fourth night of notes: steven schwartz’ “finding a voice in america”

Tonight I am taking a look at the fourth essay of Bringing the Devil to His Knees–the Craft of Fiction and the Writing Life. And apart from the essay I am seeing just how slow my reading process can be at times–almost as slow as my writing process. I have such a stack of books on my desk and I received another one the other day I won’t be able to look at for a while. And I still have Diaz’ Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao to read over and create some study questions for next week.

Anyway what I am thinking about right now is how this is the second writer in this book to recount anecdotes from fiction workshop. Schwartz talks like so many writers I know. In workshop the language we use to classify or investigate problems becomes so fuzzy–rhetorical wrangling where we search for ways to explain our concerns and criticisms in a classroom/informal atmosphere is so funny to me. Silly. But you have to be silly to tell stories and sit in a workshop and wrangle. But Schwartz introduces ideas and concepts that came from his experience as a student writer in workshop—concepts seemingly so abstract such as ‘focus’ or ‘voice’—and it is always interesting for me to read how the workshop format confounds and yet also leads writers to think powerfully about their writing and writing in general. And again I am heartened to see the questioning of voice which is Schwartz’ focus here stemming from workshop concerns and questions. I like the idea of a student reading and perhaps relating to the author’s method and perhaps apply that to their own thought process. Especially since a major concern in many workshops I run turns out to be how do we relate what is said in workshop to powerful revision. So again I like the anecdotes showing a writer doing exactly that—relating and struggling with concerns from workshop into the formation of a precise thought to enhance aesthetic—the randomness of comments turned into self-instruction. This is something I struggle with myself after years of workshops.

Also I am struck with the sentences I was focused on years back. I seemed particularly taken with the line: “In fact, voice had less to do with style than with content.” And also a paragraph later I was taken with the sentence: “Voice to do as much with sensibility as with sound.” And again I am taken with how Schwartz struggles with these abstracts given to him as pronouncement from workshop leaders. I like the idea he struggles with how voice and the advice from workshop can help a writer work a better story. He goes on to quote Margaret Atwood and Flannery O’Connor and thoughts on their ideas concerning voice and how it transcends—how a ‘single voice’ in literature can come from listening to Americans speaking on porches and backyards. How writers mimic and observe as much as they create. I can again see another line that struck me: “The author’s single voice hides in many smaller ones, cleverly so and repeatedly…”

I also liked the contrast Schwartz gives. Listing writers such as Tom Stoppard who rarely think of voice but rather choosing to enforce “distinctions of character.” Writers who choose to express ideas and perhaps worry less about how something is said or who says it. But Schwartz notes that writers experiment with voice and words and language and this is essential in revision—not having voice but finding voice within the work. Whatever sounds good fits. Truth should conform to music perhaps Richard Hugo would say. Schwartz concludes in one section that voice “creates and perpetuates itself.”

Schwartz then goes on to reflect on writers—American writers and their distinct and successful works. He writes that a writer’s voice is their work. So he lists Salinger, Faulkner and Hemingway. He ends with a passage from Ray Carver’s “Cathedral” and how the intent of Carver’s voice comes through. And quickly I want to say I’ve been thinking about Hemingway’s hardboiled language in contrast to Salinger’s sensitive and maybe even overly sensitive voice that comes from characters and narrators. How each of these authors represent so much of what it means to be American—the idea of Marlon Brando or James Dean contrasted with Clint Eastwood or Steve McQueen. I think in these terms as I draft and as I revise because my Tio was tough and yet so fragile in condition and action and I want so much to portray this—men tough to friends and coworkers and yet so fragile with family and loved ones. I also am thinking how friends of mine mimic movie dialogue and funny phrasing from conversations observed/ taken from around us.

Anyway, I am tiring and losing strength in my eyes and focus in these notes but this essay seems like a great place to begin with my students in terms of introducing sensibility…a place to introduce stories from Salinger, Hemingway and Carver so as to springboard ideas from Schwartz. Oh and I did re-work “Juanita’s Boy” yet again—tweaking language and plot points—and so perhaps reading and classifying ideas from this book perhaps might be working for my revision.

where’s iago? by susan neville

Vonnegut has come up again and again to me the last couple of days–his novels at the used bookstore I decided against and the interview with his wife on cspan at 3am that made me regret–and I find him once again as one of the catalysts to Susan Neville’s essay “Where’s Iago?” I’m still trying to get through the book Bringing the Devil to His Knees the Craft of Fiction and the Writing Life–re-visiting my annotations and highlighted portions made years back at Oregon State. And in this essay Neville recounts a late night Vonnegut call where he asks her a fact check question. He also asks her how ‘her’ novel is coming and she replies “It’s a mess.” He then gives her the problem with her novel without reading a word. He says “Where’ Iago?” And with that sets her thought process regarding evil as a character in fiction and evil as a force.
I was taken by the lines: “I’ve thought a lot about Iago, about how and why Iago might be a tool that helps create structures that are level and true, buildings strong enough to hold imaginary lives.”
I was also taken with the idea she never questioned Vonnegut in the phone call and yet this essay becomes her question and resolution. I also like the idea how Vonnegut becomes a force similar to Iago in a sense.
Oh and I was also taken with how she labels Vonnegut an architect and how she labels herself as someone better with materials than the design. This heartened me in my own thought on writing as expression and not communication.
More specifically to her thesis here I also enjoyed the idea we as writers should focus on evil as ‘the lie’ in life and so in fiction that creates the illusion for characters. The Iago of the fictive space “makes the conflict real”.
It seems in my fiction and my manuscripts Lolo–and Cornbread Baca too I suppose–acts as my Iago acting and reacting in a very human way to the world around him. He’s my trigger or my tool to create urgency. She also goes on to resolve: “Something needs to cause those tensions to erupt into time. This day, this story.” And so something has to expose the illusion and the Iago character or force should do that, creating the “hard truths” that make fiction satisfying. Well, my notes are breaking down and I’m tired. I’m sure I’m not doing this fine essay justice. So I’ll stop there for now and I hope to get to the next essay soon…

richard russo’s in defense of omniscience

A few posts back I mentioned how I wanted to read through my tattered copy of Bringing the Devil to His Knees edited by Charles Baxter and Peter Turchi and while on holiday break from school I finally have the time and energy to reread and give some sort of classification and summary to this fine collection of essays on creative writing. I also hope to switch from the Burroway text to this one soon so hopefully these notes/blog entry/random thought will be a beginning to that idea. And also I am also back to the brain of Colorado and I am experimenting with the WordPress Blackberry app. And so the first essay by Richard Russo on the subject of omniscient narration has my thoughts racing on how to apply his thoughts to my work. First, Russo mentions that omniscient narration “is a mature writer’s technique.” I am 36 and find myself worrying at the completion of this essay if I have the skill and “authority” and “knowledge” as well as the “imagination”–this is how Russo sees it. I also like the metaphor of omniscience as driving with a stick shift as opposed to an automatic he uses throughout. I like the way he describes omniscience as a way to see a character internally and externally which is something I wrote about recently on Donoso’s Hell Has No Limits. And I like the way he mentions and somewhat criticizes Catcher in the Rye as well as the Great Gatsby as work that both perhaps could have benefitted from more omniscient aspects. Specifically he writes that Catcher was richer in style than substance and he writes Gatsby strains from the first person anchor. These are books I think of in terms of form with my own work. Highland stories was my mfa thesis and though I styled it mostly after Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son I thought of Catcher and my beloved Salinger and the idea of narrator as character and in my draft of Huerfanos and Little Lolo Stories I thought of Gatsby and a first person family member or friend writing about the past family events and crash sites as the narrator in Gatsby writes about Gatsby. And I can say that my work perhaps has begun more and more to lean towards omniscience narration. I also like the idea in his worry of making hard work even harder–the idea that complex stories don’t always need complex form but we must realize as writers we must give ourselves permission to take risks. So perhaps I can now go back to my drafts and consider worrying less of showing versus telling and allow myself to tell with knowledge and authority rather considering limits. Perhaps I will also check out his novel Nobody’s Fool which is the work he mentions in his last paragraph as being his bringing of first and third person narratives together. I also want to revisit Steinbeck’s Cannery Row which is another novel he uses examples/excerpts from.
And as I type I know these notes of Russo’s essay are pretty weak and I hope to come back to Russo’s essay but for now I do want to read through the book at least reading one essay a night and posting some thoughts every night again as I have a bit of time on holiday break. So tomorrow I have Jim Shepard’s essay “I Know Myself Real Well. That is the Problem.”

on the road movie

Photos: Kristen Stewart’s ‘On the Road’ movie set in Gatineau.

A student mentioned to me this term that On the Road was being made into a movie. I think he also mentioned the movie would be directed by Francis Ford Coppola. But I have some time on my hands as I am motivating and resting myself up to grade this next week, so I’ve been reading IMDB and found that Walter Sayles is directing currently in Canada. I do remember Sayles directing Motorcycle Diaries about Che Guevara’s youth. And I thought that film was very thoughtful and filmed well when I watched it from Netflix last year.

 And I have to say the photos I found look interesting. Choked me up a bit to see Sal and Dean. I don’t recognize any of the actors which I think is a positive for the movie–using unknowns, I mean. But this book that I teach in my novels class means so much to me–not as much as Dharma Bums or Desolation Angels which are books I read in the lowest point of my life and such a nice contrast to the hard-boiled Lost Generation books I was reading in highschool. But On the Road means so much to me–Kerouac who I’ve written quite a bit on this writing blog–means so much to me I almost don’t have the words as I watch some of the photos. I do hope they handle the material with care.

time to be a student

I’m sitting in office hours and waiting for a last appointment I’ve made with a student. And monday nights are the loneliest of all the office hours. And being the final week of classes I have a few more class periods–one more fiction workshop–and then I get to be a writer and student again. I guess that is an exaggeration since I am always investigating story and narratives. That’s my job. But on holiday break I can carry the books around that I want to carry around. I can make annotations in the books i want to annotate. I can begin to think of my writing as the center of my thoughts rather than my students.

And a few minutes ago I pulled a book from my shelf–a book I haven’t cracked in quite a while. Something I wrote about a few days ago–Bringing the Devil to His Knees–the Craft of Fiction and the Writing Life. And I am finding annotations and notes I made years and years ago. A past self as Tracy Daugherty pushed on creative writing students at Oregon State. So I am relishing in the time I can go back to this book–specifically the essays on omniscient narration and the weighted story. Hoping I can apply some of these ideas to my own abandoned manuscripts.

isaac morris interview

Isaac “Marty” Morris is Adjunct Instructor of Philosophy at Lincoln Land Community College and the author of The Absence of Goodness. Deborah Brothers interviewed Morris in October 2010 about his novel, which is set in Springfield, Illinois. Although the book references an actual unsolved murder of a young woman from Springfield, Morris explains in this interview how his book is much more than a detective or mystery story. He discusses development of his main character, Margaret Donovan, who must choose between her former life as a sheriff’s deputy or her present one, where she is undergoing her novitiate. Additional interview highlights entail Morris’s religious background and influences and his plans for a sequel.

burroway and teaching creative writing

Just a week shy of the end of the Fall term. A completion of around 5 semesters in a row of teaching creative writing–I think if I am doing the math correctly–here at Lincoln Land Community College. As it stands right now I don’t believe there will be a 6th since the enrollment is too low for the class to “make”. But I’m hopeful. And in those semesters I have taught Janet Burroway’s Writing Fiction 7th edition. And D tells me the class focuses on form and story in a satisfying way though I constantly question my effectiveness in teaching. Anyway, I began with this book because of memories from several creative writing classes I have taken and I do like this book very much. I think the chapters are practical and less abstract as sometimes John Gardner’s Art of Fiction can be. I think the chapters work well for intro to fiction level students. And I rely on the book on my own shelf–specifically the pages on filtering. Invaluable.

But I have had such a problem this last term teaching the 8th edition–and perhaps it is my fault. The bookstore at my school’s fault. Perhaps mostly my fault. My syllabus and tentative schedule were all ready to go for this Fall based upon the 7th edition. The readings and the chapters and the page numbers based on the 7th edition. The bookstore couldn’t order 7th edition and didn’t contact me early enough and so on the first day everyone has the 8th edition and I have the 7th. Logistical problems aside–I got the book in a week and reorganized the schedule–but over the term I have failed in utilizing the book. For some reason I am reacting to the text-book nature of the text. The chapters reading very dry for my students. And in this edition I find so many of the readings have changed I was quite disappointed in the revision of the text. But I’ve given more handouts and photocopies to compensate. But I do think it is time for a change. And if I am lucky and receive a sabbatical this Fall I will spend the time researching other texts. And I hate to say this about the Burroway text.

Perhaps I will choose the text Bringing the Devil to His Knees: the Craft of Fiction and the Writing Life by Charles Baxter and Peter Turchi. This is less of a text-book in feel and more of a collection of essays from writers and teachers. And perhaps selfishly I am simply tired of the old text and want to mix up the course. I want to hae students read creative non-fiction concerning creative writing along with short stories. Especially since I teach creative non-fiction as assignment and also as a part of a creative literacy. I feel students should write about their world before they extrapolate from their world. Our lives inform our fiction and so I want my students to see differences/contrast between creative non-fiction and fiction. The book illustrates this.  It replaces text-book feel for upper level inquiry feel. Sorry Janet Burroway. But I am sure I will come back to Burroway’s text soon but I do want to mix up my teaching strategy.

I also want to include the books So Long, See You Tomorrow by William Maxwell and also Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion. Maxwell’s book bridges auto biography and autobiographical fiction in a way I would like my students to bring fiction and non-fiction writing together–also mostly because I am tired of genre stories and I just feel it is that important to creative writers. Didion’s work I feel is important because her work is so much more weighted and it becomes journalism and advanced essay as the idea in new journalism. So final thought is that it looks like I will have quite a bit of reworking of my course syllabus and tentative schedule.

More thoughts perhaps on this to come…