Saturday, September 24, 2011


E. Ethelbert Miller asks: "In a 2006 interview with Shayla Hawkins you mention how writers should take emotional risks. Does this require a teacher or mentor? Does emotional risks differ from the risks a writer makes in regards to form or structure?"

In my writing workshops, whenever it was necessary to discuss the issue of characterization, I would explain to my students what they needed to know about their main or central characters in a story. Some of my advice was standard fare. For example, that one's protagonist (and the story's reader) should not come out of the story as clean as when he or she went in. The conflict and its development will force the protagonist to undergo change, to evolve. I told my students they must know as much about their character as Lajos Egri indicates in the biographical questions he says writers must ask in "The Bone Structure" section that appears in his classic work The Art of Dramatic Writing (1942). As an exercise, I'd ask them to write their main character's obituary. And then I'd ask them to do something that always caused a few students in the room to visibly squirm.

I asked them to determine what their protagonist most feared in this world. I told them I didn't mean snakes or spiders. No, I meant his or her deepest social fear. The one situation they most dreaded experiencing. The one event they would prefer to die than have to face. Then I told them they should maneuver their protagonist into exactly that situation to see what happens---if, in fact, he or she is destroyed by it, or is changed by it and in what ways. Everyone in class knew what doing that would require. They knew what I was asking of them. They would have to delve deeply into the most tender, raw, and painful places in themselves and identify their own deepest social fears.

In some of my novels and stories there are moments---passages---when I've had to do that. When the story demanded that. I.e., to give to one of my characters an excruciatingly painful experience from my past or the life of someone close to me. There is such a passage in my story "The Sorcerer's Apprentice," and when I wrote it tears were falling from my eyes onto the typewriter keys. (Earlier in my life, there was nothing more dreadful to me, a good Confucian son, than the thought of failing my father and mother, letting them down after all the sacrifices they had made for me, and in this story that is exactly what the protagonist must suffer through.) There is another in Dreamer---a passage where one of the main characters (Matthew Bishop) remembers when he and his mother traveled South during the era of segregation, were hungry, and the humiliation she received (that any black person would have received) at a white, roadside diner, but even that, Matthew sees, cannot diminish his mother's dignity and innate nobility. To a somewhat lesser degree, writing about the details of my mother's death in a recent E-Channel post entitled "Death Is A Bridge We All Must Cross" (July 17), and the feeling I had of being orphaned, was a small step in the exercise of deliberately bearing one's soul on the page. 

These are emotionally important moments in fiction. I believe they transcend what normally passes for analysis in literary criticism (for example, structuralism, semiotics, deconstruction) because they are so raw, and in no way cerebral, or intellectualized. Their power is primal. Pure unadulterated feeling beyond concepts. Beyond theory. No teacher or mentor can help a student achieve this. These are intentional risks of the heart, not craft. They are a giving on the page of what is not easy to give. It seems to me that most of these moments take place in our childhoods, when we were most vulnerable. Describing those episodes, a writer must open himself or herself, become emotional naked, brutally honest, and trace with infinite care every laceration, wound, and scar to the best of his (or her) ability in order to get it right, to finally externalize it on the page and liberate himself from it. And all of that is, of course, in the service of the story. In the greater service of literature.
This kind of writing takes a certain kind of courage. (And also, I think, takes a toll on the writer, takes a chunk out of him or her, emotionally.) And I am not as good at this as many writers I admire. Foremost among these is James Alan McPherson. For I will never forget one of his essays in which he describes the denial of his father's genius during the era of segregation (he came up with an invention whites would not allow him to give to the world), the devastating toll that took on him, and a scene toward that essay's end when father and son are literally united by electricity---his father is repairing a light fixture, sticks one hand into the socket, has his son's hand in the other, and the son is holding an object to ground them both. If either one of them lets go, the other (or both of them) will die. And in that transcendent scene, as electricity and the elemental power of the universe courses through them, the black father looks down at his son, and quietly says, "I would never hurt you."
McPherson has achieved this kind of leave-you-shattered-in-your-seat magic time and again in his short stories and essays. Little wonder then that on October 12, 2012, he---a recipient of the Pulitzer prize for one of his short story collections, and one of the first MacArthur fellows---will be honored with a tribute at the Englert Theatre in Iowa City when he receives the first Paul Engle Award, which "honors an individual who, like Paul Engle (a long-time director of the Iowa Writers' Workshop), represents a pioneering spirit in the world of literature through writing, editing, publishing, or teaching, and whose active participation in the larger issues of the day has contributed to the betterment of the world through the literary arts."

Emotional honesty such as we find in McPherson's well-crafted work is an achievement more than deserving of such honors and awards.

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