LOOPING DEBILITY CRISIS: a conversation between Gary Lutz, Mary Caponegro, and Tim Horvath
10/20/11
 



This conversation took place on July 14, 2011, at Soda Bar in Brooklyn, New York, as part of The Soda Series, a bi-monthly conversation between writers, hosted by writers Greg Gerke and John Dermot Woods. Among the things the panel discussed were creative crises, self-doubt, plot, speaking "Homerically," and the "Jonathan Franzen-dominated realistic American writing world.

Transcribed by Anelise Chen and James Yeh
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(Click to listen to audio of the conversation or the individual readings by Gary Lutz, Tim Horvath, and Mary Caponegro. You can view photos and a recap of the event at The Big Other. The next Soda Series will take place on November 9th.)

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I: "WHY WAS IT THAT THE SQUIRREL DID NOT SLIDE?"

TIM HORVATH: Gary, I'm curious to hear a little bit about the role that received language has in your work, like the "Fill in the Blanks," for example. You take something, these threadbare, timeworn phrases that could be appearing in the pages Cosmopolitan, or in the language of therapy speak, and you twist them and turn them into something that renders them as poetry on the page. I'm wondering if you could speak a little bit about what that is like for you, that transformation.

GARY LUTZ: Well, I do read a lot of junky magazines and listen to a lot of crackpot talk radio. Although I don't watch television, I read newspapers. And I'm looking for little bits of language that are overused but nevertheless seem to have some kind of latent poetry in them. And then I might try to twist it around to form it a little bit, deform it, or put it in a somewhat different context. I know there are a lot of writing teachers who say, "Don't use clichés. Don't use standard expressions." But I think that somehow limits the writer. Because those cliches are used so frequently because they serve some kind of purpose for the people using them. So, I think there is material there that can be rolled into something peculiar, or something that could suggest something perverse or unexpected about the narrator. So, I don't shy away from using that kind of expression.

HORVATH: [Pauses] Am I the moderator all of a sudden, Greg? Thank you, Gary! Do any of the other writers have a question? Tim?

MARY CAPONEGRO: Tim. [Audience laughs] I'm curious about how you…well some of us on this couch have some considerable experience in academia, and I was interested in how resourcefully and comically you interpolated that. Do you have any wisdom about that process or how characterization forms, and what one takes from life or anything along those lines to instruct us with?

HORVATH: Probably my biggest sort of foray into appreciating academia is reading Richard Russo's Straight Man. I'm an adjunct teacher myself, so I kind of see the professorial world from the outside. And I'm at a school which is largely immune from the sorts of squabbles and caricatures that tend to crop up in the Umbrology Department in my story. So I guess it's more just a sense of this idea that in any institution, characters tend to form in relation to each other and to congeal and settle into certain hierarchies. The fun was figuring out in terms of shadows what those would be. But it's not all that much from first-hand experience.

JOHN DERMOT WOODS (CO-MODERATOR): Tim, can I ask you another question about that? When you're reading it, you're thinking of the looming presence of like Straight Man and White Noise

HORVATH: That's another one, yeah. Definitely White Noise.

WOODS: I was wondering about the anxiety of influence in writing a story that's a send up of a fake academic department. How aware were you of that while writing it?

HORVATH: To be truthful, not so much because the way the story kind of started was, it started as a writing exercise. In my writing group we pulled down a book from the shelf—an Antonya Nelson short story collection—and we picked a line at random. The line was, "Why was it that the squirrel did not slide?" And then we each had to go off and make something off that. Somehow I started writing this piece about someone who had seen the shadow of the squirrel slide and not the squirrel itself, and was starting to fear for losing his mind. And then at some point it became this thing where he actually studied shadows and was a graduate student in umbrology. And then I decided to make him more of an expert rather than a novice. I just became obsessed with shadows, so I didn't really pay much attention to those influences, which no doubt crept in. But you just sort of focus on the shadows.

II: "SELF-DOUBT IS ONE OF THE MOST IMPORTANT TRAITS A WRITER CAN HAVE."

GREG GERKE (CO-MODERATOR): I have a question for everyone about, say, creative crisis. If you've ever had any and how you deal with it? Are you the kind of writer who will keep trying and trying and trying? Or will you try to take a lot of space to get away from the work? Or will you just plow through, or have there been periods where you just have nothing to say, you think you have nothing to say, and you don't say anything for months and months and months? Or are you more regularly hitting away at it?

LUTZ: Well, I myself have never had anything to say whatsoever, it's just placing one word next to another to see if they somehow interrelate in some way that interests me. I've never not had a creative crisis. I think self-doubt is one of the most important traits that a writer can have. All of us who write should try to doubt ourselves more than all the other people in our lives are doubting us. I mean something as simple as staring at a word and looking it up in a dictionary and to make sure you've spelled it correctly. You have to doubt every single thing you do, because if you don't, others will do so for you—in ways that will not necessarily improve your life. [Audience laughs] So I think recognizing crisis is the human condition. I don't know how I would function if I were not constantly in crisis. [Audience laughs.]

CAPONEGRO: You know, for myself, creativity and crisis definitely go hand in hand. I'm a very slow writer, and not a natural writer, unlike so many of my students. And because I have always taught, there's not much time to really dwell with something except in the summer, and so I'm used to the uh, the Derridian "deferment sense of principle operatives." I don't expect instant gratification from anything I'm working on. Of course that is a gross understatement, because I've been working on a novel for ten years, and it's in perpetual crisis. I think it rose out of my own midlife artistic crisis, but I'm so accustomed to that kind of method, that the advantage is that I'm very dogged. Since I'm not really expecting to succeed or to finish something, I just don't know anything other than how to chip away at it. Efficiency or expediency is so far from my experience that I would not know how to deal with it if it happened. So I think I'm just used to crisis. I guess right now I feel like its maybe an especially exacerbated form of crisis that I'm in? But when I put too much into something I don't have any resources, so I'm not going to stop. I'll just finish it. I guess that's my situation.

HORVATH: Yeah, I'm pretty similar to what Gary and Mary both said. I think if my writing's not in crisis, I sort of have to pray for a crisis to arrive. And maybe even more than one, because one crisis isn't enough to sustain a story. One crisis is severe, but if the crises start piling up, then they sort of obscure the fact that the story's in trouble. I think that's the most important thing actually—is to be able to delude yourself that the story isn't in trouble long enough to actually arrive at something that other people might recognize as finished work.

III. "THERE'S SOMETHING EVEN WORSE ABOUT AN EXPERIMENTAL THING THAT JUST KEEPS LOOPING AND LOOPING."

QUESTION FROM THE AUDIENCE: This is directed towards Gary. In the story in Tin House and the story you read tonight, there was more dialogue than I'm accustomed to in your stories. What was it about those particular characters or stories that you felt that the characters needed to say something to express who they were, as opposed to saying it in some other more definitive way?

LUTZ: Yeah, that's a really interesting question, because for the most part I avoid dialogue, and part of it has to do with my incompetence at writing dialogue. There are some writers who are especially gifted at it—such as Mary Robison and her ex-husband James Robison, who doesn't write that much anymore. But I recognized early on that I don't have a feel for dialogue, even though I eavesdrop a lot and try to hear what other people are saying, in an effort to try to understand what other human beings are like, what their concerns are, etc. But I think, in these two stories, I was trying to achieve an affect on the page that was less dense than in my previous work, so I thought that I would try once again to play around with dialogue, but it took me a long time to come up with these very brief exchanges that occur in those two dialogues, in those two stories. There's another writer that I admire, Christine Schutt. One of the things that blows me away about her work, especially in her early stories, is that the dialogue that she presents will often be a sequence of the same paragraphs of the speaker talking without the response to those statements presented on the page. I've noticed that some other writers who have studied with Lish have attempted that particular strategy or technique as well, perhaps not to the same effect or with the same success that she has, artistically. But yeah, I did try to make a conscious effort to try to get the characters to say something.

WOODS: I have a question. I was wondering, and this for any of you, is there any particular thing that you feel is your real weakness as a writer, and if you try to write to it, or write around it?

[Group pauses, audience laughs.]

LUTZ: Well, I'm going to start with saying that I have many weaknesses as a writer: an inability to come up with plots, simply because in my life there is no plot, no sequence or causality, just a series of individual moments that don't seem to be connected to the others, and I've never been all that interested in plot as a reader. And I've read some books many, many times and I don't think at gunpoint I would be able to offer a plot summary. I'm reading for something else. So plot is a big weakness. Another weakness I have is characterization… another one is developing things beyond a few pages… another one is being intelligible… another one is avoiding solipsism... So I have just a lot of—I have just about all the debilities or weakness that a writer can have. But there was that writer E. M. Cioran who said that you have to mobilize your defects as a writer. And I have defects aplenty, so I just have to try to mobilize them.

HORVATH: Yeah, plot is definitely not one of my natural strong suits; it's not what I roll out of bed in the morning and find myself conjuring up. And I do consciously work against that, actually. With the shadow story, I sent it to my trusted reader and, you know, he loved it, he thought: "It's ready to go, but there's really no plot. If you felt compelled to change something, then you might want to have a plot." You know, that was his advice. And so I did. Basically that stuff about Lou—I don't know how much of it came across while I read—but he's got this sort of secret algorithm that everyone in the story's after. And really, I did it more for myself, you know, to sort of amplify the excitement of talking about studying shadows, if there was a possibility of terrorists in Afghanistan being caught with them… So, yeah, I'll consciously work against that particular shortcoming.

CAPONEGRO: Yeah, I guess we're here together and we've been all been asked to read together because we all have similar defects, shall we say, or allegiances, or ideologies, as artists. And certainly for me, I eschewed all the tenets of mainstream fiction for many years. I was very lucky to be able to study at graduate school with my mentor John Hawkes, who famously said that these elements were the enemy of fiction, and I had always felt so. But in the previously alluded-to mid-life artistic crisis, I suddenly had a terror of becoming a kind of repetitive avant-gardist. For some reason, mainstream writers I expect that they'll be repetitive, but there's something even worse, I felt, about an experimental thing that just keeps looping and looping. [Audience laughs] So I make myself work. Like, I figured if I was telling my students: "You have to branch out! You have to develop what you're undeveloped in!" And here I am, just doing the same thing over and over. I felt like I had already done what I set out to do thirty years ago, and not necessarily that it's a great contribution, but it was as good as I could get it. So in my most recent collection, All Fall Down—with the funny birds on it—that was my attempt to use quite a lot of dialogue, actually. And I really did have to teach myself. And I don't know if I taught myself all that well, but these are the kinds of things that I neglected through much of my writing life. I was like, "Oh, right! How to make people speak in a way that isn't just stylized." Because I love to do stylized dialogue, and I love to make fabular characterizations, but I had never really gone mimetic. I mean, these are not strictly mimetic, but way more so than my previous work had been. And in the novel that I've been laboring over for ten years—where everything remains horribly trite and precious and problematic—I've attempted to do things that previously I did in only very symbolic ways. For example, I wanted to deal with patriarchy for so many years, and did so, but in a way that was much more metaphorical and symbolic. But then I thought, Oh, what if I actually made a father character who is a patriarch, but deal with it head on, as a real person? That was a way for me to grow, because everyone just wants to grow. I want to have artistic growth. I figure you can't just stagnate, and you could easily just stagnate by doing everything the same way. So, for better or worse—and it might be for worse—I've really tried to stretch in that direction.

HORVATH: Just to say one more word about plot, I think, rather than thinking of it as some technical construct or elaborate scheme, just thinking of plot in terms of situation, opens it up a little bit. There's a story in Camera Obscura—which is a journal that I edit for—there's a story in the current issue by Adam Peterson that I love, and basically, the set up is that there's this travel writer who is well-established who always incorporates his wife in his escapades and adventures, she always comes up as a character. But then early on you find out that he's still incorporating her, but he's lying: she's not with him anymore. And someone calls him out on it. And I think, for me, it doesn't matter what happens after that. The set-up is just so great, the situation is so great. That is a plot. That's what I mean by plot, I guess.

GERKE: I'd like to say a few more words about plot, actually. You seem like a vanguard, that you're all anti-plot, to some extent. How do you keep on when we are in this, to use his name again, Jonathan Franzen-dominated realistic American writing world, where the first sentences are usually something like, "Cecil's mother never told him he had chocolate mousse in his face," or something like that. I mean, you guys are doing what you do, but how do you look upon what's surrounding you? Or do you look upon it at all? Do you just say: that's them, and this is me?

LUTZ: I've never read Jonathan Franzen. I'm dimly aware that such a person exists. [Laughs from the audience, a "Whoo!"] I studied with Gordon Lish, who essentially said that if you want to write, you have to look into yourself for what it is that distinguishes you from every other person on earth. It might be something really horrible—and most likely it is something very horrible. What you have to do is dilate that and make it bigger and bigger, and simply not worry about what other people are writing. So I don't look to other writers as models. I don't pay attention to much contemporary fiction. I rarely even go into bookstores anymore. I think I stopped doing that about three or four years ago. So I really don't pay that much attention to the bestsellers in The New York Times, etc. Because it's not going to help me. I write out of my own limitations. Even if I tried to imitate another writer, I would fail abysmally so. I just want to pursue what I learned from Lish, which is to, well—he uses the word quiddity, which means that which distinguishes someone or something from everybody else. He says, "You have to find what your quiddity is." He often uses the term object—"you have to find your object." And that's what you have to work with, and it can't be anyone else's object.

HORVATH: I think the Corrections is much better than Freedom, because I think there is more attention to the sentences, actually. Freedom is kind of freefall. There's no thought given to the sentences anymore. In his work. Sorry, if I've... [Pauses] But Franzen is also influenced by DeLillo. He's not purely about entertainment. But I just don't define myself against anything within the literary sphere like that. I mean, think about the plot of Crime and Punishment. I mean, it's incredibly elaborate, incredibly ornate. So I don't think the point at which I start to cut off modes of access… I mean, I think plot can be a mode of assessing characters more deeply, or a way of playing with language in a different way, ultimately. I don't rule anything out.

CAPONEGRO: I guess for me it's all about language, and I think we all have, perhaps, this same preoccupation. I think that, whatever other elements are present, I deal with language as the thing that is foregrounded. And that's always going to be my principal objective. And that's what I feel is the taboo, at least when I was starting to write and read the New Yorker. In the ‘70s there was the Ann Beattie/John Updike show, and there was this mimetic world of bourgeois realism… I knew there was nothing in there for me. And I recognize that there's a great skill that goes into crafting works like that, and all the works that have been inherited from that. But I do think that I have less hubris now than I did when I was younger, because when I was younger I would refuse to read realistic fiction. And maybe that was purer state. But now I feel it's much more instructive to be open to as many things, both for my own artistic development and pedagogically, and so I think there's much I have to learn. I think that increased humility is a great attribute of old age. I do feel I can learn something from Franzen and company. "Ah, he's a good entertainer," you know… It is a skill I lack, to make a plot. I can make a plot in another way that I have come to do, and that's got a much more marginal set of readers appreciating it probably, undoubtedly. But it is something that maybe isn't as far as I used to think as something out there. I wouldn't look at the bestseller list, but just because something is a bestseller doesn't mean it's not worthwhile. Like, once in a while I feel things overlap, in that way: flukily. I think I've opened up. And whether that infects my writing, whether I've capitulated in that way—I don't know. You know, probably not, because I don't find myself suddenly on the bestseller list! [Laughs] You know, nothing radical has happened, that does happen for a writer. Sometimes will writers think, "Oh, I mean, I'm stretching so much, I've pushed something over the edge," and you've only so incrementally changed. But it comes down to the language. It's for the arrows of language that I write, and I read. And so if somebody's wielding a plot with, you know, beautiful lyricism, or something like that, I think: "Okay, you know, great." Maybe I can make something like that. It would never be plot driven, it'll always be language driven, but if underneath that there's some kind of plot, or characters are developed more fully, or people speak in actual dialogue instead of something that is just narrational, you know, I feel that is an opportunity.

HORVATH: I was just going to say that I think White Noise is such a great example. You can read the opening chapter for the sheer language, time and time again. But one of the most dramatic pages is when you flip the page and the next page says, "The Airborne Toxic Event." He brings this plot pressure into the story. I mean, he's certainly playing with language, obviously, by foregrounding this euphemistic technocratic language as the signifier of the crisis that is avoiding the actual crisis of death, which is lurking in the remainder of the book. But I think, at the same time, it's a great plot device. 

IV. "OH, YOU'RE THE POET MARY CAPONEGRO."

AUDIENCE: I'm curious if you all as prose writers think about something akin to the lyric or the subject/object problem in poetry? For example, sort of like the translator's relationship to the book, or just anyone's thoughts on something like that? It's a problem maybe, but a wonderful problem sometimes.

CAPONEGRO: Yeah, I mean, I think so. Along with language, perception is very much my preoccupation in narrative. If somebody is having a relationship to the object that is being looked at, that's problematized in a particular way if language is what matters, what matters most. Or if you're thinking phenomenologically… To say even less eloquently: I think the concerns of a poet are very much the concerns of myself as a prose writer, with or without the benefits, because I think a lot of people read me as poetry anyway. I mean, a lot of people don't even understand what I write is fiction. A lot of people come up to me and say, "Thank you for your poem." Or, "Oh, you're the poet Mary Caponegro." So obviously, there's something that's not coming across, despite all the attempts I've made to use characters and things like that. [Laughs] So something must me happening with the subject/object there.

HORVATH: Disambiguation… Mary Caponegro the prose writer versus the poet.

LUTZ: I think it's often been remarked in the past twenty or thirty years that the boundary between prose and poetry has pretty much been eradicated. I find, you know, if we define poetry as the most concentrated form of utterance, we find that so often in prose writing these days, among the most gifted prose writers. Whereas I haven't read as much poetry in the last twenty years as I used to, but it seems like there's more emphasis on narrative in poetry. So I find much more of the very condensed, concentrated, intense language in prose. Maybe it's just the prose writers that I gravitate toward.

HORVATH: Can you say a little bit more about the specific crisis that you're alluding to?

AUDIENCE: Sure. I guess just something like classical beloved and lover relationship? The way a lot of what was read tonight seem to have a narrator and also a subject mode going on? Even though the wife spoke a little bit, she didn't speak a lot, and she didn't have a very large or present voice. I'm curious about voice, maybe, and agency there. The relationship between the subject and the object, which is sometimes treated preciously. I think there are opportunities to disengage that. I'm just curious if it's thought about in prose, because I know poets think about that a lot.

HORVATH: I think there's always that question lurking at the back of every story. Who's this story being told to? Particularly if it's a first person narrative, what is the situation of speaking, you know? And there are all sorts of different ways of evading it or postponing answering that question. But I find it sort of fun to break through to speak directly to the reader. I don't know if that's what you're talking about. I'm always a little bit wary about doing it, you know, is this too precious, is this trying to seduce the reader too directly as opposed to speaking around the issue. I guess I try to do it judiciously.

CAPONEGRO: I would also say that the power relations that it exposes are such interesting ones for the fiction writer, particularly, because I think fiction is particularly prone to manipulation or has the opportunity to manipulation. That's what I love most in my passive aggressive way. On the page I can really manipulate. I mean, that's what is most exciting—to surrender to that as a reader. If you're giving the agency to the other in fiction, then of course, you know, parody is so dull. Whereas if someone is just like, this is my view and this person is being silenced or distorted, well, then the fun begins. That's definitely what I was up to with my translating thing and a lot of the fiction that I'm interested in reading and writing I think plays with that manipulative quality. Of course if you can craft a voice that has real intensity, that's kind of inherent in it anyhow. Because the object is almost subsumed in that.

V: "I COULD SPEND TWENTY YEARS AND NOT BE ABLE TO COME UP WITH A DESCRIPTION LIKE THAT."

AUDIENCE: One banal and one perhaps more, I don't know, complicated question? Do you write in longhand first and then put it on the computer, or do you write on the computer? The other question is when, and how, do you find your endings?

HORVATH: I'll say that, in terms of my actual writing practice and writing habits, I have to keep shifting. The important thing is to keep shifting. You know, do some handwriting, do some on the computer, print it out, handwrite more. There's no sort of particular recipe. It varies very much from story to story. In terms of endings, typically I'll arrive at a point which is maybe pre-ending, about two-thirds of the way through, say, and it's where the story gets stuck, and what it takes to get it unstuck is generally sleep deprivation and lots of coffee. I say that in all seriousness. I work the overnight shift at a hospital and I'll write a lot of my endings at about 5am, after having stayed up all night. I think probably that comes from a lot of pacing, in addition to the caffeine. There's something about pacing which opens up multiple channels for the story, and at some point I'll recognize that some of these channels have more vitality and potential than others. And my inhibitions are usually low at that point, which makes it easier to write.

LUTZ: I write on the computer, and in early drafts of my stories I use a very large type size—maybe 18, 20, that sort of thing—so that there aren't that many words on the screen at one time. Then I can look very closely into the letters that constitute the words—and I try to look at the typographical physique of one word and see how it might interrelate to the word after it. As I get more into the drafts I use a somewhat smaller type size. I like to be aware of what I'm writing—of the physicality and materiality of the words—words simply as things, and I try to divorce them as much as possible from their conventional meanings. I think it's a way of forcing myself to divorce myself of any kind of journalistic approach to writing. As for endings, I really don't know how I get to the end of the story. Sometimes I will write a story in a series of segments that I will then print out and rearrange on the floor until I feel as if I have some kind of interlocking quality among the pieces. But I don't really have a theory about how to get the end of the story. Sometimes it's simply a matter of depletion of energy, and realizing that, because of time limitations, the thing has to finish somehow.

HORVATH: Just as a quick follow-up to that. Do you see the physicality of those pieces as being analogous to the physicality of the words when you're starting out?

LUTZ: Yeah, I think of the individual words as blocks of typographical matter, and then the paragraph is a somewhat larger block. And then there's the segment itself. It's almost as if playing with blocks. Like a kid. I try to retain some sense or vestige of the playfulness we lose as we grow up. I often, or I occasionally, hear things uttered by little kinds that astonish me with their precision and inventiveness. For example, a little girl whose leg had fallen asleep said that she felt as if there were "ginger ale in her leg." You know, I could spend twenty years and not be able to come up with a description like that.

CAPONEGRO: I guess I do write on a computer because it can keep up with my brain. But then I write by hand, sort of notes around it—very strange elliptical notes, because my mind is also elliptical, and I have to start trying to create relations and make notations. So I guess it's a combination. But most of the things for me are written on the computer. But I also read out loud while I'm writing. Musicality is the principal objective for me when I'm creating a narrative so I'm having to hear it as well as to see it. Once, I wrote by tape, because I had a bad repetitive motion injury, I had to write out loud without actually writing. I would just tape and tape and then eventually write by hand what I was speaking Homerically, as it were, and that was interesting. In fact, a piece Greg had quoted in the introduction—called "Ashes Ashes [We All Fall Down]"—I had written that way, in that period of time. Endings are so strange—sometimes I come up with endings first and I just have to get to it; sometimes I write an ending early on and then I have to revise it because I've written through it and it's now useless or obsolete; and sometimes the ending is the hardest, last thing. It all just depends on the piece. Because I write archeologically, there's always several layers in what I'm writing, at least what I'm thinking or trying to do. For instance, in The Translator, I had to have a conclusion that would have all the operative allegorical layers terminating together, so that it could have an ending of the plot, persay, of this man and this woman, but that the end would also have the ambiguity of what happens when he finishes his book, since she is his book, etc., etc. And so sometimes the end is a multi-valent, multi-layered, kind of archeological end.

HORVATH: My favorite ending to any story is probably Rick Moody's "Demonology." I don't know if anybody knows that story, but it's a very powerful ending. It's very self-conscious, but it's also very moving and raw. And, to me, it comes off the page and reaches out, and you feel the ending somewhere on you and that, to me, is the standard that I want my endings to strive for. So one day perhaps I will come close to that standard, and meeting it. Once.

AUDIENCE: I had a question about what Gary mentioned about quiddity? The idea that the writer has to find the thing that makes him different from everybody else. I'm just curious to hear a little bit more about that, whether it's something a writer needs to articulate to himself or whether it's more like feeling, do you know what I mean?

LUTZ: I think it might be more intuitive, that one has a sense of what it is that distinguishes or differentiates oneself. But one might not be able to make a declarative statement about that. And again, this comes from that Lishian approach to writing, where you have to find your object. And I myself don't know what my object is—obviously it's something I write about without really knowing what it is. But I think what is behind this is simply the notion that you shouldn't imitate others, when you're reading literary magazines, you know, The New Yorker, or whatever, that you shouldn't look at those pieces necessarily as your model for your own work. That's how I understand it, anyway.

AUDIENCE: In several responses you mentioned Lish, and then you also mentioned your limitations. I was curious as to whether you identified with Lish before you studied with him because you were aware, maybe intuitively, of your limitations? Or whether you studied with Lish and then your influences went from there? Which came first?

LUTZ: What happened was, I went through a two-year M.A. program in Creative Writing, which was inculcating traditional approaches to writing stories. And as soon as I got my degree, I stopped writing for about eight or nine years. But then, by accident, while going through the remainder bins in bookstores, I kept coming across very slender volumes published by Knopf. They were short story collections; the stories were often very short. In most of those books the sentence was the unit. And I felt some tremendous resonance with that sentential art, and then it slowly dawned on me that all those books had been edited by the same person. And then I started to study with him. So I was gravitated toward that type of writing before I even knew who he was. But I think it simply has to do with my limited neurological system, that the focus on the sentence is truest to the way in which I experience life. And this goes back to the matter of quiddity. I have to write in a way that attempts to portray or describe the world as I see it. Some people have complained that my writing is completely unrealistic. But that's the way the world looks to me. That's a completely realistic depiction of people, of life, etc. So, in short, I sort of metabolized the Lish aesthetic before I actually knew who he was, simply on the basis of how carefully he had edited so many books by Barry Hannah and others.

AUDIENCE: I have a question I guess that's related to the fact that you've all mentioned or discussed being primarily language writers as opposed to necessarily plot. But I noticed that in all of the things you read there is the minor plot of conflict. I was wondering how much you guys utilize the idea of conflict in your writing both for language and for plot, whether that's conscious or just because it's entertaining?

CAPONEGRO: Yeah, I think conflict is really useful for a fiction writer. That whole cliché of tension being "the root of narrative," I think, is very true. I think it's just perhaps each of in our different but similar ways would arrive at that or would move that tension along might be different than—well, let's call them, to flatter ourselves—the more rote ways that a conventional story might do that. But I think it is very useful and certainly on the level of the sentence, since we all are sentence champions here, you know, everything that I want to do to is a syntactic adventure. There's so much tension and conflict in trying to make the long sentences that are very much out of style—except in these venues that we cherish. That is a great place for conflict. If you can just make clauses fit together, I mean, there's harmony there but there's also so much opportunity for complication. Which is why you have to reread, because even the relation of one clause to another, because by the time it resolves, you've had a lot of tension accruing that has to resolve. And even once it resolves, you probably have to go back and review it, if you're really trying to go the distance with how elastic syntax can be, or how piled on syntax can be, that kind of thing.

HORVATH: I think that, rather than seeing the conflict as something the writer has to figure out at the outset in order to galvanize the storyline, one way that I sometimes approach it is to put the language out there first, and then find the conflict hidden in the language. You know, that's where the real tension is, the real conflict. In the shadow story, for instance, I mean, sure you have this external conflict which is that Lou has this algorithm that people are trying to get, and lawyers have been called in, but the real conflict is the conflict between the one and the many. I mean, does it make sense to look at shadow puppetry and film noir and the scientific study of shadows and the rings of Saturn—does it make sense to look at them as one, or as many things? And what are the consequences of the way that we live our lives? And so that to me is the more interesting conflict. But it's not like I started out knowing, "Oh, that's a fascinating conflict to explore in my philosophical tract!" You know, it just came out through the fun of writing the sentences.

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Mary Caponegro is the author of the short story collections Tales from the Next Village, The Star Cafe, Five Doubts, The Complexities of Intimacy, and All Fall Down. She is the Richard B. Fisher Family Professor of Writing and Literature at Bard College. William Gass said of her work, "The music of Mary Caponegro's stories is to the mouth what wine is. Readers will find themselves lost among answers, intoxicated, knowing only that these are stories unlike any others before or since, which is, for this reader at least, a relief, a challenge, and a godsend."

The Review of Contemporary Fiction called Tim Horvath's first book, Circulation (sunnyoutside, 2011), "perfect for an afternoon of quick rumination," and the Boston Area Small Press and Poetry Scene wrote, "The casual reader and the bibliophile will love this book. It traces men's lives through their obsession with books and arcania. Highly recommended." Magazine publications of Horvath's work include Fiction and Everyday Genius. Tim's website is here.

Gary Lutz is the author of four short-story collections: Stories in the Worst Way, I Looked Alive, and Partial List of People to Bleach, and Divorcer. Lutz has been awarded grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Foundation for Contemporary Arts. His seminal lecture, "A Sentence is a Lonely Place," is up at The Believer.

Art:
Aging While You Sleep, Walk On My Back, Untitled, and Washing a Foot by Maria Kondratiev.
 
 
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