Bret Lott is the best-selling author of 13 books (Jewel was an Oprah’s Book Club selection, numerous essays and stories. He has been a Fulbright Senior American Scholar and writer-in-residence at Bar-Ilan University in Tel Aviv, and is a member of the National Council of the Arts. Her teaches at the College of Charleston, South Carolina. His latest book is Dead Low Tide.

Here’s what I took away from his seminar at the Geneva Writers’ Workshop.

He begins with a quote from Walker Evans:

Stare. It is the way to educate

Your eye, and more.

Stare, pry, listen eavesdrop.

Die knowing something.

You are not here long.

Fiction is an accumulation of detail which yields meaning. Life is a series of details and is born of who you are. Get out there, get out of yourself. Bret advises his students in Charleston to learn how dialogue works by going to Waffle House after midnight and writing down whatever they hear. A cornerstone of writing is empathy.

Every writer faces the same problem – there’s nothing new. How do you take the familiar and look at it afresh?

Bret draws our attention to an example – Richard Brautigan’s short story 1/3, 1/3, 1/3. He asks us to read and identify any lines that strike us – he has two favourites.

I find four;

  • The novelist was in his late forties, tall, reddish, and looked as if life had given him an endless stream of two-timing girlfriends, five-day drunks and cars with bad transmissions.
  • One day I was standing in front of my shack, eating an apple and staring at a black ragged toothache sky that was about to rain.
  • … she was standing in front of her evil dentist house, twelve years old, and approximately two miles from the Welfare office.
  • The place was small and muddy and smelled like stale rain and had a large unmade bed which looked like it had been a partner to some of the saddest lovemaking this side of The Cross.

Bret points to the first two as examples of how the writer pierces the mundane and avoids cliché. But warns you can’t have this in every sentence or you’re in danger of overwriting.

He goes on to examine the opening of John Gardner’s Redemption. One day in April – a clear blue day when there were crocuses in bloom – Jack Hawthorne ran over and killed his brother, David. The detail provides immediate conflict and upsets reader expectation. Later, John Gardner revealed that the story was born of truth. As a child, he had accidentally killed his brother in almost identical circumstances. He said “A psychological wound, if kept in check, is helpful to keep a writer driven.” That one got me thinking.

We spend some time discussing the work of Flannery O’Connor, one of my favourites as much for her caustic observations as her writing.

Examples:

  • “Do universities stifle writers? In my opinion, they don’t stifle enough of them.”
  • “If you can write just badly enough, you can make a lot of money.”

O’Connor tries out news ways of description, she’s brave in her juxtapositioning of imagery to avoid lazy phrasing. We look at A Good Man Is Hard to Find.

she wheeled around then and faced the children’s mother, a young woman in slacks, whose face was as broad and innocent as a cabbage and was tied around with a green head-kerchief that had two points on the top like a rabbit’s ears. No judgement passed, but the reader has already got the picture.

Details are what Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried is all about. A collection of short stories about a platoon of American soldiers in the Vietnam war, the objects they hold dear and their behaviour towards these items.

Extract: In the late afternoon, after a day’s march, he would dig his foxhole, wash his hands under a canteen, unwrap the letters, hold them with the tips of his fingers, and spend the last hour of light pretending.

The careful selection of just the right details stands out in a passage of David Rhodes’s Rock Island Line.

The old people remember Della and Wilson Montgomery as clearly as if just last Sunday after the church pot-luck dinner they had climbed into their gray Chevorlet and driven back out to their country home, Della waving from the window and Wilson leaning over the wheel, steering with both hands. They can remember as if just yesterday they had driven past the Montgomerys’ brownstone house and seen them sitting on their porch swing, Wilson rocking it conscientiously back and forth, Della smiling, her small feet only touching the floor on the back swing, both of them looking like careful, quiet children.

In one hundred words, we know so much about this couple and already feel an affection and sense of loss.

Someone asks a question about how to balance momentum and description. Bret suggests going on instinct for the first draft and overdoing description, which can be winnowed out on rewriting.

He asks us to think about how themes can be rooted in detail and gives us two minutes to write down a list of what’s on our dresser at home. After some debate as to the US/European definition of dresser, we get started.

Now we swap and use another person’s list as the basis for the beginning of a short story in which the objects belong to the spouse of the narrator. And he gives us a choice. It’s either the day after the spouse’s funeral, or the day before s/he is going to ask the spouse for a divorce.

The results are surprising – some funny, especially the one about the vibrator and the earplugs, some poignant and a couple particularly vicious. But one thing they share is a vivid level of detail, which adds depth and dimension to every one of these hastily scribbled openings.

Bret advises us to carry a notebook and observe, note and prowl for details. He rounds the session off with a quote by Joseph Conrad:

“My job is to make you see and that is all.”

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