From the Fiction Workshop: Week 5

Here we are at the halfway point of our ten-week workshop. I hope things are going well and that the posts are giving you some important things to consider as you develop your craft. I know it’s been a good thing for me to think more deeply about the techniques, strategies, and issues that have come to our workshop table, either the physical table in Denney Hall, Room 368 at The Ohio State University, or the virtual table around which we’re all gathered, The Writers’ Table.

Yesterday, we considered some things about the short story from Flannery O’Connor’s Mystery and Manners. In fact, why don’t we start with what she has to say about each of those. “The peculiar problem of the short story writer,” O’Connor says, “is how to make the action he describes reveal as much of the mystery of existence as possible.” A story is finished, she suggests, when there’s nothing more about the mystery of the main character’s personality that can be shown or dramatized through particulars. Such is the case for the character of Hulga in O’Connor’s story, “Good Country People.” Hulga, as you may all recall, is the daughter of Mrs. Hopewell. Hulga, with a Ph.D. in philosophy. Hulga, the atheist. Hulga with the wooden leg that attaches at the knee. Hulga who dreams of seducing a Bible salesman, who in turn steals her wooden leg, and leaves her, as O’Connor herself says, to confront “her deeper affliction for the first time,” which I take to mean her lack of belief, her lack of connection with those around her. Allen Tate called this story “the most powerful story of maimed souls by a contemporary writer.” It’s that maimed soul that Hulga has to confront at the end of the story.

In reference to manners, O’Connor says they come from “the texture of existence that surrounds you.” In other words, the world built from particulars that come from a specific culture, a specific way of living, a character’s connection or resistance to the landscape and the culture around her, the idiom that characterizes a society. O’Connor points out that “when you ignore an idiom, you are very likely ignoring the whole social fabric that could make a meaningful character.” She goes on to say, “You can’t cut characters off from their society and say much about them as individuals. You can’t say anything meaningful about the mystery of a personality unless you put that personality in a believable and significant social context.” This is a reminder to us to build our fiction worlds from the particulars of our real worlds, the ones we know most intimately, to build them from details and language that give expression to the society and the way our characters operate within it.

“Good Country People” is an amazing story for the depth of meaning that it brings forth from the particulars of its very vivid and specific world. It’s also amazing for what O’Connor does with point of view and structure. Obviously, the story is Hulga’s, and even though we occupy her point of view during most of the dramatic present of the narrative (she meets the Bible salesman, goes to a barn with him, climbs up into the haymow, takes off her wooden leg, and has it stolen), it’s interesting to note that we spend a good deal of the story away from her pov. In fact, we’re a few pages into the story before Hulga appears. We open with her mother and Mrs. Freeman, and we learn so much about the culture of this world and about Mrs. Hopewell’s belief in “good country people,” of whom she believes Mrs. Freeman to be one. We also learn how Mrs. Hopewell feels about Hulga, her Ph. D., her atheism, her wooden leg. So the story begins away from the pov of the character most affected by its events, which seems to fly in the face of the logical advice to tell the story from the consciousness of the character with the most at stake. Even at the end of the story, we’re away from Hulga’s pov. We don’t have a single thought from her after her leg is stolen, though we do see from her perspective, the Bible salesman leaving the barn and setting out for the road. Then we switch to Mrs. Hopewell and Mrs. Freeman, who are in the pasture pulling wild onions. They see the salesman come from the woods and head across the meadow toward the highway. Mrs.  Hopewell says that he was such a simple boy and then adds, “but I guess the world would be better off if we were all that simple.”

Of course, he’s not simple at all. He’s actually quite calculating and evil beneath his facade of being good country people. Nothing about the sequence of events in the dramatic present is simplel, and while we linger with Mrs. Hopewell and Mrs. Freeman in that meadow, we can’t forget that Hulga is in that haymow, her leg gone, her maimed soul hers to deal with, and somehow because she’s off stage, what she feels is felt more profoundly by the reader.

We also considered the opening chapter from a novel-in-progress by one of the students yesterday, a chapter that involved a young man leaving his wife in a small village in Japan to travel to Tokyo to interview for a better job, an interview that doesn’t go well. He returns to the village and his wife, and he faces the fact that their marriage is loveless and that she will soon leave him under the guise of having to care for her sick father. It’s clear, though, that she may not return. The draft of this chapter opens after the unsuccessful interview, and folks in the workshop pointed out that this keeps us from seeing the wife and husband in action before he leaves the village for his trip to Tokyo. I made the point that the first chapter of a  novel usually sets into motion the central drama of the book, in this case the threat to the marriage. Opening, then, with the husband getting ready to leave for Tokyo, might provide a sharper focus, not only to the chapter, but to the novel as a whole. It would establish very clearly and immediately, what the novelist Thomas Keneally calls “the cookie cutter.” I heard him say once that he couldn’t begin a  novel until he knew what that cookie cutter was. In other words, the thing to which everything in the novel would stick. Take his novel “Schindler’s List,” about Oskar Schindler’s efforts to save more than one thousand Polish Jews during the Holocaust. That list, those efforts. There’s your cookie cutter. Emma Bovary’s adulterous affair; Holden Caulfield having to leave his prep school and return home; Jay Gatsby’s efforts to recover his lost love, Daisy; Huck Finn’s trip down the river. All of these are cookie cutters.

If you’re working on a novel, what stands at its heart? What’s the plot element to which everything will stick? How have you announced this in the opening of your book through particulars? How many story threads have you set in motion? Does the end of your first chapter, or the first part of the book, lean forward into the future? Does your reader have an anticipation of things to come? Just for the heck of it, grab a novel at random off your shelf and read the first sentence. Here’s one from a novel I’m reading now, Bonnie Jo Campbell’s Once Upon a River:  “The Stark River flowed around the oxbow at Murrayville the way blood flowed through Margo Crane’s heart.” Already, the novel is announcing its cookie cutter, the river upon which the drama of Margo’s life will take place. The central dramatic event of Chapter One, is Margo’s molestation by her uncle, an event that sets into motion the dramatic heart of the novel. A good novel, though it may move willy-nilly in space and time, has a clearly defined heart, or focus, if you will, or cookie cutter. Even if the novel isn’t particularly plot driven, as is the case in Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, there’s still a central dramatic thread, the giving of a dinner party, and the book opens with Clarissa Dalloway setting forth to make preparations for it.

Ask yourself what you’re setting in motion with the first sentence of your novel. Ask yourself how the opening is announcing the cookie cutter while pushing ahead toward its dramatization, a dramatization that will make use of mystery and manners, and will continue until there’s nothing left to show.

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