craft, technique

A story structured in shards

March 8, 2017 | 22 Comments

Writing loss: God’s in the details

October 5, 2016 | 8 Comments

Writing about a dog’s death, or even a dead dog, risks sentimentality. I mean, the writer seeking from readers emotion he hasn’t earned. I must like the animal sub-genre of dog deaths, though, because I’ve read so many. And, as my previous posts have explained, I’ve just written an essay concerning my late Labrador, Tess. I realized, writing it, that I should take the advice I’ve given so many freshmen students trying to write about a recently dead grandparent.

“Show readers, in scenes and details, your grandparent,” I’ve told them. “You must convey in specifics what you lost to show the world what it lost.” The “world” is grand shorthand for unknown readers, of course. Which in those cases actually is always me and a few peers. We’re the kindly stand-ins for those uncaring readers whose armor the writer must crack. It’s best to think of readers as friends, actually.

But to have a chance of moving readers emotionally, the writer must recreate a singular, not a generic, beloved. The writer must not just summarize what s/he experienced but, as a rule, be specific regarding the remembered gifts of time, talk, and events. This can be hard with a dog, or at least with its middle years, just as with a person. We remember beginnings and endings. I’ve stolen this notion from Jill Christman’s spooky little essay, with an aside on that phenomenon, “Family Portrait: in Third Person,” in superstition [review].

Maybe we remember and can depict the start and end of something because we return so easily to those emotional states. As Virginia Woolf says in “A Sketch of the Past,” strong emotion must leave a trace. But long middle acts blur in literature as in life. Many situations, and therefore emotions, were in play. You remember the day you got the puppy, remember who you were. There’s a snapshot in your mind. In my case, of a bearded newspaper reporter with hair like Elvis, dashing hectically—and heroically, he thought—around at age 26,. And you remember the end of something, when time briefly stopped. In my case, as a book publisher and father of two, age 39 and bald, with a creaky back.

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The common touch

August 3, 2016 | 8 Comments

Ronnie Black is a real hothead—everyone knows it—and he’s unfaithful. When his estranged wife and three of her seven children die one night in a fire that engulfs their trailer home, suspicions point to Ronnie. The fire and a subsequent custody battle roil the small rural town, especially when the cause of the fire is ruled to be arson. Lee Martin’s new novel shines a light on human failings, such as gossip and lack of compassion, as well as on quiet daily heroism and the way mistakes and coincidences can combine to produce tragedy.

Reading Late One Night, I was struck by Martin’s compassion for his characters. Especially for those who, despite themselves, end up doing wrong. Having read his nonfiction, including his fine memoirs From Our House (reviewed) and Such a Life (reviewed) and his helpful ongoing craft blog, “The Least You Need to Know,” it’s clear he’s one of them. One of those farm and working folk from the hinterlands, from America’s faded provincial towns and threadbare rural backwaters.

One of them, that is, who left. Who took a different path, got out. Who got himself tons of education and made himself a writer, who turned himself into an artist. Whose subject, here, is so much them, those he left behind—yet hasn’t. The effect of Martin’s steady compassion grows throughout Late One Night until, as mysteries are revealed—as the true story of the fatal fire is finally told—the novel becomes deeply, surprisingly moving.

Maybe it’s that his characters, in turn, finally express compassion for each other. That rings true or at least possible. These are broken people, many of them, or guiltily carrying burdens, and their effort to forgive others in the face of their own failures feels heroic.

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The joy of style

June 29, 2016 | 5 Comments

If free indirect style (close third-person narration) epitomizes the novel’s history, according to James Wood in How Fiction Works, so does what he calls “the rise of detail.” Details allow us to “enter a character” but refuse to explain him, giving readers the pleasure of mystery and of co-creation. Wood credits French novelist Gustave Flaubert (1821–1880) with uniting details, stylishness, and close third-person narration to launch the realist novel that has persisted. The modern novel “all begins with him,” says Wood.

Style begins with what the writer notices—or notices on behalf of her characters—and uses for calculated effect. And yet, in its particulars and overall effect, narrative art retains mystery. A pleasure of How Fiction Works for me was Wood’s joyous riff on one of Virginia Woolf’s lines from The Waves:

“The day waves yellow with all its crops.”

“I am consumed by this sentence,” Wood admits, “partly because I cannot explain why it moves me so much.” While Woolf’s diction and syntax are simple here, her brilliance resides in having the day wave instead of the crops, he says, and “the effect is suddenly that the day itself, the very fabric and temporality of the day, seems saturated in yellow.” But how can a day wave yellow? That’s the thing, Wood notes: yellowness has taken over even our verbs, has “conquered our agency.”

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Got perspective?

June 22, 2016 | 9 Comments

In How Fiction Works, James Woods argues for omniscience. He first contrasts the alleged barbarity of first-person against W.G. Sebald’s disgust for omniscient narration. Whereas the “uncertainty of the narrator himself” lends credence to first-person, Sebald believes, history has shattered the myth of cohesive worlds and all-seeing authors. To Sebald, omniscient third-person narration is a “kind of cheat,” Wood writes.

Not to Wood. How Fiction Works is a brief for, and a subtle analysis of, omniscience in fiction. Though ostensibly a godlike, distancing method, in practice third-person narration tends to “bend itself around” a point-of-view character.” Wood loves such “free indirect style,” also called close third-person, in which characters’ thoughts have been freed of “authorial flagging,” such as “he said to himself” or “he wondered.” The narrative, seemingly less mediated, becomes suffused with a point-of-view character instead of the novelist.

At the same time, this particularized outlook and diction blend with that of the “complicated presence of the author” to achieve a nuanced layering. Simply put, we enter a character’s head, savoring his thoughts and impressions, while also admiring the writer’s skill—and noting her “own” words or phrases. We enjoy signals of writerly perspective and commentary embedded among characters’ feelings. Sometimes we’re not entirely sure who owns a word, Wood points out, and we try to discern, say, whether the author is being sharp or kind toward a character. In any case, we’re aware of the gap between writer and character. And into that created and creative space, irony, the driest humor, flows.

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Revise, he said

June 1, 2016 | 18 Comments

When you ask someone to read your work, I tell students, convey what concerns you have. Readers tend to report what they noted anyway, maybe errors underscoring their own expertise. Which often consists of the baggage they carry from past English teachers—rules of thumb enforced as rules. “I was taught never to use a sentence fragment!” “You can’t begin a sentence with and.” “Semicolons look too fussy.” So, I say to my classes, “Be sure to get your questions addressed.”

My students seem to receive their best advice from people who regularly write. In the college setting, this means other students. On average, any student writes much more than the typical American. Students in the same writing class tend to convey the sharpest insights, of course, since they also know that particular genre. People lacking confidence as readers usually don’t do much writing themselves—especially “creative” writing: any kind of essay, narrative or personal journalism, poems, stories. Which means, I think, they doubt their own experience of reading the work. Maybe they think it’s their fault when they trip over infelicities. Or they wonder about gaps or TMI but, unaware of how much rethinking writers do, assume content is fixed.

Historically, taste has been developed by steady, close reading of quality stories, poems, essays, and novels. Every reader helps, though. Suggesting one better word is huge. The most comprehensive reader of my work I’ve ever had was a fellow teacher. She taught literature and composition and also published scholarly essays. She read a lot of good books, both classics and current; she constantly graded and edited student essays; all the while, she worked to make her own writing clear, colloquial, trenchant. The judgment and technical expertise she brought to bear on my work was humbling. But one person, even if she’s a great editor, isn’t enough. Everyone catches something. At least three readers seems ideal.

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‘We need memoir’

April 13, 2016 | 9 Comments

I met D. A. “Daisy” Hickman, a poet and prose author, through her blog focused on writing, memoir, and spirituality, SunnyRoomStudio, a “creative, sunny space for kindred spirits.” The author of a trade-published book on the American prairie, she founded Capturing Morning Press, which reissued that book and has recently published The Silence of Morning: A Memoir of Time Undone. This new memoir tells the story of her son, who struggled with substance abuse and took his own life, and recounts her grief and healing.

When I read The Silence of Morning, I was struck by Hickman’s response to her grief, which she calls “the world’s teacher in disguise.” Such a phrase is distillate. It comes from her wide perspective, which was slowly earned in the magnitude of her suffering and through her enlightened actions: reading widely and reflecting on society, herself, and her son, Matthew. These seem unusual acts, perhaps because they’re simply private. Or maybe it’s simply that a serious writer took time to convey them.

Anyone who grieves or is touched by death or illness cannot fail to notice the world’s steady preference: mindlessness. And America seems to want suffering out of sight, its impatience palpable with the sick and dying. Amidst Hickman’s inquiry into this indifference, she gives us glimpses of Matthew—the boy with the fishing pole and paper route, the struggling young man devouring books while incarcerated, the hopeful farm hand in jeans and scuffed boots seeking a fresh start.

Hickman holds a master’s degree in sociology from Iowa State University, and earned her bach­elor’s degree in legal studies at Stephens College in Columbia, Missouri. A member of the Academy of American Poets and South Dakota State Poetry Society, she’s at work on her first poetry collection. Previously, she worked with nonprofits in the areas of organizational development, fund development, management, and strategic planning.

She answered some questions for Draft No. 4.

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