Twenty-five Things I Know For Sure--Maybe by Rich Chiappone
Ed. note: This is Rich's residency talk, absent the many ad-libbed comments that made it so . . . Rich.
Last winter I had an epiphany of sorts, a disturbing insight. Insights are pretty rare for a guy my age who already thinks he knows plenty. This one was a real eye-opener.
There was a story in The New Yorker by the undisputed queen of contemporary short fiction, Alice Munro. I read it and was disappointed to see Munro eschew a close-in, single-character subjective consciousness in favor of shifting viewpoints and a plot-driven narrative. It was a very clever plot with a “gotcha” surprise climax, and then an even bigger gotcha again in the resolution. I know Nancy Lord is a big Munro fan, so I emailed her to ask what she thought of the story, certain she would agree with me that Munro’s brain had been taken over by aliens who didn’t write very well. Nancy “adored” the story. What ruined it for me had no effect on Nancy at all. I ranted and declared that it suffered mortal damage from what I saw as careless point of view shifts. Nancy patiently explained why those shifts were wise and artistic and so forth. I was horrified to discover that I could see why her view made perfect sense too.
The bottom line was that I still wished Munro had stayed in the main character’s consciousness consistently, but I had to admit that what I’d thought was an obvious, almost axiomatic truth about short story writing, turned out to be merely my bias in favor of empathy-driven stories. More about that in a moment.
Biases: The nifty dictionary in this laptop defines bias as: prejudice in favor of or against one thing, person, or group compared with another, usually in a way considered to be unfair.
Ok, I’m unfair sometimes. Sue me.
Some years ago when The DaVinci Code first came out, I kept hearing the title, but I had no idea what it was about. I asked the workshop group I was teaching at that time at the community college in Homer if anyone had read it and what it was like. A woman about my age, a smart retired teacher and an avid reader said, “The writing was horrible; I couldn’t stop reading it.” Obviously the author was doing something right.
When I finally ran across a copy of the multi-million seller, I stopped reading it after the second sentence revealed that the author had apparently never heard the concept of “psychic distance” in narration. This is an example of my own bias. Unfair as it may be, I find awkward shifts in psychic distance intolerable. Millions of readers don’t seem to mind them at all. So, I don’t expect everyone here to agree with my prejudices.
My biases would be nobody’s business but my own, except that I now get paid to advise students on their writing. Which means, either I deny that my biases exist (which I can’t) or I pretend that they don’t affect my judgments (which I won’t). That further means that my students are going to have to live with them for at least a couple semesters. And that’s why I’d like to confess some of them here and now as fair warning and disclosure.
I took my first writing workshop here in this building, in the fall of 1986. I was a student for the next eight years, graduating in 1991 with a BA, and in '94 with my MFA degree. Upon graduating---as David Sedaris describes a similar experience--“A terrible mistake was made and I was offered a job teaching writing.” I’ve been in one workshop or another ever since. As a student or as a teacher, I’ve been in something like forty semesters worth of workshops, each class with about ten students, each student turning in two stories on average: Four hundred students, eight hundred manuscripts. Thousands of individual judgments made.
Here are twenty-five things I’ve found to be consistent (or perhaps persistent is more accurate) in my thinking about writing, over those twenty-five years here in the University of Alaska creative writing program. Twenty-five things I know for sure. Maybe.
Five things I believe
about writing in general
It is more important to be interesting than brilliant. Before a written work can be uplifting, edifying, important, or remembered, it must first be read by someone. When a reader puts your work down without reading it, it ceases to exist. First, it must entertain.
Note: This laptop dictionary defines entertain first and foremost as to provide (someone) with amusement or enjoyment. That’s the word’s most common contemporary use. But the two creaky old ink and paper dictionaries on my shelves define it differently. My old Webster’s College Dictionary defines it first as to hold together, to maintain: And The fifteen pound four inch thick Random House Standard Dictionary defines the word “entertain” as to hold the interest of. That’s the way I’m using it here.
According to Janet Burroway in the textbook Writing Fiction, the poet William Stafford used to tell his students to write to their LOWEST standards of literacy. He says the students always corrected: You meant our HIGHEST standards. But he did not. He meant write with coherence, unity, and comprehensiveness in mind. Everything else you have to offer the world will follow. He believed that more new writing failed because of overreaching with pretensions of greatness than by aiming too low and simply writing well. Note: there are no latent geniuses. If you are a genius, it will come to the surface of your writing. If you are not a genius, your attempts to sound like one will also be revealed. I’m not saying you shouldn’t take chances. But they should be authentic attempts at writing truly, not attempts at sounding writerly.
Hemingway said to write the truest sentence you can. And although pretentious writing is often rewarded in our society, that doesn’t make it any better. For an interesting essay on this subject Google B. R. Myers, A Reader’s Manifesto, published first in part as an essay in The Atlantic Monthly, July 2001, and then as a book of the same title. To give you an idea about the tone of this piece Myers says, “Everything written in self-conscious, writerly prose, is now considered to be 'literary fiction'--not necessarily good literary fiction, mind you, but always worthier of respectful attention than even the best-written thriller or romance.”
I don’t agree with everything Myers says, but I do flee from writing that sounds as he put it, “writerly”on first glance, only to dissolves into nonsense when examined.
There was a good example of this, in my opinion, in a quote I read from an essay in which one of our most famous living writers posits that in writing memoirs or personal essays we act on a longing to revisit parts of our past in the way that rivers, she said, seek to return to their old, former channels, now dry and overgrown with brush and trees. It’s a lovely metaphor, but anyone with a knowledge of riparian hydrology--or for that matter, anyone who ever took earth science in high school--knows that just the opposite is true: as rivers age they leave those oxbows behind because their singular intent (if I may continue the pathetic fallacy of personification and intentionality here) is to run straight to the sea by carving the shortest and most direct route there from their sources.
2.) While I believe in the need to write for readers, holding a reader’s attention is not a license to write poorly. And the popularity of a book is not a measure of its quality. According to Wikipedia, McDonalds sells 54 million hamburgers a day; that doesn’t make it good food. For some of us, that doesn’t even make it food, period. See above, The DaVinci Code.
3.) I believe that the admonition “Write what you know,” is great advice often misunderstood. In undergrad or intro to writing workshops I run into people who say “I want my story to say . . . .” They have some point to make, or some effect they intend to produce in the reader’s mind –they know what it is even before they sit down to write a piece. They see creative writing as a transfer of knowledge or information, or a delivery system for an idea. I see that attitude kill stories and essays all the time; I don’t teach poetry writing, but I’m sure that kind of thematic thinking has slain a few poems as well. I believe that, in all genres, creative writing should be an act of discovery for the artist.
“No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.” (Robert Frost)
Eudora Welty says: “If you haven’t surprised yourself you haven’t yet written.”
My way of saying the same thing is “write what you wonder about; use what you know.”
But my favorite quote on the subject comes from Grace Paley, who says, “Write from what you know into what you don’t yet know.”
4.) At the other end of the spectrum, I believe that as Janet Burroway says, the word creativity has been “devalued to the extent that it has come to mean a random gush of self-expression.” She’s right, the word has been devalued by that new meaning. Unfortunately, admiration for what she calls gushing self-expression has not dwindled in any way. In many circles (and in some writing workshops), creativity and imagination are still vastly over-rated. Noting that a story or a poem is a mess, confusing, poorly written, etc., “but that it is a very creative idea” is no compliment. Small children and chimpanzees are creative. Anyone can imagine an idea or a subject for a story or a poem. It takes a writer willing to do the hard work of revision to turn that into something worth reading, something artistic, fresh ---and yes, entertaining. I believe skill will trump imagination every day of the week.
5) I believe as I’ve heard said, that writing can’t be taught, but it can be learned. --mostly by example: by teaching students to read like writers, by saying “Look at how this writer did this. Look at the effect and look how it was produced.”
I’m far from the first to say that you will learn more from reading good writers than from writing workshops. But I’ll also add that HOW you read is more important than WHAT you read. There is something to be learned from almost any successful piece of writing. Again, The DaVinci Code might be “horrible,” as my student put it. But the guy knows something about compelling plot writing. Once more, what can be taught is reading like a writer.
Five Things I Believe About Fiction in Particular
1). At the heart of all stories is conflict. I believe that a new writer needs to keep that in mind. “Only trouble is interesting.” (Janet Burroway) Why? It’s not because we are ghouls who like to watch characters squirm in pain like ants under our magnifying glass. It’s because conflict implies uncertainty. The outcome of a conflict, any conflict –from football games to poker tournaments to disintegrating marriages— is interesting because we seek some kind of closure –an end to the conflict. We want to know how it plays out. Who wins, who loses. Stories without conflict are not even stories. They are anecdotes. Slices of life at best.
Think otherwise? Find that too truculent? Too male? Try these classics you never heard of:
Pride and Fairness
Crime and Forgiveness
100 Years of Camaraderie
Peace and Peace
Romeo and Juliet’s Big Fat Shakespearean Wedding
2.) “Every story is two stories.” (Grace Paley) What happens, and what it means to the character-or the reader. Surface and subtext. Note: This is the basis for an argument in favor of minimalism, the writer’s goal being to evoke the strongest possible feelings from the reader using the fewest words. That’s where the challenge lies in every kind of realistic fictions.
My caveat: As much as I like a pared-down story, the surface story must be compelling and vividly conjured before its meaning can be speculated upon. See above, my number one belief about all creative writing: Be interesting.
3.) The better you write, the less has to happen on the surface of the story: the less action you need. Only the most poetic writers can risk populating their stories with passive, sedentary characters; long passages of summary and exposition; long brooding internal monologues. In short, only the most recklessly lyrical writers can risk boring a reader.
Joking around in a workshop the other day I pointed out that if that white whale had washed up on the beach in Nantucket in front of Ahab’s cottage, Moby Dick would have been a very short story.
Again, the better you write the less has to happen. The converse being, of course, the worse you write the more action you need to keep a reader reading. This is why genre writing--with its characteristic action-packed scenes--has a bad name in academic circles.
4). “Theme is the reader’s business." (Ron Carlson) Using a story as a launching pad for symbols will kill a fiction faster than almost anything--except long dream sequences.
5.) Edgar Allen Poe was right; the short story IS the most perfect form of literary art, superior in his view (and mine) to both the novel and the poem-- for all the reasons Poe declared. I’ll see Poe his bias and raise him this: the best kind of short story is the empathy-driven.
From an email to Nancy:
"So, here is my complaint (and by the way, I did like the story, or more accurately the terrific PLOT of the story; I was too disappointed with her--and too furious at the New Yorker editors for being too cowardly to confront her--to enjoy the story itself. I see this as an example of the emperor’s new clothes syndrome.
"My logic goes like this: When a traditional, lineal, realistic fiction seems like it offers us something more than mere entertainment, we grace it with the word literary. There are many ways (more or less arbitrary) to decide when a fiction merits this title, of course. But there are a few criteria generally accepted by most of the people for whom such distinctions seem to matter--that is, we in the academy for the most part.
"One attribute we honor in traditional fictions is lyricism, and musicality. These are the “language driven” or “style driven” stories. Munro is a great story teller, but is not known to be a particularly flamboyant stylist. And I think it’s fair to say that the story in question is not driven by language.
"Another great virtue of good fiction is the way it creates empathy in the reader by allowing him to live through the (fictional) experience of a character, to reach that moment of decision with her while simultaneously judging her actions and her values (and his own). Fictions driven by empathy serve as a kind of moral calisthenics, an exercise for our souls. Such “empathy driven” stories make us better and more humane each time we come to feel for a character this way.
"This is what I think Munro’s story COULD HAVE been (an empathy driven story of great power), and should have been, (no apology for my bias) but fails to be, because Munro did not keep us in the heart and mind of the titular character. The POV wandered away from her and we did not get to see her make the unfortunate choices in her life that led to the climax. The most economical and elegant way to bring the reader to the wonderfulclimaxwould have been to have the reader live the entire arc of the affair through Corrie’s mind and heart. This my bias in favor of the third person, subjective, very close in POV. I think it is maybe the one good thing fiction can do for the world: make us more humane."
Five Things I Believe About Nonfiction
1.) I believe it’s important that you don’t tell readers what they already know about the world. People cry at funerals; tell us something else about the death of a loved one. The fact that something happened does not necessarily make it interesting. It’s our job to write creatively--even when describing the actual events of our lives. That’s what distinguishes us from journalists. "Make it new,” Ezra Pound said.
2.) That said, nonfiction has an advantage over fiction writing in one important way: A reader reads nonfiction, in part, to get information about the world, or to share another person’s experiences. Some readers will sometimes forgive some less than great writing in exchange for information, facts, reportage, actual news of the actual world, or for the vicarious thrill of living another person’s life.
The fiction writer on the other hand must keep readers interested in fictional people whom the readers know do not exist and never have, moving through events the readers know have never happened.
3.) You do not get credit for having lived your life, nor for sharing it. Writing can be good therapy, true. But therapy does not always produce good writing.
4.) It’s far too late in history to shock anyone with your degenerate behavior. Consider Charlie Sheen, Silvio Berlusconi, Amy Winehouse, Keith Richards et al.
5.) “If your reading didn’t make you a better person, and it didn’t, what makes you think your writing is going to improve anyone else?” (George V. Higgins)
Want to make the world a better place with your writing? Write a check to your favorite charity.
Five Things I Believe About Writing Workshops
1.) If your classmates say they are confused by your story, they are confused by your story. One tenet of “reader response criticism” was there are no misreadings. Note: there is a difference between confusion and ambiguity. A story is ambiguous when there are more than one possible interpretations. A story is confusing when there is no way to interpret it.
Three possible reasons why your classmates are confused, and the likelihood of each according to my own very exacting research. Your classmates are confused by your story because:
a. You intentionally made the story confusing: 0.1%
b. Everyone in the class is an idiot: 0.1%
c. You thought your story was clear, but it is not: 99.8%
2.) Written critiques are essential for three reasons:
a. Writers should be able to articulate their reactions to a piece of writing--and everything else in the world. That’s kind of what we do.
b. Some students are too quiet or too polite to blurt out their thoughts in a noisy workshop discussion--especially when a really overbearing instructor like, say, ME, for example, doesn’t shut up for the whole class. The author of the manuscript will not get to hear that shy person’s response if not for the written critique.
c. While the discussion is going on the author of a piece may be far too emotional to benefit from the responses. It can be helpful to read the critiques quietly in private when the author’s head is not spinning around like Beetlejuice’s.
3.) You will learn more discussing the work of your fellow
students than you will from the class discussion of your own work.See above, head-spinning.
4.) “When someone tells you something is wrong (with your
story), they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly how to fix it,
they are almost always wrong.” (Neil Gaiman) Notice he said almost
always. The more workshops you live through, the better you get at telling what
advice to take.
5.) There are over six billion people on our planet. Of that
number, the ten students in your workshop are the only people on earth who are
required to read your story to the end. Treat them accordingly.
Five Things I've Come to Know About Myself Through Writing and Teaching