Peering Under Stones: Research for Fiction

by Rachel Pastan

Once, going up an escalator in a New York City department store, I casually asked a friend, “So, what kind of school did you have to go to become a museum curator?” She thought I was taking an interest. Really, I was fishing for information for a novel.

This is one kind of research for fiction: casual, compelling, undercover. I do it a lot. Sometimes people who know me well catch me at it. Other times they accuse me of fishing when I’m just interested in hot air ballooning or the landscape of Siberia. Not that the wall between fishing and just being interested is impermeable; almost anything may turn out to be useful sooner or later.

When I was working on my second novel, about a Russian literature professor and a herpetologist, I did a lot of library research. I read books about Russian water nymphs and the hag Baba Yaga, and I immersed myself in Sofya Tolstoy’s diaries. I looked up interviews with women scientists, subscribed to The Journal of Herpetology (herpetology is the study of reptiles and amphibians), and even audited a University of Wisconsin course on terrestrial vertebrates.

I learned a lot about frogs, turtles, and lizards in that course, but it was the snakes that seduced me. With their strange beauty, their powerful metaphorical associations, and the way they rouse strong visceral reactions, snakes seemed like the total fictional package. During one of the class field trips, I stomped—seven months pregnant!—across muddy spring fields, peering under stones as we’d been directed to do. When I lifted a rock and uncovered a young snake, I grabbed it and ran to show the professor. In that moment,  I wasn’t gathering material and the snake was not a metaphor. It was all animal: cool, wriggling, fork-tongued.

Part of the joy of reading (and writing) fiction is immersing ourselves in lives and worlds very different from our own. As writers, we have a responsibility to get those worlds right—at least respectably (respectfully) so. For the past few months I have been doing research for a novel about a geneticist who works with corn, and trying to getting it right has been some of the hardest work I’ve ever done. I have read biographies of plant geneticists and books about the history of genetics. I have pored over scientific papers and articles. I have studied Wikipedia entries for meiosis, epigenetics, and trilobites; spent afternoons in archives reading old letters; and watched animations of cells dividing.

Then there are the field trips. Last summer, having gathered my courage, I visited a friendly corn biologist at the University of Delaware who, after I emailed him out of the blue, offered to show me his cornfield. Some of the crucial scenes in the novel will take place in a cornfield, and I had never really looked at one before. I had certainly never walked through one with a geneticist and looked at the stalks and ears and tassels (and weeds and pests) through his eyes.

It was a hot August day when the geneticist took me around, and the corn, rustling drily, was taller than we were. He described his research, which had to do with disease resistance. I nodded a lot and scribbled in my notebook, but mostly I was writing things like: “Hard earth, sticky stalks. Trees, outbuildings, pipes, barrels. Tap bag and shake to collect pollen. Selfing— fertilizing a plant with its own pollen. Sibbing—fertilizing a plant with the pollen of a sibling plant. Big black wasps.” These are the kinds of things I need to know to bring a scene a life: some vivid details of the physical world, and a little bit of lingo. Selfing and wasps.

Of course, research shouldn’t overshadow the story, nor should it call attention to itself. As Lily King wrote about her novel Euphoria, based on the life of Margaret Mead: “My research needed to be like an undergarment in the days before people started showing off their boxers and their bra straps. I didn’t want any of it to show through.” This requires discipline: the urge to show off how much one has learned can be potent and dangerous—though sometimes a writer gets away with it. In American Pastoral, Philip Roth lays out the glove-making process in ferocious detail, but, compelled by the power and beauty of his prose style, I devoured every word.

Inevitably some of what one learns—or even a great deal of it—ends up being irrelevant. The herpetologist character in my book got folded, in the course of revision, into the Russian literature professor. Two characters with opposite impulses became one character torn by conflicting impulses. It was a sounder narrative strategy, but the terrestrial vertebrates class turned out to be a waste of time.

Except not entirely. When I was nearly done with the novel, I wrote a scene in which the Russian literature professor’s three-year-old daughter lifts a stone in the park and finds a little snake, which she insists on taking home and naming Stripey. The moment in the muddy Wisconsin field, which I’d thought was just life, turned out to be fodder for the beast of fiction after all.

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The Dreaded Question

by Major Jackson

It happened again yesterday, a question I increasingly hear as downright boorish, an effrontery on par with public flatulence. Whenever these words are spoken, my frustration is nearly instant, visible; one of the corners of my brown lips turns up and a dark frown emerges, and if I do not control the muscles in my face, my interlocutor will have to suffer a scowl as I attempt to push the rock back up the mountain. This question, on the surface, is benign, posed to solicit a checklist of things-to-do, tricks of the trade, so to speak, if one is to become a successful writer, as if to unmask the eccentricities of the imagination at work.

“What’s your creative process?”

Evil, thy name is banality, and here is where I am most assured the chink in The Matrix is not a fiction: for like many other writers, I have encountered that question during Q&A at the tail end of many reading; also on a tarmac at La Guardia, sitting next to a seismologist, downing gin and tonics, waiting out a storm. Somewhere back in the 19th century, a period of intense adulation of all things literary, some villain, probably a pamphlet-writer on Grub Street, decided to taunt writers henceforth and forever with the task of having to explain what amounts to a strange incubation of ambition, inquiry, desire, emotion, and talent finding release in language that conforms to one or more several genres we know as fiction, poetry, or creative non-fiction.

Each poem is its own singular journey, its own incorporation of magical circumstances, and such a question reduces writing to a mere walk around the (same) block. Contrarily, I have heard prose writers discuss the sentence itself as a fierce adventure of will and discovery, syntax as an excursion to the unknown. But to the layman, to the tyro, writing is conceived as a set of steps or directions: you-do-this, you-do-that, and lo-and-behold . . .

When I think of process, I think of gears and assembly lines, supercomputers, soulless algorithms, synthetic waltzes, a repetitive act of candle-lighting or some other guiding ritual that unremarkably leads to words. It is well-known that William Wordsworth took walks with his sister Dorothy before the faucet of feelings spontaneously overflowed. Probably less well-known, is that poet James Whitcomb Riley, that venerable bon vivant from Indiana, checked into hotels and asked his friends to lock him in his room and take with them his garments, so he wouldn’t be enticed to leave his desk to satiate his thirst for a cocktail in the lobby. Sir Walter Scott composed poems while riding on horseback. I imagine these are the salacious details of preparation and odd personality quirks which the person posing the question wants to hear, and the more exotic and incongruous, the better.

I’ve heard writers do some of the following in an effort to call back the muse from vacation: perform a hundred push-ups, make soup, play a nearby piano, engage in a quick romp with one’s beloved or self, smoke a bowl, organize all of the pens and pencils in a house, read the opening chapters of The Art of War, complete a daily crossword puzzle, wait until the minute hand hits exactly a lucky number or lands on a specific time as though the doors to a rare universe had opened through which the writer is allowed to enter, pluck fleas from their dog’s back until they were all gone, sit in a car and record all the license plates of cars that passed by. Before a visit to his writing desk, by the way, Eliot meticulously applied face powder and lipstick.

I get it: such rituals serve as the magical unlocking of a consciousness. They make the beginning of a poem or story easier to commence, maybe even give us a sense of being in control of something as inscrutable and elusive as the imagination.

However, what I find difficult to explain, in answer to the question, is that writing arises out of a greater complexity; not necessarily a need, but beyond need — and even then, only after I have attained enough of the requisite parts (memories, facts, impulses, willpower, and whatever else finds its way into the poem). That period of gestation gives rise to something within that emerges as organic and inevitable as a day lily shooting up out of earth. The beyond-need has, as its source, the urge to simply make, which points to the etymological root of the Poet as Maker. What happens from that point on is a kind of possession (of the variety that Maya Deren captures in her film Divine Horsemen), a setting free of energy existent within and around us.

Once induced into a spirit of composing, the imagination dances with language in that space William James described as “fringe consciousness.” (I should add here, half my life is spent walking in the margins of subconscious existence.) How do I explain or convey that the poem begins long before I ever sit down?

For sure, our Bennington method — “Read a Hundred. Write One”— is only a small part of a process of refinement and honing that has to occur in order for authentic expression to happen. This is not only part of developing one’s craft, but more important, I think, developing a singular way of seeing and digesting life itself. Only Gwendolyn Brooks could have gorgeously uttered: “Conduct your blooming in the noise and whip of the whirlwind.” I can only imagine what snapshots in the mind, what synapses of experiences, what encounters with language led to this moment in her poem “The Second Sermon on the Warpland” from In the Mecca. (Someday neuroscience will have the ability to data mine our thoughts and track images, lines of poems, and sounds to their original sources. Until then, let’s revel in the mystery.)

I exaggerate my hostility; in all honesty, I try to answer the question with the utmost seriousness — at times I glibly say that it depends on the poem and where it takes me. Recently, I wrote one (currently in the latest issue of New Letters) that took me to a newspaper account I’d read years ago about of of Dr. Kevorkian’s televised suicide-assistance in 1998, which landed him in jail. For years, I was startled by Thomas Youk’s answer to “Any last words?” to which he replied,“I didn’t understand any of it.” In writing my poem, I recalled the despair that came over me back then; to think someone had lived 52 years on earth and had not found any meaning, any consoling wisdom, any understanding, and that this (not his disease) was his reason for wanting to die. That memory led to my thinking about oblivion and bewilderment, and thus, the poem found its exit strategy.

After all of the films and poems, after the songs heard and the hearts broken, after the long hours arguing some philosophic belief, after walking the narrow streets of some ancient city, after the hurts and groundswell of grace and love-making, we achieve a naturalness of seeing that is uniquely ours, that emerges into some statement of who we are, some song of ourselves. How difficult it is to explain that succinctly and simply — for it is neither. In the end, in answer to the question, we can only point to the poems and stories themselves.

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Falling in Love Again

by David Daniel

I didn’t think I was the reunion type, but I went to the 20th reunion of the Oakland High School class of 1978 in Murfreesboro, Tennessee anyhow. Other than the poet now known as H.L. Hix, I had only been in casual touch with a few friends over all that time —and Harvey wasn’t coming—so I walked in vaguely nauseated, as I tend to walk into any large group of people, or any small group of people, when there’s no one to hold my hand. Right away, I ran into a former long-time girlfriend and another mutual, great old friend, and rather than launching into old stories, we just started telling jokes, and laughing our heads off. Even though we hadn’t spoken to one another since we left for college, we were falling back in love with that crazy, breathless thrill; that let’s-just-keep-talking-all-night-while-the-rest-of-the-sleepover-falls-asleep feeling that I couldn’t have consciously conjured. And I realized that the love that I had once had for them was not just childish stuff, as I had assumed , but that it was deep, intimate, and abiding across vast distances of time and circumstance. In fact, recognizing myself in them—a little gesture, a phrase, a certain spice in the flavor of the wit—I understood that I was partly composed of them, made from their love. It was startling, and it was one of the most moving moments of my life, and we haven’t exchanged another word since.

When I was in grad school, reading contemporary poetry for the first time—tons of it—I fell in love with Robert Hass’s Praise. On my front porch in Baltimore, I read it over and over, weeping, laughing, astonished by its life, the intimacy I felt. I read from it to every single person I knew for the entire heady six months. And then I met Jack Gilbert. Then Jean Valentine. Then Larry Levis. Then Eduardo Galeano, Juan Rulfo, Virginia Woolf, Primo Levi…a string of intense affairs that I thought would never end. But, the truth is, as I became a professional, so to speak—an editor and teacher—I was reading so much and quickly that it became more like making Facebook friends than falling in love. And while certain books and poems and plays stayed with me, many of them didn’t.

Not long after my first book came out, I decided to teach Praise, which I hadn’t read or thought much about for a decade. Because I’m lazy, I didn’t even re-read it before I walked into the class, and as I began to read “Meditation at Lagunitas” aloud, I started to cry, a little a first, but soon I could barely go on. It was probably the worst class ever because, while the students were accustomed to me choking up when the subject of my well-known, unrequited love for Prince came up, this was different, and likely unsettling. But I didn’t really care. As I babbled on saying god knows what about the poems, I was really thinking: I love you, Robert Hass, love you, love you, love you deep in my heart, and I always have. I was also thinking: Holy Shit, I stole this entire book—because line after line echoed through lines of my own poems, lines I thought I made up.

Sometimes I worry that in our quest for technical mastery or teaching prowess or sheer volume of knowledge, we don’t take the time, when the right one comes along, to fall headlong, weak-kneed, to-hell-with-it in love with our books—to get to know them so well that we feel we know their souls and our own more deeply because of them. Now when I look at my poems, I see subtle and not-so-subtle traces of those true loves everywhere—just as, when I take the time to pay attention, I feel my real-life dear friends and loves subtly and not so subtly in my heart. I believe all our rare and beautiful loves abide, woven into the very stuff of us, and I hope for all of us that with books, when we sense that spark, we can, in the madness of getting and giving, slow down and linger long enough so there’s a chance to be lucky in love again and again.

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Babies and Weather

by Alice Mattison

Novelists complain that no sooner do they turn their backs than their characters run off and do things on their own that the writer never even thought of, much less approved of (but which, they add, chuckling with fake dismay, often turn out to be the best things in the book). True, I guess, but as a novelist I’ve more often had to deal with characters who can’t seem to do the simplest things on their own. Much that takes care of itself in life, without fuss, requires laborious planning and tracking in a book. Babies, for example. Maybe you start a novel knowing two things about your story: the lovers will conceive their child on a moonlit night on the beach, and later they’ll drive to the hospital for the birth in a blizzard. Fine. Your book is set in Massachusetts, so you take your characters to Cape Cod for a vacation, bring them onto the beach one warm August night, and after a midnight swim, presto—a kiss, a sheltered spot behind a dune—pregnancy.

Wait a minute. Nine months after August is May. No blizzards in May. Even if you move the lovemaking to July (though you had other plans for your characters in July) a blizzard in April is unlikely. There could be a blizzard in March—but a midnight swim in June? The water’s too cold.

After running into that kind of trouble with a few novels, I made up my mind to write one in which virtually no time passed. I ended up writing about two separate weeks, fourteen years apart, in a woman’s life. The fourteen years didn’t give me trouble—I knew what had changed for her, what hadn’t. But being her constant companion, minute by minute, for a week at a time, turned out to be a chore. She didn’t eat meals on her own—I had to provide them! I had to remember if she’d had lunch, and supply her with at least a snack. I even had to send her to take showers and put her to bed at night. If you follow someone hour by hour for a week, you can’t just say, “Two days later . . .” Significant things happened to her every day—I needed every day. I just didn’t need meals and bedtimes every day, but I was stuck with them. Since my character’s purse had been stolen at the start of the book and she had almost no money, it wasn’t even clear what she was going to eat when she did eat—so I not only had to remind her it was mealtime, but figure out how a meal could be secured. The woman was helpless.

I thought I’d learned my lesson with that book, so I decided the next one would follow my characters through their entire adult lives—sixty-eight years, as it turned out. Wonderful. They had meals on their own, they used the bathroom without prompting, they took showers and put on clothes appropriate to the season when I wasn’t around. I could zoom out and zoom back in when something exciting happened: “Two years passed before he saw her again. Then, one windy afternoon as he bicycled near the river. . .” I’d write whatever scene I wanted and zoom out again.

The only trouble was that in sixty-eight years quite a few babies were born—so there I was again, finding appropriate weather for babies to be born in, depending on when they’d been conceived. Also, the babies turned into children and the children went to school—and when I’d zoom in because some adult’s happiness was at stake, some little kid would be hanging around, and I had to know whether she could read, whether she might try out for a team in high school—or was she only in eighth grade? Remember, please, that school grade depends not just on when the child was born but what month it is right now, since children are promoted halfway through the calendar year. After the book was done I kept finding scraps of paper listing the names, ages, and school grades in different seasons of different years for a set of imaginary children, who would have proceeded through school without such calculations if only they’d been real people.

The Baby-and-Weather problem occurs in writing fiction when something that takes a predictable amount of time has to jibe with something else, something that may be a hundred or more pages away. It’s a nuisance, but only one of many nuisances in this generally ill-paid, stressful, and thankless profession. Why do we go on doing it, then? It’s our own fault. Nobody was ever forced to write a novel. We choose this occupation. I’ve chosen it again and again, when nothing else satisfied the wish to make up and tell a story, to live for a long time with people nobody knows but me, to find words for their good times and trouble.

When my sister and I were little, we played with paper dolls, dressing them and then changing their clothes, cutting out dresses from a paper-doll book or the Sears Roebuck catalogue. I don’t think we made up stories using the dolls. It took too long to get them dressed—that was the game. We got them ready for a story. But we did talk—in low voices, interrupting each other, not listening much. A fizzy hum of possibility, the mental equivalent of a cell phone set on vibrate, carried us along as we handled and described the dolls, choosing yet another hat and coat, and another. I guess I write novels for the hum.

Claiming Your Ancestors

by April Bernard

This is a slightly edited version of the dinner speech delivered to the MFA graduating class, on the night of June 28th, 2014.

Tonight I will read five poems by poets whom I count among my many ancestors. It turns out that you can, after all, choose your own family and assemble your own family tree. Like me, you are allowed to be presumptuous, foolish, and hopeful enough to count yourselves as “descended” from those master writers you most admire. But remember that there is work to be done, always, to collect your inheritance.

I am limiting myself to the dead; and for this occasion, I thought I would find poems that seem, directly or indirectly, to comment on the business of writing. Let me begin with an Elizabeth Bishop poem from the 1940s, “The Bight.” Bishop has been placed so high on her pedestal that people often forget how funny she can be; in this poem, she begins by executing a series of expert metaphors and simultaneously mocking her reliance them. This is one of those poems about what it means to try to put the world into words, and always to feel like a bit of a failure. She is in Key West, watching the activity in the little bay, or “bight,” she can see from her study window. A key word here is “marl,” the material being dug up—it is a lime deposit composed of, among other things, bird guano, and used for making fertilizer. The only other thing I will say is that you should notice the multiple meanings for the word “correspondence” that comes at the end of the poem. She means, of course, letters between friends, but she is also commenting on the nature of metaphor itself.

The Bight
       on my birthday

At low tide like this how sheer the water is.
White, crumbling ribs of marl protrude and glare
and the boats are dry, the pilings dry as matches.
Absorbing, rather than being absorbed,
the water in the bight doesn’t wet anything,
the color of the gas flame turned as low as possible.
One can smell it turning to gas; if one were Baudelaire
one could probably hear it turning to marimba music.
The little ocher dredge at work off the end of the dock
already plays the dry perfectly off-beat claves.
The birds are outsize. Pelicans crash
into this peculiar gas unnecessarily hard,
it seems to me, like pickaxes,
rarely coming up with anything to show for it,
and going off with humorous elbowings.
Black-and-white man-of-war birds soar
on impalpable drafts
and open their tails like scissors on the curves
or tense them like wishbones, till they tremble.
The frowsy sponge boats keep coming in
with the obliging air of retrievers,
bristling with jackstraw gaffs and hooks
and decorated with bobbles of sponges.
There is a fence of chicken wire along the dock
where, glinting like little plowshares,
the blue-gray shark tails are hung up to dry
for the Chinese-restaurant trade.
Some of the little white boats are still piled up
against each other, or lie on their sides, stove in,
and not yet salvaged, if they ever will be, from the last bad storm,
like torn-open, unanswered letters.
The bight is littered with old correspondences.
Click. Click. Goes the dredge,
and brings up a dripping jawful of marl.
All the untidy activity continues,
awful but cheerful.

Let’s jump back 400 years or so to Sir Thomas Wyatt. In one of his unhappy epigrams he wrestles with a related language problem, though far more briefly.

Throughout the world if it were sought
Fair words enough a man shall find.
They be good cheap; they cost right naught;
Their substance is but only wind.
But well to say and so to mean –
That sweet accord is seldom seen.

By contrast, Gerard Manley Hopkins here accounts for at least a partial success, in this poem from 1864.

“It was a hard thing”

It was a hard thing to undo this knot.
The rainbow shines, but only in the thought
Of him that looks. Yet not in that alone,
For who makes rainbows by invention?
And many standing round a waterfall
See one bow each, yet not the same to all,
But each a hand’s breadth further than the next.
The sun on falling waters writes the text
Which yet is in the eye or in the thought.
It was a hard thing to undo this knot.

From the tentative to the triumphal vein: Marianne Moore’s first visit to New York City took place in the nineteen-teens—she had a wonderful and terrifying time, and referred to that trip as her “Sojourn in the Whale”; the whale of the city had swallowed her up and then spat her back out. She had a fondness for that Jonah metaphor, and in this later poem, actually called “Sojourn in the Whale,” she begins by talking about Ireland—which, if you look at the map, seems to be about to be swallowed by the English Whale to its east. She is of course writing about Ireland’s history of oppression under English rule, and also about the condition of being a woman writer. I would invite male writers to allow themselves for the moment to be feminized, and to identify with this as well—for are not all writers sojourning in the whale of our oppressive culture? In any case, the outcome here is, surprisingly, ok, as was the Biblical Jonah’s.

Sojourn in the Whale

Trying to open locked doors with a sword, threading
      the points of needles, planting shade trees
      upside down; swallowed by the opaqueness of one whom the seas
love better than they love you, Ireland—

you have lived and lived on every kind of shortage.
      You have been compelled by hags to spin
       gold thread from straw and have heard men say:
“There is a feminine temperament in direct contrast to ours,

which makes her do these things. Circumscribed by a
      heritage of blindness and native
      incompetence, she will become wise and will be forced to give in.
Compelled by experience, she will turn back;

water seeks its own level”;
      and you have smiled. “Water in motion is far
      from level.” You have seen it, when obstacles happened to bar
the path, rise automatically.

Finally, I will end with a mysterious poem by Wallace Stevens, one that means a great deal to me without my ever having completely understood it, called “On the Road Home.” Perhaps it can be seen as less about writing and than about conversation—between the writer and the reader; between each of you and your fellow writers; between the student and the teacher.

On the Road Home

It was when I said,
“There is no such thing as the truth,”
That the grapes seemed fatter.
The fox ran out of his hole.

You…You said,
“There are many truths,
But they are not parts of a truth.”
Then the tree, at night, began to change,

Smoking through green and smoking blue.
We were two figures in a wood.
We said we stood alone.

It was when I said,
“Words are not forms of a single word.
In the sum of the parts, there are only the parts.
The world must be measured by eye”;

It was when you said,
“The idols have seen lots of poverty,
Snakes and gold and lice,
But not the truth”;

It was at that time, that the silence was largest
And longest, the night was roundest,
The fragrance of the autumn warmest,
Closest, and strongest.

Graduating class of June 2014: How lucky you are to be writing in this glorious, motley, flexible, polyglot English language. Claim your ancestors— all those great novelists, story writers, essayists, memoirists, playwrights, and poets. Claim your inheritance by reading their work again and again; and while you should never try to write like them—for each new age needs its own particular literature—you should always, in your work, endeavor to be worthy of them.

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Novel v Story, and Some Rambling About Dolphins

by Bret Anthony Johnston

In the unpublished foreword to The Preserving Machine, Philip K. Dick offers up a succinct idea about the differences between writing short stories and novels: “[A] short story may deal with a murder; a novel deals with the murderer.” More recently, Ann Patchett compared a story to a punch to the solar plexus and a novel to a long illness from which the writer may never recover. Some writers describe the differences in romantic terms (stories are dates and novels are marriages), and others, when pressed on why certain material is more suited to one form than the other, can only shrug and say, “You just know.” The question is a mainstay at author readings and in fiction workshops, and lately, when someone is misguided enough to ask my opinion, I launch into a spiel about dolphins.

In my novel Remember Me Like This, one of the characters volunteers to help rehabilitate a beached dolphin and becomes kind of obsessed with it. To inhabit her consciousness, I read a lot about dolphins. Like, a lot. Like, if you’re on a quiz show and need to phone a friend for help defining terms like skyhopping or echolocation, call me. FYI: Skyhopping is when dolphins extend their heads out of the water like periscopes. Echolocation is how they navigate and communicate while swimming. It’s complex sonar, a range of clicks and whistles and other sounds that dolphins emit to map their surroundings. When the noises hit something, they bounce back to the dolphin freighted with information; the speed with which this happens determines the object’s distance, shape and density. Through echolocation, dolphins can distinguish between the size of a penny and a dime. They can discern if women in the water are pregnant (occasionally, and sometimes awkwardly, before the women know) and if people have metal rods or plates implanted in their bodies. The sonar is astoundingly accurate. It’s also akin to how writers decide what should be a story and what should be a novel.

Writers are, I think, always sending out their own version of sonar. We scan surroundings for details and characters, for images and settings and pieces of dialogue. We listen for conflicts and anecdotes that suggest larger, more nuanced stories. When we encounter something that intimates a whole narrative, we immediately—instinctively, involuntarily—start gauging its significance. We assess its viability, its solidness, its depth and breadth. The initial assessment is often instantaneous, and as quickly, most ideas are dismissed as dead ends for any number of reasons. Maybe the material is cliché; maybe it seems too thin or sprawling or unwieldy; maybe it’s too reminiscent of our previous work or someone else’s; or maybe, and this is often the most common reason for dismissal, the idea proves itself far less stirring after the intoxicating rush of discovery wanes. It’s the same with dolphins. They’re constantly looking for sustenance and company and entertainment, stimuli that will engage their relentlessly inquisitive minds, but most of what their noises ricochet against fails to capture their interests. When they lock in on something promising, though, they race in its direction. They roll onto their sides, swimming in circles around it for closer inspection. They nudge and prod it with their beaks, looking for soft spots. They keep firing their sonar to figure out what’s inside of this thrilling new thing.

Just as writers do. Once we’ve established that an idea is worthwhile, we consider its density and shape. We map the contours of the tension to gather a sense of what its structure might need to be, and we consider the lives of the characters—how much time will the narrative cover, where will it start and finish, what will it skip, where will it linger? That is, we prod to see if the thing should be short or long. This usually occurs with such swiftness and at such subconscious levels that it can seem as though nothing has happened at all, which is why so many writers say they “just know” how long a project should be. The knowing comes from the information embedded in the echo. If the idea seems especially wide or multi-faceted, if it expands rather than contracts with every poke and prod, then it’s likely a novel. If, on the other hand, the idea seems dense and compact, if it’s potent enough to epitomize a character’s life through a singular event, then it’s probably a story.

What’s crucial to understand here is that I’m not saying the material defines the length of the project. And I’m not arguing that the same idea will suggest itself in similar ways to different writers. Quite the opposite. My position is that whether an idea becomes a short story or a novel utterly depends upon the writer’s curiosity about the subject. We’re not gauging the idea itself; we’re gauging the scope of our interest in the idea. Will the subject hold my attention for months or years? Am I more interested in what this character does, or why she does it? Is this thing about an individual or a family? Is it about death (murder) or life (murderer)? The answers will reveal the ideal form of the narrative, and they’ll do it with the precision of a dolphin discerning the difference between a golf ball and a ping-pong ball. It’s all about the weight, the density, the heft.

I’m also not making any value judgments about the forms nor am I suggesting that one is harder to write than the other. I don’t accept the premise that novels are superior to stories any more than I accept that a writer has to master the short form before graduating to the long. (If anything, the opposite is true: drafting a novel may teach writers unique and invaluable lessons about the architecture of stories.) Regardless of subject, a good short story trumps a mediocre novel in the same way that a dime, though smaller, is worth more than a penny. And short stories can be as difficult and time-consuming to write as novels. If you write or read a great novel and a great short story—and I do believe readers send out their own sonar, testing how much time they want to spend with a subject or author—then you know well the impossibility of ranking one over the other. The goal isn’t a narrative that’s long or timely or marketable. The goal is only to write—and read—something great, something lasting, something in which the characters’ souls are rendered with the grace and surprise and timeless power of the ocean. To achieve this, we have to trust our curiosity and its mysterious, infallible echoes. We have to follow the sounds of our imagination through the dark and murky water of doubt. We have to believe the stories will guide us to the surface where we can breathe clear air and feel the sun on our faces. We have to know that when we dive under again, the readers and characters will be there, waiting and holding their breath, listening for us to call their names and swim blindly in their direction.

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Jaywalking

by Dinah Lenney

Not that you’d do it just for kicks (you’d have to have slew of much better reasons)—and yet: half the fun of jaywalking is that it’s jaywalking, right? That is, it’s breaking the rules. Although—you wouldn’t break them to hurt anyone. And you wouldn’t want to get hurt yourself. So say you’re in the San Fernando Valley on Ventura Boulevard between Laurel Canyon and Colfax and you’re compelled to jaywalk. If you know the way the traffic flows, if you have, on occasion, calculated the time that it takes for the lights to change in each direction—if you’re deeply familiar with that quarter mile stretch, you might get a ticket, yeah, but chances are you’ll make it safely to the other side.

Or say a woman chooses to get married in red (or pink or yellow, or blue or black)—there’s nothing gratuitous about any of those choices, right? If she decides to get hitched but not to wear white, she’s making a statement that once contextualized, tells her guests (and her groom or her bride) something about her history, her values, her personal style.

And have you ever watched “Chopped”? On the food network? Just for instance: in a recent episode, three chefs competed to make an edible entree from the following: mint julep, rack of lamb, eggplant, apple spiced cake. Which doesn’t mean they had to break any rules, but they sure had to know a few, didn’t they. You can’t play that game if you aren’t adept with large and small appliances (knives, whisks, Cuisinarts, convection ovens ) and a wide array of seasonings besides.

Here’s something else: it’s an experienced actor who can actually turn his back on the audience; who isn’t afraid of upstaging himself or being upstaged.

And it’s an accomplished singer who can bend a note to break our hearts—
a trained artist who is as comfortable with oils as with charcoal—

a real clown who can fall down a flight of stairs without breaking his neck.

I’m just riffing here because I was recently asked about breaking the rules—the writing rules—which got me thinking about whether or not they’re important to me.

So at dinner, with rules on my mind, sitting around a table with a bunch of writers, I took a poll: “Which rules of writing are you willing to break?” One of the guys remembered a story about Cynthia Ozick, which I eventually found over at the Paris Review—the whole interview is pretty great actually, but let me quote for you:

Ozick says: “I was taking a course with Lionel Trilling and wrote a paper for him with an opening sentence that contained a parenthesis. He returned the paper with a wounding reprimand: “Never, never begin an essay with a parenthesis in the first sentence.” From that point on, according to Ozick, she made a point of always beginning that way.

And good for her. And see above how I’ve taken up her cause. Except who am I kidding, she did it first: besides which I’m a sucker for rules—the real ones especially (like out of Strunk & White), but also the ones that come in long inspiring lists from famous writers.

As if anyone could tell any of us how to write. The notion is a little ridiculous, which is maybe why Elmore Leonard’s list of ten—some of which seem very sensible—begins with: Never open a book with weather. It’s as if he’s winking at us, right?

And the same thing with Orwell—his rules are great. But the last of the five is the most valuable: Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous. Which is not to say you can’t write barbarously, too, if you know what you’re doing—if you’re doing so for some good reason (you be the judge).

The truth is, if there were rules for writing—hard and fast rules?—we wouldn’t want to do it. We wouldn’t have to do it. Writing would be like crossing in the crosswalk. Like following a recipe. Which brings to mind the old adage: “If you can read, you can cook.” (Is it true of cooking, do you think? I’m not so sure. What I do know: just because you can read, doesn’t mean you can write. Although if you don’t, it’s likely you can’t.)

Anyway. The reason to learn the rules, such as they are, isn’t so much to follow them, as to develop both the fluency and the confidence to be able to break them when breaking them is called for—not out of ignorance or laziness—but purposefully. You (that is, I) want the reader to be able to take for granted that you know how to punctuate a sentence; that you’re clear on the difference between past and present tense; that you can conjugate the verb “to lie.” You don’t want to be suspected of breaking the rules by accident. Nor would you break them only to be clever, right?

So why ever break them then? I read a piece in last Saturday’s New York Times, William Grimes on various authors who have chosen to write in a foreign tongue. Francesca Marciano, an Italian who writes fiction in English, is quoted as saying, “You discover not just words but new things about yourself when you learn a language.” And Karen Ryan, a scholar of Russian émigré literature cites “a sense of play and inventiveness” in the work of writers who learned to speak English in their 20s. Nancy Huston, a Canadian, says that writing in French, her second language, was easier: “I didn’t have the memories and the dreams and all the baggage.” And Yiyun Lee explains, “If you are a native speaker, things are automatic… For me, every time I [...] write something I have to go back and ask, “Is this what I want to say?”

Mono-lingual as I am, dependent on my fluency as I am, glib as I sometimes can be, I can’t even imagine. Though I’m envious— though it seems to me there’s even a rule in there somewhere, having to do with not taking anything for granted, least of all language.

Otherwise— with genuine respect for a whole lot of the rules—I guess it’s not so much a question of which ones I’d break, as much as which ones I wouldn’t in order to say what I want to say. Because who’d want to be accused of writing by the rules, right? I’d rather be caught jaywalking.

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Big Little

by Jill McCorkle

When my son was eight, he went through a period of time where he was obsessed with death. He referred to it as “my fear” and often had trouble sleeping. My father had died just before Rob turned two and so his memories of that time would have been very limited. However, with the desire for my children to know who my father was, I talked about him often and told stories about their interactions with him. I told Rob how I couldn’t keep him away from the hospital bed in my parents’ bedroom. If there was a chair beside the bed, he managed to climb up on it and try to pull himself over the bar. Numerous times I caught him babbling away and patting my dad the way he might’ve the head of a dog and once I found him all the way in the bed. One day near the end of his life, my dad asked me to lift Rob up into the air, way up, he said, I want to see his whole body. It was on this same day, he directly addressed what was happening, something he had not really done since his diagnosis two months before. He said: I wish that I could be there to watch them grow.

When Rob was almost four, he experienced what he called “big little.” I’m not entirely sure what exactly was going on, I just knew that I felt closer to my dad during that time than I had since he was alive. Rob would come home from pre-school and tell me that he had seen my dad at his school. When questioned, he told me that he came every day when they were on the playground. I said, “Oh, I would love to see him,” and Rob said, “I can take you. But,” he added, “I have to drive.”

I have often thought that his desire to “drive” me where he wanted me to go is not unlike what we try to do on the page as we shape our visions and images—our stories—in a way we hope will translate for others and have the power to take them there. One night he called me into his room to tell me that “big little” was happening. I asked what this meant and he said: everything is big and everything is little. Worried that something might be going on with his vision, I asked that he close his eyes, relax. “Now tell me what you see,” I said, and he responded: “All I see are Grandfathers.” I said, “You mean Grandpa David?” his grandfather who was still alive, and he said, “No, all is see is your Daddy.” He lay still, his eyes closed, and then he said, “Oh, and there you are, Mommy,” he pointed out into the dark room, “and you’re just a little tiny girl.” Sometimes “big little” scared him and I’ll confess it scared me a little at first. But I also found it very comforting, this thought that maybe my Dad’s wish had come true and he indeed was watching. “Big Little” is now a story I like to tell when people are talking about experiences when they feel connected with something or someone beyond the realm of their own present lives. And again, isn’t this what good fiction successfully does? We see it all unfold on that personal movie screen we have in our minds, the same screen used for childhood make believe, fantasies and wishes.

I’m not entirely sure what accounted for “the fear” to begin four years post “big little”; it was before his other grandfather died. Rob now tells me he suspects it was from watching one of my favorite movies “What About Bob?” and the scene where Bill Murray talks at great length about his fear of death. Oops. Whatever kicked it into play, it was vivid and all-powerful. I had found that so many childhood phases rolled out as quickly as they rolled in, but “the fear” continued in such a way that it seemed like getting a little help from an outside source would be a good thing.

At the time, Rob was also obsessed with Pokémon, the Red Sox, boycotting Hebrew School, and shooting basketball, which he would do for hours at the time. There was a free standing Fisher-Price goal in the Doctor’s office and I remember sitting in the waiting room and hearing the thump thump thump the whole fifty minutes he was in there. On the way home, the talk was mostly about basketball. I heard how many times he got it in and how many times the Doctor did not. “I like him a lot,” he told me, “but he’s not a great shot.” What I learned later of course was that a whole lot was being discussed in-between shots.

When asked what he would wish if given three wishes, Rob’s first wish was to live the normal life of a man plus one hundred years. His second wish was that everyone he loved could live a normal life plus one hundred years. And his third wish was for a Papillion. We already had a big sweet lab and a watchful Sheltie, but it seemed in light of “the fear” that this last wish that could come true, should.

Where is all of this going? I’m telling a story. And it is connected to the topic I was interested in lecturing about last residency. Show AND Tell. I’ve told the background of a particular time and now I will show the outcome.

A kid in baggy jeans and Red Sox jersey walks into a pet store where there are a lot of dogs waiting for the right home. There is a woman running the place who overhears the desire for a Papillion and sees the boy and his sister running from cage to cage, falling in love with first one and then the other. The sister loves and wants them all, but the boy has his heart set on this very particular kind. A Papillion, if you don’t know, is a teeny tiny thing with great big ears that when up look like a butterfly landed on the head of a Chihuahua. I had already called a few breeders only to learn that these delicate creatures (aside from being quite pricey) are more likely to be placed in homes without existing larger dogs and children running in and out all day.

“There’s a Papillion,” I heard Rob say and he pointed at a little black fur ball in the corner of a pen. The woman immediately swooped over and informed him that he was exactly right! “Not full blooded,” she said, “but there is definitely some Papillion there.” I think everyone over the age of eleven (my daughter’s age) knew that this was not true but I was willing to let imagination take over at this point. And that is the story of how we got Buster.

Buster has been determined as a Shi-Poo—shitzu and poodle blend—and he’s a scruffy little 12 pound dust mop who thinks he’s a big dog; his ears do not stand up high like a butterfly but flop like his Beatle style haircut and Dr. Seuss looking tail. Still, we call him our Papillion and have for fourteen years now.

If you came into our house, you would see this elderly little guy in a blue argyle sweater curled on a blanket and snoring like a truck driver. He is deaf except for the highest pitched whistles, and his vision is fading fast. You would see him there—little old dog sleeping—and I could point and say: There’s Buster. Without the telling of his story, he might only serve as part of the setting, a snoring sound effect or comic relief when you touch him and he startles out of a deep deaf sleep. And in the present moment, he is all of those things. But he also has the history of getting an eight-year-old boy over the fear that kept him awake many, many nights. He is a symbol of long life and wishing good things for those you love; he is that universal wish for immortality. He is a wish that came true.

A story told promises to have a life of its own. There is the actual story as it happens—all that we see and hear and witness in a moment—and there is the reverberation and endless reflection that results from the telling and the history of the telling. It’s the blend of the concrete and the abstract, the showing and the telling. It’s the big and the little. I can show you, but I have to drive. And there’s the real beauty, because we all possess the power to drive; we all have our vehicles of choice. No two trips ever the same.

Literary Clickbait

by Benjamin Anastas

I’ll admit it: I have a clickbait problem. When I go online—should I admit how often that is on any given day? No, let’s maintain the illusion that I’m not addled, that I still have plenty of cubic footage left in the reservoir of willpower I built up before I ever opened a web browser—I can resist most clickbait for 80% of the time that I squander there, maybe even 90% or 95% on a good day of voluntary brain stupefaction and compulsive email checking. But then, like one of the demons yanking on St. Anthony’s cloak in Michelangelo’s painting “The Torment of St. Anthony,” the link “Emotional Toddler Loses it Over Her Parents’ Wedding Song” will scroll onto my screen, or a favorite from just yesterday, “Female Penguin Falls in Love with a Man”—and I’m sunk. I’m clickbait fodder. I’m bought and sold in an instant. I’m wretched with the need to click on the headline and feel the admixture of pleasure and revulsion that always follows. Clickbait plays on fears and anxieties (“3 Signs You’re Close to a Heart Attack”), provokes idle curiosity (“10 Crazy Facts About Sperm”), feeds our prurient appetites (“Jaw Dropping Shots of the First Transgender Supermodel”), and excites all the communal weaknesses that make us human (“What Liam Neeson Told His Dying Wife”). Clickbait is profit-seeking, pure and simple. It plays on the lowest in us to draw eyes and earn revenue. It generates lucre. And you know what? Writers, the smart ones, anyway, have been employing clickbait for as long we’ve had stories. There is no better way to snare your reader from your very first gesture—this holds true for all the genres of writing—than by resorting to literary clickbait.

What follows is a highly subjective and very partial list of the best literary clickbaiting on the shelf. You will no doubt have your own favorites. (If you do, go ahead and leave them in the comments section.)

We treasure our image of Franz Kafka as a neurotic, tensile genius too good for the world: oppressed by his overbearing family; trapped in his “bread job” at the Workers Accident Insurance Institute in Prague; attracted and repelled by Felice Bauer, Milena Jesenská and all the other passing loves in his life. Then how is it that our jittery angel of letters (“A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us”) wrote perhaps the purest example of literary clickbait in the canon when he opened his story “The Metamorphosis” this way?

When Gregor Samsa woke one morning from troubled dreams, he found himself transformed right there in his bed into some sort of monstrous insect.

This new translation from Susan Bernofsky strips away the patina of the decades from Kafka’s language and reveals the casual  tone underneath that helps make this opening line such an effective use of literary clickbait. “Man Turns Into Insect While he Sleeps. See What Kind.” You’d click on that if you saw it on the Huffington Post, wouldn’t you?

The final dying sounds of their dress rehearsal left the Laurel Players with nothing to do but stand there, silent and helpless, blinking out over the footlights of an empty auditorium.

I’ve long been a fan of Richard Yates’s Revolutionary Road, a small miracle of a first novel that would make you hang it up and enroll in an EMT training program if you thought too much about that fact that it’s a first novel. But recently I picked it up again after a fairly long absence and I was struck anew by the novel’s opening—the phrase “final dying sounds” leading to the unexpected “dress rehearsal,” the use of omniscience to introduce the Laurel Players, the foreboding sense that the cast is in over their heads and the production is headed for certain disaster. Revolutionary Road was up against some heavy hitters for the National Book Award in 1962—the other finalists included Joseph Heller, J.D. Salinger, Bernard Malamud, Walker Percy and I.B. Singer—and the eventual winner, Percy’s The Moviegoer, opens pretty well too:

This morning I got a note from my aunt asking me to come for lunch. I know what this means.

But Yates’s opening is an even purer expression of literary clickbait, I would argue—as much as I love The Moviegoer (and it might be an even better first novel than Revolutionary Road). Yates’s opening gambit contains the whole of the book in miniature and does it with an aching style that’s almost impossible to resist.

We tell ourselves stories in order to live. The princess is caged in the Consulate. The man with the candy will lead the children into the sea. The naked woman on the ledge outside the window on the sixteenth floor is a victim of accidie, or the woman is an exhibitionist, and it would be “interesting” to know which.

These opening lines from Joan Didion’s The White Album (1979) are so well- known and so often cited that I hardly need to identify them or talk about why they qualify as an example of literary clickbait. The lines just seem God-given somehow, don’t they? This opening is like a burning bush. We click on it without thinking. But Didion, over and over in her work, uses clickbait to her advantage—look at any one of her essay collections and you’ll see a master of instantaneous persuasion at work.

I’ll look forward to seeing what other examples of literary clickbait readers of this blog will come up with. Poetry in particular.

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Box of Charcoals

by Sven Birkerts

I’m hunting all through the house for something, and though I can’t find it anywhere, I’m also almost seeing it each place I look. As if it cannot not be there. The certainty keeps me going. It’s a long narrow box of charcoals, once bought for one of the kids—who then didn’t use it. But now my son wants it. And I know we still have it: it’s exactly the kind of thing you never throw out or give away, because ‘one day someone will want this.’ That day is here, someone does—and where is it? The art of losing itself may not be hard to master, but making peace with the idea of loss is. To not be able to find something you know has to be right here. Has to be because I put it in a place so that it could be found when needed. Which means that looking for it is really more like looking for myself as I was—a version of getting inside the mind of the criminal to solve the crime. If you know the motive and the psychology…

What does this have to do with writing? Nothing, everything: as usual. Because some version of ‘where is it?’ attends the process, always. The part of what we put to the page that we don’t fully know is the why of doing it—we trust that the process will deliver it and free us from the restless chafe of at least that one incompletion. ‘I know it’s here somewhere, I can almost see it.’ Almost, that beautiful word.

In the last workshop of the January residency we were having a general conversation about writing. A student described how she’d been day after day scrambling to note down everything she heard that she thought might be useful, which is to say noting down a great deal—for who ever knows when any given idea or piece of advice might not come in handy? I then proposed the counter-theory (a reflexive move, but in this case, I think, true) that there exist important levels of forgetfulness, and that writers might learn to use them. These are different for everyone, of course. Myself, I very deliberately do not write down the fleeting images and phrases that come to me while I’m driving, grinding coffee beans, pedaling on the infernal stationary bike (ideally there would be something called a ‘stationery bike’ set up to record your best thoughts automatically)… I don’t make notes out of laziness, true, but there is also an aesthetic conviction: that if something is at all worthy, the psyche will retain it; and that thing will resurface when most needed. Indeed, this is the way such important elements ought to come— as resurfacings—and not as notations retrieved from a notebook and inserted because the conscious writing mind decides that they belong there.

What I’m saying here relates to the metaphor that has been in my head these last days—the needle bumping back again and again on a nick in the vinyl (another metaphor). It’s from the lecture Jo Ann Beard gave at the residency in which she compared waiting for an idea to ripen to holding a beach-ball submerged far under the surface of the water. At least that was the interpretation I put on it at the time. The image invokes ideas of patience and abiding, but also suggests that the truths we seek as writers live at a depth and do not yield themselves up easily. Further, they cannot usually be gotten by straightforward strategies of harvesting. As often as not, they are tricked forth from hiding by the solicitations of rhythm or those of quasi-poetic idea-association. And when they come they carry a crackle of surprise, but also, if this is not a contradiction, a certain meshing sense of rightness.

What does this have to do with remembering and forgetting? For me the whole business goes back to with the ancient Greek concept of anamnesis, the gist of which is that all knowing is a remembering—that we have no basis for understanding anything that we do not already in some way know. This is a highly compressed way of saying—as certain philosophers did—that we are born with the basic structure of knowledge inside us and that our learning is a process of recovering this implanted knowledge. This understanding was the essential basis of the Platonic dialogues, where the master, Socrates, modeled how through the asking of the right questions a person can be brought face to face with his own profundity.

I don’t know if I accept this as an overall description of mental functioning, but I do think it bears on what we do. Imaginative writing—which is to say most of our writing—proceeds not by invention so much as by creative uncovering. One is basically arranging what is already there. But the arranging is less a matter of selecting what is ‘on view’ than of making oneself available to what is associatively most apt: readying oneself to recognize its rightness. The conscious/conscientious ‘I’ has to cede authority, sit shotgun, for its main aptitude is the logical and sequential manipulation of materials. Which is useful, yes. But when were you last thrilled in your soul by a logical-sequential anything? The big question remains: what prompts this rather than that to seek a place in the sentence that I am writing? It’s mysterious. I feel the words coming alive in the ear just a half a beat ahead of the figurative pencil-point—how do they know to do that? Neuroscience gets at many things, but this so far is like those areas marked ubi leones sunt (where the lions are) on certain ancient maps.

As for that box of charcoals—I was so sure it would turn up in some perfectly obvious place, but it hasn’t yet. Except, in a sense, here: as a kind of prompt. Do we ever know what anything is for?

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