Miscellaneous Essays and Interviews
From THE CASE OF THE WEST MEMPHIS THREE
(The full text, including extensive footnotes, was published as an appendix to the ebook edition of Damien Echols's Life After Death (Blue Rider Press, 2012)
In 1993, three teenagers who have come to be known as the West Memphis Three were arrested and charged with brutally slaying three eight-year-old boys in West Memphis, Arkansas, as part of a purported “satanic ritual” that involved sexual molestation and mutilation. In 1994, Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jessie Misskelley were convicted of these crimes in trials that rival the Salem Witch Trials of 1692-1693 for their reliance on rumors, lies, superstition, and religious hysteria. Baldwin and Misskelley were sentenced to life without parole and life plus forty years, respectively, and Echols, who was deemed the “ringleader,” was sentenced to death.
The three teenagers were convicted of these heinous murders despite the fact that there was not then, nor is there now, any physical evidence tying them to the crime. No DNA, blood, hairs, fingerprints, or footprints—nothing. Nor was there any evidence at the crime scene to suggest that the murders were part of a satanic ritual—no pentagrams or other occult symbols, no sign of fire, no candles, no incense. In part, Echols, Baldwin, and Misskelley were convicted on the basis of the “satanic panic” that resulted from testimony (since recanted) by a woman who claimed she’d witnessed the three teenagers at an esbat —a witches’ meeting—and by testimony from a self-described “expert” in the occult who admitted on the witness stand that he received his Ph.D. in Occult Studies from a fraudulent, mail-order diploma mill without ever taking a single class. But chiefly they were convicted on the basis of a false, coerced, and grossly error-riddled “confession” by Misskelley, a mentally challenged teenager with the IQ of a third-grade child, who was interrogated for the better part of twelve hours without a lawyer or parent present and who believed he would receive a $35,000 reward in exchange for his statement. He immediately recanted his confession and refused to testify against Echols and Baldwin even after he was offered a significantly reduced sentence to do so. Despite the fact that his confession was ruled inadmissible in the other men’s trial, the jury included it in their deliberations, thus violating Echols and Baldwin’s Sixth Amendment rights to confront their accuser. And despite the fact that substantial exculpatory evidence has been discovered since the trials, including DNA evidence that excludes the West Memphis Three as suspects and potentially implicates others, including the stepfather of one of the murdered boys, for eighteen years the State of Arkansas consistently rejected appeal after appeal and refused to order new trials.
This incredible injustice did not go unnoticed. The West Memphis Three have received widespread international attention and support, thanks in large part to Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky’s Emmy- and Peabody-winning 1996 HBO documentary, Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills, and its two sequels, Paradise Lost 2: Revelations and the Academy Award-nominated Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory. Amy Berg’s documentary West of Memphis also has galvanized support for the West Memphis Three, as has journalist Mara Leveritt’s Devil’s Knot: The True Story of the West Memphis Three. The website wm3.org, the first of many sites devoted to the case, also called worldwide attention to the case. The website was created in 1997 by Burk Sauls, Kathy Bakken, and Grove Pashley (who were later joined by Lisa Fancher), and by 1998 it had already became “the most extensive resource of its kind on the Internet relating to a single case.” Its mantra, “Free the West Memphis Three,” eventually became the rallying cry of thousands upon thousands of supporters from all around the globe, and sixteen years later, the site continues to play a vital role in enlightening the world about the case. Several organizations also provided invaluable support for the imprisoned men, among them The Innocence Project, Arkansas Take Action, The Center on Wrongful Convictions of Youth, and The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.
The cause of the West Memphis Three also received a great deal of international attention because of the support of many high-profile celebrities, including director and producer Peter Jackson and his partner Fran Walsh; actors Johnny Depp, Jacob Pitts, Lisa Blount, Will Ferrell, Jack Black, and Winona Ryder; comedian Margaret Cho; musicians Eddie Vedder, Natalie Maines, Peter Yarrow, Patti Smith, Henry Rollins, Steve Earle, Tom Waits, Joe Strummer, Jonathan Richman, Michale Graves, Marilyn Manson, and the members of Fistful of Mercy and Metallica; television writer and producer Norman Lear; and writer Sister Helen Prejean, author of Dead Man Walking. Jackson, Walsh, Depp, and Vedder have been particularly supportive, offering not only their advocacy but alsop financial support estimated at “many millions of dollars.” Jackson and Walsh have been especially generous; since 2005 they have funded most of the scientific testing and investigative research, and they also produced the documentary West of Memphis. According to one estimate, they have donated as much as $10 million in direct expenditures and in-kind contributions. Echols’s attorney Dennis Riordan has said the DNA testing alone “cost the defense more than $1 million.”
As essential as Jackson, Walsh, Depp, and Vedder’s support has been, perhaps the most important support has come from Echols’s wife, Lorri Davis, a landscape architect from New York City who began exchanging letters with Echols after she saw Paradise Lost in 1996, then made numerous trips to Arkansas to visit him, and eventually decided to devote herself not only to the case but to him. In 1998 she gave up her successful career with a leading New York design firm and the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs, and moved to Arkansas. In December 1999, she married Echols in a Buddhist ceremony at the prison. That same year she created Echols’s defense fund and began raising money to hire lawyers, investigators, and forensic experts and to pay for DNA and other scientific tests; she has shared all of the findings and legal advice with Baldwin and Misskelley and their legal teams. She also cofounded, with Capi Peck and Brent Peterson, the organization Arkansas Take Action, which did much to raise awareness about the case. Without her diligent, passionate efforts to right this wrong, the West Memphis Three might well have suffered the fate of so many other men and women convicted of crimes they did not commit: they might have been forgotten entirely.
Thanks to all of the people mentioned above, and the many thousands of everyday supporters who joined the grassroots effort to free the West Memphis Three, the clamor for justice steadily increased over the years and led, in August 2011, to the State of Arkansas granting their release through a rarely used, paradoxical legal maneuver called the Alford plea, which required them to plead guilty while legally maintaining their innocence.
The story of the trials of the West Memphis Three, their eighteen-year-long battle for freedom, their controversial release, and their continued efforts to clear their names is a long and complicated one. What follows is only a relatively brief summary of its bizarre and byzantine history.
THE MURDERS, SATANIC PANIC, AND THE INVESTIGATION
On May 5, 1993, three eight-year-old boys went missing in West Memphis, Arkansas, just across the Mississippi River from Memphis, Tennessee. Chris Byers, Michael Moore, and Stevie Branch were last seen alive at approximately six-thirty that evening. Family members, friends, neighbors, and two police officers searched for the boys that night without any luck. The search resumed the following morning, and at approximately one that afternoon, their bodies were found submerged in a stagnant, rain-filled drainage ditch in a four-acre patch of woods near Interstate 40 called Robin Hood Hills. They were naked and their wrists and ankles were bound with their shoelaces. The left side of Stevie Branch’s face was gouged, and Chris Byers’s scrotum had been removed and his penis skinned. The boys had numerous abrasions, contusions, fractures, cuts, lacerations, and scratches.
Almost immediately, rumors began to circulate that the murders were part of a satanic ritual. Chief Inspector Gary Gitchell, the lead investigator on the case, announced that the murders might have resulted from “cult activity,” and although he said he had seen no evidence to support that conclusion, the rumors continued. As Dr. Martin D. Hill, a forensic linguist who has studied the case in great depth, has said, “There were no ritual markings or emblems found at the crime scene, nor was there any physical evidence that rituals had taken place there in the past. The mutilation of the bodies was savage but not systematic.” Nonetheless, as early as two weeks after the murders, People magazine was reporting that townspeople suspected the killers were members of a “Satanic cult.” Numerous West Memphians, mostly teenagers, reported rumors of cult activity, and one apparently mentally ill fifteen-year-old named Ricky Climer told police that he had been a member of a satanic cult since he was ten and that the cult had committed a number of murders (none of which could be corroborated). He also claimed that the cult’s members had been attacked by Smurfs, a claim that apparently didn’t discredit his testimony enough to keep him off the prosecution’s witness list. Indeed, Detective Bryn Ridge, who would later testify that he didn’t consider Misskelley to be mentally challenged, wrote in his notes that Climer “appeared to be quite street wise and able to carry on a conversation with me that appeared to be normal for his age group.”
Chief among the suspected Satanists was eighteen-year-old Damien Echols, a ninth-grade dropout who stood out in the small, intensely conservative community of West Memphis because he dressed in black, listened to heavy metal music, read such writers as Stephen King and Anne Rice, and had checked out two “occult” books from the local library, Maurice Bouisson’s Magic and Cotton Mather on Witchcraft, a reprint, ironically, of The Wonders of the Invisible World, Mather’s 1693 defense of his infamous role in the Salem Witch Trials. As innocuous as these facts might seem, they would become key “evidence” in a contemporary version of those trials.
The first person to associate Satanism and Echols with the crime was, perhaps, Jerry Driver, the county’s chief juvenile probation officer. Driver purported to be an expert on the occult and sometimes gave seminars on occult-related crime. Echols had told Driver that he was a Wiccan—and indeed he was a student of the Wiccan religion—and Driver thought he dressed “like one of the slasher-movie-type guys.” Echols had had numerous run-ins with Driver in previous years, most notably in May 1992, when he and his then girlfriend, Deanna Holcomb, attempted to run away from home together and broke into an unoccupied trailer to escape 100-degree heat. They were partially undressed when they were apprehended, and Echols was convicted of breaking and entering and second-degree sexual misconduct. Driver also suspected Echols of Satanism because of a drawing Echols made of four tombstones, which Driver inexplicably interpreted as evidence that Echols and Holcomb intended to have a baby and sacrifice it to Satan.
Driver confided his suspicion that Echols was involved in the crime to his assistant, Steve Jones, who reportedly said, “Looks like Damien finally killed somebody” when Detective Sergeant Mike Allen discovered the first of the boys’ bodies the next day. Driver also confided his suspicions to Lieutenant James Sudbury, a West Memphis narcotics detective who, along with other members of the department’s Drug Task Force, was under investigation at the time for stealing confiscated drugs and guns from the department’s evidence room. (Interestingly, in November 1993 the West Memphis Evening Times reported that one of the people who had received confiscated guns was Judge David Burnett, who would become the presiding judge in the 1994 trials of the West Memphis Three.) Sudbury survived this initial investigation but was fired in 2003 after a police inquiry into various alleged criminal acts, including “destruction of evidence that would implicate his son in the drug trade.” Like Sudbury, Driver would himself get in trouble with the law; he pled no contest to the 1997 theft of $30,000 from his department’s funds.
When Driver confided his suspicions to Sudbury, he also gave him a list of eight teenagers and predicted that one or more of them would eventually be charged with the murders. In addition to Echols’s name, the list contained the names of his best friend, Jason Baldwin, and his girlfriend, Domini Teer.
As a result of Driver’s suspicions, Echols and Baldwin were the first two suspects questioned. On May 7, less than twenty-four hours after the bodies had been discovered, Sudbury and Jones went to the Echols family’s trailer home in West Memphis to question Damien. The following day, Sudbury gave Driver’s list to another West Memphis narcotics detective, Investigator Shane Griffin, and Griffin and Detective Bill Durham drove to the Baldwin family’s trailer home in nearby Marion to question Jason. Echols and Teer were also there, so Echols was questioned a second time. As Leveritt reported, “They were not read their Miranda rights or told they could have a lawyer present. None of their parents were there.” In any case, all three had alibis for the night of the murder, alibis that were corroborated. Echols, for example, had spent the post-school hours that day with the rest of his family, first at a friend’s house, then at a pharmacy, where he picked up a prescription, and finally at their home, where he spoke on the telephone with a girl from Memphis until eleven-thirty. All of the people involved—one of whom was Meredith McKay, the daughter of Ricky McKay, a West Memphis police officer involved in the investigation —confirmed Echols’s account.
Back on May 6, Driver had also given his list of prime suspects to Detective Donald Bray of the Marion Police Department, whose office was across the street from his own. That day, Bray was interviewing a thirty-two-year-old truck stop waitress named Vicki Hutcheson, who was suspected of stealing $200 by overcharging a customer’s credit card. Hutcheson told Bray that her eight-year-old son, Aaron, was a close friend of the murdered boys and that Chris Byers and Michael Moore had asked Aaron to go to Robin Hood Hills with them that fateful day but she had refused to let him. Thinking that Aaron might know something that would help solve the murders, Bray urged the West Memphis police to interview the boy. The following day, Aaron told police that Michael had been picked up at school on the afternoon of May 5 by a tall black man with yellow teeth who told Michael that his mother had asked him to take him home. Since Michael lived just two doors down from the school and his mother said that he had come home immediately after school, the police dismissed Aaron’s report.
Unfortunately, they did not entirely dismiss his later reports despite the fact that each time he was interviewed, his account grew more bizarre and contradictory. At first he said he wasn’t in the woods when the three boys were murdered, and then later he said he was there and witnessed Echols, Baldwin, and Misskelley committing the murders. Two other men, one of whom was black, were with them, he said, but he didn’t recognize them. He said Misskelley was holding Stevie in the water, waiting for the order from his “boss,” Echols, to kill him; then Michael and Chris found two guns, hid behind a tree, counted to three, then jumped out to shoot the five men, but the guns weren’t loaded. Then Echols cut Michael’s neck and blood poured all over his T-shirt, and when he was dead, Echols took off his clothes and raped him. Misskelley then cut off the genitals of all three boys. At this point, Misskelley saw Aaron and started to chase him, but Aaron tripped him and escaped. At other times, Aaron said that he was tied up but managed to untie himself and escape by outrunning the five men who chased him ; that Stevie had been stabbed in the stomach ; that John Mark Byers, the stepfather of Chris Byers, helped murder the children ; that Echols and Misskelley had poured his friends’ blood into a glass and made him drink it ; and even that he had castrated Chris himself.
During a second interview with Vicki Hutcheson a week later, Bray asked her if she knew anything about “an occult or devil worshippers,” and she said no, but a few days later she called Bray and said she would “play detective” and get more information. Hutcheson later told Bray that she had, for investigative purposes, initiated a romantic but sexless relationship with Echols and that, on the night of May 19, Echols had picked her up in a red Ford Escort and driven her and Misskelley, who had often babysat her children, to an esbat in a field outside Marion, where she witnessed approximately ten young people, whose faces and arms were painted black, engaging in an orgy. In 2004, overcome with guilt, Hutcheson would confess that “every word” of her testimony “was a lie.” But at the time Bray was convinced of her veracity and again contacted the West Memphis police.
On May 27, Inspector Gitchell and Detectives Ridge and Allen interviewed Hutcheson. They were aware that Echols did not have a driver’s license and had never been known to drive a car, yet they did not question her claim that he drove her to the esbat. Nor did they pursue the claim that he drove a red Escort, a car that did not match the description of any vehicle owned by his family or anyone else he knew. And neither did they ask her how she was able to witness the orgy in the field when there had been no moon that night.
On May 28, Ridge and Sudbury asked Hutcheson for permission to plant a tape recorder in her house in an attempt to record Echols discussing the murders. According to Hutcheson’s 2004 admission of perjury, she recorded conversations with both Echols and Misskelley that weekend and neither made any incriminating statements. Nonetheless, acting on Hutcheson’s claims, the police picked up seventeen-year-old Misskelley on the morning of June 3 and began interrogating him.
Misskelley was held by the police and interrogated over the course of twelve hours without an attorney or parent present. The reason no attorney was present, besides the fact that the interrogators would not have wanted one there, is that Misskelley had signed a form waiving his constitutional right to have one present. According to Arkansas law, a juvenile’s waiver form must be signed by a parent or guardian, but Misskelley’s was not. However, the Arkansas Supreme Court, which heard Misskelley’s appeal of his conviction, ruled that no parental signature was necessary in his case since he was charged as an adult. Misskelley’s attorney at the time, Dan Stidham, argued that this ruling meant that “a minor charged with a relatively light offense, such as throwing a rock through a window, could not sign away his constitutional rights without a parent also signing the form with him—yet a juvenile charged with a serious crime, for which he might receive a sentence of life in prison or even death, did not get that protection.”
Despite the absurdity of such an interpretation of the law, the court did not alter its ruling.
And not only was Misskelley a juvenile, he was mentally challenged. In 1983, he had scored 67 on a IQ test and was therefore diagnosed as “mildly mentally retarded.” At a pretrial hearing a psychologist testified that his current IQ scores “hovered at around 70” and that, scholastically, he had achieved a “maximum level” of third grade. Further expert psychological testimony established that Misskelley “tended to think like a six- or seven-year-old child” and his academic skills had advanced “only to the second- or third-grade level.” Because of his mental impairment, a psychologist testified, he “at times can’t tell the difference between fantasy and reality,” especially when under stress. He had definitely been under a great deal of stress during his relentless interrogation throughout the day on June 3. Although Allen later testified that they did not know that Misskelley was mentally challenged when they interrogated him, their questioning suggests otherwise, for Ridge asked this almost-adult if he knew what a penis was.
The interrogation had already lasted several hours before the police began to tape it at 2:44 p.m. All we know for certain about those hours of interrogation, beyond the fact that no parent or attorney was present, was that until shortly before the detectives began to tape him, Misskelley had denied any knowledge of the crime beyond the rumors he had heard around town. However, after Durham administered a polygraph test—and falsely told Misskelley he had failed it —he began to tell them what they wanted to hear. (It’s interesting to note that Durham had excused another early suspect, Quirt Gregory, from taking a polygraph test because he was “mildly retarded” and had “the mental capacity of about a 10-13 yr. old,” but didn’t excuse Misskelley despite his even lesser mental capacity. ) From 2:44 to 3:18 that afternoon, Misskelley answered the questions Gitchell, Ridge, and Allen posed. As Leveritt has written, “Most of his answers were vague. Many were contradictory. Almost all began with a prompt by one of the detectives.” Armed with Misskelley’s confession, the police attempted to obtain a search warrant, but the judge rejected their request because of significant discrepancies between Misskelley’s statement and the known facts of the case, most particularly Misskelley’s claim that the boys were killed the morning of May 5, when, the police knew, the boys had been in school.
So the interrogation continued. A second, twelve-minute statement was taped, probably around five p.m., and this time Misskelley said the murders took place at night, not in the morning. After taping this second statement, Gitchell, Ridge, and Deputy Prosecuting Attorney John Fogleman prepared an affidavit, then at 9:06 p.m. they appeared in court again to request a search warrant, this time before Judge William “Pal” Rainey. And this time the warrant was granted, a fact that shouldn’t be too surprising given Ridge’s later testimony that Judge Rainey had come to the police station to advise the police on how to prepare it. Leveritt notes, “This was highly unusual, as it later placed the judge in the position of ruling on the legality of a document that he had helped prepare.”
Although Misskelley was in police custody for approximately twelve hours, only forty-six minutes of his interrogation was recorded. Misskelley recanted his confession within hours, but it was allowed to be used against him in his trial and was later used illegally, as we shall see, by jurors in the trial of Echols and Baldwin. Misskelley said that he “confessed” because he thought the police would let him go home if he did. He also said that Allen told him he would receive the $35,000 reward if he “help[ed] them out,” and that he wanted the money so his dad could buy a new truck. But, as Dr. Hill has said, it is ultimately both impossible and unnecessary to determine why Misskelley confessed. “For whatever reasons,” the forensic linguist said, “instances of false confession exist. The primary question is: is this one of them?”
To answer that question, Hill conducted a meticulous linguistic analysis of the confession and concluded that “none of the key, specific, verifiable details were provided by the confessor [Misskelley],” that “the police were the source of nearly all of the substantive information regarding the crime,” and, further, that the information that Misskelley supplied was “contradictory” and “incorrect.” Significantly, much of the incorrect information merely repeats the erroneous rumors that were circulating at the time (such as the rumor that the boys had been sodomized). The few facts that Misskelley got correct—for example, that the boys had been severely beaten and that one’s genitals were mutilated—had been reported as early as May 7 in both the Memphis and West Memphis newspapers and were common knowledge in the community.
At Misskelley’s trial, Dr. Richard Ofshe, a nationally recognized expert on false and coerced confessions, testified that, in his opinion, “the questions were more than leading. The questions were very directly specifying what the answers should be.” In private, he was less politic; after first reading the transcript of Misskelley’s confession, he called Dan Stidham and said, “That’s the stupidest fucking confession I’ve ever seen.”
There are so many errors and contradictions in Misskelley’s statement that it would take many pages to discuss them all, so I will mention here only some of the most prominent:
1. Time of Death
Initially, Misskelley said that he, Echols, and Baldwin had murdered the three boys shortly after encountering them early that morning while the boys were waiting on their bikes for the school bus. This is false for several reasons. First, the boys did not take the bus—two of them lived virtually next door to the school—nor would they be allowed to bring their bikes onto the bus. Also, although Misskelley claimed the boys skipped school, in fact they were in school all day. The detectives knew the boys could not have been killed in the morning, and they returned to the issue of time of death no less than eight times during the recorded part of their interrogation (and who knows how many times when the tape recorder was turned off). After repeated prompting, Misskelley changed the time of the murders from nine in the morning to “about noon” to after school let out that afternoon. Despite the fact that he had not once stated that the murders took place at night, Ridge said, “Okay. The night you were in the woods, had you all been in the water?” After this prompt, Misskelley for the first time mentioned night: “Yeah, we’d been in the water. We were in it that night playing around in it.” Later, when Misskelley was again asked what time they were in the woods, he said, “I would say it was about five or so—five or six.” But that was still too early, since the boys had been seen alive later than that. So Gitchell said, “All right, you told me earlier around seven or eight. Which time is it?” But, as Ofshe testified, “nowhere in the record—including the record of what the detectives say, the notes, the specific statements by Detective Ridge, the transcript of the first interrogation—is there any indication that Jessie ever said” any such thing.
The confessions show Misskelley offering a wide range of times, from nine a.m. to eight p.m. or later, for the time of death. And although the prosecution proceeded with the assumption that the murders took place between seven p.m. and eight p.m. on May 5, a time during which there would have been sufficient light to carry out the murders and clear the crime scene of evidence, Dr. Frank Peretti, the assistant state medical examiner who conducted the autopsies, testified that he and two other medical examiners he’d consulted had determined that the murders took place “between 1 a.m. and . . . five or seven in the morning” on May 6. Unfortunately, this testimony didn’t occur until the trial of Echols and Baldwin, after Misskelley had already been convicted. (During Misskelley’s trial Peretti twice said he was unable to determine a time of death.) Despite the fact that Misskelley had an ironclad alibi for the newly proclaimed time of death, Judge Burnett denied his lawyer’s motion for a new trial.
2. Place of Death
Although Ridge stated, both in the trial and in Exhibit B of the search warrant, that Misskelley had a knowledge of the crime scene that only the killer could possess, in fact, as Hill has said, “Misskelley demonstrated no substantive knowledge of the interior of the woods where the bodies were found.” Indeed, he referred to the woods as a “park.” Hill has further noted that “the police provided a nearly complete description of the crime scene,” but “the only details that Misskelley presented regarding the inside of the woods were that the path (brought up by the interrogators) is little, and the tall bank (brought up by the interrogators) has a top and bottom.” Furthermore, Misskelley’s statements about where the murders took place contradict the evidence, and he wrongly claimed that a path that leads away from the crime scene goes “close to the interstate.” (There were paths that led in every direction except toward the interstate. ) He also described one location as south of the principal crime scene when it is north of it. Other suspects, including some who had also confessed to the crime, were taken to the crime scene and then released when it was clear that they could not identify where, exactly, the murders took place. Misskelley, however, was never taken to the crime scene.
3. Sequence of Events
Misskelley stated that the boys were beaten while still wearing their clothes. Since the autopsy reports state that their clothes had “no rips, tears, blood stains or skin scrapings,” the victims were presumably naked when they were beaten.
Misskelley stated that the boys’ hands were tied with brown rope but their feet were not tied and they could have run away. In fact, both the boys’ hands and the boys’ feet were tied, and they were tied with black and white shoelaces (five of the laces came from the boys’ shoes; the source of the sixth lace was never determined), not brown rope. The actual killer would certainly have remembered these details, especially since the boys’ hands and feet were bound in such an unusual way: their left wrists tied behind their backs to their left ankles and their right wrists tied behind their backs to their right ankles. Also, until the police brought up the possibility that the boys were tied, Misskelley had said they were restrained simply by being held. After the police suggested that tying the boys’ hands would not have prevented them from running away, Misskelley offered four explanations for their inability to escape—they were beaten too badly to move, they were sat upon, their legs were held up in the air, and they were knocked down. At no time did he mention that their feet were tied, much less tied to their hands. Indeed, he even said that one of the boys was “kicking . . . his legs up in the air.”
The fact that the boys were tied with shoelaces was one of the few inside details that hadn’t been leaked to the press, and of all the suspects the police interviewed, only one identified their ligatures correctly: James Martin, a thirty-three-year-old man who had been previously convicted of sexually molesting his stepdaughter and stepson. According to Durham’s reading of Martin’s polygraph test, Martin failed two questions: “Do you know what was used to tie up those three boys?” and “Do you know who killed those three boys?” Nevertheless, Durham believed Martin passed the test since his belief that shoelaces were used as ligatures was based on “logic.” The police also either overlooked or ignored the facts that Martin drove an eighteen-year-old Toyota Corolla and that the manager of the Blue Beacon truck wash, which was very near the crime scene, reported that a man who drove a “small car, Toyota older model” had been at the truck wash around ten p.m. the night of the murder. Martin is only one of several plausible suspects the police stopped investigating after receiving Misskelley’s confession.
5. Sexual Molestation
Misskelley claimed that two of the boys were sodomized both before and after they were killed and also that they were forced to perform oral sex. At various times Misskelley said that only Echols raped Chris Byers, that only Baldwin did, and that neither of them did. Asked if the autopsy revealed any evidence that the boys had been sodomized, Dr. Peretti said, “If the penis enters the anal canal, I would expect to find bruises and abrasions to the opening. I couldn’t find any physical evidence of that.” Furthermore, microscopic analysis of the boys’ anuses failed to reveal even broken capillaries, much less bruises and abrasions. There was also no bruising to the backs of any of the boys’ mouths, as Peretti said would be expected with forced oral sex, nor was there any semen found in the boys’ mouths or rectums. Additional forensic tests conducted later confirmed Peretti’s conclusions.
6. Cause of Death
Misskelley stated that one boy was hit and choked with “a big old stick.” In fact, there was no evidence that anyone was choked, with a stick or otherwise, and “no splinters or trace evidence were found to confirm the victims were struck with sticks.” Misskelley brought up the stick only after the police asked him if sticks were used in the attack. He likewise mentioned knives and belts as possible causes of the boys’ wounds only after the police had suggested them. Led by the detectives’ prompts, he stated that Baldwin had cut two of the boys with a knife. As will be discussed in detail later, six nationally renowned forensic experts, each working independently, concluded unanimously that the cuts, lacerations, gouges, and scratches on the victims’ bodies were caused by postmortem animal predation, not by a knife. Only bruises and fractures could be attributed to human causes.
Hill has noted that of the thirteen statements that the police made about Misskelley’s “inside knowledge” of the murder in Exhibit B of their request for a search warrant, the only one that is supported by the evidence is that all three boys were severely beaten, and that was a matter of public record well before Misskelley’s statement. Hill concludes: “The other statements were provided by the police during the interrogation, were unsubstantiated, contradicted the evidence or were simply invented when composing the search warrant.”
According to the Arkansas Supreme Court, which upheld Misskelley’s conviction in 1996, his confession was “virtually the only evidence” against him, “all other testimony and exhibits serving primarily as corroboration.” As I hope this summary of the confession’s implausibility reveals, there actually was no legitimate evidence—none—that Misskelley, Echols, or Baldwin were guilty of the crimes.
You might think that the discrepancies between the facts and Misskelley’s confession, coupled with the lack of any physical evidence tying Echols, Baldwin, or Misskelley to the murder scene, would have made those who investigated and prosecuted the West Memphis Three at least a little cautious about claiming they’d arrested the right people. But you would be wrong. When a reporter asked Gitchell the day after the confession to rate on a scale of one to ten how solid his case was, he said, “Eleven.”
There is good reason to believe, however, that Gitchell knew just how little evidence he actually had, or at least that the prosecutors did, for after the arrests the prosecution took the unusual step of asking the court to seal the documents supporting the search and arrest warrants. Because the court complied, the public was unable to discover just how meager the evidence was. An editorial in the West Memphis Evening Times criticizing the decision concluded: “The case remains shrouded in secrecy, and the public’s questions remain unanswered. We hope, above all else, that our faith in the law enforcement and judicial system is justified. We just wish we knew for sure.” Now—too late—I believe we do know for sure that the people’s faith was not justified. In fact, I think it’s fair to say that the case against Gitchell and the others responsible for coercing Misskelley’s false confession, then hyping the so-called “evidence” of the three teenagers’ guilt, is an eleven.
THE FIRST TRIAL
Because Misskelley retracted his confession and refused to testify against Echols and Baldwin, two trials were required—one in which the confession could legally be used, to determine Misskelley’s guilt or innocence, and another in which the confession was not admissible, to determine Echols’s and Baldwin’s. The confession was not admissible in the second trial because Misskelley’s refusal to testify would have deprived Echols and Baldwin of their Sixth Amendment rights to confront and cross-examine their accuser. The prosecutors had offered Misskelley a deal to testify, but he refused. Although the details of the offer were never divulged, his attorney described Misskelley’s decision as “the most difficult . . . he will ever make,” a statement that implies testifying would have significantly reduced his sentence.
The first trial began in January 1994 and took place at the Clay County Courthouse in Corning, Arkansas. The presiding judge was David Burnett, and the prosecutors were John Fogleman and Brent Davis. Misskelley was represented by two court-appointed public defenders, Dan Stidham and Greg Crow, neither of whom had served as the lead lawyer in a capital case. Stidham, the lead attorney, was only twenty-seven. The defense had virtually no budget to pay for experts to testify on behalf of their clients. In fact, the total budget for investigations and expert witnesses for the three accused teenagers was a mere $7,500. Stidham paid for the few experts he was able to bring in by using his own credit card.
Misskelley’s trial was lost even before it began. In repeated pretrial motions, Stidham argued that Misskelley’s case should be tried in juvenile court since he was a minor, and that his confession should not be admitted into evidence because he was mentally challenged and the confession had been coerced. Burnett rejected all of these motions. As a result, Stidham was faced with the difficult task of convincing a jury that his client’s confession was false. This task was not difficult because he lacked evidence of its falsity; it was difficult because most people simply cannot imagine confessing to a crime they didn’t commit. But, as counterintuitive as it may seem, false confessions are far from uncommon. According to The Innocence Project, more than half of the eighty people convicted of murder and later exonerated through DNA evidence had given false confessions.
Stidham made a valiant effort to convince the jurors that Misskelley’s confession was false and coerced. He brought in Warren Holmes, a nationally recognized polygraph expert who had conducted polygraph tests in such high-profile cases as the John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. assassinations and the Watergate break-in. Holmes, who received no payment for his appearance, was prepared to testify that Misskelley had passed the polygraph test, showing deception on only one question, the question of whether he had ever used an illegal drug. However, Burnett refused to allow him to express an opinion on the validity of the polygraph examination. As a result, the jury never learned that Misskelley had in fact passed the polygraph, and they were left to believe that he had failed it.
Similarly, Burnett ruled that Dr. Richard Ofshe, an acknowledged expert on false and coerced confessions who received the 1979 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service, could not testify before the jury that he believed Misskelley’s confession was involuntary. “I’ve already ruled it was voluntary,” Burnett said. “Now, am I going to let a witness get up here and contradict my ruling?” In several bench conferences, Burnett also stated that he would not allow Ofshe to express an opinion on the validity of Misskelley’s statement, but after the prosecution referred to coercion while cross-examining Ofshe, Stidham asked the judge if he could “use the word coercive like the prosecutor used” and Burnett gave him permission to ask Ofshe about possible evidence of coercion. However, Ofshe was not allowed to express his opinion that police coercion rendered the confession involuntary or invalid, and Burnett allowed Ofshe to testify for only a few minutes on the subject of coercion, ostensibly because it was late in the day (approximately three p.m.) and the court reporter was getting tired.
It was left to Stidham, then, to attempt to convince the jury that Misskelley’s confession was false. The fact that Ridge misrepresented the confession, both in Exhibit B of the search warrant and in his testimony during the trial, was a significant obstacle. For example, Ridge said that Misskelley “told us that it was Steven Branch that received the cuts to the face.” Misskelley did say “one of the little boys” was cut in the face, but in neither the taped statements nor Ridge’s notes of the unrecorded parts of the interrogation does he say which one. The fact that a child’s face had been cut was already common knowledge, and Ridge had shown Misskelley a photograph of Michael Moore, who also had a laceration on his face, so Misskelley could have been thinking of Michael. Similarly, Ridge stated that “Misskelley also described the area where the murders occurred very specifically” when in fact, as the recording makes clear, he himself was the one who described the crime scene.
Stidham pointed out that details of the crime that the police claimed “only the killer would have known” had in fact been leaked by the investigators and been widely reported, and he further pointed out the numerous discrepancies between the facts and the confession. When Gitchell was questioned by Stidham, he shrugged off these discrepancies by saying, “Jessie simply got confused. That’s all.” This response was evidently enough for the jury, especially after Vicki Hutcheson took the stand and, in testimony reminiscent of the Salem Witch Trials, falsely claimed that she had gone to a witches’ esbat with Echols and Misskelley, thus “proving” to the jurors’ satisfaction that the murders were part of a satanic ritual.
The only physical evidence Fogleman presented were fibers found at the crime scene: two green fibers taken from a Cub Scout cap and a single red fiber taken from a white shirt. According to Lisa Sakevicius, an employee of the Arkansas State Crime Laboratory, the green fibers were “microscopically similar” to fibers from a size six Garanimals T-shirt that belonged to Echols’s stepbrother, and the red fibers were likewise “microscopically similar” to fibers from a robe that belonged to Baldwin’s mother. As Leveritt commented, “In light of the bloodiness of the crime, its hands-on physicality, and the number of victims and defendants, the discovery of a few mass-produced fibers from items available in Wal-Marts and other clothiers all over the country” constituted “an infinitesimal amount of evidence.” Sakevicius acknowledged that many fibers are microscopically similar and that the similarity “proved nothing.” She further said she was not contending that the fibers came from the garments in question. The fact that the shirt and robe did not belong to Echols or Baldwin made the suggestion that they linked them to the crime even more tenuous. Essentially, the State was arguing that the only evidence the killers left behind at the scene of this grisly murder were three fibers from garments owned and worn by other members of their families.
Despite this lack of convincing physical evidence, on February 4, 1994, Misskelley was convicted and sentenced to life plus forty years. After the trial was over, juror Lloyd Champion told the Memphis Commercial Appeal that he believed Misskelley’s confession was not coerced. He added—with, as Leveritt has noted, “irony that was apparently not intentional”—that he wasn’t surprised that Stidham didn’t have Misskelley testify on his own behalf because, if he had, “I think that prosecuting attorney could have tore him apart and made him say anything.”
THE SECOND TRIAL
The trial of Echols and Baldwin began on February 28, 1994, and was held at the Craighead County Courthouse in Jonesboro. As with the first trial, the defendants were represented by court-appointed public defenders with minimal budgets for forensic experts and tests. Echols was represented by Val Price and Scott Davidson, and Baldwin by Paul Ford and George Robin Wadley. Again, the prosecutors were Fogleman and Davis, and the judge was Burnett.
This time, the prosecutors would have a more difficult burden of proof. Because Misskelley had informed the State that he would not testify against Echols and Baldwin, his confession was, in theory at least, inadmissible evidence, for to admit it would deny the defendants their Sixth Amendment right to confront their accuser. (I say “in theory at least” because Ridge did mention it during the trial, and there is evidence, which I will discuss later, that the jurors considered it during their deliberations.) Misskelley had made the decision not to testify despite the fact that he had been strongly pressured to do so. Shortly after his conviction, he was taken, without the permission or knowledge of either his attorney or his father, to a small town near Jonesboro, where Davis tried to persuade him to testify. Misskelley said he was told that if he didn’t testify, Echols and Baldwin would walk free and then they’d “go after” his girlfriend. Misskelley’s father and stepmother helped talk him out of perjuring himself, saying that if he lied he would have to live with that fact for the rest of his life. Because he refused to lie, he said, “if I ever do get out, my name will be clear, and I can live pretty much a decent life.”
Because Misskelley’s confession was inadmissible evidence, the prosecution had to rely on dubious physical and hearsay evidence to secure a conviction. Again they submitted as evidence the three fibers introduced at the first trial. Fogleman said he believed this evidence was strong but admitted, “We can’t say it came from that particular garment to the exclusion of all others.” The prosecution also introduced two sticks that the police took from the crime scene nearly two months after the murders, but as Peretti testified, there were no wood fragments or splinters or anything else in the boys’ wounds to connect these sticks to either the murdered boys or the defendants.
In addition, Sakevicius testified that blue wax was found on both one of the victims’ shirts and one of Echols’s books, Frank Donovan’s Never on a Broomstick: The True Story of the Faith, Mystery, and Magic of Witchcraft, Classical and Contemporary. In a bench conference held out of the presence of the jury, the defense asked why they hadn’t received a crime lab report about the wax, and Fogleman stated that Sakevicius “said that what she puts in her report is when there are matches. She claimed that [the wax] didn’t match anything.” The jury never heard this statement. What it did hear was Fogleman’s claim, in his closing argument, that the waxes could be matches and that candle wax was evidence of a satanic ritual. According to notes taken by jurors, the wax was cited as one of the reasons for Echols’s conviction.
Most important, the prosecution also introduced as evidence a knife that was found in Lakeshore Lake, near Baldwin’s home, under suspicious circumstances. According to Fogleman, he had a hunch—six months after the arrests—that the killers had disposed of the murder weapon in the lake, and he contacted the Arkansas State Police, which sent a dive team to the lake on November 17. Fogleman described the discovery of the knife that day as “quite a coincidence” and dismissed any suggestion that the knife had been planted by saying that no one but the investigators knew they were going to search the lake, much less “when we were going to do it.” But if no one but the police knew when they were going to search the lake, how was it that a reporter for the West Memphis Evening Times happened to be on the scene to take a photo of the diver surfacing with a knife in his hand? Was that, too, “quite a coincidence”? To make this “coincidence” seem even more suspicious, a member of the dive team has since stated that the divers “were given precise directions on where to find the knife.”
The “Lake Knife,” as it came to be called, was a nine-inch non-folding Rambo-style survival knife that did not match the description of the six-inch folding knife that Misskelley had claimed was the murder weapon. It did, however, roughly resemble a knife Echols was reported to have once owned, and that fact was evidently good enough for the prosecution. Still, no testimony was introduced in court to connect the knife in any way to the crime scene, for Peretti had said (wrongly, as we shall see later) that the boys’ wounds could have been inflicted by any serrated knife.
The absence of testimony linking the knife to the crime did not prevent Fogleman from performing an experiment during his closing argument that strongly implied that the Lake Knife was the murder weapon. Holding up a grapefruit, he whacked it with the knife, then showed the jury the marks and claimed that they matched an autopsy photo of the wounds to Chris Byers’s groin. “I submit the proof shows this knife caused this,” Fogleman said, then corrected himself—but not until after he’d already given the impression that he was holding the murder weapon in his hand—“Well, true, it could be another knife like this, but I submit to you the proof—the circumstantial evidence—show [sic] that this knife, State’s exhibit seventy-seven, caused those injuries.” One of Echols’s later attorneys, Dennis Riordan, has said that this was “a classic instance of prosecutorial misconduct.” In an October 29, 2007, filing, he and fellow attorney Donald Horgan wrote: “No evidence in the record permitted the conclusion that the Lake Knife was used in the crime, yet Fogleman informed the jury in closing that he was able to reduplicate the marks on Byers’s body by cutting into a grapefruit with the knife in question. The prosecutor’s unsworn testimony in this regard violated petitioner’s Sixth Amendment right to confrontation.” Dr. Richard Souviron, a prominent forensic odontologist who examined the autopsy records, also expressed outrage at Fogleman’s claim that the knife marks on the grapefruit matched those on Byers’s skin. “That is the most ridiculous statement that I’ve ever heard anybody make. And to sell that to a jury is unconscionable, in my opinion.”
The absence of physical evidence tying Echols and Baldwin to the crime was not due to any lack of effort on the part of the investigators. They took samples of hair, blood, and saliva as well as fingerprints and shoeprints from all three suspects and found nothing that matched the evidence at the crime scene. Nothing. As Dr. Peretti had testified at the first trial, and would testify again at this trial, there was also no physical evidence that the boys had been sodomized by anyone, much less by these two particular defendants. Because of Peretti’s testimony, the defense lawyers asked Burnett to bar the prosecutors from claiming the boys had been sodomized, but he ruled that they could continue to make this claim despite the lack of any supporting evidence.
The prosecution’s hearsay evidence was every bit as dubious as the fiber evidence (and Misskelley’s confession). In addition to the now admittedly false testimony of Vicki Hutcheson, there was the equally false testimony of a sixteen-year-old jailhouse informant named Michael Carson. On the witness stand, Carson claimed that, in August 1993, Baldwin, whom he’d met less than twenty-four hours before, had confessed the crime to him. “He told me how he dismembered the kids,” Carson testified. “He sucked the blood from the penis and scrotum and put the balls in his mouth.” Leaving aside the fact that only one “kid” had been “dismembered,” and the fact that over the course of several interviews with the police he named five different days as the day Baldwin confessed to him (one of them a day after Carson was released from the detention center), his statement is hard to accept. First, Baldwin had maintained his innocence from the very beginning, so it seems highly unlikely that he would confide his guilt to someone he had known for less than twenty-four hours; second, Carson waited five months to mention this conversation to anyone; third, he had a long history of drug abuse and lying; and fourth, given the criminal charges against him at the time, he might have been hoping that his testimony would win him some leniency.
The prosecution was clearly aware that Carson’s story was difficult to swallow, for when Fogleman and Davis met with the victims’ families before the trial, they warned them that the jury might not believe him. What they didn’t tell the families—or the jury—was that Danny Williams, a former counselor at the juvenile detention center where Baldwin and Carson had been held, told Davis on February 14 that Carson’s claims were false and that they were based on rumors he had himself told Carson during a therapy session. Williams offered to testify in the trial, but Burnett ruled that his testimony could not be admitted because it would “violate the therapist/client privilege of a minor.” It is perplexing how testimony that did not include a single word that Carson had said in confidence could be construed as violating his right to confidentiality. The court inexplicably chose to protect a minor from losing his right to confidentiality (even though nothing confidential would be revealed) rather than protect another minor from being wrongly sentenced to death or imprisoned for life.
Like Hutcheson, Carson has since retracted his testimony. Their retractions and further evidence of their perjury will be discussed in more detail later.
The final hearsay evidence came from two girls, one twelve and the other thirteen, who claimed they overheard Echols tell a group of people at a softball game that he’d killed the three boys. The older girl, Jodee Medford, also said that Echols had said “he was going to kill two more and he already had one of them picked out.” There were discrepancies in the two girls’ testimony that cast doubt on their accounts, however. In a June 7, 1993, statement, Jodee Medford said that her sister Jackie and her friend Christy Van Vickle, the younger girl who testified at the trial, were with her at the time Echols supposedly confessed and that Baldwin was not present. Four days later, however, she changed her story to say that Baldwin was present, and in her testimony in court she repeated that claim but this time said her sister Jackie and Van Vickle were not with her. Van Vickle testified, on the other hand, that Jackie Medord was there when she overheard Echols and Jodee Medford was not. Also, Van Vickle’s testimony was nothing if not vague. She said she could not remember anything Echols had said before or after his “confession.” Both girls said they’d reported this incident to their mothers, but no one had alerted police about it until after the arrests. Donna Medford, Jodee’s mother, also testified, confirming that Jodee had told her what Damien had said. She has since signed a sworn affidavit indicating that “Echols’s statement was not serious and that neither she nor her daughter believes he committed the crime.”
The State’s case was not limited to the physical and hearsay evidence, however. It also relied on inaccurate testimony from investigators, particularly Detective Ridge, and unsubstantiated statements by the prosecutors. Whether by mistake or design, Ridge said under oath that Echols told him that “all people have a demonic force in them and that the person [who committed the murders] would have no control over that demonic force.” According to Ridge’s notes of his interview with Echols, however, Echols had stated the exact opposite, that people do have control over the demonic force in them. Ridge also said that Echols told him Anton LaVey was his favorite author. There is no reference to LaVey in Ridge’s notes, and Echols testified that he told Ridge that “I haven’t read anything by him, but I am familiar with him.” Similarly, Davis tried to suggest that Echols had told Ridge that he had read works by Aleister Crowley, but again, there is no evidence of that in Ridge’s notes. The fact that Echols testified that he would have read Crowley’s books if he’d had the opportunity suggests that he was not trying to hide his interest in occult writers and would have admitted to reading LaVey and Crowley if he had done so.
The emphasis on the occult in Ridge’s misrepresentations of the truth suggests the State’s case relied less on any physical or even hearsay evidence than it did on the premise that the crimes were satanic in nature. As Leveritt has said, the State’s case was based on a ludicrously illogical “triangulation”: “By linking the crime to the words ‘the occult,’ then linking Damien and Jason to those words, [the State] indirectly linked them to the crime. The judge allowed the tactic and—voilà! That easily—and that insubstantially—the bedeviling absence of evidence was overcome.” The prosecution’s central argument could be summed up, in short, via this deeply flawed “syllogism”:
Major Premise: Echols and Baldwin were interested in the occult.
Minor Premise: The murders were part of a satanic ritual.
Conclusion: Echols and Baldwin committed the murders.
Of the three parts of this quasi-syllogism, only one half of one is demonstrably true: Echols was indeed interested in the occult. No testimony or evidence established that Baldwin shared his interest, however. There was also no evidence that the murders were part of an occult ritual, and even if there had been, the fact that a person has an interest in the occult doesn’t constitute proof that he committed murder.
But this lack of logic didn’t deter the prosecution. They proceeded to make the case that the murders were occult-related by introducing as “evidence” such things as Echols’s taste in literature, music, art, and clothing. Among the items introduced as evidence were: his testimony that he liked to read Stephen King, Anne Rice, and Dean Koontz; lines he’d copied into his journal from Shakespeare’s Macbeth, The Twilight Zone, and Metallica’s And Justice for All, which Echols described at his trial as being “about how warped the court systems are”; the cover from the Metallica tape Master of Puppets; testimony from various people that Echols regularly wore black T-shirts, black jeans, and a black trench coat ; and his own poems and drawings. Ridge testified that the fact that Echols read Stephen King novels was “strange” and one of the reasons he suspected Echols was involved in the murders. Fogleman cited “obsession with heavy metal music” and “wearing all black” as common indications that someone was involved in occult activity, and he read into evidence the number of black T-shirts and heavy metal music posters Echols owned. Later, in his closing argument, he would refer to this and other evidence he admitted was “circumstantial,” saying to the jury, “Ladies and gentlemen, each item, in and of itself, doesn’t mean somebody would be motivated to murder—not in and of itself. But you look at it together, and . . . you begin to see inside Damien Echols. You see inside that person, and you look inside there, and there’s not a soul there.”
Once Fogleman had linked Echols to the occult through his taste in literature, music, art, and clothing, he proceeded to link the crime to the occult and, by implication, to Echols. He called to the stand “Dr.” Dale W. Griffis, a self-described “cult expert” who admitted on cross-examination that he had received his Ph.D. from an unaccredited, mail-order university—Columbia Pacific University, a diploma mill eventually shut down by the State of California for fraud in 2000—without having taken a single class. (As Paul Ford, Baldwin’s lead attorney, said in his closing argument, Griffis “didn’t go to college, he went to the post office.” ) Griffis testified that he had read 4,800 books on the occult since 1976 (an average of one a day) and had written four books of his own, The Four Faces of Satan; Runes, Glyphs, and Alphabets; The Investigation Manual for Non-Traditional Groups; and A Primer for Law Enforcement on Non-Traditional Groups. In fact, the first of these “books” was an article in a newsletter, the second was a mere thirty-two pages long and “prepared by the staff of Dale W. Griffis,” and the third and fourth titles appear to refer to a single fifteen-page text. All of these “books” were self-published. Griffis did later co-author a full-length book, one that demonstrates just how unreliable a witness he was. Titled Secret Weapons: Two Sisters’ Terrifying True Story of Sex, Spies and Sabotage, the book claims that two sisters were inducted at the age of six “into a covert, government-authorized, mind-control program designed to spawn spies and assassins,” subjected to rape and torture, given “weaponry, martial arts and flight training,” and then, as teenagers, under new identities (one of them male), forced to take part in covert military operations and assassinations, after which they were brainwashed to forget all of these experiences. According to this 2001 book, Griffis, who now claimed to be a “ritual abuse expert,” was instrumental in helping the girls recover their “lost memories.”
Riordan has said, “There is probably no greater disgrace in the history of death penalty litigation in this country [than] that Dale Griffis was placed on the stand.” It is particularly disgraceful that such a person was allowed to testify about his opinion of the crimes’ satanic nature when legitimate experts like Warren Holmes and Dr. Richard Ofshe were not allowed to testify regarding their opinions that Misskelley’s confession was involuntary and false.
But allowed to testify Griffis was. In testimony every bit as unreliable as any that occurred in Salem, Massachusetts, three centuries before, he claimed that wearing black clothing was a common indication that someone was involved in Satanism. “If any person wears a black tee shirt,” he said, “that is a factor that I would consider in determining if this case has trappings of occultism.” In addition, he testified that injuries on the left side of one victim were evidence that the murders were part of a satanic ritual. Satanists, he argued, “use a mid-line theory, drawing straight down through the body. The right hand side is usually related to those things which is [sic] synonymous with Christianity, and the left hand path is that which is [related to] practitioners of the satanic occult systems.” Hill has commented: “Although the majority of the injuries were on the right-hand side of the body, Griffis didn’t suggest this meant a Christian killing.”
Griffis also testified that since eight is a “witches’ number,” the fact that the boys were eight years old was evidence that the murders were part of a satanic ritual, as was the fact that there were three victims. “One of the most powerful numbers in the practice of satanic belief,” he said, “is six-six-six, and some believe the base root of six is three.” (Evidently Griffis’s expertise did not extend to other religions, for when Val Price, one of Echols’s court-appointed public defenders, asked Griffis if the number three was “also significant in Christianity, for example, and other religions,” he responded, “I cannot make that statement.” ) While there’s no evidence that Echols ever invoked the number 666, there is evidence that the police did: the original docket number assigned to Echols’s case was 93-05-0555, but someone changed its final three letters to 666.
From THE REAL STORY BEHIND LOW-RESIDENCY MFA PROGRAMS
For nearly twenty years I thought I had received the best graduate education a creative writer could possibly have.
Boy, was I wrong.
I earned master’s and doctoral degrees in creative writing from two of the most revered programs in America—Syracuse University and the University of Iowa, respectively—and I was thrilled with my education at both schools. While it’s fashionable in some quarters to denigrate the Iowa program—Iowa’s the New York Yankees of the Quality Lit Biz, after all—I loved my time there. When I finished my graduate degrees, I still had a long way to go to become the kind of writer I wanted to be (and I still do, of course), but I believed I had received the best possible preparation for a writing life. I still value the education I received at Iowa and Syracuse enormously, but if I could do it all over again, I would enroll in a low-residency MFA program.
If you are anything like I used to be, you’re wondering why on earth someone would choose a low-residency program over two of the top traditional programs in the country. Before I began teaching in one, I thought a low-res program was a low-rent program. I believed it was an inherently inferior form of writing education, an alternative that was valuable only for those students who, for one reason or another, were unable to uproot their lives and move to another city to enroll in a traditional program. I confess I even thought that low-residency programs, which require students to spend only ten or so days in residence per semester and then work through correspondence with a faculty mentor, were merely gussied-up, legit versions of the correspondence courses offered by the infamous Famous Writers School of the 1960’s. So when I agreed, twelve years ago, to teach for a semester in the low-residency MFA in Writing Program at Vermont College of Fine Arts (VCFA), I was more than a little skeptical about what I was getting myself into.
It didn’t take me long, however, to realize that I could not have been more wrong about low-residency programs. Even before my first residency was over, I was convinced that the low-residency model is the ideal way to learn to write and that low-residency programs offer an education vastly superior to that of traditional programs.
I am far from being the only writing teacher to hold these views. I’ve heard them expressed repeatedly over the past dozen years, not only by my colleagues at VCFA but also by writers who teach in other low-residency programs. There are numerous reasons so many of us believe low-residency programs are superior. Here come some of them.
One all-important advantage of the low-residency model is that it allows for much more individualized attention. Whereas a teacher in a traditional program typically has 30-45 students per semester, a teacher in a low-residency program usually has only five, and he or she works one-on-one with those five students, critiquing five monthly packets of work by each during the course of a semester. Because the teachers work with so few students, they’re able to critique considerably more work by each one, and to provide considerably more extensive and intensive critiques as well.
In a recent interview, the poet Major Jackson explained why he would enroll in a low-residency program if he could do his education over again. During his two years in a traditional MFA program, he said, he had a total of twelve poems critiqued while students in a low-residency program can have as many as one hundred poems critiqued in the same period of time. I can testify that the numbers Jackson quotes aren’t exaggerated. When I was a fiction writing student at Syracuse and Iowa, I never had more than two short stories discussed in a semester. That’s the number of stories my students at VCFA submit in a typical monthly packet.
Also, because low-residency faculty members can read more work by each student, they’re able to work on revisions with their students to a far greater extent than faculty in traditional programs. As a result, low-residency students have more opportunity to learn the art of revision, which is, in my opinion, the most important aspect of a writing education.
In a traditional program, there is little, if any, one-on-one mentoring. The education is by necessity group-oriented; all of the students are assigned the same texts. In a low-residency program, however, students collaborate with their mentors in designing semester plans that will help them achieve their individual goals, and the mentors recommend specific creative and critical readings for each student in order to address his or her individual craft issues.
Another important advantage low-residency programs offer is the sheer number of teachers with whom you can study. In a traditional program, a student rarely, if ever, has more than four different teachers during a typical two-year program, and usually has fewer. (I had a total of four teachers at two universities over the course of five years and two graduate degrees.) In the more established low-residency programs, you can have as many as fourteen teachers—four mentors who work with you one-on-one for a semester, and two workshop leaders for each of the five required residencies. In addition, at each residency, the faculty members give hour-long craft lectures, so by the time you graduate, you can have learned from as many as thirty faculty members. You will also have the opportunity to learn from another thirty or so visiting writers and writers-in-residence, all of whom give lectures or informal talks as well as readings.
In my five years in traditional graduate programs, I never heard a single faculty member give a lecture. I witnessed many brilliant spontaneous riffs on craft issues, sure, but not one carefully thought-out and presented lecture. Without question, I have learned far more from my low-residency colleagues’ wide-ranging and incisive lectures than I learned in my many traditional workshops.
Yet another advantage of the low-residency model is that its flexibility allows for more cross-genre work—and therefore more aesthetic cross-fertilization—than is possible in traditional programs. Many low-residency programs encourage (and some require) cross-genre study and practice, and a few even offer a dual-genre degree. In addition to fiction, poetry, and creative nonfiction, low-residency programs offer students the chance to work in, and learn from, such genres as playwriting, screenwriting, popular fiction, translation, and literature for children and young adults.
I could go on listing the advantages of low-residency programs, but I’m running out of space. Suffice it to say that that not only writers but universities have begun to recognize the superiority of the low-residency model. When I began teaching at VCFA twelve years ago, there were only five low-residency programs, and today there are 46. Low-residency programs aren’t just the wave of the future, they’re the tsunami of the future.
If you’re interested in learning as much as you possibly can about writing in two years, the low-residency model offers you the best chance of achieving your goal. I urge you to compare what low-residency and traditional programs have to offer and make the decision that is right for you.
HOMO SAPIENS VS. HOMO FICTUS, OR WHY A LOT OF KNOWLEDGE CAN BE A DANGEROUS THING TOO
If you’re one of those people who’ve been worrying themselves sick over why Hamlet is so doggone indecisive, you can stop worrying. The eminent scientist Jacob Bronowski has given us the answer. It turns out that Hamlet’s fatal indecision isn’t due to moral scruples, madness, an unresolved Oedipal complex, or any of the myriad explanations that literary scholars have inflicted on us over the centuries; rather, it’s the result of his brain’s underdeveloped frontal lobes. According to Bronowski, it takes our frontal lobes, which control long-term decision making, twenty-plus years to develop fully, and because Hamlet is still a teenager, his frontal lobes haven’t developed enough to allow him to make the decision to avenge his father’s murder. “It is pointless of the Ghost to keep on nudging him and saying ‘Revenge, Revenge,’” he says. “The fact is that Hamlet as a youth is simply not mature. Intellectually or emotionally, . . . he is simply not ready for an act of that magnitude in boyhood.”
Since the play makes it clear that Hamlet is in fact thirty years old, Bronowski is wrong to consider him a teenager—either that or he’s the second-oldest teenager in the history of the world, after Dick Clark. (Act V, scene 1 reveals that the sexton has been a “grave-maker” for thirty years, ever since “that very day that young Hamlet was born,” and that Yorick, upon whose back the young Hamlet rode, has been dead for “three and twenty years.” ) But more importantly, Bronowski is wrong to think that Hamlet’s frontal lobes are underdeveloped; after all, Hamlet doesn’t have frontal lobes, or any other biological organs for that matter, since he is composed entirely of words—and none of those words is frontal or lobes. Some Shakespearean scholars may have had insufficiently developed frontal lobes, but I can guarantee that the character himself does not.
Bronowski’s explanation of Hamlet’s behavior illustrates a common mistake we encounter in talk about fictional characters—the tendency to treat Homo sapiens and Homo fictus not as “allied species,” as E.M. Forster calls them, but as a single species. This tendency is so prevalent that writers of books and essays on fiction writing typically feel the need to point out, sometimes at considerable length, that fictional characters aren’t real. Forster devotes an entire chapter of Aspects of the Novel—twenty-one pages—to proving this seemingly common-sense fact, and William Gass spends much of his seminal essay “The Concept of Character in Fiction” making the same point. Even John Gardner, who famously disagreed with everything Gass ever said, agrees that nothing sensible can be said about characterization until we make “the crucial observation . . . that, except as creatures of the imagination, characters in fiction do not exist.”
This point may seem obvious to most of us, but many general readers, students, literary scholars, and even writers themselves have been known to talk about characters as if they have a life outside of fiction, speculating about their childhoods, their futures, and what they would do in such and such a situation. And W.J. Harvey, the author of the influential study Character and the Novel, has even said flat-out that “we may legitimately talk of the reality of fictional characters.” Homo sapiens and Homo fictus certainly bear a family resemblance—they’re like fraternal twins born to different parents—but for all their similarities, they are two very different species.
That readers confuse the real and the fictive is inevitable, perhaps, given the fact that we, as writers, do everything within our powers to make our characters seem real, but we need to make sure that we don’t make this mistake ourselves. If we want to create successful characters, we need to understand the differences between the two species. As Richard Cohen points out, since “characters are made of language rather than protoplasm,” they rarely, if ever, need to eat, drink, or go to the bathroom, and they “have a much higher pain threshold than physical human beings”—so high, in fact, it’s “nonexistent.” Furthermore, he adds, they have “a lower threshold of psychic pain than real people”: “Any flesh-bound character who felt as much emotion as a fictional character would probably not have much time to get any work done.” But, of course, fictional characters don’t need to worry about getting any work done since they rarely have jobs, and even if they do, “Ninety percent of fiction takes place in the off-hours.” To Cohen’s list of differences, we could add the fact that characters tend to be active whereas most people are passive, they seek out conflict whereas people generally do their best to avoid it, they watch a lot less TV, and they tend to have more unusual names: life gives us a lot more Tom Joneses than fiction, and fewer Humbert Humberts.
But there are two other differences between Homo fictus and Homo sapiens that are far more important, and they are the differences we most need to keep in mind when we create our characters. First, unlike real people, fictional characters often have inner lives we can witness. And second, compared to actual human beings, fictional people are, as William Gass has said, “mostly empty canvas” —we know relatively little about their physical appearance, their behavior and relationships, their past histories, and so forth. Homo fictus, then, consists in large part of the presence of something that can’t be observed in real people—the inner life—and the relative absence of things that can be observed—the outer life. Paradoxically, these two patently unrealistic qualities of Homo fictus are largely responsible for creating the impression that a character is “real”—provided we don’t overdo or underdo them.
All of the differences between the two species result in one overall difference that we need first to acknowledge and then to fight against: compared to real people, literary characters are almost ludicrously simple, barely two-dimensional—far more flat than round. It may be that, as the old joke has it, deep down we’re all shallow, but even the shallowest human being is infinitely more complex than any fictional character. As the novelist Rabih Alameddine has said, “Everybody believes that a good fictional character is three-dimensional and rounded. If that’s true, then a real person is one hundred dimensional. We’re all a lot more complex than we let the world see, and we’re all a lot more complex than even we know.”
On the other hand, fictional characters are simpler than we often acknowledge. As James Wood notes, “Even the characters we think of as ‘solidly realized’ in the conventional realist sense are less solid the longer we look at them.” They’re so un-solid, in fact, that Wood questions the value of distinguishing between round and flat characters. “I would be quite happy,” he says, “to abolish the very idea of ‘roundness’ in characterization, because it tyrannizes us—readers, novelists, critics—with an impossible ideal. ‘Roundness’ is impossible in fiction, because fictional characters, while very alive in their way, are not the same as real people.”
I agree. It’s time for us to get real about the reality of characters. We need to recognize that when we talk about characters who “come to life,” we are, quite frankly, talking nonsense. But we shouldn’t abandon the “impossible ideal,” however tyrannical it is. Even though Homo fictus and Homo sapiens are two different species, I believe we should do our best to make our characters as realistic as possible—except, of course, when we’re writing satire or farce or some other literary genre that requires unrealistic characters.
There’s nothing unusual about this belief; virtually everyone shares it. Unfortunately, conventional wisdom about characterization only makes the impossible ideal more impossible to achieve. As I see it, much of the advice we encounter in creative writing textbooks and MFA workshops is counterproductive for one of two reasons: it encourages us to make our characters similar to real people when they should be different or different when they should be similar. I will focus here on one overarching piece of advice that I believe causes far and away the most trouble: the advice that we should know everything about our characters, including—and especially—their motivations. As we’ll see, when this advice is applied to the two principal differences between Homo fictus and Homo sapiens—the presence of the inner life and the relative absence of the outer life—it leads us to make characters different from real people when they should be similar and similar when they should be different.
A Visible Secret Life
No one would argue that we need to know everything about actual human beings before they seem real to us. After all, we know far from everything about our parents, significant others, children, and closest friends—not to mention ourselves—yet we are quite convinced of the reality of all of the above. It seems odd, then, that authors of fiction writing guides regularly assert that characters don’t become “real” until we know everything there is to know about them. Forster is one of the principal proponents of this notion. Despite all of his talk about characters not being real, he asserts that “a character . . . is real . . . when the novelist knows everything about it.” This kind of total knowledge is possible, he says, because of “the fundamental difference between people in daily life and people in books” : the fact that people in books belong “to a world where the secret life is visible.” “In daily life,” he says,
we never understand each other, neither complete clairvoyance nor complete confessional exists. We know each other approximately, by external signs, and these serve well enough as a basis for society and even for intimacy. But people in a novel can be understood completely by the reader, if the novelist wishes; their inner as well as their outer life can be exposed. And this is why they often seem more definite than characters in history, or even our own friends; we have been told all about them that can be told; even if they are imperfect or unreal they do not contain any secrets, whereas our friends do and must, mutual secrecy being one of the conditions of life upon this globe. (emphases mine)
To an extent, of course, what Forster says is very true. By exploiting this major difference between fictional characters and real people, we can indeed create the impression of a similarity between them. The fact that omniscience, an inherently unrealistic technique, is capable of creating the illusion of reality is a paradox that all writers—and readers—have experienced. As Andre Dubus has said, “I have never known anyone as deeply as I know a character who comes to me through the work of writing a story, because I have never been able to feel absolutely what another human being is feeling. The perception of a character in a story written with compassion is, for both the reader and the writer, a perception closer to divine than human.”
But what neither Dubus nor Forster acknowledges is that the closer the perception comes to the divine, the less realistic the character becomes. There is a point where the presentation of a character’s inner life can stop creating the impression of reality and begin having the reverse effect, and that point is reached when we presume to understand a character with godlike completeness. Forster is wrong, I believe, to suggest that a character we know completely seems more real than a character we know only partially. In my opinion, a character who does not “contain any secrets” lacks the mystery that most characterizes our fellow human beings and is therefore just too far removed from reality to seem real.
Robert Boswell argues this point very persuasively in his brilliant essay “The Half-Known World.” The goal of the fiction writer, he argues, should be “the creation of a half-known world,” not a fully known one. “To accomplish this,” he says, “the writer must suggest a dimension to the fictional reality that escapes comprehension. The writer wishes to make his characters and their world known to the reader, and he simultaneously wishes to make them resonate with the unknown” because, unlike the real world, “A fully known world is devoid of mystery.” If we know too much about our characters, then, they will be too simple to seem real. “Here’s another definition of stereotype,” Boswell says: “any character that is fully known.”
Forster, of course, saw it exactly the other way around: a fully known character was a round character to him. You may agree, but for my money, Boswell’s got it right: knowing everything about your characters can only exaggerate the difference between them and real people. Even though Forster starts out by affirming a valuable difference between Homo fictus and Homo sapiens—the role a visible secret life can play in creating the impression of reality—he exaggerates that difference to the point that he winds up arguing we should make the two species different in a way that they shouldn’t be.
Mostly Empty Canvas
While applying the principle of “knowing everything” to our characters’ inner lives leads us to make characters different from people when they should be similar, applying this principle to our characters’ outer lives leads us to make them similar to people when they should be different. As Gass has pointed out, successful literary characters differ from real people most conspicuously by the fact that so much of their outer lives is absent. “Characters in fiction are mostly empty canvas,” he says. “I have known many who have passed through their stories without noses, or heads to hold them.” Their personal histories, too, are mostly empty canvas. The fact that our knowledge of fictional characters is far less than complete does not weaken characterization; rather, it strengthens it. Indeed, I believe the relative emptiness of the fictional canvas is one of fiction’s main glories, not to mention one of its principal advantages over film and drama and—dare I say it?—reality. By giving us only those details that matter, we can see the essence of a character more accurately than we can see any human being. As Georgia O’Keeffe said, “Nothing is less real than realism. Details are confusing. It is only by selection, by elimination, by emphasis that we get the real meaning of things.”
The kind of description that film and drama of necessity show—and the kind of description that we find in far too many short stories and novels—actually conceals character rather than reveals it. In those forms, the canvas is so full we see not only the significant details, but also many insignificant ones that distract us from the essential nature of the character. To illustrate this point, just imagine two very different actors—John Wayne, say, and Johnny Depp—playing the same role; even though they’d say the same words, perform the same actions, and wear the same clothes, I guarantee we’d have very different responses to the character, all of which would distract us from the character’s essence. Film, drama, and life give us a superfluity of accidental characteristics, in short, but fiction gives us only the essential ones—or at least that should be its goal. One of the most important ways fictional characters differ from real people, then, is that their essences are manifest.
As we all know, of course, readers often respond to the relative emptiness of the fictional canvas by “filling in” the blanks with their own descriptions and back story. I had a student once who confessed that she pictured the main male character of every story as Brad Pitt and the main female character as Jennifer Aniston. I wasn’t able to persuade her to stop—though I suspect that she, like Mr. Pitt, has now replaced Aniston with Angelia Jolie. Gass warns us against this kind of misreading, saying that “it’s important to . . . resist any inclination we may have to elaborate” the author’s depiction of the character because such elaboration “destroy[s] the work as certainly as ‘touching up’ and ‘painting over’” destroy a painting.
Unfortunately, readers aren’t the only ones who are guilty of the literary equivalent of painting a mustache on the Mona Lisa. Many writers do likewise, defacing their own canvases with inconsequential details. This is especially true of the so-called maximalists, who have responded to the austerity of minimalism with what I consider misguided prodigality. In the work of David Foster Wallace and William T. Vollmann, for example, characters frequently disappear under the mountain of information we’re given about them. The maximalists are not entirely to blame, however; after all, they, like the rest of us, have been repeatedly told that the accumulation of details and information is essential to creating lifelike characters.
Let’s look at this advice and its implications. And let’s start with the book that has justly been the most popular, respected, and influential fiction writing textbook for the past quarter century: Janet Burroway’s Writing Fiction. I admire this book—as I admire Burroway, and all the writers with whom I’m about to quarrel—but it contains some advice that I consider antithetical to the creation of truly realistic characters. In it, she tells us to
know everything about your character whether you use it or not. Before you put a character in a story, know how well that character sleeps. Know what the character eats for lunch and how much it matters, what he buys and how the bills get paid, how she spends what we call working hours. Know how your character would prefer to spend evenings and weekends and why such plans get thwarted. Know what memories the character has of pets and parents, cities, snow, or school. . . . When you know these things, you will have taken a step past invention toward the moment of imagination in which you become your character, live in his or her skin, and produce an action that, for the reader, rings universally true.
And when you know these things, you will also have created a very full canvas, not a mostly empty one. Burroway seems to want that canvas to be as full as possible, at least in the initial stage of characterization; she even goes so far as to suggest that we imitate actors schooled in the Stanislavski Method and compose biographies of our characters. John Dufresne, who also believes “You can never know too much about your characters,” likewise recommends the Stanislavski Method, devoting an entire chapter to its use in his book The Lie That Tells a Truth.
Burroway and Dufresne are far from being the only writers to recommend that we fill the entire canvas when we create our characters, of course. You can find similar advice in virtually every creative writing guide ever written, many of which offer sample questions we should ask ourselves about our characters in order to create them. And if those sample questions aren’t enough for you, there’s an entire book—Eric and Ann Maisel’s What Would Your Character Do?—that consists of (as the subtitle says) “Personality Quizzes for Analyzing Your Characters.” This book contains more than 230 pages of questions that’ll help you nail the lid on the coffin of your character’s personality.
Some writers swear by this pack-rat approach to characterization. T Cooper, for example, reports that he created the characters in his novels by writing their names at the top of a page and then just “vomit[ing] out all the details about them I could possibly conjure. Down to the kind of soft cotton boxers they wore in high school . . . How they talk, what they look like, what music they like, sports they’re good at, secrets they have, food allergies, how they’ll die, what their relationship with their mother was like, and so on. . . .” He did this, he explains, because “it’s important to know all of these details about . . . characters before putting them in motion in the narrative.”
Note that Cooper, like Burroway, not only says that we should know everything about our characters but that that we should do so before we put them in a story. If you ask me, this is putting the proverbial cart before the horse, requiring us to invent a character before we invent the circumstances and events that create him or her. I believe, with Boswell, that making “a list of traits that define a character . . . in advance of real narrative exploration tends to cut a character off at the knees.” Just as Ezra Pound advised that poets should “think with the poem,” so fiction writers should think with the story. Tobias Wolff is one writer who clearly thinks with the story, creating his characters as he writes rather than plugging in information from some predetermined list of traits. “Characters generally rise up out of the work of the writing,” he says. “As I write, the character begins to coalesce and take on particularity. . . . I’ve even changed the gender of my characters halfway through a story.” I believe that this kind of dramatic redefinition of a character is possible only when we think with the story, not with the list. Thinking with the list closes the imagination down; thinking with the story opens it up.
Since the effect of following Burroway and Cooper’s advice is to create a character who exists before the first word of the story is even written, it strikes me as an attempt to duplicate the situation we’re in if we base a character on a real person. It’s no surprise, then, that Robin Hemley, the author of Turning Life into Fiction, supports this approach to characterization. Like Burroway, he says that we should know everything about our characters—and he seems to mean that as literally as she does. “You should be able to answer any question, no matter how seemingly insignificant, about your character,” he says. “If asked, ‘What do the curtains in Shorty’s bedroom look like?’ you should be able to answer, ‘There aren’t any curtains in his bedroom,’ or whatever you think best fits his character.”
Kim Edwards likewise argues that we should know everything about our characters, including what they would do in any given situation, even one unrelated to the story. “Even if this character doesn’t cause a car accident or lose a parent or leave a spouse,” she says, “the author must have a clear sense of what he or she would do in such situations—and readers must, as well.” I don’t know about you, but I don’t know what I would do in such situations, much less what anyone else would do. I’d have to live through those things before I’d know the answer, and if I were imagining those things happening to a character, I’d have to live through those scenes by writing them before I’d have even an inkling of an answer. The implication that we can know anything, much less everything, about a character without writing is utterly alien to me. And the idea that we need such total knowledge at any point in the writing process strikes me as preposterous. In short, the creation of lists of factoids about our characters seems like busy work to me, work that can do nothing but distract us from the task of creating the essence of a character.
To their credit, all of the writers I’ve mentioned are well aware of the danger of the clutter they urge us to create. Even as they tell us to “know everything” about our characters, they warn us that the vast majority of this knowledge will be unnecessary. Hemley, for example, stresses the need to select from the “flood of details” the ones that are, or can become, significant. Any detail that isn’t truly significant, he notes, “becomes a red herring, a false clue, a detail that serves no purpose other than the author’s whim.” His advice, like everyone else’s, is to use only those details that matter. But if our goal is to convey the essence of a character, why first imagine everything that’s inessential? If you ask me, creating an encyclopedia of facts about our characters is like preparing to paint a bedroom by painting the rest of the house.
Also, the more inessential details we invent, the more we’re likely to use. If we make the mistake of thinking that characters should be as fully known as real people, we’ll almost inevitably include a great deal of inessential information about them—full-scale head-to-toe descriptions, résumé-like back story, all the trivial events of their lives, every stray thought that wafted through their heads, etc. I can’t think of anything more adverse to the creation of successful characters than the mere accumulation of information. As Boswell has said, accumulated details don’t bring characters to life, they “flatten” them “with their weight.” They do so, as Flannery O’Connor argues, because such details are naturalistic, and naturalism and realism work at cross purposes. “In a strictly naturalistic work,” she says, “the detail is there because it is natural to life, not because it is natural to the work. In a work of art we can be extremely literal, without being in the least naturalistic. Art is selective, and its truthfulness is the truthfulness of the essential . . .” And it is the essence of the character that we want to convey, after all.
How, you may be wondering, do I account for the fact—and it is most definitely a fact—that Forster, Burroway, Dufresne, Cooper, Hemley, Edwards and many other writers who tout the “know everything” approach to characterization have created so many characters whose essence is not obscured by the presence of a plethora of inessential information? I confess I have a sneaking suspicion that they don’t always, or maybe even ever, really follow their own advice, but if they do, they clearly have an extraordinary gift for determining which of the “flood of details” should be cut and which kept. This is not, I can attest, a gift that very many of the students I’ve taught over the past four decades have (and it’s not a gift I have, either). The “know everything” approach may work for those writers who have the willingness to cut most of what they’ve invented, and the wisdom to know just what to cut, but I don’t believe it works for most writers. In my opinion, Forster and Company succeed at creating excellent characters not because of their approach but in spite of it, and they do so because they know, instinctively if not consciously, that the fact that actual people are mostly full canvases doesn’t mean that our characters should be too. They know that the relative absence of our characters’ outer lives is one of the essential differences between Homo fictus and Homo sapiens, a difference we should exploit, not destroy. For if we don’t exploit it, selectivity and “the truthfulness of the essential” will suffer, and we will be in danger of proving that Voltaire was right when he said, “The secret of being a bore is to tell everything.”
Likely Glove Locations vs. All that David Copperfield Kind of Crap
If compiling a list of traits and attributes isn’t the way to create a character, what is? A more effective way, I’d argue, is to let the imagination supply the details as the needs of the story arise—and during the actual composition of the story, not in advance. As Gass points out, the imagination is driven by concepts, and it naturally ignores details unrelated to those concepts. (These concepts need not be conscious; indeed, characters arise largely from unconscious concepts.) To illustrate his point, Gass describes the process by which he remembers where he left his gloves. “I ransack a room in my mind until I find them,” he says. “But the room I ransack is abstract—a simple schema. I leave out the drapes and the carpet, and I think of the room as a set of likely glove locations.” Similarly, when we create characters, our concepts about them lead us to create the details that most capture their essence. It is precisely because the imagination works in this way that the best characters are “mostly empty canvas.”
Take Holden Caulfield, for example. Holden is, like Gass’s “likely glove locations,” a relatively simple schema: he consists of a handful of physical details, a couple of days of conversations and interactions with fewer than a dozen characters, and snippets of memories of three or four past events (principally, the death of his brother Allie). As The Catcher in the Rye’s famous first sentence makes clear, Salinger is not interested in giving us the kind of detailed, expansive information conventional advice calls for, information he dismisses as “all that David Copperfield kind of crap.” (As great an author as Dickens is, his characters fall far short of roundness, and they do so precisely because the sheer bulk of inessential information he gives us about them flattens them, as Boswell would say, with its weight.) For simplicity’s sake, I’ll focus here on Salinger’s physical description of Holden; suffice it to say that he is just as sparing with the other modes of characterization as he is with this one.
In the course of the novel, Salinger gives us only seven descriptive details about Holden, and all serve to reveal the essence of his character. Here are the details:
1. he has a deep voice;
2. he’s unusually tall for a sixteen-year-old;
3. he’s had “millions of gray hairs” on one side of his head since he was a kid;
4. he wears a crew cut even though it’s out of date and girls encourage him to grow his hair longer;
5. he wears a red hunting hat backwards;
6. he has a sore on the inside of his lip; and
7. he’s unable to make a fist with his right hand because he broke it while knocking out all the windows in his family’s garage after his brother died.
The first three details—his deep voice, unusual height, and gray hair—underline the fact that in some ways he’s prematurely old (and perhaps, as the gray hairs may suggest, precociously wise). The crew cut indicates that he’s hesitant about change and reluctant to leave his childhood. The hunting hat reveals that he refuses to follow the crowd (no one else wears hunting hats on the streets of New York City in 1950), and the fact that he wears it backwards tells us that he’s the opposite of a hunter, a protector (he worries about the ducks in Central Park and fantasizes about standing in a field of rye on “the edge of some crazy cliff” and catching children before they fall off ). The sore on the inside of his lip, which makes him worry he has cancer, serves to reveal his fear of dying like his brother. And his damaged hand illustrates the fact that his anger at the world and its phoniness and sorrows hurts only himself (he is, after all, narrating the novel from a sanatorium, where he’s recuperating from a breakdown).
Salinger’s description of Holden works because the details convey the essence of his character, not just “paint a picture.” It’s possible, of course, that Salinger created Holden in the roundabout way Burroway and others recommend, but I suspect it’s far more likely he simply used his imagination in the way Gass describes. If he hadn’t, I believe, the novel would be littered with far more details about Holden’s appearance—and far more incidents, relationships, and back story as well. In short, we would have found out where Holden was born and what his lousy childhood was like and how his parents were occupied and all before they had him, and all the rest of “that David Copperfield kind of crap.”
The Fourth Dimension
While conventional wisdom tells us we should know everything about our character, there’s one thing in particular we’re told we absolutely must know: our character’s motivation. In virtually every creative writing guide, workshop, and author interview, motivation is discussed as if it were the be-all and end-all of characterization. Without motivation, we’re told, the character simply can’t be plausible and the story is doomed to fail. As Rick DeMarinis has testified, “If motive is missing, your character can go through all sorts of delightful or hair-raising adventures and it won’t add up to a hill of beans.” But if motivation is present—and not only present but clearly defined—well, that’s when a character becomes “real.” Or so says John Emmons, who claims “Characters come alive . . . when their motivation is apparent to readers . . .”, and Dufresne, who claims characters can be “convincing” only when readers “know why they do what they do.” Adam Sexton goes so far as to say that motivation is “The fourth dimension of characterization” and without it, a character cannot truly come to life. (Now that Sexton has introduced the notion of four-dimensional characters, I think it’s only a matter of time before writers catch up to string theorists and begin talking about eleven-dimensional characters . . .)
The advice-givers are not only certain that understanding motivation is essential, they’re also certain what it is: desire. Every discussion of character I’ve encountered equates motivation and desire. In this, the advice-givers follow Aristotle, who said “man is his desire.” Again, Burroway is a representative voice on this subject. She says “the importance of desire in creating character can scarcely be overstated,” for understanding a character’s desire is “the first principle to grasp in the creation of character.” Robert Olen Butler agrees, though he finds the word desire too sedate for his taste: he prefers yearning. For him, understanding a character’s yearning is so essential that he says, “Until a character with yearning has emerged from your unconscious, I don’t encourage you to write at all.” Without a clearly defined desire to motivate a character’s behavior, he suggests, we might as well not bother visiting our writing desk, for motivation is not only the key to character, it’s the key to plot. Plot, he says, echoing virtually everybody from Aristotle on down, consists of “the attempt to fulfill the yearning and the world’s attempt to thwart that.” Butler has certainly defined one kind of plot (and written several excellent stories and novels that employ that plot), but it’s far from being the only kind of plot, or even, in my judgment, the best kind of plot. (I tend to prefer plots in which the conflict is internal rather than external. I find Hamlet far more compelling and complex than Romeo and Juliet, for example, precisely because Hamlet’s desires are in conflict more with themselves than with the world.)
And Butler, like the others who tout the desire-based view of character and plot, seems to think of desire as something singular and fixed. Burroway certainly does. Everything that occurs in a story should be “in the service of a fixed desire,” she says. Brandi Reissenweber likewise calls for “one driving desire” and says “the story line will grow organically” from this desire. And Julia Fierro argues that the protagonist’s desire should not only be singular and fixed but unique: it should be “Not what all people want, but what that character, and absolutely no other, wants,” for “It is the uniqueness of the character’s desire . . . that will make both you and the reader confident that the character is a genuine person . . .”
Let me get this straight: even though human beings are composed—or so both experience and neuroscience tell me—of numerous conflicting and ever-changing desires, a character should have just one fixed desire, and it has to be a desire that no other character in literature or human being in history has ever had? This sounds like a formula for creating an utterly implausible character. Making a character’s desire singular, fixed, and unique is exactly the sort of simplification that reduces the character’s realism. I don’t believe that human beings have fixed, unitary, unique selves, and so I also don’t believe they have fixed, unitary, unique desires. It would be more accurate to say that characters are motivated by multiple, shifting, and conflicting desires, most of which they share with the majority of their fellow humans, but even that definition of motivation strikes me as inexact and incomplete.
In any case, while desire certainly has a longstanding and legitimate role in motivating characters throughout literary history, there are other motives, and therefore other plots, available to writers. If we think of character and plot solely in terms of desire, especially a fixed desire, we significantly limit both of these essential elements of fiction.
I see at least six serious problems involved in the assumption that desire is, or should be, the sole motivation in fiction.
First, equating desire and motivation ignores the question of what motivated the desire. Why is one character afflicted with a certain desire and another one not? Why does Ahab want to wreak vengeance on Moby Dick for taking his leg while Captain Boomer, who lost an arm to the same whale, doesn’t?
Second, many characters’ desires change in the course of the story (so much for the notion of a fixed desire) and that change is either motivated by something other than the initial desire or not motivated at all. In Joyce Carol Oates’s “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?”, for example, the desire that drives Connie at the beginning of the story—her self-absorbed desire to escape her family’s influence and control—turns, at the end, after her confrontation with Arnold Friend, into a self-less desire to save the lives of her family, including her mother, whom she had earlier wished was dead. And while Connie’s change is motivated in part by her confrontation with Arnold Friend, her capacity for self-sacrifice, which has apparently been a submerged part of her character all along, is not—and it, more than anything Arnold Friend says, is what motivates her behavior at the story’s end.
While Connie has at least some motivation for her change in desire, characters in other stories sometimes change their desires without any motivation whatsoever. In Chekhov’s “Lady with the Dog,” for example, Gurov’s rakish desire for a brief affair with Anna turns into a loving desire to spend his life with her, and Chekhov doesn’t pretend to show or even tell us what motivates his change of feeling; he merely asserts that it happens. And since Gurov wants to remain his rakish self, his change occurs in direct opposition to his desire: he changes in spite of his desire, not because of it. What motivates his new desire is never specified or even hinted at. He falls in love with Anna, sure—but why? We can invent our own explanations for his change of heart, of course, but if we do, we’re no longer reading Chekhov’s story, we’re writing our own.
Third, some stories begin with a character motivated by desire but end with him or her motivated by something else. Take O’Connor’s “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” for example. For most of the story, the grandmother’s behavior is clearly motivated by one of two straightforward desires: first, the desire to go where she wants to go for a vacation rather than where the rest of the family wants to go, and second, the desire to avoid being murdered by the Misfit. But neither desire motivates her behavior in the story’s climactic moment. Indeed, we could even say that what motivates her behavior there is the abrupt disappearance of desire, for it’s only when she’s free of the petty desires that have driven her throughout the story that she’s open to what O’Connor calls “the action of grace” and therefore is able to recognize her “kinship” to the Misfit and achieve a kind of salvation. (At least that’s O’Connor’s explanation of her story’s climactic moment in her essay “A Reasonable Use of the Unreasonable.” ) At the climax of “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” any equation between desire and motivation simply vanishes. The same thing happens at the climax of Raymond Carver’s “Cathedral.” There, the narrator’s desire that he not have to deal with his wife’s blind friend vanishes and he achieves a sort of communion with him, a communion that he hadn’t desired any more than the grandmother desired her feeling of “kinship” with the Misfit. And if the most crucial moment of a story isn’t motivated by desire, why should we privilege desire as the be-all and end-all of motivation?
Fourth, some characters never discover what, exactly, they desire; the desire that motivates them, then, is the Chinese box-like desire to know what they desire. That’s a plausible desire, of course, but I don’t think it’s what Aristotle had in mind when he said “man is his desire” or what Burroway and Butler have in mind when they say desire is what determines a story’s plot. Kafka’s “A Hunger Artist” is an example of this kind of story. At its end, the Hunger Artist reveals what has motivated his fasting. In part, he confesses, it’s the desire for his audience’s admiration—he says, “I always wanted you to admire my fasting”—but there’s a much deeper motive: he never found the food he desired. If he had found it, he says, “I should have made no fuss and stuffed myself like you or anyone else.” When the story ends, then, he’s no closer to knowing just what he desires than at any other point. His desire remains undefined, elusive, his motivation a mystery to him as well as to us.
Fifth, while a character may have a clearly defined desire, the author may be far more interested in a desire he or she lacks. The prostitute protagonist of Chekhov’s “A Gentleman Friend,” for example, wants nothing more than some fancy clothes so she can ply her trade at a swanky nightclub, but as the name of the nightclub—the Renaissance—ironically suggests, what Chekhov—and, therefore, the reader—desires is that she be “reborn” and change her life. What is a happy story from her perspective—she gets the clothes she wants—is a sad story from Chekhov’s perspective, for she fails to replace her trivial, materialistic desire with a meaningful, spiritual one. The surface plot of the story, then, deals with the presence of one desire while the shadow plot cast by the surface plot deals with an absent one. And it is the absent desire that matters.
Finally, in some stories, desire does not drive either the character or the plot. What desire motivates Nick Adams in Hemingway’s “Indian Camp” or “In Another Country”? Or Anders in Tobias Wolff’s “Bullet in the Brain”? Or Fuckhead in Denis Johnson’s “Emergency”? The list could go on, but you get the point: some stories are about things that happen to characters, or things they witness, not events their desires initiate. That seems an obvious thing to say, but judging from my survey of creative writing guides, no one seems to be saying it.
In my opinion, the best creative writing advice is not prescriptive but descriptive; it lets us know what writers have done, and therefore what we might do, rather than make claims about what can or cannot be done. The prescriptions we find in creative writing guides are belied by the actual practice of fiction writers, and it is that practice that I suggest we attend to. If we do, we’ll see that, while many stories—the majority, no doubt—are indeed driven by desire, and end with a character achieving a desire, or failing to achieve a desire, or merely discovering what he or she has been desiring all along, other stories—including some of the best stories ever written—follow very different plot patterns and employ very different motivations.
Despite the evidence that desire and motivation aren’t inherently synonymous, writers and teachers seem content to assert that a character’s desire motivates all of his behavior, not just some of it. But however we define motivation, do we really need to understand what motivates our characters? I would say no. In fact, I’d say it’s actually a good thing if we don’t understand, at least not fully, our characters’ motives. The best characters, in my opinion, are those whose motivation is, as Boswell would say, half-known. A fully known motivation would inevitably limit the realism of the character and, therefore, the story. In real life, we may pretend to know someone’s motive—this pretense is most apparent in gossip and courts of law—but who is really all that certain about anyone’s motives, even our own? As Aimee Bender says, “We’ve been trained to believe that psychology is cause and effect, but, actually, our motivations are complicated and messy, and how our actions tie into our motivation isn’t always clear.” We’ve been taught that plots are cause and effect, too, and that motivation is the through-line that ties all the events together. But if cause and effect aren’t this overt in life, should fiction imply that they are?
The desire-based theory of character implies characters actually do know what they desire, that their motivation is clear, and that each effect has a definable, understandable cause. Interestingly, the most intriguing characters in literature don’t know why they do what they do, and neither do we. Witness Hamlet. We’re still arguing about his motivation. And Hamlet himself—perhaps because of growing pains in those pesky frontal lobes—doesn’t understand why he delays avenging his father’s murder. He asks himself during one of his soliloquies,
. . . Now, whether it be
Bestial oblivion, or some craven scruple
Of thinking too precisely on th’ event—
A thought which, quartered, hath but one part wisdom
And ever three parts coward—I do not know
Why yet I live to say ‘This thing’s to do’,
Sith I have cause, and will, and strength, and means,
Various critics have glommed on to one or more of the motives he lists, but it’s clear that none of them is the “answer.” All we know for sure is that Hamlet’s desire to kill the king must be matched by an equally strong desire not to kill him, for there is no external reason for his delay.
In his book Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare, Stephen Greenblatt argues that the absence of a clear motive for Hamlet’s delay is intentional—and an important artistic discovery. He points out that the source material for Hamlet—and for Shakespeare’s subsequent tragedies—contains clearly defined motives for the characters’ behavior, motives that provide “a familiar, comforting rationale that seems to make it all make sense.” But Shakespeare not only refused to include these motives, he refused to replace them with other, similarly explanatory ones. In writing Hamlet, Greenblatt says,
Shakespeare found that he could immeasurably deepen the effect of his plays, that he could provoke in the audience and in himself a peculiarly passionate intensity of response, if he took out a key explanatory element, thereby occluding the rationale, motivation, or ethical principle that accounted for the action that was to unfold. The principle was not the making of a riddle to be solved, but the creation of a strategic opacity.
This “strategic opacity,” created by the “excision of motive,” is what makes Hamlet a half-known character. By making something that’s too often transparent in literature—the character’s motivation—opaque and unknowable, as it often, maybe even always, is in real people, Shakespeare created the first truly realistic character in literature. I suspect that even those who claim we need to know our characters’ motives inside and out find Hamlet a more compelling and believable character precisely because they don’t understand his motivation. Methinks, in short, they doth protest too much.
T.S. Eliot may be an exception. Shakespeare’s “strategic opacity” seems to have irritated him as much as it impresses Greenblatt. In his essay “Hamlet and His Problems,” he says that “So far from being Shakespeare’s masterpiece, the play is most certainly an artistic failure” because Shakespeare did not “impose” a motive on his principal character. He argues that “the delay in revenge is unexplained on grounds of necessity or expediency” and hence he compares the play unfavorably to Thomas Kyd’s earlier play Hamlet, in which Hamlet’s motive was revenge, pure and simple, and the delay in achieving it was caused merely “by the difficulty of assassinating a monarch surrounded by guards.” Clearly, Eliot wanted the play to follow the same internal desire vs. external obstacles dynamic that Butler recommends, but why he, or anyone, would favor such a reductive and simplistic motive and plot over the mystery and complexity of Shakespeare’s play is beyond me.
As I see it, Hamlet is a more powerful character, and his play all the more a masterpiece, for the very reason that we can’t find a one-to-one—or even a two- or three- or four-to-one—correspondence between his motives and his behavior. And I’m far from alone in holding this view. As Charles Baxter notes, “Gertrude Stein shrewdly remarks that the reason people still talk about Hamlet has to do, not with what people understand about it, but with what they continue, down through the years, not to understand.” As Boswell might say, what makes Hamlet such a great character is that he is half-known—he is composed of both what we understand about him and what we don’t. What we don’t understand is what makes him so fascinating. And not just him. As Rust Hills has said, “With some exceptions, all the intriguing characters in literature have very unclear motivation.”
Our uncertainty about Hamlet’s motives is what makes him resonate with something akin to the complexity of real people. Certainty about motives, on the other hand, leads to a reductive sense of who your character is. To equate a character with a single desire—or even a couple of conflicting desires—tends to simplify the character, make him flatter than he needs to be. As Bender says, explaining behavior in this way not only “reduces fiction and . . . the human mind. It also demeans the character.” If, as Forster says, the “test of a round character is whether it is capable of surprising in a convincing way,” how could any character defined by a single fixed desire pass that test? Wouldn’t such a character, by definition, be incapable of surprising us? If you ask me, the only characters who are truly capable of surprising us in a convincing way, the way people in real life are capable of surprising us, are those whose motivations remain mysterious. Tim O’Brien agrees. Convincing characters are achieved, he says,
not through a “pinning down” process but rather through a process that opens up and releases mysteries of the human spirit. The object is not to “solve” a character—to expose some hidden secret—but instead to deepen and enlarge the riddle itself. Too often, I believe, characterization fails precisely because it attempts to characterize. It narrows; it pins down; it explicates; it solves. . . . This sort of characterization has the effect of diminishing the very mystery that makes us care so passionately about other human beings.
As I hope I’ve shown, knowing everything about our characters, especially their motivations, makes them differ from real people in a way that prevents them from being truly realistic. When it comes to fiction writing, the old cliché about a little knowledge being a dangerous thing is false. Having a lot of knowledge is what’s dangerous in fiction. It’s dangerous because it leads us to include information that distracts the reader, and us, from the essence of the character and because it leads us to think we understand more than we actually do, or can, about characters and their motivations. Quite literally, creative writing guides are trying to make us know-it-alls, at least when it comes to characterization. I hope we’ll resist that dangerous temptation.
A Great Step Forward
It’s been more than four hundred years since Shakespeare discovered the principle of “strategic opacity,” but still the vast majority of people who comment on characterization have failed to recognize the value of that principle. However, writers—consciously or not—have learned from Shakespeare’s example and created characters who are “half-known worlds” unto themselves. This has never been more true than it is now. Even DeMarinis, who is a strong proponent of desire-based characterization and plot, admits that many characters in contemporary fiction lack a clearly defined desire to motivate their behavior. Indeed, he says that much of contemporary fiction is about “[a] character who wants something he or she can’t define.” Such characters, he notes, “populate the work of Alice Munro and Joyce Carol Oates and countless others,” including Flannery O’Connor, Raymond Carver, and Tobias Wolff. He says, “Sherwood Anderson might well be the godfather of this kind of story,” but I’d give that title to Chekhov, whose stories frequently comment on the inscrutability of human motivation. In “The Darling,” for example, the otherwise “omniscient” narrator reports that Olenka, the title character, loves the son of a former lover so much that she “would give her whole life” for him, then he asks himself, and us, “Why?” His answer is that there is no answer: “Who knows why?” he says. Chekhov’s stories often end with the main character unable to understand what motivated his or her actions. See, for example, the conclusion of his woefully under-read masterpiece “Terror,” in which the protagonist exclaims, “Why have I done this? . . . Why has it turned out like this and not differently?” These are the questions that resonate throughout Chekhov’s fiction, and to his everlasting credit, he refuses to pretend he knows how to answer them.
Like Shakespeare, Chekhov had the quality Keats called Negative Capability, the ability to remain “in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” Whether they realize it or not, the proponents of knowing everything about our characters, from their motivations to their favorite brand of underwear, are proponents of irritably reaching after fact and reason. In their advice, if not (thank goodness) in their own fiction, they champion what could be called Positive Capability, the ability to know everything, without any irritable reaching after uncertainties, doubts, and mysteries. Ironically, the proponents of knowing everything claim to be proponents of Negative Capability; they quote Keats’ comment regularly and always approvingly. Some things are both/ands, not either/ors, but this one’s an either/or: either a writer’s greatness stems from acknowledging uncertainty, mystery, and doubt or it stems from knowing and understanding everything. The two attitudes toward reality, and human beings, are mutually exclusive. If you ask me, Negative Capability is the key to creating truly round, realistic characters, whereas Positive Capability can lead only to the creation of characters of varying degrees of flatness.
Chekhov most certainly did not believe he, or anyone else, could “know everything” about his characters or parse their motivations. In a letter, he wrote, “It is time for writers to admit that nothing in this world makes sense. Only fools and charlatans think they know and understand everything. The stupider they are, the wider they conceive their horizons to be. And if an artist decides to declare that he understands nothing of what he sees—this in itself constitutes a considerable clarity in the realm of thought, and a great step forward.” This is a step that now, more than a hundred years after his death, we have just barely begun to take. It is high time more of us took it.
From A CRACK IN EVERYTHING: HOW WE KNOW WHAT'S DONE IS DONE
Fortunate Alter Egos
In an article about the artist David Salle, Janet Malcolm says, “Writers have traditionally come to painters’ ateliers in search of aesthetic succor. To the writer, the painter is a fortunate alter ego, an embodiment of the sensuality and exteriority that he has abjured to pursue his invisible, odorless calling. The writer comes to the places where traces of making can actually be seen and smelled and touched expecting to be inspired and enabled, possibly even cured.” I confess that I came to Haystack Mountain School of Crafts with similar expectations—or, at least, hopes. Specifically, I was hoping the “alter egos” I would meet there would give me some insight into the difficult issue of how to know a work of art is finished. After struggling with this issue in story after story and poem after poem for my entire adult life—but especially, it seems, in recent years—I was hoping that artists who work with physical materials might have ways of thinking about the issue that would translate to the “invisible, odorless” art of writing. Please understand: I wasn’t expecting to get the answer, or even an answer, to the irresolvable question of how we know a work is finished. For me, the only truly finished work of art would be a perfect one, and no such work exists or could exist. Rather, I was hoping the artists at Haystack would define the question’s parameters in a way that would help me write a story or poem that deserved to take its place in a reader’s mind in the same way their works deserve to take a place in the physical world. And this they definitely did, and by doing so they proved to be most fortunate alter egos indeed.
For two weeks, I had the privilege of watching the artists at Haystack work with such wonderfully physical materials as metal, wood, clay, glass, paper, ink, and various kinds of fabric—not to mention such “mixed media” as seashells, corks, bottle caps, milk cartons, plastic forks, doll parts, and light bulb bottoms—and watching them use an amazing array of equally physical tools, including routers, dremels, biscuit joiners, planes, blow pipes, 2000-degree furnaces, glory holes, annealers, rolling mills, grinders, pitch pots, tumblers, vises, anvils, sinusoidal stakes, straight mandrels, and planishing, forging, forming, cross peen, and numerous other kinds of hammers. As a writer, my materials—a measly twenty-six letters (metalsmiths have more kinds of hammers than I have letters!) and the words they form—can only refer to the physical world, not partake of it; they are symbolic echoes of the palpable world, but, as Malcolm says, “invisible” and “odorless” ones. Watching the artists at work in their studios, I felt just how much matter matters to them, and I envied them their intimate knowledge of the things of this world.
To the extent that was possible for someone who was an observer but not a participant, I shared the sensory pleasure of their craft. I loved feeling the heat emanating from the glory holes in the glass studio; smelling the sawdust and varnish in the wood studio, the ammonia, sulfur, and oil in the metals studio, and the ink in the printmaking studio; and listening to the swarm-of-bees sound of the table saw cutting wood, the slap of hands shaping clay on treadle-operated potter’s wheels, the hum and whir of sewing machines, and the hiss of hot silver plunged into water. When I went back to my own studio, where I worked alone, not surrounded by others sharing a similar struggle, all I heard, besides the wind soughing through the firs outside my open window and the occasional song of a mourning dove or thrush, was the quiet clicking of keys as I typed on my laptop. It reminded me a little of the tapping of hammers against metal, but no gold or silver or bronze turned into rings or bracelets beneath my fingers. I couldn’t hold my words in my hand, feel their heft. You can tell if a ring fits a finger, but how can you tell if words fit an emotion? And if you can’t even tell that, how can you tell a work is whole enough, complete enough, to leave your mind for your readers’?
From RETURNING CHARACTERS TO LIFE: CHEKHOV’S SUBVERSIVE ENDINGS
In one of his letters, Chekhov wrote, “When I am finished with my characters, I like to return them to life.” By returning his characters to life, he meant, I believe, something like what David Chase did in the controversial ending of the HBO series The Sopranos: instead of conclusively ending the series by “whacking” Tony, or shipping him off to prison for life, or having him see the error of his ways and turn state’s evidence against his fellow mobsters, Chase simply returned him to his daily routine, essentially as unchanged as the world in which he lives. A great number of Chekhov’s stories end similarly, saying implicitly what the ending of one story says explicitly: “And after that life went on as before.” Whereas previous (and most subsequent) fiction focuses on a climactic change, Chekhov’s stories are frequently less about change than they are about the failure to change. Indeed, as the poet, translator, and scholar Anne Frydman has said, his stories “provide an exhaustive investigation into the reasons for changelessness in human life.” And even when his characters do change, Chekhov’s endings often reveal that their changes either fail to last, merely complicate the existing conflict, or create a new and often greater conflict. In short, Chekhov tends to end his stories by returning his characters to life and the problems created either by their change or their failure to change.
Before Chekhov, stories did not typically end in these ways. The traditional Aristotelian plot was—and remains—little more than a machine engineered to create change: the protagonist finds himself faced with a conflict that gets complicated and intensified until it reaches a climactic moment in which it is resolved and his life is forever altered. But Chekhov was deeply skeptical about the possibility of change, especially if that change were permanent and positive, as it so often is in pre-Chekhovian fiction. Readers who expected his stories to end with such conclusive resolutions were disappointed and criticized his stories as “incomplete.” (In this they resemble many of our own contemporaries, alas.) In response to such criticism, perhaps, he titled one of his stories “A Story without an End.” But for all of their apparent inconclusiveness, his stories do have endings; they’re just not the kinds of endings favored by previous writers—or by the average viewer of The Sopranos. They are subversive endings, endings designed to undercut our expectations and, thereby, force us to examine our conceptions about life and human nature. They are, I would argue, the kinds of endings that much of contemporary fiction lacks, and needs.
Clearly, Chekhov was aware relatively early in his writing life that new kinds of endings were necessary in literature. While writing Ivanov, his first full-length play, he wrote to his publisher about the conventional endings of plays—“Either the hero gets married or shoots himself,” he complained—and he concluded, “Whoever discovers new endings for plays will open up a new era.” And that is exactly what Chekhov did, both for plays and for short stories. Even now, 105 years after his death, we are still very much in the era Chekhov opened up. Chekhovian endings have been adopted, and adapted, not only by the usual suspects—Katherine Mansfield, Virginia Woolf, Sherwood Anderson, Ernest Hemingway, John Cheever, Eudora Welty, Raymond Carver, Andre Dubus, and Tobias Wolff—but also by such otherwise un-Chekhovian writers as Donald Barthelme and John Barth. But while some of Chekhov’s innovative strategies for closure (or anti-closure, as the case may be) are now relatively commonplace, others have been largely overlooked or ignored. Many of today’s writers write as if unaware of some of the possibilities Chekhov opened up and thus they end their stories in highly predictable and conventional ways. For these reasons, I believe it is time for us to take a close look at Chekhov’s strategies for closure. I hope that an examination of his innovations will lead to further innovations in our own endings, and perhaps even to another new era.
In this essay I will discuss the principal ways Chekhov subverted traditional short story endings to “return his characters to life” and its inconclusive conclusions. For convenience’s sake, I will discuss these strategies for the most part as if they occur in isolation, but I would urge the reader to keep in mind that they often appear in combination.
From WHO’S AFRAID OF THE BIG BAD ABSTRACTION?: MODES OF CONVEYING EMOTION
I. BE AFRAID. BE VERY AFRAID.
Most creative writing instruction is inevitably negative—it’s a lot easier to tell apprentice writers what they should avoid doing than what they should do—but few aspects of craft are taught more negatively than the all-important subject of conveying emotion. The most influential and oft-repeated advice on this subject is, no doubt, Ezra Pound’s imperial imperative “Go in fear of abstractions.” The fact that he phrased this advice as a commandment, echoing the exhortations of Biblical prophets (and their contemporary cousins, television evangelists) to “Go in fear of the Lord,” might explain why so many writers have taken his advice as holy writ. Leaving aside the fact that his admonition to avoid abstractions is itself abstract, it is nonetheless largely sound advice. But the argument he uses to support his advice reveals the danger of taking it as an unbreakable commandment. “Don’t use such an expression as ‘dim lands of peace’,” he says. “It . . . mixes an abstraction with the concrete. It comes from the writer’s not realizing that the natural object is always the adequate symbol.” Oh, really? If the writer just said “dim lands,” the reader would automatically think of peace? Maybe Pound would, but I wouldn’t. All I’d think of is, well, dim lands.
Pound’s advice has been repeated as gospel by many writers and teachers, but no one has expressed it with such fervor as Robert Olen Butler. If Pound sounds like a televangelist, Butler sounds like a pope. Speaking ex cathedra, Butler doesn’t suggest that good abstractions might go to heaven, the unbaptized ones to limbo, and all the rest to purgatory or fiery hell; no, they’re all damned, and right from the get-go. (For a pope, Butler is quite the Calvinist.) “Absolutely never name an emotion,” he says in From Where We Dream; “never start explaining or analyzing or interpreting an emotion.”
In short, be afraid. Be very, very afraid.
Me, I get nervous when I hear the word never. And when someone tells me never to do something, I’m liable to want to do it even more. Furthermore, an excellent case can be made for the judicious use of abstractions; in fact, Stephen Dunn has already made that case, and very persuasively too, in his essay “Some Reflections on the Abstract and the Wise.” But even though I think Butler seriously overstates his case, I’m ultimately more a disciple of his than a reprobate. There are, after all, extremely good reasons to be afraid of abstractions—at least afraid enough to respect them and handle them with care. As Butler stresses, “emotions reside in the senses.” Without some appeal to the senses, then, it is very difficult, if not downright impossible, for us to make our readers experience our characters’ emotions. Virtually all authors of craft books—including, of course, Butler—have made this point and rightly advised writers to convey their characters’ emotions via the senses. Relatively few have provided positive, successful examples of sensory expression of emotion, however, and none, to my knowledge, has defined the various modes of conveying emotion available to writers and extrapolated principles for their use, as I hope to do in this essay.
The primary ways writers can convey emotion through the senses are body language and metaphor, each of which can convey emotion either by itself or in combination with the other. And, as I hope to show, both body language and metaphor can also be combined with abstractions, for although Pound inveighs against mixing the abstract and the concrete, that is in fact often an effective way to convey emotion—and so, in some cases, is mixing the abstract with the abstract.
From THE REVERSE SIDE: THE POETRY OF STEPHEN DUNN
“Go in fear of abstractions”; “A poem must not mean / but be”; “No ideas / but in things” and the ubiquitous “Show, don’t tell”—these are some of the shibboleths that govern both the teaching and practice of poetry in our time. In his essay “Some Reflections on the Abstract and the Wise,” Stephen Dunn argues, in his characteristically contrarian way, against the narrow application of these principles and makes a compelling case for poems that “risk being abstract and unabashedly ‘wise’.” Risk is a key word here, for Dunn is very aware that a poet who writes “wisdom lines” is risking Polonius-like pomposity, didacticism, oversimplification, and banality. Furthermore, he says, “With wisdom lines, with any abstractions, we’re usually in the presence of a conscious truth, one that we can readily get elsewhere or dispense with hearing at all. Its context doesn’t enrich or support it. We feel toward it as we feel toward a preacher who doesn’t embody his sermon. It lacks the blood and bone of experience.”
But Dunn isn’t really interested in conscious truths, whether they are embodied and supported or not. A wisdom line that conveys a conscious truth is, at best, a “conventional wisdom” line, and sometimes, it’s a lie disguised as a truth. For Dunn, a bona fide wisdom line “articulates for us some things that we’ve probably half known and felt. It gives our inchoate knowledge shape and order.” Wisdom, he says, is something “arrived at out of the personal” and “discovered in process,” so it’s often the case that “the first wise lines occur in the middle of the poem.” (“What Men Want” is a good example of this tendency in Dunn’s poetry; the first wisdom lines of this 97-line poem appear after 38 lines of personal meditation on his father and brother’s lives.) Since a genuine wisdom line is a discovery, not a premise, it should come as a surprise to the poet. It’s no wonder, then, that Dunn has said, “My criterion for myself is that I’m not in my poem until the first moment I surprise myself.” Lesser poets might consider that moment of surprise and wisdom the place where the poem ends, not where it most truly begins, but for Dunn, the process of discovery is plural, not singular. He is never content to rest with the first conclusion he reaches.
The process of discovery that Dunn employs in his work is a dialectic one. As he has said, “I . . . have learned to argue with myself as I go, to assert then doubt a claim, to compose dialectically. . . . In short, I think I’ve learned how to ‘find’ the poem I’m writing by resisting where it wants to go and/or resisting my initial impulses for it.” Now, he suggests, that method is habitual, involuntary: “When I say or assert something, I almost immediately hear and start to entertain its opposite.” In this, he resembles Simone Weil, who argued that “Contradiction is the lever of transcendence”—i.e., contradicting a conscious truth is the way to transcend it and discover an as-yet-unknown truth. Importantly, the purpose of investigating ideas dialectically is not to eradicate one or the other idea, for contradiction, Weil argues, is an essential element of both truth and beauty: “in all beauty we find contradiction,” she says, and “all truth contains a contradiction.” Dunn agrees. In his poem “Circular,” he says that those who fail to see the truth of contradictory beliefs are “one-eyed amid the beautiful contraries.” Ironically, it’s the one-eyed who see with the most clarity—albeit the misleading clarity of false certainty; what the “clear-eyed” see, he tells us in “The Observer,” is “the blur” of reality. Better a blurry truth, he suggests, than a clear falsehood.
Behind the dialectic method Dunn practices is the belief that something can be true on one level, its opposite can be true on another, and when they are synthesized, both of them can be simultaneously true on a higher level. As Jean Cocteau has said, “All creation is the spirit of contradiction in its highest form.” And in its highest form, contradiction transcends the either-or mentality of simple negation—“This is true, that isn’t”—and achieves the complex affirmation of what Cleanth Brooks has called the both-and mode of thought. In his poem “Oklahoma City,” Dunn seconds Brooks, saying, “Some mysteries can be solved by ampersands. / Ands not ors”—but characteristically, he refuses to let those wisdom lines be his final word on the subject: his very next words are “that was my latest answer.” Clearly, the process of transcendence through dialectic contradiction is one that continues, never reaching a permanent conclusion. And how could it be otherwise, since ultimate truth is unattainable?
H.L. Hix has described the unattainability of truth in a wonderfully memorable way. “If truth is an extinct totem animal,” he has said, “argument is the map that specifies the place it would be found if it still existed, and aphorism is the description of what the animal would look like if you could get there.” Despite the impossibility of the task, Dunn tracks truth through his poetry’s dialectic arguments. The aphoristic wisdom lines that result are laudatory not only for their chutzpah, their Napoleonic desire, despite their small stature, to be emperor of Truth, but for their refusal to pretend they’ve achieved that desire. Always, they provoke thought rather than shut it down. As Karl Kraus once said, “An aphorism never coincides with the truth: it is either a half-truth or one-and-a-half truths.” A wisdom line, too, is inherently incomplete; either it fails to capture a whole truth or it suggests the existence of a further truth that has not yet been captured. In short, a wisdom line, be it a half-truth or one-and-a-half truths, requires the reader not merely to nod in agreement but to continue the exploration for that impossible-to-track animal, truth.
The dialectic method is the principal way Dunn tracks the untrackable. Implicit in this method, at least as Dunn practices it, is the notion of complementarity, a key concern in contemporary physics that is also at the heart of his poetry. In the words of J. Robert Oppenheimer, "One of the first things the student of atomic structure must come to understand is the rather deep and subtle principle which has turned out to be a clue to unraveling the whole domain of physical experience. This is the principle of complementarity, which recognizes that various ways of talking about physical experience may each have validity and may each be necessary for adequate description of the physical world, and may yet stand in a mutually contradictory relationship to each other."
The theory of complementarity that Oppenheimer describes was introduced in 1927 by the physicist Nils Bohr, who asserted that two mutually exclusive explanations of the nature of light (as a wave and as a particle) were both true and that we can achieve a complete understanding of light only by recognizing their “complementary” relations. “There are the trivial truths and the great truths,” he said. “The opposite of a trivial truth is plainly false. The opposite of a great truth is also true.” And his theory of complementarity doesn’t apply only to light, or even only to quantum physics; in his opinion, it is an “all-pervasive principle,” one that applies to all of nature, both human and physical. That all of life is paradoxical and complementary is not a new theory, of course. As revolutionary as Bohr’s theory was, and remains, its philosophical roots are ancient, a fact that Bohr acknowledged when he chose for his coat of arms the symbol for yin and yang. Bohr’s contribution was in revealing that this ancient concept of unity as the marriage of opposites was not just a mystical notion but a matter of literal physical, subatomic reality. And in Dunn’s poetry, it is also a matter of literal physical reality—and of psychological and philosophical reality, too.
WAYS OF BREAKING: LYNDA HULL'S "ORNITHOLOGY"
The title of Lynda Hull’s poem “Ornithology” comes, of course, from the famous tune recorded by Charlie Parker in 1946, a composition he co-wrote with the trumpeter Benny Harris based on the chord changes of the standard “How High the Moon.” The song’s title is something of a tongue-in-cheek pun, for “Ornithology” is not about the study of birds but the study of Bird. How high can I fly? Bird seems to ask as his alto swoops and soars. The answer: As high as the moon.
Lynda’s poem is a self-study, too, but one that approaches the self through a meditation on Parker and his music. There are parrots, macaws, mourning doves, and cardinals here, sure, but the only bird that really matters is the Bird who recorded “Ornithology.” Like Parker’s performance in that song, Lynda’s poem is “a way of thinking, / a way of breaking / synchronistic / through time.” Though the poem is set in Chicago, on a street that “becomes water” when it reaches Lake Michigan, most of it takes place in the Kansas City of Lynda’s memory, where she and her friend Eric go on a quest to find Bird’s grave and see what happens when “you touch a finger to the cold stone / that jazz and death played / down to.” Seeing a girl on the corner, she suddenly recalls “the old photos” of herself in her “Kansas City hat,” and with this thought, the past “breaks” into the present. For the rest of the poem, the two times—and Lynda’s two selves, the alcoholic high-school dropout living on the streets and the well-educated, accomplished poet living just off affluent Lakeshore Drive—are “synchronistic.” But though the two times co-exist, the past overwhelms the present. She relives it with such intensity, in fact, that the Kansas City of her memory seems more solid, more real, than Chicago, the “phantom city” she now inhabits. Clearly, her past has “torched” her so much that she still feels its “cardinal flame.”
As in so many of her poems, Lynda’s memories here are charged with an alluring brand of desolation. She describes Kansas City as a noir-ish place of shower-slick asphalt, charred and gutted buildings, poverty, neglect, mourning, street violence, and the “night-long tidal / pull from bar to bar,” yet it was also a place of vibrant colors, glitzy dresses, gardenia perfume, and “the rumpled musk of lover’s sheets,” a sensual place whose very air seemed charged with the ozone of jazz. To borrow her words from “Hollywood Jazz,” Lynda finds in the “desolation” of that time and place “a music so voluptuous” she wants to linger in it. And she does linger in it until the final lines, when she returns to the present moment in Chicago and looks again at the ailanthus tree she mentions in the opening lines. Importantly, she now sees the “poverty tree” as “Extravagant.” Like her life in Kansas City, the tree is both poor and rich, and its colors—the slate blue of the mourning dove and the red flame of the cardinal—reflect the “synchronistic” sadness and passion of that time. The ailanthus is the ideal image to sum up Lynda’s paradoxical response to her past; known as both stinkweed and the tree of heaven, it encapsulates in a single image the squalid paradise the poem recounts.
If “Ornithology” did no more than examine Lynda’s past self with a moving mixture of lament and nostalgia, it would still be one of her most beautiful and important poems. But the poem is also an ars poetica of sorts, exploring as it does the relationship between her past self and her art. How high did I fly? she seems to ask. Not too high, she answers: she “had the music,” she says, “but not the pyrotechnics.”
Maybe that was true then. But now, she clearly has the pyrotechnics. Formally, her poem mirrors the “liquid geometry” of Parker’s solo break on “Ornithology.” As Martin Williams has said, “Never before (or since?) had Parker’s ingenious rhythmic originality been so dramatically evident. For one thing his phrasing—rapid as it is!—is an ingenious alternation of long/short/long/short lines, with some rests in between” (206). Lynda’s lines, too, alternate between long and short—they range in length from two to twelve syllables—with some rests in between. Like Bird’s phrases, her words burst into flight like the parrots in line four, then hover a moment, as if testing the current of the air, before swerving off into another flight of “sixteenth / notes.” She flies as high as Bird here, and reading her lines, one can almost hear his solo.
Lynda’s formal imitation of Parker’s performance helps establish the parallel the poem draws between her and Bird, and between her poetry and his music. But the principal way Lynda turns this brief account of her Kansas City days into an ars poetica is through her exploration, and illustration, of various “ways of breaking.” By the end of the poem, the word break has become a complex pun, one far more serious than that of Parker’s title: it refers to Bird’s solo break, to his breaking of the conventions of musical time, to line breaks (“Take a phrase, then / fracture it”), to the way the past breaks into the present, and, ultimately, to emotional heartbreak and, even, breakdown. Reading Lynda’s account of the sorrow that “torches” her when she goes to Bird’s grave, we inevitably think of Bird’s own heartbreaks and the emotional breakdown he suffered shortly after recording “Ornithology” (which resulted in his seven months of “relaxin’” at Camarillo State Hospital).
Given all of the “ways of breaking” the poem explores, when Lynda says “Take it all / and break forever,” we realize that she’s instructing herself (and any writer who wishes to achieve the artistry of Parker) to endure all the suffering of her past and break emotionally forever. But she’s also instructing herself to claim her suffering and to break—or improvise poetry—on it forever. You can’t break in this last sense of the word, her poem implies, unless you continually break emotionally. This willingness to embrace suffering again and again was, from the beginning, the essence of art for Lynda. In “The Nature of Light,” an uncollected poem she wrote in 1982, she even suggests that writing poetry is itself a form of suffering, a way of breaking down the self in order to transform it into music. The poem defines poetry as a fire that “refines, burns excess, strips / to the singing bones,” thus revealing the self, which is “single and multiple as light.” The epigraph of the poem is telling. “What is to give light,” she quotes Heinrich Fraenkel, “must endure the burning.” “Ornithology,” like “The Nature of Light,” seconds Fraenkel’s belief. And more pertinently, it also seconds Parker’s aesthetic credo, which she quotes in the last line: “If you don’t live it, it won’t come out your horn.”
Of course, just living it doesn’t mean it will automatically come out your horn; as Lynda recognizes, it’s one thing to have the music and another to have the pyrotechnics needed to express it. Lynda definitely had the pyrotechnics. In all three of her books, she reveals that she had the chops to make with words the kind of music that Bird made with notes. Because of her great linguistic gifts, she not only lived it, it came out her horn. She found ways of breaking that transformed her turmoil and suffering into music as lyrical, as powerful, and—I predict—as enduring as Bird’s. And though she is no longer with us, her burning continues to give us light.
From MAKING IT NEW: EXPERIMENTING WITH TRADITIONAL FORMS
The revolution is over. The war has been won. As anyone even remotely familiar with contemporary American poetry knows, free verse has swept the field. Free verse may have once been revolutionary, but it has long since become the fashion. Traditional verse, on the other hand, has for several decades been considered at best old-fashioned and at worst downright evil. Perhaps nothing conveys this fact more readily than the following comment by Karl Shapiro, who four decades ago wrote several books of and about traditional verse: “Remember what Williams said, if he said it: a sonnet is a fascist form. Poets here and now who use ‘forms’ are turning back the clock, winding the metronome, making trains run on time—with black boots and whips.” I do not wish to quarrel with Shapiro’s taste or his association of poetry and politics, but I would like to challenge his assumption that contemporary poets who use traditional forms are in fact “turning back the clock.”
Shapiro’s assumption is a common one: the use of traditional forms is somehow a nostalgic act, a yearning for the harmony and order of the past. In fact, however, most contemporary poets who write in traditional forms have not returned to the past at the expense of the present. In particular, they have not ignored the free verse revolution and its daring departures from past poetic practices. Indeed, most of them write frequently—if not predominately—in free verse themselves. It is not surprising, then, that the spirit of experimentation that so invigorated the free verse revolution is also evident in the traditional verse of our time. Contemporary American poets have not merely repeated the forms of the past; rather, they have revised those forms dramatically, in order to make them compatible with our changed times and our changed conceptions of poetry. For these poets, then, Pound’s injunction to “make it new” did not mean to “start over”—to invent new forms—but to make the old forms “new.”
In making the old forms new, contemporary poets have experimented with many formal traditions. There are as many kinds of experiments as there are poems, of course, but nine types of experiments predominate. Since these experiments will undoubtedly have a considerable impact on the way future poets employ fixed forms—and, I believe, on future scholars’ estimation of the influence of the free verse revolution on traditional forms and prosody—I would like to define them briefly here and provide a few examples of the new look our poets have given some old but indispensable forms. My hope is that these successful experiments will encourage younger poets to use these nine modes of experimentation to create additional new variations on old forms.
From STOLEN MOMENTS: AN INTERVIEW WITH DAVID JAUSS
Sascha Feinstein: I’d like to discuss how you create poems from other texts -- as opposed, say, to live performances -- because I think this could be educational for writers who never had the opportunity to hear seminal figures in jazz. But I’d like to begin by breaking a classic creative writing workshop rule of separating speaker and author: Is the narrative in your poem “Traps” true to the origin of your actual infatuation with jazz?
David Jauss: No it’s not, but it’s very close. I had a friend in high school who was a jazz fanatic and a drummer, and he’s the one who introduced me to jazz. He played Dave Brubeck constantly--his hero was [the drummer] Joe Morello--and he was the guy who talked me into going to the Buddy Rich concert. I didn’t know Buddy Rich from anybody and I wasn’t really all that excited about going, but I went, had a great time, and the incident that I describe in the poem is actual. Rich did turn and growl at this longhaired bass player. A couple of weeks later, Buddy Rich was on the Tonight Show, and Johnny Carson was talking about his reputation as demanding, hard-to-please bandleader--apparently he was the George Steinbrenner of Big Band leaders--and he said, “Yeah, I just had to fire a bass player.”
So all that part of it’s true, but to torque up the drama of the moment, I acted in the poem as though I’d been dragged to the concert by my parents and didn’t want to be there. But [in actuality] it was my choice and I was with my friend.
Feinstein: Was this the first major jazz musician you heard?
Jauss: The only one I’d heard at that point. I was seventeen. We did not hear jazz on any of our radio stations [in Minnesota]. We didn’t hear much beyond the predictable pop. In fact, for my tenth birthday in 1961, I was given one of those radios they had then, the kind with vacuum tubes in them, and at night I could get KAAY in Little Rock, which at that time was a rock and roll station, and they were playing things that I was not hearing on the radio stations in Minnesota, songs by people like Chuck Berry and Little Richard. And I just thought they were local boys [laughs].
Feinstein: And how, after the Buddy Rich concert, did you nurture your new attraction to jazz?
Jauss: Largely by listening to my friend’s jazz records. I bought a few records of my own, too -- the first album I bought was a Coleman Hawkins record. I didn’t know anything about Hawkins, but the album was called The Genius of Coleman Hawkins and I figured he had to be good if he was a genius. [Both laugh.] Mostly I was like everybody else my age, listening to Dylan, the Stones, the Beatles, that sort of thing, but I was liking jazz more and more. And in my senior year in high school, I wrote my English research paper on the history of jazz. I somehow managed to get it down to about nine pages. [Both laugh.] That was the first time I felt the desire to read about it, to find out the sources behind the music. I didn’t feel that desire from the Buddy Rich concert, but when I started to hear the jazz that really spoke to me, I felt that this was the language I had wanted to hear all my life. It was like the unconscious talking, expressing everything that you can think and feel in a language you cannot rationally explain. It just communicated so intensely compared to anything else I’d ever heard before. I wanted to read about the people who made it and learn how this music came to be, so I wrote this research paper.
When I went to [Southwest Minnesota State] College [in 1970], I had a really bad Introduction to Music class; it was not a good experience for me and I never took another music class. I didn’t have much money to buy records, and in graduate school I spent most of my time reading and writing. But while I was at Syracuse University [1972-74], I spent a lot of time at Stephen Dunn’s house--Stephen was my first creative writing teacher, back in Minnesota, and we’d become friends--and I listened to just about everything in his jazz collection. But jazz didn’t really take me over heart and soul until I moved to Little Rock [in 1980]. In part it was because there was a good jazz and blues scene there, but mostly it was because my son Steve began to be interested in jazz. We went to clubs together almost every week for years--he was always the youngest person in the room--and watching his love for the music grow brought me back to the way I felt when I first discovered it. And now that he was interested in jazz, and playing it himself--he played guitar in jazz bands in high school and college--I had a good excuse to buy all the records I wanted--I was furthering his education, after all! [Laughs.] But of course, I was also furthering mine at the same time.
Feinstein: Was there a parallel moment to the Buddy Rich experience when you realized that writing would be at the center of your life?
Jauss: Not really, because I always wrote--I started writing stories when I was in first grade and I’ve never stopped. I always assumed I would have to stop someday when I grew up: I’d have to find something practical to do. Even after a couple of creative writing classes in colleges, which I really enjoyed, I thought, “You can’t be serious about this.” And then I just got selfish and said, “I’m going to learn as much about literature and writing as I can. Regardless of what I’m going to do for a living, I’m going to spend the rest of my life reading books and writing poems and stories.” So it was more of a gradual giving in to an impulse that had been there forever.
Feinstein: Given the fact that you are nationally recognized in poetry, fiction, and nonfiction, why has jazz so much more strongly influenced your poetry?
Jauss: I would like it to more strongly influence my fiction as well. I have tried to write jazz stories and have always failed. For some reason, jazz seems more congenial to poem form. Part of it is that I am conscious of feeling inadequate, of not knowing enough about that world, since I’m not a musician myself. I think in a story I would have to know more, whereas in a poem all I have to do is try to capture a moment. Usually in capturing a moment, I bring in some of the past life--like in that Ornette Coleman poem [“The Master Musicians of Joujouka”], which summarizes his past leading up to the poem’s present moment--but that moment takes center stage and it’s the only one I feel I really need to inhabit imaginatively. I figure I can enter a moment better than I can a life, so that’s probably why I write poems about jazz but not stories.
Also, I think I’m drawn to certain moments more than to the overall stories of their lives. It’s the same with the music. There are certain passages in, say, Coltrane’s Crescent: every single time I hear them, the hair stands up on the back of my head, I can feel my heart rate go up. There’s just something about it, and I couldn’t possibly tell you why. The combination of the notes, the tones, the feeling that’s put into it--it just nails something inside me that nothing else does. And that happens when I read about jazz musicians’ lives, too--certain moments just leap out and beg to become a poem.
Feinstein: In terms of genre, though, if you had a student who said, “I’m not a musician but I love jazz and I’d like to write about it in a short story,” wouldn’t you encourage that student?
Jauss: Oh, absolutely. And I would encourage myself, too. [Feinstein laughs.] I have tried. But I don’t want to write something bad about jazz--it means too much to me--and I work hard at the jazz poems that I write because I feel part of the impulse behind them is to honor the people who made this great art and who have not gotten the recognition that they deserve. I mean, they’re famous among those of us who know something about jazz, but I always have to explain to my students who Coltrane is, who Billie Holiday is, who Thelonious Monk is. But I can’t blame them. I can remember the first time I heard Coltrane’s name, and I didn’t have a clue who he was, so when I encounter students and other people who haven’t heard of him, I can empathize with that, but I feel the need to spread the word because these people are missing so much. I feel that very strongly. As I told you the other day, I was once teaching Frank O’Hara’s poem “The Day Lady Died” and talking about Billie Holiday and one of my students said, “Well, in order to really get this poem, we need to know who he was.” (Even though it’s “The Day Lady Died”!) I asked everyone to raise their hands if they knew who Billie was. Only one hand went up. And that upset me. The fact that some of these students were African-American upset me even more: if they’re losing this astonishing contribution to American culture, what’s happening to the WASPs out in the suburbs?
Feinstein: Your Miles [Davis] poem “Black Orchid” seems to have been inspired by Miles’s autobiography [Miles, 1989].
Jauss: That’s right.
Feinstein: In the book, Miles mentions--in passing--that he may have played in the club [Black Orchid] at that time . You’ve taken a possible gig and turned it into a lengthy poem. How did that happen, and why?
Jauss: Partly because, since we don’t have a record of it, no one can accuse me of describing it incorrectly. [Both laugh.] Throughout my life of writing jazz poems, I have strategically picked as often as possible moments that were not recorded. [Both laugh again.] For example, in the Sun Ra poem [“After the End of the World”]: I could have set it in 1970, when he actually recorded there [Berlin], but then people might say, “Well, no--this didn’t happen, and that didn’t happen,” so I picked another year in which he did tour Germany but didn’t record there.
Feinstein: But the Miles Davis autobiography includes many interesting stories. It’s a fairly hefty book--unless, of course, you edit the swear words, in which case it boils down to a third of the size. [Both laugh.] There must have been something about the moment, or title of the club, that offered such an energizing trigger.
Jauss: I think it was the club’s name, to an extent, but I also wanted to set the poem in 1950 because that was such a crucial year for Miles. It was a time in his life when he was in danger of losing his genius, because of the drugs and the emotional turmoil of leaving Irene and all that. Since it was such a dramatic, important time, and since the Black Orchid gig wasn’t recorded, I did what I do as a fiction writer, which is to try to get into the mind of the character. I thought imagining Miles playing “April in Paris” would be a good way to bring in the Juliette Greco story. The story of his marriage. Heroin addiction. The death of Fats Navarro. All of that. Basically, I just tried to imagine what someone in that spot would be thinking while playing a song that would bring back all these memories.
Feinstein: Two issues ago, Brilliant Corners published a tribute to Lynda Hull, which included your excellent essay on her poem “Ornithology.” We’ve often discussed our admiration for Lynda, how we both think she’s one of the greatest voices in twentieth-century poetry. Why did you dedicate this particular poem to her?
Jauss: My first instinct is to say that I dedicated it to her because she helped me so much with it. But now that you ask the question, I think that’s only part of the answer--and probably just a small part. After all, I could have asked any of my other poet friends for their advice. So why did I choose Lynda? Partly because she wrote so well about jazz herself, I suppose, but also, I suspect, because I feared she was like Miles in the poem, at a point in her life where her genius was threatened by her addictions. But I don’t think I was conscious of this when I dedicated the poem to her. At that time, I think I was just thanking her for all of her help. And I needed her help badly--it was the first jazz poem I ever wrote.
Feinstein: For someone eager to read interesting accounts of the jazz world, what books have been important to you? What would you recommend?
Jauss: That’s a little hard to answer because the books that have been important to me--or at least to my poems--aren’t always books I’d recommend. The books I’d recommend--the books I most admire--are probably David Hajdu’s biography of Billy Strayhorn [Lush Life, 1996], which is the best jazz biography I know, Art Pepper’s Straight Life , and Miles’ autobiography [Miles, 1989]. I also like Geoff Dyer’s book But Beautiful , which does in prose some of the things that I try to do in poems: he imagines his way into various musicians’ lives, expanding brief anecdotes into full-fledged scenes, complete with dialogue and thoughts for which there’s no record. Essentially what he does with their lives is what jazz musicians do with melody: improvise. And I like [Charles Mingus’s 1971 autobiography] Beneath the Underdog too, bizarre as it is at times. But only a couple of these books have helped me write my poems. I got one poem from Miles’ autobiography, and I got another one from Beneath the Underdog--“The Hatchet” is based on Mingus’s description of a painting Monk did while he was in Bellevue. Actually, I got two from Beneath the Underdog, but one of them wasn’t publishable--or rather, I did publish it, but I shouldn’t have. It dealt with his Mexican experiences . . . [Both laugh.] But mostly my poems have come from biographies I don’t really admire all that much -- [C.O.] Simpkins’ biography of Coltrane [Coltrane, 1975], John Litweiler’s Ornette Coleman: A Harmolodic Life , Ross Russell’s Bird Lives! . I guess it goes back to what I said about why I write jazz poems instead of jazz stories--it’s the moment that grabs me more than the whole life, and even in these less accomplished books, there are moments that made me want to write a poem.
Jauss: What actually appeals to me most are the poems where I’m allowing myself to go into the character and imagine what that person was like. I have a great sense of curiosity about great artists of any kind. The first book [Improvising Rivers] has a lot of jazz poems, but it also has poems about Flaubert, Chekhov, and Kafka; I’ve done the same thing with them. More often, it’s the moments where I don’t know what happened, where I don’t have all the information, that I’m most interested in writing about.
Feinstein: Which jazz poems mean more to you?
Jauss: The ones I care the most about are the ones where I worked my imagination the most. I don’t know if “Black Orchid” is one of my best jazz poems, but it’s one that matters a lot to me, simply because of that effort to enter into Miles’ mind. I like to try to collapse a whole life into one moment, so I try to bring many facts about his life into that one moment of playing that song. Same thing with the Ornette Coleman poem [“The Master Musicians of Joujouka”]; I tried to suggest that in this moment he found, in a sense, a home--that through his immersion in the ancient, timeless music of the Master Musicians, he found a self within all his previous selves, a self that had always been there but had remained hidden. Whether or not that’s how he felt, I have absolutely no idea, but when I listened to the music, it seemed like some incredible release. So that’s how I interpreted it.
Feinstein: Aside from the strength of the poem itself, I’m interested because, frankly, the album that inspired the poem [Dancing in Your Head] is not one of my favorite Ornette Coleman recordings.
Jauss: It’s not mine at all. I like the early Ornette [recordings for Atlantic] much more than anything else, although I do like Sound Museum: Three Women and Sound Museum: Hidden Man a lot. But his early stuff, with [bassist] Charlie Haden and [trumpeter] Don Cherry, that just knocks me out.
Feinstein: I guess I’m surprised that you chose an album that means much less to you, at least in terms of the musical impact.
Jauss: If I was to write about an Ornette Coleman composition that means a lot to me, it would probably be “Lonely Woman,” which is one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever heard. But I was more interested in the psychology of his character than my emotional response to the music. For some reason, I felt this had been a big moment for him, that it changed him in some significant way.
Feinstein: Your Coltrane poem “Hymn of Fire” has the feel of a sestina, though you’ve obviously pulled it out of form. Could you talk about that?
Jauss: It began as a sestina. I was trying to write a legitimate sestina, but it wasn’t working, and I realized part of the reason was the content: the poem was about things falling apart, and at some point it occurred to me that maybe the sestina should fall apart too. So I shrunk it. I shrunk the stanzas from six lines to five and shortened the number of end words from six to three, leaving two lines in each stanza without repeating end words. And instead of the three-line envoi, I put all of the three of the repeated end words into one final line. So there’s a sense of things funneling down, that all of these things that are apart are gradually getting closer and closer, and in the final moment they come together. It seemed appropriate for this poem because of what was happening in the world at that moment when Coltrane died: the riots in Newark, and so forth.
Feinstein: It also pays homage to the late Coltrane performances when he explored circular, sometimes diffuse themes and then suddenly pulled them together at the composition’s close.
Jauss: Yeah, I meant that. [Laughs hard.] I’d love to say I intended to imitate that structure, but if it’s there--and I guess it is--it’s just a lucky accident. What drew me to the sestina form was its principle of repetition with variation, which is of course the principle behind all improvisation but especially, I’d say, behind Coltrane’s improvisations. If he can play “My Favorite Things” for twenty-nine minutes with Eric Dolphy, you know? That’s a sign that someone can really explore repetition and variation. So maybe that’s why I turned to such a repetitive form, and maybe one of the reasons I shortened it is because I’ve always loved that Miles quote. Coltrane asks him for advice on how to end a solo, and Miles says, “Take the damn horn out of your mouth!” [Both laugh.]
Feinstein: Why focus on the end of Coltrane’s life as opposed to his performances with Dolphy?
Jauss: What I’m able to connect to--if anything--is the life. Since I don’t have access to the musical sides of their lives--the technical aspects of music--my way of connecting to the music, apart from the sheer pleasure of listening, is through their lives, through them. Since I’m also a fiction writer, my natural impulse is to try to enter another character’s mind, and, in my jazz poems, to pay homage to these people whom I wish I had heard and known. One of the reasons I write about these musicians, I guess, is my sense of loss, the fact that they were gone before I could hear them. Because I know the difference between hearing something live and hearing it on record. I know how much more moving and powerful it is. I know what it feels like to sit in a room and feel the vibrations in your chest that you don’t get from your CD player.
Feinstein: Michael Harper once said to me that he thought people should only write about musicians they’ve actually heard.
Jauss: Well, I’d be in bad shape!
Feinstein: I was blessed to hear quite a number of astonishing musicians before they died, but most people of my generation--certainly the next--will never have that opportunity. So, sad though it might be, it seems important to address art as artifact.
Jauss: There have been some musicians I have heard that I have tried to write about. I heard [tenor saxophonist] Joe Lovano play in Little Rock a few years ago and it was one of the most powerful sets of music that I’ve ever heard. But I wasn’t able to get it in writing, partly because I was there. I couldn’t convey the music; I don’t think there is language that can convey it. But I couldn’t even convey what it felt like to be there. In some ways, it’s easier for me to enter into something that I haven’t actually experienced, a performance I haven’t heard but only imagined.
Another example: Recently, I was visiting my son and his wife in Philadelphia where we heard [bassist and leader] Dave Holland with [tenor saxophonist] Chris Potter--I’ve heard Chris Potter play several times; I love his playing--and the others in the band: the wonderful trombonist, Robin Eubanks. [Vibraphonist] Steve Nelson: I’d like to be able to describe just his body movements. They’re almost a part of the music he makes, I think. And Holland was as solid and wonderful as could be. It was a great night of music, and I have since tried to write about it. But all my efforts just turn into vapor. I would like to able to capture something that I’ve heard, but I have yet to be able to do that. Even in the Buddy Rich poem, where I was there, I’m not really writing about the music; I’m writing about his fury at the bass player’s mistake.
Feinstein: But I also love the aspect of the poem where the speaker realizes there’s a lot happening on stage that he doesn’t know--why Rich is so upset--and thinking, “I want to know more. I don’t want to miss that next time.”
Jauss: And of course, I continue to miss it . . . [Both laugh.] But the concert also showed me how important this was for Rich. This wasn’t just about money; this meant so much to him that he was furious when someone made a small mistake.
Feinstein: I think, too, you very cleverly use the word “traps,” not only to describe the drum kit but also the traps on stage (playing for Buddy Rich, say) and the positive trap: being utterly captivated by this music.
Jauss: Yes. I think the last word of the poem is “caught.” That’s how I felt. For the rest of that concert, I was paying as close attention as I was able to. I was trying to hear what was so important to Buddy Rich. And I think now I can hear it, at least a little, and I wish more people could. Jazz is such an important contribution to our culture. [Federico García] Lorca once said, “The only things that the United States has given to the world are skyscrapers, jazz, and cocktails,” and, obviously, the most important has been jazz. It’s behind the music that everyone listens to, and the people who created it never got the respect that they deserved. Classical musicians are sort of like the golfers of music: they’re in their orchestra halls, everyone’s quiet, so much respect, everyone’s dressed up. Meanwhile, the jazz musicians are having to play over conversations and the ching of registers. To create great music in that environment is astonishing. And it is great, great music.
I firmly believe that jazz is the greatest contribution to American culture, and I believe that the jazz created in the fifties through the mid-sixties is the equivalent in music to what happened in the middle of the nineteenth century in literature with Melville, Hawthorne, Whitman, Dickinson, Emerson, and Thoreau. And to have those people disappear. . . . People just don’t know about them, and if their albums don’t get transferred to CDs, the names disappear, and they’re gone.
Feinstein: I can’t say “they’re gone.” Maybe gone from a general consciousness.
Jauss: Right. You know all those nasty books about cultural literacy? Well, they didn’t really talk about African-American cultural literacy, especially given the great cultural contributions African-Americans have made to our culture. It seems to me a form of racism that we’re ignoring it. It seems to me a form of racism that we make fun of the Rolling Stones for still performing in their old age and yet we consider it normal for an old blues musician to still be playing. And that’s partly why some of my poems have focused on moments of racism in jazz history.
I once tried to write a poem about Dizzy Gillespie’s one experience in Arkansas, where he was beaten up in a rest room for being black.
Feinstein: Oh God ...
Jauss: I would like more people to know about it and about all the obstacles jazz musicians had to overcome to create their music. But mostly I’d like more people to listen to the music, to give it a chance. I’ve found that people who think they don’t like jazz don’t know the breadth of it. They don’t know that there’s some part of it that absolutely will speak to them. They think, somehow, that it’s homogenous: just one thing, one sound. It’s a word that ... As Duke Ellington always said, it would be better just to call it “music” and not try to categorize it. But a lot of people will hear one tune, not like it, and then reject everything. I’ve had people hear early Ornette Coleman and say, “That’s too avant-garde.” Well, that’s fifty years old! [Both laugh.] Can’t they catch up?
Jauss: I have a marvelous envy for jazz musicians. To me, art exists because of a need, a desire to express, and I get a certain amount of satisfaction from writing poems and stories, but it seems to me that the alphabet isn’t large enough, and the musical vocabulary is so large, so expressive, so emotive--far beyond what can be done on the page. I just remain in love.