Jun 252010

On Emma Lake

This is a poem by my friend Dave Margoshes, also a short story writer (also someone I could depend on for Best Canadian Stories in the decade of my editorship). Dave lives in Saskatchewan which is a province I used to visit a lot–those lovely summer residencies at Fort San (a retired tuberculosis hospital turned into a summer arts centre–some details from the place made it into a story of mine called “A Piece of the True Cross”) in the beautiful Qu’Appelle Valley. Every morning we were awakened by the call of bag pipes wafting over the dry hills. But he knows Vermont well, having been a guest at the Vermont Studio Center.

Author’s Note:

“Becoming a writer” is one of the poems in my collection The Horse Knows the Way, which came out last fall (from Buschek Books in Ottawa). The poem was sparked by something I read or heard – I thought by Gabriel Garcia Marquez – to the effect that “Everything I needed as a writer I had acquired by the time I was six.” In fact, I used that quote, or what I thought may have only been a paraphrase, as an epigram to the poem, and it appeared that way in The Queen’s Quarterly. Later, as I was preparing for the publication of The Horse Knows the Way, I was unable to verify the quote – now I have no idea from whence it came – and dropped the epigram. The poem, and an explanation like this about the epigram, appeared later in The Best Canadian Poetry in English, 2009, from Tightrope Books in Toronto. So I owe Marquez – or someone – a debt of gratitude.

Becoming a writer

What could be easier than learning to write?
Novels, poems, fables with and without morals,
they’re all within you, in the heart, the head,
the bowel,  the tip of the pen a diviner’s rod.
Reach inside and there they are, the people
one knows, their scandalous comments,
the silly things they do, the unforgettable feeling
of a wet eyelash on your burning cheek.
This moment, that, an eruption of violence,
a glancing away, the grandest of entrances,
the telling gesture, the banal and the beautiful,
all conspire with feeling and passion to transport,
to deliver, to inspire. Story emerges
from this cocoon, a crystalline moment, epiphanies
flashing like lightbulbs above the heads
of cartoon characters. All this within you
where you least expect  it, not so much in the head
as under the arms, glistening with sweat, stinking
with the knowledge of the body, the writer
neither practitioner nor artisan but miner, digging
within himself for riches unimagined, for salt.

—Dave Margoshes

Jun 252010

#6:  Letting Characters Speak the Truth

How often do we lie, hide, evade, and otherwise avoid a truth in life?  I don’t mean big lies, lies of consequence, but little ones, white lies, lies of avoidance in place of harsher truths.  Most of the rules of polite society demand decorum at the expense of honesty.  The common question in the street, “How are you?” is seldom met with a genuine response.  If it was, the inquisitor would likely run for the hills.  We are expected to behave, to polish reality, to adhere to the strictures of proper behavior, and this tendency can bleed over into our writing.  (Well, it did in mine.)

Charles Baxter, in his essay, “Create a Scene,” says, “In fiction we want to have characters create scenes that in real life we would typically avoid.”

In a story I submitted for my third packet, I did something right (at last!) which created a spark of drama.  I had one of my characters speak honestly to his wife when he didn’t necessarily want to.  It was an uncomfortable moment, and my character spoke a truth that in real life he probably would have avoided saying out loud.  Prior to this moment, I had diligently avoided making this choice in much of my writing, but once I did, the scene erupted with dramatic potential.  (It fizzled soon after, but hey, I’m still learning.)

Doug wrote about this scene in my packet letter: “But then the scene develops good drama when Jacob actually tells the truth.  I love it when a student learns to use the truth to power a scene.”  They were only two lines in a 5 page, single spaced response, but what joy at reading those two lines!

On our follow-up phone conversation, Doug reminded me that at each moment in a story, the writer chooses how a character acts.  The writer, through the characters, decides to evade or rush forward with the truth.  Those choices change the outcome of  scenes and stories, creating vibrant, dramatic ones, or, in my case before this scene, creating flat, lifeless ones that mimic the undramatic experiences we have every day.  In much of my previous writing, my characters mostly behaved like genteel people, avoiding the truth in a bland mimesis of reality.

Baxter again: “The story becomes the stage, not for truth, but for self-actualization.  We try to imagine the person as we would like ourselves to be and as a result write a banal and lifelessly idealistic story.”

In life most of us are duty-bound to follow very different rules than the ones we create in our writing.  In fiction, we’re unfettered.  In fiction, the inner demons can rage.  By allowing them to do so, the writer creates an opportunity for drama.

On a specific, concrete level, such drama can be created simply by having characters tell each other difficult truths.  Baxter calls this the “staging of a desire, making a darkness visible and dramatic.”

I knew avoidance was wrong and that it impeded my story.  That was the frustrating part.  I knew that desire/resistance leads to conflict which leads to drama, but I had a hard time enacting it in a scene.  Doug’s simple solution of having my characters behave honestly (usually in dialogue) significantly helped me understand the potential at various stages throughout a story.

I found myself going back to this lesson again and again throughout the semester.  My characters began to blurt out things that most people wouldn’t say sitting around the dinner table.  Baxter says we need such spectacle.  “Bad manners put us on a stage, and a stage, as every writer knows, is what is required for dramatic force.”

By taking this relatively small step, and letting my characters speak the truth, I found a tangible technique that helped me amp up the dramatic potential of a scene.

Up Next: #5: My Love Affair with Abstractions

See also other entries in this series starting with #10.

-Rich Farrell

Jun 212010


Herewith a sermon by VCFA graduate Hilary Mullins, not a former student of mine, though she was in a novel workshop with me once, just a friend, but an old and good friend who comes up to the campus every residency to visit and sits in for a lecture or two or a reading. I has fond memories of long evenings spent in Francois Camoins’ room in Noble with Hilary and Ralph Angel and any number of students and faculty rotating in and out. Good friends, good conversation.

I offer this sermon in the Numéro Cinq spirit of subversiveness and outlawry. Once upon a time, the sermon was a hot nonfiction form. Books of sermons were routinely published and became best sellers. Nowadays, creative nonfiction is pretty narrowly defined and almost all literary prose has turned secular. I offer this sermon to remind you of a form, now too often ignored, a vibrant form that by definition looks to the deepest places of the human heart. Also to remind you to look to the side, to avoid defining yourselves, your reading and your writing too narrowly.


Hilary Mullins, Author’s Note:

Sermons are a great form, and–as a writer addressing other writers–I am here to tell you it’s a form you do not have to be ordained to practice. You should be informed  of course, but that is not the same as being ordained. In my case, I’ve taken a couple of seminary classes plus a three-year lay training program in Vermont where I live. I have also studied a fair amount on my own. But that is all. And yet it’s enough.

Naturally, since I also run the services I preach at, my sense of the sermon’s  potential exceeds the parameters of theHilary Mullins-background changed sermon itself. For me the form is the whole service: from the prelude and call of worship, to the first hymn and prayer, to the sustained silence that comes next, and on and on, each element flowing along in the larger structure of the liturgy, creating an ongoing rhythm that, if you do it right, wakes people up—to themselves, to each other, to the deeper  river running through all things.

But as for the sermon itself, it has its own dynamics as well. Even more obviously than a short story or an essay, the sermon is a wonderfully flexible form that you can shape shift in just about any direction that will serve, mixing facts and figures with quotations or poetry, alternating straight-up exegesis with story. And in the liberal denominations I work in, which are Unitarian Universalist and Congregationalist, I have the freedom to work with texts beyond the Bible. For instance, when it comes to picking scripture for a Sunday, I have often paired a Biblical passage with a poem, using works by Rumi, Mary Oliver, Sharon Olds, and Gerard Manley Hopkins. Some denominations won’t allow this, it’s true. But the limitations are not in the form itself.

Then there are effects that, though they don’t play in a reprinted sermon, work well in person with a congregation before you. Smile when you stand up, and they’ll smile back. Then as you get going, talk quiet or talk loud, slow up, slow down, use your body. Speak as if you were a channel for something good and something good can happen. And maybe best of all, the thing that other writers so rarely get to do: look in their eyes. Worlds are there. And they will come forth as they look back at you.

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