Eye of the Story

The Evergreen State College

Author: Benjamin Boyce



What does the world need from stories? This class has exposed me, somewhat, to what people want out of a story—not least of all what I want, don’t want, am tired of, am turned-off and -on by—but what is it that I need story to do for me, to show me?

I wonder if all this pressure on storytellers to “show and not tell” has diluted the art of fiction by restraining it to the imitation of nature—whether that nature resides in how the world works, or how human nature should/does work. My project for this quarter has a fair amount of sheer telling in it—every chapter has a mini-essay that describes some fact or facet of the speculative future in which the story is set—and in those bits of telling I’ve embedded ideas I think are interesting, presented in a manner I hope is easy to digest so that the ideas themselves can challenge the reader. The last quarter of this novel pushes into an almost entirely diegetic, explanatory mode, circulating around a variety of if‘s for the reader to choose between—and I am sure that, if I’ve titillated the reader enough to reach that point in the book, quite a few will be pissed off for being handed the reigns, so to speak, for how the outcome formulates the work as a whole—for how fate subsumes the actions and reactions of the characters.

What I think the world needs is freedom. Is imaginative freedom. I think people need to be goaded out of rote consumption and into a state of mutual creativity with the artist who has worked to provide them with an enjoyable experience. I admit that I get impatient with difficult art myself, and I want it to be gratifying, in the end—but the works that resonate with me are the ones that have expanded what I think is possible about the way we organize and interpret our lives—the ones that stir up in me an imaginative revolution, a peripeteia or reversal of my own values and conceptions of what is.

I teach preschool in the summers, and when I get stuck with the toddler class, I end up playing this game where I begin building something and a kid will want to break it down. I get annoyed with them and spend some of my energy keeping the kid at bay while I stack and stack and stack the blocks. And what I’m annoyed with isn’t that they want to break the damn thing down—that is, after all, great fun—but what I want them to understand is that the longer they let me build, the more they will have to break—the more resounding the crash!

Maybe telling—explanation—is more or less a “breaking down” of the story, a disassembling-by-way-of-reassembling the material of the story—the emotional and sensual content being subjected to intellectual re-contextualization. I speak broadly—I want art that releases bursts of power in my imagination. Every aspect of language is there for us to bend to our will, and stack up in such a way that, at the right moment, just the right amount of pressure causes a chain reaction, aided by gravity, that kicks up all sorts of dust—spurting out our ears as we return the book to the shelf.

Who Ever Heard of a Snozzberry?!?!

This week’s seminar was great! I loved that we got passionately engaged with the text. My “personal” project is at a critical stage (I’ll be done with the first draft hopefully at the end of next week), and due to what I am demanding of myself, I end up demanding that of the texts we read. If they don’t overcome my critical faculty (that part of my mind that scours my writing to make it as good as I can), then I end up saying of that text: this is crap! 

So, I criticized Diaz, holding him up to the standard that I hold myself to. During my time at Evergreen there’s always that opinion that surfaces, where someone will balk at artistic standards, saying “Everything is as good as everything else, who are we to judge?”

And who are we to judge? We are students, trying to get better as writers, or communicators, or storytellers, or filmmakers. If we say at the beginning: “There’s no right answer; everything is as good as everything else.” Where will we end up? Will we have learned anything? Will we be better off for spending 10 weeks on 10 films and 10 books?

I don’t think we would be.

So, I criticize. I spend my mornings writing, my afternoons reading, and my evenings feeling anxious–like I left something out, or did something wrong. It’s a version of hell, forcing myself to produce the best I possibly can. And when I encountered Diaz I felt like he wasn’t really trying. I felt like he had taken a bunch of elements that other writers have come up with and done much better (switches of perspective, magic realism, the informative footnote), and he superimposed these over a family drama with a backdrop of immigration and Caribbean politics–and then he called it good.

To me, it wasn’t good enough. And maybe that’s a better statement than simply saying “it’s crap!”

It’s not good enough… nothing is good enough! Every morning I reach into the page and try to make a mess that’s correctable in an interesting way. I record my writing and play it back to myself, to make sure every syllable, every word, every sentence is in the right place, that they all sound right, read right, make the right kind of sense. Nothing is good enough and it never will be, but every now and then there are these sentences or passages or scenes that stand apart from me and my anxiety and my ambition–and I feel: that’s the right one, the right way done, thanks God for distracting me enough to get that out.

Michelangelo said that genius is infinite patience. I think genius is a profound sensitivity wed to a profound sense of dissatisfaction. A sensitivity to what is there, in life, in people, in things–and a sense of dissatisfaction with how it’s already been thought about, recorded, edited, presented.

What pisses me off the most about works of art is when I get the sense that the writer is satisfied with himself, herself. There shouldn’t be any of that left over, by the time the work reaches its audience–all that ego and that limpness needs to be put in place–to serve the work–to add something new to the conversation of culture.

Words to live by:


Some Words on Birds

Maya Deren writes:

“If one assumes something is a symbol, one must be prepared to answer why the artist has substituted at all; why one should assume that every image is a mask for meaning . . . As, ‘bird in flight.’ Well, I mean bird in flight. ‘Oh, you mean that is not a symbol for something else?’ No, it is a bird in flight. ‘Oh, it’s just a bird in flight?’ It is all a bird in flight might mean.”[1]



There was this guy named Gesamt Kunstwerk.
One day he decided to perform a concert.
So he readied a band & developed a score,
Then arranged for dancers to prance on the floor.
And that wasn’t all: he painted a scene
Of prairies and mountains upon the back screen.
And as he was painting, he added a bird
(Just a small detail, nothing absurd).

Now, when the bird he had finished, there entered a man—
The lighting technician, with pliers in hand—
The lighting guy stopped, and looked at the screen
Then he asked Kunstwerk: “Uh, what does that bird mean?”
Kunstwerk said: “What? Oh, that’s just a bird
A small little detail to add to what’s heard.”

The lighting guy frowned, then he said “Why,
I think it could mean something, at least if you tried
To tie it somehow to the rest of your show.
Then, when people saw it—maybe, who knows—
They would get more out of your opera.”

Kunstwerk shook his head, and said: “Why would I bother
To make every detail mean something else?
If people want meaning, they can do that themselves.”

“All I am saying,” the electrician replied
“Is that there’s so much that a bird might imply:
Like a soul taking flight, or a dude getting high
Or a game changing play at the top of the ninth
Or that feeling you get, on a warm August night.”
Gesamt, the artist, vexatiously cried:
“A bird in the sky is just a bird in the sky!
It doesn’t mean X, and sure as heck don’t mean Y!
Art isn’t math, some symbolical system
It’s simply a thing that engages the senses.
It’s an aesthetic phenomenon, and really naught else—
Art has no purpose beyond its own self.”

“You sound sure about that.” “Oh, I most certainly am,”
Said Mr. Kunstwerk, pealing the paint from his hands.
“I’m here to make beauty, not some drab, stodgy statement.
Now don’t you have something to go fix in the basement?”

“The basement can wait,” the electrician spoke.
“Art for art’s sake makes all culture a joke.”

“Come on now, you’re being hyperbolistic.”

“I ain’t using no hype; I’m calling you solipsistic:
Nothing can mean itself, at least not in culture;
For all art is communication, whether music or sculpture,
Painting or flickers of light on a blanket—
Heck, even a lady, when she’s at her toilet
Fixes her hair not just to “look good”
But to present herself as someone to be understood
By someone else, as, say, smart, or friendly-seeming—
For in the public sphere nothing’s devoid of meaning.
And the moment someone looks at something you made
They will guess what it means, & judge it accordingly.”

“Well, here’s what I’m saying,” responded Gesamt Kunstwerk
“The making of meaning takes so much effort, 
And I’m concentrating not on the ideas I might make
But a short pleasant journey for the audience to take.”

“Alright, I guess that’s fine,” muttered the lighting technician
Who, truth be told, was vying for a position
As a professor of Semiotics: The Science of Signs.
And as he pocketed his pliers, he made a final reply:

“A bird in the sky is not a bird anymore
When it’s put on a wall and is set to a score;
As soon as you make a bird out of paint
You’ve made “a bird” into something it ain’t.
And then you’ve placed this “bird” into a system
Which includes some dancers and also musicians,
And light and sound and fancy shapes
Enclosed in time, embraced by space
And, should your score include some words
Then drama, too, will be observed.

“And over every one of them, 
Flies this bird—and what of him?
If a single something he don’t mean
His significance still is not nothing
But meaning, itself, might be too flagrant—
Maybe what art makes is not just a statement
But instead a state—that’s what’s conveyed
By these polyphonic objects you’ve carefully arranged
Into an instance of “total art”—
And I’d like to think your bird too plays its part
In making your opera a grand expression
Of the best and worst in the lives of all men.”

“Well spoken,” said Gesamt, who, before he let the other go
Asked the unionized electrician if he’d like to revise his libretto.



[1] Deren, Maya, and Bruce R. McPherson. Essential Deren: Collected Writings on Film. Kingston, NY: Documentext, 2005. Print.  (209-210).

Building the Dream ; B.Boyce ; 1/31/2016

In this journal entry, I discuss how meaning and intention are central to building a substantial work of prose, while still giving room for innovation to play out. This discussion is framed by my own work, which I introduced in my second week Journal entry.



And if you’re just into poetry, here is an excerpt from my current project, where the heroine enters the virtual dream world:


I imagine a feminine counterpoint to history;  something with an air of vengeance and subterfuge, something illicit — not in and of itself, but to the frame of mind that reduces experience into a causal, chronological line.

I imagine this is called heracy.

I imagine it has always been with us, only, it takes on a more kinetic and ephemeral form than what’s survived in the bits of writing passed down; I image this feminine counterpoint to history was not so taken with being abstracted into the forms that have survived the grubby hands of history’s children, but instead she was content to pour her knowledge out around the hearth,  weaving her account of people, places, things at neighborhood wells & market stalls.

I imagine it wasn’t until the printing press that we had the technology to set down a faithful record of what maked all of history possible — I imagine it wasn’t until the novel that we were able to reconstruct her properly, on the page and in the mind.

I wrote this week about Virgina (and it was brought to my attention that should I call her Woolf); I wrote about her essay “Modern Fiction,” how she criticized Joyce for making her feel like she was stuck inside someone’s head — a brilliant head, but just a head. And she wanted something less “angular” and more open, when it comes to fiction, something that sets her free. She evoked the artistic impulse to render life — life the halo and not the catechism of supremely meaningful symbolic forms. Life the rosy, plantlike, birdflying, multi-metaphored, coursing in out and around the forms we need to put there, on the page, to help the reader reconstruct what it is we are presenting–

I imagine there is a way of articulating experience, of drawing connections as opposed to conclusions; though i believe that connecting and concluding are two parallel processes — two ways of proceeding forward, for writing, the best writing, is really all a reaching — a reaching after, a reaching for, forward, back and forth.

We fill up chalkboards, blanketing their blankness with what?

A family drama. Facts and Feelings, fighting behind closed doors. We invite the reader to peek in the window — what do they witness? Violence? Lovemaking?

Probably always a bit of both.

The Modern Turn (Away & Toward); Benjamin Boyce

The Modern Turn (Away & Toward)

Situating Woolf’s Aesthetics in the History of Literature

Benjamin Boyce

 In The Rise of the Novel[1], Ian Watts concentrates on the early British novel, and ascribes a variety of social, political, and religious factors as leading to the novels development. A quick summary of these forces would include, a rising middle class (literate and with some amount of free time), Puritanism (which put the onus of spiritual growth upon the individual, allowing for a profusion of personal interpretations of the public sacred text), and capitalism (which followed this spiritual accounting with a material accounting—an exactness that I think gave Britain the edge over other civilizations and propelled it into a world power).

After the novel caught on, it went through certain developments. In the early 18th century the novel was often introduced by an argument by the author as to the “authenticity” of the document—that it was taken from a real man’s or woman’s journals or letters. (Robinson Crusoe by Defoe, and Richardson’s Pamela). But these apologetics were abandoned as the reading public became used to thinking in the way that the novel was thinking—that is, the presentation of fictional events and persons that more or less matched up with common people’s common experience. This was in contradistinction to the Medieval Romance, which presented heroes and scrubs undergoing repetitive events that provided opportunities for triumph (for the heroes) and downfall (for the scrubs). In the novel, the sense of a real person undergoing some form of personal development was conveyed.

Soon enough the novel developed into a romantic period, where the efficacy of the events and the characters were not as realistic, or, rather, their dramatic, thematic, and cinematic qualities were “turned up” to render heightened states of experience. About midway through the romantic period, in France the idea of realism took root, where authors returned with a renewed gusto to describing as clearly as possible the real world, how people really thought and experienced things.

I believe that Woolf’s work is in part a response to realism, which, in her essay Modern Fiction[2] she calls “materialism”, about which she writes:

The writer seems constrained, not by his own free will but by some powerful and unscrupulous tyrant who has him in thrall, to provide a plot, to provide comedy, tragedy, love interest, and an air of probability embalming the whole so impeccable that if all this figures were to come to life they would find themselves dressed down to the last button of their coats in the fashion of the hour. They tyrant is obeyed; the novel is done to a turn. But sometimes, more and more often as time goes by, we suspect a momentary doubt, a spasm of rebellion, as the pages fill themselves in the customary way. Is life like this? Must novels be like this?

Now, if she is reacting against this materialism, this tyranny of the supposedly real, what is she aiming toward? Woolf argues that, if novels are about life, then the issue is if life is true to realism, if realism is true to life.

Life is not a series of gig lamps[3] symmetrically arranged; life is a luminous halo, a semi-transparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end. Is it not the task of the novelist to convey this varying, this unknown and uncircumscribed spirit, whatever aberration of complexity it may display, with as little mixture of the alien and external as possible? We are not pleading merely for courage and sincerity; we are suggesting that the proper stuff of fiction is a little other than custom would have us believe it.

She then speaks of Joyce, and about reading Ulysses:

In contrast with those whom we have called materialists, Mr. Joyce is spiritual; he is concerned at all costs to reveal the flickers of that innermost flame which flashes its messages through the brain, and in order to preserve it he disregards with complete courage whatever seems to him adventitious, whether it be probability, or coherence, or any other of these signposts which for generations have served to support the imagination of a reader when called upon to imagine what he can neither touch nor see.

Woolf then goes on to very indirectly criticize Joyce and his methods. Writing that while Ulysses is brilliant, it gives us the sense that we are constrained in the author’s head, to a sense of

…being in a bright yet narrow room, confined and shut in, rather than enlarged and set free, to some limitation imposed by the method as well as by the mind. Is it due to the method that we feel neither jovial nor magnanimous, but centered in a self which, in spite of its tremor of susceptibility, never embraces or creates what is outside itself and beyond? Does the emphasis laid, perhaps didactically, upon indecency, contribute to the effect of something angular and isolated?


In our reading of Mrs. Dalloway we might have seen how a multiple points in the novel, Woolf uses “angularity” in reference to men.

I would like to propose that what Woolf found lacking in Joyce was something that she might of thought of as a masculine preoccupation with form, whereas she was more concerned with the halo, the “frequency” of consciousness, which is not situated in forms or formality, but that drifts atop them, variates them, organizes them with a deftness and arbitrarity that is itself the form of consciousness—not formless but over, between, around—a movement, a “halo.” In Mrs. Dalloway, she uses the form of a single day-in-the-life (perhaps following Ulysses), but whereas Ulysses is filled with method, with symbols, and themes subdivided and subdivided into smaller and smaller symbolic units which Joyce then fills with consciousness, Mrs. Dalloway only uses as much form as is necessary for Woolf to enter into the profusion of consciousness, to convey that consciousness in a manner that the reader can follow and can reconstruct in their own imaginations.

In Modern Fiction she writes:

The problem before the novelist at present, as we suppose it to have been in the past, is to contrive means of being free to set down what he chooses. He has to have the courage to say that what interests him is no longer ‘this’ but ‘that’: out of ‘that’ alone must he construct his work. For the moderns ‘that’, the point of interest, lies very likely in the dark places of psychology.


I wonder if, at this point in the history of the arts, we can afford to be for ‘this’ as opposed to ‘that’ or that as opposed to ‘this.’ What we have to always account for is that there is already so much art out there, there are already so many artists out there. We might seek to build monuments, such as did Joyce, or seek to give the imaginal sea as minimal a form as possible, in order to study and to immerse ourselves and be swept along with its flow, as did Woolf—especially in The Waves, written after Mrs. Dalloway. We have to be concerned with getting attention and keeping attention, while at the same time trying to trick our readership into a deep and lasting experience of something profound—profound even in its pettiness, in its birdlike chatterliness or angular indecency.

[1] The Rise of the Novel; Studies in Defoe, Richardson, and Fielding. Berkeley: U of California, 1957. Print.


[3] A gig lamp is the headlamp of the horse-and-buggy generation.

Writing: Practice, Theory, Process; Benjamin Boyce

In the writer’s practicum on Friday we generated a number of methods seemily aimed at getting us into the practice of writing. What ended up on the blackboard was what I think of as “writer advice.” This stuff is good, even necessary—for we can’t produce writing without figuring out how to go about writing.

I myself am more interested in what come after writer advice, the discussions that begin at the questions “What does a story do?” and “How is a story put together?”

From the second question follows a discussion on all the moving parts in a story: its characters, plots, settings, and the styles by which it is conveyed.

The first question leads to a discussion on the ways in which a story gains value in the audience. I think it does this, basically, by grabbing, maintaining, and manipulating the attention of the reader, and subsequently her feelings, interest, and imagination. 

The difficulty with such discussions is that they require a somewhat extensive critical apparatus, simply for organizational concerns. I’ve taken stabs in the last two quarters at laying out such an apparatus, which I’d be happy to share if anyone is interested.

But this quarter I’m here to produce a story. The form I’m working with is the novel, set in the genre of Speculative Fiction. Due to its length, I must develop a structure that is both solid enough to support the attention of the reader, and deft enough to continually engage her insides. Also, because it is a novel, I’m more or less stuck inside it while building it–I must maintain a certain headspace in order to not “lose the thread.” For this reason I might seem at times slightly removed, even pissy—and I apologize about that.

However, my real journal entries, then, are basically self-reflective babble—not about my self, but about my project. As I’ve progressed as an author I’ve found it helpful to hash out my ideas aloud. Since we’re being encouraged to expose our underbellies to eachother, I’ve gone ahead and recorded one such thought-session.

(The volumes shown in this video are all of my own composition. None have been officially published, and all are in process. It’s the nature of my project that I’ve had to write and rewrite its volumes several times in order to get them to do what I want them to.)


Defy(n)ing Our Terms; B.Boyce; 01/07/16

I believe that insofar as a theory (or even just a term) is useful, it needs to be specific.

One manner of building a theory is by establishing a dichotomy, such as Baldwin does between “story” and “plot.” But he doesn’t really develop this. Plot “must prove a point” and “the aim of story is revelation.”

This is poetic and evocative—but ultimately mumbo jumbo. 

I don’t think it does anybody any good to make “story” a mystical, transcendent property of a pile of words or reel of images—some sort of greater spiritual whole hovering on the far side of the meager, merely functional parts.

A story is simply a sequence of events which pertain to a subject. This series of events is “plot” and plot makes no sense (to people) without a subject who (say) gets the crap beat out of them but ends up kissing the sheriff in the end. “Good” stories are measured not by how they conform to a tradition, or how firmly they resolve their issues—but by how powerfully they effect us, how they defy our expectations, elicit our passions, expand our ability to sympathize with the experience of others.

Now—there’s the story, and then there’s how the story is conveyed. This we can call “discourse” or the performance of the story. Here’s where we get into the poetics of telling and showing, the artful unveiling of events and intentions, the wide array of f-stops and backdrops and the clever use of corporate props.

These two things—story, and discourse—are the two major units of the storyteller’s craft. Both branch out into a huge-ass milieu of styles and tropes and genres (which are just recognizable constellations of said styles and tropes). 

I’m not saying that narrative (in the form of a .doc or a .mov) does not address the wide gamut of human experience, from the social to the personal. Narrative I believe is the most efficient means of conveying human experience.

I’m proposing that we can explain how it does this without resorting to ambiguous terms.

Being clear with our terms in no way limits our ability to study how exactly a story or movie effects us. In fact, I think ambiguous and poetic theory just muddies the waters; though I admit it can feel inspiring—but that’s a storyteller’s trick.

Baldwin, in the end, is telling us a story—more or less about story.

Here’s the first part of the story I’m working on this quarter.


© 2023 Eye of the Story
The Evergreen State College
Olympia, Washington

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