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A Way of Fiction

Until last year, I had never had the courage to attempt writing stories; the form, the economy of the short story scared me off. Then at age 35 I said, Here goes nothing. I had thought that I could write a novel before I knew that I could write a story—a sprawling thing with no boundaries; that kind of writing might be easy, I liked to think. Yet, it’s not. No kind of writing that is good writing is easy, or rather, the writing may be easy, but refining the product to something good is excruciatingly difficult. I didn’t realize then that even the most unruly-looking beast has been tutored to bear himself in some accustomed or domesticated way, for the sake of an audience; even if only for the writer himself when he sits to proofread his beast for the last time, to make some sense out of the chaos of his materials.

In my surly (gloomy) youth, I could not really see much difference in works. Be it Poe or Whitman, or Stephen King, I’d have it all served on one dish, scrambled together, and swallowed whole. Youth can digest both trash and treasure. I loved simply, like a child, indifferent to the differences; and I’m glad, because I grew unconsciously, nourished on the best nature could offer. All the while something involuntary was happening to me, for I had abandoned myself to the process of learning; I was following a thread from one station to the next.

Before trying my axe on stories though, I felled countless spiral notebooks plethoric with observations, sketches, and inhumane self-analyses. These were not fruiting trees, but tough little scrubs strangled by thick thorny vines that could stand a lot of hacking. However, it was honest and sincere work, often taking me beyond the light of day and into moonless nights, lost and lonely, deep in foreign, even alien, forests. This compulsory wayfaring toughened me. It made me realize how important is a sharp axe, and how essential endurance is; and how much more important is the native impulse that makes the tree to grow than the particular hat the forester is wearing. That, if he’ll follow the original impulse, and not defer to another master, but serve only the Original, that all must be well; eventually, one will be led again to light. For ‘light answers to light,’ as T.S. Eliot wrote,—that keeper of the Sacred Wood. All of that early timber went into municipal dumpsters; some scrap I kept for tinder when I should have chopped it to stove length and used it to keep warm. But that is over; Thank God that is over.

Between here and Europe and Japan, Maine and Iowa and Boone, NC, I was careful always to have about me somewhere a slim sheaf of my poems, which had accumulated by the time I was twenty-eight years old, to something like three dozen. There are not many more than that, though many more versions have come and gone by the wayside through periodic cycles of versifying and purging.

It was almost two years ago, with a wounded wing, (I had been in a car wreck.) that I wrote a half-dozen 2000-5000 word stories very quickly, in about six weeks, in even less time than that; while during the same time I began a few longer pieces, the longest of which, (and the most unruly), I worked on for about six months. That uncultivated brute of a story professed to need over 100 pages to work in comfortably, but I forced it to work in a space about 12 pages long. It gets much more work done now and doesn’t nag me so much. I sent them all out—eight to ten stories and two dozen poems—expecting results (spring ’10). The results I got weren’t the results I wanted or expected. But I wasn’t disheartened by a few dozens of rejection notices. I wrote, and wrote with more gusto, with increasing passion, taking immense pains and receiving immense pleasures, even imperiling my health at times by foregoing sleep. My passion for writing grew daily. If only one’s craft could burgeon at the pace of passion! Regrettably, my patience and temperance crawl along as slowly as my craft. I’m constantly sleep deprived, feasting from a coffee mug like a hummingbird from his nacreous bell of nectar.

I lament my time spent reading lately lost, traded for writing time; for the more I write the less I read, some days reading no more than a single story. There was an eight-day week a couple months ago (summer of 2011) during which I read two novels by Faulkner, 100 pages of Anna Karenina, and King, Queen, Knave by Nabokov. It’s because I get ideas and I have to try them out as soon as possible, or…. Well, I’m still impulsive. I’m thinking about trying to curb that. I have always liked to read—been addicted to reading, but I had never before read so much as since I decided to start writing in earnest. Lately it has seemed like writing myself out of one job I love for another I love equally well; or like giving up one tough drug for another tougher drug. I never want to be broken of this habit of reading. Writing is still so new; it’s impossible to see where it is leading, but reading is like a comfortable, old leather couch, cracked and creaky, and which responds to one’s body as a lover. I’ll never leave her.

I have always read pretty much what I most enjoy reading. My college education was spotty because I read what I wanted instead of what was assigned. Even now, I probably re-read more of my favorites than I read new material. I am leery of deviating from Faulkner’s injunction to novice writers when he said to avoid reading your contemporaries. Sometimes, I think that I should convert to reading only the Bible, the Upanishads, some Japanese zen texts, and a very few indisputably great dramatists, novelists, and poets. Look what ambition devoid of passion has done to the ‘literature’ of the present day. Creative Writing doctrine is principally inverse to what Faulkner said, though it is hard to think of another writer with more ambition than Faulkner had. Either one’s ambition serves his vision or one’s vision remains subservient to ambition. For Faulkner, the former prevailed. Although I have read that he said, Nix to your contemporaries, some other time he is claimed to have said to read everything, including trash. How human all too human of him. They are the ones who contradict themselves continuously that I love best. I feel right at home among them.

Each story is a difficult birth, probably even for the best writers; certainly for most writers, and especially for the greatest ones: Poe, Maupassant, Tolstoy, Chekhov, Jack London, Kafka, Isak Dinesen, Nabokov, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Flannery O’Connor, Raymond Carver etc. If writing came easy to some of these, look what a struggle life was for most of them; there must be a compensation somewhere, in heaven perhaps. Generally, the greatest writers are the ones who have the most natural ability. One can see and feel that even in their earliest attempts to seize the fleeting, there is an ability to tell much of what is essential and in the right order, so that maximum effect is realized; and also there is poetry in their construction, their way of doing it. (Various fairy tales, those of the Grimm brothers, those of Oscar Wilde for instance, come to mind. It is difficult to argue against the fabulous transportive nature of such works, regardless of one’s personal preferences concerning style; most of us simply react emotionally, thus we move closer or are repulsed).

The great writer notices things; he records what is ‘rich and strange’ in life, and tells it so that we may participate in every wonder and mystery; moreover, every stultifying mundanity or boring and torturous chore (Ivan Denisovich) becomes new and intensely interesting—heartbreaking or heroic—in the good writer’s method and tone of expression. A single paragraph ripped from a novel by Dickens must have its own room in our libraries, which are filled with mucilage. Nor am I of the belief that we must eat double portions of fiber so that we may better enjoy what’s richest; sense can handle what would eventually give the stomach an ulcer and the intestine diverticulitis. But the mind and heart travel lightest on what has wings and is best in every respect. That doesn’t mean for you to go out and eat lightning bugs; some of them might be poisonous.

I have just finished reading The Captain’s Daughter by Pushkin, who was approximately the age I am now when it was written; a little older perhaps but much more experienced, as by cultural, social, and technological necessity, were most men and women in 1836 when the story was published. I’ve just called Pushkin’s creation a story, but were I to have written such a volume of pages, I would not call it a story but a novel, (or more simply still, a romance). I don’t know how many words the thing is and I don’t care. It is a high adventure full of danger and romance and noble characters and ignoble characters. It is a story within a story, narrated by the man whose life it chronicles from youth to marriage, and which chronicle is in turn narrated by “The Editor”, who must be Pushkin, or such a one who has privy knowledge of his subject: he who claims to have received the original memoir into his care and keeping by a descendant of the protagonist, the nobleman of the tale. He is one whom destiny delivers into the hands of a number of characters, again in their turns noble and ignoble. Of himself, he has little power, (the half-hero of the tale), to alter his circumstances without the care, guidance, and usually intervention of simpler people whose love and prudence protect him from himself as he muddles through. Howsoever nobly, he almost makes a mess of things, a permanent mess, for he is accused of treason and sent, (though the story doesn’t follow him there; maybe he didn’t make it so far the lucky dog) into Siberia, as an exile from all that he holds dear. He has faithfully served his company and his Empire’s vetted interests as well as his own; yet because of his recklessness, or it might simply be called his instinct of self-preservation in conjunction with destiny, he finds himself associated with a band of hoodlums who’ve laid siege to much of the region and wage a fatal campaign against Moscow. The protagonist is a gambler with life, but an honest and valorous gambler, never wavering in his deference and service to his martial superiors, and never deigning to skirt punishment by strategy and deceit. He takes his knocks when they come, nor is he willing to buy freedom by imperiling the honor of his beloved, his betrothed; though she might have cleared his name much earlier. Commandant Mironov’s orphaned daughter, (the true hero of the adventure and winner of life) through a few words of explanation and her simple, blind appeal to the Empress for pardon of him, her betrothed, does eventually clear his name, thereby also earning her dowry and ensuring their future together as promised by the Empress herself. His salvation and her own, (for they are one) is won by her courage and prudence, and by the loyalty and support of their body-servants. He is as helpless as a baby until she intervenes: however, he never compromises her. She is willing to put herself in danger to help him; he would not require it of her. And this winning way of hers ensures her good graces with the parents of the youth who had formerly forbade him to marry one so young and dowry-less. Love and selfless action win through, where guile would come to ruin. The young couple are married, in time, and carry on the line of noble (spiritual and physical) ancestry; and the rest is history; and history is of the utmost importance in Pushkin. We have lost all but a data memory of this noble history, all but the most recent history, and of a tabloid sort at that. It is only the good story that can put it back where it belongs. Good story is story in touch with truth. Truth is what is good, and nothing but what is good. Not most good, but absolutely good. For the good has no graduation of shades being its own source of light. And all light and truth emanates from that good source. Though here Pushkin’s tale ends, he must let us know that just as there was life before this slice of it represented by the actual words of the undertaker of the action, so there shall also be life afterward, and a life in relation to all other events underway; only in that way (with comprehension of the whole movement) should life be fitted into a history; and that this simple, unadorned presentation of ‘fact’ is the way of the story, is history. Of course, there is much art in the presentation of ‘fact’.

In a categorical way, and in a general way, storytelling’s values I list in this sequential relation; (in importance as motivation for beginning to write a story) — Of least importance are themes and ideas; next, developing a new style; then, characterization; and of primary importance, history, or context, situation and circumstance. In other words, place in time, which must not be an overt and imposing distraction, lest it become an object rather than a medium. The harmonization of all of these elements would make of the story a work of art. Of course in terms of difficulty, making real, believable characters in believable relation to each other is by far the most difficult thing. To do so, a sense of place must first exist. How to do that in the context of a society which has no culture any longer? People cannot exist in emptiness. The failure of so called ‘existential’ writing is its tracery of shades of people—ideologues, demagogues, caricatures, politicians—instead of the introduction of flesh-and-blood-and-spirit people: the total, untidy, package of human life—people who cast a shadow but who are not themselves shadows but living flesh with some degree of percipience, even if only a rudimentary consciousness or a shattered or compromised consciousness; but there is a narrator who may speak for their missing conception of themselves (as in The Sound and the Fury). A writer who designs a character who might not or cannot know him-or her-self, by making the other characters define his or her character by those other characters’ conventions of perception, not only shapes the nonentity into being but also renders more visible all the other characters who would define the deficient entity by their honest prejudices, desires, presuppositions and other characteristics. A character is well rendered by his or her presuppositions and prejudices, observations and failures. Thus a character may come alive when he or she is known, through other characters’ interactions with him or her, by what he is not. This is the practice of the via negativa for the writer of fiction.

The hardest thing about writing is for the writer to go far enough inward that he or she outstrips his or her personal ego without losing sense of a personality to whom others may relate, and to develop characters whom the writer himself can perform through, or they through the medium he or she has become; also, without describing only himself or herself, story after story. The great writer is truly inventive, and not reiterative. Though the themes by nature remain the same, the presentation must be fresh. “Beloved gaze in thine own heart”rather than in the “bitter glass,” Yeats wrote in The Two Trees. In the glass, one may see only the twisted (not the true) reflection of himself, his many disguises, and yet it is always the same man underneath; while the heart tirelessly recreates the new man. It is the new man who must be shown to exist through his myriad transformations. Then all may look on and wonder, as the wanderer along the beach never tires of watching the endless procession of waves, the continuous evolution of stars …

This essay originally appeared on the website


Published by jungastein

Nothing about me. Nil desperandum. Lost in the labyrinth. Inside outside upside down. . .

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