There’s a moment in Tobias Wolff’s story, “An Episode in the Life of Professor Brooke,” where Brooke’s colleague, Riley, asks him to tell him the worst things he’s ever done. As I was walking upstairs to meet my MFA fiction workshop for the first time this quarter, I was thinking about how in all good fiction we get the sense that the story or the novel really mattered to the writer–that the subject matter hasn’t just been chosen willy-nilly, but instead exists because for whatever reason the writer has to work with it. We don’t know why it matters the writer, but we feel the urgency in the telling. I know that when my own drafts fail to interest or touch me, it’s usually because I haven’t figured out why I need to write about a particular situation or character.
I began yesterday’s workshop by asking folks to consider how they would answer Riley’s question if it were put to them. “What the worst thing you’ve ever done?’ I told a story from my own experience (sure I’ve done worst things than the moment I shared, but, c’mon, do you really think I’d tell you everything?) that happened when I was in the fifth grade. Our community was in the midst of a hepatitis outbreak, the kind that makes folks very, very sick, and it was known that the father of one of my classmates, April, a quiet, nervous girl, had been dramatically ill. One morning,before our lessons began, my teacher, Mrs. Frank, asked April how her father was doing. April said he was much, much better. I raised my hand. I said, “Isn’t it true that people can die from hepatitis?” I intended to impress Mrs. Frank with my knowledge. I had no idea that my question would send April into a fit of choked sobs, or that Mrs. Frank would give me a stern look that would make me shrivel up with shame. A lesson for the future writer: someone’s intent can often produce the opposite result, and that sort of dramatic irony can lend resonance to a piece of fiction.
Wolff is a master of this sort of irony. Professor Brooke, who thinks of himself as a decent sort, can’t help but sit in judgment of Riley. The story opens with this line: “Professor Brooke had no real quarrel with anyone in his department, but there was a Yeats scholar named Riley whom he could not bring himself to like.” Right away, then, we have a character Brooke, who’s interesting to us because he’s a character made up of contradictions. He’s someone who likes to think he’s a decent sort, but he also has this judgmental and moralistic side. I’m interested, as the story opens, to see what the consequences will be for him. I’m interested because he’s what I call a dynamic character, “dynamic” in respect to be capable of motion in more than one direction. All it takes is the pairing of Brooke with Riley at a regional meeting of the Modern Language Association to provide the dramatic present for the working out of Brooke’s character. That and a woman named Ruth, whom Brooke meets there. That dramatic triangle of characters provides the means for Wolff’s exploration of Brooke and how he comes up against the hard knowledge that the way he insists on seeing himself, this decent man, isn’t the whole truth. His involvement with Ruth begins when he hurts her with an unintentional slight. She’s prepared sandwiches for the conference, each of them having a literary quotation typed on a slip of paper attached to a toothpick stuck into the sandwich. Brooke, not aware that she’s been the one to choose and type those quotes, tells her that they’re “hard to swallow.” When he sees that he’s hurt her, he feels bad, and their journey begins, culminating in a night spent together, a fact that Riley, whom Brooke has always suspected of having affairs with his students, comes to note. At the end of the story, Brooke, who has always sat in judgment of Riley, had now traded places with him. Brooke understands how we all have to kneel down before one another.
If the story ended there, the epiphany would be too neat and not trustworthy. In our workshop yesterday, we talked about why Wolff made the choice to extend the story, widening the point of view, to tell us that the chapter of his life that seemed to be closing for Brooke wasn’t closing for others. Anonymous love poems appear in his mailbox at school. His wife, unpacking his bag after his trip to the MLA, smells perfume on his tie and his shirt. She fears the worst, but when Brooke comes home for dinner he’s so much like himself that she feels unworthy of him. The story ends with a reference to how the fearful feeling she has fades and becomes the sort of flutter that stops one cold from time to time and then goes away. There’s a lesson here about how the end of a good story shouldn’t be too neat, how it should close and open at the time, and this is what Wolff accomplishes by letting the point of view widen after Brooke’s neat observation that we all must kneel down before one another.
So with Wolff’s story as support, I suggested to my MFA students that the focus of our workshop this quarter should be on deepening characters and situations and learning to think in terms of opposites. My objective would be to see if I could give them some shortcuts toward creating interesting dynamic characters, allowing them to create their own troubles, and bringing the story to a moment of inevitable surprise, a moment in which something present from the beginning but submerged, rises to the surface.
When we turned our attention to the stories from two of our own members, we spent time talking about how to complicate a main character’s motive to give him or her that dynamic nature that Wolff gave Professor Brooke. The first story by one of the MFA students involved a complicated brother relationship and a dramatic situation that put pressure on that relationship. Our narrator, thinking that his married brother has had a sexual relationship with a girl that the narrator is sweet on, sets out to prove that. He tells himself he’s doing so in order to protect the girl. What will make the narrator’s motivation even more interesting, will be to throw in another layer to his motive, one that’s in opposition with his intent to be the decent man protecting the girl. If we can hint at the fact that the narrator resents his brother, we can establish the submerged thing that will rise by the end of the story, and that will be the narrator’s desire not to prove his own decency but to prove his brothers indecency. This movement is suggested in the draft of the story, but we talked about pointing it up earlier. Complicating the motive is a good lesson for us all to learn, and this writer’s instincts had done just that. The key, it seems to me, to that inevitable surprise we’re all wanting at the end of a story, is to hit upon the contradictions within the main character relatively early in the narrative, and to work with the story that the character tells himself about his motives versus an opposite layer that will rise because of the pressures of plot.
During our consideration of the second story from a member of the workshop, this issue of “tightening the screws” came up for discussion. Here, I’m talking about letting a character’s own actions in connection to the pressures from other characters, or the pressures inherent in the dramatic situation, make the main character squirm with uncertainty. In this particular story that has a bit of magical realism blending with a very realistic style of telling, a young boy in long-ago England has an angel who it seems will leave him. The theory is that angels attach themselves to people who are virtuous and then leave them when that virtue is compromised. The story opens with a few pages of explanation of the situation, the characters, the setting, and it’s all beautifully written. Then a few pages in we hit the complication. The family has always assumed the boy’s angel will leave before the boy goes off to university, but that time has come, and the angel is still there. What will happen when the two of them are at university? That becomes the central question that “tightens the screws” on our main character. Sometimes a structural adjustment can help tighten those screws, putting pressure on the main character right away. I had a writing teacher once who said we should begin our stories as close the end as possible. That strategy has the effect of immediate pressure on our main character. In the case of the story of the boy and his angel, I wonder what might happen if the story opened at University, opened, that is to say, in the midst of the dramatic present of the narrative. No need to lose the beautiful exposition from the opening. It can always be layered in after the dramatic present gives the story forward momentum.
So to sum up: (1) urgency in the telling that comes from a writer connecting with the material in a profound way (2)contradictions within characters (3 ) dramatic irony (4) complicating a character’s motive (5) preparing the way for the submerged layer to rise at the end (6) putting pressure on the character (through structure and characterization) to make that submerged layer rise in a surprising and yet inevitable way.
I’ve invited my students to read my blog entries because I know they’ll have some valuable thoughts of their own to add. I also know, though, that they’re very busy with the demands of graduate school, and may not have time for this extra “duty.” I invite everyone’s comments, questions, etc. I also want to point out that I could be wrong about everything I’m saying. It’s just one writer’s and teacher’s opinion. Our students in the MFA program are extremely talented, and the two stories we discussed yesterday were extremely rich drafts. I can’t wait to see where the writers take the revisions, and I hope they don’t mind that I offered up a few details from their wonderful work as a way of illustrating some of the craft points that we made yesterday. Sorry to go on so long with this post.
Next week, we’ll be looking at two more stories from the MFA students and also reading a chapter from Charles Baxter’s Burning Down the House, “On Defamiliarization.” We’ll also read a story from Sherwood Andeson’s Winesburg, Ohio called “Adventure.”
Until then–happy writing and reading!