The Craft of Fiction Writing
“He who would do good to another must do it in Minute Particulars.”
—William Blake, Jerusalem: The Emanation of the Giant Albion
James Joyce once confided to a friend, while he was writing Ulysses, that he had spent the whole morning pondering whether to end a clause with a comma or a semicolon.
I couldn’t recall, exactly, where or when I’d first heard this, but it pleased me to share it with my fiction-writing students. After repeating it a couple of times (I had heard it somewhere), I’d smile and say, “Hm!… An entire morning pondering how to punctuate a clause… Well! Damn! That’s fast work!”
I always got a laugh.
The point of the joke, of course, was to illustrate a truth that philosopher Michael Polanyi puts so nicely:
Obsession with one’s problem is in fact the mainspring of all inventive power… It is this unremitting preoccupation with his problem that lends to genius its
proverbial capacity for taking infinite pains.
—Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post-critical Philosophy
For it was not just any moment that Joyce was grappling with, but a singular moment—that moment in one’s writing when one knows, somehow, not always consciously at first, that the moment is going to have to get special attention. We can decently surmise that Joyce had already determined that that clause-ending bore a special weight for him, that it was an “inflexion point” of some sort, and that, even though how he chose to punctuate the clause was destined to get trampled in the “stampede” of reading that typifies the reading which most readers do, for him, and by extension to his “fit audience though few” (Milton’s surmised readership for Paradise Lost), it would mean a great deal which option he had settled on.
In the arc of a story, any story, such singular moments aren’t always “momentous”—crucial to an outcome or to a revelation, say—although of course they can be. What’s most important about them is their significance for the writer—the writer’s wish, that is, to do them optimal justice. Again, that moment when the writer feels—so to say—a sudden peculiar reverence for the craft s/he is practicing.
And we can’t (let’s add) be certain that Joyce had solved the problem by the end of that morning!… Who knows but that his pondering his options—comma or semicolon?—had stretched on into the afternoon that day, and that, rather like the student who is jammed on a paper (often enough, a good student!) and who begs the professor for an extension, he would need more time in which to get the job done! I’d argue, perhaps perversely, that even if that had proved to be the case, Joyce would still deserve credit for doing fast work.*
*(Fast, meaning speedy, having its other important sense of hard-sticking, “adhesive.” If for no other reason than that he was just keeping at it, determinedly sustaining the tenacity of purpose sometimes required for the breakthrough to occur [sometimes, not always! on occasions it’s unhealthy to persist for too long—Robert Pirsig’s “gumption trap”], Joyce was working “fast.”)
My “Singular” Moment:
Mulling and Pondering, Paying Microbial Attention
No Joyce for sure, si parva licet, I could appreciate his quandary (most writers can) over the ending of his clause.
In my recent story, “Soccer,” published in the April issue of The Woven Tale Press, a mid-life father joins his teen son, Kevin, in an impromptu soccer game on the family’s side lawn with the aim of reassuring him that he, Matt, the father, will not need to be hospitalized that evening for a nervous breakdown. The threat of such a breakdown has been brought on by a marital crisis between Kevin’s parents that has disrupted the harmony among all three of them.
The father-son skirmish at the heart of the story is freighted with values and complex overtones—fragrances, I’ll call them—that I had partially explored an earlier craft note, “Strategic Clutter and Decoys (and Other Fictional Strategies),” which appeared on this website. And readers, indeed, have offered a heartening welcome to the scene’s multiple functions—its “Greek-myth-feel”; its invoking the old trope of men bonding through violence; the subverting and then converting of the Oedipal bid for dominance into an “alliance” of father and son; the unexpected benefit the scene has for Matt, of healing won through roughness and the chance for fresh insight.
Brought to its conclusion, though, the father-son skirmish left me with a challenge, a quandary at once delicate and a little daunting, too—how to execute its AFTERMATH, its immediate aftermath? How to create a strong break to move the rest of the story forward, and still pluck some blossoms from its most delicate overtones?
Tackling the Problem
There was one particular overtone above all the others that I wished to make germane to the aftermath moment. Artist Nura Petrov of Bucks County, Pennsylvania, had rightly discerned in a carefully placed phrase, “each of them enveloped in the other’s ready presence”—the final depiction of the father and son’s physicality—“an almost erotic coupling.” Nura got it right! And the phrase she’d picked up on as notably “fragrant” concludes a paragraph beginning, suggestively enough, “They enter into it, no words required,” meant to carry overtones of tacit consent.
So the “aftermath” moment had, first of all, to signal a clean break from the emotional-physical lifting of the action-scene itself. A triple-space break did some of this well enough. Still, nothing’s “over till it’s over,” in Yogi’s famous words, and even then, of course, it’s not really over, particularly so in fraught situations where the cessation of action leads—as how can it not?—to spill-over effects.
And what I wanted spilling over, above all else, was the psycho-sexual resonance inherent in the skirmish, the one that Nura had picked up on in “each of them enveloped in the other’s ready presence.”
Here’s the immediate aftermath following the break:
“Had enough?” Matt asks, a rhetorical smile. Both are sweaty. Heated. Gathering up the ball, Kevin nods. “Thanks, Dad.” He twirls the ball, grass-stained, as they’re heading toward the house.
Now, I’d elected with some care to “book-end” the skirmish, having each of the participants holding the ball in his hands.
The difference in how they do so is meant to be significant. We see Matt before they start “spinning the ball experimentally,” tentative, anxious, doubtful as to how he will manage this contest, given his impairments—and likely not so sure that this is his wisest course of action.
Kevin, at the other end, “twirls the ball, grass-stained, as they’re starting toward the house.” Throughout the whole story, the larger part of Kevin’s “speaking” is done through his body—his only speech-act (note!) being his “Thanks, Dad” reply here. Twirls—a relaxed and festive, even celebratory action. Twirling the ball constitutes his sigh of relief: he knows now, with assurance, that his father will not be hospitalized tonight.
What was my problem, then? What did I have to get “microbial” about—mull over, ponder so? It was simple enough. And yet not so simple. Here’s the first part of the aftermath again:
“Had enough?” Matt asks, a rhetorical smile.
How “rhetorical” is that smile? And what’s the “rhetoric” of it—that he, winded by the skirmish, is hoping that Kevin is as ready to quit as he is? I’d certainly take that as the ostensible meaning of it, but boy, that “Had enough?” can suggest other things, especially given the resonance that Nura had picked up on! Had enough of what? . . . Is there, in other words, a whiff in Matt’s question and rhetorical smile of the contentment of post-coital exhaustion? How much of a “La Giocanda” smile is that smile?
Then, we have the remainder of Matt’s paragraph:
Both are sweaty. Heated.
This was among my most “pondered” moments. It was intended to foster the sexual innuendo and, at the same time, shield it from view. Let’s enter this through tone.
Now, not all writers—in truth, most don’t—possess, or really need, an extensive knowledge of the language, largely Greek, in which grammarians and rhetoricians discuss the fine points of human expression. But it can help to have at least some handle on the terms in which we think about things like sound values and rhythms. I’m among those writers who grew up with Sound and Sense, Perrine’s handbook, by their elbow, and I’ve always been grateful that I’ve had some basic knowledge enabling me to distinguish an iamb from a trochee, metonymy from synecdoche (not always easy, these two, to disentangle from each other!).
I’ll suggest, too, as pertinent that when we find ourselves lacking an adequate “inner language” in which to talk to ourselves about ourselves, a predictable series of bad consequences follows, the first of which consequences is that we make flawed judgments that produce poor decisions. —Sincerely flawed, I’ll add, which makes the poor judgments and resulting ruinous decisions all the more poignant and, often, very costly. We thought we “had it right,” and, alas, we did not. Particularly in writing, this lack gives rise to the familiar lament, “I know what I wanted to say, but I haven’t the words to say it.”
So, vocabulary matters!—especially if we wish to help ourselves or others with Blake’s Minute Particulars.
And I needed the assistance of such an “inner language” to get my job done. I wanted in the worst way, following up on Matt’s “Had enough?,” to avoid the cliché, “Both are hot and sweaty.” I had already depicted Kevin’s face as flushed and sweaty earlier during the skirmish, and that was humdrum enough. Not only dreadfully trite, “Both are hot and sweaty” scans dully as poetry, comprising a rather (shall we say) “bouncing” line of trochaic trimeter—BOTH-are-HOT-and-SWEAT-y, the phrase, moreover, ending with a falling cadence, “sweaty” limping as it does to its final, listless “ee” sound.
But what to do, dammit! How to do better? Though feeling inarticulate, I sensed an alternative hovering around, a crucial one at that. (How to punctuate a clause?!)
Then, finally, it hit me. A solution as simple as it was beguilingly potent. I’d go on ahead and allow myself “Both are sweaty”—no need for texturing here!—but transpose their being “hot” to the end of the line as a one-word sentence, “Heated.” All the difference in the world! Now, “Both are sweaty” had to end in a full stop, instituting a pause, both pregnant and dramatic, before the hard-stomping aspirate of the initial H to come and the emphatic screaming long vowel of the e in “Heated,” whose final sound, in turn, tid, bites the cord off sharply. So sexual a word, “heated,” reinforcing the suggestion of post-coital exhaustion!
Only later would I discern the other gain I’d made unconsciously, one wonderfully congruent with what I had “intended”: the homonymic pun on “heated” as heeded.
Both are sweaty. Heeded.
Mutual recognition! Each of them “perceived,” that is, heard, by the other!
A writer’s work is recursive—endlessly so, as we revisit and revise. And this constant doubling back affords us the chance, as our “unconscious” creations sneak out into view, to accept them or reject them, acclaim them as congruent with our most essential aims, or put them aside. —As I’d done early on in endorsing “Soccer” as my title, with its pugilistic puns. (A first attempt at this story, some twenty years ago, was titled “Paradise Lost.”)
Planting the Innuendo
If Richard Bausch is right (my previous craft note) that setting in fiction ought to veer toward metonymy, then sexual innuendo is best served, inversely, when it veers away from too-overt expression. Compactness of expression is one means of achieving this, a strategy Willa Cather deploys with astonishing deftness in O Pioneers! when Alexandra Bergson has a Sunday-morning “dream,” and then, right after, “prosecutes” her bath “with vigor” [read: sexual shame], dousing herself with cold water.
But it was from Steinbeck’s “Chrysanthemums” that I first learned of another means of veering away; and this is the strategy that I use in “Soccer.” It consists of restricting recognition of the overtones to the reader of the story, by having the characters themselves not “pick up” on latent meanings.
Here’s Steinbeck at work:
In their “fog-bound” environment, the farmer’s wife Elisa is “manicuring” her much-prized bed of chrysanthemums. She’s eager for the task! Rather furtively, she waits until her husband and some visitors have turned away from her.
She took off her glove and put her strong fingers down into the forest of new green chrysanthemum sprouts that were growing around the old roots. She spread the leaves and looked down among the close-growing stems. No aphids were there, no sowbugs or snails or cutworms. Her terrier fingers destroyed such pests before they got started.
Then, so absorbed is she in this task, her husband comes up behind her and she “starts” at the sound of his voice, because he has “come near quietly,” catching her at it, as it were! And his first words to her confirm this for us: “’At it again,’ he said.”
But of course, she does not pick up on any hint of guilt or of latent sexuality, any more than her husband does, although Steinbeck, not finished with his guile in the moment (there’s a bit of “Baroque elaboration” at work here), writes right after,
Elisa straightened her back and pulled on the gardening glove again. “Yes. They’ll be strong this coming year.” In her tone and on her face there was a little smugness.
… And, lest we think that this, interpretively, is “pushing too far” in detecting the masturbatory overtones in the scene, all the succeeding action in this greatly poignant story confirms the sexual importance that her prized flowers have for Elisa.
So it is that, in the aftermath I’ve created for the skirmish in “Soccer,” the characters—Kevin especially, more than likely Matt, too, though his is a more ambiguous case—don’t “pick up” on the sexual overtones. Kevin’s “Thanks, Dad” response is as poignantly clueless as Elisa’s triumphant “Yes. They’ll be strong this coming year.”
It’s we, the readers, who stand to benefit.
The Fragrances We Prize
Kenneth Clark, in his masterful study of landscape painting, Landscape into Art, tells us, most wonderfully, “Facts become art through love, which unifies them and lifts them to a higher plane of reality,” and then adds that, for painters, “this all embracing love is expressed by light.”
For us writers, this “love,” which I’ve also called, here, “reverence,” is expressed through our seeking the most precise and compelling way of telling the truth about our subjects. That is our endless, respectful pursuit. We’re forced to turn to the poets to capture this finely. Wallace Stevens can help us with his singer-by-the-sea:
It was her voice that made
The sky acutest at its vanishing.
(“The Idea of Order at Key West”)
. . . “acutest at its vanishing”—a stunning formulation of those must elusive of literary effects, effects that hang on the very edge of invisibility, what the Italians call sfumatore—“smokinesses” of language, effects that are “felt” as much as they’re fully articulated. And which so often elude our radar as we’re doing our reading. But when they do not—elude our radar, that is—we are granted a fresh chance to enjoy Clark’s love (again, reverence, if you will) and attune our ears and minds to those
Words of the fragrant portals, dimly-starred,
And of ourselves and of our origins,
In ghostlier demarcations, keener sounds.
Richard Wertime is the author of Citadel on the Mountain: A Memoir of Father and Son (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), 2001 recipient of the James A. Michener Memorial Prize. His work has appeared in The Hudson Review, The Yale Review, The Georgia Review, Southwest Review, Ploughshares, and other journals. “The Case for Empathy,” his most recent publication, appeared in the September 15, 2020 issue of The American Scholar. He is currently at work on a novel, A Taste of Italy.