I live-tweeted a craft talk Elizabeth Strout gave at UH. Topics covered: urgency, authority, truthfulness, Gordon Lish, plot, character, publishing, linked story collections…
Context and dramatic context.
Or, context that establishes the rules of the story and context that establishes the drama of the story.
Has everyone read “Escape from Spiderhead”? There might be some spoilers, so keep that in mind, I guess, if you’re into surprises.
I teach “Escape from Spiderhead” as a way to talk about agency, and how to give a protagonist agency even when your protagonist is in a position of almost no power, even when he’s a cog in a greater satirized machine. The narrator of the story is in a special jail where they do drug experiments on him, with drugs such as Darkenfloxx, which gives you despair, or Verbaluce, which gives you eloquence. The only agency the protagonist has here, since he is a prisoner, is that he has to say “Acknowledge” for the higher ups (in this case a scientist named Abnesti) to be able to test a drug on him, or at least for them to do so without jumping through additional hoops. The protagonist has this one little piece of agency, but it’s crucial to the story. As the story goes on, and the morality is more and more complicated, the narrator takes longer and longer to say “Acknowledge,” and finally refuses, and when Abnesti decides to go to the extra lengths, the narrator Darkenfloxxes himself and escapes. It’s a hell of a story.
But what I want to talk about here is context. There’s a lot of context to be filled in here, in order to tell us where our narrator is and what kind of world he is in and what responsibilities and roles he has/can have. There’s also dramatic context to be filled in, like why it’s so hard for him—personally—to say “Acknowledge” to Abnesti’s request to Darkenfloxx a woman in front of him. It’s not just that Darkenfloxx will send the woman into despair and maybe kill her, it’s that the narrator is a killer and has worked hard to come to terms with himself, and so on and so forth.
I am taking the term dramatic context from a talk by Robert Boswell, which you can find on iTunes U—he gave it at Bread Loaf last year, and all of the BL talks are on iTunes (a good resource, I’d add). Boswell talks about how more dramatic context is needed in some situations than in others, for example, a woman wearing the same hat in “Everything that Rises Must Converge” versus someone kissing a stranger in the dark. One is inherently more dramatic than the other. In the first instance, the story needs to tell/show the reader why this moment matters so much. In the second instance, though, dramatic context is still important. We want to know why this moment matters to our protagonist.
Obviously, whether or not to send someone else into despair, in the Saunders story, has its own drama. But again, we need to know why our narrator and not another of the prisoners, and what makes it so hard for our narrator as an individual. Dramatic context, it seems to me, is tied to the protagonist, in a way that the general context of the story—that we are in this special jail, with drug testing, in the future, and the ability to say Acknowledge—is not necessarily. But what I really truly actually want to talk about is when to give us the dramatic context and the general context, and how, and why.
I often get to the point, when I’m teaching a workshop, where I need to sit everyone down and talk a little about context, mainly because I get a lot of stories where, at the beginning, I can’t figure out what’s going on, and that seems to be treated as a way to get a reader invested in the story. It’s true that this creates mystery, but the mystery is not an engaging mystery, it’s a disengaging mystery. I need to know the rules of the story right away. I don’t need to know, for example, what crime the narrator of “Escape from Spiderhead” committed, or what crime the other prisoners committed. I do need to know that they’re being drug tested, and that the drugs can affect the language, and that we’re in a different world than our own, so on. If I don’t know these things right away, I would be too disoriented, and I would focus on trying to figure out the logistics rather than the heart of the story, whether this guy can overcome his crime and how—or whatever you think it is, my point is that it is not: where is he and what kind of world is this?
I do want mystery, but I want the mystery that matters, the mystery where, if I knew two people were going to run into each other, wearing the same hat, and that it would matter, I would want to read on to know why. I wouldn’t want to read on to know what social class they were from, or what the hat looked like, or who’s talking to whom, or what kind of job the main character has, or so on—general context.
The general context gives us a sense of grounding, a word I hate but that I will use here anyway.
How do we give this context of where they are and who they are and what world they’re in and when they are without being completely boring? When I look at the Saunders story, the entire first section of the story is pretty much just this context, and it’s a routine, it’s something that happens between the narrator and Abnesti often. They know the situation and how it works. But we don’t. We don’t, however, want to hear about their routines or for someone to simply tell us the rules, or to get a long description of the prison. Or I don’t. Saunders manages a way around how boring all this context would be: he uses humor and language. He’s funny. That pretty much distracts us long enough not to notice that the story really parts after section one. And he doesn’t give us a breakdown of the routine, he shows us a scene and implies that it is something regular. We get a singular action that also encompasses recurring action. That’s far more interesting.
We get the context in the details, too, like how in the first sentence, Abnest is speaking “over the P.A.” That tells us a lot, nothing too exact, but that they’re in differing positions, a certain kind of place, and one person has the ability to make himself heard or not.
When Saunders gives the dramatic context is also instructive. We don’t find out the context about our narrator being a criminal and how he got out of the regular jail and into this special jail, or many details about his and Abnesti’s personal lives, until we need to: that is, until Abnesti asks the narrator to Acknowledge Darkenfloxxing a woman named Heather.
At first, the narrator does not Acknowledge. Then Abnesti brings up all this dramatic context in order to put pressure on the narrator’s decision. It seems to me that’s exactly when dramatic context can be most useful, that it should come in at the point where it adds the most pressure/stakes to the protagonist’s action and agency. When do we need to know? Story-wise, we need to know these things when they create conflict and action.
On the page, there’s a whole column of text now (context) between when Abnesti asks, “Drip on?” and the narrator at last says, “Acknowledge,” and something in the story has changed in that space.
Context is a tricky thing, and it can often seem to work against a story, to be kind of boring but also very necessary, and I’m always looking for ways to get it in so that it serves the momentum of the story, rather than slowing it.
*note: in the photo, the red is the context and the black is the agency.
I am writing you from the island of PITS, where I just moved. It’s a very small island in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico, and it’s called PITS because it’s full of pits. There is only one tree on the whole island, and it’s right in the center of the island, like it’s the queen of trees. All around that tree are the pits. You have to be really careful not to fall into them. If you walk a few feet while you’re talking to your friend and not paying attention, you might fall into one. Nobody knows where the pits go.
On the island of PITS, everyone is in school or everyone is a teacher. It’s like one big school. We learn all the time! Last week, even though I’m a teacher, I learned something, too. I learned that the island of PITS used to have no pits at all! Why and how they started is a mystery! But after the pits started to appear, everyone wanted to learn about them. So the schools became very popular, and the students tried even harder! My classes are all very respectful and love to talk if it’s time to talk and listen if it’s time to listen and write if it’s time to write. We learn a lot about the pits and about the island and about what the world is like outside of our island, like in Texas, were you are! The teachers, like me, are all really encouraging and happy when our students learn something. Everyone’s favorite part of class is at the end when some students get to share their writing if everyone has worked hard. I love that part, too!
Before I moved to PITS, I was a very careless walker. I never looked where I was going! So, weirdly, I actually kind of like the pits. The pits mean that I have to concentrate. I’m a better listener because I don’t worry about talking, only listening and walking and not falling in! All of my students seem to feel the same way, like the pits can be kind of annoying, but we’re glad they’re there. It’s funny how that works.
When I lived in Boston, before I moved to PITS, I spent more time being a writer. I wrote a lot and was often lonely and stuck in my own little world. I have a 2-year old daughter and she and I played a lot. That helped! I also wrote a couple of books! Sometimes I look at the pits on the island and I wonder if my books are down there in those holes. It can feel like that, sometimes, to write. Like you want your writing to be like the tree in the center of the island, but you keep stepping in the pits. But at least with writing—not like life—you can write your story again and make the pits disappear.
As an adopted kid, I often wished the pits would disappear. I mean pits as a metaphor now. Like, I felt like I always had to be careful of falling into another world. I mean that sometimes, being adopted was like the tree, and sometimes, it was like the pits. A lot of things are like that, I guess. We can learn a lot from the island of PITS! I hope our class can be more like that tree in the center of the island, that we give it lots of water and sunlight and love so it will grow tall enough to see from anywhere. I want us to be proud that we made that tree grow.
I’m looking forward to teaching you!
I spoke to Catherine Chung and Kirstin Chen about similarities between authors and their narrators and what the question has to do with race and gender and craft. I think this is an important conversation, and I’ve seen this question leveled at writers of color and women writers like some sort of x-ray gun, and what these authors have to say is well worth the read.
Do you mean the question of how something is autobiographical? I think it’s an assumption that’s made about women and minority writers and their work more often, and one that reframes the way their work is approached and engaged with. So the question isn’t so much “is this book autobiographical to your own lived experience” as it is, “how is this autobiographical to your lived experience as a woman or as a minority.” Which is a totally different thing, and which rankles.
And it’s a habit, I think, that our society or culture has of saying people who are marginalized in whatever way are defined by that marginalization, that the only thing they have of interest to discuss is that of their difference: the universal is covered by somebody else. But why shouldn’t our experience also speak to the universal human experience? It should, it does. Because the thing is, we are more than our genders or our races or our paychecks–we are all more than the facts of our lives. And to ignore or deny that is a way of trying to deny certain people the value of their own experiences or a certain kind of freedom in their imaginations. On the flip side, it’s a way of excusing ourselves or letting ourselves off the hook when reading literature by people with whom we don’t want to too closely relate to. It’s a distancing mechanism, and that’s so sad because for me, the thing about fiction that is so beautiful and actually sacred is that it demands a sort of radical empathy from us. It says no matter who you are, you can share the experience of these other people who seem, on the surface to be nothing like you. It invites you to imagine all these different worlds, and then to live in them for a while–all these different people you could be and love, and to broaden your perspective and heart.
So to me, the expectation that work written by women or minorities must be representational, because their experiences aren’t included in the kind that speak to the universal human experience–is one of those quietly devastating beliefs that needs to be challenged and overturned. It presupposes that our experiences are not rich enough, or deep enough, or varied enough to warrant that sort of fictional exploration in which new worlds and lives are created. And it does so much damage not only to those that expectation is levied against, but also to those who hold it. It also builds walls between us, cuts us off from each other, and as a notion it tries to limit the wholeness of the lived experience.
As a writer and a reader, I feel like we should always be trying to work against that. The characters I’m interested in live, they move, they captivate–because they are allowed a certain mystery, to exist beyond our imaginations, to suggest rather than demonstrate or explain. They’re not asked to act as tour guides for a certain kind of canned experience, pointing out all the advertised landmarks along the way, but allowed the full complexity of their lives, which as readers we are invited to share. Labels are so dangerous because they are often made to double as a sort of cage, and it seems to me that one of the purposes of art or literature is to break those cages down. I feel like the kind of literature I’m interested in doesn’t try to define or set limits or try to “speak for” certain groups of people or experiences, but rather encourages you to expand what you think is possible, and where you set your horizons, and forces your heart and mind to reach past what you know.
Phew, that’s a long title.
The TL;DR: a rhythm affects the reader most when you break it.
Or, how do you get a reader to cry, to share in the joy and sadness of a story, and to want to share it with others? (If I only knew!) Maybe it has to do with utilizing the counterintuitive.
After the funeral van (I had expected a hearse, and felt a moment of strange, almost euphoric happiness for this very normal looking van) drove away, I stood in the doorway with Ronan’s father, who had the hood of his sweatshirt up, and felt bolted to the world and untethered from every tangible, known, or valued thing. I thought, I now have to make something of my life, because my boy has been driven away in a gray mini-van, and he is dead, having never had a chance to make anything of his life, or make a single decision about how to direct it or live it. I also thought, I could care less about publishing another book, staying in shape, getting the perfect teaching job, or anything at all. If there is an all powerful being in the business of throwing lightning bolts like lethal javelins, now is the time for him or her or it to take aim. And finally I thought fuck this world and all of the people and things in it. I felt relieved and gutted, furious and insane. My friend Julia came over and kissed my face. I ate a bagel. My neighbors never said a word to me, although some of them were getting into their cars that morning as Ronan’s body was driven away, beginning their commute, still alive, still making lists and plans, and very soon after that morning I moved away with my sadnesses and they were unburdened from whatever feelings they may have had about my situation. My landlord, over the intervening weeks, was concerned about the logistics of how and when I would be moving out. I wanted no happiness in that house ever again and wished misery for everyone inside it. I wanted it burned to the ground. Months later, when a tornado ripped the roof from the house of my aunt and uncle’s house in Illinois, the two of them clinging to a shower pipe in the downstairs bathroom, telling me later you could not believe the noise, we thought we were going to die I wished that a natural disaster had hit the place where Ronan had died. A dramatic hole in the ground, a roof of sky, would prove that something had happened there. Otherwise who could possibly live there? I longed for those old Sunday school stories, for stones rolled away, a shroud on a bench, some apparition floating in a cave saying I’m just fine. Proof. Provide it, show it, give it to me.
That’s a paragraph from an essay by the writer Emily Rapp, author of The Still Point of the Turning World. You can find online a number of essays she wrote about her baby dying of Tay-Sachs disease. Pretty much all of these essays are absolutely heartbreaking. Or they are to me.
Recently, I was having a conversation with another writer about a Big Famous Book That Everyone Likes, Even Oprah. He didn’t like it. I haven’t read it, but have heard nothing but raves, so it surprised me to hear that he wasn’t feeling it. It’s one of those books that is supposed to make you feel the feels, but for him (I’m paraphrasing) the author didn’t let go enough for the reader to have any room to feel deeply. It was constantly interpreting the feelings and events for the reader.
We were talking about what makes you feel something in nonfiction, and my belief that convincing nonfiction often starts with that moment when the reader clicks in, usually through some vulnerability from the author. I told him about Emily Rapp, a writer who almost always manages to make me cry.
He asked me why that was. I hadn’t really thought about it that much, I had mostly just been letting myself get caught up in the emotions. But I tried to put my finger on it, because we were talking about writing and it is my insane mission to demystify craft even in small conversations with friends. I thought about the moments that made me cry, and I realized as I was talking it out that these moments were almost always when the interpreting broke down. The essay form is a form that does a lot of interpreting, gives a lot of insight. The essay is a form that makes meaning out of action, I said in a recent class, rather than a form that makes meaningful action, as fiction does. I think I would stand by that if pressed. And these essays Rapp writes often come to a point where the incredibly insightful voice nearly or does break down. Like in the above paragraph, when we get to the most “cliche” feeling: Fuck this world and all of the people and things in it. That kills me. It’s like there’s no new way to say it, and there’s no interpretation to be done. Her son is dead and nothing else matters and she can’t make meaning out of a little boy dying. It’s all the meaning-making that surrounds these moments that make those moments so poignant for me, I think. It’s the inarticulateness in the midst of all the articulateness.
That’s it, my friend said. The Big Book That Everyone Likes, Even Oprah, never breaks down. It just continues and continues to try to make meaning.
There is something that The Good Men Project sends out in their emails about how posts become hits, that I have always kind of resisted. It’s to write something counterintuitive. But thinking about why the Rapp essays always hit me so hard, I wondered if this wasn’t right after all. It’s the breakdown of meaning in an essay full of meaning that sticks with me. It’s the idea that when one cannot express oneself, one is expressing oneself most truly. Or it’s an essay where the writer seems to be talking about books but then you realize she’s really talking about some personal trauma. Maybe counterintuitive isn’t exactly the right word for it, but there’s something to that.
In Boston, I taught a course called Writing with Style. In it, we looked at some ways of utilizing “style” to affect the reader, to make a scene move faster or slower, for example, to sound pleasing to the ear, to drive home a point or an emotion. I talked about repetition in the class, and had everyone read the JFK “Ask what you can do” speech. What I wanted to look at about the speech was not that so much is repeated—though it is—but that the most memorable parts of the speech are where the repetition turns on itself, as in the “ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.” In the tiny reversals. This happens multiple times. The speech also deals a lot in the counterintuitive, or at least the seemingly counterintuitive.
It is the reversal, the breakdown, that gets to me. I am reading a book right now called The Melodramatic Imagination, because I am writing a melodrama and am interested in how they work and why they grab us so hard. One of the themes of melodrama, Peter Brooks points out in the book, is muteness. I see this in TV shows all the time. Characters are not able to express their love for one another, for example. It’s agonizing to watch. The emotional climax often turns on a moment when the character is able, finally, to tell her/his love how s/he really feels. It’s the articulation of those feelings, after all of the silencing of them, that makes the moment so charged.
Or it goes the other way, too. Think of Amy Hempel’s beautiful story, “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson Is Buried.” The ending of that story is about the surest thing, other than babies, to make cry every time.
I think of the chimp, the one with the talking hands.
In the course of the experiment, that chimp had a baby. Imagine how her trainers must have thrilled when the mother, without prompting, began to sign to her newborn.
Baby, drink milk.
Baby, play ball.
And when the baby died, the mother stood over the body, her wrinkled hands moving with animal grace, forming again and again the words: Baby, come hug, Baby, come hug, fluent now in the language of grief.
The chimp has gone through all of this trouble to be able to communicate in this new language, through her hands. She is able to express herself in this way, she has a voice. And then the baby dies, and like Rapp, she stands over the body with all the words that she knows and is unable to say anything that will make her child come back to her. That, Hempel writes, is being fluent in grief.
That is a moment that stays with a reader forever.
They ran, gasping triumphantly, across the field toward the green monster, and she thought about how much her father would have liked this, how maybe if he had been taken by the arm and led across the field of his life, he would never have become so bitter. She thought how bitter she herself had become. And then they were slipping inside the wall, and she realized Henry had been holding her hand the entire time.
I have something up in the PEN America/Guernica Flash Fiction Series. I wrote it for some contest in Boston at a bar, years ago. Glad it’s finally seeing the light of day. Thanks to Cathy Chung for asking for it.
O’Connor’s “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” and Lahiri’s “A Temporary Matter,” two stories that seem simple in construction but not in what they pull off.
We’re talking about stakes and arc, and what makes a reader want to keep reading something in addition to what makes a reader satisfied with sticking it out.
One of the real pleasures is in getting to read these stories again and again with the eyes of a student.
I do an exercise in this class period that I think works pretty well: Everyone brings in the first page of a story, then shares with two other people who read for what the story is about and where the story is going and what is most interesting, and then the writer rewrites the beginning from scratch. It’s about making promises to the reader, about drawing her in and convincing her that her attention will pay off.
A poet who runs a small press once said in a room full of aspiring poets, “I try not to make money on any of these projects. If I make any money, I put it back into the next chapbook. I don’t want to make money. If anything, I want to lose it.”
Some of us laughed and later in the q&a, a woman in the audience assured him that he could in fact make money on these books. What he needed, perhaps, was a little marketing expertise, and some focused efforts on promotion. The poet listened and nodded and thanked her for her comment. But there were several of us in that room who were pretty certain she had missed the point completely.
I am reading Richard Hugo’s collection of essays on writing, The Triggering Town. In the final essay, called “How Poets Make a Living,” he tells a story from his time working at Boeing. Discovering a man and his wife squatting on Boeing land, the company takes actions to remove them. The man in anger and fear, writes long letters to Boeing, in which he does not so much protest the eviction, as chastise the corporation for its ignorance and privilege. He says:
"This country was built for more than one man to enjoy….You may be making millions of dollars but there will be a day when you won’t be. I am still suffering from some of your dirty work. I know kind of man you are and the rest of your so-called class."
And later, in postscript, “The Admiral,” as he comes to be known, writes:
"When a man is in the middle of the road I can give a man a drink of water and feed a man. I have done. I only lost homes in my lifetime. These rabbit hutches I’m taking with me and other planks that is loose and lumber. I will have to unbolt the planks to the rabbit house unless you give me a good price for them like you said this afternoon. That money will go to my mother."
In the years after graduate school, during which I followed a particular kind of career path and wrote little, I thought I had given up on writing (or that writing had given up on me). That had I been good enough, or dedicated enough, I would be able to write perfectly-formed pieces and the writing life would unroll its carpeted pathway for me to follow. That if I were talented enough, it would all come together and that success in a writing life would mean I would make my living through my writing.
I no longer pretend to know what success – in a writing life or elsewhere – truly means. Back now, in another graduate program nearly twenty years after I began the first, I take comfort in the idea that in a writing life, there can be silences. There are ebbs and flows, and if the arc of life is long, one can imagine – rather than straight lines – undulating waves.
In telling the story, and in discussing the poem that this incident prompted, Hugo attempts to answer the question, “How do poets make a living?” He talks about his time at Boeing and his current position, teaching at a university. He says:
“I suppose I haven’t done anything but demonstrated how I came to write a poem, shown what turns me on, or used to, and how, at least for me, what does turn me on lies in a region of myself that could not be changed by the nature of my employment. But it seems important (to me even gratifying) that the same region lies untouched and unchanged in a lot of people, and in my innocent way I wonder if it is a reason for hope. Hope for what? I don’t know. Maybe hope that humanity will always survive civilization.”
Hugo goes on:
“But no job accounts for the impulse to find and order those bits and pieces of yourself that can come out only in the most unguarded moments, in the wildest, most primitive phrases we shout alone at the mirror. And no job modifies that impulse or destroys it. In a way, The Admiral speaks for all poets, maybe for all people, at least a lot of us. We won’t all disappear on a remote country road in the Monroe Valley, but like The Admiral and his wife we are all going into the dark. Some of us hope that before we do we have been honest enough to scream back at the fates. Or if we never did it ourselves, that someone, derelict or poet, did it for us once in some euphonic way our inadequate capacity for love did not deny our hearing.”
How to show strong emotion.
Through the reaction of a secondary character.
I’m working on a serialized novel right now that is structured like a Korean TV show, to be illustrated for the visual aspect, with a story straight out of TV, a romantic melodrama, with magic, and adoption.
When I started writing it, I was watching a lot of TV (as research!!) and I found very quickly that I was at a serious loss. So much depends, on TV, on the acting, and music, and lighting. This can be a reason to get away from writing scripts, not wanting to leave anything up to someone else, but for my melodrama, it was to realize the tools I was lacking or could only, at least, try to mimic in prose.
In a script, you can write, She breaks down in tears, and on screen, see it transformed into instant audience-empathy.
In a novel, what do you do?
For years, I had been going more visceral as a solution, using description of the physical manifestation of emotion, and using metaphor, and using the music of the prose, to get across the feelings of my characters. I used action, of course, as well, but once a character sheds the lethal single tear, or is consumed with paralyzing hate, one is left describing a performance and trying to come up with new ways to do it.
Sometimes, combined with the action, this approach seemed to work. But then I would read a novel and feel so much more for the character breaking down in said novel than for my own broken character, and without physical description, or even with a sort of numbness of prose, like the kind of narrator who can’t access her feelings, or can’t put words to them.
No-No Boy is a somewhat lost classic, a book that is most of all felt. It may not have the most beautiful sentences, but man, the narrator feels the feels, and the reader does, too.
How does the author manage it? The passage in the photo is one of my favorites. The narrator seems calm, he’s just spent a nice night with the woman teasing him, and yet he still has the same problems.
It’s when the woman says he is bitter, though, that you realize that he is feeling bitter and can’t even bother to hide it. For one, we trust the supporting character to tell us how the narrator really feels.
(It’s like when someone is in love: if you want to get the truth about the partner you have to ask someone else. We’re all a little in love with ourselves. Or maybe this is just an aside.)
Take this passage soon after the one above:
The narrator could have said his little speech in any sort of tone, dejected or ironic or distant or earnest or so on, and the author could have told us what that tone was—but what really gets the tone and the feeling of what he says and how he says it across, is the reaction of the woman, how agonized she is for him. If someone else is agonized over your protagonist, then it makes us feel that the protagonist must be even more agonized.
If I got that lovely paragraph in narration, to me, the reader, it would have flashed out of mind soon after. An impression is left when I see the impression left on someone else.
To say it in another way—to show it!—I ask, what is sadder than one person crying in his room all alone? It is that person crying in front of someone else, who keeps walking around, shaking out her hands, wanting to do something for him, approaching as if to comfort him and then giving up and leaving him to his tears.
Just for example.
That seems a way, to me, that we can get closer to what an actor can do, by letting our reader see the emotion through other eyes than our protagonist’s.
I am constantly talking up Twitter to friends but then they join and give up after a few days or weeks. I remember feeling like giving up when I started Twitter, so I get it. This is what I did to make it fun for me, how I ended up enjoying it.
I woke in someone else’s body. I had wanted this for so long, and now I was lost to that one desire. I tried to remember that part of my past from which that desire had come from, I used to know it exactly, but now I found that I had no specific memory, just the feeling of loss that told me that I used to be someone else. I looked at my face and I knew it was the wrong face, but I couldn’t remember what the right face was. I didn’t recognize myself.