The way historical fiction works is by using some basic recognizable details to situate the reader in a time and place (the historical part), and then to imagine the rest, in order to make a narrative (the fiction part). Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North is a fictional account of a historical event — the experiences of Australian soldiers in a Japanese prisoner of war camp on the Thai Burma Death Railway, also known as The Line, in 1943. A plan by the Imperial Japanese Army to speedily construct a railway between Bangkok and Burma, they used, among others, tens of thousands of Allied prisoners of war. One of them was Arch Flanagan, the father of Richard, to whom The Narrow Road to the Deep North is dedicated: “prisoner san byaku san ju go (335).” The prisoners were starved and abused, thousands died.
The imagined details of this book: Dorrigo Evans is a doctor and a colonel of the Australian soldiers in the camp. He is handsome, intelligent, a natural leader, irresistible to every person around him, even his captors. All of his weaknesses come from how good he is, how virtuous: “The more he was accused of virtue as he grew older, the more he hated it. Virtue was vanity dressed up and waiting for applause.” In the camp, the Australian soldiers die off as they are beaten and starved to death by the rank of brutally efficient Japanese commanders, who themselves have been driven mad by the conditions under which they live. The Japanese see the Australians as useless — oversized, stupid, and lazy — and are annoyed by their constant singing and joking. The Australians see the Japanese as slave drivers, demented by their devotion to the abstraction that is the Emperor. Both believe that the other is morally corrupt in some way. In the vacuum that follows the end of the war, however, all moral reasoning that made sense at the time becomes unfamiliar. The war ends, and everyone who survives tries to fold themselves into the compromise of normal life. There is an epigraph is from Paul Celan, which speaks of the horror of returning to life after deep, specific suffering — “Mother, they write poems.”
Outside of the camp, the most important story is Dorrigo’s love affair before the war, with his uncle’s wife Amy, which took place in a hotel pub in Adelaide. The love affair is stopped by the war, but its memory and the sadness of its failed connection stays around, forming a Shakespearean subplot. The primary subject of this book is human suffering, and all the endlessly interesting ways in which people cause themselves and others to suffer. The strange euphemism “Prisoner of War” eventually comes to describe every character in the book.
The title comes from the travel journal of Basho, the Edo poet. Basho took a long solitary journey north, questioning, in his journal, whether life has any meaning at all. The question of meaning, and whether or not it can be extracted through the study of history, has preoccupied writers of historical fiction over the past fifty years. Authors such as Peter Carey, Laurent Binet, Salman Rushdie, and E.L. Doctorow, have felt the need to meta-theorize or “postmodernize” the re-creation of the past, to question the writing of history and the usefulness of fiction even as they do it. They are preoccupied by the need to tell the difference between the real (unattainable), the true (mostly nonexistent), and the told (unreliable). The conclusion, insofar as there is one, is that meaning and memory are slippery surfaces across which we can only slide.
Part of the problem of meaning, for what might be called the postmodern or “meta” writers of history and historical fiction, is plausibility. That is, the reader being able to believe what they are reading is “true,” (true, in this sense, meaning that it really happened). Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, the French historian who founded the movement of “New History,” began in the 1970s to write history using the first person “I” pronoun, as a way of moving history from story to discourse, and signaling to his readers that they would never read history that hadn’t been written by a human, and therefore wasn’t subject to being falsified by a human imagination. Data are unable to speak for themselves, intervention is needed. History becomes fiction, in this view, because it is narrative. Flanagan presents an opposite pole to this view. This book is historical in every sense; it could almost have been written at the time of its setting, in the 1940s, before the parsing of the horror of the Second World War caused us to reorient our worldview in almost every sphere of life, and to question the very possibility of meaning.
In historical fiction, the world has in some ways already been invented, and the task of the author is to describe it, that is, to fictionalize it. According to E. M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel, “‘The king died and then the queen died’ is a story. ‘The king died, and then the queen died of grief’ is a plot.” Writers of historical fiction change story to plot, using description.
The difference between history and fiction, Sir Philip Sidney argued, in his A Defense of Poetry (c.1579), is not what did happen, but what could. It was a rebuttal to those who were suspicious of the power of fiction, from Plato to the Puritans:
Only the poet, disdaining to be tied to any such subjection, lifted up with the vigor of his own invention, doth grow in effect another nature, in making things either better than nature bringeth forth, or, quite anew, forms such as never were in nature.
The imagination required to write fiction, in Sidney’s line of argument, is not gnosis but praxis, and becomes an empathetic force, a virtue. Fiction is “true” not in a historical sense, but in a moral one, exactly because of its inventive power. Fiction, unlike history or philosophy, can create a world that didn’t previously exist, out of the one that does.
Description is where the story is, and also where the postmodern complaint with the story is. It’s where the poetry of the writing is. Those writers of literary historical fiction over the past forty or fifty years who have become fed up with traditional, novelistic historical storytelling have often revived the Platonic quarrel with poetry, in questioning of the usefulness of that leap to fiction. Description, though, is what Flanagan revels in. He is a storyteller in the mythic sense, of lives determined by emotion, error, and turns of coincidence and fate. This book goes from one end of a life to other, with an epic journey and a romantic tragedy in the middle (there are many references to Ulysses; Dorrigo’s life continually marked with poetry). The plot is driven by suffering and desire. Destiny of the characters is the number and nature of words spoken (One of Dorrigo Evans’s tasks is to choose which soldiers get sent on the march and which stay behind, essentially, which ones will stay alive and which won’t, an echo of the Judenräte).
Haiku poetry, the great poetic forms of restraint, is interspersed throughout the chapters, highlighting the overflowing quality of Flanagan’s sentences. His sentences are poetic, even if they lack the precision and control of the poetry that intersects the chapters:
A drop dripped.
Tiny, whispered Darky Gardiner.
The noise of the monsoonal rain flogging the canvas roof of the long, A-framed shelter — bamboo-strutted and open-walled — meant Darky Gardiner could hardly hear himself. The clamor of the rain made such nights only more desolate, worse, in a way, than the days when he was just trying to survive but at least had company to do it with. The jungle shuddering in sheets of noise, the incessant drumming of mud churning as the rain slammed into it, the strange slaps and punches of invisible water runs, all of it he found dismal.
Another drop dripped.
There is an amputation scene that the squeamish will have to divide up and read in shifts, taking breaks in between to hold the open book aside, turn their faces away and gasp for air. It’s all part of the stinking sensuality of Flanagan’s writing. It isn’t enough to be told the story. We sit through it, like a cinema for smell and touch.
His language is ornate:
Dorrigo would sway back and forth and imagine himself shaping into one of the boughs of the wildly snaking peppermint gums that fingered and flew through the great blue sky overhead…he would drink in the birdsong of the wrens and the honeyeaters, the whip-crack call of the jo-wittys, punctuated by Gracie’s steady clop, and the creak and clink of the cart’s leather traces and wood shafts and iron chains, a universe of sensation that returned in dreams.
His dialogue can be dramatic, almost to the point of seeming parodic:
She took a puff, put the cigarette in the ashtray and stared at it. Without looking up, she said, But do you believe in love, Mr Evans?
She rolled the cigarette end around in the ashtray.
Yet even when his writing cloys, it still feels sincere, in its faith in the redemptive power of art after tragedy.
Flanagan seems to be at heart a novelist, without interest in questioning the utility of historical fiction, only in using it to create fiction; using one experience to make another. In history, other than narrative, all we have are statistics, and the leap required to get from statistics to history is one of imagination. That leap is where Flanagan lives, as a writer. Belief, as Flanagan shows us, comes not just from accuracy, but from the power of the writing itself. “A poem is not a law, Sir” a soldier tells Dorrigo, known in the camp as Big Fella. “But he realized with a shock it more or less was.” In Flanagan’s books, story becomes true by being poetry. The truth in this book is not that of the historical sense, but in a Keatsian, moral sense. We don’t read historical novels like War and Peace to find out about the French influence in Russia, but for the very pleasure of exercising the imagination — for their virtue.
There is an endearing overabundance of almost everything in this book, which in its enthusiasm, becomes part of the pleasure, though some faith is needed to get through some of the love scenes, and to travel along with the humorless, masculine sentimentality of the hero. Readers of this book should do away with all suspicions, and get ready for an avalanche of feeling and sincerity, or else risk living in the sad restraint of Flanagan’s characters.
1. A Writer-Teacher Consults Her Magic 8-Ball
Why did I spend twenty years of my life writing short stories as opposed to novels?
Reply hazy, try again.
Because I know without a doubt that when I was growing up, I absolutely loved to read novels and rarely read short stories unless they were assigned in a class.
All signs point to yes.
Is it my nature to write short stories, or is it nurture?
Concentrate and ask again.
Have I really just spent two decades writing short stories for no other reason than because it’s the only prose form for which I’ve received explicit instruction?
Without a doubt.
And what about my students, the next generation? Have I passed this short story inclination to them?
It is decidedly so.
2. We are Not Experiencing a Short Story Renaissance
Today, most writers are raised in the creative writing classroom, where the fundamental texts are stand-alone poems and stories. As you progress from the introductory class to intermediate and advanced-level courses in your genre, you concentrate on aspects of fictional craft within these short forms, becoming more proficient in their creation and execution. At both the graduate and undergraduate level, most fiction workshop instructors use the short story—not the novel or the novella or the novel-in-stories—as the primary pedagogical tool in which to discuss the craft of fiction. Why is this so? Simply: the short story is a more manageable form, both for the instructor and the student, and I have been both. For the writer who teaches a full load of courses and is always mindful of balancing “prep” time with writing time, it’s easier to teach short stories than novels, and it’s easier to annotate and critique a work-in-progress that is 10 pages long as opposed to a story that is 300 pages long. It’s advantageous for students, too. Within the limited time frame of a semester, they gain the sense of accomplishment that comes with writing, submitting for discussion, revising, and perhaps even finishing (or publishing!) a short story. It’s a positively Aristotelian experience. Beginning. Middle. End. Badda bing, badda boom.
I’m going to go way out on a limb here and say this: The short story is not experiencing a renaissance. Our current and much-discussed market glut of short fiction is not about any real dedication to the form. The situation exists because the many writers we train simply don’t know how to write anything but short stories. The academy—not the newsroom or the literary salon or the advertising firm—has assumed sole responsibility for incubating young writers. In his new book, The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing, Mark McGurl says that it’s time we paid attention to the “increasingly intimate relation between literary production and the practices of higher education.”
So. This is me. Paying attention.
Don’t get me wrong. I love stories, yes I do. I love teaching them and writing them. Some of my favorite writers work almost solely in the form. Stories have been very good to me. They are not easier to write than novels, they are not in any way inferior to the novel. So let’s get that straight. I am not dissing the short story nor its many practitioners.
But I am saying that I think a lot of what comes out of creative writing programs are stories that could be or want to be novels, but the academic fiction workshop is not fertile ground for those story seeds. The seeds don’t grow. They are (sometimes) actively and (more likely) passively discouraged from growing. The rhythm of school, the quarter or semester, is conducive to the writing of small things, not big things, and I don’t think we (“we” meaning the thousands of writers currently employed to teach fiction writing in this country) try hard enough to think beyond that rhythm because, for many of us, it’s the only rhythm we know. We need to teach students how to move from “story” to “book,” because the book is (for now, at least) the primary unit of intellectual production.
3. A Story is Not a Paper
Inevitably, students falsely equate the short story with another form with which they are intimately familiar: the paper. I know this is true because my undergraduates say odd things to me like, “I need to meet with you about my paper.”
I say, “What paper? Do you mean your story, that art you’re creating?”
The required studio art and dance classes I took in college didn’t transform me into a painter or a ballerina, but they certainly taught me to appreciate other forms of artistic expression. I was evaluated by things I made (a clay pot, a watercolor) or performed (a dance routine), and I never confused those products with the papers I submitted to my sociology and philosophy professors for evaluation. Students confuse writing stories with writing papers because of the same-seeming word itself—writing—and because the final results are indistinguishable from each other: a Word file, paragraphs of text on the screen or on 8½ x 11 sheets of paper. Another reason students confuse the two forms is that they probably create stories the same way they write papers—clock ticking, one or two intense sessions of writing, a euphoric, semi-magical flowing of words. Save. Print. Done.
4. Origin Story
I was in my second year of graduate school and taking a workshop with John Keeble. I knew I wanted to write something akin to Winesburg, Ohio, but instead of emerging one by one, the stories came out hopelessly fused. Imagine if Sherwood Anderson had sat down and written the title, “New Willard House” and proceeded to describe the characters in his fictional boarding house. The end. That’s a pretty good approximation of the story I’d submitted to Keeble for discussion, a big, messy failure of a story. I knew it, and everyone sitting around that table knew it.
And then the most amazing thing happened. Keeble opened the discussion by saying, “Some of you are working on stories, on the small thing, but I think this piece wants to be a big thing. Rather than talk about whether or not this works as a story, let’s talk about it as material toward a larger project.” Just like that, Keeble shifted the default setting of the workshop from dissection to enlargement, from what’s wrong to what could be. My peers weren’t allowed to say, “This story is muddled and digressive. There’s no main character and no dramatic arc.” (Which would have been absolutely true.) Instead, they said this:
Cathy, here’s a story.
And here is a story.
Over there, that is a story, too.
Forty-five minutes of productive discussion, and I walked out with pages of scribbled notes, stories crystallizing in my brain, and boom, I was off.
I was lucky.
Typically, workshops prescribe. Here’s what’s not working. Here’s what I had a problem with. Somebody—if not John Keeble, somebody—has to step up and change the default setting, to frame the conversation so that big things can be brought to the table and discussed meaningfully.
But how to you do that?
5. This is Not How You Do It
I know some people who took a novel workshop in college. This is how it went down.
First, they studied the first sentences of a bunch of novels and wrote one of their own, then workshopped it.
Then they studied first paragraphs of novels and expanded their first sentences into first paragraphs and workshopped those.
Then they studied first chapters of a few novels and wrote one of their own, then workshopped their chapters.
And then the semester was over.
6. This is Not How You Do It Either
Syllabus: Fiction Workshop
This course is an intensive study of fiction. You will write, read, and critique fiction. Everything you write, read, and critique will be 8-15 pages long, or approximately 5,000 words. In other words, you will write, read, and critique short stories. In other words, this course is really a short story workshop. We hope that is why you are here—to learn to write a story that is 8-15 pages long. If not…well, could you just do it anyway? Thanks.
If you are a budding Lydia Davis, you will learn to artificially inflate your story so that no one will think you’re lazy. If you’re a budding Tolstoy, you will learn to artificially deflate your story because don’t you know that more than 15 pages makes people cranky?
A few years ago, we had a very contentious meeting of the Curriculum Committee to discuss enrollment caps in this course. Because it is a 300-level class, some of our esteemed colleagues from Literature felt the cap should be 30, which is how many students they have in their 300-level seminars. We argued that this was impossible, that the difference between a Fiction Workshop and a Seminar on the 19th Century Novel is that in the workshop, student work is the primary text. We said, “For us, the difference between 20 and 30 is not a matter of 10 more papers to grade. It’s a matter of 10 more manuscripts that must be discussed by the entire class. It would be like us telling you that rather than teaching six doorstopper novels, you must cover eleven.”
This argument proved to be quite persuasive.
The question then turned to page-output requirements. How many papers would students write in a fiction workshop? Because the accepted standard in 300-level literature seminars are two papers of 5-7 pages and one final research paper of 25 pages, for a total of 35-40 pages.
We said, “Our students don’t write papers, per se. They journal…”
This raised eyebrows, so we moved on.
“They write critiques of each other’s work.”
Some satisfied nods. Critique. Critical. Impersonal. Okay, this is working…
“They write responses to the assigned stories.”
Papers? they asked excitedly.
“Well, sort of. They don’t interpret. They don’t write about what something means but rather how it means. They analyze craft. They imitate. They steal.”
“No, not exactly.” Sigh. “And they write fiction.”
Our esteemed colleagues said, Yes, yes, yes, but how looooooong are these fictions?
And we said, “They are as long as they need to be,” which we admit sounded a bit flakey and was not persuasive. So we assured the Curriculum Committee that you would write fictions of substance and gravity of approximately 8-15 pages. Remember: we are artists striving for institutional respect within a sometimes inhospitable academic bureaucracy. Please help us prove that creative writing is a valid discipline. Please write stories that are as long as academic papers.
Methods of Evaluating Student Performance:
Please don’t write a story that is nonrealistic, because genre fiction makes us nervous and uncomfortable. Unless you’re doing a Saunders thing. We like George Saunders. If you want to do a Saunders thing, fine. Otherwise, no. Convey your story in a scene (or two) in the aesthetic mode of realism, preferably minimalism. We really, really like minimalism. “Show, Don’t Tell” is—amazingly—a quite teachable concept in an otherwise subjective discipline. The opposite of “Show, Don’t Tell”—the tell tell tell of artful narration—well, that’s complicated and hard to do well, so perhaps you shouldn’t really try that. As an added bonus, “Show, Don’t Tell” virtually guarantees that your story will be mercifully short. Think Hemingway, not Faulkner. Think Carver, and certainly not Coover.
This Short Story Anthology, That Short Story Anthology, Best American Short Stories, and one novel by the successful writer who is visiting campus.
7. A Metaphor: Running Sprints vs. Running a Marathon
In his essay from Further Fridays, “It’s a Short Story,” John Barth says that while some fiction writers move back and forth between long and short modes, congenital short-story writers and congenital novelists do exist.
There is a temperamental, even a metabolic, difference between devout practitioners of the two modes, as between sprinters and marathoners. To such dispositions as Poe’s, Maupassant’s, Chekhov’s, or Donald Barthelme’s, the prospect of addressing a single, discrete narrative project for three, four, five years…would be appalling…Conversely, to many of us the prospect of inventing every few weeks a whole new ground-conceit, situation, cast of characters, plot, perhaps even voice, is as dismaying as would be the prospect of improvising at that same interval a whole new identity.
Perhaps the reason why so few fiction workshops provide explicit instruction on writing novels is because there’s no clear rubric. How-to-write-a-novel books run the gamut from the extraordinarily regimented (such as Robert McKee’s screenwriting tome, Story) to the queasily motivational (such as Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way) to the intellectually impractical (such as E.M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel). A few years ago, I announced in a class that fiction writer Walter Mosley was coming to town. “He’s the author of the Easy Rawlins books. Oh, and he just published a book called This Year You Write Your Novel.” One of my students guffawed. “Sounds like a self-help book.”
Inspiration, encouragement, support: these aren’t accepted pedagogical stances in academia. In order to be taken seriously within one’s institution, a writer-teacher must approach teaching with intellectual rigor, not inspirational vigor. This is college, not a rah-rah writing group. But to return to Barth’s analogy, writers of big things, like marathon runners in training, need to go on long runs regularly —alone or in small groups. They need water. They need good running shoes. And every once in awhile, they need someone driving by to beep their horn and give them a thumbs up. What they don’t need is for someone to stop them after the first mile and say, “You know what? Your first step out of the block wasn’t that great. Let’s work on your stride for awhile.”
8. Another Metaphor: Building a Writing Studio vs. Building a House
You decide to build yourself a writing studio in your backyard, a little room of one’s own. You lay a foundation, put up the frame, the walls, the windows, the door, the roof. Depending on where you live, you figure out how to heat it, how to cool it. You decide whether or not you want a toilet. You run electricity. You insulate. You put up the drywall, lay the floor, select fixtures. Then you paint the outside. Then you paint the inside, buy carpet maybe, and a desk and a chair and some framed art. And voila! You’ve built a small, one-room house!
This is how you write a story.
This is not how you write a big thing.
You don’t construct the kitchen—foundation to finish—and then move on to the living room—foundation to finish—and then move on to the bedroom—foundation to finish. You build a big thing in stages, which means that the house isn’t really habitable until very close to the end of the process. This is why it’s hard to workshop a big thing in progress. It’s like someone wants to show you the house they’re building. You show up for the grand tour, but the house is nothing but concrete and a frame. Still, your friend is so darned excited, gesturing at empty space. “This will be the kitchen!” What are you supposed to say? You smile and nod your head and try to seem interested, but really, you’re mad, because this seems like a big waste of your time. Why not wait until the house is all the way done to show it to you?
Your friend asks if you want to come back next week to watch them install the plumbing. You think, Please God, kill me now, but you say, “I’ll tell you what, friend. Why don’t you focus on finishing the bathroom? That I can help you with. I love to look at tile and showerheads. If you’ll do that, I’ll come back next week.”
And so you do that. Of course, you never finish building your house because you run out of money, but you love that bathroom dearly. That sunken-garden tub. That jungle-rain shower head. Italian tile. A Restoration Hardware polished chrome shower caddy. Ahhhhh.
9. Another Metaphor: Writing Right-handed vs. Left-handed
Ideally, a fiction workshop meets at a conference table. But most of the time you wind up in a classroom with desks scooted into a circle, and most of those desks accommodate the right-handed short story writers, not the left handed novelists.
Often, left-handed novelists don’t even realize they are left-handed, because as soon as they start fiction school, their teachers place the pencil in their right hand and say, “Write.” And when the 15 pages that emerge are woefully incomplete, a real mess, the teacher says, “What are you doing? That is not a story. Write a story.” And gradually, the left-handed novelist learns how to write a right-handed story, even though there’s always something about doing so that feels a little off.
Sometimes a left-handed novelist is wise or stubborn enough to realize that he is not a right-handed story writer with horrible penmanship, but more accurately a beautiful left-handed novelist with perfectly fine penmanship. When he is alone, away from school, he brandishes the pencil in his left hand and sighs. Ahhhhhh. Then in college, he takes a workshop, which is full of nothing but right-handed desks. He puts the pencil in his right hand. Out of necessity, he’s become ambidextrous. And so, he goes through the motions of writing right-handed short stories for class. Assignments that must be completed. Hoops to jump through so that he can be in this class, read books for credit, and get a degree in the writing of fiction. At night, he goes home and puts the pencil in his left hand and works some more on his novel, the pages of which he never submits to his teacher, whose syllabus clearly states that they are to submit short stories that are 8-15 pages long.
Then there is the left-handed novelist who gets an idea. Optimistically, she opens a file on her computer, types away, and names this document “novel.doc.” She asks her creative writing teacher if she may submit a chapter of her novel-in-progress to the workshop. She wonders why her teacher grimaces when she says the word “novel,” then reluctantly consents. A week later, she is “up.” There is a discussion. Everyone wants to know more, more, more. They want her to fix this and fix that. With her right hand, she revises the chapter (as required by her teacher, who uses the portfolio method of grading) and with her left hand, she writes Chapter 2. The next semester, she asks her new creative writing teacher if she may submit Chapter 2 to workshop, but this teacher says that no one will understand Chapter 2 without Chapter 1, and submitting both chapters is out of the question because that’s 30 pages and the limit is 15 pages. So she resubmits the revised Chapter 1, and everyone who read Chapter 1 last semester gets pouty. “Haven’t we seen this already?” And everyone else, well, they pose an entirely new set of questions. Dejectedly, the left-handed novelist sits down to revise Chapter 1 again (as required by her teacher, who also uses the portfolio method of grading). She opens the file “novel.doc,” which is still 30 pages long. Her left arm hangs useless from her shoulder, the muscles atrophying. After finals, she never opens that document again, but for years afterward, she thinks about those 30 pages. All the time.
So I ask you: whose fault is it that she didn’t write that novel?
For a long time, I would have said it was the student’s own fault.
But these days, I’m not so sure.
10. Shame Management
In This Year You Write Your Novel, Mosley suggests writing for about an hour a day, producing 600-1,200 words a day, seven days a week. In this way, it’s possible to hammer out a first draft in about three months. “The only thing that matters is that you write, write, write. It doesn’t have to be good writing. As a matter of fact, most first drafts are pretty bad. What matters is that you get down the words on the page or the screen.” It’s the same advice Anne Lamott offers in her famous “Shitty First Drafts” chapter of Bird by Bird.
Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts. You need to start somewhere. Start by getting something–anything down on paper. A friend of mine says that the first draft is the down draft–you just get it down. The second draft is the up draft–you fix it up. You try to say what you have to say more accurately. And the third draft is the dental draft, where you check every tooth, to see if it’s loose or cramped or decayed.
Bird by Bird is a popular text in college creative writing courses, so why not the Mosley book? I’ll tell you why. Because the principle of “Shitty First Drafts” is fine if your students are all working on short stories; theoretically, there’s time for shitty to become shiny. Not so with novel writing. If we offered a class called This Semester You Start Your Novel, we’d be confronted by work that’s hard to critique and hard to grade. So many pages! So many mistakes! This is why we just keep teaching a class called, This Semester You Write Two Papers Whoops! We Mean Two Short Stories.
The long-term propulsive momentum necessary to write a big thing is continuously interrupted by workshop deadlines, which demand that a work-in-progress be submitted for group critique. Anyone who has been through creative writing instruction knows that being “up” in workshop means opening oneself to the potential negative judgment of your teacher and your peers. And so, you prepare your manuscript for workshop to maximize your chances of walking out of that classroom feeling good, not bad. Feeling pride, not shame. In The Program Era, McGurl says that students must—out of sheer psychological necessity—participate in a form of self-retraction or “shame management” that is endemic to the workshop model.
I taught in an MFA program for five years, and this is what I saw happen every year—without fail. It’s their last year in the program. They’ve taken all the required workshops, and reality strikes: they need a 150 page manuscript to graduate. After considerable fretting, they sit down to revise some story they don’t completely hate—and something thrilling happens. The story swells to 25, then 75 pages, or it becomes not one story but four interrelated stories. Freed from worrying about workshop page requirements and whether their peers will like it or not, they finally move from the small thing to the big thing. For the first time, they feel like they are writing a book, which is why they sought out creative writing instruction in the first place.
Which begs the question: Do students write stories because they really want to or because the workshop model all but demands that they do? If workshops are bad for big things, why do we continue to use them?
I don’t know about you, but I’m ready to think outside the workshop.
(Image: College Math Papers from loty’s photostream)
“They seem to have things under control,” I said.
“Whoever’s in charge out there.”
“Who’s in charge?”
Despite having closely followed the disastrous events in the Gulf for over a month with something akin to self-flagellatory devotion, growing increasingly angry and disillusioned with each failed attempt to contain the stricken oil well, I recently booked a South Caribbean cruise for my honeymoon in January. It was only after the plans had been finalized that I realized how little the oil spill had actually affected me: I operated under the assumption that someone—the government, BP, someone—would have the “situation” resolved, cleaned up, and concluded before it could intrude on my vacation. I had blithely researched and planned the cruise, never considering that the worst manmade natural disaster in our nation’s history might have real repercussions for me. This naïve self-assurance gave me pause and, like many avid readers, I turned to what literature might teach me about such hubris.
Don DeLillo’s 1985 novel White Noise narrates the events of a manmade disaster so eerily similar to the Gulf oil spill in some of its details that it has an aura of prognostication. The novel is narrated by Jack Gladney, a professor of Hitler studies at College-on-the-Hill in Blacksmith, a quiet town somewhere in the U.S. Jack is an incredibly empathetic character. Contrary to what we might predict for the professor who founded an academic discipline devoted to studying the most heinous figure in modern history, Jack is a good husband and father, kind to his coworkers, and generally affable. Even his idiosyncrasies are endearing: he wears dark-tinted sunglasses on campus, changes his professional name to J. A. K. Gladney, and gains weight to bulk out his frame, each pose an attempt to acquire the gravitas expected of him by students and fellow professors. The careful cultivation of his public persona is matched by his need to provide answers for his family, to be a source of knowledge and assurance to his adolescent son, and to appear to have control over events outside his field of expertise.
When an accident in a nearby train yard spills 35,000 gallons of “Nyodene Derivative” (a fictional, highly toxic byproduct of commercial insecticides), creating an amorphous black cloud quickly named an “airborne toxic event,” Jack assures his family that they will be safe without fleeing home: “These things happen to poor people who live in exposed areas. Society is set up in such a way that it’s the poor and the uneducated who suffer the main impact of natural and man-made disasters. People in low-lying areas get the floods, people in shanties get the hurricanes and tornados. I’m a college professor. Did you ever see a college professor rowing a boat down his own street in one of those TV floods?” Even as the air currents threaten to send the toxic cloud toward his neighborhood, Jack insists that alarm would be out of step with his professional position, saying “I don’t see myself fleeing an airborne toxic event.”
Jack’s self assurance can be maintained only through an illusion of control. He assumes that the weather, government, and his socio-economic status will all contrive to protect him from the threatening black cloud. But this illusion is wrested from him after he learns that his two minute exposure to the toxin will likely jeopardize his health, though it will be fifteen years before the symptoms begin to manifest. “Scheduled to die,” Jack’s fear of death encroaches upon his ability to see himself among the living. Confiding to a fellow professor, he speaks of the trap he finds himself in: “It’s almost as though our fear is what brings it on. If we could learn not to be afraid, we could live forever.” Caught between the living and the dead, fear and uncertainty drive all of Jack’s actions after the exposure.
The victims of the Gulf oil spill are now trapped in the same epistemic gap in which Jack finds himself. Possibly the most confounding aspect of the disaster is that after two months there is still no certainty as to the extent of the damage. It is not merely a problem of tracking the massive, miles-long invisible plumes of oil that are suspected to be floating below the surface. A more essential problem is that the government and BP have been unable to determine how much oil is leaking from the well. There are only best and worst case scenarios separated by tens of thousands of barrels per day (as of this writing, it was estimated that between 12,600 and 40,000 barrels per day were bleeding into the Gulf before the riser was cut, and between 35,000 and 60,000 barrels per day afterwards).
Being unable to fathom such quantities, we are in a situation similar to Jack’s: things are bad, danger is lurking, but we don’t know its full extent. Like Jack’s, our exposure has been consummate, and fatal for the health and economic stability of many, but the final tally is not yet in.
Much of the novel’s pathos derives from Jack’s attempts to regain control of his life while living in the gap—living with the uncertainty of certain death. First, he alters his routine and begins to obsessively see his doctor and search for a miracle cure for his fear of death, a drug called Dylar. In the end, he violently steals the drug, consciously plotting his movements, the effort to superimpose order on his actions altering his narrative voice from the avuncular professor to the conniving criminal. The reversal of Jack’s fortunes is classically tragic, resulting from his flawed self-assurance. He both fears and longs for a conclusion to the uncertainty, desiring the resolution inevitable at the conclusion of any plot. It is as if he had read Aristotle’s Poetics and now awaits the catharsis available at the ending.
Keeping in mind E.M. Forster’s comments in Aspects of the Novel on the difference between “plot” in drama and the modern novel—the latter of which gives much greater emphasis to character development and action which derives organically from that development— Aristotle’s well-known emphasis on the unity and parts of a plot reveals what we as readers seek in narrative. Turning on either (though ideally both) a recognition on the part of a character or a reversal of his fortunes, the best plots are those which elicit sympathy and pity for the characters, resulting in catharsis for the audience. But the emotional payoff can come only at the conclusion, the result of both identifying with the characters and realizing that though you could be in their situation, you are not.
DeLillo not only masterfully plots White Noise, his characters also speaks eloquently of “plots.” Lecturing to his class, Jack opines that “All plots tend to move deathward. This is the nature of plots. Political plots, terrorist plots, lovers’ plots, narrative plots, plots that are part of children’s games. We edge nearer death every time we plot. It is like a contract that all must sign, the plotters as well as those who are the targets of the plot.” In other words, plotting is a way of reaching an end, the conclusion, and resolving whatever degree of mystery is left in a narrative or life. A plot gives structure to messy and meaningless facts by tying them together but in so doing, requires that the telling be curtailed, sometimes prematurely (for instance, the litigation and environmental cleanup from the oil spill will undoubtedly be with us for years to come, but the “narrative” of events that our culture will construct—in the media and in court—will likely provide an ending that doesn’t account for these lingering signs of the spill).
Aware that death is growing inside him, Jack has essentially short-circuited his life’s “plot.” There is no mystery left. Asked if he would like to know the exact date of his death, he says “Absolutely not. It’s bad enough to fear the unknown. Faced with the unknown, we can pretend it isn’t there. Exact dates would drive many to suicide, if only to beat the system.”
As writers and readers, we are bound to what Forster called the “tyranny of the plot.” Obligated to tie up loose ends, the writer must often sacrifice true characterization, curtailing the organic development of his characters (often with a “contrived” death or marriage, though obvious exceptions are the modernist ambiguous ending and the postmodern fragmented narrative). Forster questions the necessity false endings: “Why is there not a convention which allows a novelist to stop as soon as he feels muddled or bored? Alas, he has to round things off, and usually the characters go dead while he is at work, and our final impression of them is through deadness.” Why must all things move “plotwards”? How can the “deadness” of the characters (both creatively and in the plot) be accounted for? It is as if writers are compelled to sacrifice their characters to the reader’s need for catharsis and redemption, found in the resolution of the plot. This, I believe, is the answer given by Aristotle. We need endings to reassert our own humanity and to find life even in death.
In this way, there is something life affirming in even the greatest disasters. But only after they have ended: only after the tale of survival has been concluded and can be retold, filling in the gaps in a way that brings logic to bear on the messiness of life, creating a narrative that allows those not directly affected (the “audience” of the disaster) to live with fear by rehearsing disaster through its displacement. As stated by one of the characters in the novel, “The more we rehearse disaster, the safer we’ll be from the real thing.”
But we live in the gap, in that middle section of the novel where nothing is resolved and everything is at stake. Rereading White Noise, I recognized that plotting and planning are just ways in which I try to project order onto chaos. This is where fiction departs most drastically from life. In reading fiction, we must learn to willingly suspend disbelieve. But the beauty of living in the middle is the ability to will ourselves to believe that in these moments of suspension there is opportunity for human action.