In Lee Smith’s tribute to Flannery O’Connor, she wrote of the transformation she experienced as a college student when she read O’Connor’s fiction for the first time. I thought of those words of Smith’s—and of the words of O’Connor’s that inspired them—when I received a gift from a woman who was a student of mine more than a decade ago. Last Saturday I was working at my desk when the mail carrier dropped the package on the porch. What I found inside was a picture of O’Connor in a gold-colored peacock frame, the bird wreathing O’Connor as her own pet peacocks had circled the writer on her farm, Andalusia, where she lived the last years of her short life.
Along with the framed picture, the student enclosed a note with these words: “I think of you often. Thanks for changing my entire academic life by introducing me to the amazing Southern women writers!”
Those writers included Smith, whose whole notion of the short story was upended when she read O’Connor for the first time. In Smith’s words:
[S]omehow I had got the idea that a short story should follow a kind of recipe, like a Lady Baltimore cake. Conflict, suspense, resolution; a clear theme; an ending that tied it all up in a neat little bow. Yet when I read that famous last line of “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” I realized that nothing was wrapped up here—instead, a whole world opened out before my astonished eyes, a world as wild and scary as life, itself. (19)
A world opened before my eyes, too, when I first read O’Connor and Smith. And for me as a teacher, there is no greater honor than the opportunity to witness whole worlds open before my students’ eyes as they read those writers for the first time.
And Aine, what can I write of your expression of thanks? That it’s as exhilarating and astonishing as the words of those writers. Thank you!
Smith, Lee. “Revelation.” Flannery O’Connor: In Celebration of Genius, edited by Sarah Gordon, Hill Street, 2000. 19-20.
Three pictures, one-hundred words, minimum: That’s what I asked of my students, and of myself, for the introductory blog assignment for the semester. “Rather than trying to tell your whole life story,” I wrote in the assignment, “focus on one aspect of your life or one interest of yours.” It sounds simple enough, doesn’t it? But when I sat down to complete the assignment, words initially failed me. As I tried to compose a draft in my mind, what came to me instead were these lines from Patricia Hampl’s essay “Red Sky in the Morning”:
How much reality can subject-verb-object bear on the frail shoulders of the sentence? The sigh within the sentence is more like this: I could tell you stories–if only stories could tell what I have in me to tell. (178)
Choosing to include those lines of Hampl’s reflects my passion for writing, while the words themselves illustrate the struggle of writing–even for those of us who identify ourselves as writers.
At the beginning of last semester, when I projected my own blog on the screen for the first time, one of the students remarked on the tagline: “Writer, Teacher.”
Have you written any books? she asked.
Written, not published, I started to say (“I could tell you stories . . .”), but instead I said, “I am not an author of any books, but I identify myself as a writer because I am someone for whom writing has always been a way of making sense of the world.
Hampl, Patricia. “Red Sky in the Morning.” Imaginative Writing: The Elements of Craft. Ed. Janet Burroway. 3rd ed. Longman, 2011.
Blame it on Stanley Fish. The idea for rewriting “A Rose for Emily” with an Eskimo came to me while reading his essay “What Makes an Interpretation Acceptable?” In it, Fish takes issue with Norman Holland’s argument about an Eskimo reading of “A Rose for Emily”: “We are right to rule out at least some readings” (qtd. in Fish 346). Fish agrees with Holland’s notion that such a seemingly random reading would not be accepted by the literary community, but he disagrees with Holland’s claim that the story cannot accommodate that reading. For Fish, reading the tableau of Emily and her father as an Eskimo could be a legitimate reading of William Faulkner’s story if an interpretive strategy were in place to provide for it.
As I read Fish’s essay, I took little interest in his theory and Holland’s, but I kept picturing an Eskimo inexplicably entering the story and turning it upside down. Because I couldn’t shake that image from my mind, I wrote it down, making “A Rose for Emily,” “another story altogether,” as I subtitled it. Though my adaptation, like Faulkner’s original, consists of five numbered sections, and employs the same first-person plural point of view of the townspeople, Emily finds herself no longer in conflict with her father, with herself, and with societal constraints, but instead with an Eskimo who follows her relentlessly.
In retrospect, I realize that “The Kugelmass Episode” influenced my story as well. Perhaps the first metafiction I ever read, Woody Allen’s story introduced me to the idea of trespassing on a classic work of literature and altering its plot. Though I didn’t draft the story with Allen’s in mind—not consciously, anyway—the Eskimo’s disruption of “A Rose for Emily” echoes the unsettling intrusion of Kugelmass’ in Madame Bovary.
Fish, Stanley. “What Makes an Interpretation Acceptable?” Is there a Text in this Class? The Authority of Interpretive Communities. Cambridge: Harvard UP. 338-55. Print.
From An Eskimo for Emily, or Another Story Altogether
When the Eskimo appeared at the Grierson’s house, we all stood by and watched, waiting for Mr. Grierson to chase her away. We knew that he would banish anyone he deemed an intruder, but the Eskimo was another story altogether, which of course is how the trouble began.
At first we suspected that Emily, herself, in the ultimate act of defiance, had willed the appearance of the Eskimo in the tableau. After all, what else could explain the hooded shape that stood in the doorway between Emily and her father?
Thinking that the trespasser was yet another suitor, Mr. Grierson whacked the Eskimo on the head with his horsewhip and stumbled off to fetch some bourbon from the sideboard.
“Who are you?” Emily demanded of the wounded intruder.
Still smarting from the blow, the Eskimo eyed Emily critically and said, “as if you didn’t know.”
Emily didn’t betray her ignorance, as we suspected she wouldn’t. She just tilted her head back and glared at the Eskimo for a while, until she decided to play along, pretending she knew the Eskimo’s kinfolk.
The blog entry that follows differs notably from the version I posted on October 17. The revision, posted October 21, omits many of the plot details of the earlier one and develops the examination of the three types of conflict that Atwood and Paley depict.
Last Thursday, when I gave my students copies of the earlier version as a model for their comparative analyses, I said it was still a work in progress, that there were additional changes I wanted to make. “It’s a serviceable draft”, I told them, “it gets the job done, but it could be better.” This version is better, but it’s still a draft or two from where I’d like it to be.
Why did I give my students the earlier less-polished version? Because I wanted them to have my model in hand a week before their own drafts were due.
That’s the trouble with deadlines: We have to meet them, ready or not.
But that trouble with deadlines also calls attention to the usefulness of imposing earlier deadlines–pre-deadline deadlines–as hard as that is. Two days before my students’ drafts are due, I have an additional model for them.
Stories look like life, but our daily lives don’t follow the pattern of fiction. That discrepancy between art and life forms the basis of both Margaret Atwood’s “Happy Endings” and Grace Paley’s “A Conversation with My Father.” Though stylistically different works of metafiction, Atwood’s how-to guide and Paley’s autobiographical dialogue similarly explore the limitations of plot structure and the artificial quality of endings.
Atwood’s story takes the form of templates, beginning with A, a happy ending, followed by variations on plot, labeled B, C, D, and so on, that purportedly lead back to A. In B, Atwood’s first story-within-her-story, the narrator chronicles unrequited love as the source of the conflict essential to plot: “Mary falls in love with John but John doesn’t fall in love with Mary” (27). It’s a story, not merely an anecdote, because John and Mary’s opposing desires complicate their relationship: Mary wants love from John; John wants sex, not love, from Mary. The story reaches a crisis when Mary’s friends tell her they’ve seen John in a restaurant with another woman.
In CAtwood’s narrator offers another story of unrequited love but with more complications. Both John and Mary have other partners, and their story develops not only from the conflict between them but also from their internal conflicts: Mary loves James but sleeps with middle-aged John out of pity; while John, despite his love for Mary, cannot bring himself to leave his wife.
Story D lacks the conflicts of B and C. The couple at the center of D “have no problems,” the narrator tells us. Subsequently, D’s plot develops not from the couple’s issues with each other or their internal conflicts. Instead they struggle against a force of nature, namely a tidal wave—until, at the end of the story “[f]inally on high ground they clasp each other, wet and dripping and grateful, and continue as in A” (28).
In the end, Atwood’s narrator doesn’t return to the happy ending of A, though supposedly all of the letter-labeled variations on plot lead back to it. Instead, the narrator asserts that the only authentic ending is death and concludes with these lines:
So much for endings. Beginnings are always more fun. True connoisseurs, however, are known to favor the stretch in between, since it’s the hardest to do anything with.
That’s about all that can be said for plots, which anyway are just one thing after another, a what and a what and a what.
Now try How and Why. (29)
Atwood’s narrator keeps her distance both emotionally and spatially from the stories she tells, neither becoming a character nor inviting her readers to step into her characters’ lives. That approach makes “Happy Endings” more self-consciously metafictional than Paley’s “A Conversation with My Father.”
Upon the father’s request that his daughter “write a simple story just once more” (756), the daughter-narrator composes a story, which along with their conversation about it, yields the same variations on conflict presented in Atwood’s “Happy Endings” (with B, C, D, etc.), plot propelled by a character’s internal conflict, by a character’s conflict with another character, and by conflict with fate.
The father’s request prompts the first of the story’s conflicts, the daughter’s internal one. She wants to oblige her father by writing the kind of story he yearns to hear, what he calls “the kind de Maupassant wrote, or Chekhov, the kind you used to write” (756). But even as Paley’s narrator expresses her desire to write a story that will appeal to her father, she admits to herself that she hates the kind of story he craves: “I would like to tell such a story, if he means the kind that begins: ‘There was a woman . . .’ followed by plot, the absolute line between two points which I’ve always despised. Not for literary reasons but because it takes all hope away (756).
The story’s second source of conflict, the one between the daughter and her father, stems from the daughter’s story and her father’s dissatisfaction with it. After the daughter reads the first draft aloud, her father says “[y]ou misunderstood me on purpose. You know there’s a lot more to it than that. You know that. You left everything out” (756). To please him, or at least try to, she rewrites the story. She adds what Atwood’s narrator calls the “How and Why” (29), but the daughter’s revision doesn’t satisfy the father, either. He says to her: “I see you can’t tell a plain story” (758), but acknowledges that she was right to conclude the story with the words the end, viewing the end of the story as the end of the woman’s life. The daughter disagrees, telling her father that the end of the story isn’t the end of the character’s life. To give the protagonist, a junkie, a life after her addiction, the daughter revises her story yet again, depicting the woman as overcoming her habit and working as a receptionist at a clinic.
For the father, the daughter’s story still doesn’t ring true. He says to her: “Tragedy! You too. When will you look it in the face?” (759). It’s the same conclusion that Atwood’s narrator reaches, that death is “the only authentic ending” (29). But Paley’s narrator disagrees with her father, and with Atwood’s narrator, proclaiming that “[e]veryone, real or invented, deserves the open destiny of life” (756). The daughter’s resistance to death as the end speaks not only to her frustration with the limitations of plot but also to the sadness and strain of facing her father’s impending death from heart disease: the fate that serves as the third of the story’s conflicts.
The types of conflict Paley dramatizes parallel those of “Happy Endings,” but without Atwood’s templates. Though less self-consciously metafictional, Paley’s conversation and the story-within-a-story that the narrator writes, conveys—as “Happy Endings” does—how the process of story-writing itself is fraught with the conflict that’s essential to the form. As Paley’s narrator says to her father:
Actually that’s the trouble with stories. People start out fantastic. You think they’re extraordinary, but it turns out as the work goes along, they’re just average with a good education. Sometimes the other way around, the person’s a kind of dumb innocent, but he outwits you and you can’t think of an ending good enough. (757)
When the narrator’s father asks how she solves that problem of story-writing, the daughter replies: “Well, you just have to let the story lie around till some agreement can be reached between you and the stubborn hero” (757). In Atwood‘s and Paley’s metafiction, that “stubborn hero” is the writer, herself, and the journey is the process of wrestling once again with the prescribed aesthetic form, with all of the limitations of plot and the artificial quality of the end.
Atwood, Margaret. “Happy Endings.” The Story and Its Writer. Ed. Ann Charters. Compact 9th ed. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2014. 27-29. Print.
Paley, Grace. “A Conversation with My Father.” The Story and Its Writer. Ed. Ann Charters. Compact 9th ed. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2014. 756-59. Print.
For more on Atwood‘s and Paley’s fiction, see their Paris Review interviews:
In Carlos Fuentes’ “Pain,” Juan Zamora recounts his country’s tradition of “evangelists,” telling Jim Rowlands, his med-school colleague and lover, how old men with typewriters—or “evangelists,” as they were called—would sit in the doorways of Mexico City, dictating the letters of illiterates who wanted to write to their loved ones:
How do they know the scribes are reliable?
They don’t. They have to have faith.
That brief exchange between Juan and Jim encapsulates one of the defining characteristics of point of view in Fuentes story, specifically the potentially unreliable narrator. Just as the illiterates cannot know if the old men are typing their stories accurately, we as readers cannot know if Fuentes’ narrator offers a reliable portrayal of Juan Zamora. We have to have what Juan calls faith, or Jim calls confidence.
But what if we have neither?
What if we’re simply left with a heightened awareness of the limitations of a story told by someone other than the person who lived it? With the first sentence of “Pain,” Fuentes calls attention to the narrator: “Juan Zamora asked me to tell this story while he kept his back turned” (354). The narrator reminds us repeatedly that he speaks for a man whose back is turned to us because his story is too painful or shameful to tell himself : “So Juan will not offer you a view of his face” (354); “Juan Zamora has his back to you” (354). Though Fuentes’ approach risks distancing readers from the story, we are drawn in nevertheless because of the truths Fuentes conveys about the inherent difficulty of telling stories that we cannot tell ourselves.
For Juan Zamora, “pain’ is a synonym for “shame”—it’s a “peculiarity of Mexican speech,” the narrator tells us (354)—and one of the sources of his pain or shame is the fictional past that he creates. Rather than telling his American host family the truth, that he was the son of an honorable but penniless administrative lawyer, he claims that he traveled to Cornell to study medicine as the scion of a wealthy Mexican family, owners of lands, haciendas, and oil wells. It pains Juan as well that he denies the hypocrisy of the patriarch of his host family, Tarleton Wingate, a prosperous business man who negotiates contracts between weapons factory owners and the US government, a man who embraces Juan while contributing to the suffering in Latin America that they witness together on the nightly news: “He [Juan] doesn’t understand if they [the Tarletons] are pained when terrible pictures of the war in El Salvador appear” (356).
Though Juan’s love affair with Jim doesn’t pain him—in fact the narrator observes that their first encounter marks the first time he “faces us, he turns to look at us, pulls off his mask” (360)—the reality that the affair will end is part of Juan’s story that he cannot face. Conversations about his past prompt considerations of the future. He and Jim cannot simply live in the present, and Jim’s future will take him to Seattle, where “his marriage [has] been arranged since God knows when, since before he knew Juan” (364).
After their break-up, Juan returns to Mexico where his story resumes four years later. At the encouragement of their daughter, Becky, the Wingates agree to surprise Juan with a visit, but it’s the Wingates who are surprised when the address they are led to is not a hacienda but a modest apartment building. While her parents wait in the taxi, Becky speaks with Juan’s mother (Juan is away at work, at a hospital), imploring her not to tell Juan of the visit that reveals his lie about his past.
The fact that Juan isn’t supposed to know that the Wingates visited his apartment but the narrator does know prompts us to ask, did Juan’s mother break her promise? If not, what explains the narrator’s knowledge of their visit? Is the narrator reliable after all?
The question of the narrator’s reliability echoes the one Jim asks about the “evangelists”: “How do they know the scribes are reliable?” (362). By calling into question the narrator’s reliability and emphasizing his role as mediator, Fuentes seems determined to distance us from Juan’s story. But while Fuentes’ approach underscores the story’s artifice, it also conveys the cathartic power of storytelling, enabling Juan to turn “his face toward us” (367). Whether the narrator accurately recounts the events of Juan’s life, he conveys the enduring truth of the difficulty of telling stories too painful to tell.
Fuentes, Carlos. “Pain.” The Story and Its Writer. Ed. Ann Charters. Compact 9th ed. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 354-67. Print.
For more on Fuentes’ fiction, see his Paris Review interview: Fuentes, Carlos. The Art of Fiction No. 68: Interview with Alfred MacAdam and Charles E. Ruas. the parisreview.org, The Paris Review, Winter 1981. n.d. Web. 23 Sept. 2014.
Since I don’t read legal thrillers, I can’t compare William Landay’s prose with John Grisham’s or Scott Turow’s. But I appreciate Defending Jacobfor leading me to contemplate the differences between Landay’s sentences and the ones crafted by Jean Stafford, whose Selected StoriesI’m reading now.
In Chapter 3 of Defending Jacob, the narrator, Andy Barber, catalogs the contents of his son’s room with these lines:
“Jacob’s room was cluttered with huge oafish sneakers, a MacBook covered with stickers, an iPod, schoolbooks, paperback novels, shoe boxes filled with old baseball cards and comic books. In the corner, an Xbox was hooked up to an old TV. The Xbox disks and their cases were piled nearby, mostly combat role-play games. There was dirty laundry, of course, but also two stacks of clean laundry neatly folded and delivered by Laurie, which Jacob had declined to put away in his bureau because it was easier to pluck clean clothes right from the piles. On top of a low bookcase was a group of trophies Jacob had won when he was a kid playing youth soccer. He had not been much of an athlete, but back then every kid got a trophy, and in the years since he had simply never moved them” (23).
Back then every kid got a trophy? Back then? (Unlike now?)
I won’t dwell on the sentence about the trophy; it’s less troublesome than the string of missed opportunities that precede it, where we don’t see anything unexpected: “There was dirty laundry, of course. . . .” And the expected isn’t presented to us in surprising ways:
“. . .but also two stacks of clean laundry neatly folded and delivered by Laurie, which Jacob had declined to put away in his bureau because it was easier to pluck clean clothes right from the piles.”
As a counterpoint, consider this passage from Jean Stafford’s short story “Bad Characters,” which catalogs the contents of a dresser drawer:
“I loved the smell of the lavender she kept in gauze bags among her chamois gloves and linen handkerchiefs and filmy scarves; there was a pink fascinator knitted of something as fine as a spider’s thread, and it made me go quite soft—I wasn’t soft as a rule, I was as hard as nails and I gave my mother a rough time—to think of her wearing it around her head as she waltzed on the ice in the bygone days. We examined stockings, nightgowns, camisoles, strings of beads, and mosaic pins, keepsake buttons from dresses worn on memorial occasions, tortoiseshell combs, and a transformation made from Aunt Joey’s hair when she had racily had it bobbed. Lottie admired particularly a blue cloisonné perfume flask with ferns and peacocks on it. ‘Hey,’ she said, ‘this sure is cute. I like thing-daddies like this here.’ But very abruptly she got bored and said, ‘Let’s talk instead. In the front room’” (104).
Stafford’s deft prose conveys far more than Landay’s. His narrator’s inspection of Jacob’s room yields nothing of the father’s character and scarcely more of the son’s. Essentially, he’s a fourteen-year-old from central casting.
In contrast, the passage from “Bad Characters” reveals details about the narrator, her Aunt, and Lottie. The narrator “love[s] the smell of lavender”; she’s a romantic who can also be “hard as nails” and gives her “mother a rough time.” Her Aunt “racily” had her hair bobbed. (Perhaps she was racier than the narrator’s mother, who wore the transformation fashioned from Joey’s hair.) And Lottie admires “thing-daddies,” like the “blue cloisonné perfume flask,” but she gets bored “very abruptly.”
From the list, we know less of the mother than we know of her sister, her daughter, and her daughter’s partner in crime. But the list doesn’t need to reveal the mother’s character because it serves another purpose. That’s not the case with Landay’s list. His only substitutes for character; Stafford’s constructs a scaffold for building it.
Talking about Olive Kitteredge Thursday at the Highland Coffee House marked a couple of firsts for me: my first book club meeting, and my first discussion of a book with a group composed neither of students nor colleagues. Our conversation offered me a welcome reminder of the lives of books beyond the classroom.
The members of the Coffee Talk Book Club, sponsored by Caldwell County Public Library, read constantly and widely. The June, July, and September selections (the club takes a holiday in August) reflect the members’ penchant for variety: a recent Pulitzer Prize winner, a courtroom drama, and a nineteenth-century English classic.
We considered Olive Kitteredgeas a collection of linked stories, but our talk focused primarily on matters of character and theme. I’ve been meditating on the book’s structure though, because I plan to grow a novel from one of my own stories. After examining how the stories of Olive Kitteridgeform a novel, I’ve concluded that three could be omitted. And I’m curious about the book’s genesis.
The two stories that Thomas refers to, but doesn’t name, are “Ship in a Bottle” and “Criminal.” Both feature a former student of Olive’s who recalls something that Olive said in her seventh-grade math class. In “Ship in a Bottle,” Julie tells her younger sister, Winnie, how Mrs. Kittredge said, “Don’t be scared of your hunger. If you’re scared of your hunger, you’ll be just one more ninny, like everyone else” (195). In “Criminal,” Rebecca remembers Olive once stopping her in the hall and saying, “If you ever want to talk to me about anything, you can” (242).
Both stories appeared in the pages of magazines years before the publication of Olive Kitteridgein 2008. (“Ship in a Bottle” as Running Away” in Seventeenin 1992, and “Criminal” in South Carolina Reviewin 1994.) When Elizabeth Strout wrote those stories, had she begun thinking of Olive as the anchor of a book? Whatever the case, Olive’s mere mention doesn’t warrant the inclusion of either story, and the novel doesn’t need them. Nor does it need the “The Piano Player.” Though it’s an admirable story, the life of of Angela O’Meara, the piano player of the title, doesn’t intersect with Olive Kittredge’s. Olive simply passes through the piano bar. Her cameo prompts me to wonder if Strout drafted “The Piano Player” sans Olive, adding her later only so the story could serve as one of the novel’s chapters.
Sunday’s New York Times Magazine featured an essay on narration that a friend mentioned on Facebook. I didn’t see her comment initially because I don’t frequent Facebook. My husband posts there several times a day though, so he passed the news along to me. Now that I’ve read the essay, I’m ready to enter the conversation–but not on Facebook, where it seems too late. My friend’s request–“I’d love to hear more thoughts on this”–now lies buried beneath four days of links and “likes” and photos.
The essay “Once Upon a Time, There was a Person Who Said, ‘Once Upon a Time‘” reminds me of Ray Bradbury’s story “‘The Veldt” (1950), which my students and I read and studied this week. The story’s crystal-walled virtual-reality nursery leads the Hadley children away from creativity toward passivity. When the son, Peter, admonishes his father for removing the picture painter from the nursery, George Hadley replies: ‘. . . I wanted you to learn to paint all by yourself, son” (76).
“I don’t want to do anything but look and listen and smell,” Peter replies. “What else is there to do?” (76).
In “Once Upon a Time. . . ,” writer Steven Almond addresses how visual media (Bradbury’s crystal-walled virtual-reality) has changed how we conceive of storytelling. “Traditionally,” Almond writes, “stories represented an active collaboration. Listeners and readers were called upon to create the world described by the artist. Film advanced a new model of collaboration. An array of artists (screenwriters, actors, cinematographers, set designers, etc.) worked together to invent an ultra-vivid artificial world. The audience’s role became increasingly passive–to absorb and react, not to imagine. Television shrunk the wonders of film and delivered them directly to our living rooms.”
The absence of narration in “the shrunken wonders of film”–now shrunken to fit our iPhone 5 screens–isn’t simply the loss of a literary device. It’s the atrophy of an essential skill: one that enables us to make sense of the world. It’s no surprise that Almond’s creative writing students produce short stories that lack coherence. Or that many of the freshman in my classes struggle to produce essays of more than 1,500 words. If I write any more, I’ll be repeating myself, they often say, not because they can’t write more, but because they can’t imagine writing more. To do so would require the sustained attention and reflection that our digital culture leaves behind.
Posting to Facebook about the decline of narration isn’t the equivalent of driving and texting about the dangers of driving and texting. But it does underscore a consistent contradiction in our lives. As a writer and a teacher, I attempt to reconcile that incongruity with blog posts–writing that my students and I can draft and revise before our words enter the sphere Almond describes as “the simulated world through which most of us flit from one context to the next, from Facebook post to Tumblr feed to YouTube clip, from ego moment to snarky rant to carnal wormhole.”