you misuse it, however, your house, or story, can be reduced to a pile of ashes. Moral ambiguity, which relates to whether a certain character’s thoughts or actions are morally sound or flawed, invites the reader to interpret the meaning of the story for herself. This is a good thing. Plot-based ambiguity, or uncertainty as it pertains to the events of a story, is fine as long as you clear up that ambiguity by the end. If not, then you’ve got an unsolved mystery, an episode of Scooby Doo without the obligatory unmasking of Old Man Futterman. And really, who wants to watch that?

In other words, don’t answer any question for your reader that you don’t have to. However, if you have posed questions in your story that require answers, then respect your reader enough to supply those answers. If you don’t, you better hope your mailing address isn’t included in the publication.

Guest Blog Post, Doug Cornett: I Write Because of Flying Saucers

Doug CornettMaybe it was all the Alf I watched, but from the ages of 7 through 12, my greatest ambition was to be abducted by aliens. My teachers were perplexed: how about astronaut, or fireman, or attorney? It’s not technically an ambition if you don’t have any control over it, I was told. Accepting this truth, I tried to put myself in the most abduction-likely situations. This proved difficult, because standing on my roof was dangerous and there were no cornfields near to hang out in. I settled for loitering in my front yard while staring up at the sky. If they weren’t going to abduct me, I at least wanted to have a good look at them. When I failed to realize even this modest goal, I decided to take measures into my own hands; I’d have to invent a UFO sighting.

It was a warm fall night—I must have been 10—when I got my chance. My parents and I were walking the dog around the block when a brightly lit object appeared above us and scuttled across the suburban sky. It was an airplane; I knew it, my parents knew it, even my golden retriever knew it. But this airplane had a flashing green light, which I had never seen before. This slight anomaly was all I needed to build upon. I told my friends at school about it, adding that it was lightning fast and absolutely silent.

“I had the sensation that I was being watched,” I said in a hushed voice. My friend Joey suggested that I was already being followed by Men in Black. I practiced that distant, harried look I’d seen Richard Dreyfuss have in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. I filled up a notebook with sketches of the craft, wearing down my emerald colored pencil to a nub.

I cultivated this willful self-deception for almost a week until I saw the same green-lighted plane in the half-light of dusk. Faced with the naked truth, I tossed my notebook in the trash. Since nobody, not even Joey, believed me in the first place, it was time to move on from my fantasy.

Now that I am married and have a job that I truly enjoy, I’d rather witness a UFO from a safe distance than be stolen by one. But the desire to see something incredible is still there, and that is why I write. The potential for the extraordinary to occur amid the ordinary is intriguing, for the same reason that an unopened envelope with your name on it has an undeniable magnetic pull. For me, the recognition and celebration of potential energy is central to the act of writing: the potential for an inert character to lurch into motion, or for a sublime moment to overtake a mundane one.

I’ve come to realize that what’s exciting is not that a UFO will appear in an ordinary Tuesday afternoon sky, but that an ordinary Tuesday sky holds this and infinite other possibilities. Whether or not a flying saucer ever appears is ultimately irrelevant; the act of staring up at the sky is creative, and therefore, important.