Some books, you plan; others demand to be written.
After the 2003 publication of First Person Imperfect, also by iUniverse, I had no intention of compiling and editing a second collection of short stories written in the first-person voice. Instead, I began trying to “sell” my adult Advanced Fiction Writing (AFW) students on the idea of place-based, or “setting-centric,” stories—pieces in which location would be not a mere backdrop to, but rather an active instrument of, the plot—to be gathered together under the title Proving Grounds. (I still hope to edit such a collection; look for it in, oh, 2010 or so.)
But, lo and behold, the stories that showed up in our workshop post-First Person Imperfect were overwhelmingly character- rather than setting-driven—and a good three-fourths of them were in the first person.
Sometimes, an educator’s job is to push his or her students to do what they’re not inclined to do; other times, it’s to shut up and listen. Clearly, the first-person voice was calling out to the writers who’d come to my workshop for feedback and guidance. My obligation, I concluded, was to help them write the best first-person fiction they were capable of writing. Hence this new collection of 17 short stories featuring 17 distinctive narrative voices, presented by 17 writers.
What is it about the first-person voice that we, as writers and as readers, find so compelling? I recently put this question to Further Persons Imperfect’s contributing authors. In response, Marie Thourson spoke of the challenge of first-person writing—“It’s like waking up in a strange bed and trying to figure out how to get home”—and added that the voice liberates her, allowing her “to speak in a voice that I do not censor in the way that I censor my own.” Dennis Beard finds the first-person voice “warmer and more insightful” than third-person, to which Shirley Bartelt adds, “much more immediate.”
For Drew Downing, first person “allows the narrator to confide in the reader things that the narrator may not reveal to other characters within the story. In that sense, the first-person voice has the capacity to actively involve the reader in the story.” Adds Moira Sullivan, “The events are being processed through an individual consciousness, connecting the writer to the reader in an intimate way.” And C.J. Ullrich enjoys first-person writing “because I feel as though someone’s telling me the story—and I’m just writing it down.”
While I tend, in my own writing, to favor the third-person-intimate voice (a third-person voice that’s restricted to what one or more individual character/s know and perceive), there are times when only the “I” will do: when one strives for an extreme, hyper-personal immediacy; when one seeks, through the literary device of “the unreliable narrator” (see Emily Collins’ clever, edgy “Mom’s House” in this volume), to explore the gap between objective and subjective reality; or when, as in my upcoming novel Planet of the Dates(The Permanent Press, 2008), the goal is to allow one’s protagonist to look back, reflectively, on events in his or her past—and be affected by them anew.
As for the appeal of reading first-person narrative, for me it comes down to this: if reading fiction is about stepping into another person’s shoes, then in no other voice is the fit quite so snug.
And, so: a second anthology of first-person stories. How, then, is this collection different from its predecessor? Beyond the obvious (these are new and different stories) and an increase in male authors (from 20% to 29% of the group), there’s this: with 17 contributing authors now rather than 10, the new book boasts a greater variety of voices—and of narrators. Here we find Barbara Ghoshal’s boastful yet haunted Cuban prizefighter, struggling not to end up “On the Ropes”; Eva Karene Romero’s restless, heartsick young lesbian in Paraguay, who watches her world go “Out of Focus”; Marie Thourson’s bright, blossoming small-town schoolgirl, who must decide whether or not to scratch “The Itch”; and the world-weary, world-wary chronicler of Sarah Morrill Condry’s pointed and pithy “Once Upon A Hard Time.”
Stylistically, too, this book is all over the map, from Moira Sullivan’s eerie gothic parable “The Pawnbroker’s Deal” to Drew Downing’s absurdist social critique “The Z Conspiracy,” and from the lyrical, poetic prose of Lauren Fath’s “Two Hard Tugs” to its polar opposite: the colloquial Wisconsin-ese of the north-woods fishin’ guide in my own contribution, the comical tall-tale “The One That Got Away.”
Only four writers (Condry, Downing, Elizabeth C. Rossman and I) remain from the earlier group—and each of us has gone in a different direction here than before. What’s more, while members of the prior group were all in their 20s, 30s and 40s, the “current crop” ranges in age from their 20s to their 70s, with representatives from each of the decades in between, thus bringing to bear a far wider scope of histories and experiences.
Too, the pieces themselves come from a different time period: a definitively post-9/11, Iraq-War-coincident era of decreased security and increased anxiety. And though only one of the stories (Brian L. Cox’s trenchant, eulogistic “November Forgets”) faces this temporal backdrop head-on, others (the aforementioned “Z Conspiracy” and Elizabeth C. Rossman’s chilling, dystopian “Product Placement”) address our socio-cultural status quo through allegory; another piece (C.J. Ullrich’s haunting, elegiac “The Call of the Mourning Dove”) recognizes brutality and loss as timeless; and others betray a simmering sense of disquiet that seems part and parcel of this uncertain new century.
Perhaps related to this is the fact that the new book’s characters “skew older” than before. In the earlier volume, there was a 50/50 breakdown between juvenile and grown-up protagonists; here, adults outnumber kids by a ratio of more than three to one. Is this because the new writers are, themselves, older? Possibly … yet half of Further Persons Imperfect’s child-narrated tales come from writers in their 50s, so I don’t believe authorial age is the answer here. Rather, it appears that desperate times lead us toward seasoned points of view, voices of experience—even if they be demonstrably flawed ones.
In the prior volume’s Introduction, while attempting to identify a theme common to all of the stories, I suggested “the quest for human connection.” This time, the task is a bit more complicated. While that quest remains apparent here, the new stories also suggest a heightened awareness of just how imperfect we “persons” are. Arguably, this realization makes the quest for contact all the more vital, whether that contact be familial (as in the book’s vivid, vivacious lead-off story, Jessica Bartlett’s “Learning to Walk,” and in Shirley Bartelt’s charming flight of fancy, “Off the Wall”); romantic (Dennis K. Beard’s unabashed, enchanting “Most Any Kind of Life,” and Heather Swartz’s hard-eyed yet big-hearted coming-of-middle-age tale “What You’re Looking At”); or platonic (parts of “Product Placement,” plus Lori Rotenberk’s boisterous, wide-eyed “Friendship 7”—though “precociously pre-romantic” may be a more apt description of its young narrator’s feelings). Like those in the previous book, these lead characters are reaching out—with perhaps a bit more need now than ever.
Which brings me to Boys Hope Girls Hope (BHGH), the independent, not-for-profit organization that received part of the proceeds from the first book and will receive a portion of this book’s as well. BHGH came to our attention through then-AFW student (and current physician-in-training) Betsy Doherty who, at that time, worked at the Girls Hope group home in Evanston, counseling high-potential at-risk Chicago youth.
Explains Betsy, “Middle-and high-school-aged students who apply to BHGH are admitted on the basis of need, desire and performance.” While continuing to be a part of their own families, each girl and boy in the program lives with as many as seven peers and three or four residential counselors for up to six years as s/he attends academically demanding secondary schools, prepares for college and learns to live and grow in a unique second-family environment. “The program,” Betsy concludes, “runs on the belief that each scholar will develop the skills, confidence and compassion essential for leadership and service, both now and in the future.”
At press time, our nation’s frighteningly imperfect Supreme Court had just quashed the use of racial affirmative action in public education—making the need for proactive/ interventive programs like BHGH’s all the more vital. Now more than ever, the contributing authors of this book are honored to lend the voices of Further Persons Imperfect’s 17 imperfect protagonists to BHGH’s well-nigh-perfect mission. (For information, call 847-256-5959, or go to www.chicagobhgh.org [local] or www.boyshopegirlshope.org [national].)
* * *
As was the case with its predecessor, every story here—as well as this Intro—has been “workshopped” by the group, in part or in whole, and is thus a team effort. All but two of the contributors to this collection began studying with me at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, where I’ve taught the non-degreed Fiction Writing in Depth “Minicourse” continuously since 1998. Each student subsequently was invited into AFW, which I founded in 2001 and teach out of my home. (The exceptions, Shirley Bartelt and C.J. Ullrich, were students in a week-long fiction writing workshop I taught through my undergraduate alma mater, Lawrence University, in 2006; Shirley since has joined AFW.)
In the previous book’s Introduction, I took the opportunity to describe my own approach to fiction writing, devoting a full paragraph each to four key tenets thereof: Primacy of Character, which eschews plotting and outlining, thereby empowering one’s characters to help determine their own actions and outcomes; Writing in the Moment, which puts back story and flashback on the, well, back burner, bringing the story’s present moment to light and to life in vivid detail—then moving forward to the next one; The Tightrope of Disclosure, upon which the author strikes the perfect balance between disclosing too much information, too soon (resulting in obviousness), and too little, too late (resulting in confusion); and The Plausible Surprise, the Holy Grail of plot developments, which prompts the reader to observe: “I didn’t see that coming—but, wow! It really works.”
To these four components, I’d like to add a fifth: Characterization Through Action. There is, I believe, a hierarchy of ways in which an author can effect character development. Better than using a narrative voice to tell us about a character is to let another character do so; better than that is to use the character’s own dialogue; better still is to show us who the character is through his or her actions. For example:
• Narrative telling (weak): Joe Rorke was a nasty sort of man.
• Other character telling (better): “O-o-o-oh,” Bedelia intoned, hugging her arms to her bosom, “that Joe Rorke is a nasty sort of man!”
• Character’s own dialogue (better still): Joe Rorke opened his front door, stuck out his head, saw the trick-or-treaters scampering merrily toward him, and barked, “Get the hell off my property!”
• Character’s actions (best): Joe Rorke went out front at sunset, an hour or so before the trick-or-treaters’ expected arrival, and covered the concrete walkway to his house with ball bearings.
At the end of the day, we aren’t what we say so much as what we do. Thus, I encourage my students to provide their characters with forks in the road, choices to weigh, decisions to make and challenges to face, so that we can learn who these people are from their actions—or, for that matter, their inaction.
This fifth component, I did not come to on my own; I learned it, and learn it still, from the works of genre-fiction master William F. Nolan. When I was in my teens, his seminal dystopian novels Logan’s Run and Logan’s World served as an ideal tutorial in what character-through-action is all about. (Moreover, his encouraging letter to me about my own early writing made me believe that this writing thing just might be worth a shot!) Incidentally, Bill—who, to my delight, since has become a close friend and literary collaborator—reports that he first learned character-through-action from the works of his own boyhood literary hero, fabled Western writer Max Brand.
Sharing this anthology’s dedication with Bill is my high-school Modern Lit teacher, Janet Martin, whose contagious enthusiasm for 20th Century literature (Lord of the Flies, Brave New World, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, etc.) made me long not only to read, but to write. Jan also guided me, when I was 16, through the composition and revision of my own first novel, providing—on her own time—supportive, insightful, chapter-by-chapter feedback. Like Bill, she took my work quite seriously—before, I daresay, it actually merited that response!
It’s because of mentors like Bill and Jan—and my college fiction-writing professor, novelist Mark Dintenfass—that I am writing, and teaching the writing of, fiction today.
From whom do I learn now? I’d have to say that, in a nice turnabout, my own writing education today comes chiefly from my students. I may be the nominal instructor at AFW, but in point of fact, we’re all colleagues; I often sit in awe of a student’s story, thinking: I wish I’d written that! How’d she do that? Or: Wow. Let’s see where he goes with that next … and how. Truly, each of the contributors to this collection has proven, and continues to prove, instrumental to me in my own growth, as a writer, an editor and a teacher. And for that, I thank them.
Speaking of thanks: my mother, Hazelyn McComas, herself a consummate educator (to whom the prior book was dedicated), has generously supported this two-volume project; the other writers and I deeply appreciate her encouragement and assistance. Thanks also to Tony Gianneschi for a killer cover photo, and to three contributing authors: Jessica Bartlett for a brilliant cover concept (plus art direction thereof) and Barbara Ghoshal and Marie Thourson for expert proofreading. AFW members and First Person Imperfectcontributors Emile Ferris, Lisa Janis and Carla Ng did not supply stories for this volume, but their insightful feedback informs many of the pieces contained herein. And finally, though they are thanked already in this book’s Acknowledgments, Debra A. Blade, Rick Thomas, Christopher Tondini and the Minicourse Program of Northwestern University deserve a rousing Grazie! here as well.
Last time, I concluded my Intro with words written by the late Montana writer Richard Hugo to his own students—“Every moment I am, without wanting or trying to, telling you to write like me … but I hope you will learn to write like you”—followed by my congratulations to First Person Imperfect’s contributing authors for having “learned to write like you.”
This time, I’d like to go a step further. For we live in a time when sincere, honest, character-driven fiction is under assault, both from “above” (those inhabitants of the Ivory Tower whose postmodernist, deconstructionist bilge feeds the Cult of Ironic Distance) and from “below” (the low culture of Jerry Springer and his ilk, so-called reality TV, rabid celebrity-trial media coverage, and the dirty-laundry-flaunting “tell-all” memoir).
I’m delighted to say that the authors of this book have bucked both of those dispiriting trends and, in the tradition of the very best literature, have put their characters first. And so: Barbara, Brian, C.J., Dennis, Drew, Elizabeth, Emily, Eva, Heather, Jessica Lauren, Lori, Marie, Moira, Sarah, and Shirley: my congratulations. You have learned to write like your protagonists—which is, for the fiction writer, an even greater accomplishment than learning to write “like you.”