Tag Archives: “The Disappearance of Things”

How to Make and Thwart Plans

11 Jul
Danish writer Mathilde Walter Clark's story, "The Disappearance of Things" appeared in The Chattahoochee review along with works by Roxane Gay and Aimee Bender.

Danish writer Mathilde Walter Clark’s story, “The Disappearance of Things” appeared in The Chattahoochee Review along with works by Roxane Gay and Aimee Bender.

In his poem, “To a Mouse,” the Scottish poet Robert Burns wrote the line—now famous as the source of the title of John Steinbeck’s novel Of Mice and Men—”The best-laid plans of mice and men/often go awry.” As a piece of advice for story writers, the line is as helpful today as it was in 1785. We often create a draft of a story or novel that has The Big Thing That Will Happen and The Way The Character Feels About It, but we don’t have any middle. In other words, we have no plot. To solve that problem, we can create plans and then let them go awry.

This is exactly what the writer Mathilde Walter Clark does in her story, “The Disappearance of Things.” Clark is Danish, and the story appeared in translation (by Martin Aitken) in The Chattahoochee Review, where you can read it now.

How the Story Works

The story is about a man whose possessions have begun to disappear: “a screw lid, a left sock.” It soon becomes clear that this isn’t a case of absent-mindedness. His shoes vanish, and the man realizes that his entire worldview is threatened.

That was not the way matter behaved. It could be obstructive, but it was an obstructiveness that came of existing, of having substance and shape. Of possessing hardness and inthewayness. He was under no illusion that he was a knowledgeable man, but the few things he did know were things to which he attached great importance. He knew, for example, that orderly surroundings make an orderly mind. And he knew that shoes don’t just disappear.

And so the premise is set, and we know how the man feels about it. We also know with some certainty that the disappearances will continue and that this will affect the man’s mental state. The question is now one of plot. The story can’t keep moving in the same way as it began: things disappearing, the man feeling confused. Resistance is needed. The man needs to push back. Something needs to happen. But how?

Here is Clark’s solution:

Following the disappearance of the rissole, he had drawn up a detailed list of all his possessions in order to help him navigate in what were habitually new and chaotic surroundings. The list ran initially to one hundred and forty-eight pages of yellow, lineated A4 paper.

The man creates a plan. He’s going to keep his things in a single room and consult his list to make sure all is accounted for. The temptation, now, would be to immediately thwart the plan. But that’s not what Clark does. Instead, she explains the logic behind the plan (“His possessions were ordered according to the following taxonomy”).

Okay, so now it’s time to thwart the plan, right?

Wrong. Instead, Clark adds to the plan:

He had yet to experience things disappearing in front of his eyes, so if he stayed awake long enough he thought he might be able to reduce his losses. He also took a chamber pot into the living room with him, since a number of his things seemed to be taking the opportunity to disappear during his visits to the bathroom.

This is how plot works. The character encounters a problem and comes up with a plan for dealing with it. The plan has a rationale. It’s personal to the character, and as the character thinks about it, she realizes holes in the plan. Perhaps those holes cause small problems, and so she adapts and closes the holes. Things are under control.

And that’s when you make the plan go awry:

It worked fine for a day or two until the lists disappeared.

Not only does the plan get thwarted, but that act—the disappearance of the list—feels personal:

[T]he leaves of yellow A4 were gone, with the exception of the one itemizing
temporary possessions belonging in the kitchen region. On the other hand,
the pile containing temporary possessions belonging in the kitchen region
was also gone, exactly as if matter had decided to play a very serious practical
joke on him.

The story has created a situation in which the character cannot defeat the problem. But the character himself isn’t defeated. And so the story continues. When all hope is lost, what comes next? That’s where plot must go.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s create and thwart plans to create plot, using the “The Disappearance of Things” by Mathilde Walter Clark as a model:

  1. Create a problem to be solved. The type of problem will depend on the type of story. Clark is writing (generally speaking) in the style of Fabulism (think of the writers Aimee Bender, George Saunders, Manuel Gonzales, Kelly Luce, or the filmmaker Michael Gondry), and so her problem isn’t realistic so much as a supernatural manifestation of some internal problem. The point is this: all genres create problems. Vampires must be killed, bills must be paid, cancer must be faced, and intergalactic nemeses must be defeated. The important thing is to create problems that can be addressed head on. In other words, the character must possess the power to solve the problem (serfs can’t defeat intergalactic villains, at least not on their own).
  2. Create a solution. Simple solutions tend to be better than complex solutions. In Star Wars, the good guys blow up the Death Star—pretty simple. It’s the complications to enacting the simple solution that make it interesting. In “The Disappearance of Things,” Clark has her character make a list of his possessions so that he can track the ones that go missing—again, a simple solution. The solution also fits his character because he’s detail-oriented. So, identify a trait of your character and ask yourself, “What kind of plan would that kind of person invent?”
  3. Give the solution a rationale. In part, this means to explain how it will work (the way a heist movie has its thieves rehearse the heist before actually enacting it). But it also means giving details about why the character knows the plan will work. The reader of the story or novel (or viewer of the heist movie) has suspicions that they’re being set up, but those suspicions need to be balanced out by the solidity of the plan. Readers need to believe that even if one or two things go wrong, the plan as a whole is solid. This is why Clark explains the taxonomy of the man’s possessions. She’s convincing us that the man is mentally fit and together. Even if one or two of his possessions goes missing, he’s still with it. He’ll be fine. Without this paragraph (this rationale for why his solution of creating a list is a good one), the readers will simply believe they’ve been given another plot point to be easily knocked over.
  4. Tweak the planShow your character in a state of reflection. There’s a scene at the end of Don Delillo’s novel White Noise when the novel’s main character, Jack Gladney, is driving to confront a man. As he drives, he repeats his plan to himself. But also, as he drives, he thinks about the plan and adds details to it. Any character, if they bear any semblance to real-life people, will try to anticipate the future and the things that might occur in it. So, let your character anticipate the ways the plan might go wrong or the obstacles it might encounter. Then, give the character room to adapt the plan to these potential problems. In so doing, the plan becomes more solid, more believable.
  5. Thwart the plan. The plan must go wrong. If something goes according to plan, readers will be disappointed. At the very least, the results must be different than expected (the old “Be careful what you wish for” thing). There are two ways that a plan can go wrong: the expected way (that the writer and character have anticipated) and the unexpected way. I don’t mean that a meteor appears from space. I mean that you can use any of the characters or things or trends that you’ve already established and reintroduce them in unexpected ways. Clark does this by returning to the disappearances that set the story in motion. The expected move would be to make things on the list disappear. The unexpected move is to make the list itself disappear. It’s also a move that renders the plan totally unworkable. As a plot point, this is useful because it forces the character into terrain that he could not (or refused to) anticipate. Once the character is in that situation, that’s when the story really takes off and the reader leans in. That’s when we see something we did not expect to see.

Good luck!

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An Interview with Mathilde Walter Clark

31 Jul
Mathilde Walter Clark has written five books and starred in a Danish-language television show of her own creation.

Mathilde Walter Clark has written five books and starred in a Danish-language television show of her own creation. Her story, “The Disappearance of Things,” appeared in translation in The Chattahoochee Review.

Mathilde Walter Clark is the Danish-American author of three novels and two story collections. Her most recent book, Patron Wanted, is a work that doesn’t fit neatly into any literary category. The project started with Clark writing letters to rich men whom she thought might fund her writing—who would, essentially, play the role of patron of the artist. Every single person turned her down, and she turned their responses into a kind of literary performance art. Clark eventually won a grant from the National Arts Foundation, and the book was self-published with a foreword from a former Danish Minister of Culture and an afterword by yet another Danish Minister of Culture. Clark has also written the screenplay for and starred in the Danish-language television show, In Seven Minds. Clark lives in Copenhagen.

In this interview, Clark discusses crafting stories around a flaw in logic, her revision strategy (she sometimes doesn’t), and the challenge of translation when only six million people speak your language.

To read Clark’s story, “The Disappearance of Things,” and an exercise on writing plot, click here.

Michael Noll

One of the things I love about this story is that it’s entirely about the character’s mental state. Until the end, almost nothing really takes place. Instead, the focus of the story is on a consciousness in transition, and all of the paragraphs and the details in them are aimed at illustrating that transition from “orderly surroundings make an orderly mind” to the disintegration of both surroundings and mind. In a way, this is a conception of “story” that is different from how we often define the word, with its emphasis on plot and occurrence. Is this a coincidence–in other words, is this simply the way the story arrived on the page–or is it a purposeful choice on your part? Are you trying to write a different kind of story?

Mathilde Walter Clark

First of all: Thank you for asking me to answer these excellent questions and to be part of this great site. This is actually the first story I ever wrote, so I didn’t have much clue what I was doing. What got me started was a very real annoyance over how things sometime disappear, and it occurred to me that this annoyance comes from a belief that things don’t really disappear – they are somewhere, you just can’t find them. But what if they did in fact disappear, go on to non-existence from one moment to the next? It then becomes a matter of acceptance, a mental state. The character in the story is (like most of us) bound up in the logic of classical physics, but perhaps even more so. And so, to make the point of that stuckness, I imagined him a traditionalist, somebody working in a ministry as a public servant, an archiver of sorts, a ring-binder manager.

Michael Noll

The amount of detail in this fairly short story is staggering. For instance, there is an entire paragraph about the type of paper the character prefers. Again, this seems like a different conception of the role of detail. Very often as writers, we try to invent one detail that illustrates some quality of a character, and then we push that quality into a conflict: thus, plot is born. But in this story, you don’t seem satisfied with a few well-chosen details. This emphasis on exploring an exhaustive quantity of details reminds me in a way of the work of David Foster Wallace. He once wrote about his style, “The most obvious, ubiquitous, important realities are often the ones that are the hardest to see and talk about.” Is this something that you’re aiming for in your fiction? Trying to make the reader see obvious realities in a new light?

Mathilde Walter Clark

Absolutely. It is a trick I use in many of my stories: a world we know, but there is a missing piece somehow, or some logic or law of nature gone awry. Perhaps these disorders of things are what makes us see our world in a clearer light. This story has only one motor. You quickly get the drift: at some point all his stuff will be gone (some of my later stories have other story threads that complicate matters). As I wrote the story it very much became a story of lists and categories that was intended to reveal something about how we – or the character – make sense of the world. A matter of detailing as revelation.

Michael Noll

My favorite moment in the story is when the disappearances escalate from minor things like shoes to large items like a grandfather clock and then, very quickly, to people: his wife. How did you know when to make that escalation? Did you initially write many more mid-level disappearances (more large items like grandfather clocks), or was the escalation always that fast—shoes to wife?

Mathilde Walter Clark

Yes, it always went shoes to wife like that. No mid-level stuff. I thought of it as a reversal of the familiar scheme: a husband pops out to buy cigarettes never to return. In this case the wife disappears as he is out to get tobacco for his pipe. The suddenness of this disappearance. She’s gone, just like that, in one word. It also reveals something about the character, that his wife figures on his detailed lists of belongings alongside – one must suppose – less animated items.

Michael Noll

Nothing about the story should be funny–a man is growing old, losing his sense of self and the things and people around him. But it does have moments of sharp humor. After we learn about the disappearance of his wife, for instance, the very next sentence is this: “Yet it was the shoes that tormented him the most.” He also makes lists of everything that he owns, and then the lists disappear. This is kind of a dark humor, of course, but it’s definitely not the somber tone that one might expect given a story about someone in this situation. Was that humor always present in the story? Or did it arrive through revision?

Mathilde Walter Clark

I didn’t do any revision of this story. I wrote the beginning, and then nothing for a year or so. As I started writing some of the other stories for my first collection Disorder of Things, I finished it. The change of mental state, stretching that to absurdity, until finally the point where he accepts the loss and another state of mind takes over: now he wants to get rid of the last of his pitiful belongings. I saw something almost zen-like in this acceptance and riddance, that maybe, somehow, there is a strange sort of happiness, or at least calmness, involved in that loss. Many of the other stories in that collection center around the themes of language, matter, madness, loss, the possibility of serenity. How dependent we are on language to make sense of things, and what happens to our minds when language somehow fails? To me, the dark humor is inherent in these subjects, not something I can edit forth.

Michael Noll

Mathilde Walter Clark recently published, "Report From the Flatlands of Statistics," essay in the Los Angeles Review of Books on guns and the differences in "gun culture" between Denmark and Texas.

Mathilde Walter Clark recently published, “Report From the Flatlands of Statistics,” an essay in the Los Angeles Review of Books on guns and the differences in “gun culture” between Denmark and Texas.

A question about translation: Americans have been justly criticized for not reading much work in translation, and American authors themselves have been criticized for not translating other writers into English. But the opposite is very common: American works are translated into dozens of languages. I’m curious how this particular translation came about. Did the translator, Martin Aitken, contact you? Or did The Chattahoochee Review discover your story in its original Danish and find a translator for it?

Mathilde Walter Clark

Translation is a catch 22. Especially into English – the most exclusive market in the world, and also the most attractive. As the translator is initially paid quite a lot more than the author, it’s too big an investment for the home country’s publisher to have the manuscript translated for the sole purpose of trying to sell it to other markets. But how can foreign publishers judge a manuscript they can’t read? Well, in this case only numbers speak. Most of what gets sold to publication in foreign territory – especially America – are books with impressive sales. Besides bestsellers, Hans Christian Andersen, Kafka and other deceased writers from the literary canon account for most of the meager 2% of foreign literature that finds its way into the US market. That, unfortunately, leaves out a lot of the interesting contemporary literature. As a writer in a language with only six million speakers, it is hard not to feel a little locked up. So for foreign language writers, translators rule. It’s thanks to their interests and passions that literature finds its way into other languages. I’m lucky enough to have had a little more than a handful of my stories translated and published in various American journals. This particular story was translated some years back by one of our best translators, Martin Aitken out of his good heart. He also made the connection with Lydia Ship, the editor on The Chattahoochee Review, and I am extremely grateful for the work he has done.

July 2014

Michael Noll

Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.

How to Make and Thwart Plans

29 Jul
Danish writer Mathilde Walter Clark's story, "The Disappearance of Things" appeared in The Chattahoochee review along with works by Roxane Gay and Aimee Bender.

Danish writer Mathilde Walter Clark’s story, “The Disappearance of Things” appeared in The Chattahoochee Review along with works by Roxane Gay and Aimee Bender.

In his poem, “To a Mouse,” the Scottish poet Robert Burns wrote the line—now famous as the source of the title of John Steinbeck’s novel Of Mice and Men—”The best-laid plans of mice and men/often go awry.” As a piece of advice for story writers, the line is as helpful today as it was in 1785. We often create a draft of a story or novel that has The Big Thing That Will Happen and The Way The Character Feels About It, but we don’t have any middle. In other words, we have no plot. To solve that problem, we can create plans and then let them go awry.

This is exactly what the writer Mathilde Walter Clark does in her story, “The Disappearance of Things.” Clark is Danish, and the story appeared in translation (by Martin Aitken) in The Chattahoochee Review, where you can read it now.

How the Story Works

The story is about a man whose possessions have begun to disappear: “a screw lid, a left sock.” It soon becomes clear that this isn’t a case of absent-mindedness. His shoes vanish, and the man realizes that his entire worldview is threatened.

That was not the way matter behaved. It could be obstructive, but it was an obstructiveness that came of existing, of having substance and shape. Of possessing hardness and inthewayness. He was under no illusion that he was a knowledgeable man, but the few things he did know were things to which he attached great importance. He knew, for example, that orderly surroundings make an orderly mind. And he knew that shoes don’t just disappear.

And so the premise is set, and we know how the man feels about it. We also know with some certainty that the disappearances will continue and that this will affect the man’s mental state. The question is now one of plot. The story can’t keep moving in the same way as it began: things disappearing, the man feeling confused. Resistance is needed. The man needs to push back. Something needs to happen. But how?

Here is Clark’s solution:

Following the disappearance of the rissole, he had drawn up a detailed list of all his possessions in order to help him navigate in what were habitually new and chaotic surroundings. The list ran initially to one hundred and forty-eight pages of yellow, lineated A4 paper.

The man creates a plan. He’s going to keep his things in a single room and consult his list to make sure all is accounted for. The temptation, now, would be to immediately thwart the plan. But that’s not what Clark does. Instead, she explains the logic behind the plan (“His possessions were ordered according to the following taxonomy”).

Okay, so now it’s time to thwart the plan, right?

Wrong. Instead, Clark adds to the plan:

He had yet to experience things disappearing in front of his eyes, so if he stayed awake long enough he thought he might be able to reduce his losses. He also took a chamber pot into the living room with him, since a number of his things seemed to be taking the opportunity to disappear during his visits to the bathroom.

This is how plot works. The character encounters a problem and comes up with a plan for dealing with it. The plan has a rationale. It’s personal to the character, and as the character thinks about it, she realizes holes in the plan. Perhaps those holes cause small problems, and so she adapts and closes the holes. Things are under control.

And that’s when you make the plan go awry:

It worked fine for a day or two until the lists disappeared.

Not only does the plan get thwarted, but that act—the disappearance of the list—feels personal:

[T]he leaves of yellow A4 were gone, with the exception of the one itemizing
temporary possessions belonging in the kitchen region. On the other hand,
the pile containing temporary possessions belonging in the kitchen region
was also gone, exactly as if matter had decided to play a very serious practical
joke on him.

The story has created a situation in which the character cannot defeat the problem. But the character himself isn’t defeated. And so the story continues. When all hope is lost, what comes next? That’s where plot must go.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s create and thwart plans to create plot, using the “The Disappearance of Things” by Mathilde Walter Clark as a model:

  1. Create a problem to be solved. The type of problem will depend on the type of story. Clark is writing (generally speaking) in the style of Fabulism (think of the writers Aimee Bender, George Saunders, Manuel Gonzales, Kelly Luce, or the filmmaker Michael Gondry), and so her problem isn’t realistic so much as a supernatural manifestation of some internal problem. The point is this: all genres create problems. Vampires must be killed, bills must be paid, cancer must be faced, and intergalactic nemeses must be defeated. The important thing is to create problems that can be addressed head on. In other words, the character must possess the power to solve the problem (serfs can’t defeat intergalactic villains, at least not on their own).
  2. Create a solution. Simple solutions tend to be better than complex solutions. In Star Wars, the good guys blow up the Death Star—pretty simple. It’s the complications to enacting the simple solution that make it interesting. In “The Disappearance of Things,” Clark has her character make a list of his possessions so that he can track the ones that go missing—again, a simple solution. The solution also fits his character because he’s detail-oriented. So, identify a trait of your character and ask yourself, “What kind of plan would that kind of person invent?”
  3. Give the solution a rationale. In part, this means to explain how it will work (the way a heist movie has its thieves rehearse the heist before actually enacting it). But it also means giving details about why the character knows the plan will work. The reader of the story or novel (or viewer of the heist movie) has suspicions that they’re being set up, but those suspicions need to be balanced out by the solidity of the plan. Readers need to believe that even if one or two things go wrong, the plan as a whole is solid. This is why Clark explains the taxonomy of the man’s possessions. She’s convincing us that the man is mentally fit and together. Even if one or two of his possessions goes missing, he’s still with it. He’ll be fine. Without this paragraph (this rationale for why his solution of creating a list is a good one), the readers will simply believe they’ve been given another plot point to be easily knocked over.
  4. Tweak the planShow your character in a state of reflection. There’s a scene at the end of Don Delillo’s novel White Noise when the novel’s main character, Jack Gladney, is driving to confront a man. As he drives, he repeats his plan to himself. But also, as he drives, he thinks about the plan and adds details to it. Any character, if they bear any semblance to real-life people, will try to anticipate the future and the things that might occur in it. So, let your character anticipate the ways the plan might go wrong or the obstacles it might encounter. Then, give the character room to adapt the plan to these potential problems. In so doing, the plan becomes more solid, more believable.
  5. Thwart the plan. The plan must go wrong. If something goes according to plan, readers will be disappointed. At the very least, the results must be different than expected (the old “Be careful what you wish for” thing). There are two ways that a plan can go wrong: the expected way (that the writer and character have anticipated) and the unexpected way. I don’t mean that a meteor appears from space. I mean that you can use any of the characters or things or trends that you’ve already established and reintroduce them in unexpected ways. Clark does this by returning to the disappearances that set the story in motion. The expected move would be to make things on the list disappear. The unexpected move is to make the list itself disappear. It’s also a move that renders the plan totally unworkable. As a plot point, this is useful because it forces the character into terrain that he could not (or refused to) anticipate. Once the character is in that situation, that’s when the story really takes off and the reader leans in. That’s when we see something we did not expect to see.

Good luck!

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