On January 3 (we start our Winter Quarter quickly here at Ohio State), I’ll meet my MFA fiction workshop for the first time. I’ve been preparing my syllabus. In addition to the discussion of original fiction from the twelve MFA students in the room, we’ll take a look at stories by Tobias Wolff (“An Episode in the Life of Professor Brooke”), Alice Walker (“Everyday Use”), Sherwood Anderson (“Adventure”), Flannery O’Connor (“Good Country People”), and Richard Bausch (“The Fireman’s Wife”). We’ll also read two selections from Charles Baxter’s Burning Down the House (“On Defamiliarization” and “Counterpointed Characterization”), as well as “The Nature and Aim of Fiction” and “Writing Short Stories” from Flannery O’Connor’s Mystery and Manners. Our aim will be to think about fiction from a consideration of the artistic choices a writer makes to explore with resonance what Faulkner called “the old verities and truths of the heart.”
I’d like to share, then, this description of the workshop from my syllabus:
What is it that makes a piece of fiction memorable, makes it something an editor just can’t refuse? Why do certain stories and novels stay in our heads and hearts, the way Raymond Carver’s “Cathedral” does for me, or Joyce Carol Oates’s “Heat,” or Cynthia Ozick’s “The Shawl,” or our own Lee Abbott’s “One of Star Wars, One of Doom,” or the other too-numerous-to-mention stories and novels and novellas that in some way shake me and make me say with admiration, “Damn, I wish I’d written that.” What is it that makes a piece of fiction special, somehow unique among all its thousands of companions? More important, what is it about such work that I can steal for my own intents? We have to be a greedy crowd, we writers. We have to always have our eyes out for whatever we can learn from one another. What better place than this, the workshop, to practice such thievery? In the process, I hope we’ll gently, kindly, and smartly nudge one another’s work to levels of excellence heretofore unseen. We’ll all profit. One’s success pays honor to every member of the workshop.
So back to the original question, which is really a question about how fiction succeeds or doesn’t. I’d like to convince you, if you’re not persuaded already, that on a technical level stories and novels are the result of a series of artistic choices in point of view, structure, detail, language, and characterization. Writers make choices, either consciously or unconsciously, and certain effects result. Sometimes the final effect is exactly what the writer intended; the story has come out fully realized. More often, however, the story we end up writing is not the story we started out envisioning, and we end up rethinking some of our artistic choices, coaxing the story, which has always been wiser than we, to more completely reveal itself. We learn something with each draft until finally we’ve made the story what it wanted to be all along.
But does technique alone—those choices we make in the crafting of the fiction—determine whether our story or novel will be one of the memorable ones? I wonder—and, of course, I’ll ask you to wonder, too—whether the writer’s vision might have something to do with what makes a piece of fiction succeed in staying with first an editor and then a reader. I wonder whether much of a story’s or a novel’s success depends not only on technique but perhaps more importantly on a writer’s eye for what can’t be seen at first glance. Charles Baxter, in Burning Down the House, argues that a story can’t succeed unless it “pulls something contradictory and concealed out of its hiding place.” It’s the precious thing, he says—the crucial truth, present but repressed and nearly lost—that emerges at the end of a good story. One of my former writing teachers used to tell us that a good story would give us more truth than we thought we had a right to expect. How do we get to moments such as the initially jaded husband in Carver’s “Cathedral” who, as he draws with the blind man’s hand on his at the end of that story, feels himself filled and humbled with awe?
Perhaps we reach such moments in our writing because we’ve learned to think in contradictions, to know that anything contains not only what we can see and name but also its opposite. Flannery O’Connor, in Mysteries and Manners, speaks of the writer’s “anagogical vision,” which she defines as “the ability to see different levels of reality in one image or situation.” A good story or novel stays with us, not only because it’s well-made, but ultimately because it surprises us with how much it sees about the contradictions and complexities of human existence. Point of view, structure, detail, language, characterization? They’re a snap. Now see what Faulkner called “the old verities and truths of the heart” and put that on the page. Such is the daunting task we all face each time we sit down to write.
I’ll try to post reports from the workshop as it goes along (reports from the trenches, so to speak), offering up thoughts for us all to consider as we chase around the question of what makes a piece of fiction stand out, what makes it resonate, what makes it memorable. Here’s an observation to get us started. The short story is a well-designed and executed magic trick. We think we’re watching one thing when actually we’re observing something quite different. We watch the story moving along its surface, and it’s like we’re watching the magician’s hands. We think we see how they move. We think we know exactly what they’re moving toward. We don’t realize that the magician (or in this case, the writer) is working by sleight of hand. There are movements we don’t register, and then we arrive at the end of the trick or the end of the story, and we’re delighted with surprise because what emerges isn’t what we thought we’d see. With a magic trick, we can’t go back through it to see the choices the magician made in order to construct and execute the trick. With a short story, once we have that final move, we can go through the story again and again, as many times as it takes for us to see the moves that barely registered with us at the time but that ended up being the groundwork for the story’s magic.
Characterization, structure, detail, point of view, and language: These are the five elements of craft that allow a writer to make magic on the page. If you’d like to read Wolff’s “An Episode in the Life of Professor Brooke” (from his collection In the Garden of the North American Martyrs) before January 3, pay attention to how Wolff creates a complex and dynamic (in the sense of being capable of motion in more than one direction) main character from wisely pairing him with a similar and yet very different man. Focus on how the plot of the story unfolds from that initial pairing and from the fact that these two men can’t escape each other. Notice how the story opens out at the end while also coming to a close–everything made possible because Wolff put the right two characters together.
More to come. . .but in the meantime, Happy Holidays!