Sunday, October 11, 2009

The Words of Others

While in search of non-goulash food alternatives, I continued to bask in the “I know nothing” world of Bret Lott and the unsmiling light of Hana Ullmanova.

Now and then, Bret would pause in class and say with mock seriousness, “Now this is a dynamite book,” and pick up his own memoir on writing. He filled our heads with the words of others, though: John Berger, Steinbeck, Flannery O’Connor, Valerie Martin.

We read a short story, "1/3, 1/3, 1/3" by Richard Brautigan that was terse but resonant and included a line that encapsulated a character in one sentence:

"The novelist was in his late forties, tall, reddish, and looked as if life had given him an endless stream of two-timing girlfriends, five-day drunks, and cars with bad transmissions."

This could also describe many people I passed on the streets in Prague.

Bret gave us a section of Jerome Stern’s book Making Shapely Fiction, which includes mock examples of what NOT to do. Stern lists bad last lines such as

"And then I woke up."


"It's not a bad place to live--warm, dry, and nice padded walls."

He also talks about bad story ideas like the “Weird Harold Story,” in which the character is quirky for the sake of being quirky and no other reason.

Of course with every bad example, I could think of one that had worked.

There’s the “Hobos in Space” story, about two characters isolated from ordinary society, that he warns against yet is almost an exact description of one of my favorite plays, “True West,” by Sam Shepard.

Every rule presented had been at one time or another successfully broken. In the end, Stern says to throw out the rules.

In the morning, we tried to crack open each workshop story, to find the way to best break the rules to fit what the writer was trying to say. In the afternoon, I studied the rule-breakers of early American literature with Hana.

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