Coaxing Seedlings

Recently, the author Annabelle Tometich visited my class to talk about her debut book The Mango Tree: A Memoir of Fruit, Florida, and Felony, and the conversation was, frankly, epic. She and my students talked about discerning whether most of the scenes in your first draft are really just different versions of the same scene (probably); the difference between keeping your reader in mind and pandering to them; and how to write about identity without lapsing into nationalism.

But my favorite moment came when somebody asked Annabelle why she wrote a pivotal scene in the book the way she did, ending it where she did, and Annabelle answered, “I don’t know. I honestly don’t remember.”

She said that a few times, about writerly decisions large (how did she hit on the five-part mango-tree inspired structure?) and small (why did she use second person to start Chapter 24?).  

Annabelle made plenty of conscious choices when it came to writing her book, from its themes of growing up mixed-race in Florida to its title to its structure. But when it came to what some people call process, she just wasn’t aware of it.

“Every time I realized what should be next, I hurried to get it down on the page as quickly as possible,” she said. “Often I realized what should be next when I was at the grocery store or driving in my car, and I would rush to write it down when I got home.”

This thing we call process, it’s mysterious by nature. We’re not talking about the efforts you make to get the words out of your head and onto the page, nor the routine you use to make time for your creative work. We’re talking the means by which a writer realizes what a story needs next, and then creates it.

Or as novelist George Saunders described it, the writer doesn’t necessarily decide what scene to write, what point of view to use, or even choose their words.

“It might be more accurate to say that it occurred to [the artist] to do so; in a split-second, with no accompanying language, except maybe a very quiet internal ‘Yes.’ He just liked it better that way, for reasons he couldn’t articulate, and before he’d had the time or inclination to articulate them,” Saunders wrote.

And the most impactful choices are the most inchoate, and incremental. A word or a sentence, added or deleted. Saunders likened it to a cruise ship turning.

Annabelle compared it to her mother choosing mango pits. Her family would go mango-picking at an orchard every year, and her mother would inspect every mango, choosing just a few pits to try to coax into seedlings. Some sprouted; some didn’t. A few became actual trees.

Did her mother have a process for making those choices? Did Annabelle when making hers?

“As much as you can call it a process, I guess?” Annabelle said. “I don’t really know!”

Kelly Caldwell

Dean of Faculty

Kicking Down the Door, Part 3

Hey, this is part of a series on writers who kicked down a metaphorical door with their writing. Like Marie Curie with science and Little Richard with music.

Alice Munro passed away in May at the age of 92, after a long career publishing fiction. The first unusual thing about her is that she only wrote short stories, never a novel. The even more unusual thing is what she did with her short stories. 

Reading Munro takes patience. The writing style and characters aren’t flashy, most of the stories about folks living in small Canadian towns, facing the kinds of things you face in life.

The stories seldom start with a hook. For example, here’s the opening line of “The Bear Came Over the Mountain”:

Fiona lived in her parents’ house, in the town where she and Grant went to university.

Gosh, nothing terribly exciting there. Indeed, after reading the first few paragraphs of a Munro story, you might be tempted to set it aside. If you stick with it, however, you’ll soon find yourself inside a tunnel that keeps leading you deeper into something fascinating.

As in “The Bear Came Over the Mountain.” Fiona and Grant are a married couple in their golden years. When Fiona discovers she has dementia, she consents to enter a “home” when it gets bad enough, which it does. One day Grant comes to visit and finds that Fiona has taken a beau at the home, something that happens when spouses forget that they’re married. But did Fiona really forget, or is she slyly chiding Grant for all those casual affairs he used to have? Either way, Fiona is genuinely upset when her beau’s wife removes him from the home. And then Grant begs the beau’s wife to bring her husband back, hoping to make his wife happy. And that tunnel keeps on deepening.

Did I mention that her short stories are long? A good deal longer than they’re supposed to be. When you’re inside them, though, they don’t feel long because they’re delivering the depth and complexity of a novel, leaping through time and evolutions so seamlessly you barely feel it until you’re done, dazed by what you’ve been through.

Though considered one of the best—if not the best—writer of contemporary short stories, Munro was a modest person. She led a quiet life and had no real interest in publicity or accolades (she won all the big awards). As she said, “I always got lunch for my children.”

If you forced me to pick my all-time favorite short story, I would tap Munro’s “Carried Away.” Don’t get me started on how wondrous I find it.

Alex Steele,

Gotham President

Psychic Distance

Lately, my students and I are preoccupied with psychic (or narrative) distance, or how close the reader feels to a story. In close psychic distance, the reader stands next to the characters, perhaps even sitting in their laps. Long psychic distance puts the reader across the street, or in a hot air balloon overhead, or looking down from heaven.

John Gardner said in The Art of Fiction, “In good fiction, shifts in psychic distance are carefully controlled.” Writers often interpret that to mean the change should be imperceptible.

And sure, that works. In her story “Snowfall,” Deesha Philyaw uses first-person plural to plunk her readers as close to her characters Arletha and Rhonda as possible— or so you think.

“We, who apparently are built for everything, are simply not built for this. No gloves exist that keep our hands from freezing as we move snow and ice from one spot to another and from the car windshield. And no, the physical activity does not warm us up. It makes usresentful.”

Later, Philyaw uses second person to pull the reader even closer:

“In the South, the weather does not hurt you down to your bones or force you to wake up a half an hour early to remedy what has been done to your steps, your sidewalk, your driveway and your car, as you slept.”

The tightening psychic distance in “Snowfall” is a tractor beam—invisible and inescapable.

But you can be equally effective when your reader is acutely aware of the change.

In his film Frenzy, Alfred Hitchcock starts viewers medium-close to Richard, who may or may not have murdered his ex-wife. The audience is close enough to suspect him, but not enough to be sure.

Then, another character kills someone, and we’re in the room where it happens.

The film then alternates between Richard and the real killer, Hitchcock keeping his audience uncomfortably close to the murderer. We’re walking right alongside him as he runs into his former co-worker Babs, as they stroll through London, as he invites Babs to see his apartment. At this point, the audience is trying to use its close psychic distance to psychically communicate STAY OUT OF THE APARTMENT, BABS!

Spoiler: Babs goes into the apartment.

And then, famously, the camera leaves.

It backs away from the closed door, down three flights of a winding, silent stairwell, onto the sidewalk, and across the street, people and cars filling the space between the audience and the building. We’re as far from that apartment as we can get without a rocket.

I saw Frenzy in a crowded theater, and when that camera started gliding backward, the once-quiet audience started shouting, “GobackgobackGOBACK!”

Different stories, different styles, different distances, but one thing’s the same. When Philyaw and Hitchcock shift the psychic distance, the story intensifies.

Kelly Caldwell

Dean of Faculty