Gary Guinn

Literature of the Ozarks

Tag: literature

From the Forge: on Joyce Carol Oates on Writing

For most of my professional career, it seemed as though Joyce Carol Oates published a new novel every year, in addition to short stories and all manner of non-fiction pieces. So when one recent list of writing advice from well-known writers included three suggestions from Oates, I was intrigued.

Her first suggestion was this: “The first sentence can be written only after the last sentence has been written.” I have mentored people who were working on longer manuscripts—novel or memoir—and who reached a point at which they struggled to find their way. My advice was usually to write a draft of the final chapter, as they saw it at that point, and then to come back to where they felt lost. In a way, it’s almost too obvious. We can’t know how to get there if we don’t know where we’re going.

Oates’ second suggestion was to keep in mind Oscar Wilde: “A little sincerity is a dangerous thing, and a great deal of it is absolutely fatal.” This is funny and may seem a bit absurd on the face of it, but I think Oates is trying to say that both fiction and memoir are story, and story is a crafted thing from which the writer must step back and observe with a critical eye. If you become too self-absorbed, it is easy to lose the necessary sense of story as art, as a made thing. Even in memoir, your life must be a story that is crafted to accomplish your objective.

The final piece of advice Oates gave was, “Don’t try to anticipate an ideal reader — or any reader. He/she might exist — but is reading someone else.” Okay, this is the witty, ironic side of Joyce Carol Oates. I doubt that she really believes this one herself. But it might serve as a reminder that, even though we need to know our audience, we need even more to know ourselves and our characters because those are the sources of our story.



Show, Don’t Tell?

If you’ve been a creative writer for very long, you have heard this directive repeatedly—Show, Don’t Tell. But what exactly does it mean? What does show mean? What does tell mean?

Here’s a simple definition for each: to show means to present fictional material through immediate sense perceptions, to offer character experience. To tell means to present fictional material through the narrator’s analysis, to offer abstract ideas.

Janet Burroway, in Writing Fiction, says, “Fiction must contain ideas, which give significance to characters and events. . . . But the ideas must be experienced through or with the characters; they must be felt or the fiction will fail . . .”

Maybe the directive should be “Show ideas, don’t Tell them.” The reader should be able to understand the story’s ideas through the characters’ actions and experience. If the narrator has to spell out the meaning for the reader, then the writer has not done a good enough job of telling the story.

Burroway offers several techniques for showing, not telling. The most important of these is the use of Significant Detail. “Specific, definite, concrete, particular details—these are the life of fiction,” she says. She is referring to details that appeal to the senses—things seen, heard, smelled, tasted, or touched. But a writer must do more than simply offer sense details. The details “must be details ‘that matter.’” This idea of careful selection of details that “implicitly suggest meaning and value” is central to Burroway’s argument.

Here’s a simple example. Your character has lost her job and is feeling depressed. Your narrator can simply say, “She was depressed.” In that case, you would be telling the reader by using an abstract expression. Simple and direct, perhaps, but also boring. On the other hand, your narrator can have the character open her second bottle of wine, spill some on her blouse, and begin to cry. The room may be drab and dark, the sky dull and cloudy. A bird singing outside the window may make the character angry. All of these details are experiences that reproduce the emotional impact of depression for the reader.

When you use carefully selected, concrete, descriptive details like these, you are showing, not telling.



The Dead

This morning I read again the final paragraph of James Joyce’s short story “The Dead,” a story about a melancholy Irish professor, who thinks his marriage is one thing and finds that it is really something else. It is a story about the disillusionment of romantic fantasies. “The Dead” is one of Joyce’s best-known stories, the final story in his first collection, Dubliners. It has been one of my favorite stories for many years because of its celebration of friendship around a banquet table, both the joy and the pain, because of its wonderful variety of characters, and especially because of its beautiful language.

At the end of the story, the main character, Gabriel, sits in the dark in a hotel room, his wife asleep on the bed. He has just learned of his wife’s heartbreak when she was a young woman at the death of a young man named Michael Furey.

Here’s the paragraph: “A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly throughout the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.”

We are all Gabriel, believing we are one thing and occasionally coming face to face with the reality that we are not that thing at all, that we have created for/of ourselves a fiction we can live with but that cannot last. Afterwards, when we know ourselves better, we are better able to know others and to live a compassionate life.

After Dubliners, Joyce published Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and Ulysses, both of which I love and taught at the university, and then he finished his fiction writing with Finnegans Wake. These last three works were significant events in the development of the complex Modernist style, but in the earlier Dubliners he used traditional story-telling technique and rich, layered language to reveal the vulnerable and quixotic hearts of human beings in everyday lives. It is one of those works that makes my wiring crackle when I read it.

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