Monday, September 08, 2008

Writing New York

A Writer Takes on Grad School and New York City… and Lives To Tell About It

Deonne Kahler


Classes started last week, and I’m happily adrift in a week-long grad school joy hangover. I'm taking a poetry craft class called "Poetic Closure," a literature class on Henry James, the 19th century American master, and fiction workshop, where we bring in work for critique by both class and professor, as well as discuss the art and craft of fiction.

In this semester’s workshop, professor John Weir tells us we’ll focus on two problems he sees in most young writers’ work. One is the sentence. As in, we tend to write lame ones. Sure, the sentence may convey the pertinent facts, and sure, we neophytes may sneak in a good metaphor or descriptive detail once in awhile, but overall, our sentences aren’t doing nearly the work they should be.

To make his point, Professor Weir had us dissect the antithesis of a simple sentence, a 342-word behemoth from William Faulkner’s The Wild Palms. Not to say that 341 words or fewer are a supreme disappointment, but to be good writers, we have to create more interesting, more layered, more complex sentences.

We managed to break that sentence down to its most basic structure, subject-verb-object, which took some serious brainpower on my part. I was a business major in college, for crying out loud, and I’m not sure when I last studied grammar, but I’d bet I probably wasn’t tall enough to ride the rollercoaster.

Then there’s the lack of what Professor Weir calls “And then.” As in, and then what happens? The neophyte story starts off promisingly enough with the dotty Aunt Edna losing her beloved cat, Mr. Whiffles. Intriguing! And then what? Unfortunately what many of us do, instead of proceeding to tell a compelling story, is launch into ten pages of existential meditation on the injustice of a dotty old woman losing her beloved feline companion. Or we describe Mr. Whiffles’ litter box using all five senses, or we flash back to Aunt Edna’s childhood and her first cat, the sweet but doomed Mr. Pickles.

In the hands of a genius like Faulkner, those things might actually make good fiction, but for the rest of us, it’s unlikely. What might work better: Aunt Edna loses Mr. Whiffles. And then Aunt Edna decides to drive her 1954 baby blue Buick around town looking for Mr. Whiffles, which is a bad idea since Aunt Edna is legally blind. And has a drinking problem. Which she’s been indulging since she crawled out of bed seven hours ago.

And then? You put another obstacle in Aunt Edna’s way – self-imposed or otherwise – and see what happens. And then another. Until you reach the end of the story, the resolution of all those And Thens, and the reader can finally sit back and say, Whew! How satisfying that Aunt Edna escaped the drunk tank (again) and was reunited with beloved Mr. Whiffles. Or, in this lame example, the reader might simply lean back and say, good lord that was awful. Get me one of what Aunt Edna’s having.

Deonne Kahler has been a freelance writer for seven years, and decided it was time to move to New York and get her MFA. And really, why not? Contact her at deonne [at] deonnekahler [dot] com, or check out her blog at

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