Tag Archives: Robert Frost

Balancing honesty and artifice

John Casey on that “low vaudeville cunning” necessary in writing.

Once I asked for advice about my idea of adding a fourth act to my memoir. I’d seen how it would break up the long second act, give readers a fresh resting place. And the more I’d lived with the notion the more I’d liked it: adding an act also would emphasize a new phase in the story’s arc. My mentor at the time was really offended, however. The reason was artistic: it’s a perfect three-part book, the thinking went—don’t monkey with organic rightness.

As if writers don’t impose everything anyway, I thought. Paragraphing itself is arbitrary. And line breaks? Some writers throw them in as transitions and emphasis devices even within scenes; others use nary one or only when changing topics.

I thought of this issue today when reading an interview with writer John Casey in The Writer’s Chronicle (September 2012). Interviewer Nancy Bunge asked Casey about the importance of honesty in writing, and Casey responded:

Honesty by itself won’t get you very far. I love the thing Peter Taylor said about why certain poets are lousy prose writers: they just don’t have that low vaudeville cunning. Honesty plus low vaudeville cunning might get you there. But it’s true; if you don’t have honesty then you’re in trouble. If you don’t have low vaudeville cunning, then you’re also in trouble. And the honesty and the low vaudeville cunning are somewhat unteachable.

I need to hear such rough-minded talk when I get too artsy—or forget that everything, even low vaudeville cunning, is an artistic choice. And of course reading Casey’s words I thought of a certain poet, Robert Frost, who said much the same thing in an interview with Richard Poirier for The Paris Review :

The whole thing is performance and prowess and feats of association. Why don’t critics talk about those things—what a feat it was to turn that that way, and what a feat it was to remember that, to be reminded of that by this? Why don’t they talk about that? Scoring. You’ve got to score. They say not, but you’ve got to score, in all the realms—theology, politics, astronomy, history, and the country life around you.

I suppose this matter ultimately goes to the writer’s psychology. Or rather more precisely, perhaps, to his temperament. Choices must be authentic but in the end all must made coolly to achieve certain effects. Writing is sentimental when you don’t earn what you ask for. And it’s dull without some humor, some pizzaz. I like Casey’s thoughts on this—

I think that modesty and simplicity might be as important to writing as the enormous vanity that it also presupposes: showing off so that other people will notice you and love you. How could you logically combine those two things? Who demands that they be logical? Maybe they’re braiding around like a maypole: a combination of childlike simplicity and expectation that if one has an idea it will be attended to by an audience, coupled with the big, arrogant, showoff urge: love me, love me, love me.

—because they echo what I know of humans’ evolutionary history. Homo sapiens is only 200,000 years old, a show-off species, vain and chattering and flashing with brilliance, but built atop over six million years of hominids’ quiet existence and group mind. Those twin strains are in us, along with the first layer deep down, the primitive primate and his urge to dominate. Two against one, at best. Politics anyone?

No wonder I get confused about issues like act structure. I want to show off and score! I want to be gentle and organic and authentic. And dammit, sometimes I just want to monkey around with the mess I’ve made.

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Filed under aesthetics, craft, technique, evolutionary psychology, NOTED, structure, working method

Review/Q&A: Alethea Black on ‘Lovely,’ faith & fiction, essays & cutting to bone

Clouds over Melbourne Beach, Florida

I can only speak for myself, but there’s something about writing at night that feels . . . sneaky. There’s an outlaw quality to it, combined, oddly enough, with a sense of being safe. It has an anaerobic, subterranean feel; it’s as if I’m working beneath the soil, toiling in secret, trying to cultivate something hidden and occult.—Alethea Black, “Essay to be Read at 3 a.m

 I Knew You’d Be Lovely by Alethea Black. Broadway Books, 238 pp.

I read Alethea Black’s short story collection I Knew You’d Be Lovely last January, at my sister’s beach condo in Florida, and again recently here in Ohio, parceling out a story a day to savor. These are funny, sexy, wise stories; some are sad, yet somehow they’re always hopeful.

Maybe my favorite story, perhaps partly because I read it first, on line at Narrative magazine, and imprinted on its tough beauty, is “The Only Way Out is Through.”  The story is about a man trying to help his angry, disturbed son by taking him on a camping trip. The boy is suicidal, too, it turns out, and their trip is one long crisis. The narrative features an unusual flash-forward, deftly handled, that’s as thrilling as it is surprising.

The story’s title comes from a poem by Robert Frost, “A Servant to Servants,” in North of Boston. The poem is narrated by a weary, depressed rural wife—terrified by the specter of madness in her family—who’s tending to upscale vacationers, lodged in cabins her husband built, and also feeding and cleaning after his coarse four-man road crew who board in their house.

Here’s the passage from Frost’s poem:

By good rights I ought not to have so much

Put on me, but there seems no other way.

Len says one steady pull more ought to do it.

He says the best way out is always through.

And I agree to that, or in so far

As that I can see no way out but through—

Leastways for me and then they’ll be convinced.

A neat feature of I Knew You’d Be Lovely is that Black included Author’s Notes in the back on twelve of the thirteen stories, and says about “The Only Way Out is Through” that she had to put her head down and cry a couple times while writing it.

The story not so illuminated by commentary is “Someday is Today,” and it’s explained by the collection’s dedication, in memory of Black’s brother in law and to her widowed sister and their four daughters. Black might have written the story as an essay (see her essay about being a night-owl on the Narrative site), but her bent seems to turn to fiction, and this lyrical story, unbound by strict allegiance to whatever the literal facts, sustains a remarkable depth of feeling.

In “Someday is Today” an unnamed woman arrives to help in the wake of the death of her unnamed sister’s husband, and she struggles to comfort her sister and to care for the couple’s three young girls. Sorrow, the visiting woman-narrator says, has made the widow “a little girl again,” the girl she knew when they were growing up. But there’s new tension between them, partly because the single woman doesn’t know how to care for children and partly because she can’t share the depth of her sister’s grief. And also because she’s religious and her sister isn’t.

The sister’s overwhelming loss, her husband killed suddenly in his prime by a staph infection, comes during the couple’s massive house deconstruction:

     My sister has found some comfort in the widow boards on the Internet. One of them has a list of Ten Helpful Hints for Getting Through This Most Difficult Time in Your Life. Hint Number 7: Learn to Expect the Unexpected. “Expect to cry at odd times: At the sight of a couple holding hands, at the sound of the doorbell ringing.” The bit about the doorbell got to me. As if, somewhere in your psyche, some part of you thinks he’s come home—and then remembers. My sister doesn’t wait for the doorbell. After the girls are asleep, she walks the stone path to the empty house, lies down on the floor of what used to be her master bedroom, and wails. I hear her. I don’t join her; I don’t know how to join her. When the doctor delivered the final news, I put my hand against her back. “Don’t touch me,” she said quietly.

As the children’s mother keens, their wacky aunt teaches them words far beyond their abilities—orientation and omniscient; she buys them whatever they want at House of Pancakes, bounces with them on a trampoline, and endlessly re-watches with them The Sound of Music. Auntie tells them an age-inappropriate but very funny joke.

Despite her rapport and love for the girls, this sensitive woman balks when asked to agree to take them if her sister dies young like her husband. And though she’s allowed to talk to the children about God, when she reveals that she anointed her dying brother in law with blessed oil and said to him words by Annie Dillard (from Holy the Firm)—“Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord? Or who shall stand in his holy place? There is no one but us . . . There never has been”—her sister is furious.

I realize I’ve picked the collection’s two heaviest stories to highlight. But the scenes here between the well-meaning aunt and her young nieces are tender and funny (which only makes the situation more heartbreaking), and the story is so perfect and suffused with such profound emotion that it is life-affirming and inspiring.

Alethea Black

Alethea Black, hard at work—maybe not: the sun is shining.

I Knew You’d Be Lovely, only nine months old, is already in its fourth edition. Black worked on the collection for many years, having committed only after college to writing, and the stories reflect this time investment in evidence of what Dillard once called the “richness of the years.” Yet they don’t feel overworked—quite the opposite. There are moments and snatches of conversation that are so real and apt that you just know Black pounced on them in real time.

Which isn’t to say they aren’t deeply imagined. Even when the outcome of a story is improbable, as when a beautiful young doctor leaves a party with a man she’s just met, possibly bound for bed, it is believable in part because you want to believe. Another of those stories is “Good in a Crisis,” about a young high school English teacher, who, questioning her calling, tracks down the cool high school teacher she’d had a crush on. “He sometimes had a little BO, she remembered, which Ginny’s adolescent self had found oddly sexy. Mainly, though, he had the peculiar beauty of a person in love with what he does.”

I say improbable, but it’s not that—unlikely?—no, not that either: some events are just unusual, while falling within the range of human possibility. As in the collection’s title story, in which a lovely woman wangles a ménage a trois for her boyfriend, as his birthday present, with herself and the lovely woman he may already be having an emotional affair with.

These stories are all really about love, I guess, and anyone who has been there knows that love is transcendent: earthbound rules don’t fully apply. Many of Black’s characters are young, college-age to about ten years out, and they’re lucky people, the type who were enrolled in gifted and talented classes in grade school, who were slotted into AP classes in high school, and then shuttled off to the Ivy League. Take the top three percent of that group, for wit and overall brilliance, and you have the general demographic.

I don’t mean this as a criticism—quite the opposite. There are so many tales of mere sorrow, ordinary angst, and the seedy underbelly.  I Knew You’d Be Lovely offers wit, humor, and artistry that cast a hopeful morning light on life’s turning points and its tragedies.

Alethea Black answered some questions for Narrative:

I’ve read that you decided you wanted to be a writer two years after you graduated from Harvard College. What was your major? Do you wish you’d majored in something different now that you are a writer?

I was a literature major, but I opted out of writing a thesis in the end, and received my degree in General Studies. I was not at all on my game in college, and spent a lot of time sleeping. I thought the desire to write was completely dormant in those days, but one of my suitemates recently said that I told her I wanted to be a writer, so I guess it was there even then. I don’t wish I’d chosen a different major; I don’t think I could be anything other than a writer.

I Knew You’d Be Lovely took you a decade and a half from start to publication. What was the most important thing you learned about writing during that time?

It’s true, this book was a 15-year pregnancy. I think the most important thing I’ve learned is the power of economy—never say with twenty words what you can say with two. When I look at early drafts of my work, the thing I notice most is how unnecessary some sentences are.

To ask a dumb question: why does writing a book commonly take so long? Or, more precisely, why do some of your stories take so long—what happens in that time, those years, that makes them at last complete?

No such thing as a dumb question! I think writing often takes a long time because you’re learning how to do it as you go. (And of course you’re living your life and working your day job as you go, too.) As to how you know when a story is complete, that’s one of the great unanswerables. When I give readings from LOVELY, I still find words to cut. But I do think it’s fully itself. When the sculptor Alexander Calder was asked, “When do you know a sculpture of yours is finished?” he said, “When it’s time for dinner.”

You’ve published poetry and essays but fiction has been your focus. Do you think the habits of art that fiction cultivates are different than for nonfiction? For instance, your story “Someday is Today,” based on your brother in law’s death, could have been a lovely, resonant essay instead of a lovely, resonant story.

I’ve come to think that fiction and nonfiction are more alike than I ever used to realize. When I wrote “Essay to be read at 3 a.m.” for Narrative magazine, I kept being surprised by how much fun it was. I had no idea that nonfiction could be every bit as inventive and lyrical and mysterious as fiction. You’re bound by facts, but you’re still free; in fact sometimes it’s the limitations that liberate you.

What are you reading these days and how does your reading affect your writing?

I’m a very slow reader and I’m always reading about ten different things at once. I love the New Yorker cartoon where the man is pointing at his bookshelves and saying: “On the left are the ones I haven’t finished, and on the right are the ones I haven’t started.” On my nightstand right now are A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson; The Human Line by Ellen Bass; Corpus Christi by Bret Anthony Johnston; The Stormchasers by Jenna Blum; Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov; and a guidebook called Just Enough Italian. I sometimes give myself a moratorium on buying any new books until I finish the ones I own, but I never stick to it.

You mention your religious faith on your website. Do people react differently to you or to your stories if they know you are religious? Faith in any kind of God isn’t very popular these days.

Faith isn’t fashionable, no. But what a small thing life would be if my goal were to fit in. I don’t know if my religious beliefs (I’m a progressive Catholic) influence the way people respond to my stories, but they do seem interested in that side of things when I give readings. I’m always happy to answer their questions because it’s as strange to me as it is to anyone; if you’d told me fifteen years ago that I’d now be someone who talks openly about Jesus, I would have fallen off my chair laughing. Before my book came out, a friend advised me to take the “God” tab off my website because it would hurt my career. But I have to say, whenever I’m on an airplane in turbulence and I feel like the end is near, I’m always glad I spoke openly about what I believe. Faith has brought me so much joy; it would feel selfish to keep quiet about it.

You’ve said you put your “own MFA” equivalent program together. Could you elaborate on what you did and what you learned?

My home-school MFA? I read a lot of books about writing, such as Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer; Anne Lamott’s Bird By Bird; Brenda Ueland’s If You Want to Write; Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way; and Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones. I learned so much from Natalie Goldberg that I thank her in my Acknowledgments.

Through many hours of revising, I learned that if there’s a section of your story that depresses you to look at, you should cut it. If there’s a word that feels fancy or a character’s action that feels forced, cut. If there’s a paragraph where you can feel how hard you’re trying, cut. Cut anything that feels writerly or show-offy or self-conscious. Cut anything that doesn’t keep the ball moving. That really great metaphor that does nothing to advance your story? Cut.

If you have doubts about something, more often than not it should go. If it was really meant to be there, it will suggest itself anew when you look at your story with fresh eyes, perhaps after you’ve let it rest for a month. I always assume that my reader is smarter, wittier, and a better dresser than I am, and I don’t want to bore him. My cardinal rule is to keep things interesting or call it a day.

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Filed under Author Interview, Dillard—Saint Annie, fiction, MFA, poetry, religion & spirituality, REVIEW, revision, teaching, education

Honesty and chronology, part two

William Zinsser addresses the issue of fidelity to chronology in his On Writing Well, and I was surprised by his answer. Perusing the thirtieth anniversary edition of this sober classic on nonfiction, I expected Zinsser to be very conservative in all matters regarding literal truth, but after a long career of successful freelance magazine and book writing he’s practical about quotes and timelines. He approves of legendary New Yorker writer Joseph Mitchell’s composite quotes and blended timelines in his profiles. Mitchell apparently spent years, in some cases, with his subjects, and would meld their conversations and encounters with him.

“Although Mitchell altered the truth about elapsed time,” Zinsser writes, “he used a dramatist’s prerogative to Zinssercompress and focus his story, thereby giving the reader a manageable framework. If he had told the story in real time, strung across all the days and months . . . he would have achieved the numbing truth of Andy Warhol’s eight-hour film of a man having an eight-hour sleep. By careful manipulation he raised the craft of nonfiction to art. But he never manipulated . . . [the subject’s] truth; there has been no ‘inferring,’ no ‘fabricating.’ He has played fair.”

Conflating quotes and creating one jaunt around the neighborhood from several such rambles is, literally speaking, fiction. But to convey truth, and artfully, and even for fairness and representational accuracy, Zinsser supports these techniques in nonfiction. He likes the richness of composite events, and in the case of quotes points out that all writers who take notes must “juggle and elide.” His own standard is to draw the line at creating anything from whole cloth.

In writing a memoir I’ve discovered that memory should be questioned—I caught it adding to one incident, probably because of the way I had felt during it—and that insight reinforced a strict constructionist impulse. If you only imagine that your father was wearing his red London Fog windbreaker that day on the boat, you say that. You go there. Maybe you end up writing about how he was color blind, everything a shade of gray—like your relationship. In this way, nonfiction’s art flows into and out of the ragged holes in narrative. In this way, perhaps, reality art is different from fictional art in its portrayal of the collision of self and world.

John Updike addresses basic disconnects between memory and fact in his memoir Self-Consciousness, giving readers the dual effect of straightforward nonfiction and impressionistic fiction. Early in the book he has a nice scene where, as a high school student working on an art project after school, he realizes that his teacher and his stern principal appear to share some secret romantic life. He adds, “To this quiet but indelible memory attaches a sensation that one of these two teachers came over and ruffled my hair, as if we had become a tiny family; but it may be simply that one of them stood close, to see how far along I was, because when I was finished we could all go to our separate homes.”

Another answer is to go for deeper scenic power by simply putting your father in that red jacket if that’s the truth you feel in the scene you’re creating. Or if that’s how he typically would have been dressed. Write the emotional truth based on historical truth. I’m wary of that decision but understand it. I haven’t yet faced the issue of whether I think, for me, it’s okay to move that day on the boat, the one where you caught the big fish, into a different year. So far, I’ve found that honoring chronology, when and where it can be teased from memory, leads to a powerful narrative and to surprising insights. Maybe that’s because the labor involved imposes rigor and leads to more rewriting.

If I felt that moving that day served truth and preserved narrative, should I do it? Does such a move put a writer on the road to the disgrace of A Million Little Pieces?  Zinsser does not seem to think so. At the other end of the scale there’s Amy Krouse Rosenthal, author of the celebrated memoir Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life, who administered a lie detector test to herself to ensure she hadn’t winged it anywhere.

But what does she consider winging it? How solid anyway is writing? Words aren’t life itself, but symbols. Readers simply want a story that works and which keeps its promise. That promise is the issue, but whatever answer a writer reaches as she tries to hit her sweet spot of Truth should be conscious and considered. As Zinsser’s rules imply—and he wrote the bestseller on practices in mainstream nonfiction—writing is also—inherently and inescapably—a performance.

As Robert Frost said:

“The whole thing is performance and prowess and feats of association. Why don’t critics talk about those things—what a feat it was to turn that way, and what a feat it was to remember that, to be reminded of that by this? Why don’t they talk about that? Scoring. You’ve got to score.

How  to score while playing by the rules? What are the rules? More to come . . .

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