Where do stories come from? Most of the time, superstitiously, we don’t ask. And usually, it’s hard to say, because the process is so chaotic when it’s happening, and in retrospect seems too random to catalogue.
But in the case of my story, “Lockjaw”, which appears in the latest issue of The Lonely Crowd magazine, the genesis was very clear. (The crowd at Lonely asked me to write a piece about how I wrote the story, and this produced a kind of diary of its making.)
I teach creative writing at University College Cork and several years ago came across a classic writing exercise in American writer John Gardner’s book The Art of Fiction. This was the brief: Describe a barn as seen by a man whose son has just been killed in a war. Do not mention the son, or war, or death.
The aim is to write a passage that achieves effect by being indirect. In other words, you know what you want to say and then very deliberately you don’t put it on the page. It’s about restraint, about the power of leaving things out – a power on which the short story is built. The exercise is also about investing description with undeclared emotion.
The result, Gardner said, should be “a powerful and disturbing image, a faithful description of some apparently real barn but one from which the reader gets a sense of the father’s emotion; though exactly what that emotion is he may not be able to pin down. . . No amount of intellectual study can determine for the writer what details to include. If the description is to be effective, he must choose his boards, straw, pigeon manure, and ropes, the rhythms of his sentences, his angle of vision, by feeling and intuition. And one of the things he will discover, inevitably, is that the images of death and loss that come to him are not necessarily those we might expect.”
I don’t like to ask student writers to tackle exercises that I haven’t tried to do myself so I wrote along with them. The description of the barn which appears in the opening of the story is almost word-for-word from the original exercise. I liked the way the prompt forced me to be inventive, made me use language to get around a narrative obstacle. Restriction can often be the mother of invention.
Because it produced a kind of density of description, I was loathe to let the piece sit there as a fragment and in time I developed it into a story breaking all of Gardner’s strictures in the end, since I go on to mention the son, the war and death.
Other threads in the story came in the usual magpie fashion. Because I wanted to keep the war element in the story from the Gardner prompt, I turned to the Irish Army’s peacekeeping missions in the Lebanon, the only conventional war I had a connection to – not counting the Northern Ireland troubles, that is. That dictated the time period of the story.
The hurricane – so eerily topical at the moment – belongs to that era too (August 25,1986). It came unbidden into the story because I have a very distinct memory of the night Hurricane Charley hit. I was on the graveyard shift as a newspaper copy editor and got to say those immortal words – stop the press – so that we could update readers on the worsening conditions as the winds howled and the rain beat against the office windows.
At the time of writing the story, a friend of mine had gone into selling stoves in her barn so she found a place in the narrative too.
And finally the photographer, who was a late addition to the story, comes from an unease I have about the artful photographing of abandoned places, particularly people’s homes, with all the poignant mementos of their lives still in place. While loving the images, I distrust my pleasure in them because they seem, somehow, avaricious, feeding off authenticity to create a kind of beautiful-looking artifice. And as I write this, I realise it could be a description of writing itself; so perhaps I’m berating myself in the story at some level.
So. . . not a very coherent process even when remembered in tranquility. Except for John Gardner, that is, who provided the igniting spark.
Gardner was a novelist and essayist (probably best known for his 1971 novel Grendell, based on the Beowulf myth) but he’s remembered more now for his books on writing and the creative process. He graduated from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in the 1950s and was a creative writing professor at several US universities, including Detroit, Southern Illinois and Binghamton. He was admired as a creative writing professor, and a tough mentor of young writers. (Gardner died in a motorcycle accident aged 49 in 1982.)
In 1978, his book of literary criticism, On Moral Fiction, caused much dissent in the US literary community because it included bracing judgments of contemporaries including John Updike and John Barth.(So many Johns!) It also controversially demanded that fiction should distinguish between right and wrong, a notion I’m not sure I agree with. However, there is something flinty about his certainty of vision.
“Almost all modern art is tinny, commercial and immoral,” Gardner declared, “Let a state of total war be declared not between art and society but between the age-old enemies, real and fake”.
Which, almost 30 years on, has a distinct resonance in the Trump era.