Archives For poetics of prose

I’m reading Zadie Smith on “Rereading Barthes and Nabokov,” and her essay leads with this:

The novels we know best have an architecture. Not only a door going in and another leading out, but rooms, hallways, stairs, little gardens front and back, trapdoors, hidden passageways, et cetera.

Which reminded me of what I was trying to say here when I talked about Fallingwater and fiction (and about writing a fiction set at Fallingwater):

Wright leads you through space and sounds and organic substances that you’ve never experienced in a house. (And isn’t that akin to what writers aspire to with fiction: leading readers through narrative space?)

Frank Lloyd Wright (Photo: Canoe Communications)

And the next thing I knew Zadie Smith was talking about Wright and comparing him to Nabokov. In response to Roland Barthes’s claim that the Author is dead, that only the text is important, Smith says:

I think of [Nabokov] as one of the last, great twentieth-century believers in the autonomy of the Author, as Frank Lloyd Wright was one of the last believers in the Architect. They both specialized in theatrical interviews, struck self-regarding and self-mythologizing poses, all of which would mean nothing (the Author being dead, you don’t have to listen to his self-descriptions) if it weren’t for the fact that they wove the restrictions and privileges of authorship into the very fabric of the things they built.

Vladimir Nabokov (Photo: Guardian UK)

Smith continues:

For it’s true that each time I enter Pnin I feel its author controlling (via an obsessive specificity) all my reactions, just as, in Wright’s Unity Temple, one enters through a small, low side door, forced to approach the magnificence of the interior by way of a series of of awkward right angled turns.

Wright’s Unity Temple (Photo: uuworld.org)

And all of this makes me pensive and happy as I return to Fallingwater this weekend . . .

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Writing is like breathing.  We all breathe and think we know how to, but only a few of us pay attention to it.  I teach yoga as one of my many jobs and much of the practice of yoga is about breathing.

Joanne Avallon is a freelance writer living in Rockport, Massachusetts. She was awarded the Academy of American Poets Prize from Wellesley College and received an M.F.A. from Emerson College. Her work has appeared in Sundog, The Norton Anthology of Microfiction, Smokelong Quarterly, FictionNow, BlinkInk, and other online literary sites. She has read her poetry on National Public Radio. Joanne also teaches American Literature at North Shore Community College and consults for the Clean Air Task Force. She is married, with two children and a 70-pound dog.

Read more by and about Joanne:

Flash Fiction: “All This” & Interview

Flash Fiction: Beauty, Bridge Mix, The Game of Life

Flash Fiction: Mice Cube

Flash Fiction: Kapha

Interview: Smokelong Quarterly

How Joanne Avallon Became a Writer

This is the next installment in the How to Become a Writer interview series, which will post here at Ph.D. in Creative Writing every other Sunday (or so) until I run out of writers to interview, or until they stop saying yes. Each writer answers the same 5 questions. Thanks to Joanne for saying yes!

1.  Why did you want to become a writer?

I don’t know that I had a choice; as soon as I could write, it seemed to me that I should write.  I was a sensitive child and sometimes, for reasons I didn’t understand, I felt my heart was about to burst.  I wrote to find out why.  Poetry fit that purpose because I could ponder one idea – a few lines of verse – for a long time.  When I hit my teenage years, or they hit me, I discovered that I had a knack for telling stories.  When I was sixteen, I remember telling a story to my father – a voluble and busy man – and I had him stuck to his chair until I decided to end the story.  Now that is power.

2.  How did you go about becoming a writer?

I majored in literature in college with a focus on creative writing.  I thought then, and I still think now, that it makes no sense to be a student of literature and not write.  There were so many English majors in my class who had never actually tried to write what they studied so assiduously.  When I graduated, my parents told me that I would starve as a writer and that they would only pay for a graduate degree that would get me a job.  So, I followed the steps of Carlos Fuentes and went to law school and became a lawyer.  I practiced law long enough to earn the tuition for my MFA in Literature, Writing and Publishing at Emerson College.  In the middle of all of this, I got married and had two children.  I was pregnant or post partum for most of time I was studying for my MFA.  I defended my thesis when I was seven months pregnant with my son and endured endless puns and double entendres about that fecund period of my life.  I am glad I got my law degree.  It helped to me be a better writer and has come in handy when I needed to earn some money.  I did find it hard to write with small children and decided those years would be my “stockpile” years where I would develop my writing without worrying too much about publishing.  I am just beginning to get back into the publishing world now.

3.  Who helped you along the way, and how?

Frank Bidart, my poetry professor at Wellesley, was tirelessly encouraging and went over my senior thesis, a book of poems, word by word.  That thesis won me the Academy of American Poets prize.  At Emerson, Pam Painter opened my eyes to the world of flash fiction, which I consider the perfect storm between poetry and prose.  In her class, I wrote “All This,” which is in MicroFiction:  The Norton Anthology of Short Short Fiction.

4.  Can you tell me about a writer or artist whose biography inspires you?

My favorite piece of short fiction is Eudora Welty’s “The Wide Net.”  I had the pleasure of listening to her read it while I was at law school.  When she was done, the reading organizer presented her with a chocolate pecan pie and she said, “A pie is the best payment I ever got for this story.”

I love that story because it is a retort to all the male writers of her generation writing male adventure/journey stories.  That story is about a husband’s journey to find and understand his young wife.

Eudora lived in her hometown or nearby for a good long time.  I grew up in Beverly, Massachusetts and just recently moved to Rockport.  Many of my good friends I knew as children.  There is wisdom to be gotten in letting yourself grow old where you once were young.  I appreciate Eudora’s eye on small town life and on the way time passes.  She also has a wonderful hand with character, drawing them deftly with a few well-written sentences.

5.  What would you say in a short letter to an aspiring writer? 

Dear Friend,

You have no doubt already faced the blank stares of friends in response to your announcement that you are a writer.  Writing is like breathing.  We all breathe and think we know how to, but only a few of us pay attention to it.  I teach yoga as one of my many jobs and much of the practice of yoga is about breathing.  When you focus on your breathing – the simple inhale and exhale – you begin to notice how it makes you feel and how controlling your breath can help control your emotions.  And then you start wondering about breathing itself and about what it means to be alive.

Such a simple thing leads to huge insights.  Writing is simple, too.  Almost everyone in our culture is literate but few stop to focus on writing as a craft, to understand the power of it or the importance of it.  If writing does nothing else for you than force you to lead an examined life, then it’s a fair trade: work for insight.  Be brave and continue.

The other response you will get when you tell people you are a writer is the dreaded question, “are you published?”  This is a rude and inappropriate question asked by someone who doesn’t understand your art.  Always answer “yes.”  If they ask you where, say “The New Yorker” and then ask them what they do for a living.  No doubt they will talk happily about their careers, forget your name and walk away thinking they just had a wonderful conversation with a talented writer.  Do nothing to disabuse them of this notion.

Life is long.  Sometimes writing will come easily; other times it will not.  Be patient with yourself, keep working and remember, the journey is the reward.

Namaste,

Joanne

I’ve not been very bloggy lately. I’m ashamed to have missed Short Story Month in May. I had such high hopes of blogging about all my favorite short stories, of linking to other terrific short story blogs, of praising the fair form!

But busy prevails.

One thing I’ve been doing is teaching a summer study abroad class that leaves for Prague and Berlin on Monday. More on that in reports from the field next week…

Another thing I’ve been doing is reading book manuscripts for two different presses. One for a contest in poetry, another for open submissions in prose. And I find that what I am looking for most of all is a writer who has a sense of humor, who is having fun. My colleague articulated this one day as we sat reading through poetry manuscripts – this need for humor – and it has stuck with me as one of the main criteria I look for.

Let me be clear: I’m not talking funny ha-ha. I’m not talking LOL funny. I’m talking playful – with content or language or form. I mean the author is having fun with her art.

I’m also not talking about tricks. “No tricks,” says Raymond Carver. No gimmicks. Go ahead and show off if you’ve got it – like Frank Lloyd Wright does with his Fallingwater cantilevers or his spiraled Guggenheim museum – but don’t be a show off. (Okay, yes, Wright was a bit of a show off, a dandy, but he earned it.)

I’m definitely not talking about jokes. My favorite moments are when I read a sentence and I don’t know it’s funny, but then its humor starts to glimmer like a rising sun behind the words, and by the time I get to the end of the sentence or paragraph, dawn has arisen; it’s a beautiful day.

"what a morning — fresh as if issued to children on a beach"

Let me give a couple quick examples of famous first lines (and first lines are important) that are not necessarily funny on the surface but that reveal the author’s sense of humor:

Mrs. Dalloway said she would be the flowers herself.

– Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway

This is revealed as funny when we realize that Mrs. Dalloway has servants to do such jobs for her, and that she volunteers to do this task “herself” because she knows the servants are busy, and, hey, it’s a beautiful day in London!

Call me Ishmael.

– Herman Melville, Moby Dick

As if to say: Ishmael may or may not be my name, but you can call me that.

There was no hope for him this time: it was the third stroke . . . Every night as I gazed up at the window I said softly to myself the word paralysis. It had always sounded strangely in my ears, like the word gnomon in the Euclid and the word simony in the Catechism. But now it sounded to me like the name of some maleficent and sinful being. It filled me with fear, and yet I longed to be nearer to it and to look upon its deadly work.

– James Joyce, “Sisters,” Dubliners

The humor of the first line, and it IS funny, is revealed through the rest of the paragraph. The narrator is naive, earnest, but the narrative is not earnest. And the narrative (the author) is having fun with this character’s personal drama over the word “paralysis.” There’s the funny comparison to other dreadful words. And his conflicting desires: Oh how the word fills him with fear! Oh how he longs to be nearer to it!

You are probably thinking that I have no idea what I’m talking about because these are very unfunny opening lines and I clearly don’t know what is funny. But  hopefully you can see that I’m making a distinction, that I’m definitely not talking funny ha-ha, though I can love writing that is successfully funny (in which case I am usually also looking for an undercurrent of seriousness). But the less successful manuscripts I’ve been reading tend toward the uber-earnest – toward dramatic nature metaphors or melodramatic climaxes – and I’m all like, Lighten up!

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In other news, there’s an interview with me and my editor extraordinaire, Shannon Cain (who won the 2011 Drue Heinz in Short Fiction!), that just posted on the Kore Press blog, Persephone speaks. (Many thanks to Erinn Kelley for asking great questions!)

And my book For Sale By Owner is on the long list for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award.

At the Notre Dame Women Writers’ Festival, a woman asks me and another writer:

“Okay, so do writers actually go through their writing looking for places to stick a symbol in?”

My dad reads my book and says:

“You’ll have to explain your symbols. I took a class on James Joyce in college, and everybody said how the apple meant this and that, but to me, the apple was just an apple.”

My daughter reports her take on To Kill a Mockingbird:

“I love it, but I don’t get all the symbols, I just read for the plot. I didn’t know that the dog that was killed was supposed to represent Tom Robinson. Oh wait, the dog’s name IS Tom Robinson! Duh!”

(Is the dog’s name Tom Robinson? I don’t recall.)

So: symbols. I forget that people still talk about them, look for them, try to figure them out. Huh.

It’s naive of me to express such surprise when I teach college students who are always searching for the ‘hidden meaning’ in a poem or story. Or always trying to hide the meaning in their own work. Where’s Waldo*?

In fact, the hiding and revealing of meaning may be the single most important tug-of-war my students and I engage in during a semester. They want hidden meanings; I want clarity.

Once I get clarity, I want layers. Layers of meaning!

Maybe we can think of hiding meaning as a squirrel hides a peanut. The giant Indiana squirrel buries the nut in my planter. The peanut is under the soil and the viewer sees something like this:

The peanut** is safely hidden.

In a workshop, the class will muse about all the things that MIGHT be in the soil:

Student A: I kinda think there’s a dollar in there.

Student B: But if you read the description of the planter, it’s clear that there’s a tuna can in there.

Student C: Then the first character starts talking about her chapstick, so I think the chapstick is in there.

Student Author: That’s it! You got it! It’s chapstick in the soil!

And everyone in class can sit back and relax – for the hidden meaning has been found.

But what if we imagine that a story or poem has multiple layers: flowers on the surface, roots in the topsoil, rocks deeper down, and even a different type of dirt deeper down. And what if the reader had a clear cross-section view of all the layers, and all the cool ways they connect:

Peanuts*** & more!

Clarity! Suddenly our layer of soil is revealed to have other layers, a whole interconnected system working together: the flowers on top stretch toward deeper, darker layers of soil, reaching downward toward rocks (er, peanuts)  – and upward toward air and light. Each element means something in relation to the other. None is hidden. All are out in the open, working together in a complex system.

Still, one wonders: is a peanut just a peanut? Does a peanut ever mean more than a peanut?

Sounds like a good topic for another post…tune in soon.

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* I have hidden a reference to Ralph Waldo Emerson in this question. Can you find it?

** ‘Peanut’ is a symbol for ‘meaning’.

*** By ‘peanuts’ I mean ‘rocks.’

I wasn’t sure I wanted to write my previous post about why I write. I knew I’d disagree with myself immediately and/or have a million things to add. So far I just have a couple things to add, and I’ll do so under the subquestion: Why do you write what you write?

Because another reason I write is that certain subjects, characters, images, and ideas compel me to write them. Just like certain books compel me to read them and certain music compels me to crank up the volume and certain clothes compel me to pay too much for them.

The fact is, I can carry along on a particular day with no thoughts whatsoever about writing. No intentions to write, no desire to write, not even any guilt about not writing. When all of a sudden I’ll see something or Google something or hear something that commands me to STOP: Achtung, baby.

In which Cortázar is plagued by the wrong subject.

Julio Cortázar describes this phenomena in “Some Aspects of the Short Story.” [I don’t have my copy with me, so I’m going to paraphrase for now and will update with actual quotes later.] First he says that when people find out he’s a writer they want to impose their stories on him. Have they ever got a great story! But Cortázar says that it doesn’t matter how great the story; you can’t impose a subject on a writer. Writers will be drawn to certain subjects – no matter how “significant” – and only those subjects will resonate for the writer.

In which Cortázar finds his subject.

I really like this section of Cortázar’s discussion because I’ve known a few people with dramatic life stories, and they imply in various ways that someone (like me) should write them. But even if I’m interested in hearing their stories, I’m not interested in writing them. I would not do it the way they would want, and I wouldn’t be able to do it the way I would want.

The passage also resonates for me because of the way I’ve Ouija’d*  my way into my subjects and settings. I was visiting a friend in Berlin for the first time, and we decide to spend a couple days in Prague. I found Berlin endlessly complex and fascinating, and Prague struck me as, well, very, very pretty. Nonetheless, when I returned from that trip I began to write about Prague. And I have been writing about and returning to it ever since. Maybe I needed to figure out what was complex and fascinating about Prague…

The same thing happened with Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater. I’d read a bit about Wright and enjoyed the novel Loving Frank, about one of his relationships, but that was about it. And when my family took a weekend trip to Ohiopyle, PA on the way home from NJ a couple summers ago, I was like, “Oh cool, there’s that waterfall house by FLW nearby.” The minute I walked in, I got all tingly (okay: choked up, like I might cry), and I knew I’d have to write about it. I’d also been watching a lot of Hitchcock, which was somehow related to knowing that it would have to be the setting for a failing relationship. Little did I know, it already had been. That became part of my pursuit as well.

Even after spending a couple days in Copenhagen, the only thing I’ve written about was a petite woman who dressed in an all white tuxedo and stood on an overturned bucket, performing as a “living statue” – standing perfectly still until she got your attention, at which point she would flip her hat in the air or honk a bicycle horn. (That said, the essay”Copenhagen Chiaroscuro” turned into a piece about my sister, whom I was traveling with, and about various shades of love. The statue woman was the central image and imagining.)

I suppose all artists have these mystical moments when we find – or are found by – our subject. And we know: we have to write.

*To Oiuja: verb. 1. To discover one’s subject matter or to solve a problem in one’s manuscript through a mystical but potentially dubious process. 2. Any act that feels more or less like putting one’s fingertips to a plastic planchette and wondering whether you or some spirit is actually doing the moving.

[Note: Cortázar’s comments about subject matter are similar to his insights about favorite short stories, which I talked about here.]

Why do you write?

January 21, 2011 — 1 Comment

At the end of my interview at Talking Writing, I was asked to ask a question for the next writer who would be interviewed. I asked, “Why do you write? Not how or when or with what technological device, but why?” (Worried that my question sounded a bit aggressive, I offered an alternative: “Where do you stand on the subject of Gertrude Stein?”)

I conceived of the question in the context of, What would I most want to talk about with another writer? Like, if we were getting coffee, what would I want to talk about? Because what usually happens when you have coffee or a meal with a writer is you talk about do you know this person and how did it go when you got published there and did they really screw such and such up so badly on your new book? Even when you get together with friends who are writers you talk about how do you like your job and do you think you’ll have another baby and you didn’t tell me you got another story published and when can we get together and have a cosmo? (Over cosmos, you talk about the same topics.)

“To write is to write is to write is to write is to write is to write is to write is to write”

So I asked that question as a way of cutting to the heart of the heart of the matter. But then on the first day of class last week, a graduate student in my creative nonfiction workshop asked me point blank, and apropos of nothing, Why do you write?

I was on teacher mode. I was on first night of class mode, first impressions mode, still kinda on break mode, and on what are all your names and what are you expecting from this course mode. So I stalled a bit by saying, wow, great question! I asked the same question at the end of an interview!

And it is a great question, and I really didn’t want to blow it off, but I was really unprepared to answer it. I babbled a bit in reply. It was genuine, but it was babble. (Certainly one reason I write is that I suck at talking.) The students, of course, were eminently articulate as they went around the room and introduced themselves and said they wrote to make sense of things, to share their stories, to figure something out, to make people laugh, and even to improve upon the bad writing they’ve seen published.

I’ve been around the literary block, so these are wonderful as well as familiar reasons, and they speak to my own reasons in some cases, but they also are not quite what I was trying to say. I’ve been trying to figure it out for almost two weeks, why I write. Here’s what I’ve come up with.

I write because:

1. It’s an act of contemplation and resistance.
Everything else in this life is anti-contemplative, and everything pulls everyone like a muscular wave in the same direction. When you look at the long shore line, you can hardly tell how far away you’ve been carried. And when you do figure it out, you can start swimming against the cultural current, but you won’t get back where you were. You’ll probably just get exhausted and drown. Writing is an anchor that makes you both aware of the pull and (a bit more) resistant to its power.

"It takes a lot of time to be a genius. You have to sit around so much, doing nothing, really doing nothing."

I don’t know if my metaphor is holding up, so I’ll abandon that ship to say simply that writing demands concentration and contemplation. Universities call it critical thinking. But creative writing is critical thinking with a different kind of stakes. It’s more personal, and thus more powerful. It’s also more mysterious, which also makes it more powerful – like it’s got the gods on its side.

2. La- la- la- language. STOP
Language is used to persuade and entertain and persuade and entertain and it never seems to end whether it’s email or twitter or TV or more TV or phone calls or spam or your child’s principal or your child or your child’s friend calling your child or texting your child or your child texting you or your child asking what’s for dinner, which is neither persuasive nor entertaining.

"Everybody gets so much information all day long that they lose their common sense."

I think of literary language as language that uses language differently. And more importantly it acts like the command on a telegram: STOP. It is written, for one, so it acts as an object or artifact for study. It can be read and reread, looked at with a microscope or from a different angle. It doesn’t just dissolve into nothing. To really encounter it, one must stop. Read. Reread.

But lots of things are written and can be reread. Literary writing demands a settling in, an attention, a different posture of the reader as well as the writer. The writer is saying, STOP, achtung, baby. Here’s a different way of using language, here’s a story you haven’t heard, an image you haven’t imagined, and it will strengthen your brain muscle and your heart muscle.

3. The Big Bang Theory
I’m having a classic writer’s dilemma: my title for this section is not really accurate, but it feels right and I want to keep it. I’m thinking of the explosive, intensive, expansive experience of creation – of creating. That feeling when the brain makes its shift from left to right, when you’ve been tunneling through the darkness and land upon…er, coal? Well, whatever it is you were tunneling for.

"If you knew it all it would not be creation but dictation."

The Big Bang as a term connotes explosions and beginnings, and it’s practically onomatopoetic, but I think I’m talking about a more active, old testament, Genesis, Let There Be Light kind of thing: And there was evening and there was morning.

And it was good.

This, my post title, is not my question. I don’t think I would ask a question like that because I don’t suppose there’s an answer. But Julio Cortázar asks it in his essay, “Some Aspects of the Short Story” (taken from New Short Story Theories, ed. by Charles May), and he can ask any question he pleases, and I will follow along to see what he says.

To find the answer, he says we can look to those stories that stick with us through the years: “[T]he years pass,” he says, “and we live, and forget everything else but those little, insignificant stories, those grains of sand in the immense sea of literature are still there, throbbing, pulsating inside us.”

He says we all have our own collections of unforgettable stories. Cortázar’s list includes work by Hemingway, Poe, Borges, Dinesen, and Tolstoy (but perhaps not the ones you’d suspect). “Why do they remain in my memory?” he asks. “Think of the stories you haven’t been able to forget and you will find that they have the same characteristic.”

Before I provide Cortázar’s answer, I want to pause and think of those stories that I can’t forget, and to see if I can identify that key characteristic that they share. In fact, this makes for a nice How-to-become-a-writer exercise:

What are those unforgettable stories that continue to throb and pulsate within you?

For me, hmm…

Herta Müller’s “Black Park,” “The Street Sweepers”
Franz Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis,” “The Bucket Rider”
Bruno Shulz’s “The Street of Crocodiles”
Edgar Allan Poe’s “Cask of the Amontillado”
NOT James Joyce’s “The Dead” (I feel like everyone cites this, and I just don’t love it or remember it at all.)
Aimee Bender’s “Ironhead” and “Dearth”
Alice Munro’s “Minesetung”
Maria Luisa Bombal’s “New Islands”
Clarice Lispector’s “The Smallest Woman in the World”
Haruki Murakami’s “Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman”
Yuri Olesha’s “Lyompa”
Veronique Tadjo’s “The Magician and the Girl”
Brock Clarke’s “Plowing the Secondaries”
Miranda July’s “Majesty”
and so on…

What is the common characteristic of those stories?

They’re all some version of anti-reality: magical realism, surrealism, absurdism. Many of them have lines that get stuck in my head like the refrain of a pop song. They all have unforgettable images: potato-kids, teeny-tiny woman, dying woman on the snow, giant insect, bucket rider. These images take hold, and hold, and don’t let go. They all kind of break my heart.

Which might have something to do with Cortázar‘s answer:

“They bring together a reality which is infinitely more vast than that of the simple anecdote.” (In the passage, he is primarily interested in subject matter, and how different subjects open up a story to larger meanings. So, there’s more to it, but this is the heart of his claim.)

Again, these are not necessarily the Greatest Stories in the World, but the unforgettable ones. Cortázar even uses the word ‘insignificant.’ Would you rather write a Great Story or an unforgettable one? C’est la differance?