The twelve essays presented here are part of a book-in-progress on the craft of writing fiction and nonfiction, tentatively titled That’s the Way Fire Is.
Any Novel’s Negative Twenty Questions
When I was a graduate student at City College and studied with Donald Barthelme, I remember my mentor urging me during one conference to consider writing a novel—probably because, at the time, I mainly wrote prose poems that barely extended into the territory of the short story. Don always liked to mix things up a bit.
The very idea, though, alarmed me. I couldn’t imagine ever writing any single thing that continued into hundreds of pages. So my squeaky, timid protest to Don’s suggestion was, “I wouldn’t know where to begin.”
His response surprised me.
What’s Structure Got to Do With It?
Shakespeare never divided a single play into five acts. As Mark Rose notes, “In Shakespeare’s lifetime not one of his plays was published with any division of any kind.” And yet all his plays, as we know them today, go hummingly about their business from curtain rise and act one on through to act five and curtain close. These divisions were added to the plays many years after Shakespeare’s death.
If our greatest playwright never tinkered with five acts (or any acts), what sort of structure did he use to shape his narratives?
The Way Narratives Go
I once played a video of The Ways Things Go (by the Swiss conceptual artists Peter Fischli and David Weiss) for a graduate-level writing workshop, offering the opinion that it contains a wealth of narrative strategies that anyone might care to study. In a huge warehouse space, Fischli and Weiss manage to construct an odd, elaborate structure made of everyday objects that, once set in motion, takes nearly a half-hour to unwind, as principles of physics and chemistry create relentless forward motion. It could be a novel.
The Life We Learn to Lead as Writers
We build our books in much the way different species of ants construct their underground homes, with an astonishing variety of invention. And so the shape of our stories and poems and essays become personal mirrors that reflect our secret selves.
Writing That Travels
Travel isn’t simply a geographical exercise. A journey into the land of adolescence is perhaps the loneliest type of travel there is, as we leave behind the carapace of our childhood and molt into the fraught emotional territory of adulthood. The acceptance of one’s sexual orientation or identity is another form of travel, from one state of personal understanding to another. Every work of literature should offer a journey, the challenge of an interior mapping that might lead a reader to him or herself. Writing that travels is the literature of any reader’s need for an inner journey.
I Believe in Ghosts
I believe in ghosts, though not necessarily the kind that floats through the air. I believe in the ghosts that live in our minds: personal ghosts, historical ghosts, ghosts of all possible persuasions. I believe that every person’s life story contains within it a series of hauntings. Sometimes it can take years for us to realize how deeply we have been affected. Here is one of my ghost stories.
Point of Entry, Point of Departure
The longer I write, the more I’m intrigued by how a word can conceal as much if not far more than it reveals. Yet, if regarded with care, any word can serve not as a wall but as a window to what it can’t further express. One of my favorite books is The Hundred Greatest Stars, by the astronomer James B. Kaler, because he transforms the word “star” from a single encompassing category into something like a prism reflecting the light of a dizzying variety of stellar objects. Take, for instance, the star V V Cephei.
Something You Can Use: the Writer’s Self-healing Wound
[Originally published in The Millions]
Let’s say your family has given you a sweater. A common enough gift, but it’s a terrible, perhaps even an evil sweater. The combination of clashing colors resembles several things you might have once stepped on, in a nightmare. Worse, it doesn’t seem to fit. There are three arms, each one a different and incorrect length, and no hole for the crown of your head to peek through; instead, a round empty circle in the back gapes open about halfway down your spine. What to do with this?
The Shadow Knows
Originally published in Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies
Memory—imperfect, fluid, sometimes hazy—waits for us to return and re-return, to examine and re-examine what at first we cannot see. This, I think, is one of the great interpretive tasks of the nonfiction writer, and especially of the memoirist: we are collectors not of memories so much as those memories’ shadows, so that we might recover, through their nurturing darkness, the hidden meaning of our lives.
What’s So Mysterious About Suspense?
Every morning when we wake up, we’re already plotting out the day ahead. Often, the schedule we hope to follow doesn’t quite work out that way—we have to be ready to make adjustments to the world’s unpredictability. Yet, these are baby-step adjustments we must learn in order to adapt to the larger unfolding course of our lives. So we know how to plot a narrative, and we understand its potential fragility as well.
That Opening Paragraph
Ever wonder why you can find your way to a distant location in town, even if you know only a few, if any, of the names of the streets on the way? Erik Jonsson, in his book Inner Navigation: Why We Get Lost and How We Find Our Way, claims that we all create “cognitive maps.”
Once we come to know a place, we develop an “inner compass” that turns with us, so that no matter where we’re facing we don’t get disoriented—we can find our way. First impressions, spatially, indeed count.
Which reminds me of that crucial moment in any short story or novel: the opening paragraph.
Imaginary Social Worlds
Have you ever discovered that, while speeding along on a highway, you’re actually ten or fifteen miles from when you were last conscious of driving? You had entered into a zone of the imaginary, perhaps shaping a conversation with a parent, or a child, or a sister, or a spouse, none of whom was present in the car with you. Or perhaps you were attempting to rewrite something you had done in the recent past. Whether we’re driving, walking down a city street, or sitting on a couch in the middle of a party, we often settle into mental spaces where we construct private dramas. Sonic Youth got it right, we are indeed a Daydream Nation.