short stories

Iowa, Frank Conroy, and the Secret to Writing Fiction

Like all good mythological beasts, I have a ghostwriter. Although that is his official title, I noticed some time ago that he lacks very many ghostly qualities. In fact, he smells faintly of cheeseburgers, despite the fact that apparitions, as far as I can tell, maintain strictly herbivorous diets.

At any rate, my ghostwriter (in the flesh or otherwise) recommends an essay anthology called MFA vs. NYC, edited by N+1 founder Chad Harbach. The book investigates the premise that today’s literary world has become distinctly bilateral, one hemisphere being the academic and the other being the urban landscape of the Big Apple.

In an essay titled “The Pyramid Scheme,” former MFA’er and Frank Conroy student Eric Bennett provides a healthy criticism of the oldest and most venerable of creative writing programs, the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Of Conroy, Bennett claims that he hated “the ‘cute stuff'” and advocated a metaphorical view of the short story that could be described thusly:

[Conroy] wanted literary craft to be a pyramid. He drew a pyramid on the blackboard and divided it with horizontal lines. The long stratum at the base was grammar and syntax, which he called ‘Meaning, Sense, Clarity.’ The next layer, shorter and higher, comprised the senses that prose evoked: what you tasted, touched, heard, smelled, and saw. Then came character, then metaphor… I can’t remember the pyramid exactly, and maybe Conroy changed it every time. What I remember for sure is that everything above metaphor Conroy referred to as ‘the fancy stuff.’ At the top was symbolism, the fanciest of all. You worked from the broad and basic to the rarified and abstract.

Fascinating. I think I understand. Let me see if I can reproduce this famous author’s proposed diagram. Shouldn’t be too difficult. I am a visual learner, after all. Is this what he meant?

conroys pyramid

My ghostwriter is nodding. It seems I’ve grasped Conroy’s secrets quite quickly.

If you or your colleagues hail from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and would like to recruit me for an open-ended teaching contract, you may email me at chetsasquatch@humanoid.net or twit me @City_Sasquatch.

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Kelly Link Reads “Get In Trouble”

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On Thursday, Word Bookstore in Jersey City was flooded with humans I would like to impress. All came to hear the audacious and wise short story sorceress, Kelly Link, read from her latest collection, titled Get In Trouble. The amiable Lev Grossman, buzz-worthy author of The Magicians, served as interlocutor.

Link admitted to an appreciation for YA and proposed that “young adult fiction is basically adult fiction except the characters aren’t quite grown up yet.” Michael Grant’s spooky Gone series, especially the novel titled Hunger, caught Ms. Link’s attention.

The topic shifted. “Your characters lead very unhealthy lives,” Grossman quipped. “There’s a lot of throwing up in the book.”

IMG_1195“When I was growing up I loved horror movies,” Link replied. “I’d go and wait for the vomit scene. For example, there’s a movie called The Hitcher. C. Thomas Howell eats a plate of fries and discovers a finger. He vomits emphatically. It’s a demanding role.”

Grossman admitted to a distaste for horror films, although he did like Ridley Scott’s Alien. Link’s favorite scary movie? Hideo Nakata’s terrifying Ringu, which was rebooted for American audiences in 2002 as The Ring, starring Naomi Watts. Link and Grossman agreed that recent superhero movies left something to be desired. “I’m sure Batman smells terrible,” she pointed out.

On the subject of comic books, Link claimed she had learned to like them when she first encountered Cerebus the Aardvark – “but there isn’t really a market for funny animal stories.”

The title of her latest book derived from a phrase mentioned in one of its stories. “‘Get in trouble’ seemed to sum up the position of the characters.” Link paused. “For a while I was going to call it ‘Novel.'” The audience laughed, and – dear reader – I could not help but chuckle myself.

Perhaps her most honest comments were given towards the end of the evening. In response to a question about her writing process, Link said her goal was “to make the reader do as much work as possible. I like to have as few signposts for the reader as possible.” As a story begins to come together, Link considers “what the story could be about? …Then I think about how I might submerge that as deeply as possible. Because some meaning will always float to the surface.”