AQR (Alaska Quarterly Review) is one of my favorite quarterly journals. The journal is published by the University of Alaska, but it is not student work; rather, it is a university run literary journal open to unsolicited submissions. It consistently features superbly crafted contemporary literature: stories, essays and poems. The journal often contributes several selections to the Pushcart Prize collection. If you don’t know what the Pushcart Prize is and you like to dream of making a little money as a literary writer (by earning grants and prizes), you might do well to take a look. Each year Pushcart Press edits a collection from thousands of submissions sent in by the editors of many small presses. Being published in this collection is not a turnkey road to writerly success, but it’s certainly going to be a strong addition to a writer’s resume. Anyway, I digress. The question was, “What happens when you put a baby in the mail?” Bess Winter imagines such a scenario in her story “Helena, Montana.”
I got an email from my grandma the other week. I’ll copy/paste the first sentence here:
well the family is falling apart one by one, has Lis clled you??
Then she went on to talk about my relatives who are dying of cancer and being sent back to jail or rehab or, although it seems physically impossible, both––before ending with this:
and on and on… oh yes my car would n’t start, $650.00 later and a cup of the best coffee in town at the garage it is now fine..Boe and I both think I got had by the price but it is done….and as I said they had great coffee… Love you off to church, I better pray really hard…. Love xxxx
So I started writing this:
The coffee at the mechanic was the best she’d ever had. Her son had said she’d been had on the price. Six-hundred and fifty dollars. But the coffee. It tasted like Spain and reminded her of eating grapes in Marbella with her daughter and her grandkids years ago, and the car was fixed, so even though she was in agreement with her son that she’d been had, it seemed somehow like a deal.
This video attempts to recast the experience of my process writing a fictional narrative screenplay and developing a documentary. I was inspired in some way by nearly every book and film we watched this quarter.
Apparently Vimeo links can’t be embedded here, so it’s just a link…
“I leave a lot out when I tell the truth.” This is the sentence that begins part two of Amy Hempel’s story “The Harvest.”
This simple, straight-forward, and beautifully written story speaks volumes about truth in narrative in regard to process and the craft of writing.
Best I can figure, this program is about exploring truth in narrative, a vast concept I don’t suspect anyone serious about the matter will likely conclude in their lifetime. An investigation that surely requires a never-ending historical exploration of both the role of narrative (Greek Mythology is a great place to start, but certainly not the only place) and the value of the concept of truth in societies; from the ancient past to the contemporary present. I suspect the link between thought and religion would also be a critical area of study, too, especially the shift from Neo-Platonism to Christianity, which radically altered where truth is located, literarily and literally. Greek moderation and their myths of earth dwelling gods gave way to excessive and wretched souls fighting for redemption and salvation from this earth due to dogmatic commandments from God (Why shouldn’t art be didactic or political? Are you sure our way of thinking isn’t still very Christian?). It’s hard to believe this major paradigm shift did not affect the concept of truth. This shift is directly related to the late nineteenth and twentieth century problems of Modernity by way of romanticism and transcendentalism, and most likely a host of other marked human periods (I’m just a part-time historian and philosopher). Exactly how all this might relate and offer a fleeting glimpse of truth in narrative, well, that’s the hard part and a fecund source for academic investigation.
Anyway, I find this story helpful on a specific level in regard to how it relates to the craft of the writer, meaning the skill-set and toolbox of a vocation. The art of such creations will, I suspect, be up for passionate debate and continually reinterpreted throughout time.
Here’s the PDF I scanned:
And here’s Amy reading both parts herself:
P.S. There’s also an interesting epigraph at the beginning of the collection that puts a powerful twist on the “a bird is just a bird” theory:
Q. What are all those horses
doing in your poems? I mean,
what do they stand for?
A. Horses. They stand for horses.
The way I stand for you.
– Vicki Hearne
I brought up Lish’s generative theory of consecution in seminar the other day (I refer to it as generative as opposed to critical, since it’s not a theory for dissecting art so much as a theory for creating art). If you enjoy Paley’s style, you might find this very interesting. It’s a micro focused approach to generating fiction at a sentence level.
A little background on Lish:
He is perhaps most widely known (and often despised) for his accused “re-writing” of Raymond Carver’s short stories, even though when Carver was alive he admitted that Lish was responsible for his success as a writer (for what it’s worth, I would appreciate the heavy handedness of an editor as well-read, prolific in his own writing, and passionate about the creation of literary ART as Lish). Would Carver’s stories have been as influential to contemporary American short fiction without Lish’s heavy handed approach? We will never know. What we do know is that the work of Raymond Carver, as it exists in print, is some of the most spectacular and influential American writing of the late Twentieth Century.
Beyond that, as the senior editor for the major publisher Alfred A. Knopf, Gordon Lish was responsible for the profound cultivation and publishing of challenging literary ART by a MAJOR publisher during the last quarter of the Twentieth Century, something not duplicated since he left. In many ways, he was a champion for literary art at a time when it wasn’t a viable business model. It’s too bad his legend is tied to the he said/she said drama of Carver’s writing.
Lish was also a teacher, but not in an academic sense. During the 80s and 90s his private workshops were considered the pinnacle environment for serious literary production. Some of the writers that were either championed, taught, or edited by Lish include: Barry Hannah, Amy Hempel, Raymond Carver, Mark Richard, Cynthia Ozick, Ben Marcus, Don DeLillo, Sam Lipstye, Gary Lutz, and Christine Schutt. Anyway, not much was ever documented of his workshop techniques. In my research on Lish I’ve only found one person who is committed to connecting the dots: Jason Lucarelli. I attached a paper he wrote here.
I also attached a lecture that Gary Lutz gave to writing students at Columbia University, which is absolutely amazing.
P.S. If you were shocked by Paley’s writing, and you loved the language; if your mind was blown by the fact that literature could be so fun and imaginative while still getting at the truths of critical concepts and issues, then I might suggest Barry Hannah. I can guarantee it will challenge everything you ever thought literature was. But be careful, it’s not for the faint of imagination.
I want to create something beautiful, something that affirms life and fulfills lives. I want to celebrate humanity, praise our collective effort to rebel against the injustice of nature. I often catch myself, mesmerized by the profound mysteries of existence, of being conscious of my experience in this infinite and silent universe. The structures and systems of our world, our rebellion against nature’s indifference, reveal their true absurdity from such a distance. It’s scary out there. But it makes me love it here even more, among others. There are days when a layer of low clouds stretches from Westport to the base of The Mountain. Not flush against her slopes, but hanging back just enough so that the warmest sunlight swarms down from the laughing Greece-blue skies hiding above the clouds. The flat gray lid overhead presses down, condensing the atmosphere. The sound from the city below travels clear enough that I can hear the silences between the traffic. I’ll take another acting class this spring, make a film, teach kids to surf this summer in Neah. I want to go to Europe to help with the refugee crisis, but could I? I mean, do I have the courage for such a selfless act? Maybe I’ll just stay here and volunteer to help local veterans. I know I have the courage for that. Things are catastrophic in this world. There is so much suffering. It’s so easy to despair. Outside, the wind blows deep through the tall firs. The sharp contrast of the trees against the backdrop of fast-moving colorless sky reminds me of our limits. When friends visit from Southern California they often refer to the Douglas Firs as Pine Trees. But Doug Firs have flat needles, less pitch, and they burn hotter and longer. It’s easy to overlook nuances in a place you don’t understand. Later, I will take the bus downtown. A large South Pacific man with dark skin and curly black hair will stand at the front of the bus. I will stare at him from my peripheral along with everyone else. Eventually, he will thank the lady who was sitting next to me, a woman with white pocked skin and baggy jeans, her dark oily hair pulled back into a pony tail. Getting off the bus, she will stop and give the man her mittens, “Here man. These go good with your outfit.” And I’ll watch her blow into her cupped hands as the bus pulls away and everything but the beauty of the moment fades into history.
It is easy to politicize the tales of Grace Paley, to trace theories of gender politics and feminism over the top of them, to speak of her stories as devices that inscribe the woman’s otherwise unwritten experience. And these are all viable and vital truths in the effort to manufacture justice within the societies of our time. But it might be hasty to assume that Paley’s stories are necessarily about orienting us on the morally correct side of these issues. Many of her stories do much more by doing much less, simply refracting beautiful images, brought to life by lucid observations of dynamic characters struggling in a world, much like our own, where justice is not an intrinsic quality. But more on that later.
For the time being, I am going to forego the autopsy of critical and cultural theory, opting instead to praise the way she uses the medium of language to create a communication between imaginations.
Barry Hannah once said in a Paris Review interview: “Grace Paley is one of my favorites. I thought she was like twenty-five when she was around sixty because her stories were so bouncy, fresh.” I found Grace Paley through Barry Hannah, who I found through Amy Hempel, who I found through Chuck Palahniuk, who I was introduced to through a girlfriend when I was about twenty-five. After Chuck introduced me to Amy, I must admit, I never read anymore of his work. He said it himself, speaking about Amy: “You will never write this well. You won’t learn this part until you’ve ruined a lot of paper, wasting your free time with a pen in one hand for years and years. At any horrible moment, you might pick up a copy of Hempel and find your best work is just a cheap rip-off of her worst.” I am of the belief that the same high praise might very well be said of Grace Paley’s short fiction.
One thing that these three writers have in common: Amy, Barry and Grace, is an animated style rooted in the oral tradition of storytelling; a literary style that, amongst many other things, actively acknowledges that a story is being told by a character, with all their imperfections, absolving the narrative of factual scrutiny and placing the potential for meaning in the fictional population of characters, a population to which the narrator unabashedly belongs. This style relies heavily on the use of first-person narrators, who often tell us other stories within the main story container using a third-person point of view.
In “A Woman, Young and Old,” the story starts out with a first-person narrator giving us a past tense account of her mother, through a story about her grandma, which consists of a retelling of a story she heard from her grandma’s perspective:
My mother was born not too very long ago of my grandma, who named lots of others, girls and boys, all starting fresh. It wasn’t love so much, she said, but she never could call a spade a spade.
In two sentences, Paley pulls a thread through three generations, two tenses and at least three points of view, maybe four (the narrator’s second-hand account is not the same as the narrator’s first-hand account or the grandma’s). In some ways, the rest of the story merely unpacks the depths of these two sentences as the narrative continues to explore, mostly through the apparent certainty of the past tense, three generations of women’s relationships to men.
After the bulk of the narrative is presented in various forms of past tense (mainly simple past and past progressive), the open-ended story is drawn to a formal conclusion through a shift out of the past tense and into the present tense. What, after all, is more open-ended than the present tense?
The first of the four crafty paragraphs that lead to this formal ending begins with “Mother never even noticed.” This paragraph is the last paragraph written completely in the past tense and, in congruence with the apparent certainty of the past, it ends with a list: “…she gave him a giant jar of Loft’s Sour Balls and a can of walnut rum tobacco.”
The next paragraph is where it starts to get really fun. It begins in the past tense: “Then she went ahead with her own life.” Even though this first sentence is in the past tense, the preposition ahead propels Josephine’s mother toward a present convergence with the narrator, Josephine.
In the middle of this paragraph, in all of one sentence, Paley switches from past progressive, to present, to present perfect progressive, an uninterrupted intersection of the past and the ever continuing present: “We were content, all of us, though it is common knowledge that she has never been divorced from Daddy.” Additionally, there is a nuanced distinction between two collective points of view. There is the first person plural we that reveals the feelings of “all of us,” referring to a domestic family, and the “common knowledge” that is shared by a broader communal family.
To close this paragraph, Paley takes the reader way back to an “earlier curlier generation of LaValles [who] came to Michigan from Quebec” before dropping us back off in the present where “…Sid has a couple of useable idioms in mother’s favorite tongue.” Again, the past merges with the present in one uninterrupted sentence.
The second to last paragraph begins with the present perfect tense: “I have received one card from Browny.” This event, which happened only once before “now,” introduces the despair of the uncertain present, a present that is interrupted by Browny’s barely past tense note on the card: “Health improved.”
The capstone paragraph to this short story, the formal conclusion to an otherwise open-ended narrative, starts with a climactic sentence in the present progressive tense: “Living as I do on a turnpike of discouragement…” In this fluid tense of open-ended uncertainty, anything is liable to happen; a stark contrast to the apparent certainty of past tense recollection that forms the body of the story. This formal move creates the dramatic perspective swing that might mark a paradigm shift, or closing of an epoch, giving the story a simultaneous sense of an ending and a beginning.
Continuing to merge the past and present, Paley starts the following sentence with the certainty of the past tense to make concrete the physical action of hugging. It’s interesting to consider an alternative that she might have written: “I enjoyed the feeling of Browny’s body,” but grasping at a past feeling is not the same as the tangibility of a physical interaction, and not congruent with the certainty of the past tense. No, it had to be the act of hugging. “I enjoyed hugging Browny’s body, though I don’t believe I was more to him than a hope for civilian success.” Notice how second phrase of this sentence introduces doubt into a once certain past, I don’t believe I was, concurrently revealing our often unfulfilled desires for the future, I was…a hope.
Trailing after the climactic opener and the dense concluding sentence, a montage of sentences settle into the simple present tense: “Joanna has moved in with me. Though she grinds her teeth well into daylight, I am grateful for her company. Since I have been engaged, she looks up to me. She is a real cuddly girl.” These simple stable facts of the present act as a formal dénouement.
In “A Woman, Young and Old,” Paley demonstrates her masterful control of language in many ways, one of which is this shifting of tense: a subtle and effective formal technique that enhances the central theme and reverberates the images packed in the title and opening sentences. In the meager library of my mind, Grace Paley and Barry Hannah are some of the best in the business at moving the reader though various dimensions of space and time with a subtle sur-reality.
Of course, the first-person point of view is not readily apparent in every story, but the narrator as a character is consistently reflected through syntax, rhythm, and language; the distinct perspective of every description and each action, all celebrate the fact that a story is being told by a specific character––there is no God-like narrator (or author of self-satisfied virtue) telling the reader what is right and what is wrong––and any truths that might exist in the works are implicitly tied to the narrator’s perspective, who is herself a character in her own story. In this way, the story’s potential for meaning arises from characters, not a didactic plot.
Paley’s character Virginia is clearly aware of this dilemma. In “An Interest in Life,” speaking about John’s mysterious absence, Virginia says:
I had to give him up after two weeks’ absence and no word. I didn’t know how to tell the children: something about right and wrong, goodness and measures, men and women. I had it all at my fingertips, ready to hand over. But I didn’t think I ought to take mistakes and truth away from them (Paley, 63).
Virginia recognizes that truth is not the conclusion of a didactic lesson, that it comes from making mistakes, or, as Errol Morris says, “[it’s] a pursuit, a quest. You investigate, you look, you think, you study, in the hope that you can learn something about the world.” For the most part, Paley allows the reader to reach their own conclusions.
And this is what makes the bulk of Paley’s fiction so valuable and timeless as literary art: her ability to balance the values of creation and the values of humanity. Paley’s dedication to her life as an activist rarely stains her ability as an artist to create non-judgmental portrayals of potentially immoral characters. Albert Camus once said, speaking of the importance of keeping art separate from politics,
Considered as artists, we perhaps have no need to interfere in the affairs of the world. But considered as men, yes… This does not mean…that we must sacrifice our artist’s nature to some social preaching or other… But if we intervene as men, that experience will have an effect upon our language. And if we are not artists in our language, what kind of artists are we? Even if, militants in our lives, we speak in our works of deserts and selfish love, the mere fact that our lives are militant causes a special tone of voice to people with men that desert and that love.
By and large, with a few exceptions, Paley’s stories avoid the crude and unsympathetic trap of didactic writing and the zealot’s fervent imposition of political agendas. Yet, through a masterful performance of craft, they achieve a climate where something can be learned and they do encourage us to think politically. In this equilibrium, Paley attains a literary reverberation of life that qualifies as true art, at least in certain perspectives where the value of art has not yet crumbled beneath the weighty value given to political agendas. It is this lucid high wire act, this dangerous balance between the artifice of creative indifference and the reality of organic intolerance against human suffering, which positions the reverberative art of literary fiction as perhaps the most honest human endeavor––for what else is there to live for but the stories we tell ourselves and others, characters in our own lives?
 Paley’s fiction has been criticized for turning politics into story and/or story into politics. Judie Newman offers a close reading of “Faith in the Afternoon” as an example of Paley’s political writing, stating: “When people form lines, hold up banners, and advance in ranks, to ‘march’ against war, they may not look very different from their militaristic opponents lined up opposite them…And the short story form has to address the same problem.” Newman, Judie. “Napalm and after: The Politics of Grace Paley’s Short Fiction.” The Yearbook of English Studies, Vol. 31, North American Short Stories and Short Fictions. 2001. pp. 2-9.
 See Gordon Lish’s generative theory of consecution for more info on this concept.
 While Paley’s use of this technique seems to be more communally-aimed, Hannah’s stories tend to use these tense and perspective shifts to disrupt the stability of the individual.
 Camus, Albert. The Myth of Sisyphus. “The Artist and His Time.” p.211
Some very strong and clear truths on facts and reality presented by Mr. Morris. However, I’m not so sure that the relationship between such facts and guilt is as clear and simple as Mr. Morris would like to believe. It seems that to ultimately judge a human by a particular set of facts centered around a particular action is only a partial investigation of the truth. I’m not disagreeing with the concept of breaking a social contract, breaking laws in short, but an investigation that stops once enough facts and evidence have been gathered to determine whether a person did or did not carry out an action conveniently neglects to continue investigating the totality of facts and evidence that led to said action. This “history as needed” form of justice raises questions about the human ritual of persecuting a scapegoat as an act of vengeance, or perhaps more interesting, as a cathartic action to forego confronting a deeper truth. Some interesting writing that gets at this scapegoat phenomenon: “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas” by Ursula Le Guin, and “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson.
“It’s so stupid, it’s hard to believe that people really believe it, but they do. That if you use available light, and you use a handheld camera, and you don’t move anything, in to or out of the frame, the truth will emerge…You just add the appropriate ingredients and truth results. Well that makes no sense. It really makes no sense at all. It’s a pursuit, a quest. You investigate, you look, you think, you study, in the hope that you can learn something about the world.”
I’m a sucker for a good Southern Gothic tale in the oral tradition. Flannery O’Connor, Eudora Welty, Barry Hannah… Mark Richard is one of my favorites and this story is wild.