Tag Archives: John Gardner

How to Use a Light Touch in Heavy Moments

19 Sep

Joe Jiménez’s essay, “Cotton,” appears in the most recent issue of The Adroit Journal.

One of the most difficult things to learn in prose, whether it’s fiction or nonfiction, is how much certain passages ought to weigh. There will be moments that feel heavy, and so we write them heavy: longer, more drawn out, with more forceful words and images. These are the sentences, we tell ourselves, that people are going to quote. And yet when we return to those passages in the revision process, they don’t read right. They feel like they’re trying too hard—or not hard enough. We’re often not sure which, only certain that something is not working.

It’s often the case that less is more in prose, and sometimes the most important moments in a story need the lightest touch. A terrific example of this can be found in Joe Jiménez’s essay, “Cotton.” It was published in The Adroit Journal, where you can read it now.

How the Essay Works

The essay moves back and forth between passages about the cotton fields that dominated the landscape where Jiménez grew up and personal stories that lead up to, and away from, a moment where he realized that his life needed to change. Obviously, those personal stories will be doing a lot of narrative work, and yet they occupy a surprisingly small amount of space in the essay—because Jiménez exercises a light touch in some devastatingly effective ways. Here’s one example:

A story: I fell in love with a man with one ear. I was 29. We bought a house. We got dogs. We drove to Missouri. We drove to the coast. We lay on the beach, and we ate green peppers and Roma tomatoes, small sour limes, which we grew in red clay pots in the backyard.  When one of the dogs gave birth, one of the pups died, and we wrapped her in a white cotton towel and buried her beneath a papaya tree. Citlali, we named her. Little star. The papaya tree grew—we liked to believe that little star was growing into a strong tree, into those seeds.  But one winter, that papaya tree froze. It never grew back. Every year, including that one, the man told me he wanted to die.

There are a lot of ways this passage could have been written more directly, dealing with the events and the emotions of the relationship head on. But it doesn’t do that. Instead, it states the premise and a noteworthy detail (“I fell in love with a man with one ear”), sums up some noteworthy points on the timeline of the relationship (“I was 29. We bought a house. We got dogs. We drove to Missouri…”), and then focuses on two things: what they ate on the beach and what happened to one of their puppies.

In part, the focus on things that are not the thing itself (the relationship) is a perfect example of what John Gardner was talking about in his famous barn exercise (describe a barn from the point of view of a farmer whose son has just died in a war, but don’t state what he feels or what happened to his son). Jiménez is moving tangentially, getting at the emotionally heart of a scene through an unexpected entry.

But Jiménez is also doing something else: he’s juxtaposing a short, tangential-seeming story with a statement of absolute clarity and directness (“Every year, including that one, the man told me he wanted to die”). It’s a statement that would get our attention regardless of where it is placed in the essay. But it’s particularly breathtaking because it comes at us from outside our line of vision. We’ve been looking at food and puppies. It’s all connected, of course, but we’ve been temporarily distracted. To go back to the theoretical giants, it’s an example of what Kenneth Burke wrote about the scene in Hamlet where Hamlet is waiting on a platform for his father’s ghost; while he waits he and the audience get distracted by his drunken uncle, and so the thing we suspect is coming arrives out of nowhere.

Jiménez manages this in one short paragraph, and that brevity makes the passage even more effective.

The Writing Exercise 

Let’s use misdirection and indirectness, using “Cotton” by Joe Jiménez as a model:

  1. State the premise and a noteworthy detail. In general, premises are simple: somebody loves somebody, somebody hates somebody, somebody wants something and can’t quite get it. They’re built on universal experience and emotion. The noteworthy detail is what makes your universal moment less universal. Not everyone has just one ear. It’s a fairly small detail and not the hinge upon which the entire story turns, but it gets our attention so that we’ll read onto the more important details. So, what is your universal premise and what is a detail that can particularize it?
  2. Sum up some noteworthy points on the story’s timeline. In short, write a montage. This happened, this happened, and this. It can move that fast in your passage. Use short sentences. Be direct. You’re setting the stage for the bigger moment.
  3. Focus on one or two details. Jiménez focuses on food and a puppy. The food is not generic. He and his lover grew it themselves, so it had meaning to them. That’s really the best filter to use when figuring out which details to focus on: what has the most meaning to the characters. It’s often small things that they’re most proud of or most moved by in the moment. The puppy is a great detail because it’s personal to the characters but also because there’s a narrative arc attached to it. That arc creates a story within the story. So, what details are meaningful to you or your characters and which details have narratives attached to them? Describe those details and tell their stories as quickly as possible.
  4. Jump back to the premise. Jiménez jumps to “Every year, including that one, the man told me he wanted to die.” That sentence is one of the big reasons he tells this story in the first place. It’s the next part of the premise: I fell in love with a guy, and every year he said… Write a sentence or two that states, as directly as possible, a fact that makes the story significant to your or your characters.

The goal is to juxtapose that direct statement with the less direct details that precede it, and perhaps you can plan that juxtaposition, but it’s more likely that you’ll come at it from a couple of angles before one feels right. Give yourself the space to keep trying until it all clicks into place.

Good luck.

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How to Swim in the Narrative Stream

13 Sep
Tim Horvath's story, "Fuchsia Maroon Timberwolf," was published in Green Mountains Review.

Tim Horvath’s story, “Fuchsia Maroon Timberwolf,” was published in Green Mountains Review.

If you spend any time in writing classes, you’ll eventually encounter the term “fictive dream.” It was coined by John Gardner in The Art of Fiction and means, basically, the zone that writers sometimes hit when the world they’re writing seems more real to them than the room they’re actually sitting in. Rather than seeing words on a page, the writers are dreaming their characters to a life that gets translated on the page. It’s a great feeling, but talking about it has always struck as a bit like talking about “runner’s high.” It’s good to know it exists; when it happens, you think, “Oh, this is what everyone was talking about.” But knowing that a fictive dream is within our reach doesn’t help us find it.

So, let me suggest another term. Narrative stream: The swiftly moving current of a story, as opposed to the still water in stagnant pools along the shore. When you find the narrative stream, your story seems to really move. Writing it feels easy, and so finding it is an important part of the writing process—the process for getting into the fictive dream.

A good place to see the narrative stream at work is in Tim Horvath’s story “Fuchsia Maroon Timberwolf,” a brilliant piece of not-quite-flash fiction you can read now at Green Mountains Review.

How the Story Works

The story is about a man and his daughter. On its surface, the story is structurally complex, spanning years and using a hypnotic style in which almost every sentence begins with “How…” This style and the montage-like movement through time give it a naturally dreaming effect but also presents clear challenges, for instance, how to keep the story moving when every sentence begins the same way. It’s a story that, by its nature, could easily get stuck in the still pools along the shore. The fact that it doesn’t—and that it ends with an emotional punch to the gut—makes the story worth paying close attention to. How does Horvath find and stay in the narrative stream?

Here is a passage from early in the story:

How he brought her to museums during the days, tilting the carriage up on its rear wheels till she pointed. How even when he was working, he’d taken days off. How he kept calling them days off, though he was home for months on end. How they grew apart even before he’d moved out. How he watched her increasingly from afar, marveling at her growing aptitude for making pictures, as if he could see manual dexterity insinuating itself into her wrists like a creature moving through the ocean in a time-lapse film, fingers as fluid as anemone tendrils but also hypodermic-exact. How he encouraged her!

The movement through time is evident here: the daughter starts the passage in a carriage and ends with her old enough to have grown apart from her father. That’s the dreaminess of the story—its ability to drastically compress time in a way that makes sense in a dream but is impossible in real, waking life. But that dreaminess is secondary to the story itself:

  • We see the man’s connection with his daughter in the way he tilts her carriage at the museum and the fact that he takes days off to be with her.
  • We see the change in the man’s work status (change almost always being essential to story).
  • As a result, we see the connection with his daughter begin to change until, in the next-to-last sentence, it seems to be severed in all ways except a lingering emotional one for him.

The sentences span years and, thus, could focus on anything, but what they actually focus on is emotion and change: the foundation for basically every memorable plot going back to Homer. The man feels something, and then his circumstances change, which leads to a change in the way he’s able to feel the original emotion. As readers, we naturally want to know what happens. As writers, we feel compelled to keep writing in order to find out.

The passage continues:

Brought her brushes and joked that she herself was his little paintbrush, gripping her hair and tugging it ever-so-gently to the top of her head till it all pointed upward, how then he hoisted her aloft and angled her till it tumbled over like horsehair as if she was the world’s largest heaviest giggliest shriekingest paintbrush and he working up a masterpiece on the canvas that was their wall. How her mother worried because it was late and he was getting her riled up. How he ignored her and lifted her still higher. How often he did this, how heavy his brush got! How once he dropped her but she was okay. She hadn’t blacked out, she promised, and she hadn’t started crying until she woke up at 3:18, hyperventilating and clawing the air. How years later on the field hockey team she started getting dizzy spells. How he learned that she wasn’t going to practice any more and hadn’t for over a month.

Again, we’re shown emotion (“joked that she herself was his little paintbrush” and “largest heaviest giggliest shriekingest paintbrush“) and from more than his point of view (“How her mother worried because…”). Again, time moves with astonishing swiftness (“How years later…”), and yet the focus remains sharply on change (“How once he dropped her” and the results of that drop).

When a story stalls out, it’s often (though not always, of course) for a couple of reasons:

  • We’ve lost track of what’s going on. Our characters are simply emoting in place, feeling strong feelings and thinking big thoughts with nothing else going on. In short, we’ve got emotion without change.
  • We’ve lost track of how things feel. A lot is happening, reversal after reversal, but it makes no impact on the character. Or, the impact is cursory. We write sentences like “She was sad” but don’t make the emotion visceral, which means it’s not really felt. After all, what significant emotion have we ever felt theoretically?

Horvath stays in the narrative stream because he’s able to continually focus on change and emotion. Even amid some pretty spectacular craft fireworks, the story remains devastatingly clear and compelling.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s swim in the narrative stream, using “Fuchsia Maroon Timberwolf” by Tim Horvath as a model:

  1. Find an emotion. In any moment, what is the strongest emotional state felt by someone? It doesn’t need to be felt by everyone or returned (I love/hate you, and you love/hate me). It doesn’t even need to be directly tied to the moment at hand. A character could be reminded of something and feel strongly about whatever is in his/her head. What you don’t want is blankness. You don’t want the answer that all kids give when their parents ask, “How was school?” Fine is not interesting for anyone involved. So, if a moment is fine for everyone, go in search of a moment where it’s not, where it’s good or bad or happy or sad or whatever. The emotion doesn’t necessarily need to be clear. Often, we don’t know what we’re feeling, only that we’re feeling it. When does your character experience a moment like that? There will almost certainly be more than one.
  2. Change the circumstances. In Horvath’s story, the man’s work status changes. It’s not clear what exactly has happened, only that something has. There’s an element of mystery. This is important to keep in mind. You don’t need to fully explain everything that happens in a story. Instead, the change should impact what is important (the emotion). The change can have an external cause (getting laid off) or be self-caused (dropping a kid on her head). It could be big or small, connected to the emotion or simply in the same place at the same time. What changes occur in your character’s world?
  3. Let the change impact the emotion. Once the man’s work status changes, his connection with his daughter deteriorates—not necessarily on his end, it seems, but on her end or her mother’s. The emotional connection isn’t the same as it was at the beginning. This shift matters because that’s the nature of emotional changes. We want to fall in love and feel loved, and we dread and fear falling out of love or losing love. Emotions are difficult, maybe impossible, to separate from desire. If you find a moment when a character feels strong emotion, it’s probably also a moment when the character desires something—which is what clues readers into the story. As with all emotions, characters will naturally resist or embrace change (I want things to change so I don’t feel this way, or I don’t ever want this feeling to end). What impact does your story’s change have on the character’s emotion or the way that emotion is felt?
  4. Repeat. Don’t stop with one emotion and one change. Or, stay with an emotion but complicate it by introducing change after change. Those changes and the impact each one has on the emotion is the story’s narrative stream.

The goal is to find the current that carries a story forward by focusing on the emotion and changes within the story.

Good luck.

How to Convey Emotion Indirectly

22 Oct
Mũthoni Kiarie's story "What We Lost" appeared in Narrative Magazine as a Story of the Week.

Mũthoni Kiarie’s story “What We Left Behind” appeared in Narrative Magazine as a Story of the Week.

Sometimes the best way to approach important moments in a story is indirectly. To that end, the writer John Gardner gave his students this exercise: Write a paragraph about a farmer grieving after his son’s death. But you can’t mention the son or his death or any words that signal emotion. Instead, you must describe the barn and, in the details you choose, convey the farmer’s sense of loss.

This can be a difficult exercise because we realize how dependent we are on direct treatment of everything in a story. If you try to describe the barn, though, and if you continue to find indirect approaches to key information in fiction, you might be surprised at the effect on your writing. You’ll also begin to see the strategy everywhere in stories.

A great example is in the opening paragraph of Mũthoni Kiarie’s story “What We Left Behind.” It was a finalist in the Spring 2012 Story Contest from Narrative Magazine, where you can read it now. (Note: Sign-in is required, but it’s free.)

How the Story Works

The premise of the story is very simple. A Kenyan village is attacked by armed men, and the survivors flee. Notice how long the story waits to state the premise—not until the fourth paragraph. What precedes that paragraph is, in part, an indirect description that conveys the survivors’ depth of loss:

“In the beginning, the sandy ground was littered with the things that those who went before us had abandoned: sisal sleeping mats, many with the threads that bound the fibers together loosening as they flopped in the wind; suitcases; water troughs; beaded jewelry; tin cooking utensils; thin cotton dresses, skirts, shirts, and trousers; woven baskets, the kind that carried cassava crops from one home to another, and bigger, more elaborate baskets, the kind that were given to a new bride on her wedding day; rubber-soled sandals, ones for tall men and ones for smaller men, and thinner ones for women, flimsier ones for children, and all black, blacker than the people whose feet they had once adorned. But as the days went by and we continued to walk, there were fewer and fewer of these things, and instead we began to see a scattering of carcasses from animals left to die in the dry desert heat.”

At first, the description merely lists the objects that litter the ground. But as the list proceeds, it begins to offer greater detail. For instance, it distinguishes between baskets that “carried cassava crops from one home to another, and bigger, more elaborate baskets, the kind that were given to a new bride on her wedding day.” And between types of sandals: “ones for tall men and ones for smaller men, and thinner ones for women, flimsier ones for children, and all black, blacker than the people whose feet they had once adorned.”

The passage ends by upending the list: the items are gradually replaced with animal carcasses.

Though the paragraph never shows the people fleeing the village, we get a strong sense of their presence (and of the narrator’s emotions) through the attention given to the objects on the ground.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s try to convey important emotional information without approaching it directly. We’ll use Mũthoni Kiarie’s story as a model:

  1. Choose an event that produces strong emotion. Ideally, the emotion should last for a while, as opposed to a flash of anger or frustration that is quickly forgotten. Examples of events include these: death, marriage, divorce, birth, moving to another house or city, losing a job, changing jobs, professional disappointment, professional success, winning the lottery, or your team winning a big game.
  2. Try the John-Gardner exercise. Describe the contents of a room or place that is significant to your character. Don’t state the emotion or anything related to the event. (And no cheating with synonyms or giving animals or inanimate objects human dimensions—ducks skipping, walls smiling, that sort of thing.
  3. Add an element of time. How does the room or place change as the minutes/hours/days pass? This may be easier since it makes the description active rather than static.
  4. Optional: End the passage with a single line that states the emotion or something related to the event. Sometimes a line that bluntly states what has become obvious after an indirect description can shake the reader a little. For an example of this effect, read the last paragraph and sentence of Mũthoni Kiarie’s story.

Remember, the idea is to get inside the character’s head. Bad fiction tends to state what it cannot show. It tells the reader that a character is excited or sad or angry, and it’s no accident that the prose in such fiction is mechanical. But when you read good fiction, you’ll notice passages that are not directly related to plot or character development—they’re simply the book/narrator telling us about things in the character’s world. It’s the ability to write passages like these, without falling into dull description, that opens up the range and possibility of a prose voice.

Good luck and have fun.

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