These essays aren’t the alpha and omega of good advice, but they aren’t the ABC’s either. Perhaps the first one is. “Dogma and Anti-dogma.” They contain some notions of my own and a lot of help from Aristotle to Zola.
Most of them were originally presented as “craft talks” at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference over the last twenty years or so. A few of them were answers to specific requests. I’ve edited and in some cases rewritten them.
I remember Stanley Elkin starting one of his Sewanee craft talks by saying, “It’s . . . hard . . . to talk about . . . art.” He said this very very slowly. He paused for a while. Because Stanley was a man of many humors, most of them humorous, a few prankish, some people thought that first sentence might be all he was going to say.
I’ll bet he was tempted. He certainly milked the pause.
Of course he went on. With that first sentence he wasn’t apologizing or asking for indulgence. He was just setting the bar high. And then sailing over it. Crouched in his wheelchair he gave a funny, grouchy, instructive talk.
It’s hard to talk about art—so we should all be nervous. It’s hard to talk about art—but I’ve been around the block.
That’s Stanley I’m channeling. I’m not so sure I’d put it like that. I’d rather say I’ve been into the woods a lot. Sometimes I found the trail. Sometimes I lost it. Sometimes I had to spend the night in a pile of dead leaves.
These essays are suggestions about things to do, things to think about, when your writing has got you lost in the woods.
CHAPTER ONE: DOGMA AND ANTI-DOGMA
The dogma isn’t meant to crush your first draft. Think of these venerable sayings as hints from Tarot cards or the I Ching.
A common thing people ask me about writing classes is “Can you teach someone to write?”
I have two answers.
The first is no . . . but if someone is talented to begin with, I can save her a lot of time.
The second answer is also no . . . I can’t teach someone to write, but I can sometimes teach someone to rewrite.
For a long time I taught the way I’d been taught. I’d been in classes taught by Peter Taylor, Kurt Vonnegut, Vance Bourjaily, José Donoso, and what they did—after you turned in a story—was to tell you what they thought you’d done. Basically they’d say, “Here is what all those marks on the pages meant to me.”
And then I could figure out if that’s what I’d wanted to do—or if there was now something else I could do that looked better.
This holding up the mirror is a good way to be helpful to a beginning writer. Writing a story or a novel is like finding your way around a strange room in the dark. When you get through the first draft you think the light will go on. But it often doesn’t. At first you need a reader you can trust to tell you what you’ve done . . . and that there is or isn’t hope for this particular effort.
I think this process is useful because the majority of good beginning writers are at first less in love with structure or pattern and more in love with the words in a foolish but sweet way.
I don’t think people should skip this sweet foolishness. There is this to be said for it: you are falling deeply in love with language; you are, at last, learning your own language. If the sweetness outweighs the foolishness, if the genuine outweighs the foolishness, if the genuine outweighs the synthetic, if the verbal inventiveness and precision outweigh the clichés of plot and callow characterization, it’s a helpful stage. It may be as good for the future as plowing under a field full of oats.
When Katherine Anne Porter taught at the University of Virginia, her method was to sit the student writer down and read his story to him aloud. That’s all there was to it, or so I’ve heard tell. I’ve also heard that one student, before his story was half read, broke down and ran.
I’m sympathetic. Long ago a kind editor at a Boston publishing house took an interest in my earliest novel. Over lunch he told me, “You have talent, dear boy.” I felt for an instant like one of those saints in Italian paintings on whom a beam of divine light falls. He then said, “Of course, some of this writing is . . . embarrassing.”
“Oh yeah,” I said. “Like what?” (Sometimes you just can’t help leading with your chin.)
He opened the manuscript and read aloud.
After a bit I said, “Ahh.” Or maybe it was “Arrgh.”
He advised me to plow it all under. I did.
Three years later I salvaged a part of a chapter, turned it inside out, and used it in a story, the first piece I sold. (Moral: plow under, but save a copy just in case.)
But the sophomore, the wise fool, the sweet fool, has to be done away with sooner or later. So what comes next?
From the writer’s point of view it seems like more of the same: the inspiration, the rise of hope, the realization, on one’s own now, that some part of the piece has failed. You’ve had your hand held, someone has held up a mirror, but now it’s time for sterner stuff. Dogma.
Is dogma helpful? Let us hear some:
• “Write for yourself.”—J. D. Salinger, or at least one of the Glass boys
• “Write about what you know.”—Everybody says this.
• “Above all, I want to make you see.”—Joseph Conrad
• “You must tell your story in the fewest words possible.”—Sean O’Faolain
• “A short story must have a single mood and every sentence must build toward it.”—Edgar Allan Poe
• “Tell the truth.”—Everyone again
• “Stalk the billion-footed beast—be a reporter.”—Tom Wolfe
• “Conventional narrative bores me; you must experiment.”—Robert Coover
• “Culture is local.”—William Carlos Williams
There are many other dicta, but these are all at the core. They are also ones I’ve been told, have told myself, and have told others; frequently they were just what the doctor ordered.
[J.D.] Salinger’s “Write for yourself.” Yes, there is something wonderful about a writer who has her own voice. And there is something horrible about the sound of an imitated voice. There are writers whose works you can pick up and the particular hum of the prose is immediately recognizable; there is an intimacy your inner ear recognizes even before the rest of your brain approves. This intimacy is not necessarily gentle or nice, but I’m pretty sure that the only way to achieve it is in communion with yourself, a communion that is in some way innocent, however fierce or forgiving.
Of course, the dictum applies to subject matter as well as tone or style. It can be a good prescription for the stylishly voiced but timid. Find the subject that leaves you mute, then tell it.
BUT. If you were to take this dictum as your only course and not a course correction, you could end up on the rocks.
Arthur Koestler, in the second chapter of his autobiography Arrow in the Blue, justifies himself and apologizes for autobiography in general. Among his warnings, the chief is against nostalgia.
Twenty years ago I covered a bass-fishing tournament for True magazine. The winner of the tournament was a laconic fishing guide from Arkansas. I spent a day with him picking up tips on how to catch fish—the conditions of structure, season, sun, and so on. I asked him at last if there were things to watch out for in all this finding the right spot to fish.
“Nostalgia,” he said.
I figured out what he meant. I’d spent hours plugging away at a stretch of water where I remembered with great pleasure catching a beauty. But if the fish aren’t there now, all you catch is nostalgia. Moonbeams of your peculiar unrelatable memory.
BUT. There’s another but. Kurt Vonnegut used to say to his class at Iowa, “You’ve got to be a good date for the reader.” The rest of the metaphor of courtship could be inferred. Query: Can you bring flowers and write for yourself? Can you wear perfume and write for yourself? As long as it’s still you.
But surely you have some friends to whom you would never ever say—just before they set out for a blind date—“ Oh, just be yourself.”
There is a falsity or pandering one must rid oneself of, but there is often a sincere but boring side too. If I were to go on a blind date, I’m sure that my wife, four daughters, and three sisters would all call out, “For God’s sake, don’t talk about rowing!”
“Be a good date” can let you be a mere entertainer.
“Write for yourself” can let you be a nostalgic bore.
But in the sense that “write for yourself” is “know yourself,” “find your own demon, your own angel,” it is the first commandment of useful dogma.
“Write about what you know.” An example of this good advice:
I had two students who were writing costume drama. One was writing about Mayan warriors—sacrifice, sex, and slaughter. The other about gentlewomen in Alabama in hoop skirts. Both went on and on. I finally said to each, “Stop.”
The woman who’d been going on about hoop skirts, said, “What shall I write about then?”
“Talk to me a bit, tell me what you know.”
She said, “I see you’re looking at my knee.” This was back in the first round of miniskirts. She went on, “See how it doesn’t quite fit? It’s going to make me lame unless I have an operation, but I have had a phobia of hospitals ever since I was strapped to a gurney when I was little. It was a Labor Day weekend and the room was full of people screaming, I was there for hours, days, I can still hear them whenever I smell that hospital smell . . . whenever I smell that hospital smell I get migraines so bad I can’t see, literally, can’t see . . .”
I said, “Come back in two weeks with seven pages about your knee.”
She wrote a five-page piece called “Patella” that was riveting. It was, in the apt phrase of my first wife, “hysterically calm.” It won the $ 500 prize for the best short story at the University of Virginia.
So I told the man the same thing. Write a five-page story about something closer to you than Mayan slaughter. He came back with a wonderfully condensed piece about a man sitting at Mass (about a quarter of the writing was simply the words of the Mass). There was a woman next to him. Her sleeve brushed his sleeve. He concentrated on prayer. Her shoulder brushed his. Was she doing it on purpose? Was she sick? Fainting?
They stood for the Gospel. He wouldn’t let himself look at her. He only saw the hem of her raincoat when they sat down. He listened to her breathe. He tried to concentrate on the sermon.
I don’t remember how it ended. It was abrupt, I think. Ite, missa est. Go, the Mass is ended. He (the character) was still caught in uncertainty; he’d half resisted the temptation, half succumbed . . . if the temptation was really there. He was freed by the fact that he could never possibly recognize her, never find out what she’d meant. Perhaps there was some regret.
I thought how much more full of conjured sensuality, of tension, of a real psyche and spirit this piece was than all the hundred and fifty pages of exotic Mayan sex and slaughter.
“Write about what you know” . . . could there be any buts? Two occur to me. Suppose Leo Tolstoy had decided to end The Death of Ivan Ilych before Ivan Ilych is dying and has a vision—because Tolstoy didn’t really know what dying is. One answer is that Tolstoy imagined it so vividly that he did know. Gustave Flaubert imagined the death agony of Madame Bovary so intensely that he vomited. Perhaps the best version of this dogma for some people is “Write about what you know, but move into that rich intertidal zone between the dry beach of what you know and the sea of what you don’t.”
Rudyard Kipling wrote wonderful stories about the Indian army. He’d hung out with soldiers when he was a reporter in India. Later, when he’d become famous and was living in England, the Royal Navy made him an honorary officer and asked him to come on training cruises. He got royal tours of the ships—the engine room, the bridge, the officer’s ward room, and so on. Kipling was an inquisitive man and a quick study. He used his navy material, but the navy stories are lifeless. They are filled with navy lingo and detail, but they don’t live. What is the moral of this experience? It may be that if you acquire technical knowledge quickly, without the slower sense of the emotional forces carried by these things in a communal life, you will prattle. Even if you are Kipling. Perhaps the qualifying dictum is this: he who learns a little soon repeats it. Kipling had some of his best work still ahead of him, from “They” (1904), “The Wish House” (1924), and on into the thirties. I love stories about writers with rich autumnal years.
Conrad’s “Above all, I want to make you see” is a wonderful motto. Fiction often fails because it isn’t visible enough. I see my own early bad writing repeated year after year by otherwise gifted young writers because they want to get right to the metaphysics. But when they or I get to what things look like—not just picturesque landscapes but people’s expressions, light on water, the way a worker works—things perk up.
Ernest Hemingway had a motto similar to Conrad’s. It’s more or less this: write about what people do, what people say, and what the weather is like. Cyril Connolly in his wonderful and odd book The Unquiet Grave gives Hemingway his due for having succeeded in awakening the readers’ senses.
But the real wonder of fiction is that it not only appeals to the senses—it makes all of your shadow senses receive the world of the story—but also at its very best it gives us a sixth sense, a sense of the invisible forces that make people more than the sum of their five senses. Conrad, though he is the author of the motto, certainly conjured the invisible as well as the visible. As writers, you do finally have to conjure, whether by implication or direct statement, invisible forces as specifically as you have conjured a bullfight, a bank robbery, a kiss. Consider the end of The Great Gatsby; the end of The Sun Also Rises; all of Nostromo.
So perhaps we can amend Conrad and say, “First of all, I want to make you see.” If you can do that then you can go on, then you have earned the right to the invisible.
“You must tell your story in the fewest words possible.” The book in which Sean O’Faolain says this, The Short Story, is one of the few useful works on the subject. It is one-half anthology, one-half commentary.
I can’t explain why shortness is a good thing. I can only think of how many gallons of maple sap it takes to make one gallon of maple syrup—forty. Maple sap tastes like water—very good water, but water. Maple syrup is a miracle.
Sean O’Faolain doesn’t mean that you must tell simple stories that begin with the beginning, go through a middle, and stop at the end. Supreme examples of rigorous cutting and condensations are Isaac Babel’s Red Cavalry and Muriel Spark’s The Girls of Slender Means.
I believed this dictum even before I read it. It was in the babbling gossip of the air. The first story I sold was one I condensed. For ten evenings I more or less copied the handwritten pages of the third and what I thought was the final draft onto new pages, and at the end of each evening, I would count with satisfaction, “There: four pages into three.” Next time—“ There: six pages into four and a half.”
Reading aloud helps. You can feel the places where the density isn’t what it should be. Reading aloud to prepare a piece for reading aloud in public helps even more. You tend to ask yourself, “Do all those people need to know all of this?”
BUT. Even here there is a but. Sean O’Faolain tries to demonstrate how Henry James’s long story “The Real Thing” can be cut. He puts brackets around the unnecessary parts. He was brave enough to pick a story by a master. It’s a very close call whether he has improved the James story. My students have split about fifty-fifty on this question.
My own further experience is odd. My first published novel, An American Romance, was 604 pages in typescript when I sent it to my agent and to my editor. They both said, “Way too long. Make it shorter.”
I worked for six or seven months. There were 100 pages on the floor of my workroom when I finished. I did write a few little additions. I typed it up again. It came to 640 pages. What the hell. I sent it in.
My agent and my editor wrote back independently of each other, “Good. It’s much shorter.”
An Italian fencing master I once knew used to ask his students, “How does the frog catch the fly? Because he is quickest? No! Because he has tempo!”
Tempo, timing, pace, rhythm. The shortest distance between two points is a frog’s tongue. Thank you, maestro.
“A SHORT STORY must have a single mood . . .” Poe went on to say that every sentence must contribute to it. He wrote this in a review of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s stories, saying that Hawthorne brilliantly fulfilled this requirement of unity and coherence. So do a lot of Poe stories. The dictum is a terrific idea, one I’d guess he came to from his reading and writing lyric poetry. It is a short-story writer’s alternative to the suggestions about unity made by Aristotle for tragedy.
Both Poe and Aristotle are trying to be helpful in this quest for unity. But what’s so hot about unity?
I can’t explain unity any more than I did brevity. In The Biology of Art, Desmond Morris writes that certain apes and a few monkeys produce paintings that show an instinctual urge toward both symmetry and unity. It is a fascinating book with lots of beautiful pictures, particularly some by chimpanzees (Picasso owned a picture by Congo, the star chimp artist); I also like the delicate spirals turned out by the capuchin monkeys, and some of the work by Sophie, a gorilla who would paint only when she was separated from her mate.
Kurt Vonnegut has a nice sentence about yearning for unity—and brevity too—in Slaughterhouse-Five. The beings of Tralfamadore, a distant planet, have novels; each is a single dot that fits on your fingertip and, when applied to your forehead, zaps you with the essence of the novel.
My own daydream of unity could have been the Parthenon, the Pantheon, or a well-wrought urn, but at the particular right moment I happened to see a catboat on her cradle. Her lines defined her perfectly yet didn’t seem to be limits. Every line curved toward another but didn’t end when it met the other. All the lines seemed endless continuations of each other, an endless continuation of the whole. She was a single idea that looked enormous in a neat way but also as if you could pick her up in the palm of your hand.
Virginia Woolf describes a character in The Years having a physical experience of architecture. Considering a building, she (the character) feels weights move inside her until (I may be making up this part) on their own they find the balance the building has. It is possible to read some buildings in that way: standing in the center or sensing their center from outside, you feel their balance so enormously but so wholly that you imagine you could extend your fingertips to every part.