This year was bracketed by both joy and terror. I watched, scared, as people I love grew, learned, succeeded at various things—including me. What did it mean? Writing for years, coming close to getting published once before, then suddenly finding my book out in the world, cherished and loved by strangers who became friendly readers—and why now? Of all times, when our country is literally being burned down? And when, on a daily basis, I fear for our lives? All year, in response, I held on tight to books I love, remembering not only specific words, but the moments of real comfort I found in these books. Cherishing these.
Beloved, by Toni Morrison, a book I read in high school when it was first published, always one I “mean to” return to but found myself too dazzled and silenced by—this year was the year that, in my studio cabin at MacDowell Colony, I sat and read the book without interruption, making extensive notes on structure and strategy. Embracing the past to let it go. Sixty million and more. For the first time, reading Morrison’s hallowed words, I was delighted to find that I understood the book’s structuring, the unfolding, building of tension in specific scenes. For the first time I dared to hope that I would write a book, a real book, that could matter.
Citizen, by Claudia Rankine, completely woke me up to poetry. What had I been doing, all this time? In high school too, I’d been lucky enough to be part of the Academy of American Poets workshop. I’d written poetry, “always” written it, I thought. Then stopped. This year, I couldn’t remember why, and so the poems came out, got revised, but not with any kind of condescending withering. “Citizen” taught me all too well—there’s already a world ready to hate. We must honor ourselves. I read Rankine’s bold, intellectually rigorous, extremely serious and vivid words and felt like she was saying to me, “Don’t ever let anyone tell you that you don’t know what you know.” All the poems I published this year (19! And counting, including this one that received a Joy Harjo prize, and this one in THE SAME MAG where Maggie Smith published her poems (!), and THIS ONE where Natalie Diaz published poetry—and this essay I wrote even before reading all of Citizen this year, and being awakened to poetry again, in general, by the conflagration of hatred and terror that we are living through, somehow.
All my writing, engagement with any words and rhythms, had as its backdrop the feeling of being supported by poems by women and people of color, all the time. All year, while writing, I also “ate up” poetry quietly and gratefully—like Life on Mars, by Tracy K. Smith, which made me realize that I, too, was radiant from “panic” about the state of current affairs, like cold, lovely splashes of Maggie Smith’s Good Bones, which made me too shy to say hi to her when I saw her and she smiled back at AWP, and like surreptitious “sips” of My Brother Was an Aztec by Natalie Diaz, which made me question the simplistic dreams I’d had as a medical student of “volunteering on the rez,” realizing on a visceral level how there is SO MUCH MORE to it, to any kind of engagement with a brutalized and marginalized community when you “happen to have” services they need, through “accidents” of history (that are not really accidents, a la Marianne Moore, another poet I reread this year, loving her words and hating myself for how deeply ingrained her words are in my mind given that she was a person who supported Indian boarding schools for children. The poet who wrote “Marriage” was never who I dreamed she’d be).
My anger had to find some quarter, I suppose. Who could’ve guessed that it would be turned into appreciative laughter so easily? That I’d be so susceptible to charm? But it did and I was: Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah’s Friday Black, even for the title story alone, which I read and then hugged tightly to myself like a puffy jacket I’d been coveting (reminiscent of another puffy jacket, from another great story, by Sana Krasikov talking about post-Soviet Russian consumerism in One More Year, also brilliant and another book that I reread this year).
To finish revisions on the novel that my agent will (I hope) submit to publishers in 2019, I read (what else?) This Year You Write Your Novel, by Walter Mosley, and it is true that “luck favors the prepared mind” because, reader, I MET him in person at the Texas Book Fest not long after I read and took notes on that book, including 1) at least “touch” your novel for one and a half hours per day, even if all you do is read and reread what you have, just touch it so it doesn’t become foreign to you and 2) get the complete draft done. Just get it done. Tell the story. (Worry about “telling it slant” later). Then I MET WALTER MOSLEY! And so, I could honestly tell him, before I fled our 90-second “meeting,” “I adore you.” Upstairs in the building that Moseley was walking out of it, I said the same thing (again meaning each syllable, probably almost too fervently) to Alexander Chee, FACE TO FACE OVER HUEVOS RANCHEROS. His book Edinburgh that I’d read last year was as masterful and moving as How to Write an Autobiographical Novel, which capped for me the trend in reading I realized I was pursuing, of reading a novel, then tracking down writing advice from its author, then devouring the essays by that author… about writing. Following this thread I read everything I could find on the Internet (and attended her talks too! Including at AWP) by Min Jin Lee—both Pachinko (for the first time, crying at the sad parts by a swimming pool where children thought the crying was from their ruthless splashing of me, and my paperback) and Free Food for Millionaires, which I also read for its immensely skillful plot structure, engrossing, yet unfolding at a stately 19th-century pace, though without any didactic digressions. (I eagerly, EAGERLY await Min’s book of essays about writing which, if not already in the works, I SO HOPE will now be in the works. Hint, hint.)
Naturally (I felt) Lee’s use of the omniscient third had to lead me to novels like Jude the Obscure, by Thomas Hardy (whose prologue long ago inspired me to write this story in White Dancing Elephants, featured recently at Electric Lit). I loved Hardy, of course, and also dipped into Wuthering Heights again, on a long plane ride where sniffling was assumed to be something everyone was doing (and hiding), because of the dry air and so on (and dipped into it mainly because of the brilliant, hilarious, melancholy evocation of the book I’d heard read out loud in a piece at Sewanee Writer’s Workshop, by Shanti Shekaran, whose novel Lucky Boy I read once, utterly loved but couldn’t bear to read again, for how close it came to uncovering my own feelings about infertility and miscarriage, and how it described such heartache around attachment and loss and parenting, I just couldn’t bear it. But no 19th-century novel made as indelible an impression on me as Henry James’s Washington Square, which I listened to twice all the way through, driving to and from work, in the Librivox version beautifully narrated by “Dawn”, one of the many tireless readers who make these free audio books a widely accessible resource.
Perhaps it’s because, like the heroine Catherine’s father, I am a doctor too, but I felt so keenly for nearly everyone in this book (except of course the hapless Morris, whom Catherine never would have expected a thing from, had she not been so blinded and burdened by the painful, enmeshed, guilty, tormented relationship with her father). The perfect, Victorian-era “snark” of how the book sets up the cruel events that lead Catherine to lose her mother, implying just enough that the doctor-father was too detached, and simply didn’t act fast enough, to save his own wife and son from death– I felt the devastating wound of it, of how much people expect from doctors, yet how little compassion is extended to us when, like every other human being on this earth, we suffer loss. We grieve. We feel the limits of what humans can control, and what we can’t.
Strangely, though, the essay collections I read were not by doctors. Nor were the novels, though I did read an interview I really enjoyed, with gifted novelist and fellow psychiatrist Daniel Mason in The New York Times, for how the tone of the interviewer SO COMPLETELY ERASED any people of color or women from the identity “psychiatrist” so breathlessly parsed therein.
(Um, NYT dude whose name I think I had trouble pronouncing, no offense—not all psychiatrists are cishet white upper middle class males preoccupied with “affective containment” as an ultimate goal. That very limited, exclusionary, anti-public health/private pay vision of psychiatry pretty much ended in the ’70s. What we have now are “recovery communities” and “neurodivergence,” in case you didn’t realize. Like, psychiatrists who are women of color who can get down with The Collected Schizophrenias as forthcoming by Esme Waijun Wang, for instance, or who can clearly express compassion and caring for patients with eating disorders as detailed by writers with these conditions like Kathryn Harrison in The Mother Knot. Thanks for understanding, dude. No doubt.)
Instead, in reading as in life, I pursued a kind of lightness, an attitude, insouciance, coupled with breathtaking honesty, shrewdness. One might put all these book covers in a Twitter post and caption it MOOD. Chelsea Hodson’s Tonight I’m Someone Else, and Melissa Febos’s Abandon Me (yes, if she comes to AWP, I’ll get shy and girl-crush-struck and run away from her too, I don’t doubt it). Morgan Jerkins’s This Will Be My Undoing. As a Rhodes Scholar, my voice caught in my throat reading her account of being “instructed” on how, as a woman of color, she could “assimilate” into various white elite spaces her intelligence and drive had helped her gain access to. She cut close to the bone.
Then to cap off the year, I read and took a lot of notes on story collections to help finish revisions on my second story collection, which only exists because it turns out I’m a writer literally with manuscripts in a drawer that I take out and revise and don’t send out anywhere for years (and not any of the stories that belong to this second collection were written recently, though excerpts were featured recently here and here). The jewels among the several collections that I read include (in addition to Friday Black, above, which I just read out of love, and not for work)—Florida, by Lauren Groff, reading again and again the particular story of a woman writer obsessed enough with researching her novel to have to go to France; anxious enough to take her children with, literally dragging them, making them walk in rain and cold, making them speak French, forcing them, making them, almost crying from the effort of trying to hold the structure together while staying dreamy enough to actually sit down and write. Sigh.
Also read, and studied (again, after reading the first story while in high school too—“The Chinese Lobster” when it first came out in The New Yorker) the whole collection by A.S. Byatt, so stunning: The Matisse Stories, and timely too—dipping into #MeToo themes as well as fundamental questions about “who gets to make art” which then took me, on a pleasurable digression, to Claire Messud’s thrillingly good, extremely entertaining, admittedly shrill book The Woman Upstairs, which I liked but I think was secretly wishing would talk more about the racism that a Middle Eastern family might experience in the Republic of Cambridge, MA (yes, even there). I got back to the stories, though, delightedly wading through Everyday People, the anthology edited by Jenn Baker and one that includes a detailed bibliography of works by women and nonbinary authors of color in the back.
All in all, the year of reading made me a little less afraid. Not really less afraid of our political futures. No. But less afraid of losing hold of what and whom I love. Much less afraid of forgetting any of what is most vital to me. Maybe memories do define who we are—a recent interesting and long thread of Twitter, and something I contemplated while reading a lot of press coverage about the fascinating Amazon Prime original with Julia Roberts, Homecoming (which draws directly from PTSD research and prolonged exposure therapy for PTSD, modalities I’m trained in administering).
I also thought more about trauma and memories while reading Marlena for the first time, to interview Julie Buntin here—and thought about my family’s memories, coming to terms with my younger brother’s autism and disabilities, when I read (and wept with real gratitude) over Gary Shteyngart’s Lake Success and how it represented a level of acceptance and love of a child with differences that I’d always wished myself and those I knew could feel and demonstrate more clearly, more spontaneously, without such hard effort and constant education of ourselves, to understand my brother’s perspective, to hear his voice. It may be true that our memories somehow define us—but I prefer to think that books are loving and beloved carriers of our memories, trigger the ones we need to remember the most, stimulate the memories that heal us.
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(The following is an imaginary symposium. The dialogue (except for the goofy shit) is adapted directly from these books: On Writing (2000) by Stephen King, On Directing Film (1991) by David Mamet, This Year You Write Your Novel (2007) by Walter Moseley, Reading Like a Writer (2006) by Francine Prose, 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel (2005) by Jane Smiley, and How Fiction Works (2008) by James Wood. Apologies to all. Enjoy.)
Everybody, shut up. Just be quiet. Now, I realize that a group of writers like yourselves would jump all over the chance to point out the irony of me beginning a symposium on dialogue by telling everyone to shut up, but I don’t want to hear it, okay? Spare me. Let’s just get this over with. Jane Smiley, let’s begin with you.
Thank you, Moderator. To dare to write about many different characters, and to keep them straight without the help of actors, is in many ways a bold endeavor. It imposes several duties upon the author.
Like what, for instance?
Well, each time a character speaks, he is likely to speak in a way that differs from every other character and also from the narrator because distinctiveness is one of the main methods an author has to organize his characters so the reader can keep them straight.
Interesting. A very practical observation. Dialogue helps differentiate characters. Good.
I have mentioned order, in the sense that the readers don’t want to get the characters mixed up, but there is also the progress of the plot. Characters in dialogue are required to more or less move the story along. If they are just sitting around chatting meaninglessly, then the novel comes to be about the meaninglessness the characters are demonstrating.
Excuse me, I completely object.
Jesus. Of course.
To what do you object, Mr. Mamet?
You don’t have to narrate with dialogue. The only reason people speak is to get what they want.
I wasn’t finished, Mr. Mamet. First of all, I said “more or less move the story along.” I understand that dialogue isn’t how you tell a story. But certainly dialogue must in some way pertain to the narrative, even if they aren’t speaking of the literal plot. Depending on his role in the novel, though, a character is also required to have something interesting to say that simultaneously deepens the reader’s knowledge of him, deepens the reader’s knowledge of other characters, deepens the reader’s understanding of the story, and best of all, deepens the reader’s knowledge in general.
No, no, no. The purpose of dialogue is not to carry information about the “character.” In the first place, there is no such thing as character other than habitual action, as Mr. Aristotle told us two thousand years ago. It just doesn’t exist.
Wait one minute! Why are we letting David Mamet in here? Are we all aware that he’s talking about films, not novels?
Yes, but I’ve written novels.
Yeah, like two. The Village and The Old Religion.
And Wilson: A Consideration of the Sources.
Okay. Whatever, we’ll call it three. But either way, I think your view of dialogue is greatly skewed by playwriting and filmmaking. So let me please interject a bit. We’re talking about the use of dialogue. That alright?
Sure, do whatever you want. See if I care.
First, I agree with Dave over there that dialogue shouldn’t be used for exposition. Many new writers use dialogue to communicate information such as “My name is Frank. I come from California.” This is the simplest use of dialogue. It’s okay for a job interview or a chance meeting in a bar, but in a novel, dialogue is meant to be working overtime.
But I also agree with Jane about the many uses of dialogue. Every time characters in your novel speak, they should be: (1) telling us something about themselves; (2) conveying information that may well advance the story line and/or plot; (3) adding to the music or the mood of the scene, story, or novel; (4) giving us a scene from a different POV (especially if the character who is speaking is not connected directly to the narrative voice); and/or (5) giving the novel a pedestrian feel.
Pedestrian? Why pedestrian?
Thought you didn’t care, Moderator?
Don’t push your luck.
To answer your question: Absolutely. Making the dialogue seem pedestrian might seem counterproductive to the passionate writer. Here you are, telling us a story of profound feeling in which the main characters are going to experience deeply felt transitions, and I’m asking you for ordinary and prosaic dialogue. If you can get the reader to identify with the everydayness of the lives of the characters and then bring them — both reader and character — to these rapturous moments, you will have fulfilled the promise of fiction. The reader is always looking for two things in the novel: themselves and transcendence. Dialogue is an essential tool to bring them there.
Okay, okay. Let’s get another voice in here. Francine Prose, you’ve been sitting over there quietly. What about you? Do you think dialogue should be pedestrian?
Thank you, Moderator. In one sense, yes, I do think that. Among the things I remember hearing when I was beginning to write was the following rule: you shouldn’t, and actually can’t, make fiction dialogue sound like actual speech. The repetitions, meaningless expressions, stammers, and nonsensical monosyllables with which we express hesitation, along with the clichés and banalities that constitute so much of everyday conversation, cannot and should not be used when our characters are talking. Rather, they should speak more fluently than we do, with greater economy and certitude. Unlike us, they should say what they mean, get to the point, avoid circumlocution and digression. The idea, presumable, is that fictional dialogue should be an “improved,” cleaned-up and smoothed-out version of the way people talk. Better than “real” dialogue.
Then why is so much written dialogue less colorful and interesting than what we can overhear daily in the Internet café, the mall, and on the subway? Many people have a gift for language that flows when they are talking and dries up when they are confronted with the blank page, or when they are trying to make the characters on it speak.
And you also agree that dialogue shouldn’t be used for exposition?
Well, in extreme cases, yes I think I would warn against inventing those stiff, unlikely, artificial conversations in which facts are being transmitted from one character to another mainly for the benefit of the reader:
“Nice to see you again, Sally.”
“What have you been doing, Joe?”
“Well, Sally, as you know, I’m an insurance investigator. I’m twenty-six years old. I’ve lived in Philadelphia for twelve years. I’m unmarried and very lonely. I come to this bar twice a week on average, but so far have failed to meet anyone I particularly like.”
And so forth.
But even when novice writers avoid this sort of dialogue, what they do write often serves a single purpose — that is, to advance the plot — rather than the numerous simultaneous aims that it can accomplish. To see how much dialogue can achieve, it’s instructive to look at the novels of Henry Green, in which many of the important plot developments are conveyed through conversation.
Oh, wonderful! Finally, some examples! I’ve been waiting for over a thousand words for this.
Throughout Green’s work, dialogue provides both text and subtext, allowing us to observe the wide range of emotions that his characters feel and display, the ways in which they say and don’t say what they mean, attempt to manipulate their spouses, lovers, friends, and children, stake emotional claims, demonstrate sexual interest or unavailability, confess and conceal their hopes and fears. And it all passes by us in such a bright, engaging splash of chatter that only slowly do we realize how widely Green has cast his net, how deeply he has penetrated.
Yes, okay. Here it is:
“Did your father happen to mention that he’d taken me out the other afternoon?” she inquired.
“No,” the boy said in an uninterested voice. “Should he?”
“We ran across each other in the street. I’m afraid I can’t afford anything like the gorgeous meal he provided.”
“But curry’s my favorite,” Peter claimed. “I wish I had it every day. Decent of you to ask me.”
“No, because I do truly enjoy seeing you. It takes me out of myself. And you’ve little idea how few there are I could say that of. Though, d’you know, it could be true about your father. He’s so terribly handsome, Peter.”
The boy broke into mocking laughter, with his mouth full.
“Look out for the curry,” she warned. “You’ll blow it all over me and the table.”
When he had composed himself he said, “Well I once ate a green fig looked exactly like Dad’s face.”
Then, after a brief pause to discuss a mutual friend:
“Are your parents still in love?” she asked.
“My mother and father? God, I suppose so. Are yours?”
“Not a bit. No.”
Peter went on eating.
“They don’t even share a room.”
A little later:
“How long have they been married?”
“Lord, don’t ask me. I wouldn’t know.”
“All in all, I imagine they were still very much in love,” she suggested.
“I expect so,” he said.
“You won’t tell them I mentioned this, will you?”
In this passage from his final novel, Doting, nineteen-year-old Annabel Payton has invited Peter Middleton, a student two years younger than herself, to have lunch at an inexpensive Indian restaurant near her office. Annabel has a crush on Peter’s father — as the awkward, somewhat thick-headed Peter may or may not be aware — and is attempting to extract information about Peter’s parents from her lunch companion. Word by word, the dialogue captures the rhythm of someone trying to discover something without disclosing something else, of an interlocutor who cannot stop pushing until she finds what she is seeking. It’s a model of social inquisition carried out by someone who doesn’t much care about the person she is interrogating, except that she would like to keep him from forming a low opinion of her and from figuring out what she is doing.
At the end of the scene, Annabel asks Peter if he thinks his mother is beautiful:
“Yes,” he said, rather gruff. “As a matter of fact.”
“Me too,” she echoed, but in a wan little voice. “She has everything. Hair, teeth, skin, those wide-apart eyes. By any standard your father’s a very lucky man.”
“To have such a wife of course. Would you say she liked me, Peter?”
“Fairly, yes. No reason not to, is there?”
“Oh none,” she agreed casually.
Let’s get technical for a second. Why is that scene so suggestive of things without spelling them out? What makes Green’s use of dialogue so effective?
Can I step in here for a moment?
Oh, I didn’t realize we had critics here, too.
Well, I’m also a novelist. The Book Against God. Anyone? Anyone?
We haven’t read it. But go on. Maybe a critic’s opinion will be useful here.
Wonderful. In 1950, Henry Green gave a little talk on BBC radio about dialogue in fiction. Green was obsessively concerned with the elimination of those vulgar spoors of presence whereby authors communicate themselves to readers: he never internalizes his characters’ thoughts, hardly ever explains a character’s motive, and avoids the authorial adverb, which so often helpfully flags a character’s emotion to readers (“she said, grandiloquently”). Green argued that dialogue is the best way to communicate with readers, and that nothing kills “life” so much as “explanation.”
So you think the excerpt that Francine presented is effective because of the lack of “explanation”?
Yes, information is communicated silently, slowly, through careful accumulation of a character’s actions, their words.
Here’s a working example. Green imagined a husband and wife, long married, sitting at home one evening. At 9:30, the husband says he is going across the road to the pub. Green noted that the wife’s first response, “Will you be long?,” could be rendered in scores of different ways (“Back soon?” “When will you be back?” “Off for long?” “How long will it be before you are back?”), each one capable of a distinct resonance of meaning. The crucial thing, maintained Green, was not to hedge the dialogue with explanation, as in:
“How soon d’you suppose they’ll chuck you out?”
Olga, as she asked her husband this question, wore the look of a wounded animal, her lips were curled back from the teeth in a grimace and the tone of voice she used betrayed all those years a woman can give by proxy to the sawdust, the mirrors and the stale smell of beer of public bars.
Green felt strongly that such kind of authorial “assistance” was overbearing, because in life we don’t really know what people are like. “We certainly do not know what other people are thinking and feeling. How then can the novelist be so sure?”
Do you agree with all of that? It seems a bit strict, doesn’t it? Almost overbearing?
Yes, you’re quite right. Green, counseling against being overbearing, is laying down a fair amount of prescription himself, and we do not need to take his doctrine scripturally. Notice that when Green does his parody of explanation, he also falls into a deliberately breathy, second-rate style (“wore the look of a wounded animal”), whereas we can imagine something more continent, less offensive: “Olga knew what time he would come home, and in what state, stinking of beer and tobacco. Ten years of this, ten years.” Fulsome explainers like George Eliot, Henry James, Marcel Proust, Virginia Woolf, Philip Roth and many others would all have to retire themselves in Green’s universe.
Okay, okay. Let’s take a pause for a moment. What have we learned here so far? Anything? It seems that every rule you try to make about dialogue has many contingencies, many exceptions, ways around it. Characters shouldn’t speak in blatant exposition but subtle forms of expository information are allowed. They should sound like “real” people but not exactly like real people, as normal conversation consists of ums and ers and likes and, truthfully, uninteresting filler. Writers should let the characters’ speech say more about them than the narrator, though we have numerous successful examples of writers who break this rule. Finally, dialogue should always be performing multiple tasks at once. Is there anything else? Anything practical? Anything at all like a rule?
Yes, I have something to add.
Adverbs. I can be a good sport about adverbs, though. Yes I can. With one exception: dialogue attribution. I insist that writers use the adverb in dialogue attribution only in the rarest and most special of occasions…and not even then, if you can avoid it. Just to maker sure we all know what we’re talking about, examine these three sentences:
“Put it down!” she shouted.
“Give it back,” he pleaded, “it’s mine.”
“Don’t be such a fool, Jekyll,” Utterson said.
In these sentences, shouted, pleaded, and said are verbs of dialogue attribution. Now look at these dubious revisions:
“Put it down!” she shouted menacingly.
“Give it back,” he pleaded abjectly, “it’s mine.”
“Don’t be such a fool, Jekyll,” Utterson said contemptuously.
The three latter sentences are all weaker than the three former ones, and most readers will see why immediately. Contemptuously is the best of the lot; it is only a cliché, while the other two are actively ludicrous.
Some writers try to evade the no-adverb rule by shooting the attribution verb full of steroids. The result is familiar to any reader of pulp fiction or paperback originals:
“Put the gun down, Utterson!” Jekyll grated.
“Never stop kissing me!” Shayna gasped.
“You damned tease!” Bill jerked out.
Don’t do these things. Please oh please. The best form of dialogue attribution is said. All I ask is that you do as well as you can, and remember that, while to write adverbs is human, to write he said or she said is divine.
Okay, good. A rule of sorts. I like it. Yes, Mr. Mamet?
To get what they want! That’s why people talk!
So what do you want, Mr. Mamet? Why are you talking right now?
I want future generations to make great art! I’m trying to help.
Help us now by being quiet. What was the point of this symposium? Have we really learned anything? Let’s get the writer in here.
JONATHAN RUSSELL CLARK
What was the point of this? What, could you not think of something to say yourself?
JONATHAN RUSSELL CLARK
Well, kind of. I realized that I didn’t have anything new to add about dialogue. All the observations I could make I’d first heard articulated in these books. What could I add?
That’s laziness disguised as modesty, Mr. Clark. I’m not buying it.
JONATHAN RUSSELL CLARK
Well, the other thing was that none of these writers had anything definitive to say. Everything they said had some qualification to it. Or, if they were more stringent, I could think of a great counter example. So I thought that if I put a bunch of voices together and showed how difficult dialogue is to even talk about, I’d maybe contribute something useful.
Let me spoil it for you: you didn’t.
JONATHAN RUSSELL CLARK
Can I go now? I’ve got a long flight.
Me, too. Plus I’m hungry. The invite said there would be snacks. I don’t see any snacks.
Everyone up for a bite to eat?
I could eat.
Not you, David.
(DAVID MAMET exits, pursued by a bear.)
JONATHAN RUSSELL CLARK
Or you, Jonathan. None of us even know who you are.
JONATHAN RUSSELL CLARK
Plus you only put us all together because ours were the books you happen to have on your shelf.
JONATHAN RUSSELL CLARK
But at least that means I bought all your books!
Yeah, yeah. Whatever, man.
(Everyone exits except for MODERATOR and JONATHAN RUSSELL CLARK.)
JONATHAN RUSSELL CLARK
Looks like it’s just you and me.
We’re the exact same person. So, basically, you’re by yourself in your room.
JONATHAN RUSSELL CLARK
And you’re talking to yourself.
JONATHAN RUSSELL CLARK
Yeah. Funny. In a symposium about dialogue I end up alone, talking to myself.
And what does that tell you?
JONATHAN RUSSELL CLARK
That dialogue is a conversation a writer has with himself, a conversation he has with his characters and a conversation between characters. That it’s all three. That, ultimately, the art of dialogue lies within the writer, determined by how he perceives people, human interaction, motivation. That dialogue, as much as it speaks to a character’s identity, speaks to the writer’s as well. That rules are almost impossible. That a writer has to engage with dialogue, be in conversation with it, so to speak.
I was going to say that you need some real human friends. I mean, listen to yourself: you’re talking to yourself about fake characters talking to each other. Pretty sad.
JONATHAN RUSSELL CLARK
You know what’s worse? To me, it isn’t sad at all. If the only dialogue I have in my life is the dialogue of great writers, I don’t have a whole lot to complain about. They’re great conversationalists, at least.
Yeah. At least you’ve got that. Come on. Save the document and be done with this.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons
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)