Wallace Stegner’s Journey

I had a great conversation about Wallace Stegner the other day with a student. Stegner wrote in an essay that the short story is like a journey–a journey not for the reader but for the character. I mentioned this to the student who like all of us at one time or the other finds himself stuck with a story. This happens to me so much I want to create a name for it. I call it ‘Stegneritis’. (This seems to also come from the notion in Tim Obrien’s thought that the more we understand and know about writing the harder it is to do.) But this is also the condition where you just know you must send your character on a journey to find a meaning he or she desperately wants or needs but you can’t seem to get exactly how this is to happen. A failure to set Stegner’s principle into action.

Now, Stegner’s opening story of the collected short stories is called “the Traveler” and I surmise Stegner puts this aesthetic of the journey into action. He opens the story with a barren landscape and a broken down car–some of his best stories begin this way with the broken down and so all of my stories try to open with this–and he also intriduces us to a traveling salesman lost and in need of a telephone. Our maincharacter is stuck in a heavy snow and also buried in regret over work and the amount of time on the road. And that is where the journey begins. The salesman walks and finds a horse and then finds a farmhouse and then finds a young boy crying and nursing a grandfather back to health. Now because Stegner is so good at giving us a close 3rd person objective lens we are immersed in the traveling through the snow. And also the salesman who at one point is wishing for adventure and is complaining about the monotony of his work, by the end of the story has found himself responsible for a life, a boy and a horse. The comfort of a car replaced with a horse and wagon–the modern or the comfortable exchanged for the natural and the life or death of survival in nature in the harsh weather.

In this story like a lot of his stories a character has journeyed through to find something that the character needs and wants but had no idea how to get there in the opening. I like to think the character and the author journeyed together to find the resolution. Like Hugo states in Triggering Town, get off the subject and find the heart of the story–hell, just find the story. Find the interaction between characters and find the true place of the story apart from the setting and the landscape. In a way the author and the character find this place together.

This is the advice I told my student. To get over the Stegneritis and find that journey that the character needs. He wasn’t impressed. Easier said than done, right. But that seems essential to finding the heart of the character. To finding the feeling of a character. To find the heart and the reality of a character. To experience the character and their movement.

And I do understand because in my own writing this is very dificult to do. Theme always seems to compete with characterization.

In my own writing, I know Cornbread wants to be with his daughter and I know he wants money and some sort of status to build his reputation–he wants to be in the service of the Catholic Church represented by St Francis and Father Dwyer. He wants to make-up with his ex and also he wants to be left alone to have a good time. All at the same time. My problem is how to get him there in a compelling and dynamic way.

Knockemstiff Review

I finished the book Knockemstiff the other night and I wanted to write notes on these stories I am admiring more and more.

I am also interested in the story behind the story “Knockemstiff”–almost as interesting as the stories and I assume that is why this book has gotten quite a bit of press and reviews.

According to his book sleeve and this video from Ohio State’s web site, Pollock was a factory worker before quitting to attend the MFA program. He published several stories and was successful enough to quit his job. His book has received much acclaim. I first heard about it on the Chuck Palahniuk web site–one reason I go there because Palahniuk is always pointing out new writers and writers that have influenced him in some way. (That was how I found Amy Hempel.) But in fact, Palahniuk wrote “Pollock gives us the saddest people we’ll ever meet in fiction.”

This made me think of Lolo and the failure of my own writing!

What attracted me and hooked me into these stories was the sense of place and indirect communal relationships–also the peripheral relationships. Pollock writes about Ohio and the little town of Knockemstiff–and he knows place so well and I am envious. In fact, place doesn’t quite capture what I mean; I guess I mean the landscape. And I would like to know Huerfano or at least the Pueblo County and the Huerfano County I grew up in and match Pollock’s knowledge of place.

The title story “Knockemstiff” is so memorable for me. The story follows a character who has had several false starts leaving Knockemstiff, Ohio and has come to the realization he will not leave Ohio even though his highschool love is about to leave town. There is such a feel of small town blues and hurt. Pollock draws his characters failure to move forward or beyond the small town as such a loss the effect is heartbreaking.

Those are meaning thoughts though and so my thoughts on form are that he is doing something pretty complex with these first person stories. A student and I sat in my office just last week discussing the differences of third and first person stories and the advantages of different means of perceptions. Third person omniscient and even roaming third or third objective seems like such a wide scope and according to my student was the only thing he ever wrote in. I tried to convince him that first person can be ust as evocative in capturing not just thought process but also consciousness. My student was just informing me of preference but again I think there is much about first person that works so well–like in Johnson’s Jesus’ Son or in Diaz’ Drown.

We talked about the risk of being the character and also being the author and trying to interject meaning or theme instead of character rather than more subtleties. But writing from a certain pov is about practice and challenging the individual.

But Pollock seems to do that so well–he knows place and character of his small towns but he also knows when and where to direct reader to theme and meaning without being too overt as some of my first person stories become.

Once in Tracy Daugherty’s office he pointed to a moment in one of my stories and said “here it is. Right there.” I asked him “what?” And then he explained that at that moment in the story and scene where the character is disconnected from the author and being fully utilized–fully created. Meaning the voice is a character rather than just the author pretending. he said, “Your character has no idea what is going to happen or cannot see past his own nose like real life and that is good.” I have been searching for those moments in my first person stories and trying to capitlaize on them as much as possible.

And this is what Pollock is doing so well in his stories. Capturing character in first person rather than just capturing his own voice just telling stories.

Heaney and Failure of Memory

This morning I am thinking about Heaney and his essay “Feeling into Words”. I first read it in Hochman’s poetry class. This essay lists a bit of Heaney’s aesthetic and some of his obsessions. We are reading it in my poetry class.

In this essay Heaney explicates his poem Digging and explains how the idea of cultural digging for meaning is the same as a personal digging or sifting through memories and connections with his pen is just as noble and powerful as physical labor. This makes me think of the Abuelito who laughed after my second degree when I still couldn’t find full-time employment and my short stories and writings were continually failing to do much. Well much in terms of money or status as Abuelito would see it.

So I think of Heaney this morning as I find myself struggling to stay focused on the Cornbread Baca project. When I find myself stuck with the direction and the sensibility to approach the ideas I have. Just get it down as Cisneros advises. But some mornings you just can’t. You think too hard about what you’re trying to say and how to approch a scene and blah blah blah.

But Heaney speaks of models and word play and triggers that got him going. Also he implies that the notion of representing a culture drivees or motivates him to write or continue to dig. I sit patiently this morning and wait for those triggers. Heaney in this interview with Charlie Rose also admits that writing for him is mostly remembering and finding those original feelings or perceptions.

My first reaction is that I am continually amazed what is available on youtube or on the internet. I remember back in the day you missed a program and that was it. It never turned up again if you missed it. Yes, there were re-runs but interviews or programs such as this seemed only for the prepared. This has changed as I find more and more in terms of educational materials/interviews available online.

My second reaction is to agree that writing–at least for me–is about remembering and reflecting on the old neighborhood and my own high school experiences and my family experiences. But I do believe the idea of creating the conscience of a race like Joyce states in A Portrait of the Artist —another text that Heaney alludes to in his essay–seems ambitious and pretentious but a strong motivator. Especially when I feel no one is telling the stories from Pueblo and Huerfano Counties.

Failure at the Steel Mill

The failed novel Huerfanos I finished this summer is about the steel mill in Pueblo, CO and my Tio Lolo and Abuelito Jaramillo–their failed relationships and failed attempts at legitimate life and work. My failed connections with the Jaramillo side of my family. The book is really an imagining of the old neighborhood as Lolo and his brother Relles would have experienced it. The way Lolo and my father would have experienced it–a study of stories I heard growing up and the mythologizing that inevitably happens when you write about anything that means so much to you. Like the way Kerouac imagines Neal Cassady as opposed tot he real Neal Cassady I have read about in Cassady’s wife’s work and writing.

And when you are on Spruce you can just feel that sense of broke-down-ness that I can’t explain except that has always been the trigger for me. The trigger to imagine Lolo nad his upbringing. I imagine his work at the coke plant and his long shifts and broken down body. The way he watched his television on Spruce Street and smoked his cowboy killers. The kitchen there and the smell of cooking pots of beans and the frying of onions–the old man always loved to fry onions.

I also imagine the way Lolo never quite fit in to that world of work the way his father fit in. The way he had plans for Denver and Kansas. This is of course the pretend Lolo. The fictionalized Lolo. So Lolo if you are out there I am sorry but I have to write about you. The same way I have to write about Cornbread Baca and his failed realtionships–his crimes in those relationships.

The real steel mill is down to about 1000 workers and according to the local paper is close to laying off more of those workers. More failed attempts at work and income for families seemingly to come. I know so well that feeling when you can’t do for your own and can’t succeed at your chosen field. When you simply can’t find work or happiness. This is the link that brings Lolo–real and imagined–together for me. This feeling of failure in work and in life is what connects my life to Lolo’s life. Whether in life or in writing.

Failure and Negativity

Failure as it relates to writing does not mean I am negative. Does it?

I’ve had people tell me I am negative. The ex-girlfriend and my sister told me I was always focusing on the negative. And I do believe I am a pessimist as it relates to a range of topics. Religion. Politics. Race relations. History. My own actions.

But Mike Rose writes about failed education and failed literacy as a phenomenological study of literacy. A focus on writing or education as it is as opposed to how we want to prescribe it to be. And I believe that is what I am doing with these thoughts. And I must remind myself to focus on the neccessitites of revision as well as the wants for revision. To look at the work objectively. To assess my own work. To tweak my own asthetic.

To learn from failure. To wear my failure with pride as the fail blog advises. Or to learn from my mistakes as Gail Godwin states. To make myself a better person as I draft as well as a better writer. I like the sound of that. But I do admit to obsessing about those failures as well as a resistance to calling failures art. Unlike Jean Cocteau. That’s art school stuff Lolo would never approve of.

Bukowski said that the final judge of writing is the writer–not critics or editors or even the reader. He writes in Factotum that the writer believes the reader’s accolades instead of being skeptical of them. The writing must serve the audience, yes. The writing must serve the MFA thesis committee. But the revision must serve the writing. This is what I try to engage and coerce within my own writing mind and within my classes. Revision not just being for the school or the instructor. But revision for the writer. A sense that we should never be satisfied with our drafts–until we abandon them as the cliche goes.


So I don’t believe I am negative. I write every day and do not feel I am negative or not as my failed relationships in life have suggested. I am pushed by my failures and pushed to revise by my failure to create the fictive spaces I desire to create. And does this mean I am focusing on the negative. No. I am learning about my enemies as Rage Against the Machine advises. Learning about my enemies and my failures.

More on failed writing to come…

Diaz’ Oscar Wao and Drown

I seem to be writing quite a bit about failure lately. Failure in drafting and failure in returning to drafts. Just recently I felt the need and urge to revise my thesis manuscript I completed for my MFA. That too is a failed document. it got me a degree and teaching gigs but i still feel that document failed. I read it and send it out trying to get it to catch on somewhere but I recognize what a fanboy I am. Junot Diaz is an author I obsessed over for years since I first read his work in New York State.

Drown and the work it represents for me is such terse and provocative prose. It is laconic and represents the way I feel at times. The characters march around in their illigetimate lives. They sense their own failures as people and the story arcs are heartbreaking. From the aged Dominican making two lives–one in Jersey and one in the Dominican Republis. I loved this book so much I even mentioned it in my thesis defense. I could have writing my book without Diaz’ book–or Denis Johnson’s book Jesus’ Son and Angels. These books helped me capture Lolo and his illigetimate world. His world of failure.

Oscar Wao in comparison is such a largely scoped book. From the Jersey shore to the Dominican shores, the book’s scope is impressive. The use of spanglish that I embraced in Drown has been enhanced to include D and D slang and comic book allusions and references. Wao swims in Oscar Wilde and legitimate texts and also more illigitimate texts. Almost in the way the characters swim with the academy and with their own personal literacies of gorwing up poor or a minority or also growing up fatherless. And in a discussion of those failures, this book is a success.

I used to joke about artist types who called failures art and joked about that with writer friends. In grad school to call your failure art meant you had prviledge and flunking out or going back home and working retail was not a fear. Without a family or without strong family ties and money and refuge. failure is tranferring to a different school. For me failure–as in Diaz’ books–has been about the difference between a life and having no life.

So in my revision of the Highland Stories–stories about Lolo’s failures and stories about my failures at relationships or with family–I sense the presence of Diaz and I try and weed it out. Trying to find where I am stealing and where I am borrowing. And maybe that is a success. To find my own voice with Diaz’ as the springboard.

More on failed manuscripts to come…

Cisneros and More Random Thoughts on Failed Writing

I had the opportunity the summer before last to attend a Sandra Cisneros reading here in Illinois at the National Women’s Studies Conference. Attending this reading also inspired me to read her latest book Caramelo and I have to say I was so inspired by her words.

As I enter Week 12 of my creative writing course here at Lincoln Land I do not feel I have been able to inspire my students. And this is nothing new–I felt this at Colorado State and at Oregon State. I used to believe and repeat the mantra in my head that writing was about inspiration. But I have to say over the last few years I have had trouble motiviating and inspiring myself. I felt this even though Stephen Minot tells us we as creative writing instructors must not only read and write but also lead our students. And Wallace Stegner wrote we must “enlarge our students.” Somehow create interest in the act of failing to create fictive spaces from draft to draft. And I again I find it dificult to lead myself at times. And it felt so good to hear Cisneros echo these words. In fact she went as far as to say internet relationships and familial relationships motivated her more than her individual drive to write on a consistent basis. I was 32 at the time I saw her speak and she related several anecdotes about being 32 and finding dead ends throughout her career–personally and professionally. Perhaps that alone was why I connected to her.

This site is my continual try to inspire myself to get words down. Now, since that ficton reading I have completed the Huerfanos novel and have begun a new project I call the Notorious Cornbread Baca project. In Cisneros’ words–you just have to get it down no matter how it comes. So maybe she has inspired me and motivated me in more powerful ways than I can easily articulate for myself.

As for my students, I continually receive emails from them regarding their trepidation and angst regarding workshop and having to sit in a room while others speak of their writing. Audiences can be so scary but for that is not as fearful as not being able to get it down as Cisnoeros stated. Everything else is just literature and not passion or life as Rimbaud would say. So perhaps my fear of failure in relation to audience is less than my fear of failure as it relates to getting my words down.

I have Ray Carver notes from reading his book Fires where he also dreads finding the time to focus and concentrate on longer projects–works of fiction and non-fiction. I have similar notes in my reading of Kerouac’s published journals. The need in both of these manuscripts to simply write beats out the need to succeed. In one letter Kerouac says no one will accept his manuscripts and he feels like the only thing that will accept him is death. And I love Kerouac so because of his undying want and need to simply become a writer of quality. Like Cisneros to get something down for an audience before inevitable breakdown or death.

Now Cisneros also went there in her lecture. She spoke of spiritual failure as it relates to failure of her art or of her aesthetic. Her depression was so profound she says like everyone in their 30’s she felt if she could not write successfully she would have to end her life. Failure in creation of art leading to a feeling of a feeling of failure in life–with no end but to terminate life. She spoke very lightly about it regarding the end of a love affair she was in and the end of a stage in her life and her fear in beginning the next stage. Expansion of consciousness like Frank Water describes.

Failure in writing perhaps then is more personal–or failure in art in general–might seem more powerful than failure in keeping a job or keeping sober. These are the things that connect me to my Tio Lolo and his consistent failures at legitimate life. I have strong fears about that. Fear of not paying rent or fear of not doing for myself and having to rely on others. Those of us who live alone or do not have strong family bonds understand that type of failure.

So am I saying that the young chicano artist feels failure more personally? Or the writer with no consistent father-figure in his or her life? No, but I am saying that failure in manuscripts feels like falure against a dominant literary tradition–a canon of more stock writing. And, yes, when I receive my failure of publication notices I do wonder if it is about the content of chicano identity I try so hard to explore. Or maybe it is the lack of quotation marks. Are there connections to Lolo’s not fitting in to a more legitimate world and to my not fitting in to publishable markets?

More on failed writing to come…

Failed New Beginnings

Marjorie Sandor once wrote the following quote for me into my notebook:

I took this quote as an implication at the quality of my manuscript. Her assessment of my overall skill level at the time.

We had been discussing one of my short stories I wrote for her writing workshop at Oregon State. A failed short story. First, she said thank you for the opportunity to read the story. I am so happy you wrote it, she said. No joke, that is what she said. And then she handed me a book to borrow that I still have on my bookshelf to this day because I never returned it—sorry, Marjorie.

And I have heard many versions of Marjorie’s message over the years. Lee Abbott told me a version of this as he pulled a pack of smokes from inside his tube sock while teaching at the New York State Writer’s Seminar—I wrote a story about a garbage collector who falls off the back of his truck. Will Hochman at the University of Southern Colorado and his entire room of young writers told me this after reading my first person present tense horror story about a woman who is killed by a bear while camping. And Tracy Daugherty told me this in his office after he read my first story about Elvis’ personal photographer—a failure but I still like that story. I remember he held it out in front of him like it was a turd. It’s funny because I remember that moment so vividly but not the successful thesis defense.

And the message always means to me the same negative it meant for me in Marjorie’s office. It means you failed, kid. Nice try but keep revising. Keep working on it. It’s not good enough. You have to keep at it.

I would eventually receive my MFA but at that moment while sitting in Marjorie’s office she taught me a lesson in writing. They all taught me. Perhaps the only true lesson past workshop a writer can give you. The lesson was about perseverance.

I learned this lesson years before while growing up in Huerfano and Pueblo County, Colorado and on Spruce Street in the old neighborhood. I learned the same lesson in the backyard of the Abuelito’s old house when I took a lecture over my grades or over a lost job. When I was sent to the vice principal’s office and the old man had to drive out to school or if I came home late or drunk or disappointed the old man in anyway. You failed, kid. Work harder.

Of course I could never criticize the old man in the same way but I learned the lesson. I think I learned the lesson.

It is the same lesson I try and teach my students. I try and teach them that writing is about genesis—creation of character and place. Writing is about bringing our own lives into fictive spaces. And it is also about the failure to create those places. The failure to bring the material together with the spiritual as Immanuel Kant defines the artist’s aesthetics.

The reward being in the try.

I also often tell my students—as Hugo writes in Triggering Town—I assume my skill level is only a touch better than my students’ skill. I assume I have the same rhetorical questions and concerns as my students. And perhaps I have only learned a bit more about my own failed writing. And that is only because I have been alive longer or because I have known a touch more writers than they have. And perhaps I have learned more about failed writing than I have learned about successful writing. Since I have seen so much more of failure than the succesful.

At least according to my lack of publications. The lack of validation in print.

I got 9 more of these reminders this summer. I put them on my wall above my desk in my office to remind me—the way I have Sandor’s note on the blog to always remind me. Here are some of my favorites:

We appreciate the opportunity to consider your work. We regret having to return it, but thank you for sending it to us.

This year we received approximately 400 entries. We regret that your entry is not among the finalists and that we must decline without editorial comment.

Although we are unable to publish your work, we thank you for considering us and wish you success. Please keep us in mind in the future.

Thank you for your interest. After careful consideration, we have decided we are unable to use your manuscript. We wish you the best in finding a home for it elsewhere.

The poet John Knoepfle and his wife Peg Knoepfle told me the same this fall. Par for the course, they said. Get used to it, they said. You’ll have plenty more, they joked. And because they are both the most experienced writers I know, I believe them.

More on this to come . . .

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