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Unity, Economy, and Writing as a Revelatory Act


So I’ve finally read Samuel R. Delany’s The Jewel-Hinged Jaw: Notes on the Language of Science Fiction, which had been strongly recommended to me by many people over many years. It was definitely worth the read, and I was particularly drawn into the essay “About 5,750 Words” which should be required reading for any storyteller in any medium. In it, Delany presents a compelling metaphor for the act of writing, presenting it as a gradual revelation of the story’s essence where each word simultaneously moves the story forward and changes our perception of everything that came before. It puts me in mind of a writer-as-sculptor, chiseling away at a block of marble to reveal the shape beneath. Each strike of the hammer is the next word on the page.

NOTE: Delany is one of those amazing writers who instantly put me in a philosophical frame of mind. So bear that in mind: I don’t know how practical my thoughts are going to be, but they do represent the way my mind is drifting beneath his wind.

Honestly, I was surprised to find the revelatory metaphor so compelling. When it comes to craft, I’ve always fallen into the ultra-rationalist camp. I like to believe that I am (or that I should be) in absolute control of every aspect of my storytelling. Before writing word one, I have always liked to know where my characters and story were going, and how they were going to get there. That doesn’t mean I need to have an entire book in my head before writing, but it does mean I need to know where a particular scene (at the least) is going. Writing as a revelatory act just didn’t – conceptually – work for me. But I find that the more I write, the more my outlook on this is changing. Partially, this is a question of experience and a broadening of my toolkit o’craft. But it also stems from what I consider the driving force of narrative: the quest for unity in storytelling.

When I think of the greatest stories I’ve ever read I find that every level of their storytelling is pulling in the same direction. Stories affect us on a physiological and psychological level, exerting both a rational and emotional influence on us. Basically, when we read, our bodies and minds are like great echo chambers where everything feeds back on everything else, amplifying the essential notes to a thunderous roar. Stories like Hugo’s Les Misérables, Walter Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz, and John Crowley’s Little, Big use their action, emotions, and themes in concert to resonate like a struck gong. I’ve come to believe that the secret to that kind of amplified resonance is a perfect (or near perfect) unity between the story’s action, emotions, and themes and the structure, pacing, and words through which they are expressed.

The Essence of Story

On a prosaic level, a story is just a bunch of words or images set down and consumed in sequence. But at the heart of each story, there lies some ephemeral truth that we as artists wish to communicate. Every story ever created might have a very different kind of truth: Zamyatin’s We warns us against the logical extremes of Marxism. Crowley’s Little, Big shows us something about family and the cycles of life. Jackson’s “Flower Garden” points us to the horror of unstated small-town bigotry. These truths could not be more different. Yet they are the unifying elements which tie together the events of their respective story, the structures of those events, their pace, and the words used to express them.

In that sense, I agree with Delany that our job as writers is to identify the underlying essence of the story. That essence is a chimerical questing beast: I don’t think any of us can ever truly internalize every aspect of a story’s essence. Any mere mortal’s brain would probably explode. But we can and should get our reaching fingers around the last, loose strand of that beast’s tail. And having plucked that strand free, to take a page from Baron Cuvier’s playbook and extrapolate the rest of the creature as best we can.

Different writers approach this in different fashions. My own preference is to consciously consider the essence of the story before or during its initial writing. But I know plenty of great authors who don’t give it any conscious thought until after it has been written. Their initial focus is on telling a fun story: they let their subconscious build the story’s essence, tie it into their words, and then try to amplify it during revision. Neither approach is better or worse than the other, and both ultimately lead us to the moment when a story gains meaning and achieves artistry. In my own writing, I’d really like to master both techniques, though I have a long way to go with both.

Words, Words, Words: The Only Things the Reader Sees

Fortunately or unfortunately, we can’t just download the essence of our stories into the audience’s brain (though I imagine there’s a good SF story in that concept, come to think of it). So we have to use symbols and metaphors to approximate that essence, employing language (the most basic symbol) to do so. Which is what brings us to Delany and Chekhov. Consider the following two quotes:

A sixty-thousand word novel is one picture corrected fifty-nine thousand, nine hundred and ninety-nine times.

Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.

Samuel Delany Anton Chekhov

The Chekhov quote is often used by folks blathering on about “show, don’t tell” and I’ll put it bluntly: they don’t get it. All writers – yes, even Chekhov – rely on “telling” to a greater or lesser degree, so that truism is only helpful for the most basic writing. Delany and Chekhov are implying the same concept: they are each indicating that the words we use become the very essence of the story we are trying to communicate. Chekhov’s two nouns (his “glint of light” and “broken glass”) communicate more as images than his earlier verb (“shining”). We don’t need to know the story’s plot for those words to evoke emotions. The words themselves and the rhythm of their sequence do all of the heavy lifting. And to Delany’s point, Chekhov’s simple exhortation is effective because he first paints a picture (of the moon shining), and then refines it with more powerful and evocative language.

Word choice and sequence matters, because unless we’re working in a graphical medium, it’s the only tool we have. But when those words align with the emotions, themes, and (manipulative) intentions of the storyteller, then we achieve unity, and by the same token, the inevitability of prose that most folks like to call “style” or “economy”.

Plot and the Essence of Story

When I think about plot, I usually think of it as independent from the essence of my story. The truth of my stories is only tangentially related to the plot. While I find Ayn Rand’s screeds and self-aggrandizement to be incredibly annoying, I love the concept of plot and plot-theme which she introduces in her The Art of Fiction. What she calls the plot-theme is for me the essence of the story. It is what the story is about, its philosophical and emotional core. It is the truth that I wish to communicate. But plot is just Stuff That Happens, which, if I’ve done my job correctly, expresses the plot-theme succinctly and powerfully. And it does so by making the story’s essence accessible for the reader.

Consider the essence of Miller’s brilliant A Canticle for Leibowitz. One can likely reduce it to the warning that if we aren’t careful, we risk repeating the tragic mistakes of the past. Stated so baldly, the power of that essence is blunted. It becomes bland, polemic, and boring. But it is through Miller’s plot (what happens) that the story’s essence is demonstrated in action. Through the characters, and the events they experience, we gain a means of emotionally investing in the story’s essential truth…before that truth is fully revealed at the book’s conclusion. Our engagement with the book becomes emotional as well as intellectual, thus increasing the story’s effect on us.

When done properly, every plot point in a story contributes to the story’s final essence. This contribution, or the story’s essence itself, might not be apparent until the very end of the book. But if when we turn the last page the characters have consistently acted in support of the story’s unstated essence, we will find ourselves satisfied and the story ringing in our hearts and minds.

Writing as a Revelatory Act: A Writing Exercise

In his essay “About 5,750 Words”, Delany performs a neat trick: he writes a single descriptive sentence, and painstakingly, word-by-word shows how each word revises and clarifies the initial image that the author has in his head. It’s a neat trick, because it literally puts into practice the concept quoted above. And it shows how one can consciously construct a unified, economical story.

Of course, Delany does this trick for didactic purposes: I suspect that when he sits down to write fiction, he does not weigh each word five or six times before deciding on it. Doing so would likely mean decades spent on a single book. Yet I find myself fascinated by this concept of each word simultaneously revising and building on the words that came before it. Given the underlying essence of story, it makes that story’s expression a revelatory act: likely as surprising to the author as to the reader. And that kind of revelation would be awesome.

Because of the way my brain is wired, I strive to do everything on purpose. But of course, that’s an aspiration and I doubt I ever really come close to meeting it. But sometimes, a reader’s comments really surprise me. For example, one of my beta readers recently sent me her feedback on a draft of a finished novel. In her feedback, she mentioned how much she liked the fact that two opposing characters at different points in the story mirror each other in their personal desires for vengeance. She thought it really added and amplified the philosophical and emotional themes at play between those characters.

And this floored me, because while I wrote the words and mapped out the plot, this was just a happy accident. I wish I was cool enough to do that on purpose. But in fact, it was a revelation to me, because at no point in the process did I tell myself “These enemies will be mirror images of each other along the dimension of vengeance by which their themes will be amplified.” It just worked out that way. And even after I’d written it, I didn’t notice that that’s how the characters and their actions related to each other. Which on one level, just goes to show that even a self-conscious writer’s subconscious has a heavy hand, and that readers will always find something the writer didn’t expect in every story. Of course, on another level it might mean I wasn’t paying enough conscious attention to my story – which if that’s the case is a little more worrying.

Which brings me back to the trick that Delany employs in “About 5,750 Words”. I get the impression that letting the imagination run free and consciously considering each word individually and in sequence may produce the same kind of revelatory experience. If nothing else, I suppose it will exponentially increase my awareness of word choice. It’s probably not a viable technique for writing long pieces, but I think I’m going to do a writing exercise at some point where I write an entire short story one word at a painstaking time…without prior consideration of the story’s essence. On one level, this sounds almost like free-writing (an exercise I always found frustrating and useless). But I think it is actually more its opposite: because each word is carefully weighed and selected, it will hopefully yield some of the most unified and essential writing I could hope for.

At least, that’s the theory. And I figure it’s a worthy experiment to try. Would you like to see the results of the experiment up here on the blog? Since it’s just a crazy experiment (I don’t expect the creature to live), it might be fun to dissect it. What do you think? And how do you approach getting that kind of unity into your stories?

REVIEW: Let’s Play White by Chesya Burke


Title: Let’s Play White
Author: Chesya Burke
Pub Date: April 26, 2011
Chris’ Rating (5 possible): 1 point 1 point 1 point 1 point
An Attempt at Categorization If You Like… / You Might Like…
An quiet, emotional ride.

Meeting a book is a lot like meeting a person for the first time. The setting, the company we find ourselves in (the book included), and the general ambiance all have an impact. The honest truth of the matter is that if I – a middle-class white guy in my late twenties – had not had the pleasure of meeting Chesya Burke at Readercon this past year, I probably would have skipped over her collection Let’s Play White. I would have judged it solely on the title, and Jordan Casteel’s excellent cover, as being intended for a different audience. And if I had skipped it, I would have missed a quiet collection of emotionally powerful short stories that remind me of Shirley Jackson at her best.

It’s tough to try and identify a common theme across the eleven stories in this collection. Yes, they all deal with race, class, and gender to some extent. But the stories avoid both strident polemics and simplistic allegory. Instead, Burke focuses on the more emotionally intense inner experiences of her characters, thus going beyond the superficial trappings of race, gender, or class. It’s tough to bring the totality of a character – incorporating both their personality and societal context – to life in a work of short fiction. There just isn’t that much room to build that reader/character relationship. But in each of the book’s stories, Burke pulls it off by giving us vibrant, powerful, and vivid characters that we can follow and feel for. Which is why the horror of their experiences is so powerful.

The stories in this collection are tough to classify. They skirt the liminal edge between horror, dark urban fantasy, noir, and straightforward mainstream literary fiction. Stories like “Walter and the Three-Legged King” or “He Who Takes the Pain Away” have a magical realist flavor to them, but the magic does not produce horror in the reader. Instead, the choices the characters make, and the consequences of those choices evoke that sense of horror.

Several of the stories stand out as being particularly effective. “I Make People Do Bad Things” is an excellent noir story set in early 1930’s Harlem. Anyone familiar with the history of post-Prohibition gangs in New York will enjoy Burke’s spin. Most of the stories and movies (like The Cotton Club) I’ve come across that focus on that time period tend to zoom in on the larger-than-life personalities of Bumpy Johnson, Dutch Schultz, and Lucky Luciano. But “I Make People Do Bad Things” instead focuses on Madame St. Clair, who was the Dutchman’s primary competition in the Harlem numbers racket. Burke opens up an interesting (fictional) window into her life and times, and in particular into a relationship she develops with a young girl with mysterious powers. The story pulls no punches, and portrays the kind of hard-as-nails toughness that is particular to all great noir stories. Yet at the same time, Burke manages to make St. Clair a more human character than most noir heroes, with fully realized flaws, regrets, and acceptance of choices made.

Both “Purse” and “What She Saw When They Flew Away” are quiet, heartfelt stories of loss that have few – if any – fantastical elements to them. The former evokes horror both on an emotional and visual level, while the latter is difficult to even call horror, unless that is the horror of deep sorrow. Were it not for the powerful visuals in “Purse” I suspect both stories would fit well within mainstream literary magazines, opening a window into the sad reality of women coming to terms with the loss of daughters and sisters. In many respects, I thought that they blended the quiet humanity of Shirley Jackson’s best work with Richard Matheson’s tactical use of violence.

Of the stories in this collection, “The Room Where Ben Disappeared” brought Shirley Jackson most to mind. In particular, it reminded me of my favorite Jackson short story (“Flower Garden”, which I’ve written about before). From a plotting and a stylistic standpoint, the two stories are very different. For one, “The Room Where Ben Disappeared” is more insistent. For another, it is much more direct than the Jackson story and represents bigotry head-on in its action. Yet despite this directness, it evokes similar sensations of horror and judgment, while retaining a quiet depth that will stay with me for quite some time.

Not all of the stories in this collection worked for me. In particular, I found the plot of “Walter and the Three-Legged King” unsatisfying at its conclusion. Much as I love ambiguous endings left open to interpretation, I felt that this story’s ending was too rushed, missing out on a symmetry to balance its excellent beginning and middle. Similarly, “CUE: Change” stood out as being a touch more simplistic than most of the other stories in the collection. In and of itself, it was not a bad story: the narrator’s voice was excellent (arguably one of the best executed voices in the collection) but I found that the story’s resolution lacked the subtlety and quiet resonance of its neighbors. Of the eleven stories in the collection, only three didn’t really work for me.

If you’re looking for a gore-spattered mess of horror, then Let’s Play White is probably not the book for you. Sure, Burke has scenes of visceral blood and guts, but they are rare in these stories, and then only used to evoke horror tangentially. Like Jackson, Burke taps into that eternal font of the most horrific aspects of humanity: our twisted desires, reasoning, and emotions. She shows what happens when we are pushed too far, but she does it with a deft hand and subtlety that is refreshing. I’m looking forward to reading more of her work in the future!

The Desperate Horror of Suburbia: Thoughts on Shirley Jackson


A couple of months ago, I wrote about different modes of horror, and while enjoying the Library of America collection Shirley Jackson: Novels and Stories, it got me thinking about how Jackson employed (and mastered) the art of identification in her stories.

The Library of America collection, selected by Joyce Carol Oates, contains forty-nine of Jackson’s stories. Except for the previously-unpublished works, the collection effectively spans the entire twenty-year period in which Jackson wrote before her untimely death in 1965. The stories range in length from what today would be considered flash fiction (like the two-page Colloquoy) to Jackson’s short novels (including the classic The Haunting of Hill House). The book starts with Jackson’s earliest stories that were originally collected in The Lottery and Other Stories, and when I think of Shirley Jackson, these are without a doubt my favorites.

As a genre, horror has a great many tropes: moonlit streets, foggy nights, sexy gentlemen with a dark side, the unrelenting psychopath, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. However, most of the stories that rely on these tropes tend to either utilize revulsion or dread to induce the delightful frisson of horror. For folks who look for their horror to be splatterpunk blood-fests, or for sexy vampires lurking languidly in the night, most of Shirley Jackson’s work would disappoint. The reason for that is that she utilizes every tool of the horror trade like a scalpel, and in her earliest works the tool she most relied on was identification (or realization).

Most of the stories collected in the original The Lottery and Other Stories (and which are now reprinted) have zero supernatural elements, depict no violence, and arguably lack the thriller-tension that most readers think of as horror. If it were not for the subtle manipulation of the reader’s morality, these stories would be utterly forgettable slice-of-life or Americana stories, accurate, in their representation of small-town life but insignificant as to the broader human condition. However, what makes Jackson unique in my view is the way that she can ellicit abject horror and revulsion from these utterly plebian events.

Consider Flower Garden, which on its face tracks the musings of a young Mrs. Winning, a 1940′s housewife, as she goes about her life in a small country town. She interacts with people like her neighbors, the grocer, her family. Shortly into the story, we learn that a new woman (a Mrs. MacLane) has moved into town from the city, and that she has a son of an age with Mrs. Winning’s boy. However, as the story proceeds, Jackson shows us the underside of small-town life, with its small-town prejudices. As the newcomer forms a friendship with one of the town’s few African American families, the “respectable” portion of small-town society begins to draw away. What Jackson does amazingly in this story is in the way that she portrays Mrs. Winning’s rationalization of their ostracization. Mrs. Winning isn’t guilty of any such prejudice: no, that’s only for more small-minded people. But ultimately, she adopts a similar stance to the other townsfolk and effectively isolates poor Mrs. MacLane in this new community. The story works because Jackson makes us care – deeply – about the characters, both Mrs. Winning (who we know isn’t all bad) and Mrs. MacLane (who is the victim). Jackson accomplishes this using three tools:

  • Keeping Her Point of View Character Oblivious to the Theme. This is a technique which Jackson uses frequently in the best of her stories. In Flower Garden, Mrs. Winning is completely oblivious to the prejudice that is going on around her. She notices that her relationships in town are weakened by her friendship with Mrs. MacLane, and so she begins to avoid her friend without even drawing attention to it. But when eventually she does notice it, she rationalizes it such that she never recognizes the moral choice that she has already made. Because we – the reader – are aware of this choice, our emotions are engaged and our minds focused on the theme: it’s like watching a movie where you want to shout at the heroine “Don’t go in there!” because you know something she doesn’t. Jackson elicits the same emotional response, only without the knife-wielding psychopath.
  • Employing Minutia to Ground the Reader. Jackson takes much time to show us the petty, inconsequential elements of Mrs. Winning’s daily life. Her conversation with the green grocer, the fact that she went to high school with him, her relationship with her mother-in-law: these facts have zero bearing on the primary plot. However, they lay the foundation for Jackson’s character, and for the broader community. As such, they establish the “feel” of the world Jackson paints for us. And it is a world that anyone who has lived in small-town America (even seventy years later) would instantly recognize. The reader places themselves into the nameless small-town, precisely because the prosaic details are so true-to-life and believable.
  • The Tragic Triumph of Moral Failure.When we read Flower Garden, we know what the “right” outcome should be. We know – morally, intellectually – that the community’s prejudice against Mrs. MacLane is abhorrent. However, in the end, it is their prejudices – and Mrs. MacLane’s own inverted prejudices against the small-town set – which triumph. The story ends tragically, not in the dramatic sense of everyone on stage dying, but rather in the Aristotelian sense of characters changing state from good to bad.

There is nothing to suggest that Flower Garden is a horror story: there is no violence, no fear, no physical tension of any kind. There are no ghosts or other supernatural elements. Yet it leaves the reader horrified at the underlying truth dramatized through the story’s actors. It ensures that we not only understand the author’s message but that we recognize it as an inevitable (and morally repugnant) consequence of human nature. And nowhere does Jackson come out and spell this message out for us: it is in the pauses between her characters’ thoughts, in the punctuation of her sentences, in the selection of her words. The story leaves us uneasy because it is all too easy to see ourselves in it.

Jackson applies this pattern in many of her works, and I find that it is put to best effect in her short stories. There, she evokes similar sensations of horror, disgust, revulsion, and tragic catharsis but with admirable economy. In her later novels, Jackson employed more supernatural (or ambiguously supernatural) elements, which often serve as sleight-of-hand to provide us a cozy rationalization for the real cause of our horror. Of course, even this interpretation is likely an over-simplification because even in her “supernatural” stories, Jackson leaves everything delightfully ambiguous: perhaps we need to blame our terror on ghosts and demons because the alternative – that humanity itself produces such horror – is too unsettling.

For anyone looking for an excellent author – whether a literary/mainstream author, or for one of the greatest horror writers ever to put pen to paper – I strongly recommend Shirley Jackson. Having come to her stories some sixty years after they were first published, I often wonder how my modern values affect my interpretation. I suspect, however, that the themes that Jackson addresses are universal and timeless. The foibles of humanity, the petty iniquities of small-town life, the dark secrets that lurk unspoken in our hearts: these never go away. It is easy to paint a black and white moralizing picture and say a character’s actions are morally repugnant: that does not mean those actions are unrealistic, or that they are not presented in cathartic and artistic fashion. Jackson offers no easy solutions. In fact, she doesn’t offer any solutions at all. But she raises questions that go to the heart of what we value as individuals, as a community, and as a broader society. That alone makes her worth reading. The fact that her works are fun, and unsettling, and in some cases absolutely horrifying, makes it that much better.

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