Penman No. 51: A Kick in the Pants


Penman for Monday, June 17, 2013

MORE THAN a couple of times this past summer, in nearly all the writers’ workshops I attended as a lecturer or panelist—in Baguio, Hong Kong, Dumaguete, and Iligan—I found myself saying the same thing to some hapless fellow. I said it as nicely but as firmly as I could: “This needs a kick in the pants.”

By that I didn’t mean that the story in question deserved to be tossed into the trash bin. Workshop panelists of yore were wont to say such hurtful things, if only to watch the fellow on the hot seat squirm and burst into bitter tears, but I’d like to think that we’re long past that kind of cruelty. We do our best to be more helpful these days, and my comment was made in that benign spirit, as unfriendly as it may have sounded.

So what exactly was my beef?

It had to do with an observation I’ve often raised in this corner in respect of much of the new writing by young people that I come across in my classes and in workshops. And that’s the frustrating fact that many young writers don’t know what a real story is—a complete, fully rendered, emotionally engaging and satisfying story, the kind of story you’d like to read over and over again, and that leaves a welt on your memory for years afterward.

Here’s what I keep seeing young writers do: they’ll detail a character and a situation to bits, explaining all manner of complication besetting their hero. They can do this very well, being in possession of an English honed by TV, Hollywood, and Starbucks, an English they don’t just write but speak in everywhere they go.

But when things just begin to get really interesting—somewhere on Page 9, when something you didn’t expect looks like it’s just about to happen—the author pulls the plug and declares the story over, as if to dismiss the reader with a coy “That’s enough.” The idea seems to be that this intensely focused, microscopic investigation of a character and a problem—say, a young woman’s ironic inability to make meaningful connections to others, despite the fact that she works in a call center—is enough.

But it’s not—there’s been loads of exposition, but the story hasn’t really moved far beyond us knowing who this person and what her problem is. We’re still in the problem, which the author has worried like a bad tooth, but it hasn’t really been brought to a point of real drama—the kind of drama that gives us headaches and heart palpitations because we’re that engrossed in the conflict and its possible outcome. But how many stories written today leave you breathless like that, aching to turn the page?

Too many drafts I’ve seen resort to abrupt conclusions—premature ejaculations, if you will—because of the writer’s unwillingness or inability to take real risks with the story, indicating either a fear of the unknown (which no real writer can afford to have) or, in some cases, a lack of the kind of emotional maturity and sophistication you need to be able to navigate the dimly lit paths the human mind and heart can take. Instead of producing real dramatic substance, many young writers depend on tricks of language—on witticisms, for example, instead of wisdom—to carry the story.

And please don’t tell me they’re just trying to be “postmodern.” I know and can enjoy a good postmodern story when I see one—such as Donald Barthelme’s “The Balloon” or Dino Buzzati’s “The Falling Girl”, both of which I teach in my short story class. Postmodern stories have a very sharp edge—they need to, to gut the conventions that came before them. A poorly executed traditional story doesn’t bring it one step closer to being postmodern.

Just for the exercise, let me take up an example of the fully rendered, fully dramatized short story that I’ve been adverting to: “Paul’s Case,” written by Willa Cather in 1905. The story is set in Pittsburgh—even then already wallowing in industrial grime—where the artistically-inclined 16-year-old Paul is dreaming of bigger things, and spends his time as an usher in the theater, pretending to be bigger than who he really is. Now, many young writers would stop there in the theater scene, content to mark the irony between the glittering stage and the sooty reality of Pittsburgh outside. Not Cather: she forces Paul into a real dilemma by putting a large sum of money in his hands—money his father expects him to deposit in the bank; at this point, Paul snaps and buys a train ticket to New York City, the paradise of his fantasies. This would be Ending B for many writers, thinking that it’s enough for Paul to decide to leave Pittsburgh, come what may.

But again, not Cather: she brings Paul to New York, where he lives it up like a prince for a week, buying up clothes and treating himself to fancy meals, until the inevitable news comes that he is wanted as a fugitive and that his storybook life will soon come to an end. This should be good enough for Ending C: a long, last wistful look at New York’s dizzying opulence, then a step into an indeterminate future. But Cather goes further, not content with ambiguity: she brings Paul out to some desolate backyard out of town, where he makes a final if foolish gesture of defiance, hurling himself in front of an oncoming train, at which instant “the disturbing visions flashed into black, and Paul dropped back into the immense design of things.”

That’s what I mean by pushing the narrative to its farthest limits, subjecting the character to intense pressure, indeed to the breaking point (although Paul arguably never breaks in his composure, meeting the end with inimitable style). While I generally don’t like and discourage ending stories with the death of the protagonist (many writers use death as a convenient way out rather than thinking the problem through), here the death comes as a logical conclusion, the enactment of the final scene in Paul’s theatrical conception of himself.

Or take the case of Kerima Polotan’s 1952 classic, “The Virgin,” where the schoolmarmish Miss Mijares meets a man who—despite being beneath what she imagines to be her social station—awakens her dormant desires. Most student writers today would actually end with that encounter, with Miss Mijares getting all worked up about this handyman who can fix wooden birds. But Polotan, of course, can’t be content with just setting things up; she brings man and woman together, in a jeepney on a rainy night, and drops them off where they both don’t expect to be, until “her flesh leaped, and she recalled how his hands had looked that first day, lain tenderly on the edge of her desk and about the wooden bird (that had looked like a moving, shining dove) and she turned to him with her ruffles wet and wilted, in the dark she turned to him.”

So how do you bring a story to that memorable point?

When I tell my students that I want to give them and their stories a kick in the pants, I could be meaning one of two things:

1. As I explain above, I’d like them to push their narratives to a point beyond the visible horizon, to that “somewhere we’ve never been” that even the capable writer himself or herself will not have predicted until he or she began writing the story. (I never plot my stories beforehand; I may have a vague notion of how it will end, but I’d rather let the story itself lead me at some point, so everything remains fresh and wonderful, rather than plotted and predictable. If I can plot it, someone else can, in the same way—in which case, why even bother?)

2. I’d like them to step out of their comfort zones and immerse themselves in the cultural, social, and economic life of the nation. I suspect that this is, indeed, the deeper problem, one of cultural illiteracy and alienation: our young writers, especially those who grew up in privileged surroundings, know and may even care little about the rest of society, and therefore can’t have much to say about the world beyond their own gated villages and schools. Again I can appreciate fantasy and its attractions, but I think it’s tragic if a Filipino teenager knows more about Hogwarts than Cubao. The challenge I pose to my young spec-fic writers is to bring Hogwarts to Cubao, to find the extraordinary in the seemingly ordinary.

So, all together now: raise the stakes, and push the narrative! Bring us somewhere we’ve never been!

6 thoughts on “Penman No. 51: A Kick in the Pants

  1. Life inevitably involves risks, even in writing. I’ve been trying my hand on writing very short stories, sort of a pastime. And I know I’ve been trying to “be safe”. Now I know it’s okay to push my characters to fly and jump and do all sorts of crazy stuff. This particular column has been the most memorable for me such that I’ve bookmarked it for easy reference when I scribble my next short story. Thank you, sir!


    • hi, nancy, thanks. go out there and write that memorable, moving story (not just the technically perfect but basically forgettable one) that you know you have in you.


  2. Your advice reminds me of a similar interaction with Seattle-based writer Peter Bacho, our mentor at the NVM Gonzales Writing Workshop. He critiqued my short story “Diwata” ( a nymph having a love affair with a landowner-developer) to add “sex in their trysts!” You’re a mother, arent you? you know this……..I did have fun writing the addendum. Thanks again Butch for letting me reprint this in our e-zine TheFilamLosAngeles.
    – Cecile

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