Recently some of you may have been wondering, Where have the blog posts gone? It seems as though a previously steady stream has slowed to but a trickle. Did the will-power tank peter out of gas? Is this another one of those countless blogs to be buried in the mass blog graveyard of forgotten dreams?
Well, hopefully, no.
Over the past few months I have been working hard on the beginnings of a novel. When I started I didn’t realize that writing a novel is a vortex of creative energy. More is required the further you get along until a kind of single-minded mania sets in. And like everybody else on the planet I have a full-time day job so in order to write I have to set aside a specific time or it doesn’t get done. Always this time has been divided between 1) fiction and 2) non-fiction (blog), but slowly, as this novel thing has ballooned into an uncontrollable mass with some actual but crude momentum, more time has been going towards trying to figure out exactly where it’s going.
This is not an epitaph but rather a new beginning! The blog posts I have been writing for the past year have largely been focused on thinking hard about what great artists and writers do and how they do it. As I learned I also became eager to put that learning into practice. So by looking at a few masters I was trying to write myself into being a better writer, and I’m glad to say I think it worked! At least I have become more patient re my own limitations. And hopefully you readers feel you benefited from a few of these reflections as well.
When I originally created this blog I wanted to keep it’s focus broad because my mind is always going down new rabbit trails and I’m not very good at boiling down my reflections into a marketable or niche-worthy form, (i.e. one of my many limitations). In the presence of a preset model, even a good model, my creativity withers and dies. If you tell me to write a story about a boy who slays a dragon, I will somehow end up with one about dragon befriending a boy, and it took me a long time to realize that I wasn’t doing this just to spite convention. Even when I tried to impose a convention onto myself as a way to auto-produce an effect I admired, I couldn’t do it.
I don’t know exactly where this new chapter in blogging is going. All I know is I have thoughts to put down and I’d like to put them down here more regularly. You readers have been very supportive and kind in your comments and feedback. I couldn’t think of a better place to continue to explore new territory as a writer.
For my money Flannery O’Connor wrote a better and more convincing freak story than Charles Bukowski or Hunter S. Thompson or Cormac McCarthy. In her stories there is always something meaningful at stake. When asked about freaks in Southern literature she said that Southern writers can still recognize a freak because “to be able to recognize a freak, you have to have some conception of the whole man, and in the South the general conception of man is still, in the main, theological.” O’Connor practiced what she preached. A highly theological writer herself, many of her stories are case studies re: a kind of freak that is only possible in a universe big enough to contain both Heaven and Hell.
I always thought writing a story about a freak would be easy. The weirder the better. But you figure out sitting down to write one that it’s much more difficult than it looks. If a freak is too weird the reader cannot relate to them and therefore doesn’t care to read about them, but if a freak isn’t weird enough they aren’t a freak. They’re just a little weird.
“Good Country People,” is a helpful object lesson in how to navigate this problem. Hulga Hopewell, the main character of the story, is painted in absolutely unflattering terms and yet we still care about her. Below are some of the physical characteristics O’Connor uses to describe Hulga:
large blonde girl
had an artificial leg
thirty-two years old
her eyes icy blue
her remarks were usually so ugly
her face so glum
standing square and rigid-shouldered
neck thrust slightly forward
poor stout girl
had never danced a step or had any normal good times
her arms folded
nothing wrong with her face that a pleasant expression wouldn’t help
had a weak heart
yellow sweat shirt with a faded cowboy on a horse embossed on it
blank and solid and silent
wore a pair of slacks and a dirty white shirt
she did not own any perfume
round freezing-blue eyes
You get the idea. There is almost nothing positive written of Hulga; but I was pulled into her character because O’Connor switches her third-person narration to and from the point of view of Hulga, Hulga’s mother (Mrs. Hopewell), and a more omniscient classical third-person narrator. This has the effect of giving the reader a view from many angles. It becomes clear throughout the first part of the story that Hulga is possibly being unfairly judged by her mother. Mrs. Hopewell and Hulga have very different ideas about life. Many of the descriptors above come from either the mouth or mind of Mrs. Hopewell in response to the antagonisms between them. Mrs. Hopewell is also a fan of platitudes and obvious statements like “nothing is perfect,” “it takes all kinds to make a world”, “they’re just salt of the earth people,” etc. which she often uses as stand ins for actual conversation with Hulga. All these subtle moves had me rooting for Hulga even though the surface of the story is unforgiving to her. But Hulga is not only a freak to her mother. There is a cast which supports Mrs. Hopewell’s perspective, a tenant family which lives in the house, foregrounding the notion of good ol’ fashioned hardworkin’ country people who don’ have time to thunk ‘bout the meaning of life and such—distancing Hulga from the consensus in the house and adding irony to her situation.
In this way O’Connor is trusting us to make up our own minds about Hulga. We know she isn’t overly pleasant but we’re not sure we trust Mrs. Hopewell either and consequently discount some of what he hear about Hulga and perhaps even feel sorry for her.
But these complications in point of view only serve to make Hulga an outcast. A freak is something more. I think this is why O’Connor risked overstating her case by taking one of Hulga’s legs. This type of move is classic O’Connor though she doesn’t do it without purpose. The leg serves an important narrative function which I don’t want to spoil for anyone who hasn’t read the story. But the missing leg doesn’t make Hulga a freak either. It’s more like a symbol-laden prop for the Southern gothic style.
The definition of freak, the real enchilada, comes from Mrs. Hopewell herself as she’s observing Hulga from a distance. A definition we can perhaps all relate to.
It seemed to Mrs. Hopewell that every year she [Hulga] grew less like other people and more like herself—bloated, rude, and squint-eyed.
Less like other people and more like herself.
Interested in “Good Country People” and want to support the site?
Few writers have mastered even one form of story-telling let alone three. With Joy Williams it all depends on how you classify. She doesn’t write plays or scripts. It’s all prose. Everything happens on the page. So what options could there be? Novel? Check. She’s written four, one of which was nominated for a Pulitzer, and another is being republished in a new edition next year. Short story? Definite check. She’s been in the New Yorker, so…
But if you are a frequenter of fiction writing on the internet, you probably know of one other form that has been in vogue since the collapsing of the average attention span. Flash fiction or microfiction—basically really short short stories, usually under 1,000 words. Microfiction lends itself to internet writing because, as it seems common sense would tell you, shorter fiction requires less time on the part of the reader, therefore writing them should require less time on the part of the writer. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Joy Williams’ Ninety-Nine Stories of God is a testament to the difficulty of shortness. Each story in this collection is about one or two pages long, but they weren’t written with internet-length or disposibility in mind. They are like mini-novels with only the most essential detail included, boiled down to their most bare form.
My favorite story in Ninety-Nine Stories of God is called DRESSER:
Our mother was an alcoholic, though she’d stopped drinking twelve years before, but once an alcoholic, always an alcoholic. She’d had all those cakes. She moved around a lot, but wherever she was when the anniversary rolled around she’d get a cake.
Now she was dying. She’d stopped eating and was skin and bones, lying on a bed in her house, a house she’d said more than once she’d bequeathed to me. The house was the last thing I wanted.
I’m there with my sister, who is useless in situations like this, though for both of us it was a unique situation, one’s mother dying only once.
Our mother’s eyes were dark, black almost. Earlier that morning the skin on her arms was bleeding, but then it stopped.
She’d been quiet for hours, but then she said in a surprisingly strong voice, “Where is the refuge for my bewildered heart?”
It made me shudder. It was beautiful.
“Guide me, Good Shepherd,” she said, “Walk with me.”
My sister had to leave the room. I could hear her crying into the telephone. Who on earth could she be calling, I wondered, and why, at this moment? We know nothing about one another really, though we’re only a year apart.
Then our mother said in that same strong voice, like a singer’s voice:
“Tony, I’d like a martini. Make me a martini, honey.”
But I didn’t, I wouldn’t. I felt she’d regret it. I felt it just wasn’t right.
I cannot stand Joy Williams for being able to write this story using only 247 words. I am so jealous. I couldn’t write a story 1/3 this impactful with 5,000 words.
She leaves out all the right things. For instance the narrator says her mother’s house is the last thing she wants, but she never says what she does want, and Joy Williams is a genius for never telling us.
Also notice in the 3rd paragraph the tense switches to present and then back to past before the sentence ends. “I’m there with my sister, who is useless in situations like this, though for both of us it was a unique situation…” I don’t think I’ve ever seen a writer do that before.
Interested in Joy Williams and want to support the site?
I don’t like myself when I’m watching the news. My stomach gets tight. My brain shuts off. All of the sudden the very complex world that I inhabit is made sharp, and boiled down into one point. People with lots of makeup on are talking over each other. Say all the truth, now, in 30 seconds. If it’s a news source I tend to agree with, I am lulled into a kind of stupor of agreeability and not encouraged to explore the issue any further. I am getting the final word, so that’s that. But if I am watching news I tend to disagree with, I am inwardly debating the pundit. I imagine myself on the news in a suit and tie, sparring with them. I go over all the points they are missing and I am like Christopher Hitchens throwing zingers:
Oh, how narrow-minded of you. Have you thought about this?
And everybody goes like, wow, wow.
This is a weird inward thought-stream, and one I doubt the news was originally designed to elicit. Maybe I am just weird, but I get the sense from broader culture: particularly the internet and television, that I am not alone. Opinions formed about the world are dearly held, and when they are even immaterially transgressed upon, a defensive mechanism kicks in. We want to defend our turf.
Information should be boring. That is the hint of objectivity—or, if that’s not possible, at least an attempt at objectivity. But news isn’t like that anymore. I am imagining Walter Cronkite in 1960 saying soberly: Dear viewer, a thing has happened.
Now when a thing happens we are immediately given not only the thing itself, but also its interpretation.
A thing has happened and here’s why it’s bad.
Turn the channel:
A thing has happened and here’s why it’s good.
It’s like eating food that has already been chewed, and we are constantly being told that this is the only way it can be done.
Michiko Kakutani said it best in 2006:
We live in a relativistic culture where television ‘reality shows’ are staged or stage-managed, where spin sessions and spin doctors are an accepted part of politics… This relativistic mindset compounds the public cynicism that has hardened in recent years, in the wake of corporate scandals, political corruption scandals and the selling of the war against Iraq on the discredited premise of weapons of mass destruction. And it creates a climate in which concepts like ‘credibility’ and ‘perception’ replace the old ideas of objective truth—a climate in which the efforts of nonfiction writers to be as truthful and accurate as possible give way to shrugs about percentage points of accountability.
“Joy” is the first anthologized story in Modern Library’s Early Short Stories of Anton Chekhov and is a good example of how the genius writer came to find his chops. Published in 1883 when he was young and writing satirical newspaper blurbs about daily life, “Joy” is short, blurblike, and funny but also has a seriousness to it that would characterize the rest of Chekhov’s later work, and would eventually make him world famous. It’s a simple story about a young man named Mitya Kuldarov who comes home late at night and wakes up his parents to give them some exciting news:
“Where have you come from?” cried his parents in amazement. “What is the matter with you?
“Oh, don’t ask! I never expected it. No, I never expected it! It’s . . . it’s positively incredible!”
Mitya laughed and sank into an armchair, so overcome by happiness that he could not stand on his legs.
Chekhov is doing what any good writer does at the beginning of a story. Something is happening that is unexplained; it’s interesting, and brings questions into the mind of the reader. A common mistake beginner writers make is explaining too much to the reader so there is nothing left for the reader to do. The more detail, we think, the better and more vivid our story will be. But good writing is more subtle than that. We, as writers who want to motivate our readers to keep reading, must omit spurious detail.
And no one knows better than Chekhov the power of an open-ended question.
Mitya jumped up, ran up and down all the rooms, and then sat down again.
“Why, what has happened? Tell us sensibly!”
“You live like wild beasts, you don’t read the newspapers and take no notice of what’s published, and there’s so much that is interesting in the papers. If anything happens it’s all known at once, nothing is hidden! How happy I am! Oh, Lord! You know it’s only celebrated people whose names are published in the papers, and now they have gone and published mine!”
We come to know that Mitya is not only the type of person that comes barging into his parents’ house in the middle of the night, but he will also gladly give a lecture while doing it. And this will get funnier as Chekhov plays with it:
Mother glanced at the holy image and crossed herself. The papa cleared his throat and began to read: “At eleven o’clock on the evening of the 29th of December, a registration clerk of the name of Dmitry Kuldarov . . .”
“You see, you see! Go on!”
“. . . a registration clerk of the name of Dmitry Kuldarov, coming from the beershop in Kozihin’s buildings in Little Bronnaia in an intoxicated condition. . .”
“That’s me and Semyon Petrovitch. . . . It’s all described exactly! Go on! Listen!”
“. . . intoxicated condition, slipped and fell under a horse belonging to a sledge-driver, a peasant of the village of Durikino in the Yuhnovsky district, called Ivan Drotov. The frightened horse, stepping over Kuldarov and drawing the sledge over him, together with a Moscow merchant of the second guild called Stepan Lukov, who was in it, dashed along the street and was caught by some house-porters. Kuldarov, at first in an unconscious condition, was taken to the police station and there examined by the doctor. The blow he had received on the back of his head turned out not to be serious. The incident was duly reported. Medical aid was given to the injured man. . . .”
This is the Chekhovian formula in its nascent stage. What’s in one character’s mind begins to expose itself overtime as in complete opposition to what’s in another character’s mind. Slowly we realize, at the same time as his family, that Mitya is an idiot. Not only is he written about in the newspaper stumbling around drunkenly in the street and made a fool of; and not only is he not aware that he is made a fool; but not even the injuries he sustained were serious. This is a masterstroke of a comic genius. If Mitya had died in the street this would be a tragedy of alcoholism and despair—one common in 19th century Russia—but he is not even capable of being a real failure.
Mitya seized the paper, folded it up and put it into his pocket.
“I’ll run round to the Makarovs and show it to them. . . . I must show it to the Ivanitskys too, Natasya Ivanovna, and Anisim Vassilyitch. . . . I’ll run! Good-bye!”
Mitya put on his cap with its cockade and, joyful and triumphant, ran into the street.
“Joy” is a very short story which totals just under 700 words—and Chekhov makes the most of all of them. The greatest lesson a writer can learn from Chekhov is how to cut out every ounce of dead weight, but this method does not mean simply editing down to size. The Chekhovian method is about trusting your reader’s intelligence so that they may draw their own conclusion from your story. There is a reason we never know of Mitya’s family’s reaction to his stupidity: we don’t need it for the story to work. Chekhov lets Mitya go un-judged so that we as readers have the pleasure of judging him ourselves. A lesser writer would be tempted to keep going, to keep explaining, but Chekhov knew even at this very early stage in his career that stories are not explanations or even resolutions. A story is the act of using words to paint the anatomy of a problem and capturing what happens overtime to that problem when it is in the hands of human character.
IT’S IMPOSSIBLE TO NEATLY SUM up Anne Carson’s work. She’s written in a wide range of forms: poetry, essay, performance pieces, translations, and a genre invented by her called “short talks” which are hyper-condensed lyrical meditations on any number of scientific, historical, or anthropological topics. She pushes the boundaries of whatever form she’s in, often into the avant-garde. Sam Anderson wrote in his New York Times profile of Carson: ‘[she] gives the impression—on the page, at readings—of someone from another world, either extraterrestrial or ancient, for whom our modern earthly categories are too artificial and simplistic to contain anything like the real truth she is determined to communicate. For two decades her work has moved—phrase by phrase, line by line, project by improbable project—in directions that a human brain would never naturally move.’
To put it as straightforwardly as possible: Anne Carson’s writing is weird. She plays with form, structure, and genre, which can disorient a reader expecting a conventional approach, but if you come to Carson’s work with an open mind, letting the words guide you ‘phrase by phrase, line by line,’ you will most likely be delighted.
SHORT STORIES ARE A NEW venture for Carson in form, she didn’t write any before 2016 when she published three: “We’ve Only Just Begun,” “1=1,” and “Back the Way You Went,” in Harper’s and the New Yorker, and each one is uniquely masterful. If Faulkner’s old quote holds true that every short story writer is a failed poet, then Anne Carson’s short stories are a testament to what happens when a successful poet decides to turn to short stories, not out of necessity, but as a creative choice.
“1=1” especially embodies Carson’s strengths as a writer. It is lyrical but strict in its brevity with short punchy sentences like Hemingway, Raymond Carver, and the literary minimalists, but accomplishes a totally different effect, not a working class ho-hummy vibe—that is not who Anne Carson is as a writer—but as a means of legitimately condensing prose to only what is necessary, and, as Sam Anderson pointed out, usually in a direction ‘either extraterrestrial or ancient’.
‘Somebody was talking to me about writing the other day. They said the good thing I did in my writing was to have every word resist the next word or resist the way it should go. I believe that’s accurate enough. It’s partly orneriness but it’s partly trying to make the words take you to a fresh place.
THE SENTENCES IN “1=1” are ornery but the plot is simple. A woman goes for a swim, reads the newspaper, and has an interaction with her neighbor. There isn’t a necessary causal link between these events, they happen in the same day but other than that it’s not obvious how the events work together. Although “1=1” feels like a coherent whole. The three main events: 1) swimming, 2) newspaper reading, and 3) neighbor interaction, happen in two acts.
Swimming takes up the entire first act. The first sentence is: She visits others. We don’t know who these others are. She swims and watches a man play fetch on the beach with his dog. As she swims and observes and has several interwoven revelations as the tense of the narration switches subtly from the beginning to the end of the first paragraph, from third person to second person, almost imperceptibly, pivoting from “she,” to “oneself,” to “you.” It becomes clear by the time we get to “you” that yes, swimming is a physical act this woman is performing in the story but it’s also a metaphor. In the middle of the paragraph, at the same time tense is about to change, so too does the act of swimming become something else:
People think swimming is carefree and effortless. A bath! In fact, it is full of anxieties. Every water has its own rules and offering. Misuse is hard to explain. Perhaps involved is that commonplace struggle to know beauty, to know beauty exactly, to put oneself right in its path, to be in the perfect place to hear the nightingale sing, see the groom kiss the bride, clock the comet.
What does knowing beauty, hearing nightingales sing, grooms kissing brides, and clocking comets have to do with swimming? Nothing, except Carson already has us on the hook. She’s melded two concepts together without having to spell it out for the reader because she writes intuitively. As the woman gets in the water her mind wanders and we wander with her, as if the physical submersion she undergoes gives license for the prose to also become fluid. Swimming = the ambiguous resistance every person must learn to navigate, continuously:
Every water has a right place to be, but that place is in motion. You have to keep finding it, keep having it find you. Your movement sinks into and out of it with each stroke. You can fail it with each stroke. What does that mean, fail it.
THE SECOND ACT BEGINS with an ending: Her visit ends. Back at her home, she reads the newspaper. A story about migrants packed in a train, ‘filthy families and souls in despair…’ She considers her life (act 1) and theirs side-by-side, concluding: Words like “rationale” become, well, laughable. Nothing about this consideration is necessary to the plot but it illustrates further Anne Carson’s methodology. The main character faces the chasm between her and others—i.e. the isolation of selfhood—wherein no rationale is sufficiently explanatory; should this be framed as a question, [it] would not be answerable by philosophy or poetry or finance or by the shallows or the deeps of her own mind…
Faced with this problem, She goes downstairs and out to the stoop, hoping it’s cooler there. She then has an encounter with her neighbor Chandler who is drawing pears with sidewalk chalk. She tries talking with him but he doesn’t answer because he’s focused on his drawing: His gaze is ahead and within.
The second act ends by tying things back to the beginning. Thwarted by her attempts to connect with Chandler, the main character goes back upstairs and thinks of capacity, both ‘qualitative’ and ‘quantitative’:
Upstairs, she finds herself thinking again about the failure to swim. It can be quantitative as well as qualitative. Imagine how many pools, ponds, lakes, bays, streams, stretches of swimmable shore there are in the world right now, probably half of them empty of swimmers, by reason of night or negligence. Empty, still, perfect. What a waste, what an extravagance—why not make oneself accountable to that? Why not swim in all of them?
The beauty in the writing I think is partly fueled by Carson’s obsession with avoiding ‘rationales,’ or overarching explanations that demystify experience. It’s hard to explain what’s going on here and that’s kind of wonderful. It’s mainly meant to be enjoyed. But, at the very minimum, Carson makes clear her basic metaphor that runs through “1=1”: water, again, is a kind of potential of circumstance. Empty, still, perfect. You could be anyone but you are just you. Why not make oneself accountable to that? Why not swim in all of them?
Chandler rings the doorbell. Done with his drawing, he is reaching out to her. He wants to show her his drawing of a fox. She looks at it and feels its connection with her day. In the picture the fox is swimming. Earlier that day she was swimming. She stands awhile, watching the fox swim, looking back on the day, its images too strong, and yet the soul—how does it ever get peace in its mouth, close its mouth on peace while alive… The fox is stroking splashlessly forward. The fox does not fail.
What is significant about the fox’s not failing? It picks up where the question in act 1 left off: What does that mean, fail it. The question isn’t answered but it is addressed. The woman swam in act 1, the fox swims now. The fox is a work of art which is part of its perfection. But is the fox doing more? Does it have peace in its mouth? Is that perfection?
HAROLD BLOOM WROTE in How to Read and Whythat basically all short stories are ‘either Chekhovian or Borgesian; only rarely are they both.’ What he meant was that short stories tend to either be realistic (following Anton Chekhov) in which the mundane is elevated by description; or they are fantastic (following Jorge Luis Borges, Kafka) whereby the fantastic is brought down to earth by being made tenable. Anne Carson’s “1=1” is this rare case that blurs the line. She’s able to do this by how she writes at the sentence level. Nothing supernatural happens in “1=1.” Nothing much happens at all. It isn’t a fairytale. It isn’t a straightforward myth. It’s basically realism but it’s by surprise that she captivates. The events in her stories do not fall in succession like dominoes but rhyme with symbol, metaphor, and intuition.
Interested in Anne Carson’s work and want to support the site?