After a long week of grading and commenting on student writing I’m beat. And reflecting on the creative work I’ve been commenting on I have to say I kept returning to the idea that perhaps as writers we should always push our work to be more expressive and less communicative. I know this distinction may be academic. But as I read my students’ work I kept making that comment. Asking the question what separates our work from our models of Joan Didion, Chuck Palahniuk and Tobias Wolff’s creative non-fiction. I kept commenting in the margins how our work should always try and be more like poetry than the usual essays or simple narratives or descriptive pieces.
I return to Richard Hugo’s Triggering Town and I return to Robert Bly’s Leaping Poetry. The idea that form or metaphor should drive our work in more subtle ways. Our work should communicate or signal less and perhaps create more artistic machinery utilizing structure and language. More focus on disposition and arrangement—persona and form—in our writing rather than the content.
And in class I find myself using quotes from Hugo. His words from my mouth: There is no reader and Do not communicate. Reminding my students to create image and sensory details rather than create the abstract. Painting with words. Creating refined wordplay. As Hugo says to make word creations that means more to you than to the reader.
Another concept from poets is the idea of weight or passion—the idea of duende as described in Bly’s Leaping Poetry. The idea that our writing—no matter the content we give or relate—should create interest. But also display depth and passion of thought.
Sometimes I think people read or pass on poetry because it is pretty or cute but as Hugo states our work is not cute—it is pressing and immediate. Our work must take on that do or die mentality. The idea as in the Johnny Cash and audition scene from Walk the Line. What can I say I like movies. Making folks believe in your work:
This is duende–this is finding poetry and immediacy in our essays.
Teaching this essay tomorrow and decided to return to my notes on Jim Shepard’s work:
The second essay from the book Bringing the Devil to His Knees is Jim Shepard’s “I Know Myself Real Well. That is the Problem.” And I haven’t read Robert Stone’s short story Helping in years but I can perhaps see beginning the intro to creative writing fiction course with this one–also I can see assigning Helping along with the essay.
I enjoyed rereading and looking at what my younger self underlined. Back at Oregon State I seemed to be taken with the lines: “It’s not our task, though, to save our characters, however adorable we secretly find them. We should not, in other words, be afraid to withhold consolation.”
I couldn’t help think of the latest version of my story Juanita’s Boys–a story about Lolo’s Tio shunned from his mother’s funeral and how the story ends with him losing at the dog track and crying at the mexican drive in movies after realizing something about the day. A real downer. And I worry that my stories end with character’s failing or revealing delusions and maybe it was from reading Shepard’s essay and so many of Stone’s short stories. Or maybe I just know my family real well. And I’m reminded of the idea that wisdom just never seems to stick to me because I seem to make similar mistakes and Shepard reminds that this is a sign of humanity so important to fiction and believable characters. He goes on to write that what our characters want and need and what they are waiting for is not always the best thing for them. Characters, as in Stone’s Helping, are constantly undermining themselves and revealing their delusions–reaching epiphany and then forgetting which Shepard states is a truer display of humanity than learning a lesson. Shepard writes of Stone’s characters: “We get an unfolding of the mystery of self destructiveness…but not its resolution.” Great stuff.
Perhaps if I begin here with Stone and Shepard I won’t end up with such nice, neat and on-the-noise stories in workshop–and maybe fewer vampire stories–and replace them with messier and more human conflicts.