Monday, March 21, 2016

My First Time: Chris Bachelder

My First Time is a regular feature in which writers talk about virgin experiences in their writing and publishing careers, ranging from their first rejection to the moment of holding their first published book in their hands. Today’s guest is Chris Bachelder, author of the novels Abbot Awaits, U.S.!, Bear v. Shark, and most recently The Throwback Special. He is also the winner of The Paris Review’s Terry Southern Prize for Humor. His short fiction and essays have appeared in McSweeney’s, The Believer, Harper’s, and The Paris Review. He teaches at the University of Cincinnati.

My First Lesson in Conviction

In the fall of 2001, during my second and final year in the MFA program at the University of Florida, I took a fiction workshop with Padgett Powell. This was a big deal, submitting my work to a writer who was so significant to me. Powell was not just the reason I was in Florida, he was also, more than any other person, the reason I was writing fiction at all.

Five years earlier, I had been a PhD student in English (but not in writing) in North Carolina. At that point, I had written very little fiction, and while I had vague yearnings to make something, something maybe bright and durable, I had no conscious or sustained ambition of being a writer. I was, perhaps without even realizing it, on the brink of disaffection—both with the degree and with the drift of my life more generally. At the beginning of the semester, a strange dude in the MFA program forced a copy of Powell’s Typical on me and said Powell was coming to read later in the fall.

I can’t imagine why I read the book—I certainly had plenty of other things to read—but I did read it, and I was astonished and exhilarated by the energy, the excess, the wit, the precision, the syntactic control, and the hilarious combination of a high, formal, literary register with gloriously low people, diction, and premise.

I had never seen someone wield language like this, with such a profound respect for the liberating and generative constraints of syntax, with such disdain for conventional phrasing, with such solemn skylarking. I began to see how style becomes a subject. Mostly, though, I was just excited, and post-adolescent excitement is a gift of some value.

Then, in October, Powell read on campus. He read from the story “All Along the Watchtower” in his new collection Aliens of Affection. In that very funny and urgent story about love and longing there is, yes, a “giant spoilbank of broken hearts.” (I see now that a 1996 reviewer for Library Journal, unfortunately reinforcing cruel librarian stereotypes, warns that Powell “is at times excessive.”) And Powell knew how to read his own work—with a restraint that accentuated both the humor and the pathos. My head, my plans, got rearranged. I began, at this very point, modestly at first but then with increasing urgency, to harbor literary aspirations, if only to try to do what Powell was doing, to get in on the excitement. That night I bought his books, got them signed. Beneath his name he wrote “October 1996 Greensboro” so I’ll always remember when and where this occurred.

It took me a couple more years to detonate my life and start over. I quit the graduate program, picked up odd jobs, and called my own bluff about my ambition to write. All during this time, I hoped eventually to go to a writing program, and I knew exactly where I wanted to go.

* * * * *

Padgett Powell
The first story I submitted in Powell’s workshop was called “Clemency.” The title was the best part of the draft. I wrote it the week after we read, out loud in class, Barry Hannah’s “Constant Pain in Tuscaloosa.” I still have my story somewhere but I refuse to look for it. As far as I remember, it was about a guy who was looking for another guy named Monroe so he could, I think, inflict some harm on him. There was, almost certainly, a lady in there too, with all the concomitant troubles that a lady will cause. Antic is, I believe, a way to describe the proceedings. Zany another. Glib would fit. There was not, in this story, a root system, a depth of commitment. Powell’s end comments on my story were written in pencil and they were numbered one to ten, as follows:

1. Hmmm.
2. Well.
3. Pretty good.
4. I don’t know.

(I’ll pause here to say that major pedagogical work had already been done at this point, and in just seven words.)

5. I’m getting a “Tuscaloosa” vibe here, big time.
6. Is it possible you got half of something here, but not yet the original other half?
7. That reservation might just be me.
8. Has hero actually beat Monroe up?

(By now it had been communicated to me that the story feels like an imitation, that the action of the story is not clear, and that, most troublingly, something is just not quite right. As a teacher of writing for the past fifteen years, I’ve learned that you almost always begin with this vague sense, then you grope inelegantly toward diagnosis. “Is it possible you got . . . ?” )

9. This thing does what this kind of thing is supposed to do, and I suppose that is what is preventing my applauding it.

(I have come to love this formulation, which seems at first glance so counterintuitive. One might think that a writer’s job is to get the piece to do what the piece is supposed to do, but that is wrong. That is exactly wrong. In class, Powell would occasionally say of a piece that it was “executed to conception.” This was not a compliment.)

10. Are you applauding it?

I offer this up as remarkable teaching disguised as careless teaching. You won’t find more effective “creative writing pedagogy,” even in expensive textbooks or at conference panels. I’ve written a lot of lengthy workshop letters, and it pains me to consider that in all likelihood not one has done for a student what this tidy list did for me. All his early hemming and hawing was a setup for a final blunt turn toward the writer: Are you applauding it?

The truth, of course, is that I wasn’t applauding it. And Powell’s point is not simply that one should applaud one’s one work, or that approving of one’s own work is linked to its quality. Self-applause is certainly not the lesson here. The lesson is about conviction, investment, ambition. His final question means, “Do you stand behind this?” And, “Does this story adequately represent the aims of fiction?” And, “Does this story matter to you?” My eight-year-old daughter has school assignments for which she must check a box – or not – that says, “I tried my best.” Powell was giving me the grad school version of that box, and I could not in all honesty check it.

A sense of whimsy and exploration and even imitation is particularly important during an apprenticeship, and playfulness in writing is vital. In fact, I’m sure Powell would say, as I would, that a sense of play is essential to good writing. But playful is not synonymous with wacky or frivolous. Johan Huizinga, a Dutch cultural historian and the author of Homo Ludens, spent a lot of time thinking about human play. He concluded that it is a grave and holy and sober business. “We are accustomed to think of play and seriousness as an absolute antithesis,” he wrote. “It would seem, however, that this does not go to the heart of the matter.”

Powell, though, went to the heart of the matter. It’s a lesson I carry around. If you don’t mean it, if you’re only trying to get the piece to do what it’s supposed to do, then you’re only writing for workshop, for deadline. You’re only trying to impress someone, maybe a teacher or a handsome classmate. You’re only writing for publication or adulation. You’re only writing for your cv, for a job, for tenure, for promotion, for money. You’re only writing tautologically, because you’re a writer. You’re only typing, and that’s not good enough.

Chris Bachelder photo by Jennifer Habel

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