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Alone With All That Could Happen: On Writing Fiction (Revised & Expanded Edition)

Following are excerpts from four of the eight essays included in the book:


In 1995, shortly after my story collection Black Maps was published, I received two phone calls that made me think about the kind of fiction I write and why I write it. One was from a man who told me he had just read my story "Rainier," which is about a divorced alcoholic whose son dies in a car accident. "The same thing happened to me," the caller said, then proceeded to tell me about the anguish he suffered after the death of his son and how AA had helped him overcome not only his alcoholism but also his grief. He did not cry, but I could tell he was fighting tears. When he finished telling me his story, he paused, then said, "I just wanted you to know that you're not alone."

I couldn't tell him that he, at least at that moment, was alone. My story is not autobiographical. I have never lived in Montana or Wyoming, where the story takes place; I am not now, nor have I ever been, divorced; I am not an alcoholic, recovering or otherwise; and my son, I'm happy to say, is very much alive. Nothing in that story happened to me, or to anyone I know. I made it up. I didn't have the heart to tell the caller this, however; for the duration of the phone call, I pretended that the story was true, and that I shared his grief not only imaginatively but literally.

The other phone call was from a Vietnam vet who had read my short story "Freeze," which is about a soldier in Vietnam who steps on a mine that doesn't explode, yet nonetheless has devastating effects on his life. The caller wanted to know if we'd ever met. "I remember that guy you wrote about," he said. "The lieutenant. And I think we must have been at Lai Khe at about the same time. Did you know Larry Kelvin? Or Rick Hammond?" When I told him I'd never been in Vietnam, or even in the military, he was more than disappointed, he was outraged. "What gives you the right to write about a war when you weren't even fucking there?" he demanded. Clearly, he felt as if he'd been taken in by a con man. And in a way, he had, for what is a fiction writer if not a confidence artist, someone who trades words for your trust and--if he's lucky--your money? And how can writers blame their readers for failing to recognize that fiction is fiction, not truth, when we do everything we can to make them believe something we imagined is true? Still, I wish he had realized that writers, like magicians, work in the realm of illusion, not reality. He would never assume that the magician actually sawed the lady in half, yet he was quick to assume that the soldiers I killed had bled real blood.

I didn't get a chance to defend myself to this caller--he hung up almost immediately after accusing me of the crime of lying in a work of fiction--but if I had, I would have told him that "Freeze," like "Rainier" and the rest of my stories, is a true story, but not true in the way he wanted. Its truth is not the kind that can be captured by a surveillance camera but the kind that appears in our dreams, a truth heightened by distortion and the odd juxtaposition of a lifetime's accumulation of images. Like a dream, a story, if it's any good, tells the truth about the author's secret, inner life, and as often as not it does so by telling lies about his public, outer life, for, as Oscar Wilde said, "One's real life is so often the life that one does not lead." And about the nature of that truth the reader sometimes knows more than the author.

Perhaps the most repeated advice in the history of creative writing workshops is "Write what you know." For writers who have a talent for negotiating between the demands of facts and the demands of artistic form, this may be valid advice. But for most of us, I believe, writing what we know can only result in nonfiction, whether thickly or thinly described. This is why Graham Greene suggested that a good memory was incompatible with good fiction writing. "All good novelists have bad memories," he said. As Robert Olen Butler explains, "What you remember comes out as journalism. What you forget goes into the compost of the imagination."


Knowing also creates aesthetic problems that imagining doesn't. What Garret Hongo has said about poetry also applies to fiction: "Sometimes, in writing about 'what you know,' . . . autobiography gets in the way. If you write 'Grandfather's backyard,' you may see his amazing collection of hybrid lilies, but the reader won't unless you put them into the poem. It's easier to describe something that you've invented than something that's so deeply familiar you take it for granted." Furthermore, writing about what you already know can be a prescription for boring yourself--and if you bore yourself, you'll bore your reader. For my money, Grace Paley got it exactly right when she said, "You write from what you know but you write into what you don't know." You can't avoid what you know--it's who you are, after all--but if you're trying to write into what you don't know, you'll discover things about yourself that you didn't know. In short, you'll discover your secret life, and so will your readers.

. . .


As I see it, writing about people whose age, gender, race, religion, culture, and experiences differ from our own is a positive thing, just as reading about them is, and should be encouraged, not criticized as "cultural appropriatioin." I believe, with Sherwood Anderson, that "the whole glory of writing lies in the fact that it forces us out of ourselves and into the lives of others" and thus bridges divisions between people. And I wholeheartedly agree with Eudora Welty, who said, "What I do in the writing of any character is to try to enter into the mind, heart and skin of a human being who is not myself. Whether this happens to be a man or a woman, old or young, with skin black or white, the primary challenge lies in making the jump itself. It is the act of a writer's imagination that I set most high."


If, despite our best intentions, we write about the "other" badly, we should take our lumps from readers and critics and try to do better the next time. We shouldn't just give up and write "what we know." We shouldn't sacrifice our imaginations on the altar of political correctness.  That, not the attempt to imagine how another human being thinks and feels, is what's offensive to me.

In my stories, and in my poems, I have tried to write my way into many characters whose lives I know nothing, or next to nothing, about. On paper, I have been--or at least tried to be--a nun, a serial killer, a bag lady, a nine-year-old boy, a 99-year-old man, a woman afflicted with hysterical blindness, a teenager who witnesses his father's nervous breakdown, a man with an artificial hand, a divorcee, a girl from Bangladesh, a minor league baseball player from the Dominican Republic, a Hmong refugee, a sixteenth-century Spanish priest, a nineteenth-century Russian dwarf, the biblical Lazarus, and various other characters, including several actual jazz musicians and authors. One of those authors--Gustave Flaubert--wrote a letter to Louise Colet about the pleasure of writing about lives other than his own. Of his day's work on Madame Bovary, he wrote:

"It is a delicious thing to write, whether well or badly--to be no longer yourself but to move in an entire universe of your own creating. Today, for instance, man and woman, lover and beloved, I rode in a forest on an autumn afternoon under the yellow leaves, and I was also the horses, the leaves, the wind, the words my people spoke, even the red sun that made them half-shut their love-drowned eyes. Is this pride or piety? Is it a silly overflow of exaggerated self-satisfaction, or is it really a vague and noble religious instinct?"

It may be evidence of my own pride, but I'll opt for piety as the correct answer. I believe that escaping the self, imagining the life of another, is a noble, even religious, act. But I also believe that we learn as much or more about Flaubert's true self through the people he invents than we would through any overt autobiographical account, for imagining the other is ultimately a way of discovering the self. Flaubert clearly knew this, for when he was asked how he was able to create such a convincing female character, he answered, "Madame Bovary, c'est moi." And Jorge Luis Borges understood this too, as his summary of the life of an artist indicates:

"A man sets himself the task of portraying the world. Through the years he peoples a space with images of provinces, kingdoms, mountains, bays, ships, islands, fishes, rooms, instruments, stars, horses, and people. Shortly before his death, he discovers that that patient labyrinth of lines traces the image of his face."

I cannot see my own face yet, but I trust that I am drawing it, if badly, each time I sit down and attempt to enter another person's central nervous system. And that's the face I want my readers to see, my true face, not the false ones I wear in order to reveal it.

But what will they see if they see my true face? Their own faces, I believe. As Charles Simic has said, "Poems are other people's snapshots in which we recognize ourselves." The same goes, of course, for stories.

Here's the paradox: just as you reveal your secret life when you imagine others', you reveal others' secret lives when you reveal your own. As Donald Hall once remarked, literature "starts by being personal but the deeper we go inside the more we become everybody."

Everybody, c'est moi. And c'est vous.




I'll spare you the math. Suffice it to say that, in nearly a half century of teaching creative writing and eleven years of editing literary journals, I have read approximately 80,000 unpublished short stories (not to mention thousands of published ones), and I would conservatively estimate that a third of them featured as their climax that blast-of-trumpets/choir-of-angels moment of sudden insight we call an epiphany. So I figure I must have vicariously experienced more than 25,000 brilliant, life-altering insights during my teaching and editing career. But am I even one whit wiser as a result? Well, maybe one whit--but not more. Mostly I'm just weary of all these revelations arriving right on schedule, like trains in a fascist state, and I confess I'm relieved and delighted when I encounter a story that refuses to allow its protagonist even a glimpse of Eternal Truth. But this is not a diatribe against epiphanies. I happen to love epiphanies, and I've written (and still write) them myself. But, as Flannery O'Connor might have said, a good epiphany is hard to find (and, as I can attest, even harder to write). So I've been thinking lately about what makes one epiphany successful and another one not. In this essay, I'll discuss the conclusions I've reached--my epiphanies, in short, about epiphanies.


I'd like to begin this discussion of the past and present of present-tense narration with a prediction about the future: when the literary historians of 3000 write about the fiction of our time, I believe they will consider our use of the present tense to be its most distinctive--and, perhaps, problematic--feature. Whereas present-tense narration was once rare, it is now so common as to be commonplace. In 1987, Robie Macauley and George Lanning dubbed it "the most frequent cliche of technique in the new fiction," and since then, it's appeared with even greater frequency, leading Lynne Sharon Schwartz to compare its spread to "an epidemic of flu." And although there are signs that its use is diminishing among established writers, it's still the default choice for many younger writers. When I asked one of my talented undergraduate students why she wrote all of her stories in the present tense," she said, "Isn't that the way fiction's supposed to be written now?" then added, "The past tense makes a story seem kind of 'nineteenth-century,' don't you think?" Why, I wondered, did a tense that has served authors since the very inception of fiction suddenly lose favor? What made the past tense passe? And why was the present tense now omnipresent? In this essay, I will first speculate about some possible answers to these questions, then I will examine the advantages and disadvantages of the present tense in fiction.


For many years, I gave the students in my introductory writing classes a two-part exercise that I told them, only half-facetiously, would teach them virtually all they need to know about the creative process. Here's the exercise: first I ask them to write their names on a piece of paper, then I ask them to make up an alias. That's it. The entire exercise takes only thirty seconds or so, but it usually provokes a long discussion about what transpired during those seconds. What this little exercise reveals is that the creative process requires a mode of thought that is diametrically opposed to our usual way of thinking. When I ask my students to write their actual names, there is only one correct response and an infinite number of incorrect ones, but when I ask them to make up aliases, there are an infinite number of correct responses and only one incorrect one. The first mode of thought is called "convergent," since it requires us to converge on the sole correct answer, and the second is called "divergent," since it requires us to diverge from the one incorrect answer--the fact--and consider a range of possible correct answers. When we use the divergent mode of thought, we're like the narrator of William H. Gass's "The Pedersen Kid," who describes himself as being "alone with all that could happen": we have the entire panorama of possibility at our disposal. And the best writers, as Dickinson noted, "dwell in Possibility," not in the prosaic realm of fact.


All of us use both the convergent and divergent modes of thought, of course, but the convergent mode dominates our thinking to the point of being reflexive. My students don't hesitate when I ask them to write their actual names, but they do when I ask them to make up fictitious ones. The creative process, I tell them, resides in that hesitation, that moment of uncertainty. For without uncertainty, the imagination simply does not come into play. As Donald Barthelme has said, "Not-knowing is crucial to art, is what permits art to be made. Without the scanning process engendered by not-knowing, without the possibility of having the mind move in unanticipated directions, there would be no invention." And, according to Gaston Bachelard, there would also be no discovery of new or larger truths. "Not-knowing is not a form of ignorance," he says, "but a difficult transcendence of knowledge." As Bachelard's words suggest, not-knowing is far from being a passive state; resisting the mind's tendency to converge on a comfortable certainty requires an arduous, active effort. Those who can resist this tendency possess what Keats called "Negative Capability," the ability to remain "in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason." And that ability, I tell my students, is the most valuable talent a writer can possess.

I believe what I tell my students--I am nothing if not certain about the need for uncertainty--but I also believe that merely encouraging them to embrace uncertainty doesn't help them learn how to write. Uncertainty is, well, too uncertain a subject for us to grasp. And in any case, once we have accepted the idea that creativity begins where certainty leaves off, what do we do next? Facing the blank page, not knowing what will happen in the story or poem, or what its ultimate meaning will be, is exhilarating for those students who intuitively know how to walk on the water of the imagination, but there are many otherwise very talented students who find themselves stuck at the edge of uncertainty, unable to proceed. Generally, these writers do one of two things--they revert to convergent thinking and create a DOA paint-by-numbers story or poem, or they edit their every thought back into the silence from which it came and write nothing at all. More and more I think that what Bertrand Russell said about teaching philosophy is also true about teaching creative writing: our principal goal should be "to teach how to live without certainty and yet without being paralyzed by hesitation." Hesitation is an essential part of the creative process--without it, divergent thinking is impossible--but we need to find a way to move through and beyond it or we risk being paralyzed by the very uncertainty that makes creativity possible. In my opinion, the key to avoiding this sort of creative paralysis lies in the cultivation of contradiction.

Beginning writers, however, almost universally equate contradiction with error and failure and so work strenuously to avoid it. And, obviously, many contradictions are errors. As the philosopher Graham Priest has said, "it is irrational to believe that I am both a fried egg and not a fried egg." But some contradictions, he maintains, are not only "rationally possible" but also "rationally obligatory." Amd Priest inot the only contemporary philosopher who holds that contradictions can be true; others include Jeffrey C. Beall, Bradley Armour-Garb, Jon Gogburn, Jay L. Garfield, Frederick Kroon, Edwin D. Mares, and Vann McGee.  When it comes to this subject, all of these philosophers are descendent of such influential philosophers as Heraclitus, Plotinus, Nicholas of Cusa, David Hume, Friedrich Engels, and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. Of these, Hegel goes the farthest in endorsing the rational obligation to accept contradictions. "According to Kant," he said, "thought has a natural tendency to issue in contradictions or antinomies, whenever it seeks to apprehend the infinite. But Kant . . . never penetrated to the discovery of what the antinomies really and positively mean. The true and positive meaning of the antinomies is this: that every actual thing involves a coexistence of opposed elements." For Hegel, then, contradiction leads us to truth, not away from it.

Simone Weil agrees. "Contradiction," she tells us, "is the lever of transcendence." Like a lever, it allows us to lift what we otherwise could not, and the act of lifting allows us to transcend what we already know. In other words, contradiction allows us to transcend the convergent mode of thought, what Weil calls the mere "discursive intelligence," and the false certainty it inspires. "We are only certain," she says, "about what we do not understand." The way to understanding, then, is through uncertainty, and the way to leave false certainty behind and enter the realm of uncertainty is through the use of contradiction. "As soon as we have thought something," she advises, "try to see in what way the contrary is true." Importantly, the purpose of investigating ideas dialectically is not to eradicate one or the other idea, for contradiction, she argues, is an essential element of both truth and beauty: "in all beauty we find contradiction," she says, and "all truth contains a contradiction." Behind the dialectic method Weil proposes 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. Jean Cocteau seconds this belief: "All creation," he has said, "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 calls the "both-and" mode of thought. According to Amy Hempel, this is the mode of thought that initiates a work of fiction. "A story happens," she says, "when two equally appealing forces, or characters, or ideas try to occupy the same place at the same time, and they're both right." George Saunders seconds her opinion, saying "the best place" for a fiction writer to be is where "you've put two apparently opposing truths in the air and you're just letting them hang there, knowing that the real truth . . . is that opposition." Ultimately, he suggests, the "real craft" of fiction writing is nothing more--or less--than the attempt "to stay in that state of uncertainty and openness." In this as in so many other things, Flaubert was a master: "I doubt everything," he said, "even my doubt."

Given the role the "both-and" mode of thought plays in the creative process, it's not surprising to find it also in the act of dreaming, which is of course the kissin' cousin of the creative process. As Freud has said, "Dreams show a special tendency to reduce two opposites to a unity or to represent them as one thing" and hence "anything in a dream may mean its opposite." Freud also notes that this same tendency characterizes primal languages such as ancient Egyptian, in which, according to the philologist Karl Abel, there are many words "which at one and the same time denoted a thing and the opposite of this thing" (the same word denoted "strong" and "weak," for example) as well as compound-words in which two "contrary meanings are united into a whole" (Abel's examples include "oldyoung," "farnear," and "outsideinside"). Remnants of this primal, contradictory mode of thought are evident in our own language: witness the words "cleave," which means both to part and to cling together, and "sanction," which conveys both approval and condemnation.


It is this mode of thought, this form of meaningful contradiction, that Weil advises we adopt in our search for truth and beauty. Weil's advice is especially helpful to writers because the creative process not only involves contradiction but is itself inherently contradictory. After all, the very first step in the creative process is destruction. To invent an alias, to diverge from the factual and scan through the possible, we first have to destroy our actual names, reject that convergent thought. And to create something new, we have to destroy not only many facts but also the first thoughts and expressions that occur to us. If, for example, we write the words flat as a, our first thought will most likely be to add the word pancake, but if we choose that word, we have succumbed to cliche and failed to create anything new. The same principle applies to all other aspects of literature: if we do not destroy our first, convergent thoughts, we will end up with red-haired characters with fiery tempers; plots in which boy meets girl, boy loses girl, and boy gets girl again; rhymes like love / dove and June / moon; and potted themes like "love conquers all" and "beating your wife is not nice." If we want to write originally, we must do what Robert Venturi, an advocate of contradition in architecture, recommends: "use convention unconventionally." And that requires destruction as well as creation, and destruction requires rejection, negation, and contradiction.

But once we have destroyed the cliche, the stereotype, the formulaic plot, the predictable rhyme, the potted theme, and so forth, how do we go about creating something new? The answer, as I have suggested, is to court contradiction. We need to take Keats's notion of Negative Capability one small but important step further: our goal as writers should be not only to persist in uncertainty but to seek it out, even intentionally create it, through contradiction. For, paradoxically, the best way to avoid being paralyzed by uncertainty is to intensify it, and the most intense form of uncertainty possible is contradiction.