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October 2nd, 2009 / 2:06 pm
Behind the Scenes & Craft Notes

Creative Writing 101

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(for previous installments in this series, click here)

WORK DISCUSSED THIS WEEK: “Two Boys” by Lorrie Moore & “Water Liars by Barry Hannah

Tuesday, 9/29 – “Two Boys.” I’m not a huge Lorrie Moore fan. I don’t dislike her, but I’ve had Birds of America taught to me several times and it just never…grabs me. I think the best experience I’ve had reading Moore was in David Gates’s lit seminar at New School when I was an MFA student. And even at that, what I mostly remember is David’s enthusiasm for “People Like That Are the Only People Here: Canonical Babbling in Peed Onk.” That, and a single line from the story that’s always struck me as incredibly beautiful and haunting. A blood clot discovered in a baby’s diaper is described as looking like “a tiny mouse heart packed in snow.” Beyond that, I’m content to know she’s out there in the world, making some people very happy. Good for her; good for them.

But a couple summers ago I was teaching a non-credit writing class at the Gotham Writers Workshop, and I was trying to find a way to spice things up.

I thought it would be fun to teach a story I was wholly unfamiliar with, so that the students and I could really work together in exploring it. To that end, about ten minutes before I had to leave for class, I asked Tao Lin (who I lived with at the time) to recommend something. He wasn’t home, so this was happening over text message. He told me to go into his room and grab Moore’s pre-Birds collection, Like Life. I asked him to recommend a story from it. “The first one,” he texted back. Was this really the one he thought was the best choice, or was he just trying to get me to stop texting him? Either way, it was a done deal. I handed it out that night, and we discussed it the following week. It wound up being one of the better class discussions we had that summer, and though some of that owes to the novelty of the reading-this-together-for-the-first-time, I think it also just happens to be a very fine piece of short fiction. So I’ve been looking forward to teaching this story again, and this is the first chance I’ve gotten.

“Two Boys” is an intricate little fiction machine. It’s a complex system of binary images and symbols, weights and counterweights. A woman named Mary is living above a pork butcher in Cleveland and dating two men (she calls them boys) who are essentially inversions of each other. Number One (she doesn’t name them) is a successful local politician–well-off, well-put together, outgoing, cynical, and married. (He’s also the father of “two boys.”) Number Two is dirt-poor, disheveled, introverted, hopelessly needy, and all too available. Mary goes to a local park where she switches off between two books she’s reading- the Bible, and a trashy novel about a person stranded on a life raft in the middle of the ocean. For her trips to the park, she dresses up all in white, to feel pure, but when there she finds herself tormented by a slutted-up eleven-year-old girl who mocks her and spits at her.

Mary, the story informs us at the beginning of paragraph two, is in the midst of a “subtle” nervous collapse. Indeed, by the story’s midpoint, Mary has painted her entire apartment white (a vision of Heaven, but also, the balancing image to the blood that flows in the street because of the pork butcher) and replaced all her furniture with kids’ furniture (white too; natch). She’s also begun adding Lysol to her bathwater, the way a sane person might add bubbles. There’s even a double for Cleveland–Ottowa, impeccably clean and incredibly boring, where Mary takes a trip to sort out her feelings about the two boys. She comes back determined to pick one, but of course picks the wrong one (not that the other one would have been right) and this triggers her final unraveling–a truly glorious scene where she finds herself dressed all in white, standing in a porkblood tide, mirthfully mocked and berated by the slutty tween, who is essentially revealed at this moment as a kind of Vision–either a hallucination rooted in Mary’s nervous collapse or else an angel sent down to stage an intervention by a Heavenly Father with a truly twisted sense of mercy.

The kid is, of course, the ultimate double in the story. She’s Mary’s lost innocence, forced to wear the raiments of Mary’s romantic excess, even as Mary herself insists on dressing up like some weird offspring of an angel and an altar girl.

We had a lot of fun working together to identify all of these binary images. We talked about how desire is fundamentally utopian–Number One is the very embodiment of absence: he’s too slick, he’s already taken, and he’s a politician. I believe I may have called him a howling vortex in the shape of a man in a good suit. Number Two, on the other hand, is too present. His need for Mary is so genuine, and urgent, and his options are so few, that she can’t help but see right through him. Hence his there-ness is ultimately negating. He’s all there, but Mary is absent to him. He meets her at the bus station on her return from Canada, the act that should inspire her to choose him over Number One for good, but instead it just disappoints her that One didn’t make it. (A fascinating aside, which we discussed: Mary invites both boys to meet her at the bus station. Had they both come, they would have been confronted with each other, an outcome Mary must have anticipated and therefore must, in some sense, have desired. She’s just yearning for apocalypse–nearly any kind will do.) Number One’s absence is more palpable than Number Two’s presence. His coming to meet her is essentially what seals his fate. Later, when she talks to Number One about his failure to meet her at the bus, she lies and says her brother met her there.

We talked about the fact that Mary is the only character in the story with a name. It’s an interesting move, an inversion of a narrative technique we’ve seen several examples of already in this course, where the protagonist is the un-named one. The effect of Moore’s choice is subtle, but powerful- even though Mary has almost no identifying characteristics beyond her neuroses, her having a name when nobody else does makes it feel like she herself is a kind of universe, and everyone else she meets is passing through it, intruding on her mad solitude simply by existing.

Just as happened the last time I taught this story–I imagine it will happen every time–there were two girls in the class who said that they thought Number Two was totally hot in his patheticness. They took him for a brooding romantic and professed a desire to date him. The class and I suggested that perhaps if Number Two were to date two women, as Mary had dated to men, it would straighten him out and buck him up. (We did not point out that we had just spent the previous seventy minutes charting the trajectory of Mary’s breakdown.) We advised the girls to find some needful young sad sack to both date. I suggested visiting the philosophy department’s graduate student lounge, and then began to wonder about whether it was possible to continue this conversation while maintaining my employment status. So I handed out “Water Liars” and we called it a day.

Thursday, 10/1. “Water Liars.” I had asked the class to pay special attention to Hannah’s language, and if possible to read the story out loud at home. A few people said that they did this, but they were tripped up trying to do the Southern accent. (I had told them not to worry about the accent, but I guess they did.) The conversation about “Water Liars” was productive, but halting. It moved in fits and starts. I should say that this is also a story I’ve taught before, and it almost always goes over like this. I’m not sure why. I think it has to do with the Northeast vs. the South. I always tell them not to sweat the regionalist stuff, and just enjoy the story for what it is, but several successive classes of Northeasterners have proven that they either they can’t or they don’t want to, and for whatever reason there’s something about Southernness that just turns some people off. So we talked about the South, and compared Hannah’s narrator to the narrator of Powell’s “Texas.” We talked about Hannah’s amazing ability to freshen language through usage. Here are some of the lines and phrases the class liked best:

“I was dazed and exhilarated by this information…”

“You could not believe how handsome and delicate my wife is naked.”

“I seen him come out here with his son-and-law…pull up fifty or more white perch big as small pumpkins.”

“…he was on her making cadence…”

I was very satisfied.We also talked about the narrator’s attention to detail. How most of the characters are designed as semi-generic old men, mostly vehicles for the anecdotes they deliver–neither the wife nor the best friend Wyatt are ever visually described–until the man at the end, who tells the story about accidentally catching his daughter having sex in the woods. That man, whom the narrator recognizes as “kindred” (because both man and narrator are out at the cove in escape from a confrontation with the reality of female sexuality, and their lack of control over same) snaps into focus the way the other characters haven’t. The reader actually hears what he’s wearing, and some of what the narrator observes about him. I suggested that this wasn’t simply a formal device, but rather the organic result of Hannah’s sense of the narrator (unnamed, btw) as a living, breathing human being. The narrator comments on things that catch his eye, and the same old men at the same old rail don’t do this. They’re part of the scenery, essentially. But this guy, on the other hand, is made human by the story he tells, and so the closing image of the story is one of high clarity and recognition.

And of course, we talked for quite a while about what the story is really about. The wife’s confession, not of betrayal, but of a sexual past “exactly equal” with the narrator’s own. “It hurt me to think that in the era where there were supposed to be virgins she had allowed anyone but me, and so on.” I suggested that there is a strong theme in this story of yearning for a lost past that probably never existed in the first place, and complicated by the knowledge that even if it ever did exist, it’s not really something you’d actually want–the narrator doesn’t actually want his wife to have been a virgin, but some part of himself wants himself to want that, and the futility and impossibility of such wanting makes him want it all the more. So he flees to the company of old men, all long since retired from the great game of human sexuality. The man who tells the awful story about his daughter, described as “younger” at “maybe sixty,” is still almost twice as old as the narrator. Since the story is set in the early ’70s (give or take), most of the “Water Liars” were probably born at or just before the turn of the 20th century. They’re older than the automobile, and only two generations removed from the Civil War itself. They’re a living museum–barely living, at that–and it’s for these reasons that the narrator flees to them to nurse his “big hurting bosom” and work out his feelings about the fact that his wife had a pre-him sex life.

What bothers him is not that it happened, but that she admitted it. There was more betrayal in her truth-telling than in the ten years during which she lied, claiming he was the first and only. Her truth violates the rules of engagement of their marriage–not irreparably; there’s never any talk of the couple breaking up–and he’s struggling to negotiate through the new reality she’s unilaterally created. This is of course the same thing that happens when the old guy tells the story about coming upon his daughter mid-coitus, and though the husband/wife dynamic obviously is different from the father/daughter dynamic in many and several ways which don’t require enumeration here, there’s a backwards-running sense of sequence that’s important to the very core of the story. The daughter isn’t a bad girl. She’s just young, and exuberantly engaged in “the judgless tangling and wanting” of all exuberant youth. She’ll grow up, settle down, and make a fine wife for some man much like the narrator, to whom she will tell white unconvincing lies about her sexual past, and he will believe them because he prefers to believe them, and so the world will roll on through the ages, for better or worse.

For our exercise, I asked the class to show their solidarity with the put-upon and entirely off-stage wife, whose carefree adolescent dalliances are now being forced to bear the weight of a grown man’s life crisis. “Get out a piece of paper,” I said, “and confess a genuinely terrible secret. You have fifteen minutes.” I had expected a few people to balk at this instruction, or at least ask if they were “allowed” to make something up, but to my astonishment, nobody challenged my assignment in any way. They set right to work, and fifteen minutes later were ready to pour their hearts out to one another. Sharing raw writing with a group is always essentially a trust exercise, but now we were really playing with fire. Everyone was super-supportive of one another, and I felt very proud of the class.

The reading for this weekend is “Ancestral Legacies” by Jim Shepard, which is published in Like You’d Understand, Anyway his excellent and most recent book of stories–Nat’l Book Award Finalist and winner of The Story Prize. The tale follows two somewhat bumbling Nazis on a trip to Tibet in search of the Yeti. I attached to the back of the handout Jim’s short essay from the Electric Literature blog about writing fiction based on non-fiction. I hope that it will sort of bridge the gap between Thursday’s confession exercise and next week’s lesson about using sources. See ya’ll then. In the meantime, if you’d like to hear Mr. Hannah read “Water Liars” and a few other short pieces, you can do so over here at Don Swaim’s place.

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