Tag Archives: The Want

An Interview with Octavio Solis

8 Dec
Octavio Solis is one of the most prominent Latino playwrights in the country. In addition to his work for the stage, he's writing a series of stories set in El Paso.

Octavio Solis is one of the most prominent Latino playwrights in the country. In addition to his work for the stage, he’s writing a series of stories set in El Paso, two of which appear in the most recent issue of Huizache.

Octavio Solis is a playwright and director whose works have been produced across the country and include Alicia’s MiracleSe Llama CristinaJohn Steinbeck’s The Pastures of Heaven, Ghosts of the RiverQuixoteLydia, June in a Box, Lethe, Marfa Lights, GibraltarThe Ballad of Pancho and Lucy, The 7 Visions of Encarnación, Bethlehem, Dreamlandia, El OtroMan of the FleshProspectEl Paso BlueSantos & Santos, and La Posada Mágica. His collaborative works include Cloudlands, with Music by Adam Gwon, Burning Dreams, cowritten with Julie Hebert and Gina Leishman and Shiner, written with Erik Ehn. Solis has received an NEA 1995-97 Playwriting Fellowship, the Roger L. Stevens award from the Kennedy Center, the Will Glickman Playwright Award, a production grant from the Kennedy Center Fund for New American Plays, the 1998 TCG/NEA Theatre Artists in Residence Grant, the 1998 McKnight Fellowship grant from the Playwrights Center in Minneapolis, and the National Latino Playwriting Award for 2003. He is the recipient of the 2000-2001 National Theatre Artists Residency Grant from TCG and the Pew Charitable Trust, the United States Artists Fellowship for 2011 and the 2104 Pen Center USA Award for Drama. Solis is a Thornton Wilder Fellow for the MacDowell Colony, New Dramatists alum and member of the Dramatists Guild. His new anthology, “The River Plays” has been published by NoPassPort Publishing. He is working on commissions for the Magic Theatre SF and Yale Repertory Theatre.

To read an exercise on creating tension between desire and thought, inspired by Solis’ story “The Want,” click here. More of Solis’ stories in this series can be found in the new issue of Zyzzyva and forthcoming in Arroyo Literary Review. On March 4, Solis will read from these stories at Arts & Letters Live at the Dallas Museum of Art.

In this interview, Solis discusses his approach to fiction and nonfiction, laying the mental groundwork for stories, and moments that lead characters to speak in code.

Michael Noll

Huizache doesn’t label this story as fiction or nonfiction, and so I’m wondering how you would categorize it. Is it one or the other?

Octavio Solis

I would categorize it somewhere between. I started writing these pieces that reflect things that happened in El Paso: turning points in how I recognized how I functioned in the world and who I am, so they’re moments of discovery. But as I was writing, some of them seemed so surreal that they seemed like dreams, and so if I didn’t write them down, they’d be relegated to just dreams. But as I started writing them down—I’m a storyteller, it’s what I do—as I started writing the story, the details and characters started to take on a life of their own. There are details on the sides that aren’t clear, I can’t see them as clearly, and so I give myself permission to make them up. But they’re made up in the sense that I insert them in the moments when they weren’t there, but they’re part of my background, personal history, youth, my past. So they fall into place very readily. I don’t even feel like I’m making them up. But usually the central moments are real and true except that they take on a life of their own. Somebody said, I can’t remember who, “Once you start writing something down, it starts to become fiction. It just can’t help it.” That’s what I gave myself permission to do: tell a story. I realized I had bigger fish to fry than just write an autobiographical story. I’m more interested in telling stories that will resonate in a more universal way.

As for what really happened, I remember that it happened in the winter, but I don’t remember if it was right around Christmas time. It could have been. I remember that I was in college, so it had to have been over Christmas break. But to write that way, frankly about something like that, I’m running a risk because it doesn’t cast me in such a positive light. At the very least, I look like an idiot. But I was young and stupid and horny and crazy—and something else was operating. I also had recently lost my faith. I was told I’d been saved by my drama teacher, was reborn in Jesus and all that, and warned not to stray in college. Then all of that fell away, and I realized the reason I wanted to be saved and be a Christian was to be in the theater. And that felt like it was my way in. But then in college, that all fell away. There were consequences for all that—feelings of grief and remorse about the loss of that community. So I was dealing with loneliness on an epic, metaphysical scale. Not just physical loneliness. And once you have all of those ingredients working together, you become sensitive, aware of the invisible connections that were already emerging. You just let them happen. You don’t even have to force them that much. And so suddenly this girl becomes the virgin Mary and I’m offering her refuge. Of course it’s a complete negative image of that. She’s not looking refuge. I’m looking for a good time and she’s ready to provide it, which is quite different, and that’s the point. It’s an inversion of the Christ story.

Michael Noll

Did you always know the story was headed for that moment? The beginning is filled with Christmas imagery—Bing Crosby, the lodestar in the Franklin Mountains—but there’s also a shock of recognition at the end for the narrator (“And how fucking Catholic of me…What a fucking cliché.”)

Octavio Solis

It also happened to me as a writer, that sort of discovery, oh shit, what have I been writing? It’s all so clear to me now. How could I have missed it? That’s the wonderful thing about writing these stories. I’ve amassed 50 of them.The wonderful thing about them is that I make discoveries as a writer as I’m working on them. I’m not there to share an epiphany. I’m having the epiphany. That final paragraph is also me as a writer thinking, “Oh Jesus, unbelievable.” No matter how much of an atheist I am, all this Catholicism has made me think this way—and I’m so blind to it. I’m hoping that if I’m having the discovery, the reader will land in this same place. And that comes from my theater background. I was trained by a great writer, María Irene Fornés. She taught us to be available to the moment, to discoveries, to not have everything so planned out, to see the journey, the starting point clearly and follow the thread. It will take you to a place as a writer you didn’t expect. Then it becomes a delightful discovery for the writer and will be that for the audience. If you can predict how it’s going to end, the audience will, too. But if you don’t now what’s around the corner, then the audience won’t, either.

Michael Noll

There’s something pretty uncomfortable about that discovery, especially in the moment right after he picks up the girl. He claims to be doing it out of concern for her, but when he says, “Dangerous for a girl in her condition…I hope you didn’t drink too much,” it’s creepy. As I read it, I thought, “Oh no.”

Octavio Solis

Oh yeah, it’s very uncomfortable. But then it turns around the other way as well: she looks innocent and stranded, but she’s not. She’s also looking for me as much as I’m looking for her. The dynamics are constantly shifting inside the car. They start shifting from the time I see her. The dialogue in the car—because of the discomfort, because it’s harder to just lay out baldly what the needs and wants are—you start speaking in a kind of code, unconsciously, without the narrator really knowing what he’s really after, what he’s really saying, until she makes it very clear: You wanted this. You were after this. Don’t pretend otherwise. Because he’s functioning on two planes. I explain a little in that passage about the difference between want and need: I want someone in the carnal way, I need company, I need to be good again, the good Christian again and find myself in fellowship with other people just to do that. He’s opening on this level where he’s wanting someone. He even says, I want someone to give me some nighttime CPR, and goes into bars looking for that. He wants to take her home. He’s a boy scout, but he also won’t admit to himself that he wants something else.

December 2016

Michael Noll Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.

How to Create Tension Between Desire and Thought

6 Dec
Octavio Solis' story, "The Want," appears in the most recent issue of Huizache: The Magazine of Latino Literature.

Octavio Solis’ story, “The Want,” appears in the most recent issue of Huizache: The Magazine of Latino Literature.

Every writer knows that it’s important to find a character’s motivating desire, and those desires are often pretty simple: make money, find love, get revenge, get away, get laid. These are essential human desires, but when they’re distilled down to basics, they can feel too simple. In our minds, our lives are messier and more complicated than any of these desires, which is why we’ve all heard someone say (or we’ve said), “It’s not just about ___. It’s the principle of the thing.” In life and in stories, there’s the desire itself and the invisible architecture of thought, rationalization, philosophy, theology, and politics that we construct around it. Sometimes we become so invested in this architecture that we forget about the desire upon which it’s built.

Octavio Solis crafts an entire story around the distance between the architecture and desire in “The Want,” which you can read in its entirety online at Huizache: The Magazine of Latino Literature.

How the Story Works

The premise is simple. The narrator is home from his first semester of college and feeling lonely. He goes for a drive and thinks, “I need a girl, some girl to lie to, hold, feel against me, someone to give me a little nighttime CPR, for god’s sake. Just one time. One night. That’s all.” It’s a pretty straightforward desire, and if the story proceeded from there, the plot would be the same as any of a thousand movies about young guys trying to have sex. But Solis begins to build an architecture of thought around this desire, and the story changes.

Here is the next paragraph:

The loneliness is hurting real bad now. It’s not in the heart but in the head like a migraine shooting icicles into the back of my eyes. It’s in my throat too, sore with the whispers that keep hissing out of my mouth like bile. All around me, the streets are barren and shiny in the night. All mortals hidden, out of reach. This is what my born-again high school teacher said would happen. You abandon the Lord and you’ll feel the desolation of that choice. You’ll be more alone than you could ever imagine. Painful and paralyzing is the sinner’s harrowing.

The desire has been enlarged, spreading from the heart (and, probably, another organ) to his head and eventually to the entire world (“the streets are barren and shiny in the night. All mortals hidden, out of reach”). You’ve probably been taught about the pathetic fallacy: the giving of human emotions to non-human things (animals, the sky, trees). At it’s worst, it’s an emotional shortcut. A character is sad, and so the weather is sad and rainy. That’s sloppy writing. But Solis is using the same basic idea in a different way. His narrator sees the world (empty streets) and perceives it through the lens of his emotion (lonely, horny), and so in his mind, the street seems to reflect his own feelings back at him.

The desire also becomes about more than just sex. Now, religion is part of it.

Into this new enlarged sense of desire comes a girl, walking alone by the railroad tracks. She’s pregnant. The narrator offers her a ride. The scene that follows depends completely on the distance between the narrator’s physical desire (find a girl) and the thoughts he’s built around it (“All mortals hidden out of reach…abandon the Lord…more alone than you could ever imagine.”) In short, he forgets (or pretends to himself that he’s forgotten) about looking for sex. He tells himself (and her) that it’s human connection that he wants: “I tell her that I draw strength from her company.”

The girl cuts through this. I won’t say how. You should read the story. But it’s important to note what she does not do. In stories by beginning writers (and in some scripts by professional TV and film writers), a character like the girl will dispense wisdom. She’ll be a kind of guardian angel, swooping into the story to help the main character feel better or learn something. If that’s the point of the story (Highway to HeavenQuantum LeapTouched by an Angel), then so be it. But it’s crucial to look out for lazy tropes. For example, when a character like the girl is black, she too often becomes the magical negro. Solis avoids this problem. The girl doesn’t dispense wisdom. She acts and speaks in ways that match her own desires in the moment.

The result is a great, tense passage. Read it here.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s create tension between physical desire and the architecture of thought a character builds around that desire, using “The Want” by Octavio Solis as a model:

  1. Find the basic desire. Keep it simple. What does your character hunger for? Or, what is an absence that is unacceptable to your character? The objects will be some of the usual ones: money, food, shelter, security, love, friendship, sex. Once you find the desire, put the object at its center just out of reach. Solis’ narrator wants a girl, but he can’t find one. The bar is full of “older blinder boozers” and the streets are empty. What does your character want? How can you make it seem impossible to get?
  2. Lay the foundation for the architecture of thought. The story begins on Christmas, and so there is a series of Christmas imagery: Bing Crosby on the radio, a city light that reminds the narrator of the Christmas star. The character is home from college, and so he flips through his high school yearbook, looking at pictures and notes written by classmates. The yearbook suggests a different kind of loneliness, not just sexual but more general. And, it’s a pretty short jump from Christmas imagery to theological loneliness. So, give your character and story something to work with. This is basic narrative work: what details in the setting and situation stand out to the character?
  3. Build the architecture of thought. When your character is alone in his/her head, thinking about these details while in the midst of the basic desire, what thoughts come up? Keep writing. What do they spin themselves into? In “The Want,” we soon realize that the narrator is struggling with his religious beliefs (or has moved past them and is struggling with the aftermath). We also realize that he’s not quite sure how to be an adult (reading the yearbook). He goes into a bar but doesn’t like the company he finds there. Like anyone does while driving, he thinks and thinks about these things and develops some ideas. To some extent, he’s created his own diversion from looking for sex. He’s distracted by his own thoughts. What are the thoughts that your character might become distracted by?
  4. Bring another character into the story. This character will not be aware of the invisible architecture of thought in the first character’s head. The girl in “The Want” only knows what she sees: a guy has picked her up. It’s natural, then, that her actions and words will cut across the world the narrator has created in his mind. She interacts with him based on his desire (which is evident), not his thoughts. Conflict ensues. So, what character can you bring into the story? How does that character fit into your main character’s basic desire?

The goal is to create conflict and tension by giving your main character/narrator both a desire and an architecture of thought build around that desire. You may know what those thoughts will be beforehand, or you may need to explore the premise a bit to discover them. Once you do, bring another character into the story.

Good luck.

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