Authors: Frank Conroy
The text must make sense, lest the reader be excluded. The
boy ate the watermelon
The watermelon ate the boy
does not, unless the author has created a special world in which it does. Unmotivated behavior in characters doesn’t make sense to the reader, who is also confused by randomness, arbitrariness, or aimlessness in the text. The writer must recognize the continuous unrelenting pressure from the reader that the text make sense. It can be strange sense, to be sure, but the reader has to be able to understand the text to enter it.
Strunk and White tell us not to use ten words where five will do. This is because the most compact language statement is almost always clearer than an expansive one. The goal is not brevity for its own sake but
. The reader expects the writer to have removed all excess language, to have distilled things to their essences, whether the style is simple or complex. If the writer has not done this work the reader is less enthusiastic about putting energy into the text, less sure about being on common ground. As well, clarity has aesthetic value all by itself. To read Orwell is to get real pleasure from the clarity of the prose, and this is true whether or not one agrees with the politics that are so often embedded in his work.
In my opinion the struggle to maintain meaning, sense, and clarity is the primary activity of any writer. It turns out to be quite hard to do, demanding constant concentration at high levels, constant self-editing, and a continuous preconscious awareness of the ghostly presence of a mind on the other side of the zone. Many enthusiastic, inexperienced writers (even some experienced ones) would like to skip this struggle or evade it while maintaining that of course it has some importance, but the real action occurs at higher levels, up where the fancy stuff is, the stuff that so moves them as readers. I maintain that any attempt to write from the top down will likely fail. I put forward the idea of a sort of pyramid,
in which the higher levels have a chance to become operative only as the levels below become operative. The most common error one sees in talented young writers is the attempt to work from the top down rather than the bottom up. A good workshop can save people a tremendous amount of time if it can correct this error. The pyramid is reductive, no more than a thought experiment, really, but it strengthens writers. A great deal of what makes good writing is mysterious and beyond our power to control directly, but we need not be entirely helpless in our attempts to approach that state in which we might, possibly, increase our chances of doing good writing. You cannot really teach a baseball player how to become a great hitter, says Kurt Vonnegut, with regard to teaching writing but you can teach him where to stand in the box, how to shift his weight during the swing how to follow through, and a dozen other things he’ll need to know before he can become even a good hitter.
Against this general background, then, we begin to look at student texts. Everyone is warned that my remarks are likely to be negative, that experience has shown me that my positive remarks aren’t likely to have the same impact, which is too bad, but seems to be the case. I will search out every weakness in the prose that I can, explaining as carefully as I can precisely why I consider each particular discovered weakness to be an actual weakness, rather than some idiosyncratic response to the text of my own. I will tear the prose apart until I get prose sufficiently strong that it does not tear. This approach creates a good deal of nervousness in the students at first, but as the semester progresses that problem eases. They begin to see that the texts are being looked at, not the authors, and that the process is oddly impersonal (especially if it’s someone else’s work under discussion) and generally rational. We put to the test my assertion that if there is some large, abstract problem with a story, or a series of problems— “It’s thin” “It lacks energy.” “It lacks narrative drive.” “It’s frustrating to read.” etc., etc.—the seeds of the problem can
be found at the micro-level of language, the words and sentences on the page. That is at least a place for the author to start actual work to strengthen the story rather than simply throwing up one’s hands in despair: another draft, and then again another draft, until one has gone as far as one senses one can reasonably go.
Much of this work has to do with meaning, sense, clarity, and working from the bottom up vis-à-vis the pyramid. We spend time and effort trying to find out what’s wrong, leaving it to the author to fix it. (Again, some observers find this Surprising. My own feeling is that, in prose, any given problem is most likely susceptible to many different solutions and that the author’s solution is the one that counts. As well, writing even a simple sentence should be done slowly and carefully within the context of the whole narrative and never off the top of one’s head in a classroom.) I often use the class as a sort of panel to verify the existence of a problem. “How many of you thought they were still in the kitchen when it turns out they were in the living room?” (We don’t vote—it’s a question of nodding heads.) If there is a consensus we go to the language to find out why we thought they were still in the kitchen. If this sounds trivial we should remember Virginia Woolf’s comment after being asked how her three hours of writing had gone one afternoon. (I paraphrase.) “Very well. I got them through the French doors and out onto the patio.” She was quite serious.
As we read closely and compare our readings, many different kinds of problems can be seen to crop up in the texts. We learn the danger of giving the reader insufficient information—how the reader will simply make something up to fill the vacuum. “You mean they were brothers? I thought they were gay lovers and that’s why the macho bartender got on their case.” We talk about the Loose Reader, who is able to create the most fantastic cathedrals in the air out of the smallest slips of the author.
We discuss matters of technique and of craft. “This is a first person story told by Lucy, and since she never went to the trial how can she know all this stuff about the quality of the light coming through the courtroom windows?” We ruminate on the seductiveness of the first person, how it seems easy initially but subsequently becomes very hard. We look at texts in which the author seems trapped in the first person, unable to find a way to look around the narrator or rise above the narrator. We discuss strategies to avoid such pitfalls.
Inevitably, we will come upon a text that is hiding in abject naturalism, where the author creates chronological lists of events rather than selecting some events over others. “I don’t know what is important in this story. I don’t know what I’m supposed to be paying attention to because everything is treated the same. I mean all this stuff could happen, but what’s the point? What am I supposed to make of it?” The question is rhetorical, of course, because if the text doesn’t answer it, it doesn’t get answered. The text stands alone, without an explicator, as it does in life.
Because writing is an extension of reading, and because the students have been reading all their lives, it is understandable that the two activities might blur somewhat in their minds. Although it is certainly a good thing that their writing is informed by their reading—indeed, at the most basic level they wouldn’t be able to write anything at all if it weren’t—it has its dangers. Take the creation of metaphors and similes, for instance. “The boy hopped up and down,” writes a particularly bright student whose intuition, sense of rhythm, and experience as a reader tell her a metaphor or simile is needed to complete the sentence, “like beads of water on a hot frying pan.” In the rush to meet the demands of intuition and rhythm she has written a weak metaphor. She has forgotten the basic function of the device, which is to make something crystal clear, to reduce to essence. She has tried to
, rather than reduce.
Consider John Banville’s description of a sound from a very young, practically newborn infant. “In his cot the child made a sound in his sleep like a rusty hinge being opened.” He could have stopped with “sleep,” but he particularized the sound, reduced it, as it were, by bringing in the rusty hinge (creating a frisson of recognition for anyone who’s had a child). Updike’s comparison of the Coliseum to a “ruined wedding cake” is a visual reduction of great power. The point is these experienced writers understand the function of metaphor and simile. The bright student did not. She allowed the reader in her, the mimetic reader, too much power over the writer in her at that particular moment in composition. Once again, it is up to the student to come up with a solution to the hopping child sentence. Workshops cannot teach the magic of making thrilling metaphors, but they can at least discuss their function, what it is they’re supposed to be doing. Precision.
A problem that sometimes comes up is a narrative that looks like a story-controlled language, dialogue, description, some kind of plot or shape—but is in fact only a mimetic stringing together of various devices that the writer has absorbed as a reader. I do not mean copying, I mean empty writing. Techniques learned while reading narratives that are actually about something are applied in the creation of texts whose raison d’etre is nothing more than the recreation of the techniques for their own sakes. Lacking any emotional or intellectual engine, pressure, or emerging reason why the reader should continue to read, such texts are stillborn. Happily, this is most often a short phase for young writers, but it can require a good deal of energy to get past it. In truth, writing is a mixture of knowing what you’re doing and not knowing what you’re doing. The late John Cheever told me he never once knew the ending to any of his short stories and had to discover the ending and how to get there while in the act of writing each one of them. So even to a master it is not an entirely unknown experience to look down at what you’ve written, decide it looks like a story, and go forward on faith. The author creates the text and the text whispers to the author, but for this to happen there must be pressure, the text must be in the service of something even if the author is not yet quite sure what that something is, there must be forward momentum. Mimetic texts are invariably static. Neither do they whisper what they want to become.
The workshop cannot tell or teach a student what his or her text should be in the service of. Such presumption would be outrageous. It wouldn’t work in any case. If the text is to have pressure it must be the author’s pressure, which can only come from the inside.
Many elements of good narrative fiction cannot be directly learned in a workshop. Narrative drive, metaphor, depth of characterization, wit, dynamics of pitch, humor, narrative authority, and a dozen other things are simply too complex to be broken down intellectually. We should certainly talk about them—talk around them—when they come up in a text, but I suspect that in the end it is the intuitive preconscious forces at work in the writer that matter the most, a certain tense alertness to language being perhaps the most basic. Workshops can help students to dare to trust intuition or at least lessen their fear of it. Experienced writers know Hemingway was correct when he said the larger part of the iceberg is hidden under water, and they know that when they are doing their best work more is going on than they can consciously describe. So be it. The art lifts the artist.
Art cannot be made by committee. Any such use of a workshop will be counterproductive. Thus the student who is “up” should not be looking for solutions from me other students or from the teacher. The student should be looking for problems in the text that he or she had not been aware of. In a good workshop this becomes clear in a matter of hours. (Failure to understand this had led to many a canard from uninformed commentators about what they imagine to be going on at Iowa—the existence of an “Iowa short story,” for example, or the assumption that a prevailing aesthetic or style exists that is drummed into the students. Not so. The Iowa Workshop attempts to respond to what each student brings, and each student is unique. The briefest look at the variety in the work of the students—to say nothing of the famous graduates—is the proof.)
Neither can art be made by learning a set of rules and applying them, as is the case, say, with solid geometry. The young writer may well be guided by hints or suggestions that might look like rules, but are in fact only observations not meant to be applied universally. I am reminded of working on a tune with the late jazz musician Paul Desmond—myself on piano and the master on saxophone. At one point, improvising the voicings as I moved from one chord to another, Paul stopped the music, leaned over the keyboard, and showed me a better way to do it. “Usually,” he said, “but not always, we try to retain all notes common to both chords.” Exactly so in a writing workshop. Suggestions are made in that spirit— “usually, but not always.”
The workshop concentrates on matters of craft, as it should, but hints, suggestions, and thought experiments flow continuously through the semester, offerings whose usefulness is privately determined by each student. Here is a list, for instance—notes jotted down by one of my students over a period of three weeks—suggestive of the sorts of things that come up: “Characterization is built not through repetition but through layering…. The text should imply, so the reader can infer…. Dramatization is crucial. Too much telling infantilizes the reader…. The text informs the alert writer as to its manifest destiny…. [Cheever!] Written dialogue is very different from spoken, or ‘real’ dialogue… degraded language can degrade a character… a text must not have amnesia, each sentence should be linked to all that came before… rhythms should vary,” and so forth and so on. These are observations of my own springing from the discussion of various student texts. Part of the workshop experience is older writers working with younger writers, a sort of atelier where the older writers, who have presumably produced significant work, imply that they have “been there” about some issue and put forward thoughts for what they are worth. Students seem eager for such information, and I’ve sometimes wondered if they are not in fact training me to give it, so quickly do they reach for their pens when I get into that mode. I do believe they understand that the Value, if any, of such observations is their ability to expand the way one thinks about certain problems rather than their efficacy in immediately solving them.