Sunday, November 25, 2012

Emily Carter: "East on Houston" and "Parachute Silk"

Carter, whose debut book Glory Goes and Gets Some was published by Coffee House Press in 2000, speaks (in an interview in 2011) about writing from her life:

"There are stories there that are about other people besides the main character, and they are 100 percent fictional. But the stories that are autobiographical, the character is a shocking and almost grotesque version of myself. It’s not really me. It certainly deals with feelings I’ve had myself, but ratcheted up to ten. If you could create a character made of all your worst insecurities and worst feelings and have someone say them out loud for you through a megaphone, that’s what Glory is. It’s not an accurate reflection of my character or how you’d find me in a conversation. And certainly, I always kept in mind that if something made me uncomfortable in myself or in a situation, that’s where I would go. I would make that more of my focus; I would make it bigger."

Photo by Johnnie Sage, 2010
When reflecting on "East on Houston," think on its plot, or lack thereof.  Look at tension.  Look at structure.

When reflecting on "Parachute Silk," take a look back at the way Carter starts with the list, and the way that concept structures the story, and how the story moves away from it, and back to it, and how the plot unfolds around and underneath it, tension amping up and up through narrator Glory's relationship with Matthew.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Isabel Huggan: "Celia Behind Me" and "Sorrows of the Flesh"

Read about the writers retreat run by Isabel Huggan

I've been thinking about what it means to captivate an audience.  To begin, there needs to be the space, the will to be captivated, such as when I'm driving the car, and Emerson and Lake and I are riding to school, and they've gotten in the habit of pleading "tell us a story."

Given the space, the storyteller must have some understanding of the listeners' moods and interests.  With little kids, my story had better involve physical adventure, bad guys, animals, parks or toys, and/or candy.

Then, given the space and some understanding of the audience, the storyteller creates a character to care about, and only then come the surprises of detail and event.  I'm able to keep Emerson and Lake interested with ongoing tales of a brother and sister, two invulnerable kids who believe they can take on the world.

With a literary short story, the space and the mood and interests can be taken for granted: we can assume that someone picking up a literary journal, or short story collection or anthology, carries the desire to be captivated, and the mood to be thoughtful and attentive.  So how do we create characters to care about?

Huggan models this for us.  We are adults, unlike Emerson and Lake, and one of the main struggles of being adult is knowing we are not perfect, and we are not invulnerable.  In "Celia Behind Me," a story with a straightforward structure, Elizabeth looks back on being a child whose meanness is matched by her awareness of own vulnerabilities.  Her vulnerability and fear creates our interest in the story, rather than what is going to happen to Celia.  We are captivated by someone willing to reveal the parts of herself that most of us struggle to keep hidden, even from ourselves.

In "Sorrows of the Flesh," a story with a more complex (I'll call it a two-part) structure, Elizabeth again exposes her own smallness, her hate for and feelings of violence toward her pet, a needy, stupid rabbit.  When she realizes that her idol, Mr. Wheeler, abuses his "sweet Mayruth," she can no more hate him than she can hate herself.

And that is one of many points about how literary fiction captivates us.  It's horrible, but we cannot really point fingers.  The characters who captivate us bear resemblance to us--we identify with their flaws and vulnerabilities--and so when trouble comes, we need to follow until the very last line.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Claire Vaye Watkins: First 4 Stories from BATTLEBORN

There are many great reviews of Claire Vaye Watkins's 2012 debut collection, and interviews with the author, but I'd like to share an excerpt from this one, between Roxane Gay (one of the editors of PANK) and Watkins, a conversation published in Salon.  It touches on concepts we've brought up in class: the usefulness of writing from personal experience, the goal of making art, and the importance of research.

Gay: Do you often write from personal experience?

Watkins: I do. I may not start there but if I really want to write something honest I need to think deeply about why I’m interested, why I care about this person. I often find there’s a connection to something that’s on my mind, some relationship I had or some moment I keep worrying about. For a long time I thought that was a cheap or immature way to write, and then I realized I was doing it sort of sneakily anyway and now I don’t worry about it so much. I am just grateful the stories come. It’s supposed to feel a little bit raw. If I feel totally in control, the writing is not really going to be great.

Gay: Do you like to feel out of control when you write?

Watkins: I do like to make good art. That’s something I have to go towards, the scary stuff, the hurt. The alternative is to become a little bit of a robot and I don’t want to do that either. I don’t want to forget the rawness and the real human impulses behind those stories.

Gay: Is research part of your writing process?

Watkins: I do tons and tons of research. I always read a lot about whatever it is I’m working on and when I wrote “Past Perfect” I grew up near brothels – prostitution is legal in this town in Nevada where I grew up so I learned to parallel park at brothels. I spent a lot of time reading about brothels and corresponding with some people who work there and there’s this amazing documentary called “Pleasure for Sale” that I watched, which is set at the Chicken Ranch, the brothel by my house. Some of the stories definitely feel more researched than others, but I spend a lot of time reading about everyone. It’s important that the language of this world is convincing. How does a rock hound think and feel? How does he see the world? How do teenagers working in a pizza parlor feel?

One of my fascinations with "Ghosts, Cowboys" is its structure, the insistence on fluidity concerning where one begins a story; the other is with the invention of Razor Blade Baby.  In telling this story of her mother, father, connected to a history of place, Watkins is announcing the story-ness of our lives.  We're all out of control, even when we try to get all the "facts" straight, or send out an anchor, or desperately scan coincidences for meaning.