Tag Archives: Denis Johnson
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The following is taken from my response to a former student who asked: “When writing a story and you find that you need to hop around from one scene to another, but not start a new chapter, what do you do?” In other words—how I decided to construe the question—how do you break scenes and create implicit transitions between them?
When I started training myself to think in scenes, I relied heavily on the “white space” as a time lapse / separator. The visual analogue of this would be the classic “wipe” transition from TV and movies. It’s technical shorthand for “there is nothing more of significance to show in this particular time and place.” We can use this because modern writers have pretty much stopped trying to adhere to the Aristotelian unities of time, place, and action.
Here is one theory about this departure. As a form, the novel is older than the short story and the stage play is older than the novel. Each form owes a lot to its predecessor. Even late British stage melodrama generally observed the Aristotelian dramatic unities. In other words, the only “jumping around” were the extremely conservative transitions between acts and scenes on stage—existing primarily so the stage hands could change the scenery and the actors could change costumes, etc. But as western culture changed, public and private space got redefined, and middle class leisure reading became important (Habermas is the man to read to understand this in conjunction with the rise of the novel). Fiction in English began to transform from highly episodic, picaresque shipwreck narratives (think: Defoe) and expositions of female morality (think: Richardson) to the highly stylized escapism of the Gothic novel. The aesthetic of Gothic romance rebelled against tightly controlled forms.
Enter: Jane Austen and Northanger Abbey, her first published novel and pretty much a parody of the Gothic style. As soon as we got this, we were ready for Victorian realism in the novel, which kept the idea of what a novel could be (a long, sometimes convoluted, graphic portrayal of a person’s life) and dropped the Gothic melodrama. This is important because Edgar Allen Poe, one of the most significant figures in the early development of the short story form, argued (roughly around the same time) that a story should be readable in one sitting (back to Aristotle). His reasons were less aesthetic and more practical: he wanted to encourage magazine fiction as a legitimate market (here is a good summary of his motivations). So the story form emerged in a time when the novel (as the dominant form of fiction) was breaking away from classical, formal assumptions about when / where / how. And the short story was defined (and marketed) as something compact that you could read out of a magazine in a single setting.
This is where the use of white spaces comes in. Early story writers either used them to tell broader more “novelistic” stories or didn’t use them and scaled everything down in order to tell a more compact tale. The idea was to produce a single emotion (incidentally, where we will get the modernist concept of epiphany). Twain used white spaces like this. Hemingway adopted them but more sparingly (we see them also in Fitzgerald and Maupassant)—still trying for that definitive emotional moment. But in the 1960s, the maximalists rebelled against this, arguing that life actually wasn’t at all the way modern realism made it out to be. Given the highly subjective, variable nature of human experience, the early maximalists (think: Elkin, Barthelme, Coover) found “minimalist realism” to be highly unrealistic! This means that in their work technical moves like white spaces could be a lot of different things (look at the Coover link).
Realists loudly criticized such maximalist departures from what they considered to be a highly defined, clearly articulated form. Needless to say, their vehemence fit right into the tradition I’ve been describing (Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Pirsig is a wonderful exploration of the tension between classical and romantic aesthetics).
Can we use the white space to good effect, defining what it will be the way Coover does in his famous story or in the way of William Vollmann, David Foster Wallace, Lorrie Moore, Denis Johnson–the recent postmodern maximalists? Yep. We can.
So back to the original question: “When writing a story and you find that you need to hop around from one scene to another, but not start a new chapter, what do you do?” Given everything I’ve said, here’s the answer that might not have made sense otherwise: first determine what you’re trying to make the reader feel. Because “form” should follow function instead of a set of classical assumptions about how to dramatically interpret experience through structure.
Moreover, everyone wants to write a story that will show up in the New Yorker or a novel that will make them famous with the NYC publishing machine. But the corporate model for success as a fiction writer actually cannot be taught or learned. That kind of success is as serendipitous as any other—no matter what the book industry would have young writers believe. So if I were to tell students, “Do what feels right and make your own rules,” no one would listen. Instead, I have begun with “let’s follow some of the rules.” Only later have I followed that with: forget about what people say you should do. Study literature as your guide and learn from what other writers have done. Then do your own thing.
Right now, I’m writing a story, a novella, and working on a full-length novel. In each of these, my only goal is to create the emotional movements / moments I need to create.
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Welcome . . .
I write fiction and nonfiction for magazines, work as a freelance writer / editor / journalist, and teach composition and fiction writing.
This blog is mostly dedicated to travel essays, creative non-fiction, discussions about books, the MFA experience, publishing, and short stories I’ve already placed in magazines. But I might write anything.
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“I have no politics. I observe. I have no sides except the side of the human spirit, which after all does sound rather shallow, like a pitchman, but which means mostly my spirit, which means yours too, for if I am not truly alive, how can I see you?”
—Charles Bukowski, Notes of a Dirty Old Man
“The New York Times is Rotting at the Seams” – Splice Today – November 2019 (https://www.splicetoday.com/politics-and-media/the-new-york-times-is-rotting-at-the-seams)
“Trump Impeachment Syndrome and the Uses of Political Theater” – Splice Today – September 2019 (https://www.splicetoday.com/politics-and-media/trump-impeachment-syndrome-and-the-uses-of-political-theater)
“Jonathan Franzen Can’t Solve Climate Change for Anyone Who Matters” – Splice Today – September 2019 (https://www.splicetoday.com/politics-and-media/jonathan-franzen-can-t-solve-climate-change-for-anyone-who-matters)
“Jeffrey Epstein and the Usual Media Hate Porn” – Splice Today – August 2019 (https://www.splicetoday.com/politics-and-media/jeffrey-epstein-and-the-usual-media-hate-porn)
“Mob Justice for Jeffrey Epstein” – Splice Today – July 2019 (https://www.splicetoday.com/politics-and-media/mob-justice-for-jeffrey-epstein)
“Testify” – West Trade Review – Spring 2019 (http://www.westtradereview.com)
“Preponderance of the Small” – DecomP Magazine – July 2019 (http://www.decompmagazine.com/preponderanceofthesmall.htm)
“Letting Go of Game of Thrones” – Splice Today – June 2019 (https://www.splicetoday.com/writing/letting-go-of-game-of-thrones)
“William Barr and the Subversion of Justice” – Splice Today – April 2019 (https://www.splicetoday.com/politics-and-media/william-barr-and-the-subversion-of-justice)
“Into the Badlands Loses Its Way” – Splice Today – March 2019 (https://www.splicetoday.com/moving-pictures/into-the-badlands-loses-its-way)
“Trump is Interesting Again” – Splice Today – January 2019 (https://www.splicetoday.com/politics-and-media/trump-is-interesting-again)
“Outrage is Over” – Splice Today – December 2018 (https://www.splicetoday.com/politics-and-media/outrage-is-over)
“Fulfillment” – Terror House Magazine – December 2018 (https://terrorhousemag.com/fulfillment/)
“Attacked on the Street” – Splice Today – August 2018 (https://www.splicetoday.com/writing/attacked-on-the-street)
“You Are Somewhere Else” – Visitant – July 2018 (https://visitantlit.com/)
“More Than Just a Familiar Formula” – Splice Today – February 2018 (https://www.splicetoday.com/moving-pictures/more-than-just-a-familiar-formula)
“STEM, Scientism, and the Decline of the Humanities” – Splice Today – February 2018 (https://www.splicetoday.com/on-campus/stem-scientism-and-the-decline-of-the-humanities)
“The NRA Isn’t the Problem” – Splice Today – February 2018 (https://www.splicetoday.com/politics-and-media/the-nra-isn-t-the-problem)
“Altered Carbon’s Love Affair with Central Casting” – Splice Today – February 2018 (https://www.splicetoday.com/moving-pictures/altered-carbon-s-love-affair-with-central-casting)
“Cui Bono: the Latest Conspiracy Theory in the Ongoing Disintegration of the GOP” – Splice Today – January 2018 (https://www.splicetoday.com/politics-and-media/cui-bono-the-latest-conspiracy-theory-in-the-ongoing-disintegration-of-the-gop)
Cruel Stars – Thrown Free Books 2017.
“You Can Do Magic, Honey” – Splice Today – December 2017 (https://www.splicetoday.com/moving-pictures/you-can-do-magic-honey)
“As the Leopard, So the Coliseum” – Splice Today – November 2017 (https://www.splicetoday.com/politics-and-media/as-the-leopard-so-the-coliseum)
“One of the functions of art is to give people the words to know their own experience. There are always areas of vast silence in any culture, and part of an artist’s job is to go into those areas and come back from the silence with something to say. It’s one reason why we read poetry, because poets can give us the words we need. When we read good poetry, we often say, ‘Yeah, that’s it. That’s how I feel.’” — Ursula K. Le Guin
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“If I were talking to a young writer, I would recommend the cultivation of extreme indifference to both praise and blame because praise will lead you to vanity, and blame will lead you to self-pity, and both are bad for writers.”
— John Berryman, The Art of Poetry No. 16, The Paris Review
“Truffaut died, and we all felt awful about it, and there were the appropriate eulogies, and his wonderful films live on. But it’s not much help to Truffaut. So you think to yourself, My work will live on. As I’ve said many times, rather than live on in the hearts and minds of my fellow man, I would rather live on in my apartment.” — Woody Allen
“I make the road. I draw the map. Nothing just happens to me…I’m the one happening.”
—Denis Johnson, Already Dead
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“At the age of 25 most people were finished. A whole god-damned nation of assholes driving automobiles, eating, having babies, doing everything in the worst way possible, like voting for the presidential candidate who reminded them most of themselves. I had no interests. I had no interest in anything. I had no idea how I was going to escape. At least the others had some taste for life. They seemed to understand something that I didn’t understand. Maybe I was lacking. It was possible. I often felt inferior. I just wanted to get away from them. But there was no place to go.” — Charles Bukowski
“You could lose it, your right big toe, leave it here, in this mud, your foot, your leg, and you wonder, how many pieces of yourself can you leave behind and still be called yourself?”
— Melanie Rae Thon, First, Body
“After you finish a book, you know, you’re dead. But no one knows you’re dead. All they see is the irresponsibility that comes in after the terrible responsibility of writing.” — Ernest Hemingway
“When one is too old for love, one finds great comfort in good dinners.” — Zora Neale Hurston