This is the past. We're in the present.
When I teach flashbacks to my creative writing students, I usually use the flashback paradigm set forth in Robert Olen Butler’s From Where You Dream, where Butler asks writers to anchor their flashback scene—and he wants full scenes, not just imagistic memories—to the hard sensual physical world. An object often works as the anchor, and object that contains within it the representation of memory.
There are seven steps to Butler’s technique:
I’ve condensed Butler’s ideas here—perhaps over-condensed them. (Go read his book. From Where You Dream is one of the best books I’ve found on writing.)
- The narrator awakes from an anxious dream.
- The narrator notices an object. The object is experienced sensually.
- “The object evokes a memory as vivid as a dream…” The narrator enters that memory.
- This memory leads to a second memory.
- In the second memory, the narrator does something, takes an action.
- Some part of that action brings the narrator back to the present.
- Now in the present, aware of the memories, the narrator takes an action.
At any rate, I often use Tom Jones’s “The Pugilist at Rest” as an example of the Butlerian flashback paradigm:
The other day – Memorial Day, as it happened – I was cleaning some stuff out of the attic when I came upon my old dress-blue uniform. It’s a beautiful uniform, easily the most handsome worn by any of the U.S. armed forces. The rich color recalled Jorgeson’s eyes for me – not that the color matched, but in the sense that the color of each was so startling. The tunic does not have lapels, of course, but a high collar with red piping and the traditional golden eagle, globe, and anchor insignia on either side of the neck clasp. The tunic buttons are not brassy – although they are in fact made of brass – but are a delicate gold in color, like Florentine gold. On the sleeves of the tunic my staff sergeant’s chevrons are gold on red. High on the left breast is a rainbow display of fruit salad representing my various combat citations. Just below there are my marksmanship badges; I shot Expert in rifle as well as pistol.
I opened a sandalwood box and took my various medals out of the large plastic bag I had packed them in to prevent them from tarnishing. The Navy Cross and the two Silver Stars are the best; they are such pretty things they dazzle you. I found a couple of Thai sticks in the sandalwood box as well. I took a whiff of the box and smelled the smells of Saigon – the whores, the dope, the saffron, cloves, jasmine, and patchouli oil. I put the Thai sticks back, recalling the three-day hangover that particular batch of dope had given me more than twenty-three years before. Again I looked at my dress-blue tunic. My most distinctive badge, the crowning glory, and the one of which I am most proud, is the set of Airborne wings. I remember how it was, walking around Oceanside, California – the Airborne wings and the high-and-tight haircut were recognized by all the Marines; they meant you were the crème de la crème, you were a recon Marine.
Recon was all Jorgeson’s idea….
Here the narrator’s rediscovery of his Marine Corps uniform is an anchor for the memory of being a Recon Marine that powers the flashback and at the same time gives forward momentum to the main narrative of the story.
And forward momentum is important. A story has to keep moving forward, even though any particular flashback scene loops the reader back into the past.
I have been thinking about this the past week while reading student stories. Most of them attempt flashbacks, and some of them write them very well. But many seem to end up focusing on the past—on the flashback, on the backstory—at the expense of the present story.
I tell these young writers—If the backstory is so important, write that. Forget the present. Make the flashback the story. But if you want your story to stay in the present, concentrate on moving forward.
And then I had a flashback myself last Tuesday while driving to town for Thanksgiving supplies. Driving along, thinking about stuff. About writing. About student writing. Crossed a pretty little river, thought about fly fishing. About my high school friend and fishing buddy, K. About how K was an athlete, a track guy, a long jumper, one of the best in the state. About how writing’s sort of like jumping, maybe. Maybe? Maybe not. Thought again about those students with their flashbacks. Then I had a strange unexpected shot of memory—the somersault long jump.
The somersault long jump was a technique that surfaced in the early/mid-1970s. The jumper would jump and simultaneously spin forward, spinning, and the spinning motion would give the jumper better distance. K told me he got an extra four to six inches using it—that’s a lot. But then sports officials banned the technique for safety reasons—jumpers would go spinning spinning out of control and bust their heads open.
Here’s what the somersault long jump looked like:
Get the connection? The flashback is the jumper’s spinning somersault, a spin into the past. Yet the jumper—the story—maintains forward motion. And the flashback can get you extra distance in your story. (Maybe).
You can do this. Just don't go spinning out of control and bust open your story's head.
You have to stop here and look at your phone.
Along with her homework assignment this week, a student in my fiction writing class asked what I did to overcome distractions....
Well. Huh. Well! I had to think--it's a distracting question. I checked Facebook. I looked at my phone. I pondered--distracted, yeah--and then I happened to put down my phone and pick up a collection of my boy Ralph Waldo Emerson's writings. And I saw that he had experienced the same problems.
Today, carpets; yesterday, the aunts; the day before, the funeral of poor S.; and every day, the remembrance in the library of the rope of work which I must spin;--in this way life is dragged down and confuted. We try to listen to the hymn of gods, and must needs hear this perpetual cock-a-doodle-doo, and har-tar-kut right under the library windows. They, the gods, ought to respect a life, you say, whose objects are their own. But steadily they throw mud and eggs at us, roll us in the dirt, and jump on us.
So what is my advice to the young writer? Pretty basic, I guess—do as I do. Write in short, intense bursts. Work from an outline of some sort so that, once distracted, you know where to start back up. Keep a towel handy to wipe the mud and egg from your face, and keep on trying…..
View from the venue: Sunset over Austin
It’s been a week now since Alamo Bay Writers’ Workshop, and I’m going to brag: it was a total total smashing success!
The participants were skilled, learned, funny, articulate, cool, and possessed of touching poems and stories. Fellow instructors Diane Wilson, Larry Heinemann, and Lee Grue were terrific. Pam Booton's organizing skills were/are incredible. The venue was fantastic.
Everything was great. And next year will be even better.
These people are waiting for me to say something....
This man has soft eyes. You need soft eyes, too.
The Wire gets my vote for the best show in TV history. It’s a brilliant work on so many, many levels, and it’s full of—yes, wisdom.
In the Season Four episode “Soft Eyes,” Bunk condescendingly lectures Kima on what to look for at a crime scene. He says she’s going to need soft eyes:
If you got soft eyes, you can see the whole thing. If you got hard eyes—you staring at the same tree, missing the forest.
It’s a wonderful character line, full of wisdom that we writers can appropriate for our own use.
A writer needs soft eyes. Right? Right. Of course. A writer needs soft vision that that embraces the world, caresses the world, acknowledges all the pain and beauty and mystery and despair and loneliness and happiness that exists in the world. You’re a writer with hard eyes? Your vision is going to ricochet off whatever you might think you’re looking at—it’s going to bounce away, deflect, reflect—you might as well be blind. You’re not going to see with hard eyes. You’re not going to understand.
We have to work to develop soft eyes. For some people this is difficult, for some it is easy. But seeing softly is always a deliberate act. This is one of the things I’ll be talking about at Alamo Bay Writers’ Workshop next week….
Alamo Bay is two weeks away right now and you all need to go to the website and register.
Alamo Bay Writers’ Workshop: http://www.alamobaywritersworkshop.com/
It’s going to be really good—Environmental Activist Diane Wilson will be teaching a creative nonfiction session, National Book Award-winning novelist Larry Heinemann will lead a fiction session, NEA Fellow Lee Grue will teach poetry, and I’ll lead a fiction session. We’ll be in Austin, Texas July 19-21. Register--
Today I have been watching the people next door. It’s a long holiday weekend—and the neighbors are having fun! They were out on their boat all day, then came back and changed clothes and went out to dinner.
I’m an academic and a writer. Summer is a work time for me—I am revising one book and beginning two (!) others. I made corrections on the proof of Professed and I'm thinking of ways to promote it. Plus thinking about the classes I’ll teach in the fall at PSU—plus thinking about the session I’ll lead at ABWW.
But…all that’s fun, too. That's what summer is for.
Doing some last revisions on this book. It's almost ready to send out....
I will be leading some sessions at Alamo Bay Writer’s Workshop in Austin, Texas, from July 19th to 21st. This is going to be a really good and worthwhile--and fun--event.
The other instructors are National Book Award-winning novelist Larry Heinemann, environmental activist/memoirist Diane Wilson, and award-winning poet Lee Meitzen Grue. Dr. Hazel Ward will moderate afternoon discussion sessions.
The workshop will be devoted to sparking writerly creativity—how to find ideas, how to get writing started, how to stay focused, how to get finished. Every participant will have a chance to work with each workshop leader, exposing the participants to a variety of ideas and techniques.
The venue will be Rio Far Niente, located on 36 acres just east of Austin, overlooking the Colorado River, pecan groves, and the downtown Austin skyline. Instructor readings and music by Claudia Voyles and Lee Edwards will kick off the weekend Friday evening. Cello music by Randall Warren will accompany Saturday night entertainment. Our own Austin favorite bookstore, Bookwoman, will be selling books. The cost is $325 per workshop participant….
You all need to atten
d!Alamo Bay Writers' Workshop, Austin 2013
I have a few new publications to list and brag about….
“Baby Never Grew,” a short story at Chagrin River Review. It’s a story that was written for my West Virginia book-in-progress, and then got cut. Maybe I’ll put it back in—it’s worth reading!
“Something Else Finally Happened,” a short story at Amarillo Bay. A story about a writing class—yes, I’ve been in a few of those over the years….
“Beset by Demons,” is in the anthology/journal Tales from the Concrete Highway, published by Workers Write! A cab-driving story, with some bad behavior in it….
I also have a West Virginia story, “Guernsey Cows,” that has been accepted by Kestrel. It won’t come out until the fall, though, and so I’ll hold off bragging about it until then….
In my Craft of Fiction class last week we were discussing the prescriptivism of textbooks in general, and of our textbook in particular, and what the implications of prescriptivism are for us as learners and writers. And I thought back to Robert Pirsig in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.
What you’re supposed to do in most freshman-rhetoric courses is to read a little essay or short story, discuss how the writer has done certain little things to achieve certain little effects, and then have the students write an imitative little essay or short story to see if they can do the same little things. He tried this over and over again but it never jelled. The students seldom achieved anything, as a result of this calculated mimicry, that was remotely close to the model he’d given them. More often their writing got worse. It seemed as if every rule he honestly tried to discover with them was so full of exceptions and contradictions and qualifications and confusions that he wished he’d never come across the rule in the first place…A student would always ask how the rule would apply in a certain special circumstance. Phaedrus would then have the choice of trying to fake through a made-up explanation of how it worked, or follow the selfless route and say what he really thought. And what he really thought was that the rule was pasted on to work the writing was all done. It was post hoc, after the fact, instead of prior to the fact. And he became convinced that all the writers the students were supposed to mimic wrote without rules, putting down whatever sounded right, then going back to see if it sounded right, and changing it if it didn’t. There were some who apparently wrote with calculation, because that the way their product looked. But that seemed to him to be a very poor way to look. It had certain syrup, as Gertrude Stein once said, but it didn’t pour. But how’re you supposed to teach something that’s not premeditated? It was a seemingly impossible requirement. He just took the text and commented on it in an unpremeditated way and hoped the students would get something from that. It wasn’t satisfactory (156).
Another thing that depressed him was prescriptive rhetoric, which had supposedly been done away with but was still around. This was the old slap-on-the-fingers-if your-modifiers-were-caught-dangling stuff. Correct spelling, correct punctuation, correct grammar. Hundreds of itsy-bitsy rules for itsy-bitsy people. No one could remember all that stuff and concentrate on what he was trying to write about. It was all table manners, not derived from any sense of kindness or decency or humanity, but originally from an egotistic desire to look like gentlemen and ladies…In Montana, however, it didn’t have this effect at all. It identified one, instead, as a stuck-up Eastern ass (162).
How do you avoid being a “stuck-up Eastern ass” and still be coherent? How do you “teach something that’s not premeditated?” I think we’ll be discussing this more as the course progresses….
As novella month scoots along, I might as well mention my as-yet unpublished novella collection, The Last Educations…This was the creative part of my creative dissertation (excerpts from the critical introduction can be found here and here).
Comprised of three novellas—“Fate,” “The Consolation of Empire,” and “The Incomplete”
--The Last Educations is an academic satire set at a large university in Austin, Texas. It’s filled with the absurd struggles of education: favor-dodging, ex-girlfriend avoiding, grade-dreading, plagiarist-busting, dissertation-reading, office-mate annoying, litter-box spilling, book-stealing, student-humping, cat-chasing, wrist-breaking, inopportune erectile-disfunctioning, boyfriend-dumping planning, dead-professor missing, committee-meeting texting, cloud-spotting, bureaucratic student mis-filing, classroom failing, hidden Confederate-history uncovering, book-writing, student advising, professional dysphoria-feeling, drunk-tank loitering, book discussion-leading, meth snorting, paper researching, academic schooling, sink urinating, New Years’ kissing, pool-playing, stranger disemboweling, paper-writing, paper-writing failing, incomplete-taking…yet, as the characters struggle to fit into a rapidly-changing institution, medicating themselves as best they can with sex, drugs, and literature, learning actually happens. Somehow.
You don’t like novellas or novella collections? You could call it a novel—the three sections/novellas are linked together, forming a composite novel. Or you could just call it a collection of three long short stories. At any rate, I’m convinced this book will find an audience, eventually—after all, academics like reading about academics….
Also, it’s really good! Here’s a pdf of the first few pages of “Fate.”
It’s still novella month! So here’s another passage from the critical introduction to my dissertation, where I actually offer a definition of this apparently hard-to-define genre….
…I hold that it is this element of depth that is the defining element of the modern novella, not length.
There are those who would argue differently, of course. Charles May says:
Although the term “novella” is used to refer to both short pieces of fourteenth century fiction best exemplified by The Decameron and the highly developed nineteenth century German form, it is more often used in the twentieth century to refer to a number of works of mid-length, somewhat longer than the short story and somewhat shorter than the novel (3874).
For May, apparently, it all comes down to length, with the additional inference that the contemporary novella (May was writing in 1983) is somewhat different in form than the German novellas of the 19th century.
In “Why Not a Novella?,” his 1998 introduction to The Granta Book of the American Long Story, Richard Ford asserts that the novella is so indistinct as to not exist at all as a separate genre, and that what is commonly referred to as a novella is really nothing more than a long short story. Henry James, Scott Fitzgerald, Nathaniel West, and Edith Wharton, Ford says, all
…wrote what they or their reviewers called novellas, but in their stories these writers made no special effort to employ the traditional [19th century Germanic] structure and intellectual hardware (cyclical ordering, the framing device, turning point, the specific use of symbols) (xxii).
This might just mean nothing more than that these “traditional elements” are not necessary to the genre—or that these American writers were not writing 19th century German novellas. Whatever. Ford argues that length alone is an indistinct standard for defining a literary genre: “Length certainly doesn’t constitute a shaping purpose” (xxix).
Ford is essentially correct here, though his reasoning is inverted. Length, however nebulous, is only the most obvious way of looking at any genre of fiction, and emerges as a result of the shaping purpose—the “shaping purpose” being the writer’s intention to fill the available compositional space with narrative. A blank page or computer screen presents the writer with a practically infinite space, and the process of writing is the process of imaginatively occupying the available space. The decisions a writer makes during the composition of her or his narrative forces the narrative into different forms, resulting in a short story or a novel—or a novella. Length, then, is merely the most external attribute of genre; the internal elements used to fill the space are determinative. And so while the short story concentrates on the psychology of the individual within a constrained compositional space, and the novel concentrates largely on the relationship between society and an individual (or individuals) in a practically unlimited compositional space, the novella demonstrates the psychology of the individual though action, in depth, in a loosely expanded compositional space. As Howard Nemerov says, the definition of the novella is “not a question of length, but much rather a question of depth…” (60).
It is my feeling that the current resurgence in the novella’s popularity is tied to its ability to use narrative depth to respond to and depict societal change. To restate Siegfried Weing’s quote of critic Heinrich Laube: the novella “deals with the process of becoming…” (38). In its narrative depth, the novella offers writers a way in which to depict change—”the process of becoming”—in more detail than is possible in the short story, while at the same time avoiding much of the diffusing expository clutter and plotlessness that can often occur in a novel.