Editor’s note: Richard Bausch has published eight acclaimed collections of short stories and eleven widely praised novels, including Peace, for which he received the 2009 Dayton Literary Peace Prize. Admiration for Bausch’s writing is matched by high regard for his teaching. He is legendary for his ability to help novice writers overcome their doubts and produce their best work. “I don’t teach writing,” he said in a 2003 interview. “I teach patience. Toughness. Stubbornness. The willingness to fail.” Bausch, who once held the Moss Chair of Excellence at the University of Memphis, is now a professor at Chapman University in California, but aspiring writers everywhere get the benefit of his wisdom and encouragement via his Facebook page. His posts about the joys and difficulties of what he calls “this blessed occupation” are widely shared among his several thousand friends and followers.
Bausch will appear at the Celebration of Southern Literature in Chattanooga April 18-20. Prior to the event, he has kindly permitted Chapter 16 to repost a selection of his Facebook updates, and we include them with their off-the-cuff eloquence untouched.
Ever notice this? For all our smarts and our so-adult attitudes and opinions, and our wide knowledge and even our cynicism about so many things—for all that—when it comes to the practice of this very difficult but blessed occupation, way down deep, at some atavistic level we cannot change or affect, we are still like little children before it, before the enormity of it. Listen to any of us talking about it. You don’t even have to listen closely. It’s always a child talking about something big and mysterious and a little scary—either talking bravado, or talking timid, or talking about some kind of friendly development, but always exactly as a child talks about the big world. The big incomprehensible-but-magical-and-charged-with-meanings-we-don’t-understand-world. And what is the line from the King James? Unless ye be like little children ye shall not enter. It is not ever, finally, what you know that lets you in. It’s what you want to see that you haven’t seen yet; what you want to know that you don’t understand yet. Ah, fellow children.
Work in the perfect confidence that: 1) It is going to be harder work than you have ever done; 2) It will not yield its secrets easily; 3) It will drive you a bit crazy until it surprises you, and even then the surprise will have other complications that will drive you a little more nuts; 4) It will open with perfect simplicity like a flower in sunlight in the first fresh morning of Spring, and then close on you like an iron door manned by six guards of the inquisition; and 5) All of this being true, you cannot truly hurt it. You can only make it necessary to do it again, get into its little dark grottoes and work it, and let the opening and closing and the secrets and the falterings take place knowing that you cannot hurt it. You absolutely cannot ruin it. I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating. You cannot permanently harm it. It is not made of glass, but of language, that sweet and glorious possession that is there like a guiding spirit, wanting to give you everything. Just be worthy of it and don’t expect it to dance on command. It needs to be courted, gently cajoled, and caressed. Trust the beauty of it, and don’t over worry it. It wants to yield its treasure. You only have to be patient, and quietly stubborn.
Language itself, the bleat and singing and plaint and cry, the urge and shiver born of the terrible fears that come from lightning and the dark, and predators and the sudden stop—this gift in the face of a savage existence where living beings have to kill and eat other living beings in order to survive. My God! The fact that human laughter rises to these cold stars and infinite spaces inspires me and makes me love the species even more: the creature that dies, and knows this, and knows also that it knows. We are better than all the angels, and we deserve God’s love, if he is there. And, oh, doubtfully, I hope he is.
If it’s really touching the well of truth, don’t worry too much about losing its exact expression; it will re-surface in one way or another. That is, if it is important to you and it moves you to want to write it, it will not go away, and the version you end up with may or may not be better than some earlier version of it. All of that is okay, too. The end result is to have the fullest expression of the thing, with, as much as humanly possible, everything in it contributing to everything else in it. Nabokov used to write a novel and then put it in a safe and re-write the whole thing from mood, without looking at the first draft. Trust that it will be there when it must and when you need it, and get it down. And try not to worry about it too much. This day’s work. Each day.
It seems to me that every damn thing that there is to do that involves excellence is marbled with failure. In baseball, for instance, someone who hits safely three out of ten times—that means seven out of ten times he fails—is Hall of Fame material. That’s a .300 batting average. Ted Williams, one of the greatest hitters who ever lived, batted .344 lifetime. Seven out of ten times, he failed. Trouble is when we’re writing it’s hard to see anything about a day’s work as practice. But of course it is practice; it’s exactly that. So the wonderful little button I saw in the bookshop in New York in 1967 when I was playing and singing music, and I thought if I could become famous as a singer-songwriter they’d let me graduate to writing novels (and that’s how dumb I was at twenty-two)—that button that said, “Go home, Schmuck, and practice” (and I laughed until the other band members had to carry me out of the store), that button was great advice. The best advice.
If you can see each day’s work as practice, and understand that the practice makes you better—better able to figure out what the thing you’re working on needs to shine as it should, then a day’s work is actually happy-making. One question at the end of the day. Did I work? And work constitutes being there for it in the days and nights even when you can’t figure out what the next line is. “Did I work?” If the answer is “Yes,” no other questions. Right? Each day, a little at a time. And failure is what it’s made out of. It’s the force we lift through and from, like pulling free of the stresses of gravity.
Reading over a scene you’ve written, after you look at the lines and the wording, after you’ve paid attention to the speech patterns and made sure that each character sounds like him/herself and is differentiated subtly and minutely, then go over it and make sure there is enough context for the drama to matter to someone overhearing it, since that is always the case: A reader is overhearing it. Not providing enough context is like continuing a conversation with someone when a third party comes up, without catching the new person up on the subject. It’s downright rude. It turns out that one must pay attention to the normal customs of polite discourse, even in the most dramatic of scenes—and somehow you have to do it without the reader being aware that you are doing it. Magic. Magic. Sleight of hand. Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain. Wizardry.
With every story, long or short, there is an implied silence that is broken. The same silence that obtains when the conductor walks out, and the audience quietens, and he steps up and taps the little stand where all the music is waiting, and then he raises his arms, and viola! Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony comes into the world again. It is the same, in its way, with fiction. And if you ask yourself, during revision, “Why has the silence been broken here?” you can reach into the very center of the story, its heart. And work outward from there. And then remember that the broken silence is your voice going out into the world, and it will still be sounding in these words and phrases when you are long gone. Whether anyone comes to it or not, it will be there. And so in that one lovely way, you are never effaced. You have made the joyful noise.
You are not putting life on the page; you are making fiction, which has more to do with itself than it will ever really have to do with life. You are working with the illusion of life—the same as a painter is working with the illusion of light and that life he portrays. Life is messy and often terrifyingly random and nuanced beyond our powers of perception—you are creating life shaped, ordered, governed by the demands of story. So you learn your way through it and cut anything that doesn’t contribute to the story and to the concerns of the story. In doing so, if you are faithful enough, and lucky, too, you suggest the fullness of the very life we lead.
When we talk about fiction giving forth “truth” we are seldom talking about the kind of truth one seeks in philosophy. It is, in fact, almost never philosophical truth, but the truth of experience we are concerned with; the kind of truth that stays true, because human feeling is as it is, and one feels for characters in fiction when it achieves truth because one knows, deep, that the feeling is true to the experience. It is the truth of felt life. We feel the thrill or the sting of it because it touches our nerve-endings, more than our intellect. So keep the emphasis on the senses—how things feel.
The urge to be realistic, to present a clear vision of the actual world we live in, can lead to the problem of presenting what I call dailiness—verisimilitude for its own sake. That’s both inevitable and probably even healthy in a first draft (I encourage students to put it all in that first time); but in revision, where the real artistry is, you come to the knowledge that fiction has more to do with itself than it has to do with life. Life is frighteningly random and very often senseless. Fiction is to take that terrible chaotic aggregation of blind forces and by sleight of hand, by magic and imagining, to impose order and shapeliness on it, to make sense out of experience. That’s why it is so hard to do well, and why it is so terribly important to do at all if you have the slightest gift for it. And there is nothing of it that can really be called “realism.” I hate the term. I am a fabulist; I’m imagining gardens with real toads in them, to use Marianne Moore’s wonderful figure. And there is such pleasure in having worked through all the thickets of so-called “reality” to arrive at story—ah, story. The blessed and holy thing.
We say, “Fiction is about trouble,” as if there has to be some justification for the suffering our characters do. I think the charge comes from our forgetting sometimes that fiction is also about absurdity and foolishness and folly and all the comedic goofs of which we are capable. But it is all in the context of the trouble we are in just by being human and subject to the natural shocks; and to the chief sorrow of our existence, which is that indeed we do suffer and die, and there is little for it in the world with its immense quiet in reference to us. Little for it beyond the art that we make and strive to make, our joyful noise in the face of that silence.
Most of us come to this work from having read so much, from the discovery that nothing else quite nourished us inwardly in quite the way the printed word did. We couldn’t get enough. We were and are rapacious readers. Of everything. We have a hunger to know everything that was ever written that is worth remembering, that, as Milton put it, future generations have not “willingly let die.” Lately, in the age of the Internet and the blog, I have encountered a species of “writer” that came to it from deciding it might be a good thing to be able to call one’s self a writer. I run into students who believe they can accomplish this by reading how-to books and manuals, as if the construction of a good story were no different than building a deck on the back of one’s house. Good people who are misguided and in some cases duped by the industry around the how-to books. Faulkner had the best advice: read read read. Read even the bad ones. And he wasn’t talking about how-to books. And there’s Fitzgerald’s advice to Scotty: you should try to absorb six good authors a year. Note the use of the word “absorb.” Yes. And my God, it’s thrilling all the time.
I’ve heard it said glibly that in the best fiction everybody’s right. But that isn’t really true, is it? As we all know, there are unforgettable evil characters in literature: Iago and Edmund and that awful couple the Macbeths and Quilp and Uriah Heep and Sykes and Jason Compson, to name a very few. And we sometimes will hear in discussions of a fictional character, even one we ourselves have created, that he or she is not very likable. Well, of course likability is completely irrelevant. Not one of the bad people I mentioned above is remotely likable, but they are, each of them, interesting. And of course that’s what they have to be. And how do you make bad people interesting? You deliver them personally, in their personal details, their particularity. When you can get that right, revising and re-writing to bring it forth, they take on immediacy and seem always exactly present—nothing antique about them. Edmund, for instance, in Lear, talking about the “excellent foppery of the world.” My God. He could be a man sitting in a corporate boardroom.
Say anything. What you say predicates the next thing. Say one sentence, no matter what it is, and the thing is set in motion. You say, “I was being chased by a gigantic angry giraffe.” And then you have to say something after that. And what you say next is determined by what you just said. If you can get the heavy critic who stands at your shoulder saying no, no, no, who’s going to want to read that, that’s not good, that can’t lead anywhere, that doesn’t look as good as (insert whoever you’re reading)—if you can make that petty stuffy overly conscious hidebound censor shut up, and just dream it on through and play it out as it seems to want to go, you’ll get a lot more done. Stop thinking so much, and dream it up. There’s plenty of time to think about it later and use your smarts on it. You’ll use all your various selves on it—but at the beginning, you must try to be that infant with speech.
When you feel dry, mime someone. Write in someone else’s voice; write Faulkner for awhile, or Cheever, or Katherine Ann Porter, or anyone, to get the thing on paper. Then go through and take out the sound of those other voices, and be true to the event, or the occasion, and clear about it whatever it is, and what’s left is you. You learned by imitating; there’s no reason you can’t warm to it that way, too. I love the opening passages of Little Dorritt, that amazing description of Marseilles in the heat and sun. That always gets my motor running.
If you don’t know what’s next with one scene, work on another part of it. Everything you do to any part of it affects the whole of it, and working on another part might supply you with unexpected answers to the part that is troubling you. The thing to remember is that while they may read sequentially, with events held in suspension over the story’s aboutness like a cable car over a river, they are quite often not written in sequence; it’s all expression. Let it come as it wants to, and trust it to let you find your winding way to its secrets.
It is never really a matter of vanity or indulgence, finally. You make the mistakes, you get it wrong over and over, and you anguish over it, and feel inadequate to the whole thing, and so much less capable than those whose finished work you are reading—but look what’s really happening. You are stumbling all over yourself trying with your whole heart to be splendid. That is such a happy thing, something to celebrate.
To write seriously and get it right is to remove the walls between people, to break down the notion of others as monoliths of cultural difference, and so it is terribly important to do it with everything you have, even knowing that the world may ignore it. The world ignores many very great writers every day. But even remembering all this, also remember that if a work of narrative art or of poetry or nonfiction does not engage and entertain, then it is a failure, no matter how serious its intent. So spend the time to make the reading of the sentences and the lines pleasurable. That must be the first thing. Let the other stuff surprise you. If you are striving to be truthful, and faithful to the thing for itself, the chances are very good that it will shine as it should with those matters that can indeed bring about something like salvation itself for a time.
You do not have to be particularly smart, or fast, or even very widely or deeply knowledgeable in any way that the world considers “useful.” You need only to be willing, and pitted, and stubborn enough to find out the base matter on which you are building your story. Finding out what you need to know specifically to convince a reader, you learn what your story requires; you may even discover what your story is truly about. And of course the illusion you create in working this magic is that you know everything. It’s all about that illusion, and I say often, only half joking, that one really ends up writing fiction because one is a “natural born liar.” Try to ingest everything that’s ever been written that’s worth remembering, and write out of that. And as you mature and grow, then, you find that you are no longer quite imitating, finally, but vying. Challenging. Trying to be worthy of the respect of the living and the dead, by being as faithful to and respectful of this blessed and beautiful task as they all were, all the good men and women who came before us, and who have made a path through the terrifying silence, for us to take. Trust that.
When you come upon some difficulty or trouble regarding the motions or reactions of your characters—when something starts to look cheesy to you, or forced, or silly, or managed—try to remember that the whole enterprise is a cooperation between you and your readers, and that therefore your deepest responsibility is to keep the reader’s trust, the reader’s belief in what you’re telling him/her. So, just try to be straight about it all. Remember that you are the docent in your own museum—the gallery where your story is. That museum. Face into whatever the problems are. With the reader. Let him/her know that you are aware of the depth of whatever problem arises from your imagining and from the history out of which you are imagining (and work to remember that if what you are describing is “roughly” contemporary—even if that is so about it—it is also true that if it is more than fifteen minutes past, you are in history). Give the reader the license to partake in the creation of your story by letting him/her in on the problems of its creation, without announcing them as such. At the very least, try to acknowledge, with every gesture, that the enterprise you are offering involves them as privileged partners in the journey, which is always a journey to Truth. All this adds up to an honesty that daily social life never requires of us. Fiction demands it, from the first tentative lines to the last touches of revision.
We live by stories. It’s the first thing every child of mine wanted. It’s the whole heart and soul of being human. And a reader wants to make the journey. All you have to do is find a way to be involving and clear and vivid and to tell the story as it seems most to be tending. You don’t need gymnastics to convince readers to come along. You need only not to disrespect them, not to confuse them about the literal surface of the story, and not to cheat them or give them less than the dead level best you’ve got. It’s a special kind of intimacy, the one between writer and reader. And when you get to a place reading a story where you experience that shock of recognition, that surprise, you can be sure the writer was just as surprised writing it as you are reading it. And there is Conrad’s “solidarity of the human family.” And that is beautiful.
The confusions often have less to do with the work than with your own expectations toward it. Let go of thinking about it and its possible place in the world, including the world of your own work, and think inside it, imagining your way into the physical and mental being of your people—deed them the right to be other than mouthpieces for what you think you think. I believe that’s how they take on life, when they leave you behind and stop waiting for you to decide what they should do, and start doing things that surprise—and may even horrify—you, with all your dignity and compassion.
Working, we are each fellow-rounded, friend-wound, companion-wrapped, by all the ones who wrestle with the word and song, and by all the ones who ever did. So do the work for itself, apart from petty worries. Make it patiently, in its time, out of everything you’ve seen and heard and dreamed, and know that the silent admonishing others whose work we have for treasure moved through the striving and fitful-feeling slow making, too, and that they contended with the same doubts and fears and feelings of inadequacy to the task, and that therefore they are with you, now and all along, all along.
If it confuses you, that’s normal. If it makes you feel blank, that’s normal, too. If it seems to flow and then you look at it and what flowed seems stilted and sloppy and forced, that also is normal. It is also normal to have wildly divergent senses of it at different times. It is completely within the borders of creation to have the conviction that all of it is too deeply flawed and riven with your own shortcomings to be anything anyone else would want to see; and then only a moment later to find yourself with the pleasant suspicion that it might actually be good. Sometimes, you may even have the sense that it’s better than good. But this very quickly dissolves in doubt because you see all the little places where the language is only its pedestrian self and yields up nothing but things. Objects. People talking. Except that this is what novels are made of. And finally you get to thinking of the whole thing as a story. And you start over, getting a little smarter about it as you go. And then even when it is done and there isn’t any more you can see to do with it, you still go back and forth, believing on some days and doubting on others. And mostly doubting. That’s our nature. And it is completely normal.
One is always looking to write enough to make the largest part of the task something like muscle memory for a guitarist: you don’t have to stop and think. You just do it. Go on, and spin it out, without reference to anything in particular but the dreaming—the beautiful dreaming. The thinking, the ruminating, the re-thinking and studying, well, all that comes later usually. And provides its own kind of fun. One is like lazing in the air of possibility, the other is like solving a puzzle you’ve made. All fun, if you can remember this about it.
As hard as it is and as much as you anguish over it, remember that it is a primitive and highly powerful form of cognitive play. It is an elaborate day-dream played out and then shaped, for resonance, and nuance and meaning, and the meaning is nothing you need so necessarily to be aware of—you are simply moving through all that you know and all that you believe you think, and all that you have experienced, and all that you love, in order to get back to the direct—and directly honest—gaze of a child. No opinions about it, no judgments, no preconceptions, but just the thing itself, seen directly and reported directly, with precision, which comes from the working of it over and over, for clarity, not attitude; lucidity, not belief. Not even belief. The surest way to kill it is to intend it in terms of any of these mental attitudes about experience. Just try to be clear. The rest will take care of itself.
You never really learn to write, as it is usually conceived; there is no template you are trying to decipher. What you learn, eventually, is how to write this one thing you’re working on. It’s no accident that we feel as if we have to learn everything all over again each time we try to do it. Because that is indeed the situation. You have to learn how to write each one, and each one contains secrets and mysteries that you have to solve, and those secrets and mysteries change as the story changes, and so you have to learn it all over. The thing you can treat like a template is habit, the habits of work that you develop, that you can strive consciously to develop. The habit of being shrewd about it all: practicing the habit of working without demanding too much in the way of specific conditions (silence, certain light, certain time of say, certain place), teaching yourself to work in changing conditions and with the noises and distractions of being alive on this very hectic and unpeaceful planet. Just visiting it each day, letting it know you’re there. So I am really seldom teaching writing: I’m teaching habits, and revision, and practice, and understanding that confusion is quite normal and even healthy because it leads you into what you don’t know about what you thought you knew.
Plato called it “seizure,” that moment where you come upon something that you had no slight inkling that you knew—and you feel the truth of it in your bones. And you know that whatever may change around it, that will not change. And you know it will surprise a reader as well. Moments like the one in War and Peace when Pierre sees the men killed by the shell burst at Borodino, as the battle is beginning, and he has the thought, “Surely, now they will stop.” Those kinds of moments, where the psyche bends down to us in our quotidian soup and shines the light of its all-knowledge, all-feeling on us. It is no accident that for centuries writers seriously invoked a muse to speak through them. And of course my tying it to the subconscious, or to the inner cosmos, or to whatever name I can find for it, does not take away from the truth of its action in the process of creating; it is the thing we do it for, call it what we will. And it is glorious.
History, even in a historical novel, is always backdrop. Because the novel is always about the personal life and the personal cost of things. We care more about Natasha and Sonja and Pierre and Prince Andrei, and old Bolkonsky and Maria, than we do about Russia’s war with Napoleon. And the scene that shows it best is when Natasha is sitting in the window and she believes she’ll never see Andrei again, and also believes she has failed him, and her best friend Sonja, with whom she was raised, comes to her and says, “Natasha, look. Moscow is burning.” And Natasha, still a teenager, a young woman with a broken heart, turns and looks over her shoulder and says, “Oh, yes. Moscow.” Your characters not only have a right to their personal problems, the novel you’re writing requires that those problems take center stage.
Had a dip into sleepiness this morning while reading Anna Karenina. Page 612, I could’ve sworn Tolstoy attributed slyness to Levin. In my dimness, I thought it was a lapse. I lay there thinking about how in that moment he seems to be simply casting for some contradictory thing to say, some aspect going against the grain. And then I saw that he was actually attributing the slyness to Oblonski, and I had a revelation. Tolstoy has so established Levin’s nature in my consciousness that the word slyness could not apply to him. Not ever. And that’s making characters. I understood that while we struggle to find the words to move our people through what they are experiencing—through the story—that the story also has to happen to someone, a specific somebody, and so apart from the lines, you are also always dealing with the nature of your created people. Who they are and what they fear and love and hope for and how they seem to themselves. And so in revision, that means seeking to know them as themselves, and searching for that insight. Maybe that’s the last thing you do in composition, study the behavior of each character through the book, to be sure, and to know, and sometimes even to see it at all.
The linguists call it a triadic event. It is the single most essentially human transaction in the world. We can see animals signing, and we even see them in some instances passing on very specific knowledge concerning rudimentary tools, or flying, or even making the kill. But you will never see two chimps talking about a third chimp who isn’t there. In our daily living, of course, it takes the form of gossip, of expressions of anxiety or concern or entertainment or even jokes, but look where it has led.
I like to draw it out on a blackboard: on one side of the triad is Homer in 700 BC. On the other side is any of us, in any city on earth or out in the space station. The center of the arc is that soldier, say, in The Iliad, who is discovered by Odysseus and tries to run, and a spear is hurled that lands in the dirt at his feet, having come over his head, and he stops frozen and knows that he is going to die, that he cannot escape. Or, as I have often said, let us put tragic Hector in the center, removing his helmet so his little son can recognize his own father.These are powerful moments that make us ache, and, as Mark Van Doren has written, even knowing the outcome and even having read it before, “mortality still stings.” And it was written seven hundred years before Christ walked the earth: more than two thousand years ago.
This is the miracle of writing, and when you sit down to write you are partaking in that miracle, you are in fact not different in kind than anyone else who ever did that—human beings all, men and women with fears and doubts and hopes and worries and every tentative nerve you have; and so to me a large part of this occupation is aiming to be worthy of their respect. That is, to show up for work in the days, and to honor their struggles with the art in my own struggles with it, understanding perfectly well that what does come from my work will most likely disappear with me, and accepting that as my destiny while also respecting and loving the thing itself, narrative art, for its essential and glorious human beauty.
So let go, let go. You can write an awful lot if you are simply thinking of it as your work, an honorable and even a generous and good way to spend the time, taking part in the great mysterious ongoing communication across time and boundaries and politics and every other failure of existence, cheating hate, and all those abstractions we tend to make out of the Other, cheating death itself. This simple act—putting words down in any language, in sequence, to tell the story that suggests itself, working like all hell to get it right and being as truthful as you can while also understanding that it is going to be as hard as any work you’ve ever done, but that it will answer you, deep, as that kind of striving always does.
Just keep going. Say it all out and let it be wrong if it’s going to be wrong for awhile—take the blind alleys and the wrong turns that seem promising and then seem to wilt as you get into the third paragraph of them. That’s utterly normal and healthy and good. Down one of those blind alleys is a door that opens on the technicolor world of the novel you were born to write—and it’s why I’ve always loved that moment in The Wizard of Oz when Dorothy opens that door on Munchkin Land. Seriously. Get the film and look at that: that’s us writers coming to the opening door, the one that gives forth the world of the book in brightness and color and, damn, one isn’t in Kansas anymore!
Too many times you think of this work as something you have to haul up out of yourself—you’re writing then more about your experience, than you are writing with it. Forget hauling anything up out of the self. Think of it as a path. You’re just going to go for a morning stroll through experience as the outside weather of the world. You make the path by walking it, and you can walk anywhere, right? Let it lead you, put down what comes to you to say even if it sounds wrong to you, or off the subject; and when at last you reach somewhere, it will probably have elements of surprise in it. That’s good. No surprises for the writer, Frost tells us, no surprises for the reader. Now you go back, knowing finally where it was always leading; and you strive to be terribly smart about the whole thing. Now, instead of using the dream side of your being, you’re using the side that figures how to get a door open when your hands are full. So you use all of yourself, before it’s over: the day-dreamer and the one with the ingenuity. It’s so hard not because you’re not up to it; it’s so hard because it’s so important to do it right, to get it down right. And it’s hard for everybody.
I used to pace, near sick with fear, before I’d sit down to try it, try putting something down, anything. I don’t know why I was afraid, since nothing in one day’s work comes remotely near to defining anything about what you are doing. It isn’t even an indication of anything. It is hard. It confuses. One feels uninspired and flat. One looks at a line and it starts to dissolve into all the other possibilities. And we get scared. What if it’s like this tomorrow? And what if it is always like this. And? And? And? This is what frightens you? The territory? The very deepest nature of the thing itself? Of course it always is terribly hard because it is coming into being and that is always difficult. Welcome to the territory. The province of creation. Who ever said it would be easy? It only looks as if it was easy after you’ve done it and re-done it and re-done it again and again, as many times as it takes. It is work. One is lucky to have it to do. You should try to cultivate a healthy sense of respect for it, of course, while also learning to see the plain silliness of being afraid of one little step on the way to wherever it will take you. The whole thing is a lovely adventure.
Make your feeling in things, images. There is so much more in an image because that is how we experience the world, and a good story is about experience, not concepts and certainly not abstractions. The abstractions are always finally empty and dull no matter how dear they may be to our hearts and no matter how profound we think they must be. I am perfectly aware that I am presently speaking in abstractions. So here is an example: there has been an auto accident. A head-on collision. We can say it contains all the horror of death and injury, and the terrible shocks to existence that await us all. Or—as my pal Allan Gurganus did once long ago in a workshop we were in, talking about this very matter—we can say a man with blood trickling from his ear and eyes wide and glittering unnaturally, knelt, shaking, at one of the broken headlights, trying, with trembling fingers, to put the pieces of shattered glass back into place. That opens the richest vein of horror, and it is experience, and we witness it, and feel it. So, in revision, get rid of all those places where you are commenting on things, and let the things stand for themselves. Be clear about the details that can be felt on the skin and in the nerves.
There is a big difference between what is pretty, and what has beauty, and this is also true of prose. Though I like to use poetry as an example because so many people think poetry is prettier somehow than prose. Poetry is where the language can be lovely. But how lovely is this: “Let him eat the last red meal of the condemned to extinction, tearing the guts from an elk.” But it is a line from a beautiful poem by James Dickey, one of his best, called “For The Last Wolverine.”
It is the same with prose: when the details are right and the writing is earning its way, and they add up to meaning with feeling, well, it is beautiful. It doesn’t have to be pretty. How pretty is it as writing in James’s “The Real Thing” when the once aristocratic couple, the Monarchs, down on their luck, are standing before the narrator, who is a painter and has found that even as the real thing—upper-class people—they are somehow not right for his painting, and Mr. Monarch says: “I say. Could we do for you?” offering himself and his wife, with their proud past, to be the painter’s servants: “‘Take us on,’ they wanted to say, ‘We’ll do anything.’” And he tells how he did for a time, but finally sent them away with a sum of money. Then goes on to say he never saw them again, and how, a friend of his now claims that the Monarchs and the whole experience “got [him] into false ways.” And then comes this line: “If it be true I am content to have paid the price—for the memory.”
Nothing more simply prosaic, but look at it. And his memory is of having seen once in his life “the real thing.’ Not the Monarchs as aristocratic types, but the love between them. That is the memory. Love. The real thing itself. And there is not a pretty line in the whole story. And it is beautiful. Just beautiful. Don’t worry about being elegant. Get it right being clear. Let it breathe, and look for clarity. If you can make it true, beauty will take care of itself, and Keats knew what he was talking about.
Copyright © 2013 by Richard Bausch. All rights reserved. Click here to read Maria Browning’s interview with Richard Bausch for Chapter 16 and here to read the farewell tribute she wrote on his departure from Memphis. Bausch’s twelfth novel, Before, During, After, is forthcoming in 2014. He can be contacted through his website.