Tag Archives: Benjamin Woodard

Trusting Your Own Bad Eye: An Interview with David Jauss

by Benjamin Woodard

Born in Minnesota in 1951, David Jauss is the author of four collections of stories: Black Maps (University of Massachusetts Press, 1996), Crimes of Passion (Dzanc Books, 2014), Glossolalia: New & Selected Stories (Press 53, 2013), and Nice People: New & Selected Stories II (Press 53, 2017). He has published two poetry collections—You Are Not Here (Fleur-de-Lis, 2002) and Improvising Rivers (Cleveland State University Poetry Center, 1995)—and has edited several anthologies, including the craft collection Words Overflown by Stars (Story Press, 2009). His writing has appeared in Best American Short Stories and has won the O. Henry Award and two Pushcart Prizes.

Alone with All That Could Happen: On Writing Fiction (Press 53, $29.95), a collection of craft essays by Jauss, was originally published by Writer’s Digest in 2008. Recently, Jauss released a revised and expanded version of the book, adding in new examples and a brand-new essay on plot structure. Tackling point of view, story collection organization, epiphanies in fiction, and more, the collection is a gift for writers everywhere—a craft book that speaks deeply about technique while offering perspectives that sometimes push against tropes sold by instructors for decades. Once I got my hands on this new edition, I knew I wanted to talk with Jauss about what went into these essays, as well as how the book fits into our current climate of creativity battling AI art.

Benjamin Woodard: What inspired you to revisit these essays, and have any of your ideas shifted since the book’s first publication?

David Jauss: The main reason I wanted to revise and expand the book was to improve my essay on point of view. I can’t tell you how many writers have told me—in person, in letters, in emails, and Facebook posts—that it’s far and away the best essay on POV they’ve ever read. One writer even called it “instantly canonical.” But POV is a slippery, complicated subject, and the more I read and thought about it, the more I realized I’d made some mistakes in the original version of the essay. Also, in the fourteen years that the first version of Alone with All That Could Happen was in print, I came across numerous examples that would better illustrate the various POV techniques I discuss. 

I also wanted to update my essay “Autobiographobia” to address the bugaboo of cultural appropriation, which has become an increasingly controversial issue since the first edition appeared, and I wanted to add an essay on plot and structure, two subjects I felt were conspicuously missing from the first version. There are dozens of cuts, additions, updates, and changes in all the essays, but the POV essay is the most altered. The fact that it took me fourteen years to revise it to my satisfaction is proof that the original version was anything but “instantly canonical.” I hope the new version is closer to deserving that kind of praise.

BW: I will join the chorus in praising your essay on POV. It breaks down point of view techniques in ways that are easy to digest and appreciate. I have read and reread that essay, and it has spun me off to reevaluate some of my own writing. While talking about various updates, you mention adding to “Autobiographobia,” which discusses, among other things, moving away from the old chestnut, “Write what you know.” Have you experienced any pushback on this essay when it comes to the idea of writing outside of one’s culture and experience, and can you speak to whether there is a limitation one might face when writing in such a manner?

DJ: I have no doubt that many—maybe even most—fiction writers today believe writing about people whose culture and experience differ from theirs is “cultural appropriation,” a violation of the “copyright” those people have on their culture and experience, but no one has criticized my essay—at least not so far. My essay argues that writing about people whose age, gender, sexual orientation, race, nationality, religion, politics, culture, and experiences differ from ours is a positive thing, just as reading about such people is. Indeed, I’d argue that it just may be the most important reason to write fiction.

What people call “cultural appropriation,” I—and most writers throughout literary history—would call “imagination.” As I say in my essay, I agree with Sherwood Anderson, who said, “the whole glory of writing lies in the fact that it forces us out of ourselves and into the lives of others” and therefore bridges divisions between people. I see writing about “the other” as an empathetic act, a desire to understand other people and see and experience life as they see and experience it. Obviously, if you write about others merely to attack them and assert your superiority, that’s despicable and the fiction that results can only be reprehensible. And even if our intentions are good, we may of course wind up doing a bad job of imagining someone who’s different from ourselves, and if so, we should take our lumps from readers and critics and try to do better the next time. What we shouldn’t do is give up the empathetic attempt to imagine our way into the minds and hearts of others. We shouldn’t be content to “stay in our lane” and write only what we know.

If you don’t trust me, or Sherwood Anderson, maybe you’ll trust Toni Morrison. When she was teaching creative writing at Princeton, she always began the semester by telling her students to forget the conventional advice to “write what you know.” Instead, she said, “Think of somebody you don’t know. What about a Mexican waitress in the Rio Grande who can barely speak English? Or what about a Grande Madame in Paris?” We can’t entirely ignore our own culture and experience when we write—that’s impossible—but clearly Morrison believed, with Grace Paley, that we should write from what we know into what we don’t know. Just as reading a wide variety of fiction expands our understanding of other people, and of ourselves, so too does writing fiction about a wide variety of our fellow humans. 

BW: Your answer keys into one of the elements I find most impressive in the book—that being the sheer number of quotes and examples from other writers and thinkers that appear in each essay to support your points. You mentioned earlier the desire to add in new passages while constructing this expanded version of the text, and on a nuts-and-bolts level, I wonder if you could talk some about building these essays. I kind of imagine a file cabinet full of passages that you’ve gathered over the years. Really, though, how did, say, the new essay on plot structure come together?

DJ: All of my essays were originally delivered as lectures at Vermont College of Fine Arts, and it was my custom during each residency to choose a subject to explore for the next residency’s lecture. Often, the subjects of my upcoming lectures were suggested by something in my current residency’s workshop. For example, in one workshop, nine out of the twelve students turned in stories told in the present tense—sometimes to good effect and sometimes not—so I decided to write my next lecture on the advantages and disadvantages of present-tense narration. In another workshop, several students turned in stories that ended with high-octane epiphanies, so I chose epiphanies as my next residency’s topic. The examples I used for my lectures were taken primarily from whatever I was reading that semester.

When I collected the essays in the first edition of the book, however, I added numerous examples that I’d come across since I initially wrote the lectures. And in the new version of the book, I added many examples that I accumulated during the fourteen years since the publication of the first version. I also added numerous quotations about fiction from writers far wiser than I am. Ever since I started studying the craft of fiction fifty-some years ago, I’ve been typing up advice and insights from writers I admire, and although I don’t have a “file cabinet full” of them, I have accumulated nearly 1,000 pages of brilliant quotations that I’ve drawn from in writing my essays.

“Beyond Plot: Structuring Fiction” is the only essay that I wrote specifically for the new edition, but the idea for it began much like the others. A student in one of my VCFA workshops mentioned that he couldn’t understand why Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried” was considered such a great story when, in his opinion, it was plotless. So I hit on the idea of writing an essay that compared and contrasted the structure of O’Brien’s story with the structure of Ha Jin’s marvelous story “Saboteur,” which has the same kind of conventional causal plot—a causes b which causes c, etc.—that “The Things They Carried” has but presents its events in chronological order. Ha Jin’s story is divided into five sections—the first introduces the story’s conflict, the next three complicate that conflict, the fourth brings the conflict to a climax, and the fifth presents the resolution. In “Saboteur,” the plot and the structure coincide. In “The Things They Carried,” they don’t—and given O’Brien’s subject and theme, they shouldn’t.

Plot is a far more complicated subject than most craft books suggest, and causality is not the only organizing principle for a plot. I’ve written a much more comprehensive essay about different organizing principles—and therefore different kinds of plots—that will appear in my next craft book, Words Made Flesh, which is due out from Press 53 next spring.

BW: I look forward to checking it out! It’s exciting to hear that more craft writing is coming from you, particularly amidst constant chatter about artificial intelligence and storytelling. It seems to me that strong stories require nuance that a program cannot replicate, but maybe that’s just my own naïveté showing itself. Have you thought about this subject at all? If so, do you think it is logical to fear algorithms when it comes to the stories we consume?

DJ: Today I watched a YouTube video of John Lennon singing David Bowie’s “Space Oddity.” Lennon never covered that song, of course, nor did he (or would he) don Major Tom’s space helmet for an MTV-style video. The video was created by AI. If I hadn’t known that fact in advance, I might have been fooled into thinking someone had discovered a previously unknown tape of Lennon recording Bowie’s song. So yes, I do think it’s logical to fear AI. If it can bring Lennon back from the dead to sing a song he never sang, it can certainly generate Hemingway stories, and given that Hemingway’s actual stories would be the source of the AI-generated stories, I think at least some of the fake stories could have the kind of nuance that we associate with bona fide Hemingway stories. If so, an unscrupulous publisher (and that’s not an oxymoron) could pass the AI stories off as legitimate “long-lost” works.

Even if a publisher made it clear upfront that this “new” book of Hemingway stories was created by AI, would we really want AI-generated Hemingway stories to take up shelf space in bookstores and compete not only with Hemingway’s actual stories but with everybody else’s actual stories? And much as I hate to say it, I believe they would compete. There’s already a strong market for fan fiction—witness the retellings and spinoffs of Pride and Prejudice that appear with Old Faithful-like regularity every few months—and I suspect the fans of Austen fan fiction would be just as willing to read an AI-generated version of the Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy saga. And I suspect there could also be a market for stories “in the manner of” many other much-loved authors.

And here’s another reason to fear AI: since AI of necessity uses what already exists in order to create something “new,” lawyers could have a heyday with copyright infringement suits. As I see it, anything that could possibly create a new revenue stream for lawyers is something well deserving of our fear.

BW: You spoke earlier about how many of your essays blossomed from experiences in the classroom and workshop. After writing (and revising) these and other essays, as well as teaching and editing for decades, is there one go-to piece of advice that you might offer someone just starting out when it comes to the craft of fiction?

DJ: If I were limited to only one piece of advice, it would be the obvious one: read your ass off. We learn how to write mostly via a kind of osmosis, unconsciously absorbing the writing lessons novels and stories teach us, and the more you read, the more you’ll learn. But there are a couple of other pieces of advice I feel compelled to add to this all-important one.

First, as the Russian proverb says, “Don’t trust your brother, trust your own bad eye.” Even if you know your brother has your best interests at heart, and even if you know you don’t see your own work as clearly as you should, you ultimately have to trust yourself, not your teachers, friends, or family. And not the authors of craft books, either, especially those whose advice tends to be prescriptive rather than descriptive. You need to discover the vast panorama of techniques and strategies that are available to fiction writers, so you can choose the ones that feel most appropriate to the characters and story you’re creating.

Second, as every boxer knows, if you step into the ring, you’re going to get hit—and often, and hard. To become a writer, you’ll need to weather a lot of criticism and rejection, both from others and—most painfully—from yourself. As the long-time editor Gerald Howard once said, a writer’s life consists of repeatedly vacillating between two contradictory thoughts: “It’s just not worth it” and “Don’t give up.” Do whatever you can to make “Don’t give up” win by a knockout.

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