Monthly Archives: September 2011

Bret Lott’s ‘Against Technique’

If a writer is any good, what he makes will have its source in a realm much larger than that which his conscious mind can encompass and will always be a greater surprise to him than it can ever be to his reader.—Bret Lott

This blog has been mostly about craft, even though I know craft isn’t the most important thing about writing. Not by far.

A paradox about writing—maybe any art—is that craft, or call it technique, is what we can discuss. It’s what we can teach and work at. And anyway, craft is what releases what we’re really after, which is art. But technique itself is hollow if enshrined.

Sometimes to me the craft of writing seems a daily struggle with the self—the practice itself pressuring whatever it is that’s in the self that engenders art to come forth. This is the real mystery, ultimately—not how it’s done but that it’s made to exist and why.

Which is why I love Bret Lott’s long essay “Against Technique,” published by Creative Nonfiction. Some excerpts, not in his order but mine:

Technique, of course, can be taught. Its result, however, is a kind of uniformity that yields not art but artifice. I know this firsthand, having been on the Fellowships in Literature panel for the National Endowment for the Arts a few years ago in both fiction and creative nonfiction. After reading hundreds and hundreds of manuscripts, the one constant I saw that arose from them all, the one common denominator—and it was, let me assure you, a most common denominator – was the technical competence of the works at hand. They were technically competent. Nothing more, nothing less. Only competence—creative nonfiction and fiction alike, all told well, whether in any number of obtuse or conventional ways—that revealed a kind of routine verbal acumen, but that had, sad to say, no heart. No soul. Only windows all alike and all in a row, behind them merely automatons—dressed in various costumes of style, but automatons nonetheless. When the consciousness of the artist is neglected for technique, the result is often serviceable, may resemble truth, but it will never be alive.

 It is only through paying attention by you, the author, that art will be made. It is and always will be only your seeing, if I may paraphrase a bit brazenly Thoreau’s unintended dictum, “It is, after all, always the first person that is speaking.” This seemingly claustrophobic fact is, in truth—whether in the art of the essay or of fiction, and why can’t we also include poetry as well?—the single most liberating force behind the making of art.

It’s all about scene. It’s all about detail. It’s all about one good sentence placed after another and another until, when you look up at the end of the day, you see through the pale light of late afternoon that you have pieced together a story—whether fact or fiction—that might, if you are lucky, be larger than itself. That might be, if you are beyond lucky and in fact blessed, be larger than you.

And it is this single-minded doing, finally, that is the true triumph of art, the true liberation only the artist can enjoy: the discovery that you can. Here is accomplishment, and here is reward, no matter how piecemeal the final product, no matter how intimately one will know its flaws, no matter how rough the road was to get here.

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Filed under craft, technique, discovery, NOTED, scene, working method

Searching for Dinty Moore

Recently someone was directed to my blog by googling my favorite lines from one of my favorite essays, by Eudora Welty, “The Little Store,” which I’ve discussed twice on this blog:

 setting out on the world, a child feels so indelible. he only comes to find out later that it’s all the others along the way who are making themselves indelible to him

 The punctuation is the searcher’s of course, but s/he got the lines right.

A WordPress feature allows me to know, if I care to look, what Google searches led readers here. The searches range from mundane to interesting to scary.

A recent perusal disclosed this rambling whopper, perhaps traceable to an assignment from a writing teacher:

 what insights about the writing process have been learned while developing your narrative essay? what provoked them and what impact have they had on you and this essay?

 And here are some others, from who knows whom or why:

 jerald walker, street shadows, dinty more, impressive sentences

Speaking of Dinty Moore, I loved this search that also referenced him:

 select the appropriate self dinty moore

So, Bub, you’re ordering Dinty to select his proper self? He’s made a career of it—he practically invented selecting a proper self. But I couldn’t help googling the phrase myself to see what comes up, and this was first:

 Nutrition Facts and Analysis for HORMEL, DINTY MOORE Beef Stew 

As a mutual friend said, “I love Dinty Moore. The man and the stew!”

But Dinty has written better than anyone on his neat name. His essay “Mick on the Make: Notes on an Unusual Name,” appeared in Southern Review (2007, Vol. 43; No. 3, pages 561-564) and it’s humorous and poignant.

Anyway, the Hormel info was followed by my interview with him on this very blog.

Below that was a link for The Writing Well Newsletter, which discusses Dinty’s essay “Bring Your Voice to Life in Personal Essays” in the July/August 2011 issue of The Writer magazine.”

As Dinty explains, according to the excerpt I found (links since defunct):

 Your goal is to partially isolate a part of who you are, the you that you are today, as you meditate on a particular subject and sit down to write.

So there.

It sounds so simple, but isn’t, for most of us.

Okay, I’ll own it: for me.

But surely others write hundreds of pages to get at that sweet place—that nexus of me now and me then—and then throw away 180 to get twenty good pages. Maybe they pare that to 750 words.

And they send them to Dinty W. Moore, editor of Brevity, the new issue of which is just out, with essays on memory and desire.

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Another bill that’s overdue

I.

The world is being destroyed, no doubt about it, by the greed of the rich and powerful. It is also being destroyed by popular demand.—Wendell Berry, Sex, Economy, Freedom & Community

Westerville, Ohio, has a tasty new Mexican-food place, a dime a dozen in my native Florida and many other areas but rare here in Yankee land. So last Tuesday I was at the pick-up window waiting for Kathy’s taco salad—I’d gotten my tacos but the kitchen was slammed and had forgotten her order—and watched the preparer throw the salad ingredients in a bowl with her bare hands. Then I noticed that all the workers were using their hands, including the man who appeared to be the manager.

When the harried-looking middle-aged preparer handed me the salad, I said to her, “You really should wear gloves when handling food.”

She said, “I wash my hands all the time. But I am allergic to latex.”

I saw she was angry: a jerk was giving her a hard time. And her life is hard enough already. I never complain and wondered why I had. A self-righteous impulse I’d failed to smother.

The manager darted over and asked me if there was a problem and I repeated my opinion.

“We do wear gloves when we handle raw food,” he said.

“Okay,” I said. “But I like your restaurant and I’ve gotten kind of germ phobic.”

In other words: I won’t be back.

He nodded and looked at me keenly. Undoubtedly he was thinking, Germ phobic and a Class A Jerk.

It’s a no-tip joint, but I left a big tip . . .

II.

I am rather germ phobic in middle age. Thankfully I seldom see how other restaurants handle food in their kitchens.

And what about overseas—any place that’s not as nasty neat, on the surface, as America?

This is why God gave me an immune system, right?

But isn’t bare-handed food handling how folks get Hepatitis B? There were incidents years ago, in another town where we lived, with a Taco Bell . . .

If bare hands were a health code violation, however, they wouldn’t be doing it in plain sight, would they?

I asked these questions to a friend who has worked in restaurants, and he sent me excerpts from a 2005 column,Down With Gloves,” in Slate, in which cook Sara Dickerman says

There are too many tasks, too many tickets, and too many unconscious behaviors: I’ve seen gloved hands scratch heads and noses and butts.

For his part, my friend said his experience in working in a state-of-the-art kitchen was that food safety and hand-washing were emphasized and enforced. He added:

I dare say that every steak you’ve ever ordered rare or medium rare had had the grill chef’s thumb on it to judge how done the steak is. It’s the only sure way of knowing how cooked it is. Meat is often cut with gloves and sometimes vegetables, but that’s mainly because you’re less likely to cut yourself. A near miss with a glove cuts the glove, not your hand. The person who prepared all the salads and the dessets, the garde manger, used gloves at his or her discretion. They had a sink within a foot of where they worked and washed their hands between fixing salads and handling egg-intensive desserts. Health rules may vary from state to state and I bet yours are posted online, but I frankly wouldn’t worry about it.

So, duh. Of course your food is going to be handled by human hands if you go to a restaurant! Accept that, or don’t eat out. I must have fallen on my head when I fell off the turnip truck.

My friend added:

What to worry about is how almost anyone in food service doesn’t have health insurance and doesn’t get sick days. Therefore if you get a cold, flu, hepatitis or anything else and stay at home, you lose income. I’ve watched countless chefs with really bad colds or flu bowing their heads to wipe their noses on their sleeves or worse.

That night I kept seeing the weary, agitated look on the face of the poor woman I’d harassed.

 III.

And that night, last Tuesday, the Census Bureau released a report, which I read in the New York Times, that said last year “another 2.6 million people slipped into poverty in the United States . . . and the number of Americans living below the official poverty line, 46.2 million people, was the highest number in the 52 years the bureau has been publishing figures on it.”

The report said 15.1 percent of Americans now live below the poverty line, including 27 percent of blacks, 26 percent of Hispanics, 12.1 percent of Asians, and 9.9 percent of whites.

I sense this growing gap between America’s haves and have-nots when I get coffee at a McDonald’s and notice that everyone behind the counter has brown skin. And I always think there’s something wrong with a wealthy nation with its minimum wage set so low that a person can hardly survive or afford medical care while working full-time at two menial jobs.

But I also believe that one day America will have a more humane capitalism. A soft-headed liberal hope: compassionate progress.

And yet I believe it. Looking at humans in evolutionary time has taught me so. We’ll become a kinder nation, I have to believe, but I fear the pain that our next stage of human progress is going to take. Let alone what it’s going to take, in the fullness of time, for all humans to live as members of one global village. Yes, another liberal fantasy, but remember I’m talking about a time scale almost geologic.

Meantime, I hope that your beloved child does not receive, at a takeout window from some unseen illegal immigrant from Guatemala, a side order of tuberculosis with her burrito.

But, rest assured, whether you get a disease with your meal or merely endure awful service, it’s management’s fault. Behind every tired, inept, or angry waitstaff is a stupid, venal, or absent franchise owner or shift boss.

Related this week: “A mother’s war on germs at fast-food playlands” in the New York Times.

 

 

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An ancient lesson in structure

Henri Matisse, Le bonheur de vivre (The Joy of Life), 1905-1906

A version of this post first ran October 3, 2008

The King James Bible’s stories and ancient words and lovely turns of phrase have influenced legions of writers. I’m charmed by its liberal use of sobering colons: like so. And by the nonsensical italics.

And then there’s Jesus: talk about someone who works on multiple levels. He’s always getting thronged and spied upon—What’s he gonna do now?—and he delights in flummoxing. He speaks in riddles to the dumbfounded masses, though perhaps his rhetorical strategy is to intrigue them and, by using symbolism from their lives, as in the parable of the sower, to drive his meaning deep. Just in case, he clues in his disciples (and us, privy to the inner narrative). He works on the sabbath and rebukes hypocrites, establishing his character: a dramatic temper bearing a message more spiritual than doctrinal. He’s a hoot, and nothing like his skeevy interpreters would have you believe.

But it wasn’t until recently, reading Mark’s gospel in the New Testament, that I saw how beautifully structured a Bible chapter can be.

Verily, I speak of flashbacks.

Momentous events occur in Mark’s brief sixth chapter. Jesus performs two famous miracles, feeding 5,000 people with five loaves of bread and two fishes; and he walks on water, strolling past a ship that’s struggling against a headwind on the Sea of Galilee. Yet what stayed with me was the artful placement of a scene that transitions into another scene set in the recent past. The passage has emotional richness and drama, and it foreshadows Jesus’ fate.

The essay is structured like so. First, Jesus goes about preaching in the synagogues “and many hearing him were astonished”—offended—because he’s just a carpenter and they know his humble family. (It’s the recurring theme about him: Who does he think he is?) Jesus responds to their unbelief with the “prophet without honor” line and leaves for the villages to teach and heal.

Second, he gives his twelve disciples their marching orders, basically to tell people to repent but to expect rejection— which he tells them to handle angrily, I must say. The guy was no mellow Buddha in this tale. But, again, we readers have knowledge the extras don’t.

Third, setting up the flashback with a scene, King Herod gets word of the revival and says Jesus is John the Baptist, returned to life. Herod’s courtiers try to comfort him, saying, He’s just a prophet; or It’s the devil. No, Herod says, “It is John, whom I beheaded: he is risen from the dead.”

Exposition explains Herod’s guilty conscience: “For Herod himself had sent forth and laid hold upon John, and bound him in prison” for his wife’s sake. His wife was first his brother’s wife, and John had told Herod not to marry her. John’s edict made her so mad she wanted him not just jailed but killed. In the flashback we see how she maneuvered Herod into separating John from his head. It involves a sexy damsel’s alluring dance and Herod’s folly in making a loose-tongued promise in front of his vengeful wife.

At the end, we’ve got the resurrection theme. And we understand Herod’s character—a threat to this latest holy man. The narrative timeline resumes with the apostles reporting back to Jesus on their mission work.

Next: miracles.

The ages have burned much fat from biblical narratives, and what’s left has poetic compression. But I was sore amazed at how deftly Mark 6 tucks in the resonant Herod scene and flashback. In this chapter, narrative, deeper meaning, and structure work elegantly together within the New Testament’s larger story.

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Filed under NOTED, punctuation, scene, structure, symbolism, theme

Welty on what’s ‘greater than scene’


A version of this post first appeared on August 31, 2008.

Eudora Welty’s essay “The Little Store” takes us with her, as a child, to a neighborhood grocery, what we’d call a convenience store today. It’s a story about the lost world of childhood and it captures turn-of-the-century Jackson, Mississippi. All she conveys is suffused with meaning for her, but Welty avoids sentimentality by showing  instead of telling readers what to feel. The store’s realm is one of children on errands and of a kindly grocer who waits for them to “make up their minds.” But Welty steadily pours vinegar into the essay’s nostalgic soup until, by the end, we’re horrified with her by the violent, mysterious fate of the shopkeepers.

I like to assign this essay to students every year or two, so I can reread it, one of America’s greatest essays—or at least one of my favorites. Early on are a series of remarkable paragraphs full of tactile and sensory detail that bring to life the store, the children, and the grocer. Here’s the first:

Running in out of the sun, you met what seemed total obscurity inside. There were almost tangible smells—licorice recently sucked in a child’s cheek, dill-pickle brine that had leaked through a paper sack in a fresh trail across the wooden floor, ammonia-loaded ice that had been hoisted from wet croker sacks and slammed into the icebox with its sweet butter at the door, and perhaps the smell of still-untrapped mice.

Early on, too—just before the essay’s only emphasizing line break—are these foreshadowing lines:

Setting out in this world, the child feels so indelible. He only comes to find out later that it’s all the others along his way who are making themselves indelible to him.

II.

One day on the store’s stoop little Eudora encounters an organ grinder and his monkey, exotic and jarring presences. Here, in the essay’s only true scene—the rest is artful, visual summary—they break the illusion of normalcy. But they’re quickly fused in her mind with the benign store—as are all the objects and people and activities on her store trips connected—and with the adventure of going there.

Except she didn’t think the store had a life of its own. And she never wondered about those who owned the store and lived above it, though she was steeped in the changing stories of everyone else in her neighborhood.

People changed through the arithmetic of birth, marriage and death, but not by going away. So families accrued stories, which through the fullness of time, in those times, their own lives made. And I grew up in those.

But I didn’t know there’d ever been a story at the Little Store, one that was going on while I was there.

The patient storekeeper and his shadowy helper (his wife, his sister, his mother?) wore black eyeshades, Welty realizes in hindsight: “It may be harder to recognize kindness—or unkindness, either—in a face whose eyes are in shadow.” The wallop soon comes as the essay, her innocent girlhood, and the store end together in terror and mystery and violence and people “who simply vanished.”

We weren’t being sent to the neighborhood grocery for facts of life, or death. But of course those are what we were on the track of, anyway. With the loaf of bread and the Cracker Jack prize, I was bringing home the intimations of pride and disgrace, and rumors and early news of people coming to hurt one another, while others practiced for joy—storing up a portion for myself of the human mystery.

The climax’s impact is felt and lingers because the preceding narrative has prepared us to comprehend the enormity of the loss.

Welty (1909–2001) sent me with this haunting little essay to One Writer’s Beginnings, a memoir of her sensibility growing within the gift of her stable, happy family. She makes clear that what impelled her work was the love inculcated there. Not that her future spared her, as artist or woman, her allotment of human pain.

Discussing one of her short stories, about a girl who learns in painting to frame scenes with her hands, only to see unwelcome reality thereby intrude upon her inner dream of love, Welty writes, affirming the mystery that seems her work’s motif:

The frame through which I viewed the world changed too, with time. Greater than scene, I came to see, is situation. Greater than situation is implication. Greater than all of these is a single, entire human being, who will never be confined in any frame.

(“The Little Store” is available in a paperback collection, The Eye of the Story: Selected Essays and Reviews, and is included in the Library of America’s Eudora Welty: Stories, Essays & Memoir.)

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Filed under essay-narrative, implication, memoir, NOTED, scene

Scenes that work—for writer and reader

This post appeared originally in 2010 as “Keys to Conveying Experience”

Writing theorist Peter Elbow believes a key to effective writing is getting readers to breathe “experience” into the words. To accomplish this effect, the writer must first have the experience herself.

“Narrative,” he observes, “is a way to get your reader’s attention, but it is a rudimentary kind of attention, mere curiosity about what happens next. It doesn’t make her actually build an experience in her head. Narrative is powerful but you need to have it in addition to experience in your words, not as a crutch or substitute for experience.”

In Writing with Power, Elbow offers these ideas:

• “Direct all your efforts into experiencing—or re-experiencing—what you are writing about. . . . Be there. See it. Participate in whatever you are writing about and then just let the words come of their own accord.”
• Fix words and add, cut, or modify when you revise. Think then about audience, structure, tone.

• Let your scenes grow out of an an experience rather than out of an idea.

• Ask test readers where your writing made them see or hear something. “Much of your writing will cause no movies at all. That’s par. But when feedback shows you even a few short passages that actually do it, you will be able to think yourself back to what it felt like as you wrote them. This will give you a seat-of-the-pants feeling for what you must do to get power into your words—what muscle you have to scrunch or let go of to breathe life into your writing.”

• Train and practice seeing and conveying images. Elbow advises playing a game where you give other participants images until they can see a scene; do this by focusing on a small detail—not the whole terrace but “on the small table next to the canvas chair the No. 2 pencil with a broken point touching the moist ring left by a cold drink on a plastic table”—and listeners should stop you if they don’t get movies in their heads.
This seems key to me:
“It’s by illuminating a tiny fragment of a scene and just suggesting the rest of it in a minimal way that you are most likely to get listeners to recreate the scene for themselves,” writes Elbow. “One tiny detail serves as a kind of a dust particle that listeners need in order to crystallize a snowflake out of their own imaginations.
Trying to describe everything usually means that nothing really comes alive. And by zeroing in on just a detail or two, you establish your point of view.”
And he has a final point:

• Don’t use this advice about experiencing to procrastinate. Sometimes you just have to write and keep trying as you write.

Writing with Power is an unusually insightful book on the craft and helpful for narrative writers and for teachers. He has a chapter on how expository essays can be written with more power. (Just as a scene can be written without fully experiencing it, so a thought can be described without experiencing it.)

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Filed under narrative, NOTED, scene, teaching, education