The Passionate, Accurate Story: Making Your Hearts Truth into Literature

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781571312198
  • Publisher: Milkweed Editions
  • Publication date: 2/13/1998
  • Edition description: 1 ED
  • Pages: 198
  • Product dimensions: 6.04 (w) x 9.01 (h) x 0.65 (d)

Read an Excerpt


Writing Whole Literature:
Writing the Good News
As Well As the
Psychological Dismay

Jill's Wrath: How We Treat Young Writers

The greatest beauty in a short story mainly floats towards us from its plot. That is not a fashionable idea just at the moment, but it is true. In Charles Baxter's "Scheherazade," an old woman is healing her husband. He is in the hospital, after a stroke. She tells him tall stories which he experiences as empowering. We see what he needs: he needs to see himself as the ever-seductive male patrolling the range of does and mares, cutting his swath, a man with no consideration of any human being other than himself. His wife's stories are designed to reassure him that all that starry selfishness is intact. There is beauty in the language and structure, because Baxter is one of the most passionate and most subtle short-story writers of our time—but what makes me say, "What a beautiful story!" is Baxter's plot. This wife is not under threat of being killed if she can't amuse her husband, yet she is an echo of the original Scheherazade because she sacrifices her own psychological health—the sense of what is fair and decent—in order to return her husband to his health. The story has beauty of plot.

    All beauty isn't in plot. There are two psychological disciplines authors exercise which make stories beautiful in tone and language: The first is the determination not to be embittered—at the same time as one avoids denial of the evil that people do. That isvery difficult. It is hard to describe wretched behavior in even the tiniest corner of life without cynicism, perhaps because people will likely continue to behave in the bad ways. The second is using language of consequence, because how writer talks to reader and how characters talk to each other depend on psychological circumstances.

    Let's imagine a writer whose circumstances, from age eight to age twenty-four, lead her again and again to write stories whose style is either noncommittal or cynical. Jill is a twenty-four-year-old graduate student at a snappy writing workshop. She does not write beautiful literature. Jill is not a horrible person. Why is she deliberately writing ugliness?

    I pretend I am a social worker and Jill has been sent to "see someone." She is a writer, and here is her story, the story of why Americans go out of their way to make ugly literature.

    Jill was born in Lawrencetown, Massachusetts, the daughter of civilized parents who had stable notions and a safe house. She always wanted to be a writer.

    She wrote her first official short story in the third grade. It was about the town dump, with its wheel spokes, bedsprings, moribund kittens in their gunny sack, rusting kitchen pots—all of which tell one another their stories. Dogs, cats, all domestic refugees come to the dump and tell all the ways they have been cruelly used. (Jill had imagination.) When she got her story back from the teacher, she found written on the bottom: "Jill, we have been studying sentences now for two years. You know perfectly well that a sentence begins with a capital letter and you need a period at the end."

    What Jill learned from that comment was that psychological content in literature does not count. What counts is mechanics. Maybe that's right! her half-conscious mind says. After all, whenever you try to tell your stories at home, your mother says, "Boy, do kids have imagination!" to your dad. Both of them, mysteriously, in the next second, notice that you have tracked in mud, too.

    When Jill was in fifth grade, she wrote another story for her English class. Unfortunately her school had not elected to get in a poet or storyteller from the Writers-in-the-Schools movement. Her new story was about parents who were rude to their children—gratuitously rude. For interesting insights on parental rudeness to children, see Alice Miller's work, especially For Your Own Good. Jill's parents were forever adjuring her to behave, but they were rude. This story came back with the comment that Jill's spelling was improved: the teacher had even drawn a smiling face at the bottom, with radiating lines coming out from it, indicating, I think, sunshine.

    In the seventh grade, Jill happened to get an English teacher who herself did not read through any of the papers regarded as "creative writing" since creative writing was humanities fluff.

    So Jill's third try at a story about rude parents was channelled like lock water into the peer-criticism pond. The peers, Jill's classmates, had now spent five years or more being told to respect mechanics more than content, mechanics more than content, mechanics more than content. It never crossed any of their minds to remark on anything more inner in Jill's work than her "effective sentences." If they had talked about Jill's content—the rudeness of her parents to her—it wouldn't have helped Jill much: empathy is ineffective between young peers. Its marvelous use for giving people confidence and verve works only when the empathizing is by an authority (parent or teacher or other wise adult)—not by other kids.

    Jill did a well-imagined story in the tenth grade. Here is the plot: a tenth-grade girl came home from school to her parents' clean but uncultivated house in an industrial town near Andover, Massachusetts. The author tells us the house had wall-to-wall carpeting, which ran from the hallways into all the rooms, even her room. The previous owners had built a full-wall bookcase in the living room, but that didn't bother this girl's parents: they put their copy of Reach Out and their other book, We Never Would Have Made It Without Him, in the center of the eye-level shelf, and then placed glass bricks on both sides so the books stayed put. The girl threw one leg over the lounge-chair arm and listened to the baseboard heating for a while. Then she took down one of the books and studied the photo on the back jacket. It showed a woman sitting upright in a chair, and her husband sat on its arm, smiling Both had excellent teeth. "Mom? Mom?" the girl said. Her mother appeared. "Mom, how much mousse do you suppose that lady's got on there to get that 360º look, anyhow?" The girl held up the book. "And those eyes, hey, Mom, like the dials on Dad's safe!" "Let me tell you something, young lady," the mother said, "before you make any more fun of those people of Jesus. You get this very straight. If we hear any more smart remarks from you about Jesus or the people of Jesus, your father will take it up with you. This is a Christ-centered home. You know what Christ-centered means? It means that if a certain young lady can't learn to love our Lord and Saviour, maybe she would like to just pick up and live somewhere else and see how that feels!"

    Jill's teacher wrote on her story, "You don't give us any idea of the colors of the house. You say wall-to-wall carpeting, but we can't see it because we can't see the colors of it. You need to offer more physical description." She did not comment on the author's disdain for the religious parents and the Born-Again authors, nor on the mother's offering to throw the girl out if she couldn't get filled with the spirit. Religion is a chancy subject in American public schools, and, anyway, she had been teaching for twenty-four years and she knew her job: it was to tell Jill how to polish her skills, and only to polish her skills.

    Jill read her comment. She felt the way you would if you went to a psychotherapist and cried, "I am in psychological pain!" and the therapist replied, "One thing sure—get that athlete's foot taken care of, pronto!"

    Jill's parents' religion, and Jill's disdain for it, are content. By now, at sixteen, that part of Jill's personality which wants to feel disdain for parents and do either a little or a lot of "parent bashing" supposes that it can't be done in literature. That part of Jill balls itself up in its own fetal position, so to speak, and rolls away somewhere underneath the surface of Jill's mind, flattening other feelings as it goes. When you "negatively reinforce" one kind of expression in young people, you negatively reinforce several other kinds of expressiveness as well. We know that: look at the people who are "rigid and judgmental": it isn't just sensuality they can't praise; they find it very hard to praise anything. It is because the psychological muscle which praises got hurt some time in their past.

    How one does a thing, Jill has now learned, how one does just the surface of it, is more important than what one does. She has learned that lesson three times over. She does not, therefore, major in English, as she once had wanted to. She majors in Business Administration, as do 25%-75% of undergraduates of small liberal-arts colleges and universities, who have been told that college is a tool for money-making, not learning for a good life.

    Finally, the gorgeous day comes when she is relieved of college. She had a marvelous love affair, but college had been mostly boring.

    After a year or two, Jill decides to try once more: she enters a graduate creative-writing workshop. She puts together a short fiction about two young adults who are fundamentalist in religion. They truck away all broken or dirty items from their house. They decide not to have a pet because you know pets. Jill, not skilled or disciplined enough to eschew Author Intrusions and Interior Monologue, tells us these two characters are vulgar, facile, evasive, and given to totalitarian ideas, although they talk about koinonia and agape. Jill gives us a sex scene. It is wretched sex.

    Jill's teacher has, alas, seen so many such angry and stereotyping short stories that he is exasperated. He writes at the foot of the page, "You make your point all right, slam bang, but we can't get interested because we can't feel either love or pity for your characters."

    This time Jill's development is not just balked: it is stunted. Likely Jill will now not become a writer, even a bad one. Jill's disgust for those characters was a genuine passion which in the course of twenty years she had nursed along under the surface. Her third-grade teacher discounted it without noticing it. Her tenth-grade teacher tried to distract her from it by asking, what color was the carpeting? instead of, what were some other meannesses about those parents? any kind things at all? Here then are the psychological suppressants which Jill has experienced so far:

    1. No one who counts has "reflected back" Jill's fret about mean parents. She, therefore, thinks she was wrong to have such feelings. (This is a well-documented, very common response to psychological abuse of children.) Jill's disdain never gets refined.

    2. Truth learnt in solitude and quiet insight itself apparently has no value: the only truth which gets respect appears to be what you learn from the powers that be.

    3. Finally, Jill turns outward and asks, since my heart's truth apparently isn't much, what does count in literature? She sees our usual panoply—silvery little stories made up of shards of experience, quickly picked up, experienced by the reader the way a jogger sees the glitter of mica in clay. Well, that's one thing they want, Jill thinks, logically examining the technical surfaces of the stories she reads. Put it in the present tense, she thinks, to make The New Yorker. Have a misery going on under the surface without cure, but only small objects get discussed as properties of the drama—grass from the mower blade, oil spitting in a pan, congealed eggs on one's plate (that one's Hemingway's—a nice, miserable sort of parallel to the story content), and, of course, the crocodile of the American short story, narratives of male bonding through drinking and casual humping—done raucously by young writers, with nostalgia by the middle-aged, from habit and fear of change by the old.

    The great stories are out there to be seen, too: Charles Baxter, Mark Helprin, Alice Munro, Margaret Atwood, Susan Lowell—but Jill's eyes are half-closed to them by now. There is a particular reason why she will not learn to write from these authors. She was never allowed to develop her own disdainful feelings, so she rolled them under. It means she never moved to the step which can follow disdain (in stage development): the stage of refining one's original feeling. Refining takes place only when a feeling has been heard by another human being:

    Interviewer (or creative-writing teacher): "Jill, you show clearly about four or five ways in which your parents were cruel. Anything else?"

    Jill: "What do you mean, anything else? Any other ways they were mean?"

    Interviewer: "Yes—for starters. Yes. How else? Can you tuck anything else into this autobiographical piece of writing?"

    Jill murmurs, "No—I think that's about it."

    Interviewer (casually): "Well, anything else you want in here about the parents?" The interviewer is deliberately asking the question twice.

    Jill: "They were great airplane-model-maker helpers. God, they were great. Hour after hour, Dad would hold the prop of the left engine of the P-38 while I wound up the starboard engine—you know, on a rubber band—then together we'd go out the door trying not to bang the plane. Mom rushed to the door and pulled the hydraulic stay-opener on the screen door, and Dad and I kind of shouldered each other out into the yard; Dad just got into the thing so goddamned well. `This is M for Mongoose,' he would say, as we were hobbling to a good, open place to fly the plane. `M for Mongoose, calling J for Jill, signal, J for Jill, when you are ready for take off.' He wouldn't be laughing either—looking fatherly. He would squint over the meadow, dead serious, with a perfect Southern accent like what you need for intercom talk in warplanes, dead serious, `J for Jill, come in J for Jill, crissake come in, are you guys all right?'"

    Interviewer: "Fantastic!"

    Jill: "Well—yeah—yeah, so here's the thing—then he beat me up, because he said I closed my heart to Christ, you see, but when he was being the Control Tower, he was terrific."

    Interviewer: "Complicated, you mean?"

    Jill: "Both things going on in the same man at the same time."

    Interviewer: "Listen, Jill—it's a wonderful, wonderful, complicated story. Think it through and do another draft. I'll read it. Just list everything about the man—don't say, he was this or he was that. A person is a lot of things. Also—just for fun—I want to see the P-38, too. If you get stuck, call. If you don't, good luck. See you Monday."

    If Jill had at any point in her writing participated in a conversation like this one, she would have learned you can talk frankly about evil, yet recognize that it sits next to good. She would have learned to see that one's first dash of judging human character is too simple: you can refine it.

    But Jill is still left with a lot of unexpressed disdain.

    Further, since she never got her disdain all written out, she will keep unconsciously circling round it. It will hide inside her, wrecking otherwise good, clean, new inspirations, wanting its way into her consciousness. It cries for attention, its cris d'enfance make such a racket inside her she doesn't hear happier voices, whose messages deserve at least as much attention.

    When unconscious anger joins low self-esteem, an inexperienced author generally bends to write stories with jeering or chill feelings. The many American short stories in print which have low-life plots and obvious language work as role models for further cold-hearted narration. If one is, like the perfect C.I.A. recruit, "externalized," one will feel convinced that flip or chill writing is de rigueur in the short story.

    Jill wrote a story in which a couple drink and carp at one another in a dumpyard, although Jill herself was having a gorgeous love affair with a fellow grad student named Henry. She and Henry spent some of their time on stepladders in the back aisles of Barnes & Noble, looking at photographs of our planet in a geology text or two. In one text, Figure 24 showed a pen-and-ink-drawn section of our world's crust. Some of the flat, generally horizontal strata were filled with regularly placed plus-signs, looking for all the world like a military graveyard. Other layers were filled with dozens of regularly placed hyphens. There were wonderful words in the captions: extrusions, lobes, dolomite. On the right-hand page, Figure 25 was a b/w photograph of flat land strewn with greenstone and some peaked-looking little lakes: Northern Minnesota, the caption explained, abraded by glaciers—and under its chill and scarified flesh, rockmolt still shoving about, meeting lenient or stubborn strata. All that lay under Henry's and Jill's feet: the cheerful moral of that story is that little of what counts makes it to the surface. The passers-by in Barnes & Noble got no glimpse of Jill's and Henry's caring: they were so close to one another they felt as if all the geomorphology of twelve thousand years (at least what they knew of it from Figures 24 and 25!) were part of their life together.

    If Jill's own young-adult life was so pleasant, why did she choose to write a story about a night watchman for an old people's home who made out with his girl in the gravel pit and later crept into the Home residents' rooms to steal? Why would Jill choose savagery for her subject?

    We have seen how various teachers blocked her from handling the cruelties she observed. Further, she came, let's say, from a nonliterary family. Jill's family thought of reading as something you do to find out what's rotten going on somewhere, the way one reads a newspaper. Most people who don't read serious literature suppose that literature is expose. Their mindset when reading or writing is to expose some evil or other. This is the mindset of junior high-schoolers, too: all their lives they haven't been allowed to talk back to parents. Then they get a creative-writing assignment: it's the first chance of their lifetimes to conduct some parent bashing without reprisal.

Ugly Facts of Our Time and Our Sense of the Public Concern

Because our Jill's and other jacks' and jills' work is ugly, journal- and diary-writers hunch their shoulders against it. Alas, this wraps them further in their own lives and delays their taking on some care for the res publica. This just when the world desperately needs public-minded literature. Here is Tom Wolfe arguing for literature taking on the public issues:

Young writers are constantly told, "Write about what you know." There is nothing wrong with that rule as a starting point. but it seems to get quickly magnified into an unspoken maxim: The only valid experience is personal experience ... Dickens, Dostoyevsky, Balzac, Zola, and Sinclair Lewis assumed that the novelist had to go beyond his personal experience and head out into society as a reporter.

    Christa Wolff (in Accident / A Day's News) recognizes how much anyone wants not to worry over the public world. People "want to sit back in their armchairs after a hard day's work like me and have their beer—wine in my case, what of it—and they want to be presented (on TV) with something that makes them happy, a complicated murder plot, for example, but nothing which affects them too much and that is the normal behavior we have been taught so that it would be unjust to reproach them for this behavior merely because it contributes to our deaths." Morally speaking, that is one of the fastest-moving long sentences I've read! It explains why for every Susan Lowell who makes herself focus on how the United States irradiated an entire family in her story "White Canyon," there are thousands of writers who practice what therapists call "pain avoidance." Crimes by government and scientists are so painful to think of, most writers, most readers, stay clear of them.

    One cure for Jill, even for many jills, is to remember that at any one time there are at least two injustices being perpetrated somewhere. Such awareness gives you perspective without making you shrill: the two injustices can be far off. Tolstoy's greatest gift to modern literature is moral scope. The notion is this: while you are absorbed in your provincial affairs, elsewhere some evil is being forwarded by courteous people who belong to a financially powerful group. While you are fixing a man's buttonhole so he and his friend may stand together at his marriage, you see from the vestry window someone hunting deeply in the garbage can across the street. Tolstoy always brought in such perspective:

During an interval in the Melvinski trial, in the large building of the Law Courts, the members and the public prosecutor met.... while Peter Ivanovich, not having entered into the discussion at the start, took no part in it but looked through the Gazette which had just been handed in. "Gentleman," he said, "Ivan Ilyich has died!"

Since Tolstoy knows we all live our lives in the shadow of laws, governments, either inside or outside the right clubs, he bothers to mention such things. We know from the paragraph above that he will tell us a story in which justice, law, establishment, and death will each share some time onstage. Once we know that our hobbies and love affairs and job hunting and funeral arrangements are all going to take place in a world which also has governments and corporations, we mustn't pretend otherwise—not if we're serious. As Christa Wolff says, "We have pushed off from the animal kingdom for good."

    We can do any number of grimy narratives like those Jill feels driven to write, and still turn them into beautiful literature by giving them their full setting. If the major considerations are present in a work, then some low-intensity realism can come in without foundering the whole piece. Even such a disdainful passage as the one below, in which the author looks down on the protagonist, can take place in a short story provided the general scope is big enough:

He told me to take them back before I'd lose the papers. Now, Sears will let you exchange, all right, without you got the papers. but they do always ask you to have the papers when you exchange, if you can remember. God, when I think of the number of times I've brought back stuff to Sears! Things I bought in good faith, or worse, his things! Machinery, workgloves, cloth, tools—things in the catalogue he thought he wanted and no sooner do I get home from picking them up then he wants me to take them back and exchange them!

    The paragraph shows us a workingman's wife expressing irritation: because we see her focus on minutia, we take her for not only tiresome or ill-tempered, but petty as well. A whole short story about her and the people she consorts with might well end up a peevish tale without a sympathetic protagonist.

    Yet all one has to do to make the dullest people sympathetic is set them in their periphery. There are two psychological reasons for that: first, as every intervention consultant knows, to get some level of a) tolerance and then b) understanding going between people or between a person's idea of self and the real self, you widen the conversation to include as much of the person's anecdotes as you can. As the circle of events in that person's life is mentioned, widening, including more events, the way the wave goes outward from the stone thrown in the pond, some of the events mentioned will be of universal interest. At some point, since we live in a finite world, one comes across things which the more boring people have in common with the most interesting people. Spouses of diplomats are constantly forced to have superficial, cordial conversations. If they have been diplomats' spouses long enough, they know how to race through the "And how is the family?" punctilio as fast as they can and get to a shared hobby. The same thing works in fiction. In the passage on the next page, the hobbies are used-car-lot dealing, boring support groups, and getting drunk.

    The second psychological reason for setting people in the widest possible periphery of their lives is that it increases our affection for them. Human beings are rather too much like the watchdogs Plato talked about in Book II of The Republic: we don't like what we don't know (two-year-old children loathe mayonnaise because they have never tasted it) and we do like—just as inappropriately—what we do know. The most astounding case of this I ever knew of had to do with a high-school teacher who threw pencils at the students in his French class. I heard about it and called the principal to ask if he was firing the French teacher. Well, no, I guess not, the principal said, because if we fire him, we'd have to hire someone else, and while he isn't the greatest, at least we know him, and if we hire someone new, he'd be an unknown factor.

    It is easy to jeer at such a stupid allowance made to a bully, but a grimmer look at the same mindset reminds us of the hundreds and thousands of human beings who have been equable about

child labor


sadistic behavior of males to females

the disparity between rich people's fun and
poor people's desperation

only because those evils are familiar. Familiarity may occasionally breed the contempt Bolingbroke spoke of: most of the time it breeds what John Kenneth Galbraith called "accommodation" to injustice.

    In literature, telling the whole story about some deplorable person or situation breeds a good kind of accommodation in both reader and author. The more we know about a character, the more like one of us the character appears. Jill, the young writer with the poor creative-writing background, could exchange her over-all cynicism for a combination of general affection and specific wrath if she would drop the practice of minimalism. When she writes her dumpyard relationship as a minimalist narrative, she starts with disaffection and ends with disaffection. If she pulled in all kinds of peripheral life for the dumpyard couple, she could still do a story disdaining their inchoate relationship, but the moral tone would brighten.

    Here is an example of how a grungy passage can change into a human predicament worth bothering putting into story, just by the author's listing more about the person. First, she needs a name: it will be Kate.

    Kate got disgusted with Donny about the Sears purchases. Donny beat her some. She guessed she was a battered wife. Their town was beautiful. Halfway between St. Fursey Lake, Minnesota, and St. Paul.
    She liked getting juiced with Donny. She didn't see him as your average wife-beater. She saw him as someone who can't read a Sears catalogue with enough imagination to know if he wants something or what.
    This one time she got to meet what she guessed was a real idealist. Some guy had lost his job because he refused to work on chemical warfare. His buddy explained to Kate he was a whistleblower. Kate had never met any of those types before.
    Then the whistle-blower's buddy slugged Donny right there in the booth.
    Once Kate talked Donny into letting her keep a kitten she and their daughter found at the dump.
    Their daughter got in trouble, but that was a lot later.
    Every so often, Donny did something so charming and funny, she would decide he was a wonderful man and she was crazy to listen to those support-group women talking about shelters. The funniest time was when he took her and their daughter to the used-car dealer in St. Fursey and said "Here we go, girls! Here we go! Don't talk, either of you! Don't show you like a car; let me do the talking." Then he and the dealer gave them rides in various Honda Civic Wagons, of '84, '85, '86, and '87, the years Donny was interested in. Donny made a lot of jokes. Usually the dealer could see the joke, too. Sometimes the jokes seemed mean at first, but everyone laughed and you got to have fun. "She don't say nothing," Donny would laugh, jerking his head over towards Kate. "Can't tell if you like the car." Kate giggled. Or Donny would say, "Well, old lady, what do you think?" and the dealer would smile at Kate but she kept her mouth shut good and Donny turned to the dealer. "No deal," Donny would say, "She don't like it." This went on for an hour and a half anyway. Finally Donny got $850 off an '84 and a real tire thrown in instead of that shrinkeroo spare the car came with ... It takes a man.
    The leader of Kate's support group didn't know how to tell her she was boring the group, taking up too much air time.
    Donny said as long as that kitten grew up male, o.k., but if it was female it had to go to Doc Buchwald and that was the end of it.
    Kate once met a real whistle-blower whose friend slugged her husband in the face and Donny never broke her jaw again.

    I like Kate better now. Her style is still U.S.A.-Casual, and what's more, she not only is peevish about minutia, as we knew from the Sears passage, but she likes being drunk and she bores her support group. But now we know three universal and not despicable qualities in her: first, she has met and taken cognizance of a whistle-blower. She therefore joins, however tangentially, the world of shall-we-or-shall-we-not-do-evil-work-for-our-boss. Second, Kate shares at least one major value with the First Lady of the United States. Like Mrs. Bush, Kate "would regret time not spent with a husband, a child, a friend or a parent." She would more than agree with Mrs. Bush's warning not "to lose the most important investment you will ever make." (All over the world, of course, there are social workers and psychotherapists who wish that the concept of husband-as-investment would not reach the ears of battered women: fear of losing that investment is one of the powerful' forces which keeps battered women battered.) Leaving aside how inappropriately Kate would apply Mrs. Bush's strictures to her own life, we have at least got our female protagonist linked to a decent, major idea. And finally, Kate has a decent, major emotion as well: she is capable of simple, cheerful admiration, whether or not Donny's aplomb in the used-car lot deserves it.

    America has a good deal of ugly-hearted fiction about. Some of the violence in it is salacious: that is, the author gets a kick out of thinking about it and knows the reader will, too. But some is a mistake in calculation: the author thinks that exposing the reader to this or that specific grunge or evil will teach the reader not to participate in that grunge or evil. In fact, people imitate what they see most sensually put before them—rather than learning from the moral brought out at the end of anything. We know this from television: people are imitating the violence they see, quarter-hour by quarter-hour; the police dramas do not teach them that crime doesn't pay, no matter how many last thirty seconds are given to showing the criminals being caught. In literature, shabby emotions or evil emotions inform the work if they take up all its pages. There will always be salacious writers. Let's set their work aside. Our question is: how can anxious Americans put evil or dingy situations into short stories without rotting the tone? I think Tolstoy's method is best: put in so much else of the characters' lives that the periphery of their worlds overlaps the periphery of all our worlds. Chapters 3, 7, and 8 take up ways to work such perspective into short stories.

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Table of Contents

INTRODUCTION Writing Whole Literature 1
Jill's Wrath: How We Treat Young Writers 1
Ugly Facts of Our Time and Our Sense of the Public Concern 9
CHAPTER ONE First Draft Work Is Like No Other Work in the
Story 18
The Approach of Critics Is Not the Approach of Writers 18
The First Draft 20
Leaving the Donnée: Inviting the Unconscious 22
Leaving the Donnée as a Form of Love of the Universe 30
CHAPTER TWO How to Generate Not Words but Emotional Content 35
Values Listing: Why Write One? 38
Values Listing: Examples 39
Writing a 3,000-to-10,000-Word Autobiography 41
The First Draft As Generation 49
First Draft: Practicing Containment 51
CHAPTER THREE Plot and Subplot 54
Getting to Plot 54
Five Uses of Subplot 61
CHAPTER FOUR The People 69
Characters Made in the Usual Way 69
Characters Made out of Our Various Selves 74
Questions to Ask of the Characters 82
Management ofCharacters 83
Three Appearances of Each Character by Mention at Least 90
Point of View 93
CHAPTER FIVE Chronology in the Short Story 95
Leaving the First Draft: Working for Theater and Moral
Intensity 95
The Strengths of Chronological Order in Stories 103
Introducing People Before Weather and Props 105
A Listing Format 109
"That Is the First Thing I Thought of: What Is the
Second?" 110
CHAPTER SIX Dialogue 113
Keeping Good Tone Despite the Dialogue 113
Realism: Inner Versus Other 115
Dialogue As Exposition 120
Dialogue Has Its Own Devices 123
The Physical Building of Dialogue 127
An Argument Against Starting Stories with Dialogue 131
CHAPTER SEVEN How Stories Take Place in a Place 133
The Attractions of Having No Physical Setting 133
The Psychological Uses of Utopian Writing 135
Physical Setting for Contrast 138
Making Your Own Fresh Assessment of Places: Eschewing
Collective Opinion 139
Periphery of Place: We May Be Neglecting It in Order to
Avoid Pain 141
The Sense of History and of Future in a Place 145
CHAPTER EIGHT Props Large and Small 154
Props and Tone 154
Props and Cliches 157
Small Props 159
Props as the Fascinating Gear of Others 162
CHAPTER NINE Small Cures 170
Surprise 171
Plurals and Generics 172
Anglo-Saxon and Latinate Words 175
Soft or Stale Words 180
Long and Short Sounds 182
CHAPTER TEN Our Tottering Plot 184
Solving for Plot Among Our Mixed Bag of Characters 184
Mapping 186
Planning the Eventual Death of Each Character for Plot
Use and for Our Own Psychological Clarity 193
Saving What Doesn't Fit 196
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