The People’s MFA (“Werewolves in Their Youth” Edition)


I have deep respect for people who have completed a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing. Devoting two years of full-time study to producing acres of drafts and absorbing what can be painful critique, knowing all the while that there will be no “Help Wanted: MFA-Accredited Novelist” ad to answer at its conclusion, is a glorious achievement. The MFA attests not only to a writer’s profound commitment to the craft, but to an enviable faith in her own talent.

For those of us, however, who lack the money or time, or maybe even the faith, the People’s MFA is an inexpensive, time-tested alternative. Admission is free and open to all, and the professors are the finest in history. Some of them are even still alive.

If you’ve read like a starving beast ever since you worked out how the alphabet adds up to pictures and people, then you’ve already completed the prerequisites. The coursework begins when you read the authors you admire, and even those you don’t, in search of writing lessons. When, instead of losing yourself in a story, you deliberately step out of it to raise your hand and ask the professor some questions.

  • “I get a sense that this character is in despair, even though you’ve shown him interacting with people cheerfully over what seem to be ordinary events in a happy life. Where and how did you create my unease?”
  • “You made these people up, and I don’t know anyone remotely like them, yet I cried over a moment of unwarranted mercy and forgiveness between them. How did you make me care?”
  • “I finished reading your book a week ago, and lines from it are still bouncing around my consciousness, coloring my interactions, forcing me to reassess my assumptions. What techniques allowed you to take up residence in my mind, even after I closed the book?”
  • “It’s three o’clock in the morning and my alarm will go off at 6:15. And yet, you just made me turn the page again! What sorcery is this? Teach it to me!”

“Go back to the text,” the professor always replies, without a trace of impatience. “All the answers are there.”

I’ve done this exercise on my blog with a short story by Dashiell Hammett, and on Magnificent Nose with a passage from Michael Chabon’s Telegraph Avenue. This week, I was back in class with Professor Chabon, studying his 1999 short story collection, Werewolves in Their Youth. I keep taking his classes because his sentences do triple the work of mine. He never passes up the opportunity to evoke an emotion or a response in the reader during the course of narration or description. Few of his sentences simply tell the story, and those that do, exist, it seems, for rhythm and to give the reader’s mind a momentary respite before the next surprise. He’s giving us a chance to catch our breath.

Here, then, is today’s lesson from Professor Chabon:

Things that break need to break for at least two reasons. Maybe more.

In this paragraph from the title story, eleven-year-old Paul explains why his father spent a night in jail. Paul tells his friend only part of the story.

“He had too much to drink,” I said, with a disingenuous shrug. My father was not much of a drinker, and when he crashed the party my mother had thrown last weekend to celebrate the closing of her first really big sale, he broke a window, knocked over a chafing dish, which set fire to a batik picture of Jerusalem, and raised a bloody blue plum under my mother’s right eye. People had tended to blame the unaccustomed effects of the fifth of Gilbey’s that was later found in the glove compartment of his car. Only my mother and I knew that he was secretly a madman.

Let’s begin and end with that bloody blue plum, which takes the admonition to show rather than tell to horrifying new heights. Paul’s father, in a drunken, jealous rage, punches his soon-to-be-ex-wife in the face, giving her a black eye. But black eyes are not black, and Paul, in the straightforward reportage of an eleven year old boy, tells us exactly what he saw: something red, blue, swollen, and fleshy. Since the events seem to have happened too quickly for him to observe, or perhaps because he was not a witness, he reports the results rather than the actions. But in these few details, Chabon gives us an entire portrait of a marriage exploding.

Anything could have broken in the melee, but look what did: First, a window, the transparent barrier between the outside world and the home, the adjustable filter that keeps out what should stay external and keeps within what should be private. That was the first to go.

Next, a chafing dish, a typical wedding gift used for formal entertaining, the public face of respectability the couple presents to the world. The upending of the chafing dish destroys–burns in fact, the most permanent and irreparable form of destruction–an object with artistic and spiritual significance, the batik picture of Jerusalem. A reader can envision a whole history of the couple’s bond through that detail: shared values, aesthetics, traditions, and comfort, all in ashes.

The bruise, then, is more than a bruise. In one rage, Paul’s father has destroyed symbols of the couple’s domestic, social, and spiritual relationship. The black eye is the end of their physical relationship, the substitution of violence for sex, the swelling of the eye a travesty of (follow me here) the swelling of pregnancy (bloody fruit? Fruit of the womb? It didn’t have to be a plum. Chabon chose a plum).

Paul, being eleven, is vague about the reasons for his father’s explosion. He is experienced enough to understand that it was not the alcohol that led directly to the violence, but he doesn’t draw the connection between his mother’s newfound success and his father’s reaction. While staying in first person, Chabon tells the adult audience what Paul can’t see yet. Paul’s own explanation, that only he and his mother know that his father is “secretly a madman,” shows in one stroke both Paul’s inability to understand what has gone wrong, and the intimacy and terror of the mother and child who keep that secret.

So what lesson does Professor Chabon have for us in this paragraph?

Realism consists partly of the accretion of details, but a writer can do so much more than paint a picture. We can layer meaning through the selection of details and the words we choose to describe them. Paul’s father could have slapped his wife, leaving four garish marks like smeared lipstick on her cheek. He could have broken a heating vent, a cutting board, a blender, and a Hummel figurine. He could have upset a bowl of potato chips and dish of cole slaw, all to completely different effect. We would still have the image of a man in a violent rage, but the significance of the damage and the resulting emotional weight would have been weaker and cloudier.

Don’t waste narration or description by just telling what happened and what it looked like. Let the details reveal the secret stories beneath.

There’s the bell! Professor Chabon’s class is over for today. Now go and find your next teacher and tell the rest of us what you learned.


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