This post appeared on Andrew’s Book Club during Short Story Month–May, 2011. I’m reposting (with revision) in June because that’s how slowly this blog moves.
FIRST get your character up a tree. Then throw stones at him.
Who said that first? I’ve been repeating it for years. I’d tattoo it up one arm and down the other if it would make my stories as trouble-filled as “Virgins,” the opening story in Danielle Evans’s debut collection, Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self. It first ran in the Paris Review, then was selected for Best American Short Stories 2008.
Two Mount Vernon girls, Erica and Jasmine, lie to their mothers and take their cousins’ I.D.s to go clubbing in New York City. They also bring Michael, their friend and guardian angel. He keeps trouble, in the form of other guys, away.
Erica likes a good time but she’s not rushing to grow up. Whereas Jasmine’s been lugging a suitcase of anger and hurt for months, since a friend of Michael’s took her virginity and ditched her.
Here is the difference between Erica and Jasmine: Early in the story, at a movie theatre, they spot the guy who deflowered Jasmine. He’s got both hands deep in the hair of his new girlfriend and they’re kissing–deeply, intensely and in the middle of a crowded theatre lobby. Jasmine demands,
“When are we going to be that kind of girl?”
And Erica says,
“What, the stupid kind?”
At the club in Manhattan, the bouncer waves the girls in but turns Michael away cold. (This was the base of the tree, for me: two underage girls stranded in an adult club without their protector, Erica feeling, then burying, her anxiety.)
They dance—sexually, grinding—with men who come up behind them. Then they hit the bar. Erica pretends to be a college student. It’s mobbed; they get separated. (Stranded again, she’s higher up the tree.) Erica pretends to be a record store clerk, then a newspaper photographer, letting men buy her drinks.
Eventually, she finds Jasmine flirting with four men, bombed.
We’re going to an after party, Jasmine says. In the Bronx.
Alarmed, Erica says no, but things happen too fast. Someone has an arm around her. The valet brings a car around and the men get in. Jasmine sits on someone’s lap and drapes her arms around his neck. (Erica, high in the tree, is afraid to leave Jasmine.)
With seconds to make up her mind, she squeezes into the backseat.
(She’s now so far up the tree she seems stuck—indeed, she’s in a crucible–at which point the writer needs the guts to pick up a slingshot.)
Jasmine tongue-kisses the guy whose lap she’s on, escalating the situation as the car speeds toward the Bronx. (Stone.)
The man sitting shotgun informs Erica that she has an “attitude problem,” making clear that the balance of power has further slipped. (Stone.)
The man says,
“Y’all are probably virgins, aren’t you?”
–intimating that the evening is far, far out of the girls’ hands. (Stone.)
“Like hell we are.”
–signing away whatever may have been left of Erica’s autonomy. (Stone.)
And Jasmine’s lying; Erica’s a virgin. But in a sense, so is Jasmine; she’s a naïf when it comes to trouble this ugly, and innocence is what she’ll lose tonight.
They park outside an apartment building near a bodega. They enter a lobby, then an elevator. (Skull-cracking stone.)
Someone presses eight. (Stone.)
Erica considers an act of violence, about hitting Jasmine or pulling her guy off of her.
The doors open on five.
Evans stops time for the critical seconds the door is open. Here’s Erica, in those seconds:
There was nobody standing there and I kept waiting for the thing that would stop us, and then I thought, Nothing will stop this but me.
And she bolts.
(Stone for Jasmine, now alone: Will she be gang-raped? Will it be brutal? Will they let her go?)
Erica runs down the stairwell and out to the bodega. She calls Michael. It’s two-thirty in the morning. A lesser writer might resolve the tension here, but Evans throws a final stone, forcing Erica to one more decision.
I love how the story left me cleaved at the end. Weeks after reading I’m still halfway down a staircase in the Bronx, late at night, relieved to be free—yet also trapped in an apartment with Jasmine, hearing the lock click and the men laugh.
I’m grateful to be reminded:
Why am I intoxicated today by a 17-page alphabetized list titled “Words That Should Not Be Used in Fiction, a Selection” (and is exactly what it sounds like)?
Label, labia, labile, labored, laconic, lair, lambent, lame, language, lapel, lapels, largely, largess, lash, lashed, latter, laud…
Oh, stop nodding off. Could it be that the list is true, that it’s hard to use lapels without resorting to grabbing by and boutonnieres and other clichés (“resorting to cliché” being itself unforgiveable; forgive me), that lambent works too hard, that lashes are predictably long and dark unless you sear them off in an explosion?
These 17 pages open a book that may remain fantastically obscure—Words, by Andy Devine—and not just because the cover has about as much visual presence as a cloud.
Devine is to writer Michael Kimball what de Selby was to Flann O’Brien in The Third Policeman: an invented genius, exceedingly bizarre. (My mentor, Jim Krusoe, said of The Third Policeman: “This book is so good it’ll make you want to pee in your pants,” a line I stole for a story. And he was right.) Devine, a “conceptual fictional writer” and alphabetical essayist, writes novels and stories, then implodes them into lists of words and punctuation marks. Rigorous about revision, he whittles a couple down to their titles. His life’s work is the subject of much study. (Surprised?) Accordingly, Kimball, as editor, adds to this collection a scholarly afterword, quoting from rare Devine interviews; and I am amazed to find myself joyful over the whole thing.
Here is a snatch of commentary on two lists that launch the book, the second, of course, being “Words That Should Be Used In Fiction, a Selection.”
Of course, these were not essays in a traditional sense. They were both simply lists of words, but it was clear that the lists of words collected into an argument that was an implicit critique of fiction. Devine confirms this in the Maday interview (2009): “I’m talking about these words in relation to fiction. Nonfiction is another matter.”
This feels like getting my brain rubbed right through the dura mater.
Okay, so this is really not you. You are not vastly amused by Devine’s theory that “word choice was one of the intial points of failure for so much fiction and that by avoiding certain words that failure could be avoided, or at least delayed.”
May I then recommend nine pages in the middle titled “A Grammar For Fiction Writers,” which is not a grammar at all; it is the author speaking truth to writers, with periodic rants about punctuation. It’s in list form, of course. The first line got me out of the apartment this morning to do my pages in a coffee shop, and may become one of my mantras, which is more than worth the $8 cost of the book.
Herewith, a Selection.
Fiction writers are only fiction writers when they are writing fiction.
Fiction must be rendered. Revision creates art.
Every work of fiction can be improved.
It is important for the fiction writer to have a sense of purpose even if that sense of purpose cannot save the fiction writer.
The reader should never know what the next sentence is going to be.
And just to keep you off balance:
Words with prepositions in them—downstairs, downtown, inside, outside, upstairs—are good words. Write fiction about people going inside, outside, upstairs, etc.
I don’t really get that, I don’t even agree with it, but the book made me bizarrely happy. Revision creates art—oh yes. Back to work.
This is what I know about myself: the safest thing I can do is take a risk, while the riskiest thing for me is to play it safe.
Perversely, when I am several months into writing a story, or several years into a book, I stall. And not just stall. I flee. This happens just as the thing starts to seem like a genuine piece of narrative—albeit still a rambling piece of crud, but one that might soon start to crystalize.
It would be lovely to think that my subconscious is saying, Honey, just let the manuscript percolate for a few months. But I’m suspicious. I think dread of some kind is involved. Dread of failure? Fear of success? Whatever’s going on down there in the writer’s basement, I’m playing it safe, taking no risks: not writing. And the manuscript, far from percolating, becomes a distant object.
I have marvelous excuses. An intensive book tour. Can’t write in hotel rooms; bad ergonomics kill my hands. A friend’s chemo, necessitating a two-week trip. Another friend’s novel, which I line-edited with much pleasure for two weeks. My mom’s fourth hospitalization (involving more dog therapy, of course—that’s Pippin in dreamy splendor at the foot of the bed) and my six-week relocation to L.A.: Who could work? I’m never home; it’s a theme. My shiny new blog. There’s more; shall I keep going?
In Santa Monica’s Diesel bookstore this evening I was amazed to see, as if for the first time, that some writers come out with books on a regular basis and some do not, and that I really have only two choices for my sparse free hours and bad hands: blog-email-Facebook (which has brought many new writers into my world), or work on the terrifying half-done novel. In Diesel, finally, I saw it as a choice—for now, at least, after five months of book-travel and caregiving. And so I hope to unplug, though not to a Luddite extent, and get back in near-daily touch with the novel. I feel almost Seussian about this vow: I will write it on a train, I will write it in the rain, I will write it in my bed, I will write it in my head. Most important, I promise to take the risk of writing it on the bad days.
(Dog therapists trained and provided by the nonprofit Love on 4 Paws.)
Ten rules for writing fiction, an article from The Guardian, recently went viral at The Grotto—a group of about 35 San Francisco authors who share office space and comradeship. Thanks, Natalie Baszile, for the link.
Don’t be put off that the piece starts with Elmore Leonard, whose ten rules you read nine years ago in The New York Times. (Does he sound more sonorous in The Guardian? I didn’t spot the word hooptedoodle this time.)
Anyway, the UK reporter kept working the proverbial phones, reaching Annie Proulx and many others. A few favorites:
Do give the work a name as quickly as possible. Own it, and see it. Dickens knew Bleak House was going to be called Bleak House before he started writing it. The rest must have been easy.
Keep a diary. The biggest regret of my writing life is that I have never kept a journal or a diary.
Have regrets. They are fuel. On the page they flare into desire.
Remember, if you sit at your desk for 15 or 20 years, every day, not counting weekends, it changes you. It just does. It may not improve your temper, but it fixes something else. It makes you more free.
The most purely autobiographical fiction requires pure invention. Nobody ever wrote a more autobiographical story than “The Metamorphosis.”
You see more sitting still than chasing after.
Protect the time and space in which you write. Keep everybody away from it, even the people who are most important to you.
And two resources from my own stash:
It’s hard to remember February when you’re sweltering in the firepit of August. I couldn’t invent the dinnerplate sized rosettes of sempervium swollen with rain in a rock wall, or the slow purposeful bees visiting the white lantana, this liquid warbling of songbirds–mockingbirds, robins!
She goes on:
I do the weather to stay tuned to the phenomenon of the real world. Reality is not virtual. The weather is everything–-time of day, light and shadow, scent, textures and patterns, sound, the three dimensions, distance, what’s blooming, what’s bare…and how I feel this morning, after rain…
“Fuck the plot.” Edna O’Brien says that in a Paris Review interview. She then goes on to say this: “What matters is the imaginative truth.” I don’t know what she means, exactly, by “imaginative truth,” but I can imagine what she means.
It reminds me of something that somebody told me Rick Whitaker said: “Plot tells you how their life turns out. What the fuck do I care about how their life turns out? I want to know their heart.”
And that reminds me of this quote from Andy Devine: “We all know how the story ends. If you have the baby, then the baby will die. If you fall in love, then the love will end.”
I care deeply about story. But I love these quotes, and pre-ordered Andy Devine’s book, Words. No, I was not remotely influenced by the fact that Andy Devine and Michael Kimball are the same smart, generous and enviably productive person.
I have a bunch of readings coming up fast—in in LA, SF, DC, Charlottesville, and AWP in Denver. It would be lovely to see friends.
Just found a great Deborah Eisenberg interview with Ron Hogan of the blog Beatrice from 13 years ago. (I’d searched for “Deborah Eisenberg interviews” because she talks about writing like no one’s business, and because a terrific one in Tin House is print-only; more on that tk.) Here’s a snippet that touches on close third; emphasis mine:
RH: My favorite moments in these stories are those in which epiphanies would stereotypically occur, but your characters simply go on experiencing what they’ve been experiencing, doing what they’ve been doing, just the way we would in real life.
DE: That’s the issue as far as I’m concerned. What is an experience? What does it actually feel like? What is the consistency of that moment in the mind? What is actually occurring? What does it actually feel like? Not, how will I sum it up to myself, or how will I sum it up to the reader, but what is going in my nerve endings? What’s going on in this strange, sloshing organ that’s encased in my skull?
RH: In order to convey that, you avoid using an authorial voice that ‘explains’ a character’s thoughts or actions from outside. You stay as close to the characters and their reactions as possible.
DE: To me, in a way the implicit task is always, “What does it feel like to be a human being?” Whoever the character is, how far can I crawl into the mental processes of that character? It’s very rare that one says to oneself, “This is what’s happening, this is what this moment is. It means blah-blah…” That’s just not the experience of being alive, the experience of a moment.
This is my dogeared, hard-used 1997 copy (24th paperback printing) of Flannery O’Connor’s Mystery and Manners. It cost $12.
And just below is my new, virginal 1969 “first printing” (vs the 1957 true first edition), from Farrar, Straus and Cudahy, Inc. Where’s Giroux? It cost $85 and made me weep in New Orleans’s Faulkner House bookstore.
Among the Flannerys I go back to again and again:
- The writer learns, perhaps more quickly than the reader, to be humble in the face of what-is. What-is is all he has to do with; the concrete is his medium; and he will realize eventually that fiction can transcend its limitations only by staying within them.
- There is a moment in every great story in which the presence of grace can be felt as it waits to be accepted or rejected, even though the reader may not recognize this moment.
- …the lines of motion that interest the writer are usually invisible. They are the lines of spiritual motion. And in (A Good Man is Hard to Find), you should be on the lookout for such things as the action of grace in the Grandmother’s soul, and not for the dead bodies.
- …violence is strangely capable of returning my characters to reality and preparing them to accept their moment of grace. Their heads are so hard that almost nothing else will do the work.
It seems right to open this highly erratic blog on writing and literary events with a bow to Jim Krusoe: novelist, sensei, friend.
The fabulous Mary Otis and I dedicated our November 2009 UCLA Hammer Museum reading to Jim–as our collections were forged in his Santa Monica College fiction workshop–and I recited the Jim Krusoe litany that plays in my head as I work. Here it is, in part.
- When you’re writing a scene, give one character a task to complete. It gives the scene something to build toward.
- Let the task go wrong.
- Write the scene before the scene that changed your character’s life.
- If a scene with two characters isn’t working, bring in a third.
- Beware of designer names in search of a character.
- People love reading about characters at work.
- Look for enabling details–the one or two quirky or slightly off things about a person or setting that are so telling, the reader can imagine everything else, all at once.
And may I celebrate the most recent book to grow out of Jim’s workshop: BUMMER, by Janice Shapiro, a story collection just acquired by Soft Skull Press.