Thursday, September 15, 2011

Wideman: "Doc's Story" and "Presents"

Can stories fix our lives?  Can they heal wounds?  Can they save us?

Through the heartsick protagonist of "Doc's Story," Wideman raises these questions and refuses to answer.  Even in the story-within-the-story of the blind basketball-playing university professor, we hear about both magic and failure.  Shooting fouls is a good metaphor for stories and the art of telling stories.  If you practice you can "swish," even if you're blind; however, even if you practice and mostly "swish," sometimes you shoot way wide.  Is this story's plot like the arc of a basketball?  Does it go through the hoop?  Does Wideman want it to?

In "Presents" we again see that what goes up must come down.  Big Mama serves as the font of truth, prophesying what will happen for her grandson: "He'll rise in the world, sing for kings and queens, but his gift for music will also drag him down to the depths of hell."  The boy's acquisition of music is fated to him as kingship was fated to Arthur: "The music's in the box like the sword in the stone."  Wideman "presents" us with "a simple story" that should remind you that stories are old and they are necessary and that we recycle them in order to fix our lives.  The protagonist's story is "Easy to tell to a stranger at the bar who will buy you a drink.  Young boy and old woman.  Christmastime.  Reading each other's minds.  Exchanging gifts of song.  His fortune told.  The brief, bright time of his music.  How far it took him, how quickly gone."  The stranger buys him a drink for his story--a pattern as old as the tradition of bards--and then the storyteller, again alone, wishes for salvation.

I write about family, about the sketchy salvation of storytelling.  I'm claiming Wideman for my family.  I hope he can teach me more about voice.


  1. Something that has to be appreciated when reading a story like “Doc’s Story” is J.E. Wideman’s ability to create prose rhythm. This is a story that covers a wide range of emotions, stemming from the story of broken love, of brutal gang violence, and in Doc’s disabilities and feats on the basketball court. The emotion that results from these stories is due partly to subject matter in general, but also to Wideman’s conscious use of rhythm.
    For instance, at the very beginning of the story, when we see the “he” coping with the break up, we see his lifestyle slow down, and he loses himself in the world of the basketball courts. Through his writing, Wideman creates an unhurried environment—so accurately so that I couldn’t help but be calmed myself when reading. He overwhelms us with words and phrases that we immediately associate with slowing ourselves down-- “If you didn’t want to miss anything good you came early and stayed late,” “He learned to wait, be patient,” “long hours waiting,” “basking in sunshine,” “too beat to play any longer, nowhere to go,” “dog strollers, baby carriages…students with blankets they’d spread out on the grassy banks…books they’d pretend to read.” Like a poet, too, he repeats the sounds of certain “soft” letters. Sound out “Long hours waiting were not time lost” and you can hear the “w” in “hours” “waiting” and “were.” It’s a letter that soothes, and it causes each word to flow together as one. Whether this was intentional or not, the way Wideman’s language swells and soothes is what captures us when we read.
    Also worth mentioning are the lengths of the sentences. We can actually become a little relaxed ourselves when Wideman slurs these images together in long sentences (one is almost eight full lines). We are forced to read them slowly, sound them out in our heads to process them.
    …and this is how Wideman gets us. Once we’re slowed down, enveloped in the atmosphere and the environment he’s described, he changes the scene, bringing us to scenes of intense violence, murder, gangs and corruption. Wideman changes style and infuses more profanity into the writing, leaning more heavily on the vernacular and crude, gaudy details like “his tongue all black and shit down his legs, and the cops had to come cut him down.” It’s hard not to cringe when reading these sections, and I think lot of that has to do with how Wideman brought our guard down in the earlier pages.
    Obviously, this is something all of us try to do in our writing. To be able to completely draw readers into the world you create, to have them physically react to the words on the page, and to have them emotionally in-line with the characters is exactly what all great writing should do. It’s also incredibly difficult, but I can try and take all the techniques Wideman uses in these scenes, (alliteration, vernacular as a tool to create emotion, clashing scenes with opposite emotions against each other, vivid physical description), and hopefully give my own readers a more involved experience.

  2. One thing that I really thought Wideman did well in both "Doc's Story" and in "Presents" was drawing the reader in using voice. He does this so well in fact that as I was reading I could almost hear the different accents of the characters and felt like I was drawn into the world because of that. I think using such a strong and present voice is amazing in a story because it allows the reader to really invest themselves in the world that the author is creating. Both of these stories really reminded me of the book "The Help" which also uses immensely strong voice in order to distinguish characters and show off their personalities.
    I think trying to replicate this by having characters with such diverse voices would be really interesting to try in my own writing because it would allow for so much detail to be shown simply in the way the character acts or speaks. I like the way that Wideman does this and thought that his ability to draw the reader into the world he envisioned was something really admirable.

  3. I have to say I really like J.E Wideman’s voice and the different subjects he choses that somehow represents his opinions of his race and the world around him. Yet if I had to choose between the two different stories, I would choose “Doc’s Story” because I found it a lot easier to understand than “Presents”. The story line was clear and I could see what was going on. In” Presents” I originally thought that the grandson was cat until Wideman started to describe in detail who he was as a character. Also I didn’t really understand the whole point of the grandson watching his mother undress. I was a little put off because it was not what I expected out of that character. But I really liked how Wideman wrote the dialogue in both stories because it really helped me envision who these characters were. I also could tell what race and what class the characters were because the use of the n-word.
    If I could take anything from Wideman, it would be his use of voice in a story. He had such a strong voice that it made the story seem very realistic and believable. When Pooner was speaking in “Doc’s Story” I could hear his voice in my head speaking those words. Wideman’s voice reminded me a lot of Toni Morrsion’s voice in Blue Eyes, which I thought was brilliantly done since the use of words and language helped develop the character. If I use Wideman’s voice as an example, I now see what it means to create a strong voice and to make my characters come alive. The reason why I felt that Wideman’s stories were successful was because of the life he breathed into his characters. To me it felt like it was a snapshot of life even if it wasn’t true. Also I liked how Wideman tackled the different subjects such as a breakup, overcoming obstacles, and the ups and downs of life. He tackled with such honesty, which made it easier to understand what was going on. I would definitely add Wideman to my family tree because his voice would greatly influence my own voice in my writing.

  4. One of Wideman's strongr points was definately his use of language. His sentences flow together nicely. There dosen't seem to be any choppy nature at all. There are some things that I can take from Wideman into my own writing. One of those would obviously be to do this. When I write, I struggle with keeping good flow from sentence to sentence. It probably would be a good idea for me to read more Wideman. I could study his sentence structue more closely so I can figure out what he is doing that I am not. He also does a great job moving the story along without dialogue.

  5. The use of an oral story in writing is a theme in both of his stories that I would love to incorporate into my own work. It's a lost art in many ways and somehow he is able to capture the spoken story in his own written work and that is something I admire.
    In writing my own pieces I think the concept of how my characters tell a story and making them have their own style of telling it would be a cool touch. It would add flare to my own writing and if done right, which I am sure would take me many tries, would add depth to my own characters.

  6. I cannot say I've ever read anything quite like John Edgar Wideman. His voice is truly like no other. When I first started reading his piece Doc's Story, I was a bit tripped up by the voice at first, but after awhile I got comfortable with it and I felt it having a rhythm. The narrator tells of a man who seemed to be a lot of things. This man, Doc, was a college basketball player, then a college professor, and then just another guy that hung out at the basketball courts. Doc eventually went blind for an unknown reason, but somehow he still had an excellent shot. Doc could shoot free-throws on point every single time. Doc even eventually played in a pick-up game where he held his own. This was all just another story to the narrator, who spent his days at the court smoking pot and listening to people tell their stories. Wideman gave this narrator such a smooth, consistent voice and it really built a solid basis for the character. And so when I started getting a bit confused in what the narrator was trying to say, I could tell it was supposed to get a bit confusing. The narrator, a seemingly uneducated street-kid, talks with little detail in some moments and a lot of detail in others and it makes the reader feel like someone is telling a story to them, instead of just merely reading one.
    I think one has a lot to learn from Wideman's ability of voice. Sometimes it is hard to write in another's voice consistently because you slip your own in. Wideman stays so consistent with this voice that one could feel like they are at that basketball court. I also really like the way that he used dialogue. I have never seen dialogue fit so smoothly into a story before. As I keep saying, Wideman makes this story read itself to you instead of feeling like an outside component.

  7. The stories of John Edgar Wideman … I’ve never read anything quite like this before. Sure I’ve heard conversations being made in the same slangs presented in both stories, but rarely, if ever, in literary pieces. Yet, I have to give Wideman credit for the usage of ethnical slang as an element to stories – such an element provides us with an alternative look in literature. At the same time, the language in the two stories can be a source of confusion. It was somewhat confusing for me. Therefore, I think it’s highly unlikely that I’ll be including Wideman on my writer’s family tree. But then, at the same time, I could include him to be partially on my writer’s family tree; I find the language he uses difficult, but I admire the idea of using various slangs in a story. With that on mind, it’s quite possible that I may include a story that incorporates slang from different parts of the world – England most likely; I give thanks to Monty Python on that decision.

    Besides the obvious use of ethnical slang, another element Wideman uses that is so evident is using his characters to tell a story; a frame story. Now the idea of including a story within a story is an interesting concept, however I believe frame stories can also be a source of extended stories. Think about it – the very definition of a frame story is that it is a story within a story. Having one story inside another story is fine, but imagine there being multiple layers of such stories! In short say, imagine an “onion” story … a story that goes on, and on, and on – forever and ever! It’s a crazy idea, but certainly worth looking into, if considering a smaller scaled version of such a story. Anyway, I feel that the first story could have used more details concerning with the world surrounding the characters, in addition to adding more about the frame story. On the other hand, if any further additions were added, this story would more than likely fall into the category of a novelette, rather than a short story. To sum this up with a final thought, I don’t think I’ll be writing a framed story anytime soon. I feel that more careful planning must go into these types of stories.

  8. Not to simply repeat what everyone else seems to be saying, but voice is certainly what sold me with Wideman. Truthfully, I wasn't blown away by either story content-wise: I felt that each story was sad in different ways; I felt the depth of the surface-simple lines. But they were too brief, and too...I don't know, ambiguous? in their brevity. I enjoy a story that can do a lot with a few pages, and I think that there is a great deal Wideman is implying. However, I wanted more to hold on to. I expected "Doc's Story" to be a much more "complete" piece and by complete, I mean I saw so many more opportunities for beauty and for bettering, I guess, even though that word kind of sucks.
    The narrator does bring the symbolism of Doc's story full circle in the end -- we get that this was all about the ex girlfriend anyway -- but it's like I expected so much more to come from it. But perhaps that in itself is the point Wideman is trying to get across in his story (and maybe in both of the stories we read): that a good thing never lasts quite long enough.

  9. These two pieces are unlike anything I have ever read before. Everything he writes just flows into itself. Wideman has seamless transitions from dialogue to description to stories, etc. The voice takes a few paragraphs to become accustomed to but I felt like I could have kept reading and reading that voice for pages on end. It had me captivated in the story and in the narrator.
    He tells you the story as you would hear it, not as you would read it, making me feel like it was even more directed towards the reader. It is a weird way to phrase it but a lot of stories that are written are written for both the author and the reader while these felt more for the reader than anything else. Hopefully, as I develop as a writer, I can one day claim Wideman into my family.

  10. Along with the rhythm and voice, I found Wideman's dialogue so interesting. There is little to no direct dialogue, and even when there is, it bleeds seamlessly into the story, unencumbered by the restraints of punctuation. Normally I count on punctuation to guide me, but in this case it helped me flow into the story, like I was overhearing the things that the "person in the frame" was hearing.

    I think something I could incorporate into my own writing and something I would do well to remember in general is that the people who tell stories also have stories. If I were on the outside of this idea I have, how would I interpret and describe it? How would someone else? This is where the idea of truth in nonfiction rises- we all observe "objective" instances in subjective ways. We all see the situation differently, and maybe that's a trick I can use if I don't know where to go- let someone else go there with me.

  11. Like what everyone else has been saying, Wideman really drew me in to his stories with his use of voice, especially in "Doc's Story." The vernacular that Wideman uses for the narrator and his story just has such a flow to it, and I never feel that it's fake, or that it's a struggle. He manages to keep it in character, and at the same time giving the reader a great story to symbolize the relationship with the ex-girlfriend. I felt like I was listening to the story being told, instead of just reading it, because the voice was so strong and there was a lot of details about the basketball court, so it was easy to place myself in the situation. I felt like I was equal to Wideman, instead of him treating me as a reader.
    I would like to have Wideman in my literary family. He is able to use dialogue in constructive ways, not only with the voice but also, in "Presents," he has a lot of non-direct dialogue. I want to learn how to incorporate all different kinds of dialogue, and still find a way to infuse voice into my story through summarizing and non-direct quotes. This could really improve my writing, and give my dialogue more purpose in my stories.

  12. I see that most people seem to like Wideman, but I'll be honest- I couldn't stand this writing style. Especially in "Presents," there seemed to be a bit of dialogue, but none was in quotations; none at all! Maybe its just a pet peeve of mine, but this drove me crazy- there didn't even seem to be any type of punctuation around the dialogue, such as when Big Mama speaks.

    Again, jut to nitpick, I found many of Wideman's paragraphs to be rather blotchy, and would have benefited greatly from being broken into several paragraphs. A good example is the last paragraph on page 640, which carries over into page 641. There are multiple areas in this paragraph, which I would consider as dialogue, and I can't stand how Wideman is referring to the boy in this story, as almost divine. It seems like it almost has this underlying pretentious tone of "I'm better than you." Although it was fiction, I felt the author was talking down to the reader, if that makes any sense?

  13. I was very impressed with Wideman's work. Both of the stories involve a lot of the elements we have already discussed with other authors, and I was very happy to be able to apply those discussions to these pieces. For instance, I noticed several discussion points in "Doc's Story." One of our early discussions on dialogue became a serious component of the story as the story focused in on Doc, whose story is being told (without quotes) in the words of a basketball player from the inner city. The main focus of the story, in fact, is this flashback in the form of a story within a story, leaving us to wonder at first about the meaning of the framing device that the main character in the 'present' that introduces the story--at least until we get a completely new perspective on the character and his girlfriend at the end when he wonders if they could have stayed together with stories such as Doc's to tell (the early line about God making smaller people more perfect takes on a completely new meaning once we learn that sayings like that were directly responsible for the couple's breakup). Indeed, the 'main' character has perhaps a single line throughout the entire story, talking to his girlfriend in the beginning just before the breakup is revealed. It is very interesting to read another story in which the most important character is not the POV character at all.

    The story "Presents" brings up a whole other connection to previous classes. The way it is structured is similar to "Doc's Story," in that the story deals with a storyteller explaining something that happened in the past without the use of quotation marks. However, unlike the more structured "Doc's Story," Wideman takes the opportunity in "Presents" to channel methods pioneered by Robert Coover in stories such as "the convention." "Presents" is not by any means in chronological order. The storyteller jumps around in his story, and the narrator does likewise, while the lack of quotation ensures that we are always wondering who is actually speaking when the next sentence begins. The actual content of the story is also interesting, although I was slightly disappointed to find such a cliche metaphor in the end. Despite the head-shaking provoked by the Christ-like character in the end, I still enjoyed the overall effect of Wideman's technique.

  14. Thematically, I was engrossed by Wideman’s stories. Growing up as a white boy in a North Philadelphia neighborhood, I was geographically predisposed to emulate certain characteristics of urban black culture. Thus, when I am confronted with literature that encompasses ebonics, b-ball, blunts, and my beloved city—and when my professor is blogging about “swishing”—I am easily engaged. However, Wideman’s attempts to reproduce the too-often-romanticized ambiance of the “hood” feel hackneyed and overtly recycled from Nas albums and Spike Lee movies. And why does every urban story always have a Madea character or, worse yet, a wise blind black man? Of course people are going to assume Doc is an athletic director; in what other field of study would one lose sight? Which is more believable: a guy’s eyes are gouged out while playing sports and he then becomes a coach, or a math teacher blinds himself after writing too many equations on an old-school overhead projector?

    Instead of establishing firm groundings in these stories, Wideman relies on stereotypical vernacular and nuances (which are used inconsistently) to build his 2-dimmensional characters and their equally shallow worlds. I have tried to write stories that utilize urban dialects and it’s incredibly challenging to pull off. First of all, ebonics are spoken casually and they are intended to be spoken, not written. So any time a scholar, such as Wideman, attempts to transfer such dialects onto the page, it becomes increasingly difficult to make the language feel and appear believable. To make the stories coherent and accessible, Wideman has to fall back on formalized elements of writing, which don’t seem to blend with organic street talk—(regardless of the time(s) in which such stories take place.) Unfortunately, in doing so, Wideman created a vernacular that doesn’t exist (and never has), and no matter how provocative his context and subtext may be, nothing will resonate with any of his readers because no one can relate to his voice. Too often I see mediocre stories included in anthologies that receive high praise for using urban vernaculars. If you seek to pay homage to the hood culture, read and write hip-hop, slam poetry, or watch Don’t Be a Menace to South Central While Drinking Your Juice in the Hood (now available on Netflix). I know my criticisms seem somewhat convoluted, but allow me to sum it up: street culture is inherently from the street. If you introduce the hood to the masses via literary fiction, you better be prepared to get called out. Real recognize real.