(NOTE: This lecture was originally presented by Powell to the MFA Creative Writing Program of Columbia University in September, 2010.)
I am thinking tonight, as I address this unenviable task, of Flannery O’Connor, because she would advise against it, my addressing this unenviable task. I revere her in a way that she would also advise against, in fact would probably repudiate outright, hard: as something of the godhead, or goddesshead, of letters. I like touching the goddesshead. I do it whenever I can. I’ll touch the godhead too. Once I was so drunk on the grounds of Rowan Oak and a storm hit so violently that I was convinced Wash Jones would come out of the house with the scythe and I would not hear him for the thunder and only at the last minute in a flash of lightning would I see him with the weapon poised to behead me, which I deserved.
I call Flannery’s cousin Louise Florencourt sometimes to touch the goddesshead. Louise is nine months younger than Flannery would be were she alive, and regally correct (she was one of the first three women to attend Harvard Law School, in 1937), and never married, and is Catholic, and is literary executrix of her famous cousin’s estate, and lives right there in Milledgeville in her famous cousin’s mother’s big house on Greene Street so fine that it once served as the temporary governor’s mansion, and Louise still has a mule, Flossie, on the famous farm, a hennie mule that was almost there when Flannery was, or maybe was there, mules live forever and my arithmetic is weak and I have not asked Louise if Flossie and Flannery actually overlapped, so Louise is to my mind the closest thing, genotypically and phenotypically, to Flannery O’Connor, and when I talk to Louise I feel it’s as close as it’s going to get to talking to Flannery, touching the goddesshead.
Sometimes Louise quietly rebukes, and that is thrilling. Once at her country club at lunch I told her of my recent divorce and she presumed I would be in some kind of rebound peril and she said, “You have to be very careful, Mr. Powell. Of course I’m too old.” I froze the way I imagine one does when playing cards in a saloon and you are accused of cheating.
I feel I may have gotten a little off-line. Maybe I should say here that I think the craft of fiction has a lot more to do with being off-line than with being on-line, a whole lot more, but in saying that I would be appreciably more off-line than I wish to be at this juncture. I have not even properly detailed yet why this task is unenviable and why in its particulars I am reminded of Flannery O’Connor. I have intimated that these are things I will say, and one of the things fiction must do, I am afraid, is deliver what is intimated will be delivered. Here is Flannery O’Connor, then, if you must have it, on the giving of advice, and why I am calling the giving of advice unenviable:
“I am becoming convinced that anybody who gives anybody else advice ought to spend forty days in the desert both before and after.”
My arithmetic is not so weak that I cannot figure that to be eighty days in the desert. That is too much. I have no experience with the desert but I spent thirty-seven days on the ground in Kenya, as opposed to in the safari car where mzungu is advised to stay, and was so debilitated by what the French doctor attending my survival called an intestinal weerus after we spent three months looking for a parasite that could not be found by every blood test there is, and stool analysis, and finally sonogram, which altogether I estimate would have cost about ten thousand dollars in the states but that ran me $250 in France, so please do not tell me that we do not want a public option or that socialized medicine is evil-–was so debilitated by the weerus that I found Jesus, or He me, walking along a quay on a midwinter day in sunny Bretagne.
Jesus I now know, though Flannery would cane me for this, is the invisible friend that we tell children after age five they may not have. He will pull you through, even through a weerus from Africa. My Jesus wears a Pink Panther suit dirty at the knees.
Where are we? I am braving the eighty days, then, because Ben Marcus has offered me some of Columbia’s money to do so, and I am a good boy who meets his contractual obligations. I was a good boy as a boy and wanted to attend to my intellectual fundament by coming to Columbia but my mother would not fill out the financial disclosure that would have secured the necessary aid and so I did not come, and divorced my mother, and did not, as you can already glean, ever attend to my intellectual fundament. Another good boy who had trouble with his mother but who did manage to come to New York, whether to attend to his intellectual fundament or not, with whom I was familiar as I struggled against mothers and want of intellection, is Tennessee Williams. I flunked out of chemistry school by reading everything Tennessee Williams wrote instead of organic chemistry, and a kind of early mother-in-law gave a party for him in Charleston and did not tell me, and while in Charleston, to premier one of those late failed plays you can learn so much more from than from the earlier well-made plays, just as you can see how and why Hemingway was so good only by reading him after he had lost his mind, Tennessee Williams bought a safari suit out of the window of Dumas & Sons on King Street, and it is said he wore it for the duration of his time in Charleston, which I estimate at two weeks. Tennessee Williams drunk and in his stained khaki suit smelling probably like Kenya and I was not invited! Fortunately that girl got rid of me and that got rid of that kind of early mother-in-law who did not invite me. I once inadvertently saw her freshly showered, and she had powdered what Butters on South Park calls bush with heavy talc so that it looked a ghostly white over black, an unappetizing pastry as it were, and once that daughter who would so prudently later get rid of me caught her taking acid and slapped her. You all have probably heard that Tennessee Williams when he got so suddenly rich and famous in fancy New York hotels mistook chocolate sauce for gravy and poured it on his steak and broke the arms to sofas and so forth. It was behavior of that sort, on top of my having read all the bad formative work and the good work and the later thrilling deteriorating work, while being declared a failure at chemistry school, which would make me then have to be a roofer, which among other transgressions would have that girl biochemist get rid of me, and me her Bermuda Triangle mother, that made me really want to meet Tennessee Williams. I would have had nothing to say of interest to him sitting there in a giant wingchair in his fouled khaki with the ludicrous fond epaulettes. I was then as pretty as a girl so maybe he would have been interested in me had I said nothing at all, but I’d not have had the wit for that.
Here is what I hope with everything I have left in me I would not have said: Mr. Williams, I am a roofer in Texas because I read all your stuff and I am honing my craft. I would not be mortified today had I said: Mr. Williams, I am a roofer in Texas because I read all your stuff. Ms. O’Connor’s Hazel Motes, whom I trust all of you know, or know of, put it this way: “I’ve started my own church. . . The Church Without Christ.” Nabokov has his famous bitchy roosterism about the worst thing a student can say to him is that he, the student (and he probably meant right here at Columbia), has a lot of ideas; for me, rivaling Nabokov for bitchery and failing in every other measure to even get on scale (for example, my speaking a second language I now concede will depend upon the Language Fairy’s putting one under my pillow), the last thing I want to hear, ever, and a thing for which I will dismiss a petitioner outright who seeks study anywhere near me, is the phrase “hone my craft.” I would rather hear “spank my monkey.” In fact it is reasonably likely that I will admit an applicant avowing that he seeks to spank his monkey if he can manage some slight elegance or surprise or deprecation to indicate that maybe he understands how likely it is that the pursuit of writing is so often naught but a spanking of one’s monkey, and sometimes someone else’s monkey. I have used the masculine pronoun in the construction of this silly conceit not in a spirit of sexism but because I hoped some elegance might redeem the silliness and because women are not commonly thought of in connection with monkey spanking. Be assured that with equal ardor I do not want a woman to tell me she wants to hone her craft.
People, we have started our craft talk, the Craft Talk without Craft. It has been a prodigious introduction and it remains to be seen if a talk can ensue at all. I am weak from fear of the desert.
I am now going to proffer some little things that may combine in your mind to mean something, or not. They may mean something discretely, or not. They may combine better in an order I do not have the wit to determine, but that is okay, since you are having to hear them in the air where they are already subject to the Brownian motion of podium slur and so are already combining in the weird indeterminate order of the misheard and the partially heard. I grasped Brownian motion before flunking out of chemistry school. Had the mother-in-law who powdered herself so prodigiously spilled talc into the toilet, a distinct possibility given the liberality of the dusting of her cruller, you could have seen the talc move on the toilet water in what is called Brownian motion. If there is calculus to describe Brownian motion I mercifully flunked out still innocent of it. That one can even now utter the clause “if there is calculus” is an indicator of supreme naivete because there is calculus to describe everything, which is why, aside from reading Mr. Williams when I was supposed to read Mr. Morrison and Mr. Boyd, I flunked out of chemistry school. I am going on about this now not merely because of my giant reluctance to start the Craft Talk without Craft but also because remaining innocent of things is in my view an important part of writing, which will become clear if I ever start the talk.
Here then are seven utterances by six more or less smart people that taken together form a manifesto for deintellectualizing the approach to craft, or for admitting that it is but spanking the monkey, one’s or someone else’s:
1) ”My best stories come out of nowhere, with no concern for form at all.” Barry Hannah
2) ”I can take a sentence apart and tell you why I did it; obviously that’s the key to the whole thing, being able to write a sentence, and I’ve got a sense of what my sentences ought to do.” Pete Dexter
3) ”Learn to play your instruments, then get sexy.” Debbie Harry
4) ”Some people run to conceits or wisdom but I hold to the hard, brown, nut-like word. I might add that there is enough aesthetic excitement there to satisfy anyone but a damned fool.” Donald Barthelme (character)
5) ”There is at the back of every artist’s mind something like a pattern or a type of architecture. The original quality in any man of imagination is imagery. It is a thing like the landscape of his dreams; the sort of world he would like to make or in which he would wish to wander; the strange flora and fauna of his own secret planet; the sort of thing he likes to think about. This general atmosphere, and pattern or structure of growth, governs all his creations, however varied.” G. K. Chesterton
6) ”Anyway, when I told you to write what was easy for you, what I should have said was what was possible for you.” Flannery O’Connor
7) ”Art is not difficult because it wishes to be difficult but because it wishes to be art.” Donald Barthelme (himself)
If I may presume to boil down the podium slur and condense these positions: the larger scheme of things will take care of itself if you will be sure to locate the right next hard brown nut-like word. Play your instrument, the sentence, before getting sexy with conceits and wisdom. Your notion of form, if you have one, is safely in the back of your mind, the landscape of your dreams, and it will out as you struggle with what is possible for you to struggle with, the words. Let things become difficult on their own, if they so insist (and they may not), without your deliberate help.
I saw Allen Collins become a world-class sexy rockstar advancing the conceits of a psychedelic band with the wisdom to masquerade as the redneck band Lynyrd Skynyrd. I watched him learn to play his guitar in the eighth grade with an amp so small he could put his foot on it to play better. When he was not suspended he was aimlessly walking the halls of junior high school. He did not want to be a rockstar, he wanted to be a good guitar player. He became that, and then he became the other.
It has taken us a long time to get here, and I confess I am as tired of this as you are. I feel like taking a pill and speeding things up. If any of you has any synthetic narcotics please see me before I enter the desert. I would now like to debunk craft books.
As a child even before I reached the flunking-out-of-science stage, I glanced at some craft books. I even still own some, in particular a thin volume called, pertinently, I presume, The Craft of Fiction, by Percy Lubbock, whose name I love, but whose book alas I have not opened. I do remember actually opening the House of Fiction, by Caroline Gordon, who ran with Allen Tate and Randall Jarrell and Peter Taylor and took counsel from Andrew Lytle and gave it to Flannery O’Connor. In this book were complicated diagrams having to do with point of view, I think; they featured a circle and an arrow. The arrow might come just to the circle, like common sperm, or it might penetrate the circle, like the putatively lucky one, and these relative positions of the arrow had to do with matters of omniscience, and limited omniscience, and so forth-–who could, appropriately, conceive what. A diagram of the benzene ring with its famous resonating bonds was by contrast more intelligible than these pictures, and that is one reason I pursued chemistry as opposed to English in college. Another reason is that I could not write a critical paper on, say, assonance and dissonance in the ballads of Thomas Campion without getting a D because, one professor told another, ending my English majoring the day I learned of it, I did not believe in the paper. Which was true; it was a parody of an English paper, but it was more astute than the non-parodies in the room. I could reproduce the mathematical argument that any given particle can be, at some probable moment, on the backside of the moon without getting a D. This argument I also had trouble believing but I was not, in the chemistry department, punished for skepticism.
In these books, these craft books, then, you will also find bloviations on terms such as exposition, which means a fair in which goods or wares or scientific and cultural wonders are displayed to the public; round characters and flat characters; back story; rising action, crisis, climax, denouement, detumescence; theme; metaphor; the difference between the ambivalent, a good thing, and the ambiguous, a bad thing; the bastardizing of telling versus the apotheosis of showing, hands down the largest bogosity of them all; and the existence of the necessary inevitable which necessarily cannot be anticipated before its inevitability becomes apparent. I will feel better going into the desert whether I have pills from you or not if you will all give me assurances that you will never, ever, give a thought to any of these ephemera above, except that if you think you can make a flat character I would like to see a whole book of really flat characters in it and I would like you to mail it to me in the desert. Promise me that you will never say to anyone that you wanted to establish a “close third.” Promise me that you will never use the term, or think that you are covertly rendering, an “unreliable narrator.” Nor may you entertain that there is some kind of subtle difference between a narrator and an author. There is only a huge difference, so the matter of the difference need not be entertained except by obvious and dim people from whom we do not need hear, aside from me.
The nineteen rules, some say twenty-two, governing the art of romantic fiction that Twain laid out in his dismembering of Fenimore Cooper you may use. Of particular value are Use the right word, not its second cousin, followed hard by Eschew surplusage. Twain has, as genius does, anticipated by fifty years and bettered by one word William Strunk’s more common and pedestrian and second-cousinly and surplussey Omit needless words. Forget the hokum that adjectives are second-class citizens.
Man, I like the oxycodone without the aspirin afixed to it. The aspirin is the damage doer. I wish Jimi Hendrix would walk in here and end this. Strunk and White have another famous bogus rule: Place the emphatic words at the end of the sentence. Let us accept for the moment that some words are inherently more emphatic by themselves than others, even if the argument is tenuous. Is cut throat more emphatic or less emphatic than sanguinary demise? Is harbinger more emphatic than hint? Is bastard more emphatic than shiftless character? Is siren more emphatic than pretty girl, really? But for the hell of it let’s say rock breaks scissors. Now, what Strunk and White mean, of course, is that the words at the end of a sentence are emphatic, the ones that are emphasized, and this is a useful notion. Presumably, then, the words not at the end are not emphasized as much. Now look at this, which I will read in a distracting if not deliberately comic manner to emphasize the relevant words, by which I mean words that are repeated but in positions of differing emphasis:
“Mrs. May’s bedroom window was low and faced on the east and the bull, silvered in the moonlight, stood under it, his head raised as if he listened–-like some patient god come down to woo her–-for a stir inside the room. The window was dark and the sound of her breathing too light to be carried outside. Clouds crossing the moon blackened him and in the dark he began to tear at the hedge. Presently they passed and he appeared again in the same spot, chewing steadily, with a hedge-wreath that he had ripped loose for himself caught in the tips of his horns. When the moon drifted into retirement again, there was nothing to mark his place but the steady sound of his chewing. Then abruptly a pink glow filled the window. Bars of light slid across him as the venetian blind was slit. He took a step backward and lowered his head as if to show the wreath across his horns.”
That is Miss O’Connor holding to the hard brown nut-like word. She is eschewing the conceit and wisdom that Mrs. May is the most presumptuous woman in Georgia if not in the world and that her presumption will merit this bull’s goring her to death. But she is discovering it, and telling it, and building the necessary inevitable that is not supposed to be apparent. Here are the repeated words, in order: head raised, chewing steadily, horns, steady chewing, lowered head, horns.
Miss O’Connor was paying attention to the word, and she had a sense of what her sentences ought to do: “Bars of light slid across him as the venetian blind was slit” is not “Mrs. May opened the blinds and bars of light slid across the bull.”
She can hardly contain the outrage inspired in her by Mrs. May. She is eager to get going on the portrait that will make us celebrate with her the violent undoing of this kind of person. Mrs. May next dismisses the bull as “Some nigger’s scrub bull,” then this:
“Green rubber curlers sprouted neatly over her forehead and her face beneath them was smooth as concrete with an egg-white paste that drew the wrinkles out while she slept.”
We will watch much happen to Mrs. May as she sleeps, and in fact not until the bull gores her does she wake: “…[S]he had the look of a person whose sight has been suddenly restored but who finds the light unbearable.”
Write like that. Herewith is concluded the Craft Talk without Craft. I would assess it so far a failure. I have attempted in its method, as opposed to its message–that is to say, I have attempted in the preaching itself rather than in the content of the sermon–to instruct all that I am qualified to instruct: that writing is controlled whimsy. Force whimsy just enough to make sense. How much force does that require? Good question.
There are martial-arts enthusiasts in the room, or at least one. Hello, Lt. Wilson. I myself have endured enough dojo and kwoon, in which, the kwoon, one frequently holds a position called horse long enough to stave off terminal old-man butt well enough that perfectly correct women like Louise Florencourt are compelled to tell you they are too old, and a certain kind of less correct middle-aged woman is compelled to freshen the accusation that one is in the throes of the mid-life crisis, which accusation this certain kind of middle-aged woman apparently takes more pleasure in issuing each time she utters it-–where are we? Where we are is I am demonstrating not enough force upon the whimsy.
In the kung-fu kwoon it is paramount that in a fight one remain loose; this is arguably the martial-arts equivalent to the NRA safety rule #1 that you Always Point the Gun in a Safe Direction, which, alas, proves the only rule necessary. In kung fu the big and necessary rule is Remain Loose, and the neophytes and the seekers of the grandfather’s wisdom keep asking, How loose? And the answer is, Well, grasshopper, not exactly a noodle. You must place enough force upon your whimsy that it is not exactly a noodle.
Al dente, then, allows accidents of utterance that may have unintentional consequences, happy and unhappy. I should not have revealed that I have had an intimate-seeming lunch in Milledgeville, but alas I did, as one thing led to another. I should not have slurred Kenya as I did when I said “Tennessee Williams drunk and in his stained khaki suit smelling probably like Kenya and I was not invited!” Kenya does not smell bad. India smells bad-–at least the Cooum River beside the Connemara Hotel in Madras does, and I advise you never to stand on the bridge over it, but to run. I used Kenya only because I had already detailed the rigors of the weerus that came from Kenya, and therefore the joke that Tennessee Williams smelled as bad as Kenya would work without the undue stress of a new and strange entity upon the reader. Tennessee Williams’ smelling like the Cooum, next to the Connemara Hotel, for example, almost funny now, would not have been funny in the first instance. Or maybe it would have.
All of this is about the power of repetition, which is but emphasizing words to the second power. All writing is the right word, the right position of the word, and the right position of the word to the second power, its repetition. All of this is but Making Sense, the big and necessary only rule in writing. It is the equivalent, clearly, to always pointing the gun in a safe direction and to remaining loose, but not as loose as a noodle.
I feel fine. I have acquitted myself handsomely and neatly, by accident, the only way neatness is palatable. I have failed most in not detailing exactly what Tennessee Williams looked like in the large chair, an overstuffed wingchair in the parlor of a Charleston single house, sitting weirdly aslant, in his dirty safari suit, resembling a tiny mad African king looking around the room for boys, for me, who was not there, as pretty as a girl. As Mr. Williams himself was to put it, more or less, the future becomes the present, the present becomes the past, and the past is filled with eternal regret.
Goodbye. You will not see me again, unless you yourselves are compelled to give advice and join me in the desert. Bring the pills.