Our conversation in the fiction workshop began yesterday with a consideration of a chapter from Charles Baxter’s excellent book, Burning Down the House. The chapter, “On Defamiliarization,” deals with how writers can sometimes know their stories too early in the writing process. A writer might, for example, decide early on that his or her story is about the disruption of a family due to a father’s alcoholism. Each scene, then, becomes one more example of the father’s drinking and the ugly moments in causes for the family. As Baxter, says, everything about the story fits. All of the arrows point in the same direction. He goes on to point out that in such cases the writers understand their characters too quickly, and, therefore, the characters aren’t contradictory or misfitted. “The truth that writers are after,” Baxter says, “may be dramatic only if it has been forgotten first; if the story, in other words, pulls something contradictory and concealed out of its hiding place.”
To help us think about how that magic trick happens in a good story, Baxter offers up the term, “defamiliarization,” from Russian formalist criticism and the Russian critic Viktor Shklovsky. Defamiliarization is the process by which the writer makes the familiar strange, and the strange familiar. For me, this boils down to the writer always being on the lookout for the unexpected that is also convincing and organic to the world of the story and its characters.
In Sherwood Anderson’s “Adventure,” from Winesburg, Ohio, a young woman named Alice Hindman constructs a narrative that she needs in order to believe in the future. The man she loves, Ned Currie, will come back to Winesburg from Chicago, as he’s sworn he will, and they’ll live happily ever after. But the years go on, and Ned doesn’t return. At the end of the story, on a rainy night, Alice, so desperate for Ned Currie, so desperate for love, allows this desperation, which is mixed up with eroticism, to overwhelm her. She strips off her clothes and runs out into the rain. She feels full of youth and courage. She sees a man stumbling around on the sidewalk ahead of her. “What do I care who it is,” she thinks to herself. “He is alone, and I will go to him.” She calls out to the man: “Wait!” she cried. “Don’t go away. Whoever you are, you must wait.”
I’d like to pause here and consider Anderson at this point of the composition of the story, facing the choice of forming the man’s response. What are some of the predictable options? The man reacts with shock? He reacts with lewdness, pleased by the site of the woman and her nakedness? Either choice would fit nicely with what we expect, and for that reason, each choice is flawed because it takes the story down a predictable path. It make all the arrows point in the same direction. It fails to make the moment memorable. The story arrives somewhere familiar, and, therefore, forgettable.
Now back to the story. The man, Alice notices, is an old man, perhaps somewhat deaf. He puts his hand to his mouth. He shouts. “What? What say?” Here we have a touch of what Baxter calls “surprising banality” to stand in contrast with Alice’s brazen act, and to throw it into bolder relief. Alice, noting the man’s disregard of her nakedness–to him, it doesn’t matter a whit–recoils with shame. She runs back to her home and wonders whatever could have possessed her. She lies in bed and turns her face to the wall, accepting the loneliness that is now hers, a loneliness wrought because of the man’s disregard. The story would never have reached this point if Anderson would have followed a more predictable path with the man’s reaction.
The lesson in this is that writers need to walk around their first ideas to see whether they’ve taken full advantage of the misfitted detail, image, or action. Providing a contrast between the familiar and the strange is often a way of drawing out that contradictory and concealed moment that’s waiting at the end of a story. Ann Beattie once said that she wrote a story to a point where one of her characters said or did something unexpected and then another character said or did something equally unexpected. End of story. The key, of course, is to make sure that the unexpected is convincing given what we already know about the characters and their worlds. You can’t just cue the ax murderer at the end of the story and call that a convincing surprise!
It’s always amazing to me how often the stories that writers bring to workshop on a certain day have things in common. Yesterday, our two stories under consideration both utilized multiple points of view. To me, whenever a point of view strategy is something other than the customary third-person limited or first-person, it’s wise to ask how that slightly less common point of view–omniscient, say, or second-person–is necessary to creating the effect that the writer wants the story to have. Not always, but often, when a short story writer works with a multiple point of view strategy, it’s used to ironic effect in the sense that it shows the reader how one character’s assumptions about another character or a situation may be wrong. Characters make assumptions about their situations and about the other people involved, and the multiple point of view can allow the reader to know much more than the characters. This sort of point of view choice works well in some cases for stories about the difficulty of communication. All sorts of comic and tragic ironies can come to the surface as a result of what the readers know that the characters don’t.
Next week, we’ll be looking at another chapter from Baxter, “Counterpointed Characterization,” and a story by Alice Walker, “Everyday Use.” We’ll be thinking about how a writer has to be a good matchmaker when it comes to choosing which characters will occupy center stage in a story. That and whatever else pops up during our conversation in the workshop. By the way, you should feel free to grab yourself a piece of chocolate and to set a windup toy into motion; both events occurred yesterday during workshop in Denney Hall, Room 368, on the campus of The Ohio State University.