We’re starting Spring Semester classes at Ohio State, and I’ll be teaching the MFA fiction workshop as well as an advanced undergraduate fiction workshop. A semester for lying!
I’m beginning, as I often do, with Tobias Wolff’s story, “An Episode in the Life of Professor Brooke,” from Wolff’s first collection, In the Garden of the North American Martyrs. In the first two paragraphs of that story, Wolff efficiently and quickly gets a dynamic character on the page. A character of contradictions. A character made up of the story he tells himself, the one in which he’s a decent man, and the story that runs along beneath it just waiting for the pressures of the plot to bring it to the surface, a story of human failing that Brooke never could have predicted would eventually be his.
The action of the story involves a colleague of Brooke’s, Riley, the judgments that Brooke passes on his character, a woman named Ruth, and the actions that Brooke takes that create long-lasting consequences. The New York Times review of Wolff’s collection, published in 1981, devotes a good deal of space to this particular story. Of the opening, it says,
Within a few sentences you’ve developed a fix on both characters [Brooke and Riley] and start to anticipate the process of having all your presumptions confirmed by a steady accumulation of incriminating details—which, after all, is usually one of the more considerable satisfactions of tightly controlled fiction and closely observed life. But then Wolff begins to undermine our complacency of response. Because part of what he is up to in this unsettling collection is demonstrating how slippery the matter of passing judgment, moral or esthetic, can be.
This undermining of what we come to expect of the characters from our first meeting them in the opening interests me tremendously. It seems crucial to worrying the submerged story up to the top of the narrative. To put it in simple terms, we meet our main characters in the opening, and we think we know exactly where the story is headed only to reach the end standing on completely different ground. The story seems to move in one direction when all long it’s moving in the opposite direction.
Which leads me to a question I’ll ask my workshop to help me consider because I don’t know the answer. Can writing about writing a story before you actually begin to put it on the page help to create this undermining effect or can it only happen spontaneously during the process of creating the story? Furthermore, is the answer possibly different depending on the individual writer?
But if you’ll indulge me, let’s try an exercise:
1. Write a name at the top of your computer screen or on a sheet of paper. Any name will do. Just create one right now without too much thought.
2. Answer a few questions about this character. Don’t think too much about your responses. Go with your first instincts. What does this person do for a living? What is his/her marital status? Does he/she go to church? If so, which church? What’s the one article of clothing that he/she can’t part with even though he/she can’t wear it anymore? How would he/she describe himself/herself? “I’m a person who. . . .”
3. Write down another character’s name and answer a few more questions. Where does this person like to go when he/she wants to be alone? What physical feature is he/she most vain about? When was the last time this person cried and why?
4. Now let’s create a third character, one that might seem a bit incongruous when placed with the first two characters. What is this person most passionate about? What’s something that he/she tries to keep other people from knowing? Which of the other two characters does he/she most admire and why? What object does he/she possess that is emblematic of a difficult time in his/her life?
5. I often ask people to now craft an opening in imitation of the first two paragraphs of the Wolff story. Decide which of your first two characters will be your point of view character. Then set him or her in a relationship with your second character. Invite your point of view character to be very sure in his/her assessment of the second character.
6. What have you led your readers to expect about your main character from the opening that you’ve written?
7. Decide upon a narrative that will make it impossible for these two characters to escape each other. Where are they? What do they have to do? What single action on the part of your main character will change the way he/she views himself/herself and the world around him/her? How will your third character be crucial to that change?
8. What story do you think you’re telling from the beginning? Complete this sentence, “This is a story about. . . .” How can you construct the narrative to tell an opposite story? Can you sketch out a series of causally connected actions on the part of your main character that will allow this opposite story to emerge? Can you complete this sentence? “I thought this was a story about. . ., but actually it’s a story about. . . .” Now hide the second half of that sentence and start writing your story, trusting that what you’ve hidden will work its way up through the actions of your main character.
This exercise is designed to help us test the possibility that thinking aloud on the page before we begin writing a story might lead to a more resonant end that takes us to a moment of inevitable surprise. But as I said, I have no idea whether this will prove to be helpful or prohibitive. I invite you to help me think about its effectiveness or lack thereof.