October 12th, 2009 / 11:24 am
Behind the Scenes & Craft Notes

Creative Writing 101


(for previous installments in this series, click here)

WORK DISCUSSED THIS WEEK: “Ancestral Legacies,” “On the Subject of Fiction Based on Non-Ficton,” and “The Gun Lobby” – all by Jim Shepard.

My goal for this week was to give the class another sense of the scope of writerly possibility. This time, instead of pairing different mediums of writing or organizing some little squad of unrelated writers together around a common theme, I chose to showcase two very different works of fiction by the same writer. “Ancestral Legacies” is historical fiction, and follows two Nazis on a pseudo-scientific mission to Tibet. (Himmler has ordered them to trace the path of a legendary Aryan ur-language; believing Himmler’s claims to be nonsensical, but their own to be legitimate, they’ve taken his funding and are using it to conduct their own research into the existence of the yeti.) “The Gun Lobby” is about a suburban marriage falling apart–the wife has taken the husband hostage in their home.

The biggest surprise came first– large factions of the class didn’t like “Ancestral Legacies.” They thought it moved too slowly, and was “boring.” I couldn’t believe this. Nazis! Tibet! Yeti! And they were “bored…”

There’s a school of thinking that says boredom is a failing on the part of the reader, rather than on the part of the writer, that so-called boredom is actually a result of the readers’ unwillingness to do his/her full share of the give+take that makes for a successful reading experience. I think there’s more than just a kernel of truth to this, but I also think that it is first and foremost the writer’s job to establish a mood in which the reader can be “seduced” into wanting to participate in the exchange. The hard part, of course, is that what seduces Reader A may not seduce–may in fact rather repel–Reader B. Thomas Pynchon, for example, repels me utterly. I have less than no interest in what he has to say, where he’s coming from, or what he’s about. But that doesn’t make him an objective failure, as generations of readers and the editor of this very blog can attest to, and I assume that many of those things which repel me are the same things that attract Blake (et al.). So the fault can’t be laid at Pynchon’s feet, and neither at Blake’s nor mine.

In any case, I don’t think the students were failing to do their part of the readerly lifting, and I certainly don’t think that Jim Shepard was failing to do his part of the writerly seduction. I think that “boredom” was in fact not what the students were feeling at all. It was rather the closest approximation they could offer to their experience of a text that operated in a way they were not familiar with. “Ancestral Legacies” represents a kind of reading I haven’t asked them to do so far in this class, and in fact many of them may have never been asked to do it before in their lives.

Most of what we’ve read so far in 101 has been very short and/or flashy and/or fast-paced, in terms of both plot and style. The Shepard story, on the other hand, develops slowly, and its movements are subtle. Large swaths of it are taken up with the narrator’s observations, ruminations, and some notes on the history of his enterprise. The narrator himself is rather staid, cynical and resigned. As such, he doesn’t communicate anything like enthusiasm for the Indiana Jones-ish adventure in which he’s involved–and why should he? He doesn’t feel any. So it’s up to the reader to be interested in the things he’s saying and seeing not because he offers up a contagious enthusiasm, but because the things themselves are interesting.

As class discussion continued, the group seemed to warm to the story. People who had begun by writing it off altogether were now offering up their favorite phrases and sentences from the text, and analyzing how the relationship between Schafer (the narrator) and Beger (his ailing 2nd in command) changes from the beginning to the end of the story– and how it is this change that represents the emotional core of the tale, and how the too-little-too-late humanity that Schafer stumbles into qua Beger echoes and amplifies all the other plot elements in the story: the casual racism displayed toward the Tibetans, the hunting of the sub/super-human yeti, the Nazi project in general, &c. &c.

It should be said that not all of the class disliked the story. Some students were quite taken with it, and communicated their enthusiasm in terms I was similarly unaccustomed to. I should have suggested that the uniform intensity of the reactions was much more telling than the actual content of any given individual reaction, or even the aggregated responses considered as a general reaction. I didn’t think to say that, though. Maybe I’ll mention it next time I see them. Instead, we talked about Shepard’s very short essay–more like a manifesto, really–from the Electric Literature blog, “On the Subject of Fiction Based on Non-Ficton,.” You should really go read the whole thing, but I’ll just quote the first paragraph right now:

The first worry writers have when they consider working with something like historical events has to do with the issue of authority:  as in, where do I get off writing about that?    Well, here’s the good and the bad news:  where do you get off writing about anything?   Where do you get off writing about someone of a different gender?    A different person?   Where do you get off writing about yourself, from twenty years ago?

We talked about the strategies and methods that Shepard used to convincingly re-create an incredibly complex moment in history using the economical and efficient deployment of what must have been boatloads of research. If anyone owns a copy of Shepard’s Like You’d Understand, Anyway, from which this story is drawn, then you know that the acknowledgments section is mostly a two-page list of the books he read while working on the stories. It seems like his process was to read roughly a dozen books about a given subject, then write a fifteen-page short story that demonstrates an expansive and surpassing knowledge of the era/place/time/event/field in question, without ever feeling like an essay masquerading as fiction, or a “demonstration” of any kind at all.

We took this conversation back up on Thursday when we discussed “The Gun Lobby.” The class received this story much more warmly than they had “Ancestral Legacies.” They liked the premise, and the wise-cracking narrator, and of course all the guns. We looked at the way Shepard used the same technical approach toward research and deployment of details in a story sent in the contemporary US suburbs as he had in the historical fiction piece from Tuesday. The most obvious example of this is of course the group of guns that the wife buys from her husband’s friend, Chick, the arms dealer. But even in a relatively “flashy” story like this one, there’s plenty of nuance seeded throughout- my personal favorite example is when the narrator mentions that it’s cold in the house, so his wife is wearing her old Brearley sweater. Kinda tells you everything you need to know about this person.

I was interested in the idea of a writerly “voice,” and whether or not such a thing really exists. Are writers obliged to develop a personal style and then stick to it? Does this extend to subject matter? And if we are not obliged, why does it seem to so often happen to us? So we started from the premise that the stories were very different–so different they might as well have been penned by different authors altogether. Historical versus contemporary. Domestic versus foreign. Satiric versus straight-faced. And so on. Then, having satisfied ourselves that these works were utterly irreconcilable, we reversed the proposition and proved they were essentially the same. As has already been mentioned, they both evidence the same approach to accumulating and deploying facts and details. But at a more fundamental level, if you strip away all the particulars of the plot and the characters and reduce both tales to a series of plots on a crudely imagined graph, it’s not unreasonable to argue that you’re actually reading the same story twice: a man experiencing a kind of reconciliation with his own failures as a man is in a tense and conflicted relationship with the person closest to him. He attempts to maintain his stoical front as the situation around him worsens, forcing him and his partner into even closer proximity. Eventually, he hits a sort of breaking point, drops the stoical front and actually lets himself feel something, but this happens too late for it to matter or for him to actually change anything in the situation which, by this point, is inexorable and disastrous.

The lesson I hoped to impart is that in the end you may not be able to escape certain of your writerly obsessions. Barry Hannah novels will always have a high incidence of tennis and airplane pilots. Dennis Cooper isn’t going to suddenly lose interest in sexual violence. Flannery O’Connor, given another 40 years to live, would have never produced a novel set in the Northeast, or the Southwest for that matter. Shepard’s written probably dozens of stories about the kind of Failed Men featured in the two stories we discussed this week. He also likes writing about troubled relationships between brothers (unsurprisingly, this trope often as not overlaps with the Failed Man trope) and it could be argued that his research-based approach to fiction is itself a kind of recurring trope or theme in his work. What makes these bodies of work so compelling, diverse–despite their samenesses and recurrences–and ultimately valuable, is the way that the writers make the most of their obsessions and interests, producing catalogs that do not repeat themselves like CD players stuck on repeat, but rather offer unlimited fresh perspectives on something beautiful and strange, like a precious stone considered from every angle.

We didn’t do a writing exercise on Thursday. Instead, I handed out the reading for Tuesday a bit early and I gave a short introduction to the material. Tuesday we’re doing a one-day lesson on what I’m calling Shredded Texts. Heretofore, the main thrust of this course has been toward close reading, and the discernment of meaning, and for the most part we’ve relied on texts that function in a relatively straightforward way, where themes and ideas may be up for discussion, but the basics of “what happens” are more or less established and understood, or anyway understandable. I want to give the class some exposure to texts that operate in a different way, and I also wanted to introduce some ideas about the physicality of text. So we’re doing cut-ups and erasures. I handed out a few excerpts from Naked Lunch along with a few poems from Gentle Reader!, a privately published book by Joshua Beckman, Anthony McCann and Matthew Rohrer. All the poems in GR! are erasures of Romantic works, from “This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison” to Confessions of an English Opium Eater to several erasings of Frankenstein. The poems’ sources are given at the back of the book, but none of them are individually signed. I asked the class to bring in scissors, Sharpies, tape, and any source materials they might come up with–instruction manuals, texts from other classes, whatever. I’m planning to bring a bunch of source material, and the hope is that we’ll spend most of the class period cutting and crossing out and generally, as I put it to the class, “wrecking shit.”

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