Rules are made to be broken, right? And yet when we’re training as writing, we’re constantly taking classes and reading books and looking for new rules to follow so we can “be good writers” or “get it right.” That’s why Must the Gun Always Fire at Hugo House last night was such a relief. Natalie Diaz, Anthony Doerr, and Karen Finneyfrock were all asked to present work that examines Chekhov’s rule that a gun placed in the first act must go off by the third and the results made me want to run home and reexamine the writing rules I’ve set for myself.
Natalie Diaz breaks so many rules already with her poetry that it was exciting to see how she responded to the prompt. I love the way she blends really gorgeous language and metaphors with hard-hitting stories that push at familial comfort zones. In the first poem she read last night, which was about playing basketball on the reservation, she talked about the splintering of a fibula and I think she used the word “motherfucker.” Diaz says that she likes to write in form and then break it, which is harder for me to hear in a reading. She’s definitely playing with expectations throughout her writing and I love it.
The rules I most enjoyed watching her break last night were self-imposed. She read one poem that was a really fresh draft which is something many writers avoid, but I loved the vulnerability of that moment and the poem was gorgeous. She also read a series of poems about her brother in a row. Someone had remarked to her that they thought she might move onto new subject matter after writing a book about her brother, but she pushed back last night by writing what she needed to write about. And then she changed it all up again by breaking that series with a poem about something else entirely.
Diaz has a very particular reading style which I find distracting. I kept thinking about how her very careful enunciation and sometimes halting cadence might be accentuating the rhythm of the poem and helping to show what the piece looked like on the page. But as a prose writer with a tin ear, I really prefer to focus on the flow of the language.
The first piece Finneyfrock read broke every rule of reader anticipation and I adored it. The piece takes place in a room with a gun on a table (a fact which is repeated frequently enough to break another rule to wonderful effect). But the room is also filled with other loaded objects including a pregnancy test and unlit matches. A hooded figure passes the window. What the piece did for me was show the charge that we as writers build with certain objects. As she piled one on top of another, there was no way that the resulting story could utilize them all, but I was fascinated by the way my brain wanted to complete the action implied by each object. That’s a potency I’d like to play with later.
Another piece she read played with the stereotypes different types of writers have about each other. Beyond the genre fiction versus literary fiction “divide,” I’d honestly not thought much about it before, but her observations were spot on and hilarious.
Finneyfrock also played with our expectations when she read a poem about her own rules of writing. Interwoven with some more expected maxims, she shared advice about when and how to ride a bicycle. The rules became about writing but also living. I liked the way that poem expanded for me to show how writing is living for some of us.
The featured reader, Anthony Doerr, took a completely novel approach to the stage. Novel, at least, for a literary reading. He placed a large pad of paper on the wall as you would at a business conference. On each sheet was a rule of writing like, “Never start a book with your character waking up” and “Only amateurs write dream scenes.” Then he read beautiful examples from classic literature of writers who stomped all over those rules and threw the books to members of the audience who could identify the works. The Literary Series runs a little late for this early bird and this performance added a fantastic rush of energy.
And then Doerr read. The rules he was wrestling with was about being overly sentimental in writing and not being able to fit an entire life into a short story. The story he shared, I think it was called “Two Oranges,” was seven pages long. I’m going to spoil the plot for you here, but I’ll talk about why I don’t think that matters in a moment. The story started with a boy and a girl (Annie) who meet on an airplane and share two oranges. Boy falls for girl and then fails to ask for her number. A year passes as he acclimates to a new town before he sees her again. They fall in love, get married, have a child who grows to be a teen, and then Annie is diagnosed with inoperable and fatal cancer. After her death, the daughter has a child with the mother’s eyes.
Fitting an Entire Life into Seven Pages
This story started a really great discussion with my husband last night. He thought parts of the story, like inoperable cancer, were too easy and had become expected. I agree, but only to a certain extent. Inoperable cancer is a pretty pat state of affairs and it’s a TV-easy way of getting rid of a character. But so is getting hit by a car. What making Annie’s death expected does for the story is it shifted the weight. We are all going to die. Some of us horribly, some peacefully, some soon, some a very very long time into the future. Two oranges became about the life we live in between those expectations. By making her death easy (and in fact not mentioning the actual death, more on that in a moment), Doerr is fighting for team life and for getting the most out of it we can.
The trick of it all is that Doerr’s gun does fire. He has two single characters sitting next to each other on a plane. They do fall in love. Their lives do end. He uses the device of the orange throughout the piece as a metaphor for the sweetness of living. And the piece was sentimental, maybe not in the writing but in the effect. It touched me so deeply that for one minute I looked at the ring on Doerr’s finger and wondered if his wife was dying. That is the art of great writing–being able to provoke and convey that kind of feeling. I don’t know whether it was real or not but I was weeping so hard by the end of the story I was worried I would sob audibly.
The Art of Elision
Part of the reason Doerr was able to fit so much into those few pages is he lets his readers fill in the gaps in the story. I don’t think he ever mentioned that the characters were on an airplane. He instead had them travelling a long distance in seats 13A and 13B. When they re-encounter one another, he tells us that one movie date becomes twelve. The entire courtship is that one sentence. Then there is the diagnosis but he never mentions her death and instead goes straight to after her memorial service.
There are very few scenes in the story and the whole of it seems to be on fast-forward, but it works because Doerr uses the recurring significant detail of those oranges to touch very human parts of us. Listening to the story was like watching the characters’ lives flash before my eyes, but I had enough information that I could fill in the other bits in any way I wanted. I normally don’t love short stories, but I loved this one and I loved seeing the art in it.
The Literary Series always includes a musical element. Last night Jake Uitti was invited to write three pieces on the same theme. He broke the rules by inviting three friends to do the writing instead. The result was three wildly different pieces that converged around a phrase about an oasis. And each was performed similarly with the songwriter using a guitar on one mic and the other three musicians singing backup (and clapping and other accompaniments) around another. I’d never heard of Jared Cortese, Joel Mars, or Caleb Thompson before (I’m not the person you trust to find the latest bands–really), but their performances were each amazing in individual ways.
The point of it all is that maybe what’s most important about the rules of anything is to be aware of them and then to remake them to suit you. I received advance copies of Clear Out the Static in Your Attic: A Writer’s Guide for Transforming Artifacts into Art, a book of writing rules I co-authored, this week. If you choose to read that book, I hope what you’ll take away from it is your own set of guidelines to build upon and break down as you see fit.