Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Forbidden things you can do anyway

I've been having kind of an amusing exchange with a friend on facebook, a fellow teacher, who presently is grappling with inexperienced writers' mistakes.  She has been citing the mistakes, and then I have been firing back with examples of really good fiction that uses the "mistake" to greater ends.  For instance, to "it was all a dream" I countered David Foster Wallace's "Oblivion."  "Everyone dies in a car accident at the end" reminded me of Charles Baxter's "Saul And Patsy Are Getting Comfortable In Michigan" (although he did bring them back to life in a later story and novel).  And when my friend complained that her students don't even know to start a new paragraph for dialogue from a new speaker, I threw down Stephen Dixon's Interstate.

Of course my friend is right: there are things that are almost impossible to do well, and other things that a beginner can wrap his head around more easily, and learn to do skillfully, in the three-and-a-half-month confines of an academic semester.  But wow, it's hard to know how to tell them what's right and what's wrong.  "Some writers have been able to use this technique effectively," you can say, "but it isn't working in your story."  Or, "Traditionally, dialogue is formatted this way.  You can format it another way, but you need to know the convention, and understand the consequences of breaking it."

If you ever wonder why creative writing classes often seem to be graded rather generously, this is the reason.  Everything is a gray area.  Nothing can be judged out of context.  There are no things you can't do, and there are no things that always work.  There are only...things.  An infinite number.  And they can be arranged in an infinite number of ways.  It's enough to make me think my job might actually be...difficult.

Well--let's go with "complicated."

21 comments:

Pete said...

It's like jazz... there's a huge difference between playing outside, and playing notes randomly. One is skillful, the other is ignorant. You can't play outside before you learn how to play changes. That's the job of a writing teacher.

5 Red Pandas said...

Off topic but I've always wondered but never asked- are we supposed to like Saul and Patsy? I can usually tell, but with these two characters I'm not sure.

rmellis said...

Yes, you are supposed to loooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooove Saul and Patsy.

christianbauman said...

I like Pete's comparison to jazz (or any kind of music, really). Breaking the rules of writing is fine...but the master knows what the rules are, knows that he/she is breaking them, and is doing it intentionally. One of the most important parts of my education as a novelist was my time as a copy editor for Viking/Penguin. It made me a stickler for detail in some respects (close up those spaces around your Em dashes, damn it), and in other respects gave me a greater appreciation of the impact I could possibly have on those occasions I choose to ignore the regulations.

rmellis said...

Sorry about all those m-dashes, Christian. Until about a month ago, I was a horrible offender.

jrlennon said...

It's true, old Saul and Patsy perhaps have not aged well. But that story meant a lot to me back in the day. AND IT DID TO YOU TOO ELLIS

rmellis said...

TIMES CHANGE LENNON

violentbore said...

I'm with Pete and Christian. The fact that there are no right or wrong things - just things - places importance on those things' relationship to the established conventions of a field.

Several years ago, I read one of those neat little 33 1/3 booklets about Pavement's album, 'Slanted and Enchanted'. The writer points to the measured sloppiness of the guitar work. Every cacophonous note, s/he says, has a purpose and clear focus. It may sound like playing notes at random, but it's much more a response to the conventions of rock music. Blah blah etc.

Doesn't the same hold for simply 'being cool'? The cool person is cool because of his/her apparent recklessness. Whether or not they'd like to admit it, the 'cool' are cool because they challenge and seek to reinvent social conventions. Without that intentional relationship, the 'cool' are borderline antisocial, right?

That's why freehand drawings of assholes that look like asterisks (or vice versa) in the body of a text, or a twelve word short story about a fly as an apostrophe are particularly cool. And that is why committing the words, I don't know, 'God Farted' to an entire page of a novel is particularly not cool.

For the record: I fear writing blog posts about being cool is also particularly not cool.

jrlennon said...

Real coolness is always at least partly accidental--which is to say good art is, too. I feel like a good artist is as much a curator of happenstance as she is a craftsperson.

Or not. I might just be talking out my asterisk.

5 Red Pandas said...

I tried reading the novel and I hated them so much. I hated them! So, are we supposed to hate them? I'm still a little confused.

Hate to be a stickler, but the Pavement book was for Wowee Zowee. I hated that book, too, but for different reasons. (I'm a Pavement freak, so please forgive me.) There are some super early recordings of one of Stephen Malkmus's pre-Pavement bands and it's clear he knew how to play guitar, so any notes he played on early Pavement records, even if they sounded "off" were probably intentional. I once played the quasi solo from "frontwards" on my guitar for an ex and he insisted it was "wrong" but then I made him listen to the song and he had to shut his stupid face. (ok, so my guitar was in standard tuning and Malkmus's probably wasn't- but I was not wrong- his taste was wrong.)

Sung said...

I remember reading somewhere that Lorrie Moore wrote Self-Help entirely in the second person because one of her teachers (possibly James McConkey or Dan McCall) told her that it couldn't be done. I guess she showed them!

Anonymous said...

Can I just say that I love the Forbidden image? A great, underrated, second-wave thrash metal band.

jrlennon said...

You certainly may say that, anon!

Sung, if I had to guess, I would say it must have been Dan.

violentbore said...

Pandas:

No problem with the stickling! It was so long ago, I just assumed it was S & E. Anyhow, the point remains the same. Nice job sticking it to the ex with your guitar skills!

JRL:

To follow suit, I must've pulled the 'Slanted and Enchanted' reference out of my asterisk. (Boooo.)

jrlennon said...

Of all the Pavement albums to write about, why that one?

W6 chum Bob Proehl wrote a good one, the Flying Burrito Brothers one.

violentbore said...

Agreed. Sorry to turn this into a music forum, but I've always been partial to David Berman and Silver Jews.

It must have something to do with the Forbidden image.

Adalena said...
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5 Red Pandas said...
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5 Red Pandas said...

This thread has veered off course but here's an interesting Berman/Slanted & Enchanted tie in:

Berman posted this at his blog:

http://mentholmountains.blogspot.com/2011/03/going-through-old-boxes-ii.html

And a better link to that interview (if you haven't read it, it's one of the lengthiest ones I've seen from him, mostly because I spent a day walking around with him and I published it in my own zine so an editor didn't shorten it.)

intro:
http://tinyurl.com/6ax78d8

interview:
http://tinyurl.com/6b97766

violentbore said...

Nice work, Pandas!

Thanks for reinvigorating my latent fanboydom. Today I will break a cardinal rule, and score my writing session with Silver Jews albums!

(I normally try to avoid clever lyricists while writing, in a controlled effort to be the most interesting person in my empty room.)

And so...

Charles said...

The Celine Dion 33 1/3 is really good! This is what we are talking about right?