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!”
What delight! What felicity! You give me fresh life and vigour. Adieu to disappointment and spleen. What are men to rocks and mountains? Oh! what hours of transport we shall spend! And when we do return, it shall not be like other travelers, without being able to give one accurate idea of any thing. We will know where we have gone — we will recollect what we have seen. Lakes, mountains, and rivers shall not be jumbled together in our imaginations; nor, when we attempt to describe any particular scene, will we begin quarreling about its relative situation. Let our first effusions be less insupportable than those of the generality of travelers.
–Miss Elizabeth Bennet, Pride and Prejudice
The Poet’s Occasional Alternative
by GRACE PALEY
I was going to write a poem
I made a pie insteadit took
about the same amount of time
of course the pie was a final
drafta poem would have some
distance to godays and weeks and
much crumpled paper
the pie already had a talking
tumbling audience among small
trucks and a fire engine on
the kitchen floor
everybody will like this pie
it will have apples and cranberries
dried apricots in itmany friends
will saywhy in the world did you
make only one
this does not happen with poems
because of unreportable
sadnesses I decided to
settle this morning for a re-
sponsive eatershipI do not
want to wait a weeka yeara
generation for the right
consumer to come along
Chris Thiem, a.k.a. Birdman and Funk Lord of Blue Earth County, is my former high school English teacher, long-time friend, and a long-time
good, horrible, pagan, hippie, bad, socialist, positive influence on me. He was born in 1950, raised in Mankato, graduated from the University of Montana in Humanities, and returned to Mankato to teach. Except for annual summer drifting throughout the West, he has been steeped in Catholic education ever since. Now Chris Thiem, who once ran (before his knees ran out on him) a 1:51 800 meters, tells it like it is for the Proust Questionnaire:
What is your present state of mind?
That of a man who has escaped.
What is your idea of happiness?
Time to work on my journal, receiving mail, and going birding.
Who are your favorite fictional characters?
Sal Paradise, Queequeg, and Francis Crawford of Lymond.
Who are your favorite people in history?
Artists, explorers, and naturalists.
Your favorite artist?
Your favorite musician?
The quality you most admire in a man?
Saying the unexpected.
The quality you most admire in a woman?
Compassion and cooking.
What do you most value in your friends?
Spontaneity and a willingness to go on meaningless quests.
Your favorite way to spend time?
Wandering, reading, answering the mail, and drinking coffee.
Your most marked characteristic?
Daydreaming and indolence.
What is your principle defect?
Lack of ambition.
What do you regard as the lowest depth of misery?
Where would you like to live?
Near the sea.
What is your favorite color?
Your favorite flower?
What is your favorite bird?
Out of the 1100 birds on my life list you expect me to choose ONE?! They are all miracles, right down to the starlings with their weird inter-galactic voices!
Who are your favorite prose writers?
Thomas Pynchon, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and Shakespeare.
Your favorite poets?
Keats, Dylan, and Jack Gilbert.
What are your favorite names?
The names of women.
What natural gift would you most like to possess?
The ability to fly.
How would you like to die?
As a sacrificial offering.
Who/what do you want to come back as in your next life?
A Wandering Albatross.
What is your motto?
Never do today what you can put off until tomorrow.
Ah, sweet, sweet summer solstice. The time of year here in Minnesota when the thumb-long zucchini in your garden grow into something the size of baseball bats overnight. The time of year when the pretty college student working at the movie theatre lets her friends in for free when no one’s looking. Your son loses yet another Little League game, mosquitoes descend upon you like a biblical plague, and neighbors up and down the block exchange batches of homemade wine, the kind of wine that takes the enamel off teeth. After a swig of it, you’re afraid to exhale for fear of starting somebody’s garage on fire.
For Pat Dennis, mystery writer and stand-up comedienne extraordinaire, summer is great, but in Minnesota, hotdish is a year-round phenomenon. Tuesday night she performed at Once Upon A Crime bookstore for KSMQ, southern Minnesota’s PBS channel, in town filming a documentary tentatively called, Minnesota Hotdish: A Love Story.
Pat hails from Chicago but has lived in Minnesota for 28 years. “Which makes me a newcomer,” she says and we laugh.
“Do you trust me?”
“No!” we shout.
Pat hadn’t heard of the term hotdish until she arrived in Minnesota. By her estimation, the heartland word for casserole contains a can of soup, a can of veggies, I-got-it-on-sale meat, and rice. It’s then baked until all the moisture’s been sucked out of it.
“Hotdish is the sensible shoes of fine cuisine,” she states. This from a woman who uses a leaf blower to clean her house.
She has also been a hotdish judge where she once had to taste 80 different hotdishes. Besides deciding which one tasted best, she wanted to give out awards for, among other things, most dry, most burnt, and most calories, but thought better of it.
After her very funny performance, KSMQ wanted to get more laughter from another camera angle, so there was this magical moment where we’re all laughing on purpose while they’re filming us and it got so ridiculous we sincerely could hardly stop. The hotdish documentary is scheduled to come out on PBS sometime this fall.
In Pat’s collection of mystery short stories, Hotdish to Die For, the weapon of choice is of course hotdish. The book has sold well everywhere except in Grand Rapids where it has been banned for containing cuss words. Knowing that, whether it’s winter, spring, summer or fall, how can anyone NOT want to live here?