Bringing the Devil to His Knees: The Craft of Fiction and the Writing Life

Overview


In Bringing the Devil to His Knees: The Craft of Fiction and the Writing Life, seventeen award-winning writers--all expert teachers--share the secrets of creating compelling, imaginative stories and novels. A combination handbook, writer's companion, and collection of spirited personal essays, the book is filled with specific examples, hard-won wisdom, and compassionate guidance for the developing or experienced fiction writer.

Each of the contributors is a current or former ...

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Overview


In Bringing the Devil to His Knees: The Craft of Fiction and the Writing Life, seventeen award-winning writers--all expert teachers--share the secrets of creating compelling, imaginative stories and novels. A combination handbook, writer's companion, and collection of spirited personal essays, the book is filled with specific examples, hard-won wisdom, and compassionate guidance for the developing or experienced fiction writer.

Each of the contributors is a current or former lecturer at the Warren Wilson College MFA Program for Writers, one of the most highly respected writing programs in the country. Included are essays by Charles Baxter, Robert Boswell, Karen Brennan, Judith Grossman, Ehud Havazelet, C. J. Hribal, Margot Livesey, Michael Martone, Kevin McIlvoy, Pablo Medina, Antonya Nelson, Susan Neville, Richard Russo, Steven Schwartz, Jim Shepard, Joan Silber, Debra Spark, Peter Turchi, and Chuck Wachtel.

Rich with masterful examples and personal anecdotes, these imaginative essays provide hard-earned insight into a writer's work. The book will interest not only those seeking inspiration and guidance to become stronger writers, but also readers of contemporary literary fiction, who will find a number of surprising and original approaches to the writer's work by award-winning practitioners adept at teaching others what they know.

Charles Baxter is author of several novels, including The Feast of Love, Shadow Play, and First Light. and collections of stories including Believers and A Relative Stranger. He teaches writing at the University of Michigan. Peter Turchi is author of the novel The Girls Next Door, a collection of stories, Magician, and a book of non-fiction, The Pirate Prince. He is Director of the MFA Program for Writers, Warren Wilson College.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780472097746
  • Publisher: University of Michigan Press
  • Publication date: 6/8/2001
  • Pages: 272
  • Product dimensions: 6.20 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author

Charles Baxter
Of Charles Baxter's fiction, Ron Hanson wrote in The New York Times Book Review, "Baxter's stories are intelligent, original, gracefully written, always moving, frequently funny and -- the rarest of compliments -- wise."

Biography

Although his body of work includes poetry and essays, award-winning writer Charles Baxter is best known for his fiction -- brilliantly crafted, non-linear stories that twist and turn in unexpected directions before reaching surprising yet nearly always satisfying conclusions. He specializes in portraits of solid Midwesterners, regular Joes and Janes whose ordinary lives are disrupted by accidents, chance encounters, and the arrival of strangers; and his books have garnered a fierce and loyal following among readers and critics alike.

Born in Minneapolis in 1947, Baxter was barely a toddler when his father died. His mother remarried a wealthy attorney who moved the family onto a sprawling estate in suburban Excelsior. From prep school, Baxter was expected to attend Williams, but instead he chose Macalester, a small, liberal arts college in St. Paul. Intending to pursue a career in teaching and writing, he enrolled in the Ph.D. program at the State University of New York at Buffalo, attracted by a faculty that included such literary luminaries of the day as John Barth and Donald Barthelme.

After grad school, Baxter moved to Michigan to teach at Wayne State University in Detroit. He spent more than a decade concentrating on writing poetry, but after a particularly discouraging dry spell, he decided to try his hand at fiction. He labored long and hard over three novels, none of which was accepted for publication. Then, just as he was about to give up altogether, he attempted one last trick. He whittled the three novels down to short stories, replacing epic themes, extraordinary characters, and ambitious story arcs with the small, quiet stuff of ordinary life. It was a good decision, In 1984, his first collection of short fiction, Harmony of the World, was published. Another anthology followed, then a debut novel. Published in 1987, First Light charmed readers with its unusual structure (the story unfolds backwards in time) and a cast of richly, draw, fully human characters.

Baxter continued to publish throughout the 1990s, alternating between short and full-length fiction, and with each book he garnered larger, more appreciative audiences and better reviews. His breakthrough occurred in 2000 with Feast of Love, a novel composed of many small stories that form a single, cohesive narrative. Described by The New York Times as "...rich, juicy, laugh-out-loud funny and completely engrossing," Feast of Love was nominated for a National Book Award.

"Every time I've finished a book, it feels to me as if the washrag has been rung out," Baxter confessed in a 2003 interview. Yet he keeps on crafting absorbing stories infused with quiet (sometimes absurdist) wit and a compassionate understanding of the human condition. A longtime director of the creative writing program at the University of Michigan, he is known as a generous mentor, and several of his students have gone on to forge successful literary careers of their own.

Good To Know

In our exclusive interview, Baxter shared some fascinating insights with us:

"My novels are sometimes criticized for being episodic, or structurally weird. And they are! I like them that way. It's fairly late in the day -- 2003 as I write -- in the history of the novel, and I think it's fair for writers to mess around with that form, and to stop thinking that they have to write books that move smoothly from the first act to the second act, and then to the climax and the denouement. I like digressions, asides, intrusions, advice, anything that gets in the way of a smooth narcotic flow. New novels should not look like old novels, except when they want to."

"My father died when I was eighteen months old, and I expect the unexpected to happen in life and in art, and my fiction is full, or loaded down, with unexpected fatalities of one kind or another. For me, that's realism."

"I had an unhappy childhood that I thought was happy, and I dove into books as inspiration and relief and comfort and security and information about what people did and how they thought. I can still get happy and sentimental just over the thought of libraries -- the image of a woman sitting quietly and reading is a terrifically sexy image for me."

"Like many writers, I'm private and quiet and observant and bookish. For a physical outlet, I lift weights at the gym two or three times a week, and I don't quit unless and until I've worked up a fairly good sweat. Many writers need an outlet like that to counter the sedentary nature of what they do. I don't have any wild delusions about the greatness of my work: I am happy to work humbly in this field where so many writers have created so many immortal manifestations of the mind and spirit. As Henry James said, you work in the dark; you do what you can; the rest is the madness of art."

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    1. Hometown:
      Minneapolis, Minnesota
    1. Date of Birth:
      May 13, 1947
    2. Place of Birth:
      Minneapolis, Minnesota
    1. Education:
      B. A., Macalester College, 1969; Ph.D., State University of New York at Buffalo, 1974
    2. Website:

Table of Contents

Contents

Introduction....................1
RICHARD RUSSO In Defense of Omniscience....................7
JIM SHEPARD I Know Myself Real Well. That's the Problem....................18
SUSAN NEVILLE Where's Iago?....................31
STEVEN SCHWARTZ Finding a Voice in America....................45
CHUCK WACHTEL Behind the Mask: Narrative Voice in Fiction....................53
JOAN SILBER Weight in Fiction....................71
EHUD HAVAZELET Chekhov and Form....................77
CHARLES BAXTER "You're Really Something": Inflection and the Breath of Life....................91
DEBRA SPARK Getting In and Getting Out: First Words on First (and Last) Words....................106
KAREN BRENNAN Dream, Memory, Story, and the Recovery of Narrative....................123
OBERT BOSWELL Narrative Spandrels....................138
C. J. HRIBAL The Scene Beast Is Hungry....................148
PETER TURCHI The Writer as Cartographer....................162
ANTONYA NELSON "Mom's on the Roof": The Usefulness of Jokes in Shaping Short Stories....................180
MICHAEL MARTONE Ruining a Story....................197
KEVIN MCILVOY The Editor Comes Clean at Last (A Tale of One Rejection Letter and One Acceptance Letter to Stephen Crane)....................209
PABLO MEDINA Literature and Democracy....................220
JUDITH GROSSMAN Thinking about a Reader....................235
MARGOT LIVESEY How to Tell a True Story....................245
Contributors....................255
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First Chapter

Bringing the Devil to His Knees

The Craft of Fiction and the Writing Life

The University of Michigan Press

Copyright © 2001 University of Michigan
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-472-09774-6


Chapter One

RICHARD RUSSO

In Defense of Omniscience

Part of the problem with trying to teach anybody anything is that we who know how to do it forget what it was we didn't know. Having arrived at understanding for ourselves, we forget what the problems were, what we were confused by, what was getting in our way. It's like teaching someone to drive a stick shift. It doesn't seem that complicated after you've been doing it for ten or fifteen years. You don't think about it anymore. Your left foot knows where to find the clutch, when to depress it, when to let up and how fast, how much gas to feed with the right foot, when to slip the shift out of one gear and into the next, where the various gears are, where your eyes should be when all this happens (on the road, not on the diagram they give you on the ball of the stick, not on the floor beneath the dash where the clutch was the last time you looked, before it moved, so that you can no longer locate it).

My father, who taught me how to drive a stick shift one summer afternoon when I'd come home from the university to work road construction with him, was one of the world's worst teachers in that, once he'd mastered any difficulty, he no longer considered it to be difficult. Difficult was how he characterized anything he hadn't mastered. Driving a stick, he told me that afternoon, was something any goddamn idiot could do. Half an hour later he had to pick up his carelessly thrown down gauntlet and admit he was wrong. There was one goddamn idiot who couldn't seem to learn, no matter how loudly instructions were bellowed at him. My father couldn't seem to grasp that I was wired in parallel, that, when my left foot came off the clutch, my right instinctively left the gas. Part of it, too, was that he'd started me off at the foot of a steep hill, his reasoning being that I would encounter hills eventually, and he didn't want my instruction to be deficient in this regard. Finally, the gearbox was slippery, and I kept locating reverse by accident, grinding the transmission frightfully. I can still remember my father's frustration at this, it seemed to him, most unnatural of mistakes. "Jesus Christ," he complained. "Can't you feel it?"

This is the problem in a nutshell. Once you've learned how to do something, you do it by feel. In familiar situations the wrong thing feels unnatural. Right feels right, wrong feels wrong. Easy. The timing, the hill, the slippery gearbox, once mastered, become familiar, and we forget what it's like to lurch along the road, other motorists swerving into the passing lane when they come upon us and recognize us for what we are—novices—sailing by, honking derision, often flipping us the bird. We forget that to be a novice is to be in unfamiliar situations pretty much all the time.

Omniscience, my friends—you see I've finally sidled up to my subject— is a slippery gearbox, and most apprentice writers prefer to drive the more "automatic" prose transmissions: first person literary, close third person. And these work perfectly well in most situations, getting writers where they want to go. Some authors will write through entire careers without ever tackling true omniscience and will write very well indeed. Ah, but the stick is a wonderful thing, and there's nothing quite like it once you've learned, and in this essay I'll try to explain why.

First, some background. A surprising percentage of the literary novels being published today are told from an omniscient point of view. I confess that I have not done anything like a scientific study. I have simply been struck by a disparity that I believe would be borne out by formal research—that professional writers are far more likely to opt for omniscience than are novice and apprentice writers. In lieu of statistics, here's some compelling anecdotal evidence. When I teach Introduction to Fiction Writing to undergraduates, one of the exercises that I and many other writing teachers employ to teach point of view is to have students write the first page of a story from several different points of view (not character viewpoints but literary points of view). When I first started teaching, I went over the various broad options for telling stories: first person literary, dramatic monologue, close third person, effaced, omniscient and, grudgingly, stream of consciousness/interior monologue. After explaining how they all were supposed to work, I told students to pick three. Or pick four, depending on how ambitious I was feeling. Until I noticed that, when the assignment came in, everybody avoided omniscience. Everybody. Beginners are drawn to the flashy, on the one hand, and the simple, on the other. They all want to try the seldom used dramatic monologue form because, I suspect, one of the two or three novels they've read is Catcher in the Rye, a book richer in technique and style than substance. Beginners are even drawn, despite my warnings, to stream of consciousness, which they see as a license for incoherence. They like the effaced point of view because they don't have to enter their characters' thoughts and close third person because it seems to answer that old workshop question, "Whose story is this?" and they enjoy literary first person because they like the sound of their own voices or the idea of mimicking other voices. Full-blown omniscience? No takers. They don't see the margin in it.

But these are, after all, beginners. Surely more seasoned apprentices would not share the beginners' prejudice. To find out, I consulted the 1990 Residency Worksheets of the Warren Wilson MFA Program, which contained the fiction of thirty-five talented, intelligent writers, most of whom have been writing long enough to have become discouraged for whole months at a time. Out of thirty-five, how many, gentle listeners, would select the voice of choice of Henry Fielding and nearly the whole eighteenth century, the point of view most suited to the wide canvases of the nineteenth-century Victorian novel, the point of view that has never been anything but the mainstay of storytelling in our own century, regardless of the literary movement then in vogue (experimentalism, minimalism, postmodernism, any other "ism")? How many of these stories would be told by an omniscient narrator?

By my count, four. I did not count stories that began with an omniscient paragraph before zooming in, camera fashion, to close third or limited third person. I did count stories that hadn't mastered omniscience but, rather, seemed to be striving in that direction, the omniscience unintentionally leaking away at times. Four out of thirty-five. That statistic alone may be meaningless, but consider this. In the first workshop of this Warren Wilson residency one of the stories on the worksheet concerned three brothers attending in shifts their dying father in a hospital. The story was told in the form of notebook entries, each son offering his thoughts and observations to his brothers. The story built nicely to a satisfying emotional conclusion, and the workshop consensus seemed to be that the story was successful despite some difficulties of execution. The notebook entries, more than one reader pointed out, got more interesting toward the end as the brothers became less reticent and more honest in what they wrote in the notebook. Also, it was said, the author seemed to have considerable difficulty in releasing what Steven Dobyns has referred to as the secondary information of the story—descriptions of the hospital room and hospital procedure—because these brothers would have little reason to describe a room or discuss a procedure in a notebook entry intended for their brothers, who know what the room looks like and are themselves witnessing medical "process." Also, these brothers tended not to tell us, until very late in the story, some pretty important things about themselves. They had no reason to, because they knew each other.

Since we had identified but offered no remedy to these difficulties, I asked how the author might have done the story differently to allow easier access to the needed information. Quickly, there were hands. One person suggested selecting one of the brothers, letting him be the principal storyteller who would perform that function, in addition to writing his own notebook entries. This idea (providing a close third-person point of view) was immediately rejected and for valid reasons. It would upset the balance of the story, which gave equal time to each brother, suggesting their equal importance as characters. Another hand. Why not let the dying father tell the story, let the notebooks be secondary? That would keep the relative balance by making no brother more important than the others. True, but it would diminish them and their conflicts collectively. Also, the father was comatose. This solution too was rejected. Let one of the nurses tell the story, someone threw out in desperation. The person next to me groaned. Nurses have even less reason to describe hospital rooms, and no nurse would be privy to the kind of personal information about these brothers that has to get revealed somehow.

Dead end. Impatience in the room. Could anyone, I asked, think of a natural way to tell the story that would surrender necessary information about the brothers and the setting and the situation, without upsetting the careful character balance of the story as it existed? "Well," someone said, "I liked the notebook entries," thus effectively diverting the subject. (And, indeed, the notebook entries were looking more attractive again, their problems notwithstanding.)

Obviously, I was hoping that someone would see an omniscient narrator as the solution to the specific problems raised by the author's chosen method, but no one saw it, not even as an option. Omniscience, I freely admit, might have towed in its wake another different set of problems. The author's notebook entries, though they wouldn't have been my choice, might still be the best choice for her. That's not the point. The point is that omniscience, for many apprentice writers, is rejected even before it's considered.

There are reasons: (1) omniscient narrators tell a lot, and telling is something that students of fiction writing have been warned against early and often; (2) omniscience is an outside, not an inside view, and the clichis of our profession seem to disapprove. Get inside your characters, we recommend. Become your characters. See through their eyes; (3) omniscience feels old-fashioned, even stilted—Henry Fielding addressing us as Gentle Reader; (4) omniscience is the most arrogant of techniques, inviting the writer to play God and placing the burden of wisdom in all matters that pertain to the story squarely on the shoulders of the author. When we're misinformed, stupid, bigoted, clumsy, we can't blame any of it on the character we've "become."

But before I examine these issues, let's, just for fun, define omniscience and illustrate what it achieves. I'll begin at the beginning, with examples of the three major third-person points of view I was given in my first fiction writing course:

1. Bob kissed Ellen. (Effaced. We don't know what the characters are thinking or feeling.)

2. Bob kissed Ellen, but he was thinking of Sue. (Close third person. We go into the thoughts of one of the characters.)

3. Bob kissed Ellen, but he was thinking of Sue, and Ellen was thinking of Tom. (Omniscient. We go into the thoughts of more than one character.)

Okay. Simple enough. Omniscience allows the writer to know more and reveal more. The problem is that the example is unlikely to convert many writers to omniscience. Who'd want to write such a sentence? Worse, the example doesn't begin to convey or illustrate the real advantages of omniscience. So, let's examine a couple of sentences that will. Here John Steinbeck, in Cannery Row, describes Dora Flood, madam of the local whorehouse: "Dora Flood is a great woman. A great big woman with flaming orange hair and a taste for Nile green evening dresses." Here we begin to see the true advantages of omniscience. First, there's the convenience of being able to describe Dora from the outside— her flaming orange hair, her Nile green dresses. It's clearly an outside view, because Dora would never see or describe herself this way. But even more important is the matter of voice. Omniscient narrators, even when they seem matter of fact, convey attitude. It's not so much the author speaking to us as it is the author in a particular pose. Here Steinbeck's attitude is sardonic, clever, distant, and yet affectionate. When in the first sentence he tells us that Dora is a great woman, the word great, modifying a noun, seems to convey a judgment about her character. In the second sentence, when the same word great modifies another adjective (big), we realize that in addition to learning something about the character of Dora Flood, we've also learned something about the "character" John Steinbeck has become, or the pose he has struck, to tell the story. He's copped an attitude that may or may not be the same as other omniscient narrators he uses to tell other stories.

Omniscient narration, then (at least full-blown omniscience), exhibits the following traits. It looks at characters from the outside but can "see" inside, directly into thoughts and feelings. It transcends time and space. The omniscient narrator can be in as many places as he or she needs to be and possesses knowledge of all moments—past, present, and future—and is free to reveal it. (Of course, there are varying degrees of omniscience in literature, though examining them would be the subject of another essay.) And, finally, there is always a narrator, a voice that embodies a clearly defined attitude, an authorial pose, a consistent and recognizable way of seeing and understanding. By way of illustration, consider the following passages from Jon Hassler's wonderful novel Grand Opening:

The moment he set foot in homeroom, Brendan was offered a stick of gum by a shifty-eyed boy named Dodger Hicks, who had been lying in wait for a friend. Among the twenty-four boys and girls of the seventh grade, Dodger had not even one friend, the parents of Plum having warned their children away from him because his father was a convict, his mother drank, and Dodger himself stole things from stores—crayons, comic books, candy.

Dodger was older and taller than the rest of the seventh grade, having taken nine years of school to get there. A poor reader, he was taunted for what his classmates assumed was stupidity and had spent every recess and noon hour of his life lingering at the edge of a game. His face was dark, his cheekbones prominent. He had a habit of nodding his head when he spoke, and of squinting and showing his long teeth when he listened. His dark hair, which hung unevenly about his ears, he trimmed himself, using a pair of small shears pilfered from art class. As he gave Brendan a stick of grape gum ... he said he had stolen it that very morning from Kermit's Grocery, the door being unlocked and no one inside.

"That's our store," said Brendan. "My mother and Dad bought it."

"No kidding?" asked Dodger. He gave Brendan the rest of the pack.

After school Brendan lets Dodger tag along home with him. Dodger examines with interest all of Brendan's toys and is particularly fascinated by a boomerang that Brendan has been unable to make return. Dodger has better luck.

The boomerang sailed up and away, spinning as it climbed, and at its apogee—incredibly high and small—it tilted almost vertical as it wheeled around and began its return flight, picking up speed and spinning faster and faster and heading straight for their heads and passing over them as they threw themselves flat and crashing through the kitchen window. At the sound of the breaking glass, Dodger was up and running. He never glanced back or said goodbye.

The noise woke Grandfather, who called from his window upstairs, "Where are we, lad, and what was that noise like a china closet tipping over on its face?" This being Grandfather's second awakening in this unfamiliar house, he was of the opinion—as he had been for awhile this morning—that he and his wife and two daughters were lodging in a tourist home en route West, retracing a trip he had made in 1921 to visit relatives. At breakfast it had taken three cups of coffee and a stern word from Catherine to convince him this wasn't a stopover in Billings.

"We live here," Brendan shouted up at him. Then softer, "And my friend broke a window."

"We live here?"

"Plum! Remember?"

(Continues...)



Excerpted from Bringing the Devil to His Knees Copyright © 2001 by University of Michigan . Excerpted by permission of The University of Michigan Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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