Charles Baxter Discusses His Writing Process

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!”

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Quote of the Hour

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

Poem of the Hour

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

It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)

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?

Joseph Cornell.

Your favorite musician?

Bob Dylan.

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?

Conservative Christians.

Where would you like to live?

Near the sea.

What is your favorite color?

Faded blue.

Your favorite flower?

The Trillium.

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.

You Have Given Me the Light

Across the decades, dozens of interviewers have tried to get a grasp on the source of Bob Dylan’s far-out creativity, his lyrics, music, poetry, and his art. The guy is at once tender, topical, absurd, romantic, and profound. Everyone wants to know what his influences are, who he reads, who he talks to, listens to, and who he admires. Whether or not he’s always walking around out of his mind with inspiration.

In her 1978 Rock Express interview with Dylan, Karen Hughes, still looking for a satisfying clue to explain his breadth and depth, asks him, “Do you find that most things come from within?” and Dylan, in one of his usual wandering-shaman moods, simply replies, “Most things come from taking chances.”

Dylan’s philosophy comes up now and then at our Open Voices writing group. We admire writers who take chances with their work. We admire how they explore a difficult subject, try a new vantage point, a new style or genre.

I recently saw my old friend Bart Sutter at the Laurel Poetry Collective Reading, giving his hearty applause to every poet standing at the microphone. He would agree that Dylan takes a lot more chances than the average bloke, but Bart has flung himself into many a new territory with his own writing. He’s an essayist, poet, short-story writer, and playwright. He is the only author to win a Minnesota Book Award in three separate categories.

Wait a minute here.

Some of us mere mortals may not be ready to take the chances Bart or Dylan do. Not this red-hot minute anyway. Shoot, most of the members in my writing group won’t even take a chance and sit in a different chair when we meet. They gotta sit in the same spot month after month. I like murder mysteries and poetry, but I can’t even fathom where I chucked the car keys last night never mind suddenly conjuring up the inspiration to write Bovine Hoof Trimming for Dummies or something, and I certainly don’t hear myself saying, whoa. I feel a screenplay coming on.

As writers, however, I do think we are always taking the chance–regardless of where we are with our writing–that readers will not dismiss our words but be moved by them, and that we’ll reveal a truth or two as Bart does in his poem,

ROCHESTER

My senior year we did Jane Eyre.
Rita Johannsen was Jane,
And I was Rochester.

The way the story goes
I’ve got this crazy wife,
And I keep her locked away
In a distant wing of the house
Because I’m rich as hell.
In the end she burns the house
And burns herself, as well.
That’s how I get to be blind
And marry the governess.

Of all the lines I memorized
I only remember one.
It’s at the end, I’m blind,
And I turn to Jane and say:
“You have given me the light.”
Blackout. Pause.
Thunderous applause.

When I think about it now, I feel
Rochester was cheated, kind of
Castrated, you know? I mean
At first he’s sort of ornery
And makes these sharp remarks,
But in the end he’s whipped
And tied up with his governess.

The audience just loved it,
The way that he was tamed.
I get so mad to think of it
That I’ve thought up
This version of my own
In which, I call it Rochester,
What happens is Jane Eyre
Dies of influenza. Rochester
Is forced to learn to love his ugly wife,
And they’re unhappy ever after

Because women think we’re dumb.
They think we can’t feel anything.

They think that we can’t see
The sneaky way they run things.
But I can see, and I
Don’t hesitate to lie. Say
Some woman lights my cigarette?
I’ll use that line, I’ll tell her:
“You have given me the light.”
She laughs but half believes it,
And half is good enough.

Or say she wonders how she looks,
And I see grey and wrinkles
And feel for both of us.
You think I tell her that?
I tell her: “You
Just look terrific.”

They like to think we’re blind.
That audience believed I was
When I was Rochester,
But I was just pretending,
And they were in the dark,
Applauding and applauding.

This was years ago,
But I can close my eyes
And still see everything:
My parents, sitting separately,
The faces of my friends.
I’m Rochester,
And Rochester sees everything:
Rita’s mouth and teeth,
Delicious little ears,
And how the silver sweat runs
Trickling down her neck.

***

Bart will be reading from his new poetry collection, The Reindeer Camps Friday, June 1st, 7pm at the Loft.

Quote of the Hour

“When I am writing, I am trying to find out who I am, who we are, what we’re capable of, how we feel, how we lose and stand up, and go on from darkness into darkness. I’m trying for that. But I’m also trying for the language. I’m trying to see how it can really sound. I really love language. I love it for what it does for us, how it allows us to explain the pain and the glory, the nuances and delicacies of our existence. And then it allows us to laugh, allows us to show wit. Real wit is shown in language. We need language.”

― Maya Angelou