This week I’ve been thinking a lot about you. Not literally you (though, depending on who you are, who knows), but the pronoun you, as employed in that rare gem of a POV, the second person. So far, only one story in my collection is told in the second person. This week, so that story didn’t feel so lonely, I tried switching a newer piece from first to second.
The piece in question was starting to feel like a memoir. Not that I have anything against memoirs, but there are parts of the story I like that are flat-out made up. I hoped using “you” could help create some distance. But I also wanted it to be in past tense. For some reason, the second person seems to naturally roll out in present. I wondered if this combo had been used much, so I did a Google search but came up pretty empty-handed.
Then I remembered that Junot Diaz had two second-person stories in his latest linked collection, This Is How You Lose Her (note how he even uses "you" in the title). First, I checked out “The Cheater’s Guide to Love,” which I had first read in The New Yorker. Sure enough, it’s in present tense, and it covers a whole six-year time period. In another second-person story of his, "Miss Lora," he starts off in past tense, but a few paragraphs in, he switches to present. Of course I didn’t notice this on the first read. I think any stylistic choice can work as long as it doesn’t call too much attention to itself.
So it seems most writers who dare to narrate a story from a second-person perspective will do so in the present tense. This makes sense to me. A second-person narrator often sounds like they're telling a story to a close friend: “You know how it is when you’re drunk, horny, and there’s only one girl left in the bar… You’re less choosy.” Even though the grammatical tense is present, it’s clear that, as in Diaz’s stories, the experience refers to something that's happened in the narrator’s past. Told that way, the narrator creates a more inclusive mood and the story feels more immediate.
I also found a short interview wherein Diaz says, “[The second person] has the distinction of being both intimate and repellent at the same time.” He also talks of using the second person to create distance between himself and the narrator. "I wanted my narrator to be 'in' the story, but also to be able to comment on his younger self a little."
I wondered how critics reacted to this style, so went back to Google, and sure enough, found this link. The post contains a reference to a scathing critical tweet by one Emily Gould: “like, no, bro, I definitely didn’t treat a lot of women like shit or think it was ok in the end bc it turned out 2 be grist for the ol’ mill."
I won’t pick apart her critique here, but I will say that when I read a story that's told in second person, I never feel that the writer is talking about “me,” unless that’s the point (and generally, that’s a less effective use of “you”). This idea came up when we workshopped my second-person story. Antoine said he mentally changed "you" to “I,” whereas for Marissa “you” became “he.” Neither thought I should change it, however. But their different interpretations are telling, as they adhere more or less to their respective genders, and perhaps how closely or not closely each identifies with the (male) narrator. But then I thought of Lorrie Moore’s first collection Self Help, where the “you” is clearly a woman, and I related to her just fine.
In the end, for this particular story, I went back to using a first-person POV. Mostly, it’s an aural thing, which is also why the other story works better for me in second. If ever in doubt, I read it aloud, and choose the one that sounds best. Ultimately, it’s all language, words on a page strewn into sentences, creating meaning via their relationships to one another. The syntax can often guide the content, or vice versa, but I believe it’s best when the line is blurred, when they equally inform and embellish each other. In a similar way, truth and fiction blended together sometimes makes the most interesting stories. But I’ll save that topic for next week.
P.S. After starting this blog post, Junot Diaz made an appearance in one of my dreams, hitting me up for weed. Seemed appropriate.
How do you feel about Valentine's Day? Here's essayist Alain de Botton on the "myth" of romantic love:
Alain de Botton was born in Zurich, Switzerland, in 1969, and now lives in London. His collected essays have been described as a 'philosophy of everyday life.' He’s written on love, travel, architecture, and literature. His books have been bestsellers in 30 countries. Learn more.
Artist: Brett Amory
In The Mark workshop last week, we discussed the relationship between scene and summary. A novel, Antoine told us, should strike the perfect balance of the two—showing and telling—as determined by the voice and world of the book.
Since I began writing fiction, I’ve been a devout disciple of Show. And as a reader, I’m realizing, I'm quite visually oriented. I like to see where I am, and whom I’m with, in the world of a story. Scenes are meant to show the reader what is happening and being felt in a particular instant. But context, as I'm now learning, opens the story’s lens so we can see why something matters and care about the character that's involved. In fiction, the balance of scene and summary lets us both see the actions and feel their reverberations.
I’ve heard, time and again, that reading nourishes the writer's imagination and work. This week, I decided to re-read Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee, a novel I love and have come to cite as a guiding influence on my work, but which—I realized—I’d only read, thoroughly, once. While rereading it, I’ve been particularly alert to the craft questions that are at the forefront of my mind. What is portrayed in the moment? Conversely, what is condensed, synthesized, and summarized? Where, between these two modes, does the story soar most, for me?
Coetzee’s novel, which takes place in South Africa, is the story of a professor who loses his job and attempts to rebuild his relationship with his daughter. All of the summary is germane to the action. The oscillation between forward narrative movement and recapitulation is subtle because, as written by Coetzee, the two are pertinent and intertwined. And, in this way, the scope of the story gains depth while simultaneously moving forward. Compared to many books, Disgrace shows through scenes more than it tells, but when Coetzee tells, he tells interestingly, which is perhaps why the text so effectively moves me as a reader—and why I admire him so much as a writer.
As John Gardner said, the aim of fiction is to create for the reader a “vivid and continuous dream.” My aim in my writing is to strike the balance between scene—showing the dream—and summary—making it matter.
Last week I went to my son’s midyear parent-teacher conference. I was prepared to take notes and discuss his work. What I didn’t anticipate was a mini-writing workshop–– a refreshing twist to the usual discussion. To teach writing to the children, my son’s school utilizes a method Lucy Calkins developed. She is the Founding Director of the Reading and Writing Project at Columbia University’s Teachers College.
Antoine Wilson assigned Making Shapely Fiction by Jerome Stern to our current Mark participants. You've seen Eric, Natali, and Marissa refer to the book in their blog posts; today, we thought we'd share a preview of the text.
"This book is different from other books on writing. You can start writing serious fiction from the first page -- because, as Jerome Stern makes clear, learning to write spontaneously is the first step to writing well. As you begin to grasp the principle of momentum, tension and immediacy, you'll find your fiction has shape and form. You'll discover how to 'write what you know,' and avoid the traps and pitfalls awaiting fledgeling authors. A cross-referenced Alphabet for Writers includes incisive entries for such writerly concerns as Anti-Heroes, Dialogue, Sex, and Style. Whether you're a beginner, a seasoned professional, or a teacher of the craft, you already know there are no rules in writing ficton... but Jerome Stern will inspire you to find your personal path." - Publisher's description.
I’m nervous. Not about my writing––the collection’s coming along. What I’m nervous about is this blog. But I'll get to that in a moment.
George Saunders, author of the newly published short story collection Tenth of December, appeared on The Colbert Report a few weeks ago. In the following interview Saunders, a MacArthur "Genius" Fellow, defends the value of the short story form using a series of different analogies. Colbert responds accordingly.
Photo credit: Robinberg Photography
At this point in The Mark program, I thought it would be helpful to reach out to Lucy Corin, my teacher from my masters program at UC Davis. I often look to writers I admire for guidance, and I’m excited to share some of Lucy’s inspiring thoughts with you here, on The Mark blog.
Shortly after completing the Emerging Voices Fellowship, I applied to the masters in creative writing program at UC Davis. Lucy was the faculty member who notified me of my acceptance, and she also sat on my thesis committee. My graduate thesis was a draft of the novel I'm working on now in The Mark.
As a winner of the 2012 American Academy of Arts and Letters Rome Prize, Lucy is currently living and writing in Rome. She has a new collection of short stories forthcoming in August 2013 from McSweeney’s Books, called One Hundred Apocalypses and Other Apocalypses. Her other books include Everyday Psychokillers: A History for Girls and a terrific collection, The Entire Predicament. She’s an associate professor at UC Davis and earned her MFA from Brown University.
The following interview was conducted over email.
As a former student of yours, I'm curious: What's it like for you to be away from campus and engaged full time as a writer, as opposed to splitting your time between writing and teaching?
I have loved teaching and learned so much from it and from individual students along the way. But I'd been struggling with some burnout, so it's an enormous relief to have some distance from it, to read without thinking about what my reading might mean to students or to my professional life. I hope the result will be that I return to teaching with a different relationship to it. I think the burnout came from my frustrations with the institutional changes we're all familiar with as well as being tired of my own shtick.
As soon as I have a shtick I become sick of it. But since all my non-teaching time is devoted to writing, when I go back to teaching, I just want to rely on my shtick, even though that feels really false and lonely to me. And abandoning my 'way of doing things' or my 'take on things' would leave me swirling with uncertainty in public, and that is not good for teaching—not in lecture format or in seminar format, either. But departure from habit is essential to writing and to the time spent writing.
All of this is just to say that writing full time is wonderful and I can't get enough of it.
You have a blog, referred to on your website as a "public writer's journal.” What's this experience like for you? Do you find that it affects your work or writing process, and why did you make the choice to start it?
I decided to do it because I wanted to embrace the idea of having a "web presence" instead of scoffing at it. I wanted to use the space without the ambition of being a trafficked site—without fighting for visibility on the web. I wanted to make it an honest space dedicated to what I think is important about what I do, rather than a space that felt controlled by the aspects of marketing that I think are disruptive to the making of art. I did not want to reproduce or create chatter.
What is your current project and can you tell us a little bit about it? What are you excited about and what's been a struggle?
I don't think I want to say much more about the project than what's on my blog. Mostly because I'm in the phase where my ambitions for it feel so grand that it's embarrassing to say what they are. It's a novel I've been trying to write for a long time—throwing away many months and reams of false starts—while also writing another collection of stories.
On your blog, you mention your aversion to free indirect discourse,* both in your own work as well as in the fiction you read. Can you explain how you navigate this technique?
I don't hate it every time I see it, and I don't avoid using it myself. I've just been paying extra attention to my response to different uses of it. What I don't like is a kind of "Look at me! I'm not here!" tone from the author that I feel is present in almost every third-person realistic, or supposedly stream-of-consciousness, thing I read.
I cannot bear authors pretending they aren't in there when clearly, they are. I feel it lacks honesty. Perhaps people think that using that form of narration will save them from having to deal with one of the most essential—if not the most essential––dynamics of fiction, which is the fiction-ness of the fiction.
I'm reading Desperate Characters by Paula Fox, which is a very realistic novel, but it has an active relationship with its fiction-ness that allows me to embrace its form of realism. Its mode of self-awareness is in the spirit of its take on the world—and it gives the authorial presence a real authority.
I'm interested in how you feel about endings. Are there any novels or stories that come to mind that have what you consider perfect or near-perfect endings?
I think you can only approach the question of where a novel ends within the context of what has come before in the book. But it also seems to me that people treat crisis/upheaval as the exception in life, rather than the rule. I mean, it seems to me that people are mostly at war, and that there are only moments of peace. So I've been thinking that it's actually strange that novels supposedly begin and end with stasis. In this sense, stasis is the artifice, not change, not conflict, drama, or discord. Stories often end with a moment of recognition of the profound discord that might have been there all along, unrecognized, and that seems like a more 'realistic' aspect of traditional form than stasis-conflict-stasis.
*Free indirect discourse is a style of third-person narration that slips into a character's thoughts, coming very close to a first-person point-of-view. The effect is that a character's consciousness and direct experience are filtered through the third-person narrator.
I thought I'd gotten the definition of a short story straight. Almost every conversation on the topic starts with Edgar Allan Poe’s famous quote: “A short story must have a single mood and every sentence must build toward it.” But an overwhelming number of opinions and definitions flow from there.
In her essay “What Makes a Short Story?” Francine Prose poses a litany of difficult questions, followed by “…all of these seemingly impossible questions are, in fact, far easier to address than the deceptively straightforward matter of what constitutes the short.”
At our last workshop, Antoine pointed out that a piece of mine that I considered to be a story read more like a chapter in a novel. This was especially true within the context of the larger collection. After workshop, it was clear to me that I needed to add scenes and conflict in order to make it a stand-alone short story.
Turning to Making Shapely Fiction, I found Jerome Stern had this to say about the genre: “A story is what happens to the reader. By something I mean something that’s emotionally and intellectually moving enough to have some gravity, some weight, some sense of significance. By happens I mean makes an impression, causes a reaction, precipitates a thought, creates a mood. A story makes a reader feel as if they have had an experience…” Wow. What I appreciate about Stern’s definition is that it makes the reader of central importance.
In workshops I have often heard the short story defined as the moment after which the character is changed forever. This seems true enough, but I'm not sure it's the whole answer in my situation. In the story that inspired this discussion, my character is making a life-altering decision, but there is no sense of conflict or doubt surrounding the character's other options. For this reason the story doesn't seem to have much emotional impact.
In the end, I keep going back to Stern’s definition. There’s almost a sense of magic to writing, an element that cannot be defined or taught. Even though there is a craft to writing, there is also an art to it. Short stories are definitely labors of love.
I’ll leave you with one of my favorite quotations, which comes from Andre Dubus: “I love short stories because I believe they are the way we live. They are what our friends tell us, in their pain and joy, their passion and rage, their yearning and their cry against injustice.”
We're excited to share this treasure from John Steinbeck, whose thoughtful reflections on the art of writing constitute an invaluable resource for all writers. Below is Steinbeck's "letter" to beginning writers:
Although it must be a thousand years ago that I sat in a class in story writing at Stanford, I remember the experience very clearly. I was bright eyes and bushy-brained and prepared to absorb the secret formula for writing good short stories, even great short stories. This illusion was canceled very quickly. The only way to write a good short story, we were told, is to write a good short story. Only after it is written can it be taken apart to see how it was done. It is a most difficult form, as we were told, and the proof lies in how very few great short stories there are in the world.
The basic rule given us was simple and heartbreaking. A story, to be effective, had to convey something from the writer to the reader, and the power of its offering was the measure of its excellence. Outside of that, there were no rules. A story could be about anything and could use any means and any technique at all––so long as it was effective. As a subhead to this rule, it seemed to be necessary for the writer to know what he wanted to say, in short, what he was talking about. As an exercise we were to try reducing the meat of our story to one sentence, for only then could we know it well enough to enlarge it to three- or six- or ten-thousand words.
So there went the magic formula, the secret ingredient. With no more than that, we were set on the desolate, lonely path of the writer. And we must have turned in some abysmally bad stories. If I had expected to be discovered in a full bloom of excellence, the grades given my efforts quickly disillusioned me. And if I felt unjustly criticized, the judgments of editors for many years afterward upheld my teacher's side, not mine. The low grades on my college stories were echoed in the rejection slips, in the hundreds of rejection slips.
It seemed unfair. I could read a fine story and could even know how it was done. Why could I not then do it myself? Well, I couldn't, and maybe it's because no two stories dare be alike. Over the years I have written a great many stories and I still don't know how to go about it except to write it and take my chances. If there is a magic in story writing, and I am convinced there is, no one has ever been able to reduce it to a recipe that can be passed from one person to another. The formula seems to lie solely in the aching urge of the writer to convey something he feels important to the reader. If the writer has that urge, he may sometimes, but by no means always, find the way to do it. You must perceive the excellence that makes a good story good or the errors that make a bad story. For a bad story is only an ineffective story.
It is not so very hard to judge a story after it is written, but, after many years, to start a story still scares me to death. I will go so far as to say that the writer who is not scared is happily unaware of the remote and tantalizing majesty of the medium.
I remember one last piece of advice given me. It was during the exuberance of the rich and frantic '20s, and I was going out into that world to try and to be a writer.
I was told, "It's going to take a long time, and you haven't got any money. Maybe it would be better if you could go to Europe."
"Why?" I asked.
"Because in Europe poverty is a misfortune, but in America it is shameful. I wonder whether or not you can stand the shame of being poor."
It wasn't too long afterward that the depression came. Then everyone was poor and it was no shame anymore. And so I will never know whether or not I could have stood it. But surely my teacher was right about one thing. It took a long time - a very long time. And it is still going on, and it has never got easier.
She told me it wouldn't.