WRITER AS REDEEMER.
JOHN: QUESTION: Can a writer be killed if one drives a stake through the writer’s heart or chops off his or her head?
Yes, but that would also kill regular humans if one does the same to them. By the way, killing a writer is murder and murderers are arrested and put in jail.
Each year I teach at a kind of back-to-nature folk school in Door County called “The Clearing.” Last summer in the short story workshop we read a story by Joyce Carol Oates called Images and I thought it might be interesting for all of us to write some scenes like she did:
He stands up as if addressing a class.
“So you see the problem in creating a scene between two people in a piece of fiction or creative nonfiction is getting into the mind of the second character—the one who is not a stand-in for you and your sensibilities,” I tell the class.
John in an aside to the audience.
Blank faces of the workshop participants stare at me.
John, as if to the workshop.
“I mean,” I continue straight-faced, “you have to become schizophrenic.”
John in another aside to the audience.
John, as if to the workshop.
“Crazy,” I bellow.
John directly to the audience.
The exercise I am giving them is to write a dialogue between two people in which one person—an unlikely candidate for the job—is trying to seduce another.
John to the students.
“You need to look at the motivation of each,” I insist.
John, back to the audience.
John (to the students).
“For example, in the Joyce Carol Oates story we just read, the adolescent
girl—a surrogate for the author—wants to break loose from her family and the small town where she is going to school.
John explains to the audience.
Heads nod in agreement. Who doesn’t want to break out of their environment? Start a new life, not as someone else but as the real you who you never got a chance to be?
As if at the workshop again.
“But what about the pedophile teacher she is smoking cigarettes with?” Garret asks—an intentional or unintentional jab at instructors.
“Yes, what about him?” I repeat the question, using a teacher trick of responding to a question with a question in order to gain time to think of an answer.
“He should be reported to the authorities,” Hugh pipes in. Hugh is a former grade-school principal.
“Well, yes,” I say. “But that’s why we have fiction, so we don’t all wind up in jail. But in the context of the story what is his motivation?”
“He’s just a loser,” Heidi answers. She could play the story’s strong female lead in a movie version.
John stands at the podium, lost in thought. Finally to the audience, and himself.
Am I the loser? What the hell am I doing? Where am I going with this?
John, getting a grip, plows forward.
Plato wrote about a cave in which the philosopher sees only shadows from a fire. He moves outside to discover truth in the blinding glare of the sun.
Freud gave this a literal twist—bringing our neuroses from their unconscious depths to the rational surface.
But wait. We may want to bring the truth out into the open but initially we need to go inward…into the writer’s cave. It’s there we will discover truth. When we do emerge it is the audience who keeps us from being self-indulgent and merely projecting our feelings onto other people and events.
Am I saying that when I change the encounter with Orson Welles or when Lorine Niedecker writes about one thing when she may have other things in mind and when Bergman’s art searches below the surface to address subjects he needs to bring out into the light…that this is some kind of terrifying journey?
Well, you are what you dream.