Jun 122010


Here is a story by my friend Michael Bryson from his 2010 collection How Many Girlfriends. For several years Michael published a terrific online magazine in Toronto called The Danforth Review, which is sadly defunct although the pages now reside in the Library and Archives Canada and can still be accessed there. This was before online magazines had much legitimacy; Michael was ahead of his time, and his magazine was a useful lens on what was new and coming in the Canadian literary world while it lasted. He also writes. I put one of his stories in Best Canadian Stories (2005). And he publishes a blog called Underground Book Club.


My Life in Television

When I was sixteen, a man spoke to my parents. A week later, he bought me a new set of clothes and I flew with him to California. His name (and I’m not making this up) was Sly. Maybe my story starts with the arrival of Sly. My parents will tell you straight out he’s an evil bastard, which is true enough, but Sly’s character was nothing if not Byzantine. He looked a bit like Santa Claus, an fact he exploited with the young and the old. It took me a long time to see the bits of him that I can claim to know, because for a long time I couldn’t see over his wake. I would look at him and see just the crest of his wave. He was my substitute father, my mentor, my guide in the world of glitter he had brought me to, and I was his servant. I was his paycheque, too, but it took me a long time to figure that out. I’m trying hard not to cloud my judgement about Sly here. I’m trying to tell you things that are simple and real. I would like to say things about Sly that even Sly would agree with, if he were here to agree with them, which he isn’t, since he’s dead.

Maybe that’s where we should start.IMG_0220

It was a dark and stormy night in New Hampshire (I’m not making this up). I was in L.A. with Lily (more on her later). Sly was in New Hampshire. I was trying desperately to get him on the phone. In recent days, we had argued. I had been in a professional slump. At the time, I blamed Sly. “Patience,” he counseled. In my condo on the outskirts of the city, Lily laid out the last of our drugs. It was approaching nightfall. Lily was still wearing her bathrobe. Beneath her robe she wore only her bikini bra. She was seventeen. I was twenty-one.

“Sly, you fucker!” I screamed into the phone. I kept getting his answering machine. He had gone to New Hampshire to meet a new client. A potential new client, anyway. I was afraid that I would lose his attention. Before he had left for the East Coast, he had been reassuring.

“I have a script on my desk right now. It’s perfect for you. The producers want you. It’s a role that could really make you.”

“Well, shit! Send it over!”

“When I get back,” he promised.

The circus was his favorite metaphor. “Life’s the Big Top, kid,” he would say. “Don’t ever forget that.”

After he died, I kept hearing his voice over and over. “Life’s the Big Top, kid. The Big Top, kid. Don’t ever forget that.”

Let me tell you one thing clear and true: I haven’t forgotten that. Life is a carnival. The carnival is the centre and source of all life. Sly taught me that, and now I’m telling it to you.

Continue reading »

Jun 112010
David Homel

David Homel on location on a film shoot in the Dominican Republic, on the Puerto Plata-Sosúa road. Photo courtesy of the National Film Board of Canada.

Here’s an excerpt from a forthcoming novel by my friend David Homel who, not coincidentally, is going to be the visiting translator at the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA in Writing winter residency (January, 2011). Go to his reading, walk up and say hello, give him the secret Numéro Cinq handshake, whisper the Words of Power. David is a novelist, translator, and screenwriter. He has won the Governor-General’s Award for Translation, not once but twice. His novel  The Speaking Cure won the Hugh McLennan Prize. Last year David and his wife, children’s book author Marie-Louise Gay, co-authored a picture book entitled Travels with my Family.

The Midway is due to be published by Cormorant Books in Toronto in September.

Excerpted from Midway

Author’s note: In this excerpt, the novel’s hero Ben Allan confronts the heart of the male mid-life crisis which manifests itself to him as the fear of death and a desire to destroy everything his life is built on. The real problem, Ben is discovering, is with death itself: it refuses to let itself be known, even after it has visited. Ben has two allies in his attempt to work out a new way of living with his wife. Unlikely allies, it’s true: a couple of plastic dinosaurs. They prove to be pretty good therapists.

“I’m afraid I’m turning into a cliché,” the stegosaurus lamented to the tyrannosaurus. “You know, the one with the discontent middle-age male. The mid-life crisis from which there is no escape. The red convertible and the blond girl with the wind in her hair.”

“Sounds delicious. But don’t worry about being a cliché: there are no new emotions,” the tyrannosaurus answered in his pontificating manner. “The genius is in how you experience them.”

“And I am experiencing them,” the stegosaurus said ruefully. “Human, all too human.”

“Are you complaining by any chance?” the tyrannosaurus asked. “Night after domestic night, isn’t that what you wanted? What you pined for, like in one of those sentimental ballads you liked to listen to when you were a teenager and that formed – deformed is more like it – your emotional universe to this very day? And now that you have a few of those wild, inconvenient emotions you once craved, you hesitate. You retreat. You are becoming human. Careful what you pray for – you just might get it.”

“I was hoping for more empathy from you,” the stegosaurus said. But even in the lower forms of vertebrate life, among the prehistoric, the extinct, empathy was hard to come by.

The tyrannosaurus snorted. “You know my nature. It’s a world I never made.”

Typical, the steg thought to himself, for his brother reptile to quote James T. Farrell, the pugnacious pride of Chicago, that tough-guy writer whom he personally considered one-dimensional. But he kept that thought to himself. He had been drinking, albeit modestly, but he didn’t trust his own thoughts after two glasses of wine. Unlike the tyranno, he was an inexperienced drinker. The stuff went to his head, and sometimes he couldn’t tell which thoughts were his, and which belonged to the wine. The effect wasn’t very pleasant.

Both dinosaurs had been drinking, though they were still within the domain of “moderate.” You couldn’t call them “social” drinkers, since their society had long since disappeared. They were just a couple of lonely guys, up late at night, egging each other on, a meditation for two, spoken out loud. They were lonesome monsters, and they knew it.

The steg was a worn green color, like the copper roof of some university pavilion in an Ivy League school. He carried his characteristic bony plates of defense on his back as if they were a burden, which they had become, now that his place in the world was assured. The tyrannosaurus had no other defense than his famous teeth and nails, powered by an aggressiveness that even scared him if he bothered to consider it. He was earth-brown, but his drab color made absolutely no difference to him. They were both banged up from a lifetime of play: the stegosaurus was missing a horn, and his companion had his tail twisted up at a jaunty angle that seemed out of character for this most fearsome of predators.

Continue reading »

Jun 102010
YouTube Preview Image

9.  Pronouns Without Antecedents Are Abstractions.

I’m going to share with NC the opening of the first story I submitted to Doug this semester.  This paragraph was not one of my finer moments as a student, but it nicely illustrates the way pronouns can muddle clarity and muck up a story.

We don’t like the sun, his eyes say when they speak.  They tell him they want darkness, rest and a release from the prison of sight.  It’s a tiresome, thankless job, they say, this constant work.”

The paragraph contains thirty-six words and nine pronouns.  Nine!  Fully one quarter of the paragraph is made up of pronouns, most without antecedents.  (Not to mention speaking eyes and italicized eye-speech.  What can I say?  I had just moved back from Spain and the reverse culture shock was brutal.)  I was not trying to be intentionally abstract and confusing.  If I’m honest, I was trying to sound interesting, mysterious, perhaps a little vague, but my exuberant use of pronouns severed the paragraph’s clarity lines, unmooring the writing into a sea of vagueness.  Using pronouns made sense initially, but toward what end?  By keeping proper names out and using pronouns, I created a false intimacy with the reader.  The intimacy created with this paragraph was unearned.  The slight benefit of being abstract (by using pronouns) rendered only confusion, frustration and fuzzy logic.  I’ve seen it done well in stories and novels before, but I wasn’t pulling it off.  Instead, I had created an incoherent mess!

I quickly learned from this experience (and the accompanying packet letter which scorched my hands) that a pronoun without an antecedent is an abstraction.   Doug wrote the following: “Pronouns are abstractions, they refer to other words, they are not concrete and easily identifiable.”  (Then the shredding began in earnest! )

I’d never really thought about pronouns as abstractions before.  I used them willy-nilly, inserting pronouns freely and effortlessly as I wrote, not recognizing that my use of pronouns created a swirling ball of confusion.  The reasons now seem obvious:  As I wrote, I understood implicitly what each pronoun referred to.  I knew ‘him’ referred to a character, and ‘they’ referred to a voice inside this character’s head.  But a reader would not understand the missing antecedents, and would quickly tire of the confusion.  Did I say nine pronouns?

Theodore A. Rees Cheney, in his wonderful little craft book, Getting the Words Right, addresses the issues of pronoun ambiguity.  “Pronouns make speech clearer by serving as a shortened reference to something previously mentioned.”   Cheney continues:

For pronouns to do their job, it must be clear what they refer back to.  We are much more tolerant of poor referencing in conversation than in writing because in conversation we receive other clues (sometimes subliminally) to the antecedent.  However, if a reader is forced to guess at an antecedent, there’s a better than even chance he’ll guess incorrectly.  A careful writer does not want his reader confused, even momentarily, so he watches his pronouns as carefully as he does his briefcase in a restaurant.

Doug relentlessly stalked my stories for pronouns without antecedents.  I often revised sentences with the sole intent of taking out as many pronouns as I could.  Clarity, again.  (See #10.) Pronoun use often simplified my sentences at the expense of clarity.

Up Next: #8: My Dirty Little Secret: Grammar Issues.

-Rich Farrell

Jun 082010
Canadian Icons?

Where’s Paris H?

What follows are informal thoughts on the top-ten things I learned this semester.  Caveat 1: I learned way more than ten things.  (At least eleven or twelve.)  I’m setting out to reveal the 10 most consistent mistakes I made and looking at a few outside sources to help clarify my explanation.  I hope that the NC moderator (and my former advisor) will feel free to comment, correct or criticize any of the entries for future students.  (I’m also sure that future students will be better-versed in these things, and less likely to make the same mistakes I did.)  Caveat 2:  I didn’t come from a literary background, so please don’t laugh too much if some of these seem woefully obvious.

All of these were consistently repeated problems for me this semester.  One would think, at my age, that I could have corrected them more quickly.  (Something about an old dog and new tricks.  Or is it a blue dog and old ticks?…no matter.)   Many of these kept reappearing, packet after packet.  Alas, after much navel gazing and mental anguish, I have compiled a top ten list.

I will update the post as often as I can before departing for Slovenia.  (In just over 2 weeks.)

10.  Use attributed dialogue.

Doug beat this point into me again and again.  He reminded me to consistently attribute my dialogue with specific tags.  (He said, she said, etc.)  I knew enough to avoid saying things like “He gasped,” or “She said sourly.”  Dialogue should carry the tonality of what’s being spoken.  But this idea of attribution was new to me, and Doug  seethed over unattributed dialogue, which occurred in almost all of my  stories.  He referred to it as a “disembodied voice.”  I had never been told to be so clear and consistent before, nor had I been so aware of how unattributed dialogue quickly creates abstraction and confusion for the reader.

Janet Burroway, in Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft, puts it this way:

“The format and style of dialogue, like punctuation, has as its goal to be invisible; and though there may be occasions when departing from the rules is justified by some special effect, it’s best to consider such occasions rare.”  (135)

Burroway says keep it simple and, above all, clear, so the reader knows who is speaking at all times.  Creating confusion usually serves no purpose.  Burroway does say that if it’s clear who’s speaking, don’t use a dialogue tag.  I recall Doug telling me (and please correct me if I’m wrong) that Gordon Lish once told him to use attributed tags on nearly each spoken line.  Clearly, a consistent approach helps.  I think of hearing stories read aloud, and how attributed dialogue helps clarify speech immensely when listening to it.  But even on the page, I’ve certainly read a number of stories and novels where I literally have to go back and re-count lines of dialogue to figure out who’s speaking.

Burroway makes another interesting point: that dialogue tags should come in the middle of a spoken line, rather than at the beginning.  Again, the impact of calling too much attention to something supposed to be invisible dictates this choice.  For example, it should NOT be:

Doug said, “Rich, how could you be so stupid?”

It should be:

“Rich,” Doug said, “how could you be so stupid?”

The second example keeps the reader’s focus on Rich’s stupidity, and not on Doug’s voice.

If there was one, overarching message this semester,  it was the importance of being clear.  Clarity in writing only helps the story get told.  Using disembodied voices and inconsistent dialogue tags leads to reader confusion and abstraction.  As ponderous as it felt at times, writing the tags over and over, it certainly did clarify my speaking scenes.

See #9.

See #8.

See #7.

See #6.

See #5.

See #4.

See #3.

See #2.

See #1.

And recap.

–Rich Farrell