Friday, February 27, 2015

Read This: The Queequeg Diaries

Best thing on the internet this week: This Queequeg Diaries tumblr by Alexander Chee.

Queequeg and Ishmael, Rockwell Kent, 1930

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Course for Young Writers: Write to Print

March update: This course is currently underway. Check the Company of Writers web site for their summer offerings. Write to Print will likely be offered again in the fall. Let them know if you're interested.


I'm excited about this class for teens: Write to Print, Wednesday evenings starting March 4 in Westport, CT. I'll be co-teaching with Jotham Burrello of Elephant Rock Books.  

The goal of this workshop is to complete a short story or essay to be submitted for publication. Over the course of eight weeks each student will draft, revise and polish her piece until it shines, with support from peers and teachers at every step. 

This course is offered by The Company of Writers, a new outfit founded by Yale Summer Writers' Conference director Terry Hawkins.

If you know a high school student who loves to write and would like to aim for publication, click over and check out Write to Print.

Eva Bednarova, illus. from Fairy Tales by Olga and Eva, 1971, via 50watts

Friday, February 13, 2015

Read This: "White Angel" by Michael Cunningham: More on Dialogue and Secrets

 Here's a brutal, beautiful story:

"White Angel" by Michael Cunningham

If you're a subscriber to The New Yorker, you can find it in the archives there, too. This story of childhood, drugs and tragedy in late 1960s Ohio became a chapter in the novel A Home at the End of the World, which was made into this movie.

Since I was talking about dialogue in the last post (here), let's look at that: it's as good a way into this story as any.

In the last post I talked about how the power of the dialogue in "Hills Like White Elephants" comes not just from what's said, but also—maybe especially—from what is left unsaid.

Then we looked at John Gardner's dialogue exercise in which each of the characters has a secret, and I talked about how a secret doesn't have to be something obvious, as in Gardner's suggestion that the wife has a lover in the bedroom; it can be any of the dozens of things we think and feel but don't say in every conversation.

Look at the conversation between the narrator and his mother early in "White Angel," when he comes back into the house after seeing his brother and brother's girlfriend in the graveyard. In the linked pdf this is towards the bottom of page 31. What are the secrets that are being kept here, exactly?

There's the obvious one: the narrator lies and says his brother Carleton is not doing drugs. But I would argue this obvious one is not the main secret—it's not even really a secret at all. "Lately police cars have been browsing our house like sharks," the narrator says, and his mother has noticed. She knows "something's going on." She tries to whack the answer out of the narrator with the vegetable brush and fails, but she doesn't really need him to give her the information: she already has it.

So what are the unsaid things that make this dialogue crackle? I would argue that not only are they far from simple and obvious—things like drugs, or a lover in the bedroom—they are so big and complex that they can't even be put into words: the feeling the narrator gets when Carleton sees him and winks at him in the graveyard; the narrator's preadolescent, absolute allegiance to his doomed brother that divides him forever from his parents, a division that repeats itself in every generation but which, in the late 1960s, and in this specific family, has its own terrifying and tragic flavor. I think the story as a whole answers the question "what are the unsaid things?" and there isn't really a way to reduce the answer to anything smaller than that. You feel it in every beat of the story, every interaction between the characters.

This is, in part, a story about two boys sharing a house with their parents but living in a completely different universe. There's a tragic climax, but the story is suffused with tragedy from the first page: it lies in the fact that there are so many secrets, so impossible to communicate that they form a vast gulf that separates all the characters from one another—a gulf that, in the end, seems to widen to infinity.

Mikalojus Ciurlionis, Creation of the World II, 1906

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Read This: "Hills Like White Elephants" by Ernest Hemingway, and an Exercise in Dialogue

Here's a huge story in four very short pages. One of the many interesting things about it is that it's told mostly in dialogue.

The subject being discussed, an abortion, is never named, and in general much of the power in the story, and much of the life in the dialogue, comes from what the characters don't say, but communicate indirectly, through sarcasm, metaphor, repetition of words or phrases, and actions.

Read this story twice. (It takes less than five minutes to read, so don't tell me you can't spare the time.) The first time, let it wash over you. Just experience it. The second time, try to spot the indirect ways of communicating mentioned above. Look for an example of each one.

"Hills Like White Elephants" by Ernest Hemingway

Now an exercise from John Gardner's classic The Art of Fiction:
Write a dialogue in which each of the two characters has a secret. Do not reveal the secret but make the reader intuit it. For example, the dialogue might be between a husband, who has just lost his job and hasn't worked up the courage to tell his wife, and his wife, who has a lover in the bedroom. Purpose: to give two characters individual ways of speaking, and to make dialogue crackle with feelings not directly expressed. Remember that in dialogue, as a general rule, every pause must somehow be shown, either by narration (for example, "she paused") or by some gesture or other break that shows the pause. And remember that gesture is a part of all real dialogue. Sometimes, for instance, we look away instead of answering.
To my mind this is a kind of French farce-y idea of "a secret." I like this exercise, but think it works better when you conceive of a secret as any unspoken thing that's present when two people talk—and those things are always present. Listen to your own thoughts next time you have a conversation. Do they match up exactly with what you say? Neither do the other person's. One great thing about literature is that it can give you a glimpse into the secrets of someone other than yourself.

Set your timer for ten minutes and do the Gardner exercise now. The key is to make your "dialogue crackle with feelings not directly expressed." Notice he doesn't say "facts," but "feelings." Those—not hidden lovers or pink slips—are the real secrets, present in every interaction: too complex and tender and personal to be stated outright. They are what make dialogue come alive.

Carl Fredrik Hill, untitled, no date, d. 1911

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Class at Hudson Valley Writers' Center

Last chance to sign up for "Get Unblocked" at the Hudson Valley Writers' Center in Sleepy Hollow, NY.

An afternoon of fun, challenging exercises in writing, plumbing your subconscious, dreaming and planning. Get a month's worth of work done in one afternoon, with lots of support and encouragement. Join us! Follow this link and click the "Register" button.

Andre Derain, Bacchus Dance, 1906