Perhaps this is how it feels to be a grandparent. While reading the work of my Advanced Fiction Writing (AFW) students — each of whom I’ve taught for one to five years — I catch glimpses here and there of my own approach to character and narrative. At the same time, each of these nine voices is unique, distinct — and distinctly not my own.
What’s more, my students are also my colleagues; their influence is evident in my work, just as mine is in theirs. In my “…Disco Prince” story, for example, the paragraph describing the curbside area onto which Phil is ejected grew out of a suggestion from my longtime student Lisa Janis to “play up the contrast” between the glimmering interior of the Park Avenue dance club and the dark, dismal street outside. Every story here has benefited from similar suggestions, for each has been “workshopped” by the group, in part or in whole, and is thus a team effort.
Each of the contributors to this collection began studying with me at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, where I have taught the non-degreed, non-accredited Fiction Writing in Depth “minicourse” continuously since 1998. Each subsequently was invited into the AFW, which I founded in 2001 and teach out of my home. Of the nine, Betsy Doherty and Lisa have been with me the longest, while Carla Ng, having first taken my course a year ago, is the “new kid” — not that you’d know it from her work.
The 18 short stories and one borderline-novella in this anthology are, as the book’s title suggests, all written in the first-person voice. In addition to this stylistic connection, each originated in and/or was further developed through our collaborative workshop/critique experience. But what about their content? Can a common thread be found there as well?
I believe it can. For as I dip into the minds, hearts and lives of these wonderfully varied lead characters — seven women, seven boys, three men and two girls — one theme continually presents itself: the quest for human connection. From Pete at the Lobster Shack and his dream of a life with Denny’s waitress Sherry, “watching movies and having sex,” to young Paula’s need to make sure that her connecton with her father is intact; from Karen Reyes’ fiercely protective love for her older brother (and de facto father), the troubled Viet Nam vet Deeze, to the nameless protagonist of “Reflection” and her odd bond with a stranger glimpsed in a diner; from six-year-old Andy, who is offered a helping hand by the unlikeliest of neighbors, to Lenny, whose own neighbors spontaneously converge in the wake of tragedy to soften the blow; from the narrator of “Still Life,” who longs for reunion with her loved ones just about as much as she fears it, to Marty, whose sister’s suicide has left a void that no one can fill — though his “Gram” comes closest; from Phil, whose fake i.d. gets him into the disco, though not into the Disco Princess’ bed (or her heart), to Alyssa, whose search for affordable housing in the Big Apple brings her life into quirky intersection — briefly — with so many others….
Our world gets bigger as its population continues to explode; our world gets smaller as information technology creates a global — albeit virtual — community. And so we navigate this bigger/smaller, fuller/emptier, ever-shaky terrain, stumbling along the way, each one of us very much a “person imperfect” — though united by a perhaps perfect goal: to reach and touch and know one another.
Which brings me to Boys Hope Girls Hope (BHGH), the independent, not-for-profit organization which my students and I have chosen to receive a portion of the profits from the sale of this book. BHGH came to our attention through the aforementioned Betsy Doherty, who worked for two years (initially through AmeriCorps) at the Girls Hope group home here in Evanston, counseling “high-potential at-risk youth” from throughout the Chicago area.
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 she or 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.”
The contributing authors of this book are honored to lend the voices of First Person Imperfect’s 19 protagonists to BHGH’s resolute call. (For more information, call 847-256-5959 or go to www.chicagobhgh.org)
In introducing this, a collection of my students’ work, I would be remiss were I not to acknowledge both of my own faculty mentors (I’m lucky; some people don’t even get one). In high school, Jan Martin taught Modern Lit in a way that revealed to me the “secret language” of fiction: symbolism and subtext, foreshadowing and framing devices. Her approach to literature made me want not only to read, but to write. Then, in college, Mark Dintenfass showed me how to write, constantly challenging me to stray outside my comfort zone and dare to be true to my characters. I’ve modeled my own fiction-writing workshops largely on Mark’s. Indeed, both he and Jan helped me become — for better or for worse! — both the writer/editor and the educator that I am today.
The same goes for my students. Each of the contributors to this collection has proven instrumental to me in my growth as a writer, a teacher and — with this collection — an editor. I’d also like to thank the newest AFW student (too new to our group, unfortunately, to make it into this anthology), Kim McNabb, for bringing to the proofreading of this book both the expertise of a professional editor and the sensitivity of a writer.
In both of the classes that I currently teach, I share four key aspects of my own approach to fiction writing, the first being the primacy of character. Setting and theme are important too, but I challenge my students to all but ignore the plotline (I’ve been known to write the word “story” on a leaf and toss it out the window), instead allowing it to develop on its own. There’s no need to outline, or to think too far ahead; if you create engaging characters and place them in a setting appropriate to exploring your theme, then the plot is, quite simply, whatever happens. Besides, how can you know the ending — or even the middle — of a story at the outset, when you barely know the characters? Character-driven fiction requires that the author exercise only partial control over the machinations of the plot — particularly, I think, when the story is in the first person. Ideally, you want to reach the point where you and the protagonist are writing the story together.
Secondly, I encourage my students to focus on writing in the moment. Many authors over-rely on back story and flashback, particularly in the opening pages. You’ve picked up a novel, and you’re a paragraph or two in. The protagonist and the present moment have just been established…when suddenly, you’re reading about the arrival of this fellow’s grandparents at Ellis Island 80 years before. Why should you care? You don’t even know the guy. The reader should meet the characters the same way we meet people in real life: not by immediately hearing their life stories, but by watching and listening to them in the moment. How is his posture? Does she gesture when she talks? What makes him laugh? What pisses her off? Bring a moment to life in vivid detail, and then move forward from that moment — taking the now quite engaged reader along for the ride.
(Granted, writing in the first-person voice does give an author some leeway in this department; arguably, the reader is “in the moment” as long as he or she is paying attention to that which the protagonist feels compelled to say — whatever it may be.)
Thirdly, I extol the virtues of the plausible suprise. A plot development can be plausible but predictable (reader response: “I believe it, but I figured that would happen”), unpredictable but implausible (“I didn’t see it coming, but I’m not sure I buy it”), predictable and implausible (“I had a feeling that would happen, but it doesn’t ring true”) or — the Holy Grail of story development — plausible and unpredictable (“I didn’t expect that, but, wow — it makes perfect sense!”). How does a writer grab said Grail? Simply by composing non-outlined, character-driven, in-the-moment narrative that, by its nature, ushers one’s unconscious into the writing process. You can’t plan a plausible surprise, but it’s a natural byproduct of writing what I think of as “organic fiction.”
Finally, I introduce a theoretical construct that I call the Tightrope of Disclosure. As author, you stand at one end of a tightrope: the beginning of a story. You must make your way to the other side — the end — disclosing information all the way. If you lean too far to one side, you’ll fall off the rope and into Confusion: the reader will have no idea what’s going on. Lean too far the other way, and you land in Obviousness: you’re hitting the reader over the head. Throughout the narrative, you must strike the perfect balance. How? Here’s my shortcut solution: while the reader should at no point wonder what is going on, it is acceptable — even advisable — for him or her to wonder why.
As you read the stories in this collection, I think you’ll find that each of my AFW students has incorporated portions of this sensibility into her or his own writing. You’ll also find places where they’ve gone their own way — and more power to them! In the words of the late Montana writer Richard Hugo — words (from his essay “Writing off the Subject”) that I read aloud at the beginning of each term at Northwestern — “You’ll never be [a writer] until you realize that everything I say today and this quarter is wrong. It may be right for me, but it is wrong for you. Every moment I am, without wanting or trying to, telling you to write like me. But I hope you’ll learn to write like you.”
Betsy, Carla, Drew, Elizabeth R., Elizabeth S., Emile, Laura, Lisa and Sarah: my congratulations. Each and every one of you has learned to write like you.