Novelist, story writer, and editor of the Norton Anthology of Short Fiction Richard Bausch says, “If you want to write gracefully and with clarity about things that matter, and to make it seem as effortless as common speech, you are going to have to work as hard as you have ever worked on anything in your life. And that’s why it takes years. If you’re struggling it’s because your talent is acting on it, seeing into its fault lines, and you have to learn to trust that difficulty.”
What particular difficulties did you encounter while writing the work that appears in this issue of Chariton Review? What helped you break through?
I’m not a believer in the idea of “finding your voice” because the concept is too limiting. I look to musical models like Joni Mitchell or Elvis Costello who didn’t replicate the same album over and over, but branched out into other styles, other types of music. I’ve always been interested in investigating poetries and have written everything from formal verse to straight narratives to prose poems to Surrealism. At the same time there has been a kind of paring back, a turn away from ornamentation and embellishment. I think the removal of things is the breakthrough. To the extent I’ve succeeded, the poem in The Chariton Review is representative of my efforts.
D. E. Steward:
Richard Bausch’s statement is wise and thoroughly accurate, unless the writer aims to go somewhere out beyond being graceful and clear “about things that matter.” To take writing past lucid communication and into something new where writing itself is the objective most often needs even more assiduous work. Even further, it could be that “talent” is mythic and that only purpose and diligence are the enablers.
One of my early teachers (might have been Marvin Bell) talked about the poem needing both a window and a door. The window is what draws you inside the poem, and once you’re in there the challenge is to find a door back out again. Montana had one of the roughest fire seasons ever this past summer, and I wanted to write about the fires. Nothing seemed to work; each of my first attempts sounded like news writing more than a poem. I couldn’t find that “window,” until I was stuck in a line of cars waiting for an escort through a recent burn. While waiting, I watched a road crew throw the carcass of a deer into the bed of a pickup. Starting a poem with that image propelled me into places I didn’t know the poem would go. That image became my window into the poem. The door back out again arrived in the imagined journey of the deer. What propelled him down the mountainside? Had he not been killed on the road, what comfort might he have found?
For me, the difficulties I encountered with the creation of “Elegies in Spring” were among my familiar demons: distrust in the sufficiency of my language, and the related urge to keep revising. These speak to Bausch’s assertion that we, as writers, must “learn to trust that difficulty.” I’ve been writing poetry (on a serious level) for over 30 years, but I still find it nearly impossible to see anything I’ve written as being wholly–realized. To my mind, Valery’s observation that, “a poem is never finished, only abandoned,” could not be truer. Even after having proofed (and approved of) the galleys for this poem, I still look at it and see things I’d like to change. Try as I might, the rhythm still seems a bit off. I hear it in my head one way, and see it on the page in another. I also wonder if my affinity for the lyrical gets in the way of Bausch’s suggestion that we strive to “make it seem as effortless as common speech.” The trick for me is learning when to let a piece be. Thus far, I don’t seem to have found the key to doing that. Or maybe there is no key and I (we?) must learn to settle for the best that can be done at the time. If I waited until I felt a piece was truly finished, I’d never send a single poem out into the world.
“A Curious Man” grew out of what I’ve heard called an abiding image—-an image that keeps coming back to the writer. Years ago, I was having lunch at a Chinese restaurant with friends when a very large man at another table began to choke. The entire restaurant got quiet until he cleared the obstruction. “A Curious Man” began as an exercise where I wanted to write a single detailed scene about a man who didn’t like to be touched was faced with the prospects of having to save a choking man. Initially, this called up homophobic underpinnings that insisted on dominating the story—-a different story from what I wanted to write at the time. As some point it became apparent the story required more than one scene and richer character development. Many excited ideas wandered in, but most left disappointed: a childhood dog named Flyball run over by a delivery truck, a third character named Ed, the story ending in the restaurant. For me as writer, the breakthrough of the story was the decision to make the husband unable, or unwilling, to talk about his near–death experience. This seemed to introduce tension (a secret) into the story by building intrigue in both the protagonist and his wife, while also providing a clear direction for the story.
I know it’s a personal failing but I love noisy rhymes, so when the line “I met Amanda watching the panda at the Washington Zoo” came to me, it worked on me like an ear worm. But what next? I had to give woman and bear a reason for being in the same sentence. And that rhyme? It was . . . silly. The difficulty, the challenge was to write a piece which included both Amanda and her panda, and wasn’t just silly. Getting the tone right, and getting it to morph, that was difficult. But I liked the end result. A whole roll of Sweet Tarts, it may be the sweetest thing I’ve ever written.
When I submitted “The Green” to the Chariton Review, a reader suggested revision. I went to work to create a clearer, sharper, more readable story. In the process I discovered revision is not just skin surgery. It involves focus. You have to look at the main elements and put them in the best perspective possible. In my story they are contrast and conflict, character and career.
The poem I struggled with the most is “Voices.” I wanted to portray the humanity of schizophrenic woman, not the pathology. I wanted the reader to understand her need for drugs and alcohol to escape the scathing voices in her head. I also wanted to convey her loneliness and isolation. And I wanted to include the judgment of those around her who couldn’t see the agony driving her dysfunctional choices.
What helped was to imagine a film of a schizophrenic woman who has lost everything: her children, her marriage, her home. I heard her “voices” as a voiceover. I saw images, like slides. I could see her on a bench in a train station with nowhere left to go except off the edge. The details filled in as I “watched” the film. I hope I have captured her well in this poem.
In writing “Defensive Indifference,” there were the sort of normal difficulties of making the story credible against real historic events and time. The main issue was allowing the narrator to change his team allegiance from the L.A. Dodgers to the Colorado Rockies in a time frame that made sense for his relative age, his mother’s probable age, and the inaugural year of Rockies baseball.
In this story, the biggest struggle for me was an adult character who believed naturally in his own delusions while simultaneously ridiculing the delusions related to his mother’s dementia. I also wanted him to embody, even embrace, this negative capability and still come off with some tenderness. I kept trying on actions that would show that the narrator actually did love his mother, and these read false. Still, he needed to be aloof, or at least oblivious, to the emotional needs of others without actively doing or wishing them ill. I was not thinking about this problem when the narrator character decided to sneak the beers into the nursing home and share them with his mom. After he did that, I thought there was a chance that he and his mother might be OK.
One of my biggest struggles with this story was getting it to appear like a big, wobbly mess without actually being a big, wobbly mess. I wrote the first draft in a day—-something I rarely am able to do—-because I wanted to try and capture the frenetic energy of the family and let it carry me along through their night, careening from misstep to misstep with Marty Shea at the helm.
In revision—-which took much longer than a day—-I kept a close eye peeled for the fallacy of the imitative form, or places where the writing too accurately mimicked the flawed qualities of the story and characters, and as a result would be annoying and unable to effectively communicate the experience to the reader. I always liken this problem to writing about a character getting trapped by a drunk person at a party. As a reader, I should be able to experience that in a story without actually living through it. If someone corners me at a party to tell me about their disastrous root canal, or their cooking podcast, or that they’re back in therapy but think it’s really going to stick, I have to lock myself in the guest bathroom until it’s time to go home, but in a story, six pages later, I’ll just put down the book. The last thing I want as a writer is for a reader to think that’s an option.
There is a density, sometimes, in descriptive language, that assumes a kind of frenzy, a frantic accumulation. A conglomeration of powers. It has its place, its purpose. But sometimes what one hopes for is a density that is metamorphic, a lightness, something transformative, surprising. Something that reveals, embedded, even in our grief, impermeable as it may seem, our joy.