Some Questions about Donald Barthelme
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Sandrine Dechaume: I take it one of the important goals, as far as creative writing workshops go, is to get students to read. Donald Barthelme once said that selecting fathers is part of the process of becoming a writer, of being born as a writer. In your triple capacity as former student of Barthelme, teacher, and writer, do you find that is the case?
Brian Kiteley: Donald Barthelme seemed more interested in making us read philosophy, art history, historiography, and scientific theory than "selecting fathers," if that means other writers. He rarely recommended anyone specifically to us. We knew that his fellow postmodernists (though we didn't use that word in 1983) were worth reading. But he most clearly wanted his writing students to be philosophically well-educated. As the son of an analytic philosopher, this scared me. I'd avoided reading philosophy (and taking any philosophy courses as an undergraduate), but Donald was directly responsible for engaging me in that area of reading. I tell my students to read as much as they can. I assign only two books on fiction to undergraduate workshops, but I try to choose two very different books from different periods (though mostly in the 20th century). I have a list of recommended readings on my website and at the back of the textbook I have the students buy each term. I don't know how much this influences them. Some students naturally want to read more and love the recommendations. Most feel reading is painful (as I did as a teenager), and they don't follow up on the recommendations. I tend to feel that the natural readers will become writers, even if I bucked that trend myself.
Sandrine Dechaume: Do you recall what Barthelme's reading list was like?
Brian Kiteley: Barthelme had no set reading list that I can recall. He simply said, "Read all of Western philosophy, for starters, then read some history, anthropology, history of science." I've read a reaction that a Johns Hopkins class had to this command (which was similar to the one he made to us). A student there said, "But we have to eat and sleep." Give up sleeping, Barthelme replied; that’s a good place to start. [I have since found a site with Barthelme's list of suggested readings.]
Sandrine Dechaume: What were his assignments like?
Brian Kiteley: He had no set assignments. Perhaps he was completely disenchanted with his City College students by then (mine was the last class he taught there). I heard this through the student grapevine. He did seem to enjoy us a great deal, but his approach was casual, and everything he did seemed geared to make his life as easy as possible. He allowed no one to hand in copies of the stories a week in advance. He did not even want copies handed out the day of class, for us to read along with the writer reading the story. He argued that we needed to learn how to hear stories and respond to them only that way. It was a great challenge, and some of the students never learned how to speak about something they’d heard only that day. His method was to have the student read the story, and then he would ask tough, leading questions of one specific student (never the student writer). If that student did not answer the question to his satisfaction, he asked another, usually very different, question of another student (so we were trained not to be thinking of interesting and entertaining answers to his questions). I don't remember any of these questions specifically, but they were generally related to narrative strategies, point of view, and language. I myself loved this stern Socratic method. Many in the class disliked it. He made things move along quickly, this way, without the usual blather a workshop manufactures. He did not want to hear from everyone about a story. He was satisfied when he'd heard enough interesting things, and this offended many of my classmates. I have never had a more thrilling intellectual experience than Donald Barthelme's class, and I was surprised at the reactions to the class that I learned about only belatedly (but this too taught me a lesson--that a class I thought was so good could be seen as being bad by others--the lesson was not to be afraid to challenge students, which is easier said than done).
Sandrine Dechaume: Did these assignments involve rewriting existing material, literary or otherwise? Did they involve rewriting history, which, unless I'm mistaken, is one of your own concerns as writer and teacher?
Brian Kiteley: Effectively, the only kind of writing he discouraged was imitation of his own writing (or any of his close friends, like Coover, Gass, Barth, and Hawkes). I was surprised to hear how ferociously he pounced on even well-meaning and beautiful imitations of his or others' writing. He seemed to be saying, "Find your own way." By this screening method, he also seemed to encourage some of the more traditional styles in the class, because he knew these people were likely not specifically imitating anyone. He must also have been reeling then, from the rise of Raymond Carver and the minimalists (and the concomitant rejection of his group's ethics and intellectual approach to making fiction). But he did not show any great hostility to that style, and there were a few students who seemed to be picking up on it.
Sandrine Dechaume: Your handbook is entitled Each Sentence Educates the Next [now called The 3 AM Epiphany, which was published in 2005] after something William Gass once said. Does this title define your approach to writing and teaching?
Brian Kiteley: Most definitely. I asked Gass last year if he remembered saying this (and the whole sentence was "Each sentence educates the next sentence; each paragraph educates the next paragraph," which was a reply to the question of how he wrote). Gass did not recall saying this, but he said he would now, and he would use the thought somewhere. I write by accretion, slowly adding to material, letting the next thing appear eventually, logically (in a sense), over time. I write several dozen things at the same time, so there is time to let this happen. I preach patience to my students.
Sandrine Dechaume: One of the exercises you recommend in your book consists in writing a story backwards, which reminds me of something Barthelme once said about the way he had of "backing into a story." What do you think may be gained by such exercises?
Brian Kiteley: I suppose I always had exercises in mind, as I wrote. If not in discrete blocks of writing (as my exercises suggest), I had odd rules. In Still Life With Insects I instructed myself to use the first-person pronoun as little as possible. I was struck by Paul Valery's
novel Monsieur Teste which seemed to operate with this kind of tact and modesty. I was also aware of my grandfather's voice (and he was the model for the character at the center of the book)--he did not use that pronoun very often. In my workshops I use exercises to help young writers get going, doing things they all admit afterwards they would never have thought of doing. I also like these small fragments of fiction, because they are easier to talk about in a class situation. They are more like poetry. Fifteen-page stories may seem small, but to really discuss that much prose in a half-hour time period, all the while fending off student comments and yet encouraging students to talk--it's impossible.
Sandrine Dechaume: Another one of these exercises is stand-up comedian monologue, which involves the use of non-sequitur. Why fewer transitions? Did Barthelme’s own use of collage and jump-cuts in any way inform his teaching?
Brian Kiteley: It did not seem to inform his teaching. Barthelme struck me as a very self-assured man who nevertheless did not seem to believe his method of fiction-making was the be-all and end-all of writing stories. He seemed to like a great range of writing styles. I recall him strongly recommending Walker Percy (whose book The Moviegoer I'd read in high school and adored). But Percy is about as far from Barthelme as one can imagine going, except that both are very philosophically inclined. The only thing I remember Barthelme urging on us was conciseness. Get to the point, he was always saying. Both he and one of my other teachers at City College, Grace Paley, left that very strong impression on me--write less; be content with little, as long as it's beautiful.
Sandrine Dechaume: In your course description, you state that the intention is not to give writers formulas to work with. I take it this is a difficulty any teacher in charge of creative writing workshops is bound to run into. How do you get around it? How did Barthelme get around it?
Brian Kiteley: I get around this by encouraging whatever writing seems to work. My students sometimes express bewilderment at the wide range of writing I appear to like. Barthelme also seemed amazingly catholic in his tastes, and I learned that from him. I know of some elegant postmodernist writing teachers who wish to see only like-minded work in their classes, just as the good majority of American fiction workshops want only traditional-looking stories. The late Frank Conroy, at Iowa, I hear, demanded only linear storytelling, straightforward narrative, and absolutely, positively, no unreliable narrators.
Sandrine Dechaume: I understand Barthelme sometimes edited his students' work and that more often than not this editing consisted in cutting out portions of it. Do you recall anything of the kind? In your course description, you state that "any time you can cut a piece of prose by 20 percent, you should cut it by 20 percent." Would you say that knowing what to leave out is one of the things Barthelme taught you?
Brian Kiteley: Barthelme did not cut my work, at least when he saw the beginnings of Still Life With Insects, which was three pages long when I read it one of the last days of his workshop. In fact he asked me to come talk with him several times over the summer after that class. He wanted to make it longer--fifteen or twenty pages--so that we could submit it to the New Yorker. We did, but they turned it down, turning down probably a dozen separate submissions I've made over the years. Still, those meetings after his class were perhaps the most instructive for me--one-on-one conversations about language and style. I was very lucky.
Sandrine Dechaume: Suzanne Lummis, who attended Barthelme's creative writing classes, once told an interviewer that she very deliberately broke one of his rules which was to never begin a story or poem by describing the weather? Can you think of any rule of Barthelme's that you gladly broke?
Brian Kiteley: I remember that rule from his class. The only other rule I recall I've already stated: don't waste my time. Get to the point. Why is this section necessary? He was always on the lookout for unnecessary words and sentences and paragraphs.
Sandrine Dechaume: Anything else you care to add?
Brian Kiteley: Donald Barthelme was a wonderful man. I don't know if I've conveyed that. He seemed to care about all of us in that class equally. We sat in his living room, on 11th Street, amazed at the art on the walls (de Chirico and Ernst). He let us into his life briefly. This was an extraordinary experience. Once he broke with the workshop and read us a talk he'd given several days before at the Library of Congress. It was his most blatantly political act in the class (literary political), but it was also typically Barthelme, feints, bows to other great minds, light on its feet, oddly deferential to some invisible giant (probably his father). I am biased, but I think Donald Barthelme, of all this group, will last longest. When I visited Barthelme during the summer after the workshop, one day he told me about a dream he'd had the night before. He was in a room filled with hardbound and soft cover versions of his books. His father, the modernist architect, was also in the room, examining absent-mindedly one of these books. Finally, after a long silence, he walked over to his son and hit him on the forehead with the book. "Why don't you get a real job, Don?" This stunned and depressed me--a great writer still suffering under his father's yoke. Later it gave me a kind of license to indulge in similar thoughts, similar anxieties, without the feeling of being alone with them.
Sandrine Dechaume asked these questions as part of the research she was doing for her Ph.D. dissertation.
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