Andrew J. Graff
I’ll call anything a story in which specific characters and events influence each other to form a meaningful narrative
In February of 2014, while the snowdrifts packed themselves against the screen door of our walkout basement, and the Peshtigo River beyond our property line flowed black and silty beneath a foot of ice, I knelt by the wood stove on the basement floor and fed my education to the pine flames. From freshman studies through graduate school, I had collected and carted around every note I took in every class. I put them in grocery store potato boxes, stored them in closets. My unspoken hope was that they’d ferment, that their eyes would sprout, and I’d someday end up with a well-aged collection of hard-won, expensive knowledge.
Our home in Northern Wisconsin was the fourth or fifth to which I’d carted the boxes. We moved there for my first full-time teaching position, a heavy load of English Composition at a small college. The novel manuscript I’d worked on for seven years had been rejected that year, and with finality, too. Acquisition editors said in unison—I paraphrase here, but still have the emails—the writing is beautiful, the characters are real, but this is the most boring novel we have ever read. That novel comprised all of my eggs. The failure hurt. I cried in my pickup truck about it, told God how hard I worked, how unfair the cosmos was. But the editors were right. The novel was missing a dramatic conceit I didn’t know how to give it. And so after seven years of work and a period of mourning, I just stopped writing. I graded papers instead. I fished the river. I went canoeing with my young son and his sock monkey. In the winter, my wife and I skied on the frozen bays of Lake Michigan. I paid bills and looked at carpet samples and worried about being a dad and a husband. This was life now. Not writing. It was time to get rid of the potato boxes.
Over the course of a week, the snows buried us deep while I burned photocopied readings about Baudrillard’s deserts and Foucault’s panopticons. I burned Derrida, which truth be told didn’t bother me much. I burned notes from an Astronomy course I got a B in, moons and Kepler’s laws and Pluto’s banishment as a planet. I burned the notes I used to write a paper about Keats’s Endymion, a book-length poem he wrote before his death while engaged to be married. The poem, to my memory, was largely about a young shepherd unable to catch the moon he loved, and it wasn’t for want of effort. Poor Endymion. Poor Pluto. Poor Keats. I burned and filed, kept a handful of the papers I’d written, but then something miraculous emerged. Something important, something received. I pulled out a copy of an essay given to me in one of my first undergraduate writing classes. The professor was writer David McGlynn. The essay was a copy of Flannery O’Connor’s lecture, “The Nature and Aim of Fiction.” I didn’t recall its specific content, but I remembered David saying how much he loved it, how important it was. I’d been feeding the fire for some time, and nearly twisted the essay into a wick and stuffed it between the pine logs, but the memory of that class and that time—the way art and writing first came into view with such beauty and promise—made me set the essay aside. There was a couch down there in the basement. I’d get the fire going, read the essay again.
I remember reading and rereading this:
The fact is that the materials of the fiction writer are the humblest. Fiction is about everything human and we are made out of dust, and if you scorn getting yourself dusty, then you shouldn’t try to write fiction. It’s not a grand enough job for you. Now when the fiction writer finally gets this idea through his head and into his habits, he begins to realize what a job of heavy labor the writing of fiction is. A lady who writes, and whom I admire very much, wrote me that she had learned from Flaubert that it takes at least three activated sensuous strokes to make an object real; and she believes that this is connected with our having five senses. If you’re deprived of any of them, you’re in a bad way, but it you’re deprived of more than two at once, you almost aren’t present.
I finished reading the essay. I looked at the ceiling awhile. The line about three sensuous strokes intrigued me. I knew about the importance of physicality in writing, but hadn’t thought about it as a deliberate method before—three of the five senses, purposefully cooking in any given scene. I didn’t know it at that moment, but this passage of O’Connor given to me by McGlynn, concerning an anecdote about a woman who’d learned something by reading Flaubert, would become the spark that kept me writing.
I hadn’t written a line of fiction in over a year. To reenter a new project was too terrible to think about. It opened wounds. But this small spark I could do. Three strokes. That evening I opened one of those miniature notebooks you find next to the bubblegum and lighters in grocery stores and wrote just one scene with three senses. I wrote about two boys walking their bikes down a country road leading through a marsh. I wrote about the sound of gravel beneath bikes tires (first stroke). I wrote about the smell of ditch clover (second). I wrote about a red-winged blackbird landing and swaying on a dried cattail stalk (third). I didn’t know anything else about the two boys. I didn’t know names or destinations or origins. And I certainly didn’t know they would become, four years later, main characters in another novel manuscript. I only knew about gravel and clover and blackbirds, the dust we’re made of. But in some way a new point of reference had been fixed. A potato eye sprouted. I watched the fire a long time that night, the tenacity of the coals.
Years later, at another university, I open my fiction course with a single question and require an answer by the end of the term: As a Christian writer, what is your obligation to your reader and your art? The course is a quest for cornerstones, for universals, for big ways of holding writing in our minds. We read a lot of poetics—writers on writing—to learn how serious artists have navigated their art. I believe all writers have developed some sort of poetic, even if it’s unfashionable to admit. You can tell what preoccupies a writer—the givens they deem essential to storytelling—by the way they workshop, the aspects they consistently bring to light. And while I have no interest in anything remotely suggesting the “formulas for” or “steps of” of writing, I do believe universal attributes exist that help me hold the basics of story in my head while I write and workshop. Humans smell things to know things. I should make my reader smell things to help him know things. There’s a universal for you.
I have three. The first emerged that night by the fire.
First Universal: Story and Concrete Realization
If I can taste a story, I can live in it, because I taste in life. O’Connor writes about how the “least common denominator” in story is that it is concrete: “The beginning of knowledge is the senses, and the fiction writer begins where human perception begins.” If we want a reader to experience story as physically as he experiences life, then we must offer (and this is the humble, dusty work O’Connor speaks of) the raw material of sight, smell, tastes, textures, and sounds. This seems pithy and self-evident until we realize how often it is ignored. O’Connor writes that “most people know what a story is until they sit down to write one. Then they find themselves writing a sketch with an essay woven through it, or an essay with a sketch woven through it, or an editorial with a character in it, or a case history with a moral, or some other mongrel thing.” Our first task as storytellers, and it is not lofty, is to roll around in the dust, and invite our human readers to do the same, to offer them the skin of an apple, the heat of a stone, the sound of a carrot cut on the edge of a metal sink. Three strokes in any given scene.
The immersive quality of writing that has harnessed this power of raw sensory material has serious implications regarding our obligations to human readers. Concrete realization is powerful. Do with it what you will, but moral choices exist here. If we immerse our reader in a truly realized space, we immerse him in an experience as real as his tenth birthday. Immersive art becomes part of another human’s existence, his memory too. Just think of the scenes that have stuck, the way they sneak up on us even years later. To touch and taste and smell, even in the mind, is an act of incarnation, an abstraction made flesh which we experience with flesh. O’Connor writes:
All of my experience has been that of a writer who believes . . . in the “God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and not of the philosophers and scholars.” This is an unlimited God and one who has revealed himself specifically. It is one who became man and rose from the dead. It is one who confounds the senses and sensibilities, one known early as a stumbling block. There is no way to gloss over this specification to make it more acceptable to modern thought. This God is the object of ultimate concern and he has a name. (Emphasis added)
During a writing class, we paused on this passage and talked about how good writing, as writing, points to God. Even our acts of creation are part of creation. The best way to make our storytelling “known” and concrete is to do it the way God did it. I’m not saying anything spooky or irreverent here. I say all this in the same spirit in which a young child holds up a crayon portrait, asks for a fridge magnet. But God didn’t live among us as abstraction, or a thought, or an idea. Jesus was born, incarnate, as a living child, all blue and pink and wet. You could hear him and smell him before he ever preached a word. We can write this way, make things known the way humans are suited to knowing. Clover. Gravel. The hum of a cattail reed. Three strokes. It’s an alignment of art with nature, with dust, and it points to truth.
A young woman in my class set her pencil down.
“This is legit,” she said.
“Yes,” I said. “It is.”
Second Universal: Story and Dramatic Conceit
If we write concretely because we live concretely, then we should tell story the way humans desire story. In brief, we desire stories concerning moments of circumstantial significance. Any stories in any context—conversations on bus rides, around campfires, in cave paintings—concern themselves with an instance of drama, and if they are long stories, sustained drama. But the value of drama in many writing programs—the idea that even the quietest sort of literary fiction must deliberately concern itself with creating and sustaining drama—is often treated as a secondary concern, or worse yet, an artless one. Many MFA programs treat plot as if it is a dirty word, a thing beneath them. This is a great mistake. Editors rejected my manuscript because it bored them, straight up. It lacked drama and sustained drama. My education taught me to disparage the basic study of plot, and now my sock drawer carries an unpublished manuscript. I don’t wish to make the aim of my writing classes “commercial viability.” I wish to aim for obligations to art and audience. And our art is storytelling. And storytellers need readers.
O’Connor writes that a story should be “presented in a such a way that the reader has the sense that it is unfolding around him”—not only in a concrete sense, but in this dramatic sense also. She explains our obligation to provide drama and recommends providing a big, whopping dose of it. From her essay, “Novelist and Believer:”
[The novelist] renders his vision so that it can be transferred, as nearly whole as possible, to his reader. You can safely ignore the reader’s taste, but you can’t ignore his nature, you can’t ignore his limited patience. Your problem is going to be difficult in direct proportion as your beliefs depart from his.
When I write a novel in which the central action is a baptism, I am very well aware that for a majority of my readers, baptism is a meaningless rite, and so in my novel I have to see that this baptism carries enough awe and mystery to jar the reader into some kind of emotional recognition of its significance. To this end I have to bend the whole novel—its language, its structure, its action. I have to make the reader feel, in his bones if nowhere else, that something is going on here that counts. Distortion in this case is an instrument; exaggeration has a purpose, and the whole structure of the story or novel has been made what it is because of belief. This is not the kind of distortion that destroys; it is the kind that reveals, or should reveal.
This is the spirit of storytelling. Potent transference. Not mere mimesis. I try to tell this to my wife when she reminds me I tend to exaggerate.
“That’s not how it went,” she’ll say. “You were exaggerating again.”
“I was using hyperbole,” I’ll reply. “Jesus did it.” Pluck out your eyes! I know of no church that does this. The Church understands the spirit of transference. So can writers. That literary fiction became stuck in a rut of realism so stalwart that storytelling can no longer be “fictional” is limiting at best and missing out on much joy and potency at worst. I believe we can and should tell stories possessing drama beyond the register of daily life. And in doing so, we might again draw attention to the significance, beauty, and mystery within dailiness.
If I enter a story with these first two basics in mind—concrete realization and dramatic conceit—I will have a better chance of immersing my reader in something worthy of his attention. These are, again, how we live real life. We taste, touch, and smell (concretely), and then our attention is drawn toward circumstance (drama). Honoring these universals solves problems while writing, too. Many students have a hard time with the idea of exploring the direction of a story from within it, of being surprised by anything. Setting up a dramatic tension powerful enough to draw a character out of the garden or off the park bench is helpful. And when any particular thread of tension runs dry, we create another, or complicate the first, and the story again has a way to move forward. Dramatic conceit creates pressure. And because this is storytelling, it can be louder than life, which should make the process of creating and sustaining it enjoyable, raucous, creative.
Dramatic conceit is the stuff of old-fashioned discussions of plot, and inciting incidents, and book-length and chapter-length arcs, and external conflicts, action rising and falling and resolving—all the sort of lowbrow rot they won’t tell you about in a graduate program—but it is worthy of study and part of our obligation. We have permission to be loud and deliberate. Consider the loudness of the plot in O’Connor’s short story, “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” A man at breakfast reads an article about an escaped convict, gets lost while driving, and is killed by the convict he read about at breakfast. I imagine a workshop talking a person right out of writing a story as overtly dramatic as that.
Third Universal: Story and Emotional Significance
An interesting phenomenon occurs if a story bears the first two universals without this third. You find yourself with a highly immersive, action-packed, and completely inconsequential action flick.
It is the role of the storyteller to physically immerse. Yes. It is the role of the storyteller to introduce and sustain drama by crafting a conceit of significant circumstances. Yes. But there is a third point that need to be fixed in place, something as natural to humanity as tasting food or reacting to circumstance: the mind and heart. As humans navigate a concrete world and its dramas, they also think about it, worry about it, and change their minds as they go along. Nearly every writer in every freshman composition class is met by the powerful desire to write a short paragraph at the end of his narrative essay to sum the thing up: “And now I, the author, will list the lessons I learned baling hay with grandpa, which may not have been evident during the story I just told.” This is a natural impulse, a good one in fact, but a faulty manifestation if we’re telling story. Stories are not without meaning, but they do not transfer meaning with thesis statements supported by narrative evidence. The strength of story lies in its ability to transfer lived experience, not commentary about experience. In story, significance emerges, as we live.
[Story] must carry its meaning inside of it. It means that any abstractly expressed compassion or piety or morality in a piece of fiction is only a statement added to it. It means that you can’t make an inadequate dramatic action complete by putting a statement at the end of it or in the middle of it or at the beginning of it. It means that when you write fiction you are speaking with character and action, not about character and action. The writer’s moral sense must coincide with his dramatic sense.
I think most writers want their stories to carry meaning, to arrive at something emotionally significant. The human desire to make sense of life and share our best attempts is good and natural. This desire may be increased for the Christian writer, who has found a beautiful answer and wishes to share it. However, I’ve written elsewhere how storytelling is the wrong medium for preaching sermons. Preaching is good. Sermons need to happen. But not in story. And when storytelling is mistaken as the appropriate medium for sermons, we end up with, as O’Connor warns, a thing good at being neither a story nor a sermon. Story becomes wounded and desperate when its characters and actions are spoken about rather than spoken with. But what is meant by speaking with character and action?
I think it means this, which again mirrors life: when a human goes through a trial, he thinks thoughts about it, and all the richness of his personal history and worldview and hopes and desires will shape the way he thinks those thoughts. A particular pitfall of resisting didacticism in art is to create a sort of objective mimesis of events, and not enter the rich tapestry and commentary of the human mind at all. But one of the hallmarks separating literary storytelling from action flicks is the tremendous attention paid to the interior life of the mind and heart. A recent reading of Marilynne Robinson’s novel, Home, reminded me of this permission to have characters think many thoughts while navigating concrete and dramatic circumstance. The dramatic conceit of Home is very quiet. Glory’s brother returns home, weeds a few garden beds, drinks. Glory bakes a couple of pies. A lot of prayer happens. I may be overstating my case, but Home is a quiet novel in terms of external conflict. The vast majority of lines in that novel are devoted to expressions of Glory’s worry for her prodigal brother and ailing father, and the interactions between her brother and father. Hundreds of pages of worry, blessing, and thought, all taking place in the mind. It’s a beautiful book, and a beautiful mode of storytelling, for it satisfies a writer’s desire to speak and think thoughts, and does so more effectively than any story-turned-sermon ever could. “It makes a great difference to [a writer’s] novel,” writes O’Connor, “whether he believes that we are created in God’s image, or whether he believes we create God in our own . . . whether he believes that our wills are free, or bound like those of the other animals.” The stuff of worldview comes through as we write with our characters, allowing them a genuine thoughtfulness as they navigate a concrete world filled with pressing circumstances. It’s about an author’s treatment of subject matter, in real time and in scene, not his commentary about it afterward.
This threefold cord of basics is not easily broken. It works for story because it honors human experience. And the best sort of news for a writer trying to write is that these three basics, once upheld, give a story an inherent inertia. My own process, if it is helpful at all, looks as follows. When I wrote those lines about gravel and clover and cattails, I had my three strokes. Flesh had been given. But what then? The two boys stared at their handlebars for a day or two. The blackbird swayed. Bees flew in circles. I put the idea away for a time. After all, I was a failed writer. I had snow to shovel. But I began thinking about the second universal. Drama must occur in the life of these characters, and according to O’Connor, it may as well be loud. For some reason or another—maybe it was shotgun season, echoes of muzzle-blasts alive in my northern forest—I decided one boy was going to shoot the abusive father of the other, and the boys would be forced to flee into the wild, down a river like the one just beyond my property line. Okay, rough draft territory. Write it. The story now had the first two universals. It was experiential, and it possessed a pressure that could carry it several pages. But it needed significance, heart and mind. And when I began thinking about the concretely realized world in which this drama was unfolding with the heart and mind and eye of the boy who shot a man to save his friend, inertia blossomed. I learned more about the boy, his history and disposition and shame and triumph. I noticed what he noticed, and described the way he described, and learned what he would do under the pressure. The story—at least the first few scenes—took on that wonderful quality writers entrenched in process describe as “a life of its own.” After a long winter spent burning my way back to basics, I had on my hands, in rough form a story in which specific characters [concrete] and events [drama] influence each other [significance] to form a meaningful narrative.
So a writer hopes.
Andrew J. Graff is the author of the novel Raft of Stars, forthcoming with Ecco, an imprint of Harper Collins. His fiction and nonfiction have appeared in Stolen Island, Image, and Dappled Things. In 2009, Andrew became an Iowa Arts Fellow and earned an MFA from the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Since writing this essay, the beginnings of the story described have become a novel, RAFT OF STARS, forthcoming with Ecco Books in early spring of 2021. More about the book and its author can be found at www. andrewjgraff.com.