Writing Fiction and Poetry

Essays by Twelve North Carolina Writers

Edited by

Sally Sullivan



"Our meddling intellect misshapes the beauteous forms of things; we murder to dissect," Wordsworth cautioned at the dawning of a new age of science and technology. It is a caution that, in addition to applying to the study of art and nature, might also apply to our investigation of the creative process, which has engaged the meddling minds of many. Despite Wordsworth's skeptical view of intellectual analysis, the process involved in literary creation, in particular, has fascinated many ordinary people, as well as a great many psychologists and philosophers, from Plato on: we all want to know what makes people write and how they do it. Are poets crazy, "enthused" as Plato put it, a bit charmed, perhaps, of the Coleridgean variety, fed on honeydew, or are they, a la the contemporary poet William Stafford and other modern writers, such as those in Writing Fiction and Poetry, more or less ordinary people who happen to write?

Certainly since the early sixties, with the advent of creative writing programs in colleges and universities across America, the question would seem to have been answered: writers are not extraordinary individuals. The assumption of any creative writing program has to be that creative writing can be taught, or if not taught, learned, as Betty Adcock has put it paradoxically. Some thirty-plus years of increasing numbers of students in increasing num-bers of colleges and universities, who have received bachelors or masters degrees in creative writing, have proven that it may indeed be taught to (or learned by) some and with some degree of success.

Those of us who have taught creative writing courses, the writers of this text among them, have done so in many different ways, with varying degrees of success, although most of us would agree that one of the most difficult tasks we face is teaching our students how to revise their work. This particular difficulty prompted the idea for Writing Fiction and Poetry. Because revision is so difficult for writers, especially those just beginning to write, the authors of this text have emphasized this part of their writing by including multiple drafts of entire works or portions of one or more works in essays that focus on a description of their writing processes.

Even though the essays in this book share this common focus, they differ a great deal in their approach, providing, in their variety, a wealth of opportunity for delight, as well as instruction.

The variety of approach and style in Writing Fiction and Poetry extends also to gender and experience. There are six writers of each gender who vary in experience from those with more established careers to those more recently launched.

Because Writing Fiction and Poetry was written especially with students in mind, it is organized generically and alphabetically within each genre. First are the fiction writers: Fred Chappell, Elizabeth Cox, Candace Flynt, Jill McCorkle, Tim McLaurin, and Robert Watson. Then the poets: Betty Adcock, Jim Applewhite, Kathryn Stripling Byer, Michael McFee, Heather Ross Miller, and Shelby Stephenson.

Preceding each of the essays is a short biographical sketch of the writer and following each is a relatively brief interivew, which, because of limited space, focuses primarily on questions of interest to people who want to know more about writing because they already write or they want to begin.

Although the essays in this text attempt to elucidate the writing processes of the twelve writers who wrote them, much about the creative process remains hidden, as perhaps it should, according to Wordsworth and the contemporary poet X.J. Kennedy, whom Fred Chappell quotes in his essay and whose ideas are pertinent here. According to Kennedy, it is probably a dangerous mistake to scrutinize the creative process too closely:

The goose that laid the golden egg
Died looking up its crotch
To find out how its sphincter worked.
Would you lay well? Don't watch.

Despite the explicit caution of these lines and those of Wordsworth's with which I began, the writers in this text feel that we can know some things about the process of literary creation. We offer this book to share what twelve writers have learned, not about where their golden eggs came from, but, to borrow an expression from Fred, how they were able to scramble them or make them into omelets."

Sally Sullivan
The University of North Carolina at Wilmington


Part One: The Fiction Writers

"Re-visioning" by Fred Chappell

"A Single Line" by Elizabeth Cox

"Willing to Wait: A Writer at Work" by Candace Flynt

"Departures: A Story of Re-visioning" by Jill McCorkle

"Snakes, Drunks, and Meteors: Writing Beyond the Romantic Illusion" by
Tim McLaurin

"Levitation" by Robert Watson

Part Two: The Poets

"Permanent Enchantment" by Betty Adcock

"The Knowledge and Act of Poetry" by James Applewhite

"The Wind Passing Through" by Kathryn Stripling Byer

"Who Knows" by Michael McFee

"Pinning the Bright Syllables" by Heather Ross Miller

"Discovering Poetry" by Shelby Stephenson


Born in the mountains of Canton, North Carolina, Fred Chappell published his first novel, It is Time, Lord, in 1963 before he received his master's degree from Duke University. Since 1965, when he joined the faculty of the English Department at UNC-Greensboro, he has taught both creative writing and literature. Although Chappell began his career publishing fiction, he is an acclaimed poet, having won the Bollingen Prize for Poetry from Yale University in 1985. In addition to this prestigious award for his poetry, Chappell is the recipient of many other awardsand honors, among them a Rockefeller Grant, the Award in Literature from the National Institute of Arts and Letters, and the Best Foreign Novel Prize from the French Academy for Dagon. Having published over twenty volumes of fiction and poetry, Chappell has won accolades for his fine non-fiction prose, which he has published in numerous essays, critical articles, and reviews in a variety of journals and newspapers.

* * * * *


I see, looking at my handwritten manuscript, that one of the paragraphs of the story "Going Downhill" used to read something like this:

Still, she was relieved. She could hardly
believe she'd got this old truck all the way
down without wrecking. "That was close,"
she said.

Now the paragraph reads like this, with different words:

Still, she felt a sweet relief. She could hardly
believe she'd got this old truck all the way
down without bashing it into a big poplar or
pitching it off the side of the mountain. "Like
to broke my neck," she said.

Is this latter version any better than the former? I think that it is, of course, or I wouldn't choose to keep it in the story. I have my reasons and two of the weightiest are those verbs bash and pitch The new phrase of monologue seems the better one too; its fragmentary nature more closely imitates the way we think our thoughts must sound than the other does—and dramatic monologue is close to spoken (or muttered, or murmured) thought. Also, the phrase is spoken in the local Appalachian idiom and under-scores Ellen Lewis's character as a resourceful, tough, courageous mountain girl. When I look at "Going Downhill" as a whole story, I can almost believe that the delineation of Ellen's character must have been my largest purpose, my final reason, for writing.

But that is not the case. The true history of this cheerful but rather simple-minded tale is more complex than I can ever know. Artistic composition, scientific comprehension, all plans of action are formulated as much in the unconscious or subconscious mind as in the consciousness, and the ultimate sources of our visions remain hidden from us. We are able to search them pretty closely, if we like, but to do so is probably an unwise decision. In this kind of activity, close knowledge involves tampering, and tampering is foolhardy. The poet X.J. Kennedy has neatly pointed up the danger:

The goose that laid the golden egg
Died looking up its crotch
To find out how its sphincter worked.
Would you lay well? Don't watch.

Even so, a writer is compelled to some examination of his sources, motives, aims, and special ambitions for particular pieces because he must insure the integrity of his sentences. The only way to do so is to judge each of them in terms of the desired total effect. And the only way to guarantee the quality of the total effect is to relate every detail of the composition to its theme, keeping in mind that there are a thousand ways to articulate this

theme and —to paraphrase Kipling—every one of them is right. Every single one of them is wrong too. An experienced writerknows that he is not going to hit upon the perfect expression of his vision; his intellectual means and emotional resources and technical skills are too meager. So meager, in fact, that he probably would not recognize the perfect expression if he saw it on the page before him.

But I believe that "Like to broke my neck" is a better expression in its context than "That was close." I have given some of my reasons and could enumerate others, but to dwell on such minute details of composition is bound to produce torpid mauve tedium in readers. A writer makes these microscopic choices one after another after another. Flaubert is famous for his obsession with the mot juste; Tolstoy (yes, Tolstoy) would roll on the floor in physical agony when the necessary word escaped him. Other writers behave less athlectically, but we all suffer under the same lash. The word we are searching for is rarely "apostasy" or "agate" or "appurtenance"; it is more likely to be a vexatious, niggling, perspiringly desperate need to choose between "the" and "a."

I remember a graybeard but maybe apposite joke. Woman comes into a psychiatrists's office. Doc," she says, "you gotta help me. I'm going crazy." "Lie down," he says, "and tell me all about it." "Well," she says, "I work over at the orange packing house. The oranges come down the chute to me and I have to grade them. Large oranges in one bin, medium-sized oranges in another, little oranges in the third." "So what's the problem?" "Doctor!" she cries. "Don't you understand? All daylong—decisions, decisions, decisions!"

Thus, the writer. The picayune decisions he makes as he slogs from noun to verb, from comma to semicolon to period are guaranteed to drive any person of sound sensibility to madness. But I take it as an article of faith that the writer is crazy; either he was born crazy, and thus inclined to scribble, or he desired to write and made himself crazy in order to do so. Either way he is the kind of crazy it takes to be happy spending a life untangling backlashes in fishing lines or worrying the meat out of black walnuts with nutpicks or tatting doilies.

Yet it is not such minute tinkering that makes him crazy, but the uncertainty about whether such precise anxieties make any real difference in the finished product. A casual reader—and almost all readers of fiction are blithely casual—will probably find little fault in the first version of my paragraph and would not see that the later version deserved all the labor that went into it or all the fuss I am making about it now.

It served its purpose, didn't it? It got us from one part of the story to another; it chinked in a space that would otherwise be blank; it helped to draw us on to Ellen's final outburst. What more can one ask of three skinny sentences?

But a writer will ask a great deal more of his words than the reader expects or ever knows about. It is true that this paragraph helps to provide the necessary transition to the final scene of the story, but it is also supposed to underscore the seriousness of the dangers overcome —and thus the courage of the young lady—and to remind us that she is regional in outlook and temperament. It is designed to relocate the story in space (the mountains being now behind Ellen), to provide a relaxed moment before the tensions begin to mount once more, to add the faintest touch of humor to the glum matter-of-factness of Ellen's declaration, and to sprinkle a pinch of spice over the language.

The paragraph is supposed to do all these things and a few others without calling undue attention to itself. It is primarily a transition, after all, and no proper place for lyric incandescence or clever word-play or weighty philosophy. If it manages to accomplish its purposes, only the author will know—and he won't be certain.

That's what makes him crazy, the fact that he will never know for certain whether all his knitting and knotting, puttering and pottering, stitching and unstitching has been for naught or for aught. Why does he expend such close attention on a passage whose subordinate effects he intends to go unnoticed? It is because he has a notion like the architect's notion: that while no observer will ever focus upon a single dentation in a cornice, a long line of them renders a classy effect. His tiny unnoticed details accumulate gradually until at last they comprise a structure solid, comprehensible, and—well, splendid … in a diffident, modest, and humble way. A writer has to hold to this belief or he must give up the game. And if he can believe this idea, then he should have no difficulty in believing in the existence of the magnetic monopole, in the theory of poetic correspondences, and in the Holy Ghost—and all before breakfast.

Yet, however vague and baselessly sanguine his faith is, it is what keeps him glued to his verbal microscope. If I can chop out two more adverbs, he thinks, and work in a detail about this character's hands, my page will be immortal. Well, maybe not immortal. But it will be better. So he deletes and adds, alters and restores, strengthens and softens, particularizes particularizes particularizes.

That's the easy part of revision, plinking away at the sentences with the little silver hammer of verbal correction. That's the fun part. The real business of revision is just what the word tells us it is: re-visioning, re-seeing the material from top to bottom and inside out all over again anew, re-experiencing the subject matter.

That's the hard part.

I finished this latest revision of "Going Downhill" in mid-April 1991; this version celebrates this material's tenth anniversary in my hands. It first appeared in my files as a brief sketch called "A Mountain Ghost," its title when it was published in a little magazine, Long Pond Review 7, dated 1982. To appear in 1982 it would have been written in 1981. So here it is, ten years older and drastically sea-changed by the tides of time.

Two elements have remained stable: the setting in the mountains of western North Carolina and the character of the old man, though in the early version he is called "Mr. Cole."

"Mr. Cole" was the true name of the person after whom I drew the character. From 1957 to 1959 I worked for a lady who owned a farm supply store in Candler, North Carolina, called Brown Supply. Her father, getting along in years, was an ardent trout fisherman and every Sunday in season I accompanied him on the wild rocky streams. I was supposed to be guardian of his safety, but more often he guarded mine. He was still smoking Camels at that time, and that is the single difference I recall between the way he is drawn on the page and the way he really was.

I am not fool enough to think I've drawn him accurately or even recognizably to someone else who might have known him. It is only that the imagined figure comes to supplant the true figure in a writer's mind. The memory of any person leaks like the sand in an hourglass, but the writer's memory is even more unreliable than most. He spends so much energy observing his reconstructed, partly imagined, partly remembered, figure that he fixes this one clearly in his mind in a more nearly permanent fashion than he fixes reality. Of all the things that gain our notice, reality is the most protean. In this present hour we cannot put a name to what we thought was real during the hour past.

But as a literary construction the old man has remained fairly unchanged. Here is the single paragraph from "A Mountain Ghost" that can still be traced in some detail in "Going Downhill":

'Towards the tourist anglers he was merciless. He didn't like their equipment, their cars, their speech, their manner of taking fish, their fashions in clothing. He would pass in the stream an angler wearing a little soft hat decorated with dry flies. "Look-a-there," Mr. Cole would say, "if that feller fell in the river the fish would gnaw his head off." The large camping vehicles towed so slowly over the tortuous mountain roads infuriated him. "This one couldn't decide what he wanted to bring, so he brought the whole house," Mr. Cole would say. He pushed his wire-frame spectacles farther onto the bridge of his nose, clacked his false teeth, and zoomed his old pickup truck around the camper, taking the outside of a blind curve.'

Little else of "A Mountain Ghost" can be unearthed. That sketch is told in first person by a narrator who describes himself as a computer engineer,and its purpose is simple homage to, or maybe nostalgia for, the mountain rivers and glades and fir trees and weather. The narrator has moved away from his native hills and his mother tele-phones to inform him of the death of his friend, Mr. Cole. Then follows the paragraph that gave the sketch its title and also, I thought, its point:

'The moment she told me I experienced his ghost. Not the visual image of Mr. Cole, nor his spiritual presence. But there was sudden roaring in my ears, and the dark smell of cool humus, and something like a bird's shadow seemed to flow over the formica counter in my kitchen.'

This paragraph is also the reason that "A Mountain Ghost" remained a sketch. It wasn't a question of length; "Ghost" is about 2500 words long and there are plenty of fine short stories no longer than that. But the resolution of the experience was contained only in a passing frisson— a lame little epiphany, if you will—upon which the narrator tries to force an unearned importance. The feelings of love for the mountains have been stated, but they have not been dramatized; therefore, the resolution is flimsy.

In short, I had no story, no incidents to take place in time that would reveal my character and my theme. It is obvious to me now when I read through the sketch that there is a sore want of drama and an acute lack of articulation because I tried to fill up the lacunae with some lush poeticizing. At one point in the sketch the men take a respite from fishing and the narrator seizes the opportunity to study his friend:

'He would spit out his chew and borrow a cigarette from me, because he believed—or claimed to believe—that smoking restored his breath. He snapped off the filter, lit and steadily burned it down to within a half-inch of his thin lips. The blue-gray smoke fogged his hair.

What was most impressive about him at these moments was his fineness of attention. I had the impression that he was not merely observing but absorbing, in the way that his hair absorbed the cigarette smoke, all that was taking place in this spot. Into his body and psyche went the multitudinous voices of the waterfall, the dapple of sourwood bushes on the face of the pool below, the blue tint of spruces on the high bluff above, the mingled smells of tobacco and deep humus and clean swift water. He was not merely among the elements but part of them, and, watching him watch, I too felt myself a part of it all.'

Step right up, ladies and gentlemen! This way to the important message and the gravid theme! I might as well have rendered my latter juicy paragraph in pink neon.

It's not so badly written perhaps—though I'm pretty certain I didn't get away with multitudinous" and maybe not with "psyche" either—but the fact that it had to be mount- ed where it was as a set piece of nontransparent self-noticing prose ought to have tipped me off that my sketch had no real shape. My two intentions for it—a homage to place and a portrait of character—had not yet become closely related and my sentences strain to draw them together. In a poem I might have been able to solve this problem; in "Resolution and Independence" Wordsworth makes an agile job of overcoming the same difficulty. But the metier of prose generally hampers a reader's intuitive leaps that are so helpful to a flagging writer.

When I took up the story again, wondering if anything could be rescued, I found that I still wanted to pursue the same theme and that I wanted to save the character of the old man from the oblivion of this trifling sketch. But I knew that I had to tell a story and that a story needs to involve thoroughly more than one character.

Over the decades I have enjoyed drawing a number of characters like Mr. Worley, older men and women of the North Carolina mountains, figures who are very close to the place they inhabit, whose minds and spirits know a local history and are a part of it. My usual method has been to provide these colorful characters with less colorful companions. In novels, short stories, and particularly in a long poetry sequence called Midquest, I have set a rather naive young man beside the older person. His function, for the most part, was simply to say, "How was it in the old days, grampaw? Tell me how it used to be."

The characater who bears this function is called a "foil" and his literary lineage is an ancient one. We recognize him immediately from the way the other characters behave toward him. ("Johnson, you stay here. The rest of you guys come with me.") ("Elementary, my dear Watson.") He is there to be lectured to, explained to, demonstrated to, and condescended to. He is a sort of humam blackboard on which the other characters chalk their stories. He is rarely entirely passive—not if the author is doing his job—but he can dominate the action for brief moments only and then must step efficiently into the background, into his role as the querier, the naif, the teachable.

Nothing worng with this traditional sort of presentation, so long as the writer doesn't allow it to become a mechanical, cut-and-dried question-and-answer dialogue with a lot of gazing and gaping between sentences.

But I didn't see how it was going to work in "Going Downhill," which needed drama. Drama is what a foil can hardly provide. I couldn't think how my wide-eyed adolescent lad was going to aid the situation.

Then I fell back on a practice I have blunderingly devised over the years: I thought about changing the gender of the foil. A writer learns soon enough that his situations are paradigms, that the same situations recur again and again in fiction as in life, and that sometimes these can gain interest if some elementary displacements from the ordinary are made. I perform for example, a great many mental experiments with time-shifts. Wouldn't this recalcitrant story be more interesting if it took place in the eighteenth century? What if it involved not the characters I had constructed for it, but Dr. Samuel Johnson instead? And what if the thief had not stolen money but a coded political message?

The phrase, a figment of the imagination, is a doddering cliche, but I like that wordfigment. From the Latinfingere: to fashion, to shape. A writer sometimes sees his story situation as having a physical shape like an uncompleted clay model. He can walk around it and examine it from almost any angle, poking, pulling, pinching, patting; he can change the features, the pose, the lighting; he can knead the clay until he finds that one single posture when the whole substance cries out to be stabilized in stone.

So a writer may decide to change the gender of a character. I've done so often in stories, but rarely for sexu- al reasons, that is, not because of any sexual experience that the story will recount. I change the gender because doing so alters the relationship of all the characters to one another and sometimes throws the circumstances and incidents into sharper relief. Often enough a change of gender will encourage the invention of new incidents. And it is extremely likely that such a change will refocus the story.

That is what happened here. In "A Mountain Ghost" the old man was the focus, but as soon as my foil became a young girl she was no longer secondary, but the central character instead.

But my theme did not change. The bravery and re-sourcefulness and individuality of the older generation of mountain people is still the major subject of the story, but now these qualities find their representative in the young girl. She has learned these lessons of endurance and boldness from the old man, and the fact that these qualities are passed on, are taught by example, sharpened my emphasis. So I believed, at any rate, and was happy to strike upon the notion of the trout-fishing, teen-age girl.

This lucky thought did, however, give rise to other compositional problems. Especially troublesome was the problem of Ellen's background. I needed a convincing and pressing explanation of why she would be interested in pursuing this activity, which is usually thought of as a masculine one, in the company of a man in his seventies. It didn't take long
to remember girls I have known whose backgrounds were similar to Ellen's as sketched in the story, and, exercising rather thoroughly the old gray matter that ain't what she used to be, I was able to recall a couple of sturdy trout fishers I'd met on the Haywood County streams who happened to be of the female conviction.

Voila. My character was possible, at least. Now it only remained to bring her to life.

Whether I have succeeded in this most difficult and important part of the job I cannot say. Truly I cannot. I am rarely given to modesties false or true, and if I knew for certain that Ellen breathed and talked and cast at least one shadow I would gleefully point these things out. But a writer usually remains uncertain as to whether he has failed in his larger tasks as well as in the smaller.

Whether she is alive on the page or not, she is an inevitable presence there. Once the situation clarified itself, once the old man stood on his feet and said "goddam flatlanders," Ellen had to show up. Mr. Worley, the mountain landscape and milieu, the sad and hopeful history of Earlene, Ellen's mother—all these things join to each other in almost musical fashion once Ellen is there to bring them, to hold them, together.

I can see her quite clearly myself, knowing things about her that the story doesn't need to tell. Her freckles are not mentioned, nor her closely trimmed fingernails, nor the fact that her lower forearms are suntanned where she has rolled up the long sleeves of her shirt, while above that line her skin is pale and her freckles show redder. I know of her former crush on a halfback and that her favorite food is sweet potato pie. She sometimes wakes at three in the morning with tears on her face, having dreamed that her father, Jimmy Devoe, has returned. She never played much with dolls, preferring stufffed animals, especially a tatty grubby teddy bear she called "William."

But what I know and see and feel doesn't count unless it has got into the words a reader reads. I know what I wanted to do but don't know if I got it done. Once when I was a kid I sent for and received a pamphlet about how to make hand shadows and that same night I tried out the wall- splayed gestures on my family.

"What is that?" my father asked.

"A swan," I said.

"A swan?"

"Yes. Can't you see it?"

"It doesn't look much like a swan."

"Well, I'm making a swan with my hands, so it's got to be a swan."

"All right, if you say so. It just doesn't look much like a swan."

—That's what a writer dreads most: that his reader will tell him, Well, okay … but it doesn't look like a swan.

* * * * *


The following interview was conducted on June 22, 1991, on the porch of a guest cottage behind Fred and Susan Chappell's home in Greensboro. The cottage overlooks an eighteenth century garden designed by Susan, and it's a pretty sight, complete with a brick courtyard. One of the things I remember most about the occasion, besides the garden and laughing and laughing and laughing, was an incessant and raucous chorus of lusty (since they make that noise, I understand, to attract the opposite sex, to each his own) cicadas that rose to such crescendoes we almost had to shout sometimes to be heard. But we managed, and it's a good thing we did because as you will see, Chappell has, as usual, some words worth listening to.

What can you teach students in creative writing courses?

My professor of creative writing, whom I never studied with formally, was Dr. William Blackburn at Duke, who claimed, I think wisely, that writing cannot be taught, because good writing depends upon emotion and emotion can't be taught. But I think most writers and most people who teach writing are agreed that what you can teach is how not to write. You point out specific errors time and time again until it becomes a kind of drill process for the student; in other words, what you're teaching is a kind of glorified freshman composition. No matter what kind of criticism you undertake, that's basically what you're doing.

If Blackburn felt that you can't teach writing, what did he teach you about it?

What he taught me was absolute integrity of purpose; that is, whatever you're doing, always give it your whole effort. You give it everything you've got and you don't hold back, and you don't complain, and you don't whine, you just go ahead and do it. But he considered writing the most important thing in the world, and my temperament doesn't allow me to consider writing the most important thing in the world. I do think it is extremely important,one of the most important things in the world, and the respect that Professor Blackburn brought to it I try to bring to it every day of my life.

In your essay "The Function of the Poet," you quote Pasteur who said that "chance favors the prepared mind," which suggests that a person has to know something about a subject before he has any inspiration having to do with it. What can you do to prepare the minds of student writers for inspiration?

You need to try to make people aware of the language they use. Language was not devised simply to tell facts to somebody else, not simply to communicate. You have to teach people that language is used as a means of perception. Everyone perceives how things happen with his language, with his style. And you have to imbue yourself so thoroughly with language, that is, involve yourself with reading and memorizing so much,
that it becomes the way you observe things. You observe with your language, the same way the astronomer observes with his telescope, or the botanist with his microscope. It's the tool through which you perceive the world, and once you no longer care about it, then you're no longer a writer; you're probably aiming for philosophy, or mysticism, or sainthood, or something else. But if you want to be a writer, you teach yourself
language first of all. Then you teach yourself to observe in a special way.

What special way?

First you look at a character visually and you think that his idiosyncratic habits, like searching in his ear with a matchstick, or playing with a paperclip, or crushing out cigarettes halfway and letting them burn, tell us some thing about theinner state of that character; it seems to me that someone who doesn't crush out a cigarette fully, whether this is true or not, probably is someone who's a little careless in the way he treats other people, a little sloppy in his relationships and even in his affections sometimes; someone who smokes in bed might be a little careless—that's just an example of the kind of thing, a visual tag, that you hope will be an index to the interior of that person.

Is it possible for a person to teach herself to become more observant, to notice more?

Absolutely, without any trouble at all. Well, excuse me, it is a discipline, it takes training, it takes trou-ble, but you can do it; and I'll tell you some people who are trained to do it all the time—policemen, firemen, and especially medical students; they're taught to observe certain things and to always be aware and on the lookout for these things and you simply teach yourself as a writer to look for those things that writers are interested in, and we hope readers are interested in, but if you wanted to learn something about the art of observation all you have to do is go to any medical school and follow the medical students with their professor on their diagnostic rounds. You know Arthur Conan Doyle created Sherlock Holmes when he was a medical student; Dr. Joseph Bell was his mentor and he observed Bell's method of observation. That's how we get Sherlock Holmes. In every writer, in every fiction writer, at any rate, there is a great deal of Sherlock Holmes.

You have said that writing is a true vocation, a "calling." Who or what is making the call? Is it inside or outside the writer?

I'm not sure a writer could tell you where the calling comes from, but it's important for him to feel that it comes from outside himself. Now whether you want to call that God, or Nature, or the Gene Pool, or whatever, in terms of the writing its name is of little importance, as long as the writer knows he's not fooling himself, pumping himself up by saying, "Hey, I'm a writer; I can do any damn thing." As long as he feels that the necessity to write comes from outside himself he feels justified. Of course you don't know whether or not you're deluding yourself any more than ministers know or anyone else who has jobs that are callings—brain surgeons and bikers. I do want to say that there are times in everyone's life, who is not born a poet, when he is made into a poet. No matter how much he rejects poetry, or doesn't care for it, or ignores it, there comes a time in almost everyone's life when circumstances will bring poetry out of him. I've seen that happen time and time again. Sometimes it's in the form of a letter, or musings, or prayers, but every once in a while the wrack of human feelings is so much that almost any person, even people we think of as not very imaginative, will give utterance to these feelings in poems.

Does the public school system in this country encourage or discourage creativity?

It encourages it a great deal, as a matter of fact. Eighty percent of the schoolteachers I meet are well-meaning, benevolent, overworked people who do their best. Not all of them are proud of their profession, and I think that hobbles them a little bit. Some people think of themselves as actually having failed in life because they're not doing something that makes more money or has more public esteem attached to it, even though foundations of their self-confidence and harm their teaching a little bit in the long run. There's another twenty percent, uh, well, that are just … well turds. They shouldn't be allowed anywherenear children, or anybody else, for that matter. But you're going to find that same number in any profession. What hampers people in the schools is lack of lattitude, of being shoved through the same old mazes again and again and again. Generally some congressman, who was probably no whiz at school either,looks up from whatever he's doing at the moment and says, "My God, the Japanese are ahead of us! Every American's gotta learn calculus by grade three. That'll make America great, the way it was when George Washington was alive!"

Was your own creativity encouraged in school at an early age?

Absolutely. I can remember in third grade I had a teacher named Mrs. Gregg. When you're that young, you don't know her first name. Her name was Mrs. Gregg, and she was so happy to be teaching, and she was so pleased to have students who were interested that she actually kept Bill Anderson and me long after school one day just to show us how the solar system worked. She got some oranges and pieces of chalk and stationed us across the room to show us the distance from the earth to the sun. She got so carried away, was so enthusiastic to teach us all she knew that we got locked in the building! She had to find a tack hammer to break a lock to get us out, and she was utterly fascinating. Wonderful lady. And I learned all the English grammar I needed to know in sixth grade from Mrs. Cora Moore. Wonderful, stern, hard teacher … . and I learned all the Latin I was ever really going to learn from Mrs. Kellet in tenth grade. I also didn't learn some things.

How old were you when you chose written language as your primary means of creative expression?

Same time everybody else does—right at puberty—when you've got that storm of hormones taking over. I think a writer might be defined as someone who keeps on after adolescence. I remember the excitement of writing the first poems, of actually writing something down on paper and saying, "Nobody ever said this." I didn't know what the hell I was doing. But I knew something had happened to me—

Did you decide then that you wanted to be a writer?

Yes, I wanted to be a writer. I thought that if I could get to be a writer I could have myself a typewriter and look like Ernest Hemingway and have a lot of money and expensive toys like he had, then I would get to date the girls he dated because there were no girls around Canton that would date me. I was too weird and silly for them. And I must say it came true sooner than I thought. When I got to Duke and set myself up as a poet my
freshman year, there were some girls interested for the first time. I should have stopped there.

How old were you when you started sending things out?

Thirteen or fourteen. I sent things to pulp science fiction magazines of the mid-fifties, and was mostly rejected, but finally right before I got out of high school I managed to publish a couple of short stories under a pen name in obscure science fiction magazines. I'm not ashamed of that. I'm ashamed of the stories, but not ashamed of writing them.

Could you describe your customary process of writing?

If I'm writing a piece of fiction, I try to write a certain amount each day because I knowthat if I don't write a certain amount each day, I'll never finish the piece. Generally I try to write about two legal sheets or three spiral notebook sheets. The next day when I come in, I read the three I've written and I make all the changes I can think of. Then I write three more. The next day after that, I read the six pages I've written and make all the changes, then write three more. I do this until I begin at seven o'clock and at eight-thirty I'm still reading and rewriting. After the manuscript has gained some length, I can't do that any more; I have to begin in the middle and write three; rewrite three; write three more.

Then when I finish that, I've got my first draft, but obviously it's nor really the first draft; it's a great many other drafts. Then I look at it and set it aside for two weeks. I try to make it six months, but that's become impossible. At any rate, I go back to it, and I must read it through again, making little changes in a manner that has become automatic, and then I say, "Do I need to reorganize the story? Do I need to start somewhere else? Do I need another narrator, rather than the guy that's telling the tale now? Do I need to say, 'This is not the story that this wants to tell but this other story over here, which is more interesting'?" And then I decide yes or no and if I do decide yes, then I have to begin all over once more, and I go through the same process again.

Sometimes it's simply a matter of cutting off the first six or seven pages, or first page, or whatever. But once you do that, you have to change everything else.

After I've got the second draft finished, from the point where I started, I try to put that aside as long as I can, sometimes as long as twenty years. Then I come back and I start absolutely fresh, even if I'm going to tell the same story again from the same point of view, with the same incidents. I start with a new piece of paper, and I look at the first page of
the story as I wrote it, and then I start rewriting it without looking at the previous draft any more. And I go through the same process I did the first time I wrote the story. So that's how I revise.

From your description of your process, especially of starting all over without looking at your last draft from years before, I would imagine that inspiration also plays a part in your revision. Does it?

Sure. It's harder to talk about inspiration because it's so vague; you can't track it down, and it's probably a mistaketo track it down. For me, it's a feeling that Wow, okay, something's happened; you've made some sort of dis-covery, or something's been revealed to you. You don't understand what it is and you certainly couldn't put it into words, and sometimes you don't have the images, but you feel inside that something has happened. And though you don't have the words, you hear a kind of music; I hear a kind of voice in my inner ear that says, "It's supposed to sound something like this: ummmmmm umm ummmmm um um." And I can tell whether it's a female voice speaking to me, or a male voice, and I can tell the level of emotion by its pitch, whether warm and sincere, cool and detached, highly excited or demure and subdued. I can tell all these things before I know the situation, before I know the characters, before … . You hear a voice is what happens, you just hear a voice.

Have you gotten a lot better at revision over the years?

Yes. That's one thing I can say that I've improved. I don't know about the other stuff: the "artistic" quality, or the "depth of characterization," or stuff like that. I can't really tell. But revising? God, yes. Of course, it's a much longer process now; it takes three times the effort it used to, but I'm a very good reviser of my own work. I don't like to give myself accolades; I don't think I'm a very good writer, but I'm a terrific reviser.

Have you developed any theories so that you know beforehand whether a piece will be difficult or easy to revise?

Yes I have. And every goddam one of them's been wrong.

Are there some things you don't have to revise?

Oh, yeah, sure. Some things are given to you; they're gifts and you had better not fool with them.

Approximately how much, if any, of your writing just won't revise and is eventually discarded?

None. Sooner or later everything shows up somewhere. I say this because I keep all the scraps of paper I write on, and I give Duke University about 75-100 pounds of the stuff every year. Before I send it off, I glance through it, and things I thought I'd completely discarded turned up as a little detail in some poem, a little detail in a novel. You don't lose it. Once you've got it down, it's in your mind. If you're going to lose it, you'll lose it between the time you get up in the morning and take a leak and the time you get to your writing table. That's when the stuff will disappear.

How do yo perceive the duality of your role as writer/teacher?

I have tried to keep them kind of separate. I have never wanted my writing much to reflect my teaching experiences. The teaching experiences in Brighten the Corner Where You Are are ones I observed when I was a kid, among my parents and their friends. Those are not my teaching experiences.

What is the most misguided conception people have of writers?

That we're somehow different from other people, that we don't have the same kind of lives other people do, that we don't have to pay our taxes, and water our lawns, or raise our children, and do our jobs. But we're in the world like everybody else. Our job is to observe the world, to be a clerk, in other words, which has been our function since Egyptain times, if not before. The other misconception is to think that writers have any power over what goes on in the world. We don't. We're simply citizens who observe, that's all.



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