Dart to the Heart

courtesy Vanderbilt Universaity

courtesy Vanderbilt University

 

Every semester’s end, I hold my breath and wait. Another season of targets has ended with some bull’s eyes and some misses. At semester’s end I wait for the phone call to come, seeking answers. The questioner will be my supervisor, or a parent, or a student him or herself wondering about the grade I have assigned to indicate performance in one of my English classes. It seems no matter how much I prepare students for their final grades, some always profess shock at their allotted letter grade or at the fact that I have failed them.

The wording, “I have failed them,” is somewhat appropriate. Many students who fail my class assume little to no responsibility. Some will fight to have my decision reversed, always to no avail. In some ways, though, with some students I do feel I have failed them; I have failed to reach them, I have not been clear, I have not been a good teacher. Should I have said more to them during the semester? Were there warning signs I missed indicating a student was in trouble? My classes are not large by any means. Was I being prejudicial in any way? Had I not given them enough ammunition to succeed? Were my targets too high? All these things come into account the day I tally up the marks to discern the grade: over 90 gets an A; over 80, a B; and so on… 59 is a fail. I sweat the numerals; I inch students up who have made the effort and conversely fasten sloths to their anchor.

Every semester’s end finds me this way: full of second thoughts and doubt. I fear what could be confrontation, which could bring out my own insecurities on being a so-called expert. Mostly, it’s what happens afterwards, too. When I next see some of the students I have failed or have given a lower grade, which was expected or otherwise, there is a tendency on their part is to look away in shame. They lower their eyes and walk on by. It is like something ugly has transpired between us. It’s a painful dart to my heart knowing they feel this way. Walking by them I offer up little prayers that they see that they themselves are not failures—they simply missed the target.

Some eventually come back around and, even though they have their choice of professors, re-enroll in my class, which makes me care for them more than I should. But mostly to all those students who find at semester’s end their breath taken away by failure or lower than expected results, I want to say that I know how they feel — I failed a history of science class not once, but twice and finally asked for a “challenge exam” studied like crazy and managed a C.

I’ve gotten better over the years making sure students know what lies ahead, but some still engage in magical thinking that somehow missed assignments and poor quiz performance will somehow be expunged by me. They can’t be. I wouldn’t be doing my job nor would it be fair to those who did well.

I’d read recently that some find final grades “dehumanizing” for students, and I agree. It’s terrible to have to grade, to offer a letter in assessing mastery and effort. I wish some times I could simply write — well, you’re on your way or, okay, I think you need to spend a little more time on this before you move on. More civilized. Less heartache.

 

Move

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In the library of the university where I teach I sit between classes mouthing the word — move.

Sing the word “move” holding out the “ooo” sound as long as your breath allows. The word “move” provides the proper vowel sound and has meaning related to the Second Chakra. Think of moving onward and upward instead of being stuck in guilt and self-criticism anymore. As you hold out the “ooo” sound, bring your attention to your Second Chakra (two inches below your belly button along your spine) and try to feel it vibrating and glowing orange, sending life and health to your lower abdomen and all its vital organs.

For most of my life, my back has been an issue. Stubborn inflexibility, pain and unpredictability rule my spine like a sentence. I know most of the things that will trigger the pain or incapacitate me, but there still eludes me the complete inventory. Some things remain hidden.

So I mouth move. So I write ooo. 

So I read this guy Douglas Hofstadter.

The main thrust of his work is that meaningless symbols in a meaningful pattern create meaning; and depending on the system, be it mathematical, or sentinel, when the system the pattern produces perceives itself it becomes self aware.

In this way, a system “acquires a self.”

His book(s) are extended metaphors for —

how selfhood originates, a metaphor by which to begin to grab a hold of just what it is that makes an ‘I’ seem, at one and the same time, so terribly real and tangible to its own processor, and yet also so vague, so impenetrable, so deeply elusive.

So I mouth. So I write.


 

Some Hofstadter books:

Surfaces and Essences
I am A Strange Loop

Tolstoy and Supertramp

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Not entirely sure how the autobiography of a so-called super-tramp and the philosophy of Immanuel Kant go together, but somehow this morning they do. In The Autobiography of a Super-Tramp written by W.H. Davies he writes, “I have often heard salt water mariners sneer at these fresh water sailors, but, after crossing the Atlantic some eighteen times, and making several passages across the lakes, my opinion, is that the vast inland lakes are more dangerous to navigate, and far less safe than the open seas.”

This morning reading Leo Tolstoy’s A Calendar of Wisdom he quotes Kant as stipulating that, “… I can say God exists and that the self is immortal. This means that my faith in God is so closely with my nature that this faith cannot be seperated from me.”

Synthesized, I wonder if we spend our lives worrying about the vastness, the void open before us; the larger seemingly insurmountable things, all the while forgoing an investigation or worry over the smallest of realities in front of us, and in doing so, do ourselves the gravest of disservices. Are not the inland, the interior, bodies of our souls far deeper and dangerous to feign than the sizable wonders that strike us as the chief concern of our crossing.

The Writer and the Waltz

John H was right, of course.
The passing years have given that much to me.

“Show,” he said sitting down, passing me a pint of beer. John and I were in a pub, after school. He was my college creative writing instructor. He had a mess of black and grey hair. Permanent deep crevices either side of his mouth. His hands, thick fingered, always up at his chin as if in thought; his fingers and voice stained from his cigarette habit. He wore scarves, wrapped around his neck and blazers with jeans and desert boots. I adored him. He carried a rolled up copy of the latest New York Times Book Review in his pocket. John thought of writing as a trade much like masonry, a job that could put food on the table, and beer in the fridge wherever you lived. “Don’t tell.”

Show don’t tell, he said as every writing instructor has said since the dawn of time. “Is wrong,” he said sipping his beer. He flicked off his glasses with one hand the way he could and stuffed them inside his jacket pocket. “Well, mostly. Show, and tell, but probably show more.”

And he was right.

First what’s the difference you might ask?

All fiction, be it a short story or a novel, is about — among other things to be sure — pattern(s); and pattern is about time and space.

Think of it this way to begin: a story is not a plot. A story is the *sequence* as events happen; a plot is a version of the story not taken literally (there can be flashbacks for example, events are *packaged*). For example, I had pizza and beer for dinner (story), I had the excellent hamburger pizza and micro-brewed yeasty beer from the local saloon for dinner (plot).

Story has to, or should, begin at the beginning. Plot can begin somewhere else. Making this choice, plotting, begins the process of choosing pattern. By pattern I mean that in your prose there are repeated motifs or themes — an order ensues.

For example, there are central conflicts in novels that play out over and over again in smaller versions of this crucial issue. In short stories the complications leading to the climax are variants on the central theme from inciting incident to climax. This pattern, these spaces of attention for the reader, is the result of your timing as a writer. Traditionally, this is called scene (show) and narrative (tell).

Scenes show.
Narratives tell.

John H loved the blues. We’d hear some playing on stage at the pub, and he’d point and say, “Write like that.”

Over the music he said, “A scene is not narrative.” John H said, “A scene is action, a play between characters in dialogue and movement. Too much inside the head of any one character begins to read like narrative. Have them doing something. Not simply thinking.
Scenes are dramatized. Words spoken between characters. Actions and reactions. Objective descriptions of objects and settings that a reader would naturally see if the situation were, say, seeing it for themselves.  Everything else is narrative.”
I sipped my beer, and then asked a little too loudly as the music had dropped, “But when do I know?”
“It’s like a waltz, back and forth: Think about your reader.”
“Who gives a shit about the reader,” I replied.
He grinned, the lines in his cheeks near his mouth widened, deepened. “You should. Either you’re helping or you’re getting out of the way.”
I excused myself and went to the bathroom. I needed to face myself in the mirror. I sounded like a freaking idiot in front of my hero.
When I got back to the table, two women were chatting with John — Dominique and Maryanne, he said introducing them. I sat down.
“Imagine Dominique or Maryanne reading your story.”
I nodded.
“What do you want them to know by telling them, how much do you want to show them?”

We headed out in the cold winter night to stand by the pub door to have a smoke. “Which one do you like better? I could tell you, but isn’t it better that you should reach your own conclusion?” I had no idea what he was talking about.

We returned to the table. New drinks all around. The afternoon pub visit was leeching into nighttime. More blues. “This evening, last summer, we were coming back from Panama. The schooner was lifting in the surf…” John was telling a story. “The three of us.” He motioned with his hand in the form of a wave. Up and down. Up and down.
“Newport. Dominique had this great idea.”
“Kitty Wells,” she said, laughing. They were old friends, apparently. John gave me a smile again, his fingers up on his chin.
“We started dancing on the deck to Kitty. Dancing like fools.”
Maryanne sat forward to be heard over the music, “Custom guy says, ‘Hell you three have been at sea too long. Come on. Git. Go ashore and dance’.”
“So we did,” said John raising his glass to his two compadres. “We danced to Kitty Wells.”
“Good thing he didn’t think about moving any of our fish,” Dominique said.
“Why?” I asked foolishly.
“I was dancing with my darlin…” they began to sing.

John H was showing me the story of how they came back from Panama one summer night; and telling me a little bit too, but just enough. I could have seen all that he described — that’s “showing,” he said. But the “telling” part I knew what they wanted me to know and not know at the same time.

Later that week in class, John stood at the front of the classroom, behind a lectern, which seemed to be helping to keep him upright. He was bouncing around a little. “Information. How is the information presented?”
The room grew quiet.
“Can you see it yourself or is someone else — the author — telling you not to look at the fish.” I knew what he was saying, but my classmates maybe didn’t.
“Other than that. Well, if your story… novel shifts in time, you want to tell your reader about it. Get them situated, so to speak.” The characteristic grin.

Outside, after class, he leaned against the building and smoked a cigarette. He pointed at some clouds with a rolled up book review, and I glanced up at the sky. “What do you see?”
“A schooner,” I said, “lifting in the surf…”
“And?”
“Three souls dancing, dancing to the Tennessee Waltz.”
He stubbed out his cigarette and went back inside.

A few years later, sitting in a bar alone writing in my journal, I opened a letter that came that day from a friend I’d gone to college with saying John H had passed away.

I can still see his grin.
The passing years have given that much to me.

The Writer and The Train

PKgrrlcover

Writing a novel is much like getting on a train.

You board with a bunch of other people and are hurtled at great speed along thin rails in great hope and expectation nothing goes awry. There is a vague sense of destination and plenty of staggering, bad food choices, and body-giggling en route, but you eventually get there.

Fellow Passengers | Virginia Woolf said that no author is singularly responsible for bringing a book into the world; the work depends on the efforts of many. This is certainly true for me. My last book Pkgrrl would not be possible if it were not for the support and encouragement of my wife, Dyan. I am very fortunate to have her in my life. Additionally, every writer needs a support network, a team of fellow passengers — former students, former high school sweethearts and old graduate school buddies to help keep the thing on the rails by reading early drafts and making polite suggestions. I have mine, get you’re own.

All Aboard | The book began in the summer of 2010 as a bit of a lark. I had read Henry James’ nineteenth-century naturalist novel The Princess Casamassima and thought I could update it. Anyone who has read the novel, and granted that might be a scant few, will recognize its DNA in the opening chapters of Pkgrrl, but beyond that find James’ influence diminish with every subsequent chapter.

The Route | As any writer knows setting out to write a particular book is foolhardy; the book you end up writing is the one that wants to be told. In that way, I never intended to write PKgrrl — it came as a result of blind allegiance to this thing called writing, an often lonely and dispiriting adventure. It surprised me to no end. I recall one drowsy summer afternoon in the inebriated throes of the season’s crazies (this is when a grown man with a very expensive education wonders, sometimes aloud, what the hell he is doing in the middle of the afternoon staring off into the distance at nothing in particular, when he should rightly be out in the real world making a living) that the chief character would have some kind of supernatural capacity when it hit me: She can fly! I was so excited, but that lasted all of five seconds because it quickly came to mind that a family friend, Victoria Forester, had just had a New York Times bestselling YA book out called, you might have guessed it —The Girl Who Could Fly. So, no. Too me too. No the girl couldn’t fly, she couldn’t die I thought. That’s it!

Detours | No that’s crazy, but then I thought what about all that stuff that happens in the Bible, all the miracles, and viola! I went through the Bible and I found her. My girl came into view. From there I thought, well, she’s can’t fly, she can die, but… she can be brought back to life: resurrected. I hope St. Peter doesn’t think too lowly of this author when I arrive at the gates having done this… among other things, here in this book.

Destination | But what’s important here is to travel with others, ask them as you chug along if things will all work out in the end. And of course, offer them free pizza and beer.

(adapted from Pkgrrl “Author’s Note”)

The Writer and The View

There are three choices from which a fiction writer can choose to cast their stories:

  1. First Person
  2. Second Person
  3. Third Person

First Person Here the point of view can be told by the protagonist – the I tells the story. The first person can also be a witness – the I tells the story of someone observed, a story in which the witness might have played a secondary role. The first person also allows for a re-teller – the I narrates a story told to them by someone else.

Considerations:

  • In choosing the first person the author should be aware of the advantages and disadvantages of the point of view and understand if the first person is thinking the story, reliving it in a memory or is reflecting upon it; the first person story can be one written in a diary or journal, or in letters; the first person could be speaking the story aloud.
  • And you will want to ask yourself: What is the narrative distance between the telling narrator and the experiencing narrator.
  • So, how much time has elapsed? How different is the narrator now? What has happened since? What has changed emotionally and in attitudes.
  • And can your narrator be trusted? Are the narrator’s memories faulty?

Second Person | This point of view is rarely successfully used in short fiction, rarer still successfully used in long-form prose, such as novels. The You tells the story. You cross the room and you open the window to stare out at the churning sea. You feel the waves in your throat. It is an unspecified narrator which in some cases is used to indicate a talking of one self to a former or earlier self.

Third Person | There are three choices to be made if an author choose third person – Third person omniscient where the author knows everything about everyone; Third person objective where the writer knows nothing but what is heard or seen; and finally Third person omniscient in a limited way where the author knows and speaks or tells all about one character, even entering the head of this character, but knows nothing more about the rest of the characters.

Psychic Distance | In third person – in any of the forms – the relationship between the narrator to the story is called “psychic distance,” and this involves much like a camera filming a scene panning in when appropriate and panning out when needed. Here’s an example, provided by John Gardner of moving in:

  1. It was winter of the year 2007. A tall man stepped out of a doorway.
  2. David A. Bour had never much cared for snowstorms.
  3. David hated snowstorms
  4. God how he hated these damn snowstorms
  5. Snow. Under your collar, down inside your shoes, freezing, and plugging up your miserable soul…

This psychic distance is not uniform throughout the story, but should be modulated, carefully, to move in and out when needed, for emphasis, to indicate intimacy or private thoughts.

Sources: The Art of Fiction by John Gardner, A Passion for Narrative by Jack Hodgins and The Making of a Story by Alice LaPlante

The Writer & Dialogue

source: www.inthecac.com

source: www.inthecac.com

Dialogue is never just talk.

Eavesdropping | The trick with dialogue is to listen. The writer needs to be out in the world with an “ear” for how people speak. Yes, the writer must become a big time eavesdropper. What you’re listening for are interesting lines — yes — but also, and more importantly, speech patterns (and subtext).
Why | The writer wants to be able to mimic how people speak, ungrammatically sometimes; the writer needs to mimic how often people say one thing, but mean another. The latter is fairly easy to capture. The former takes practice and is more difficult to observe, let alone understand in a real life conversation with someone you know.
Subtext | In order to write dialogue with subtext (sub: below. What’s beneath the text or dialogue.) the writer must know what any character speaking wants or desires. Given that when characters meet in fiction they hold divergent desires they will say things in order to get what they want and largely be in conflict with those opposing them who hold different values and needs. So remember, few, if any character, says what they mean. Can you imagine. “I want to know who my father was?” asks Harry. “Oh, he’s [blank],” says the evil dude in those Harry Potter novels. Game over. Everyone can go home now.
Picture the Iceberg | The classic way to visualize subtext is to picture one of those gigantic icebergs often pictured cut some ways up the ice by a waterline. What is visible above the waterline is usually far less than was is submerged, and out of sight. What a character says is “See the ice.” What the character means is “I’m much bigger, but I’m hiding my booty.” Subtext is the submerged ice.
Talk the Talk | The one thing to keep in mind too — in real life some people will talk just to talk. They love the sound of their own voices, we say. In fiction, this never happens otherwise you’d just be wasting a reader’s time. “Dialogue is never just talk,” writes Steven Schoen in The Truth about Fiction. 
Other Things To Consider | While these are not hard and fast rules, a writer would be well served to: check the conventions of giving dialogue — the actual formatting of it — and stick with it whatever one you choose; avoid vernacular at all times; in fiction when you have a cast of characters, say in a novel, provide some of the characters verbal tics (tropes) to distinguish them to the reader who might be confused by so many characters (Oh, this one always says, you know, after every sentence); avoid narrative in your dialogue (John, my son, you know I have cancer); and seldom, if you can, use more than “said” as an attributive.

The Writer & Struggle

No struggle. No story.

Early in my writing career, I was resistant to the idea that every story had to have a struggle, more specifically it needed conflict. I was conflict avoidant, you could say. I thought the world needed less conflict, not more; I thought everything need not be about conflict. I was woefully unclear, okay wrong, about what comprises fictional conflict. I thought conflict was the stuff families got into — and I hated that kind.

Conflict in Fiction | Conflict in fiction comes in many guises — purely personal or internal, conflict with others, loved ones say, and conflict with things like the environment or institutions. The variety is quite stunning really. Conflict can be illustrated in an array of ways from failed expectations to a person on trial for unnamed charges. It can be a character battling dragons or a grandmother dealing with her own prejudices.

Defining Characteristic | In short, conflict is a defining characteristic of fiction. No struggle, no conflict, no story, not fiction. Short fiction is conflict. Simple as that. Not having conflict in short fiction is like music without musical notes for the orchestra to play. So once the writer is on board with conflict and its array of possibilities the writer is off to the races, so to speak.

Getting Conflict in Your Story | The best way I know to develop conflict in a story is to start with the conflicted: your main character. In initial drafts and sketches give your character good and bad traits, say, like loyalty, but also naiviety, for argument sake (you can give them anything you want). Place Character A (main character) in a situation with another character, or institution, or any of the conflict possibilities. Place this main character with loyalty and naivety/naivete against another that seeks loyalty, say, but is manipulative. Character A will need to navigate the situation in which he or she will be manipulated.
What do they do? What choices do they make? How do they handle the struggle or get through the conflict?

The Set Up | Set up any number of situations like this — probably fewer than four say for short fiction — and have the same character with your chosen traits be faced with the increasing struggle of having his or her values and traits challenged. The series of situations — conflict — should be clear to the reader, fairly relentless for the character and seemingly insurmountable. This at length is fairly easy to accomplish. However, the key to struggle/conflict in short fiction lies squarely on the struggle’s significance, which is a relatively subjective attribute to discern. I mean, significance to you, might be insignificant to a reader, unless you make it clear why it’s important to the character.

Significant? | Still, a reader might not consider the character’s struggle to be all that significant. One measure by which to gauge the level of your “significant” conflict as Steven Schoen suggests in the Truth about Fiction is to wonder —

If, after all the struggle, the character simply resumes life unchanged, readers can’t help but feel disappointed.

Ah. There’s the rub.

Transformation | All stories are about transformation produced by conflict. For change to occur there must be heat and with heat comes friction, conflict, and because of conflict the character is changed. A character is changed because by being in conflict over values and by opposing traits, the character is tested either confirming or altering the character’s views and in essence his or her life. Good or bad.
It took me years to understand that. Now, when I’m done a story I ask: Has the character significantly changed?

conflict as illustrated by Robert McKee

conflict as illustrated by Robert McKee

The Good Book

At a volleyball game no less. Perry was digging around in my gym bag for something and pulled out the one thing to kill the credibility of a young man – a Bible. The look on his face; Perry was bemused and confused. It was as if he’d gone into my bag for volleyball knee pads and pulled out a speckled trout.
*
Perry once showed me a trick involving pepper and oil but I can’t for the life of me remember what it was.
*
Northrop Frye says there are two main ways to read the Bible.
*
I find it perplexing that people can be such a huge part of your life, a part of your iconography, your mythology.
And then not.
When I returned home from living in Australia I couldn’t wait to see my friends and to make up for taking them for granted.
*
Bible means collection of little books.
*
As I age my memory of those formidable years comes into sharper focus the better I am at writing fiction. It’s in the creation of these memories and their attending stories that greater truths are revealed to me and to those I speak them to. Sometimes miraculous; sometimes too pat. The past is composed by present intentions.
*

The Writer & The Dolls

Stories don’t come into being until the character gets a life — Steven Schoen

About Character | How true. And how hard for the beginning writer to understand. I speak from experience. When I first started writing I wanted to write stories — you know Stories about something. I had something to say, goddammit! Write enough stories attempting to say something and from time to time it works, but mostly it doesn’t.

Essential Progression | Don’t write stories to say something. If you want to “say something,” write an essay instead not a short story. Short fiction is about character (plotless or otherwise). David Mamet, playwright and novelist, says a story, “is the essential progression of incidents that occur to the hero in pursuit of his one goal.” Definitive: “the” hero and “one” goal.
The essential progression here is illustrated through character, the main character often referred to as the protagonist. Make this character interesting by making them believable and by believable I mean real and by real I mean the character will not be perfect.

Three Steps | First off, give your character something to do and want — a desire, a goal. Something. But don’t make whatever they want easy to get. Make it hard. Make the character struggle. Secondly, and the best way to produce this kind of conflict is to give your character some traits — good and bad. The traits can be anything from what they value or find important, to their bad habits or flaws. Finally, pit your character against other characters whose values, good and bad traits, conflict with the main character. This causes conflict and friction, which is what you’re after.

Three Cs | One way to think about character and this essential progression is through the Three Cs — conflict, choice and consequence.
Conflict arises when a character does not get what they want. This can take many shapes (internal, personal, or institutional/cultural), but most of the time it’s about what the character expects and what actually transpires. When expectations are not met, there’s a gap in that essential progression and characters must therefore make a choice. As with any choice, once a decision has been made there will be consequences.

Emotional Connection | What makes your character yours is the array of desires, values and traits you give the character, and with those how they come to react in situations where those desires are thwarted; their values threatened or their good or bad trait is brought to a head.
This is to ensure an emotional connection between the reader and your story.
This is the beating heart of writing contemporary fiction. It is fundamental.
More later, but for now: Write your stories by first knowing the who, and the what will follow. Who is this story about? is far more important that what is it I’m trying to say?
Create character through conflict, which produces a need to choose, which leads to consequences and you will have what Schoen says in The Truth about Fiction is that connection, the emotional connection between reader and the story that makes your readers want to become your character.