One of the things I found most difficult to teach to beginning writers in my creative writing classes at Texas A&M was the fact that any piece of fictional prose begins in the ordinary, literal world and proceeds to dismantle that reality to reveal a dream world lying just beneath. Facts are everything at a university, which embodies the powerful tenets of 18th empiricism, in which imagination plays no part. Facts are the unimpeachable building blocks of “truth,” the basis for understanding the world. Nothing that is not visible, or tangible, can be said to exist. Everything in a student’s life needs to be verified by logic and precedent. If a student is asked to undermine the appearance of the ordinary moment, it is a bit like asking someone in the Middle Ages to entertain a possible heresy as a writing assignment. You will never quite get the student to do what you asked – the facts will accumulate and the oddities the student is forced to introduce are easily explained away by the reigning doctrine. You end up without a story. You can’t quite explain why such writing fails to achieve story-ness.
Every other class a student attends shows the machinery of empiricism at work – generalizations followed by instances, hypotheses proven by precedent or general laws. Authorities are brought to bear on the question, and statistics, samplings, field studies are arrayed to prove the truth of any assertion. The student reads, analyzes, underlines, and memorizes the key parts of any such process of truth-testing, and the facts are either correct and follow the precise patterns desired, or they are false and represent distortions, mistakes, outright lies, make-believe. The university makes a strong stand on scholarship, on veracity, on the nature of reality as proven by known procedures that eliminate all possibility of intrusion of other parts of mind, such as superstition, fantasy, fiction.
Doubt, suspicion, an alert and defensive mind are the virtues of a university education; debate is a powerful tool of classroom instruction. Students take sides and argue with available facts to win an argument, and the winner is always the side that can match all the phenomena of a situation with the known principles that can verify such an event. But a story begins in the world of empirical fact and slowly allows an underlying layer of connections to emerge, until the facts begin to fall apart. That may be why the word fiction has two meanings: the first, to tell stories, the second to lie about something. And now a student is being asked to lie about a perfectly innocent account of a thing happening, and to show that this event is suspended over a murky, unstable medium of dreams, hallucinations, even madness.
That may be why the word fiction has two meanings: the first, to tell stories, the second to lie about something. And now a student is being asked to lie about a perfectly innocent account of a thing happening, and to show that this event is suspended over a murky, unstable medium of dreams, hallucinations, even madness.
“People need things to make sense,” writes Charles Blow of The New York Times about the Sandra Bland case, where a young African-American woman commits suicide under suspicious circumstances while detained in a prison cell. He notices that a pair of orange shoes is missing in one still of a video, while they are under the bed in a different still. Who moved them? Why is a Bible open in one still, and missing in the other? These questions are what fiction lives on, and are the means by which narration moves forward. Things make sense in one version, but in another, fall apart.
In the case of my latest story in The Antioch Review (Spring 2015), “The Man with the Hat,” a man is stopped and asked if he has a hat he can spare. The narrator takes the man, Richard Almeyer, to his house and hands him his old hat. But instead of thanking the man, Almeyer says it was his hat to begin with. Therein lies the germ of the story, a mundane event without mystery or depth, begins to let a second more menacing level of meaning emerge. By the time the story is over, the narrator is made to doubt his own sense of reality and now lives with a woman who claims to be his wife! The story undermines expectations and appearances and both the protagonist and the reader descend into a strange sea of contradictions from which a richer, more powerful reality emerges.
In time, my students learn to trust me on the matter of letting appearances give way to inscrutable other meanings, some or all of which begin to re-pattern themselves into a plausible, but not altogether believable conclusion. I like the discomfort this may cause. I also like watching students learn that they are living in an intellectual tradition that is at once omnipresent and limited. That the doctrines of today are not exhaustive of reality, and that what lies along the edges of seemingly incontrovertible truth are alternative realities surging like a moonlit ocean. This is the real soul of fiction, a game with metaphysics and certainty, a subtle, nagging, insistence on doubt of the most fundamental things.
Paul Christensen‘s story, “How Frank Died,” published in The Antioch Review in the Winter, 2013 issue, was listed as a distinguished mystery story in Best American Mystery Stories of 2013. He shovels snow in central Vermont much of the winter, and relaxes in southern France each summer. paul-christensen.com
© The Antioch Review 2015