Mise en place

It occurred to me the other day that doing research for fiction is like setting out a mise en place. You’re laying out ingredients so that you can use them at a moment’s notice, without fuss. There’s no rooting around, no hunting. Everything you need is right where you need it, ready for use, during the moment of creation.

William Trevor on Short Stories

From an interview in The Paris Review:


What is your definition of a short story?


I think it is the art of the glimpse. If the novel is like an intricate Renaissance painting, the short story is an impressionist painting. It should be an explosion of truth. Its strength lies in what it leaves out just as much as what it puts in, if not more. It is concerned with the total exclusion of meaninglessness. Life, on the other hand, is meaningless most of the time. The novel imitates life, where the short story is bony, and cannot wander. It is essential art.

Essay Camp: “Our Faith in Horses”

Essay Camp

The next time you’re in a bookstore, ask the cashier where they keep their collections of five-paragraph essays. You’ll likely get quizzical looks. You might be asked if you’re looking for books on how to write a five-paragraph essay. You’ll answer, no, you’re looking for books filled with five-paragraph essays—you know, the kind children are taught to write in school.

Of course, there aren’t any. The form is too constricted to serve the type of investigations that merit being published as a book.

A five-paragraph essay is a useful structure for teaching basics like topic sentences, supporting evidence, linking sentences, and rudimentary arguments. But linger on them too long and they’ll seem confining. Almost nothing we read that makes any kind of sustained argument is so rudimentary in its form. Sure, some 800-word opinion pieces in newspapers clank out an introduction, three main points, and a conclusion, but any essay that appears in a magazine is bound to be more varied and complex. A magazine essay might involve two or three different stories lines. It might mix memoir with social commentary or political opinion. It might do any number of things—and that freedom is part of what makes essays so engaging and powerful as instruments of exploration.

Now, there are probably students in every middle school and high school struggling to master the basics of the five-paragraph essay, so the idea of writing something more open-ended might seem like an invitation for chaos, logorrhea, or worse. But other students might be ready to try their hands at longer, more free-formed compositions. And even if students are not ready to try writing something longer and more complex, it’s probably not too early to read such pieces, so they start to get a sense of the choices available to essay writers. Then they can begin considering, too, the choices they are making, consciously or not, in their own writing.

Our eight-grader is home this summer, and I’m asking her to read some real essays—articles from publications like Oxford American and The New Yorker. I’m also calling her attention to certain features in each of these essays and asking her thoughts about what the writer has done. It’s a kind of casual writing camp.

I thought I’d post this on my blog, in case anyone else finds this sort of exercise useful. I’m planning on selecting essays from magazines we have lying around our house, but when possible I’ll choose essays that are also freely available online.

The first essay is “Our Faith in Horses” by Jamie Allen from the Spring 2015 issue of Oxford American.


This essay is about horses, horse racing, the often overlooked cruelty of the horse-racing industry, and our problematic relationship with horses. But it isn’t just third-party reporting on the horse racing industry. The essay also includes personal recollections, as well, including the story of the author’s sister’s relationship with her rambunctious horse Chief, and the author’s troubled relationship with his abusive father.

How does adding this personal content enrich the essay? What contrast does the author draw between our relationship with horses and our relationship with one another? Find specific sentences that support your view.

Telling a Complete Story

The essay begins in medias res–in the middle of things, the action already under way. Chief and his rider come charging toward the barn.

In the course of the story, we learn the full story of Chief. We discover the occasion of his purchase, the difficulty of taming him, and the make-or-break session in which the author’s family decides whether or not to keep him.

Go back through the essay. Flag all the parts of the author’s family’s story. Note the order in which they’re told.

Do you think this order is effective? Why?

Direct vs. Indirect Dialog

One of the choices facing any writer of fiction or non-fiction who is reporting dialog is whether to quote words directly or to paraphrase them in summary. Quoting words directly—called direct dialog—has the advantage of being precise, but it can lead to longeurs if the dialog is not continuously engaging. Paraphrasing—called indirect dialog—has the advantage of brevity, but without an interleaving of direct quotations can sometimes make conversations seem remote and impersonal.

(In the paragraph below, the first sentence is indirect dialog and the second two are direct.

He gave us roundabout directions to the cemetery. “You’ll want to be careful going over that last bridge,” he told us. “It can be a bit rickety.”)

Most writers use a mix of direct and indirect dialog. Edith Wharton advised using direct dialog only for pivotal moments in narratives. She said: “Dialogue in fiction should be reserved for the culminating moments and regarded as the spray into which the great wave of narrative breaks in curving toward the watcher on the shore.” (You can find other advice on writing dialog here.)

Read the passage below and pay attention to how Allen mixes direct and indirect dialog. Which things does he choose to paraphrase? Which does he quote directly? How do his choices heighten the drama of this passage?

In the winter of 2013, I visited Miami’s Gulfstream Park, one of the country’s premier tracks. It was a shiny South Florida Saturday and as I crossed the parking lot I could hear the announcer over the loudspeaker, the crowd. The horses were running. I hurried in, made my way along the rail toward the finish line. The pack was rounding the far turn in the fourth race of the day; the crowd stood and cheered lazily, and a winner pulled away. I snapped a photo with my phone as the lead horse, wearing 7, passed. The sky was radiant blue except for a few cotton puffs hanging over the palmy track. What a day.

“Oh, no no no.” An old man in a pageboy had moved up next to me on the rail. “Oh, no no no.” I figured he had lost money on the race, but I followed his squinted gaze and saw it: a horse down on the track. The jockey lay over his neck. The horse fought and rose, stumbled. It looked like a broken leg. The crowd moaned; some couldn’t look, others covered their mouths. They got him down again. A track ambulance arrived and workers unrolled a gray blind in front of the horse. I heard a mother telling her children to look at the seagulls overhead. Behind me, a drunk bettor chomping on a cigar shouted, “Next race!”

It happens all the time.

The Vocabulary of Mood

Read the passage above again. It presents two contrasting moods: a sunny, peaceful day at the track, and the horror of a horse being killed on the track.

Notice the descriptions in the first paragraph: a “premier” track, the crowd standing and cheering “lazily,” the author arriving just in time to take a picture of the winning horse then gazing up at the “radiant blue” sky over the “palmy track.”

The mood changes abruptly with the direct dialog at the beginning of the second paragraph. At first, like the author, we’re not sure what’s wrong. We, too, have to follow the old man’s squinty gaze to find the object of his apprehension at the end of the third sentence: “a horse down on the track.” The sentences and their structure force us to search for the center of the action; then, like the spectators in the stand, we find our attention is blocked and diverted. The horror is made hidden and routine. “They” (nobody described closely) “got him down again.” Workers unroll a gray blind, as they have countless time before.

How does Allen convey the heartlessness of the “drunk bettor?” (Notice the verbs: chomping, shouting.)

In your own writing, how might you use a mix of indirect and direct dialog to report such a scene?

Write an Essay

Try writing an essay that includes a personal story along with your analysis about an important trend, issue, or event.

Break your personal story into distinct episodes. Decide how to order them, and how to interleave them with the rest of your analysis.

Can you find a way to give your story more context–more sweep, as it were–while also giving analysis a personal touch?

What are the strengths of this two-track approach? What, if any, are the weaknesses?

Fiction and Deconstruction Considered as Chairs

From a work in progress. Professor Neil Cross of Swivens College, Heideggerian and deconstructionist, was exiled in 1992 to a writers’ colony in remote Alaska, where he was ordered by his department chairman to produce a novel. Sitting in a cold, cramped cabin, he contemplated his surroundings and wrote the following:

The chair I am sitting in is a wooden folding contraption without arms. It seems sturdy enough to support me, but it wobbles and creaks the instant I shift my weight.

How different from the reading chair back in my office at Swivens! Designed by a small artisans’ collective on the Left Bank who took their inspiration from the ball turrets in World War II bombers, that chair lets me swivel, pitch, and roll in any direction. Its frame, with its gently swooping arms and wire mesh backing, is made of brushed alloy of stainless steel prized for both obdurateness and flexibility, while its compact metal base—which appears at a glance to be an conventional assembly of connecting rods and gears with braces extending out to the wheels—conceals a complex system of balances, gyroscopes, and swinging counterweights that enable this improbably small structure to support great displacements of weight. For I can lean back in that chair until my head is grazing the floor; I can tilt sideways, reading a book and sipping coffee, with my torso parallel to the ground, startling colleagues and eliciting the occasional shriek; I can pitch in any direction at all with the complete reassurance that my bottom will never leave the chair’s comfortably padded seat. (When the chair was new, I made use of a thin black harness, which I fastened discreetly about my waist, but after a few days of practice, I came to dispense with this precaution entirely.)

Reading in this chair, one learns to float as comfortably as a truant schoolboy swinging in a tree; one feels the giddy glee of a skull rushing through the empyrean, awash in a mad swirl of colors and sensations: blue sky, green grass, this text, that reference, sudden abyss. Lost in the vertigo of reading, one intuits a secret communion with junior astronauts encountering weightlessness for the first time in jets that rise and plunge above the clouds. To release one’s hands from the wall’s metal braces requires both courage and carelessness; the instructions one has read over and over become a sting of meaningless symbols, themselves hovering, and then one realizes that one is hovering like them—from this lapse of pedestrian cognition, a letting go, and a few seconds of weightlessness. Within days, one is floating freely about the cabin like a sated amphibian, pushing off from one wall and propelling oneself to the other, spinning, somersaulting, joking with one’s friends and slapping their backs as they pass—merry tumblers in a void. Such is the feeling of freedom and weightlessness I get from my reading chair. I can pass the entire day in it, poring over texts and penning new criticism without ever occupying the same position twice.

How earthbound, how single-track, this fiction-writing chair seems by comparison! It is fit only for country schoolteachers and librarians. Simple and plain, it will do for the instruction of grammar, for the locating of Grant’s Tomb on a colorful map, for a pious recitation of the Gettysburg Address, and then, in the calm of the evening hours, for the crafting a simple memoir replete with “true feelings.” Its one trick is to fold up and disappear.

And this is my chair for now, my position in the world!

Unreliable Narrator

He was an unreliable narrator.

He started showing up late for chapters. Scenes would lurch into action without any preamble. Gorgeous or bleak scenery out the window went unremarked. Situations, histories, rivalries, marriages went unexplained.

The characters, missing his cue, became reticent, unsure of when to begin or how, but eventually, out of necessity, they learned to start without him and then, once started, to carry on, completing things a different way. (A few hardy souls came to prefer this newfound freedom. They discovered the confused magic of improvisation.)

Other times he showed up right on time but made little mistakes. He might repeat information, for example, gumming things up and slowing the pace. Or he changed the names of characters. The characters themselves didn’t seem to notice, greetings were exchanged as usual, plotlines flowed as expected, but now Lily was Lola, and two chapters later the Frenchman Pierre was an Englishman named Peter.

Very late in the book, the unreliable narrator disappeared altogether.

“It’s bad enough having no God,” purred one of the women, a jaded woman who had earned a Ph.D. studying literature, “but no God-like point-of-view, even someone omniscient enough to know how all this ends? Who knows what to pay attention to?”

Where was this guy? Moonlighting? Working two books? Three? Seven? Hundreds?

To answer that question would require a narrator for the narrator. “It’s turtles all the way down,” one of the characters remarked.

The woman with the Ph.D. nodded and set down her drink. Damn, she wanted a smoke. She stared hard at Peter, or was it Pierre, and wondered if he had a cigarette.

And he met her gaze—how?

We’ll never know. “I’ve been thinking about horses,” he said.

NYC vs. MFA: Who lost? The Post-structuralists, Perhaps

As a grad student in the Yale English department, Helen Echlin was surprised to find that her professors held literature in such low regard.

No one has mentioned enjoying a book. . . . In the lift down from the English department, I ask one professor what is on her bedside table. The answer: a bestseller about physics. “No novels?” Her reply: “I don’t read literature for pleasure any more.”

Critics are ranked first, then readers and, lastly, writers. When I try to get graduate credit for taking the novelist Robert Stone’s fiction workshop, my request is refused. After all, I am doing a PhD in literary criticism, not in creative writing. But graduate students are allowed to receive credit for taking a course in any other graduate department. I could take a course in inorganic chemistry and be awarded credit for it, but I can’t take a course in creative writing. The department supervisor, Professor Ruth Yeazell, is unpersuadable. The English department will not accept that a fine novelist such as Stone has anything to contribute to my literary education. Having Stone teach literature is, in their eyes, like having a gorilla teach zoology.

This disdain for literature wasn’t, or isn’t, limited to Yale or even to the East Coast colleges, and it began earlier than the late nineties when Echlin attended Yale. Teaching at Berkeley a decade earlier, Robert Alter, the teacher, critic, and translator, found that his fellow faculty members and their students were suspicious, if not outright contemptuous, of literature. In his book, The Pleasures of Reading in an Ideological Age, Alter remembers a student approaching him after class to say how surprised she was to be enjoying Moby Dick. Two other professors in the department had dismissed the book as “a bore and scarcely worth the effort of reading.” Alter rues recent trends that favored abstract theory to practical reading, and he notes that “literature faculties may be increasingly populated with scholars who don’t particularly care for literature.” At  the MLA conference in 1985, he points out, the big topic was whether or not the study of literature was finished for good.

The picture that emerges from Echlin and Alter’s accounts is pretty bleak. Our best universities are teaching a generation of students to deprecate literature. Authors, it seems, are simply happy-go-lucky simpletons who haven’t read Derrida. Outside of classwork, reading literature can be dispensed with, and creative writing itself seems like a fool’s errand. “The joy of analysis – that’s what it’s all about,” as a fellow student tells Echlin.

Somehow, though, hordes of creative writing students didn’t get this message.

As Chad Harbach points out in an essay published in the journal n+1 and available on Slate here, the number of degree-granting creative writing programs has grown more than tenfold over the past few decades. In 1975, there were 79 such programs. Today there are 854.

So while post-structuralists were grimly cataloging the way poems, stories, and novels deconstructed themselves, and while conservatives were bemoaning supposedly liberal attacks on the canon, the humanist tradition, and the loss of Western values, an ever-growing number of students were enrolling in classes to hone their skills in that craft that has continued for thousands of years: telling stories.

Such faith in story-telling. Who would have thought.