This morning I sat down at my desk, read for a while, and then asked myself the same questions I’ve been asking for the past 15 years: what can this writer teach me? What does s/he do especially well that I can study? How would I write this differently? What I haven’t often thought of is how I came to ask these questions as a kind of fiction writer’s daily office.
When I was a MFA student at the University of Montana, the famous editor, Rust Hills, came to talk in our program. Though retired, he was still connected to the fiction being published in Esquire and he seemed to radiate all the confidence and clarity of the romantic minimalist tradition—the pared-down prose style that writers like Hemingway, Carver, and Ford helped make the dominant paradigm in North American fiction for the latter half of the 20th century.
Here was Rust Hills, sitting in our workshop, live and in person. Everyone was excited and I was no exception. I was very much a fan of his book, Writing in General and the Short Story in Particular. At the time, it seemed definitive, the young fiction writer’s answer book. Forget Rilke. Here was someone who told you exactly how not to embarrass yourself on the page, how not to write like a fool, in a way that sounded far more elegant and far less proscriptive than John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction—the other book on writing that everyone trusted at the time.
When I met Hills at the usual dreadful faculty-grad student party for visiting dignitaries, I was also happy to discover that one of my heroes was a decent human being—something that quickly becomes an exception rather than a rule when encountering visiting celebrities in MFA programs. He was a soft-spoken thoughtful person, witty, and perfectly at ease in every situation. He was essentially a gentleman. Moreover, he spoke about writing with the sense of quiet surety that comes from being wholly immersed in a particular aesthetic. When this happens, the boundaries and characteristics of the style in question can provide an answer for everything. And though I have since rejected this as a kind of creative sickness, an over-stylization that traps imagination and limits possibilities, I was young enough back then to believe. Someone with Hills’ degree of conviction had to be right. At least, he had to be righter than someone like me who wasn’t sure about anything as far as how to write was concerned.
For the rest of that year, I rededicated myself to writing the Lished-down Carverian prose line. I read Ford’s Women with Men, Munro’s Open Secrets, Mona Simpson’s Anywhere But Here, and Janet Fitch’s White Oleander. I took “Gazebo” and “Cathedral” apart, writing imitations that tried to evoke the same invisible weight of implication between simple lines. I learned how to admire Exley’s A Fan’s Notes and I fell in love with the stories in Busch’s Absent Friends. But then I read Waltzing the Cat and everything fell apart.
Up late one night, smoking, too much coffee, I looked at the handwritten draft of my latest story and started to feel sick—that heartsick dread we get when we don’t want to admit that a particular piece of writing has already failed, failed conceptually and therefore completely. I tore it up. I looked at the last 10 or 12 story manuscripts in my cardboard “finished pieces” box: crap. In fact, they were a special kind of crap: slavish craven imitation. I had produced most of a story collection over the last year and it was garbage. And I didn’t know if I could write another word. I didn’t know if I should or if I even wanted to. It seemed that my personal heroes were guilty of some glaring lies of omission. A long night of whiskey ensued in which a fellow grad student and I jumped a train and wound up in a snow bank, which did not help.
Hung over and covered in angst the next day, I wanted to blame Pam Houston for everything awful in my life, especially for my artistic faith crisis. But how do you blame someone who wakes you up? Is it really possible to blame Lucifer if the apple makes you less gullible? In Waltzing the Cat, Houston was doing just what the minimalists did—practicing economy, implicitly characterizing through dialogue and action, showing change only within the frame of implications and assumptions established in the beginning of the story. But she was also enjoying words. A playful absurdity undercut many of her scenes where straight Hemingway-esque minimalism would grind its teeth in existential despair. Essentially, Pam Houston’s collection gave me a way to imagine other ways of writing—ways that diverged radically from what Hills easily set forth as the way it should be.
I read Cowboys Are My Weakness that week and had a similar experience. Then I started to look at how she was doing these things, how she could blend the hard-cut storytelling abilities of the minimalists with maximalist sensibilities. That line of inquiry helped me produce “Living in It”—a short story that would become the first in my book, Gravity. While working on Gravity, I discovered that there were a lot of established fiction writers diverging from the minimalist party line.
Pam Houston made it possible for me to learn from a different tradition that was largely overlooked by my writing teachers, most of whom had built careers around prose that was minimalist and therefore easily publishable and who typically defended their way as The Way to Write. But that was untrue. If I’ve learned anything by asking myself how other writers do things, it’s that there is no one way. It’s a hard realization, especially for beginning writers looking for some kind of objective clarity.
Since having that realization, I’ve taught students of my own and have suggested that by all means they should imitate the writers who interest them. It’s one of the best ways to learn. At the same time, it’s important not to become a true believer—not to get sucked into an existing aesthetic simply because it’s there and it gives you boundaries. Those boundaries will ultimately kill your work.
Instead, become a student of literature and read with a writer’s eye. Read Writing in General and the Short Story in Particular and The Art of Fiction and Story and Narrative Design. But also use your own brain. Keep a journal or a computer file in which you write about what you’re learning. Above all else, keep an open mind. Genre writers can teach you structure and dramatic tension like no one else. Poets can teach you voice and depth. Playwrights live on implicit characterization. And other hybrid forms like comic books, online interactive narratives (hypertext, etc.), songs, legends, and folk tales each have something that is particularly useful to learn. Read everything.
This is what I’ve done and what I continue to do. And I think this is what has led me to question everything I read as if its author were sitting across from me, eager to explain.