Hallucinations, a blog about writing, trains, and Wire to Wire
A farmer wakes up and sees his barn is on fire. You’re writing the dialogue – what does he say? That was one of the questions the writer Jack Cady posed to us in his fiction class.
When I said in my earlier post that I knew nothing about fiction when I started Cady’s class, I meant I knew nothing. Well, I knew enough not to raise my hand.
I could see the hypothetical farmer clearly enough. Picture Iowa, Cady said. A farmer alone in his kitchen, a cup of coffee in his hand. It’s a beautiful fall day – because terrible things happen on beautiful days – and the sun is just coming up. Through the screen door, the farmer sees the flames. Now he speaks. What’s his line?
I kept my mouth shut. All I could think of was, “The barn’s on fire.”
Or worse, “Oh, no.”
Or worse still, “Wow, look at those flames.”
None of that made any freakin’ sense. The farmer was alone in his kitchen – who the hell was he talking to??? Plus, the reader already knows the barn is on fire.
So I sat there hoping I wouldn’t get called on. I remember the moment so vividly, a couple decades later, because it was one of those times when you come face to face with the depth of your own ignorance. And by you I mean me.
Instead, other people suggested lines, not much better than mine, which was okay with Cady. Play with it the way a child would play with it, was his mantra. Try things. Make mistakes.
After he heard our suggestions, he told us how dialogue has to reveal character, and then he gave us his line: “Done it, didn’t they?”
I was hooked. Four words and I knew how stubborn the farmer was. I knew about the enemies he had made and how much he would risk in the name of what was right. I even knew what kind of woman his wife would need to be to share a life with such a man.
I’ve spent a lot of time since then looking at draft dialogue that didn’t feel quite right, thinking “Done it, didn’t they?” And I still don’t always get it. On a good day, with enough caffeine, I can make characters move across a room. But how do you get them to talk? Still, at least I know what the standard is, and how to make mistakes.
Songs with great dialogue: Dylan's "Isis," and "Highlands." And my current favorite, Chuck Prophet's "Hot Talk." What am I leaving out?
Philip Slater wrote a lot about money and sex in his 1970 book, “The Pursuit of Loneliness.” In the chapter, “Putting pleasure to work,” he describes how we eroticize anything that can be sold – cars, potato chips, toothpaste, etc – for economic reasons. “The gross national product will reach its highest point when a material object can be interpolated between every itch and its scratch,” Slater wrote.
But for the model to work, stimulation has to be ramped up constantly. Mass media is how it gets done. Every TV show, magazine, advertisement, movie, billboard, etc., has to be sexier than the last. At the same time, we have to clamp down on gratification. Otherwise, no sale. So Justin Timberlake can sing about bringing sexy back, but he can’t show us Janet Jackson’s nipples. That gets uncomfortably close to gratification.
According to P. Slater, the job of the economy and our culture is to generate “esoteric erotic itches that cannot be scratched.” We buy things hoping for relief, get none, and buy more. The Charlie Brown/Lucy metaphor applies – we never get to kick the football, but we never stop trying.
That fact that maximum stimulation and minimum gratification drives us all crazy is an unfortunate side effect – at least the economy is functioning. Sort of.
Of course, Slater was writing all this before cable television, rap music, video games, the Internet, sexting, etc. etc. etc. He had no idea how sexy we could make everything.
Last weekend, I saw the touring version of Hair and was struck by two things. One, the nudity is now handled very discreetly. Dim, dappled lighting disguised it almost completely. Were the actors really naked at the end of Act 1? Hard to tell from where I was sitting.
On the other hand, the show was packed with fully clothed pantomimed sex. How do you like it – doggy-style, reverse cowgirl, missionary, DP? They had it all, and none of it seemed particularly offensive.
In the 1970s, it was the opposite. The actors were naked and brightly lit, but you couldn’t do all that sex stuff on stage. It’s okay these days, because we’re all stimulation junkies. But naked bodies gets too close to gratification, and we’re bigger prudes about that sort of thing now. Or so I claim.
The second thing I noticed was this: showtunes were the earliest forms of rap and hip-hop. Seriously.
Here’s why. Except for ballads, most showtunes are just about slinging a lot of rhymes over a good beat. “They’ll be gaga at the go-go, when they see me in my toga??” What the hell? Nobody said “gaga” in the 70s. Nobody went to “the go-go.” And this was before Animal House. We did not wear togas. Doesn’t matter. The words sorta rhyme, so just keep going. Case closed. Don’t like rap music? Blame Broadway.
The earliest known rap song: "Hair"
Posted in Music
When Wire to Wire is published in June 2011, it will be part of a journey that started when I met the writer Jack Cady. Jack had one word that he said was the secret to making it as writer. In my case, it turned out to be true.
Jack was known for his novel, The Jonah Watch, at the time. Earlier, he’d published a story in Twigs, an obscure literary journal, that was reprinted in The Best American Short Stories. Joyce Carol Oates had chosen his collection of short stories, The Burning, for the Iowa Short Fiction Award and called him an important new voice. He’d also been a truck driver, an auctioneer, and a landscaper. He was tall, weathered, lion-like, and a force of nature when he talked about fiction. I met him at an extension class through the University of Washington in the 1980s.
A lot of what Jack told me is unforgettable. I still have my notebooks from that class, but I don’t really need them, because when Jack said something he thought was important, you tended to remember it. When I picture that class, here’s the image: A small classroom in Parrington Hall, a bunch of us at wooden desks, a cinderblock wall with a blackboard in front of us. On the top left corner of the wall was a No Smoking placard. On the top right corner, an identical placard. And for three hours, from 7 to 10 that night, Jack paced, talked, and smoked nonstop, like the auctioneer he had been, like the preacher he could have been, as he told us the truth about fiction.
I knew nothing at the time. I had never written a word of fiction. Clearly, this was a new religion, and I was hooked. A lot of people have helped me during this long trip, out of pure generosity. I’ll blog about them, for sure. But Jack started it.
Fiction is hard, Jack said, but I can always tell the difference between people who are going to make it and those who aren’t. People who are going to make it have one thing the others don’t. Tenacity.
I sat there thinking, in that case, I’m in.
Looking back, I realize he might have said any number of things. Not long after that class, I heard Richard Ford tell a group of us at Squaw Valley that there was no dishonor in deciding not to write. You make an honest try at fiction, and if after a while it’s not working, you put your burden down and do something else with your life.
Ford’s advice was and is realistic, honest, and very, very decent. You put your burden down. I wonder, sometimes, how my life might have been different if I’d heard Ford speak before I heard Cady. But I didn’t. Jack said all you have to do is not quit. So I didn’t.
I knew about tenacity, by the way, from the Tests of Manhood that D. C. Jesse Burkhardt (who would later become Iron Legs Burk) and I invented as teenagers in the town of Frankfort, Michigan (later to become Wolverine in W2W). More on that later.
This June, when the book finally comes out, a couple of decades after that night in Parrington Hall, one person I won’t be able to share it with is Jack Cady. He passed away in 2004.
So Jack, thanks. In some ways, this is all for you.
A song about the long haul and not giving up, from my blip.fm page: "Someday," by Cracker.
Welcome to what will be the site for Wire to Wire. We're not going public until early January, but since you're here, feel free to take a look around. Some of the content is still placeholder material, and not everything is completely functional yet -- so look around if you like, but please come back in early January for the real thing. Thanks -- SS.
- December, 2015
- January, 2015
- November, 2014
- April, 2014
- March, 2014
- December, 2013
- September, 2013
- July, 2013
- March, 2013
- January, 2013
- November, 2012
- October, 2012
- July, 2012
- May, 2012
- March, 2012
- February, 2012
- January, 2012
- December, 2011
- November, 2011
- October, 2011
- September, 2011
- August, 2011
- July, 2011
- June, 2011
- May, 2011
- April, 2011
- March, 2011
- February, 2011
- January, 2011
- December, 2010
- My Essay on Bloom: No Other Way Out
- Playlist in LargeHearted Boy
- A Book Brahmin Essay for Shelf Awareness
- Powell's Blog: Sex & Money
- Powell's Blog: Riding Freights
- Powell's Blog: Burning Down the House
- Powell's Blog: Bob Seger
- Powell's Blog: Thank You
- An Interview with Kathleen Alcala
- An interview with Laura Stanfill
- Video with Yuvi Zalkow
- Interview with Noah Dundas
- Tin House Blog: Motor City Fiction
- Blog on Occupy Writers
- W2W Essay for Northwest Book Lovers
- W2W Essay for Poets & Writers
- America Reads: Page 69
- America Reads: My book, the movie
- America Reads: What I'm Reading
- Interview with Be Portland
- The Oregonian: Where I Write