Introduction to The 3 A.M. Epiphany
Writer's Digest Books, 2005
Copyright Brian Kiteley
Email me: email@example.com
We make out of the quarrel with others, rhetoric,
but of the quarrel with ourselves, poetry
—William Butler Yeats
Ideas Behind the Exercises
Working backwards. This book is a collection of fiction exercise instructions whose main goal is to teach writers how to let their fiction find itself. The book works on the simple idea of teaching writers how to teach themselves how to write—or of teaching writers how to read themselves and read for themselves. Making exercises the center of a book on fiction writing is a mildly subversive idea. Most texts that try to help writers write use one kind of exercise or another—first thing in the morning, before coffee, before any bodily functions, write for half an hour without lifting pen from paper. Something like that is most common, but equally common are the exercises at the end of a chapter on Voice or Character, for example, exercises that illustrate what the author means by her description of Voice or Character. This book works backwards—offering instruction through the activity of writing the exercises (here's a list of all of the exercises in the book).
The pin-hole of understanding. Learning how to write is the same as writing. Many novelists will tell you that when they begin a third or fourth novel it feels like they’re doing it for the first time. Richard Sennett says, “I feel I have to start from scratch each time I write; I gain no greater confidence no matter how many books I publish.” We do not know what we’re doing until we start doing it again, making the same mistakes, finding the same pinhole of understanding in the ten-mile long wall of brick. We often don’t know what we’re thinking until we speak the thoughts aloud to someone else. These exercises try to respond to how writers censor themselves, how we react to familiar patterns of behavior, and how we fall into ruts. Jack Nicklaus said, “The more I practice, the luckier I get.” All the other arts—as well as athletics, obviously—take the notion of practice and exercise very seriously. Too many writers make a fetish of the natural, untroubled writer who just breathes out a great story. Writing is hard work, but this book can make that hard work a little more fun, a little less painful.
Analysis and action. The French poet Paul Valéry says, “Let us assume that thought in general is a kind of music. My ideal would be to construct its scales and its system of harmonies.” Malcolm Cowley, in an essay on the poet in Atlantic Brief Lives, claims Valéry sought to find a “successful cooperation between analysis and action.” This book tries to help you find the same thing—the place between analysis and action, art that is both self-conscious and innocent of its intentions.
Mind and fiction. Consciousness in and of itself is a kind of fiction, a cleaned up version of reality. Understanding how the mind works is vital to creating interesting and innovative fiction. William James said that consciousness seems to be continuous, “without breach, crack, or division.” We move cleanly from one thought or feeling to the next without breaks or pauses. But James also claimed consciousness only seemed “continuous to itself by an illusion.” He said consciousness was a function, not an entity. Its four essential qualities are sensation, emotion, volition, and thought. Our own minds build continual fabrications, elegant and simplified summaries of reality, and writers should take note that fiction, like consciousness, is artificial. There is also a great deal we do that our minds don’t really notice—turning a steering wheel, tapping the brakes, picking our noses as we adjust the rearview mirror. Even our own minds edit out the extraneous material of a day’s activity. Fiction is made up of all sorts of other bits of language and image, knowingly borrowed some of the time, but most of the time unconsciously stolen. There are a lot of other people’s words and symbols in our writing, whether we want them or not. We share the same language, after all, even if we also have our own unique versions of this language. Many of these exercises take these ideas for granted, urging you to explore your own personal consciousness, as well as the collective unconscious, and all the many written and spoken resources that can inspire and create our fiction.
Each sentence educates the next sentence. Years ago I heard William Gass explain to a group of student writers how he wrote fiction. He said, “Each sentence educates the next sentence, and each paragraph educates the next paragraph.” I imagine Gass meant that he rewrote each sentence until the next one came to him. Or that by rereading a paragraph often enough he saw, finally, where next to take the story (Roland Barthes said that a first reading shows us what we already know; rereading teaches us what we don’t know). This idea of William Gass’s encouraged me to let my fiction find itself, to listen to what the prose was saying rather than try to impose a direction on the prose. As a writer, I spend most of my time reading, and only a fraction of my time actually writing. On one level I do research, a kind of active, searching, cannibalizing reading (meaning that I take bits of other prose and use them to inspire and infect my own prose, sometimes keeping the other writer’s words, sometimes deleting them in the later drafts). I use research to inspire, indirectly and directly, the fiction I’m making up—reading and reacting to unusual passages, employing other prose as a kind of scaffolding for building my own fiction.
Mathematical Expressions. On one of those Discovery Channel documentaries I heard a scientist talk about his efforts to create a truly robotic helicopter (in model size). He said, “We study the pilot of a full-size helicopter to understand and map the decisions he makes to keep the helicopter aloft. We generate a mathematical expression for these responses that allows the robot’s central processor to mimic the same decisions. This is the essence of the robotics of flight.” These exercises are such mathematical expressions generated from good fiction—both retrospectively and prospectively. They should teach you to mimic the essential decisions of other great and good writing—and make them into your own decisions and instincts.
Exercises as a Form of Workshops
Where does a story come from? In the standard American workshop, the teacher asks students to bring in stories or poems to class, sometimes copied and handed out ahead of time, sometimes not. The class and its final arbiter (the teacher) judge the merits of the story or poem. Few ask where a story comes from. The standard American workshop presumes you cannot teach creativity or instincts, beginnings, or sources. The workshop takes what it can once the process has already been started. Most writing teachers say, “Okay, bring in a story and we’ll take it apart and put it back together again.” I say, “Let’s see what we can do to find some stories.” The average workshop is a profoundly conservative force in fiction writers’ lives, encouraging the simplifying and routinizing of stories. Madison Smartt Bell says, “Fiction workshops are almost inherently incapable of finding success.”
Individualized stories. I use exercises in my workshops to derange student stories, to find new possibilities and to foster strangeness, irregularity, and non-linearity, as much as to encourage revision and cleaning up after yourself, and I don’t worry much about success or failure (I think Bell’s lament is accurate, but I also think writers should do the final work themselves, after the workshop, deciding on their own whether they’ve failed or succeeded). I don’t think workshops are necessarily bad, and I don’t agree with the idea that workshops have poisoned American fiction this last half century or so, but I do believe there are methods we can deploy that will allow students more freedom and enable them to build more personal or individualized fictions, rather than what sometimes feels like cookie-cutter stories. The most damning criticism I’ve heard of workshops is that they promote mere competence.
Cut-away views of the creative mind at work. The poet Cole Swensen says workshops are successful only “if the term workshop is taken in the artist’s and carpenter’s senses of that word: a light, airy room full of tools and raw materials where most of the work is hands-on.” The suggestions in this book are stretching exercises, warm-ups, and experiments in form and style that allow you to test the various possibilities of the craft of fiction. Some of the exercises may turn out to be building blocks for a longer piece of fiction. You can also use them as instructions for parts of longer pieces of prose you’re already working on. In undergraduate workshops, I assign ten exercises (in groups of five) during the first four weeks of the term. I ask students to make these first ten exercises cohere around one set of characters, a place, and a relatively short period of time (in other words, the component parts of a typical short story). When the class has seen this first group of exercises we help the writer find a story out of them (sometimes putting together two unrelated exercises; sometimes finding bits and pieces from several exercises). The last part of my workshop usually consists of exercises students do in response to the long story, revising small sections, taking completely different approaches to certain scenes or segments. I hope, with these exercises, to let you see cut-away slide views of your own creative minds at work (exposing the process to you as you’re developing it). Why is this useful? The more you understand why you’re writing something, the easier it is to see the pathways you’re trying to create for it.
On not writing a story. The most important thing I ask my students to do in fiction workshops is to keep doing these exercises around an idea without trying to write a story. I strongly suggest that they write the exercises as long as possible while holding off bringing the elements together into something that resembles a story, which asks them to become aware of a process that they’re aiming toward and at the same time avoid indulging in that process. In creating a series of these exercises you are creating a range of possibilities. Let the circumstances and restraints of the exercises rule over your creation, rather than any ideas of what a story should be. The original meaning of exercise, from the Latin, was to drive out of an enclosure (you can see and smell horses, here; the Latin verbs we still use like this one (and educate) are often simple farming terms turned into abstract philosophical ideas). Drive your ideas out of enclosures, into the open. Look for stories from the rich and endlessly variable combination of your experience and your imagination.
Any which way. My students pick and choose across a broad range of these devices, perhaps knowing instinctively that most stories are made up of a variety of narrative strategies. I generally instruct students to pick any exercises they want to do (even to do the same exercise more than once). Some of my colleagues who have taught this book assign one set of exercises for discussion per meeting, so the class can analyze the problem with a variety of exercises in front of them, assigning everyone in the class all or some of the exercises from Women and Men, for example. This seems to make the group think about the problems of narration together and to see how different several writers’ approaches are to the same exercise (a very useful thing for writers to learn—there is no one way to do the same scene or situation). If you don’t have a class to do these exercises with, find a friend who is willing to submit to the procedure, find two friends, create an ad-hoc workshop of your own.
The Goal of the Exercises
Recognizability. Students ask me what I think talent is in a fiction writer. Other than obvious skills with character, plot, language, and surprise, a talented writer is someone whose prose I recognize. Recognizable writing is notable for its syntactic familiarities, its use of verbs or nouns in a certain way, its characteristic sentence structure (without being monotonous). The following sentences are unmistakable: “The name of the woman with whom I was to be united was Lulu. So at least she assured me and I can’t see what interest she could have had in lying to me, on this score. Of course one can never tell. She also disclosed her family name, but I’ve forgotten it.” Samuel Beckett writes (in “First Love”) as if each moment is happening in front of the reader, and as if everything he puts down is negotiable in some kind of sad end-game manner.
Gate-crashers. Great ideas often come unforced, uninvited, and disguised as goofy or stray thoughts. The exercises in this book are designed to make your writing room more hospitable to these gate-crashers. They ought to force writers to step outside themselves for a while—to enter some other mind or kind of mind. They also attempt to lighten the burden of a typical writing day—to cajole a writer into playfulness and useful accident, making the usually daunting prospect of writing prose into something of a game. Don’t worry too much about the functionality of the exercises. The more you leave them stranded, isolated little thoughts in a great sea of other thoughts, the more likely you are to find that they connect up with other bits of your writing or with other exercises you may not think belong together.
Restrict and liberate. Many of the exercises in this book are like the instructions for a sonnet. No one says a sonnet has to address an absent lover—an astronaut circling the globe whose bra hangs on your bedpost. The sonnet is a shape to hang content on, not the fabric, thread, or clasps with which to work. Sonnets and other limiting devices like them allow an infinite variety of approaches, but they also provoke new ideas precisely because they are restrictive and liberating at the same time. The idea of this book is to encourage beginning writers and experienced writers alike to rethink their methods by playing with form, style, paragraphs, sentences, and words, and in so doing appreciate the value of their own infinitely varied experiences. My own greatest pleasures in writing have come from retooling the basic processes of creating and constructing a book. I love fiddling with method as much as with individual sentences. I teach myself a new way of finding material with each new book—a different style of composing, with new materials like notebooks, postcard stories (Exercise 194), or the Bridge (Exercise 141), for example.
Writing that learns. The art of writing fiction should be a process of figuring out what we know about what we’re writing (or discovering what we’re looking for in a story), rather than trying to convey to someone else what we already know. In other words, the best fiction reveals a writer who is learning something rather than trying to teach something. Each section of exercises should open a control panel of yet another literary concept, picking out for writers the little gears that control a single unparsed motion. Beyond the basic notion of restraint that underlies the book, each exercise ought to lead you to discover something new, to provoke you to see what you’ve been taking for granted.
Avoid self-censorship. The exercises in this book may help you find what you’re avoiding. My teacher Donald Barthelme said writers all had some major thing they were censoring. Most of us scoffed at this, after class. Barthelme explained that his area of censorship was his father, an intimidating architect of modern buildings and homes (including the one he grew up in). When Barthelme and I were meeting privately after our class had ended, he told me a dream he had. Barthelme and his father were in a large room that contained mostly only piles of Donald’s own books, many piles. Donald Barthelme was in his early fifties then and at the height of his fame. He said that in the dream his father picked up one copy of a book and walked over to his son. Then he hit him on the forehead with the book and said, “Why don’t you get a real job, Don?” I was stunned and more than a bit depressed, but the effect of this story on me was to confirm how important these personal blocks were—and how important it was to combat them with every tool we can get our hands on.
Out-of-body exercises. You can’t solve a problem with the same mind that created it, Einstein said. This is the idea behind the fiction exercises in this book. In writing, one usually comes to a point where nothing seems to make sense. That point can be at the very beginning of the process, at the end, in the middle—pretty much anywhere. I use these exercises myself to become another person—editor, outsider, finisher of stories, finder of lost threads—that I am not most of the time. This is what I hope the exercises in this book do—give you an out-of-body (or out-of-mind) experience so you can see the way to new ideas, new spins on character or situation, or old ways of doing things you’d long ago forgotten. Exercises in the teaching of other arts are as old as these arts. John Berger describes an example of a painter’s exercise in Ways of Seeing:
There is a story about [Oscar] Kokoschka teaching a life class. The students were uninspired. So he spoke to the model and instructed him to pretend to collapse. When he had fallen over, Kokoschka rushed over to him, listened to his heart, and announced to the shocked students that he was dead. A little afterwards the model got to his feet and resumed the pose. “Now draw him,” said Kokoschka, “as though you were aware that he was alive and not dead.”
This exercise shocks its students. It asks them to pay attention to several things at once, but most of all the exercise reminds them that their subjects are—or should be—alive.
Incantatory rereading. When I’m writing I reread, again and again, what I have written. I see this constant rereading as a kind of incantation. The rereading is an attempt to find the magic, to bring the story to life. This rereading builds up my familiarity with my fictional problems. I find that only by rereading can I think. Mine is a process very much like what my wife does with her paintings, an endless layering, building up of light and color and essence. I find my characters this way. I cannot imagine them popping into my mind whole and interesting and angry with me. Rereading them I get to know them, as one gets to know people, slowly, over time, by sensing an accumulation of details that pile up into meaning. I enjoy dense writing. I’ve always liked to make as much happen in as short a space as possible, partly for aesthetic reasons, partly because that’s how I read life, a complexly layered fabric of doing and being. These exercises should cause you to do applied rereading—reading with a purpose. You look at your story as it’s unfolding and you apply a set of limitations or conceits to it as a way of moving on. This book is about reading your work imaginatively as much as it is about writing and creating out of whole cloth.
How to Use This Book
Bed, bath, and bus. These exercises can be adapted to all sorts of methods. The one I recommend with this book is the small-scale approach. Write five or ten of these exercises over a short span of time—a week or ten days. Focus on the same set of characters and a place that matters to you. Don’t try to connect the dots between the exercises. You may end up with the elements of an interesting story, or stories, or the beginnings of a novel. Let your unconscious do a great deal of the work you have to do as a writer. But also trust conscious planning and mulling over and talking about your unwritten work as much as your friends can stand. Writers don’t necessarily know what they’re doing consciously. They can discover a great deal by employing these slightly brain-addling mind-openers. Einstein said most of his best ideas came to him in bed, in the bath, and on the bus—places where it was inconvenient—or impossible—to write anything down.
Exercise length and combinations. For nearly all of these exercises I’ve suggested short lengths—usually between 400 and 1,000 words. Writers can learn to look at language close up this way and at the same time practice getting right to the point. Do a draft of an exercise at greater length, then edit it down to the prescribed word limits—there is no harm in arbitrarily editing your work. Any time you can cut a piece of prose by twenty percent, you should cut it by twenty percent. In all of these exercises you should stick to the word-limitation as closely as you can. An alternative to the intense rigor of the exercise Life Story (Exercise 94)—to write a life in 300 words—would be to write a 1,000-word life story. How do the two versions differ? In the longer exercise, you are likely to be tempted by narratives of one kind or another, or you may choose a handful of narratable events to stand for the life. This is just one example of how you can torque these exercises by changing the word-lengths. “Of course, disregard any or all of these rules rather than say anything barbarous”—the great line of George Orwell, in “Politics and the English Language.”
Multi-tasking. Readers of this book should also consider combining two or three exercises together in one go. A number of the exercises by themselves do not offer much for writers to do—a first sentence, a last sentence, a branch to hang onto over a whitewater torrent. Sometimes it’s good to have only one objective in mind when proposing a new reality, but then again sometimes it’s better to have several unrelated objectives (when you have overlapping—or contradictory—goals in a day’s writing, you may find yourself more inspired). For a longer discussion of this issue, take a look at the section Exercise Mix and Match.
Other resources. The best-selling handbook for fiction workshops is Janet Burroway’s Writing Fiction, now in its fifth edition. When I began to
teach fiction workshops, I adapted a number of Burroway’s more quirky exercises for my own use. Over the years and new editions, Burroway has dropped many of what I think were her best exercises, in favor of straighter, more content-oriented exercises (this was a process I imagine was inevitable, as Burroway’s audience and sense of responsibility grew). Both John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction and Janet Burroway’s book are noble and very successful attempts at comprehensive explanations of how to write fiction (and specifically short stories). The exercises in those two books are subsidiary to the main emphasis of the books, which is to educate (and in Gardner’s case, to promote a political approach, away from what he felt was the hegemonic style of the day, postmodern fiction). As in Burroway’s book, these exercises are broken down into constituent elements—dialogue, character, show and tell, etc. But I do not go to great lengths to explain what these things are—a certain knowledge is assumed. The best way to learn how to write is to read as much as you can get your hands on—asking knowledgeable friends to recommend books, quizzing bookstore clerks, teachers, librarians. Also strongly recommended: the OULIPO Compendium, by Harry Mathews and Alastair Brotchie, and Rebel Yell by Lance Olsen for some very good advice about writing against the tradition.
What to Do Next
A story in the rough. Take an old story of yours that you hate or love, apply four or five exercises to its subject, and you may find that another story lurks under its rumpled covers. Or just sit down and do seven of these exercises, quickly, no editor on the shoulder, under the gun. What then? That is the point. You ought to ask yourself what now? at every important point of the writing process—you should ask tough questions of yourself, both as the writer and as the person in front of the keyboard (effectively the first reader of your own work). I hope these exercises give you insights into your own personal preoccupations and fascinations. All writers need to learn how to write as purely as themselves as they can. What does that mean? You find your own subject, style, and voice. What patterns do you repeat unconsciously in your fiction again and again? Sometimes it is impossible to see this by yourself or at least not without years of practice. The painter James Weeks said to his graduate students that the thing most teachers tell you to get rid of is the thing you most need to hang onto—which I take to mean that your own personal style is often not visible to anyone but yourself.
Success. How do you gauge the success of an exercise? If, after rereading it days or weeks later (when the prose has become at least somewhat unfamiliar), you feel the living, breathing complexity of a whole story kicking at the outer walls of this fragment, and you wonder, What next?—then you have succeeded.
Helpful amnesia. Write as many of these exercises as you can and keep them, organizing them carefully, naming the files and folders in ways you’ll be able to recognize months and years later (I assume everyone uses a computer now, especially fiction writers). A classmate of mine in college announced to our writing group, once, that she’d burned all of her old writing. I was horrified (the rest of this group was impressed by the act—most of us agreed that all of our writing up to that point was bad and self-indulgent). You should think of your writing as a collection of fragments. Journals and notebooks are important for this, too, but a separate book for stray ideas is invaluable. Still, what do you do with these exercises once you’ve written five or ten or twenty-three of them? You should keep them, let them sit and age (fiction, like some wines, gets better—or seems better—the further away from it you get—or you see what you should do with these snippets of a scene), reread the exercises occasionally, build up enough of them so that some of the ones you read genuinely surprise you (“I don’t remember having written that,” you’ll say—the ideal reaction to one’s own writing).
Two fragments. When you have written six or eight exercises, put them away for a good while, then take them out of the drawer and reread all with a discerning alien eye. Choose the two exercises you like most and put them together, no matter if they don’t seem to go together. Think of them being several pages apart and connect the dots, change names if necessary. Be daring and goofy. This is the simplest way to use this book, but it might be the best way to use it.