Master writer Charles Baxter was on hand last night at SubText bookstore in Saint Paul to give sage advice and walk us through one of his stories in progress.
He was born in Minneapolis, graduated from Macalester, and completed his graduate work in English at the State University of New York at Buffalo. Now teaching at the University of Minnesota, he is the author of five novels, seven collections of short stories and essays, three poetry collections, and his work The Art of Subtext: Beyond Plot won the 2008 MN Book Award for Nonfiction. He is also the recipient of over a dozen other awards and honors, including National Book Award finalist for Feast of Love.
“There’s this misapprehension that teachers provide formulas for all writers to use. It’s not true,” Baxter said. But there are elements that make a story a good one and allow it to find a home in the reader’s imagination. He’ll ask his students to list the things they’d like to see in a story and they typically answer: interesting characters, an interesting setting, conflict, and so on. They typically do not include urgency and momentum–two elements Baxter thinks are essential to a successful story.
The story begins when the trouble begins. Baxter used the example of a character who hears screaming in the middle of the night. It causes the character to wonder what’s happening, to wonder, what should I do? and then the character wonders, what can I do?
Another way of starting a story is to have the protagonist approached by another character who says, “There’s something I want you to do.” This puts the protagonist under pressure and opens an entire moral universe. Shakespeare employed this technique in Hamlet by having the ghost of Hamlet’s father demand that his death be avenged.
Baxter is currently writing a collection of short stories revolving around virtues and vices, all taking place in Minneapolis. He read two pages from “Chastity” which is about a protagonist coming across a young person treating life as a joke. His stories have clues in them that the reader hopefully picks up on which circle around for his characters and carry more meaning later on.
“We all have echoes of past events in our lives that we’re either aware of or not,” Baxter explained. And there’s always things happening below the surface.
Like most writers, Baxter writes with a combination of excitement and dread. He often daydreams and thinks about his stories and how he can provide urgency and momentum. He is an observer of others and what gets him going is noticing something people do that nobody else notices.
You should, as a writer, he said, “go beyond yourself and go out in society and culture and find out what people think about a certain phenomenon. How are they reacting? Stay on the lookout.”
Conflict in a story need not be some grandiose world-altering event. Baxter used A Streetcar Named Desire as an example. Conflict comes easy when characters are crowded, when they’re forced onto a stage that’s too small for them and they’re always in each other’s way.
Baxter laughed. “It’s great fun!”