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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“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
“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)
“Hurricane Dreams” – Splice Today – August 2017 (http://www.splicetoday.com/writing/hurricane-dreams)
“Burning Down the House” – Splice Today – August 2017 (http://www.splicetoday.com/politics-and-media/burning-down-the-house)
“My Friend Has Gone Nazi” – Splice Today – June 2017 (http://www.splicetoday.com/writing/my-friend-has-gone-nazi)
“Fatal Vision: The Precipitous Exile of James Comey” – Splice Today – May 2017 (http://www.splicetoday.com/politics-and-media/fatal-vision-the-precipitous-exile-of-james-comey)
“Money is Thicker Than Blood” – Splice Today – April 2017 (http://www.splicetoday.com/politics-and-media/money-is-thicker-than-blood)
“The End of the Hustle” – Splice Today – April 2017 (http://www.splicetoday.com/politics-and-media/the-end-of-the-hustle)
“The Crying of Lot 45” – Splice Today – April 2017 (http://www.splicetoday.com/politics-and-media/the-crying-of-lot-45)
“Planespotting and the Persistence of Facts” – Splice Today – March 2017 (http://www.splicetoday.com/writing/planespotting-and-the-persistence-of-facts)
“Sater, Cohen, and the Collapsing House of Cards” – Splice Today – February 2017
“Speak of the Devil” – Splice Today – February 2017
“Bora Bora” – Human Parts – Winter 2017 (reprint)
“Bora Bora” – Ink & Coda – 4.1 Winter 2017 (http://www.inkandcoda.com/issues/4-1/bora-bora/)
“A Good Day to Die” – Splice Today – November 2016 (http://www.splicetoday.com/politics-and-media/a-good-day-to-die)
“When The World’s Turned Upside Down” – Splice Today – November 2016 (http://www.splicetoday.com/politics-and-media/when-the-world-s-turned-upside-down)
“Mother Blackbird” – Student Voices – November 2016
“The Witch!” – ReVue – November 2016 (http://bit.ly/2fxuQw5).
“Year of the Bastard,” “October Plums,” and “Burying Terrance Jackson” – Literati Magazine – November 2016 (http://bit.ly/2frHVbC).
“The State of Emergency” – Splice Today – October 2016 (http://www.splicetoday.com/writing/the-state-of-emergency).
“The Debate Did Not Take Place” – Splice Today – September 2016 (http://www.splicetoday.com/politics-and-media/the-debate-did-not-take-place).
“Weirdo: Visions of Future Past” – The Blather – Summer 2016 (https://t.co/3NGZ0k6nTO).
“Harmful if Swallowed” – Ginosko Literary Journal – Summer 2016.
“Cruel Stars” – The Writing Disorder – Summer 2015.
“The Forbidden City” – Forge – 8.4 April 2015.
“Ex Inferis” – Small Print Magazine – Winter/Spring 2014.
Winner of Redline magazine’s 2014 Urban Fiction contest and will be featured in their “Best of the Year” annual issue.
“Far Tortuga” – Isthmus – Issue 1. (http://www.isthmusreview.com/current-issue-2/)
“Some Go Dancing” – Earlyworks Press Short Story Contest Anthology – Winter 2013, Earlyworks Press.
“Ghetto Fabulous” – Atticus Books (The Atticus Review – http://atticusreview.org/ghetto-fabulous/) (2013)
“The Catherine Wheel” – Painted Bride Quarterly Print Annual 6 (2013): 115-120.
“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