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Dissecting the Short Story: In Class with T.C. Boyle

Categories: Literary Fiction Writing.

T.C. Boyle likes to tell the story about the time three old ladies in a hotel elevator tried to get him to admit he was a rock star. The more he asserted that he was really a writer and English professor, the more they giggled and begged him to come clean.

Boyle is as likely to sprinkle epigraphs in his fiction quoting Bob Marley or Bruce Springsteen as Herman Melville or Franz Kafka, and he calls rock and roll “the most instructive music of my life.” But don”t assume he listens to rock and roll when he is working. It turns out that Boyle prefers a background of jazz and classical chamber music when he writes. He took to jazz early, heading off to an undergraduate career with his saxophone under his arm, hoping to be a music major. Though he still calls John Coltrane “my God and hero,” he flunked his audition and stumbled into creative writing his junior year.

T.C. Boyle”s fiction is as impossible to pigeonhole as he is. He often draws on real people past and present in his fiction. Novels like The Road to Wellville or Riven Rock are based on historical figures. But don”t assume he”s an historical novelist. His latest novel, A Friend of the Earth, is a futuristic eco-fantasy. “Heart of a Champion,” a short story he wrote while still in graduate school, reads like a stand-up comedian”s pastiche of the old TV show Lassie. In “Greasy Lake” (1981), three 19-year-old punks learn that the disaffected facades they wear like armor are no protection against uncalculated evil.

It”s terrifying, but not wholly without humor and so beautifully written that its striking images stop readers in mid-sentence. By the time he wrote “56-0″ (1992), Boyle was an established name in American letters. At first glance, “56-0″ looks like an unabashed romp that hearkens back to “Heart of a Champion,” with Boyle aiming his satire at pseudo-values and jocks as heroes. But if a reader gets past first-glance assumptions and delves into that story, it becomes clear that Boyle may remain a stand-up comic, but a comic reared on Twain, Beckett and Barth. It”s a complex story about values, honor and futility. In fact, it reads like the perfect story for Boyle and his students to take apart in class.

People aren”t always what they seem at first glance. Neither are stories. How apt that a writer who is personally and professionally as complex as T.C. Boyle encourages his writing students to challenge their assumptions. He conducts his writing classes at University of Southern California primarily by taking stories apart, looking under the hoods of stories, so to speak, to see what works or, conversely, what doesn”t work. His workshop method is a good model for small writing groups to follow. On a pre-arranged schedule, four stories are passed out for discussion the following week. The students write interpretive comments on them (e.g., What does this mean? This puzzles me. I love this ending. It moved me. I don”t understand this). Boyle reads three anonymous comments aloud to stimulate a class discussion.

“The class approaches the story interpretively as one might discuss a work in a literary class,” he told us. “Part of the discussion is also to see how the story is put together and if that”s effective. How does it open? Is that the best way? Why is the author using the present tense here? Is that confusing? Is it effective? The author simply listens to what we have to say. The author doesn”t get to stand up and say ”What I really meant was” or ”You guys missed it” or ”Gee, I love you.” Nothing. We are the guinea pigs for the author”s experiment in discovering how an audience interprets his or her work.”

Boyle also passes back his copy of the story to the student with grammatical notations and refers them to sections of the grammatical handbook they use in class. “I may also sometimes make changes in their phrasing and so on but those are only suggestions. Lastly I write them a note that says what I think is successful and not so successful in the story. The problem with this last part is that my handwriting is so bad that no can read actually read the note.” He stares impishly after the last statement. He often concludes serious with straight-faced humor, challenging his listener to get beyond the surface of the conversation the way he challenges his students to dig into stories.

“Those are only suggestions,” exemplifies his approach to teaching. “My job with my students is to be their coach. I just guide them. I want them to be great literary writers in their own way. I try to help them find what that way is and what their voice and direction will be. I think the worst kind of teacher tries to impose their own aesthetic on the students and they wind up making clones of themselves. That does a real disservice to the individual writers.”

Fair enough, but beyond that grammatical handbook, aren”t there certain basics? Doesn”t Boyle tell his students that a good story needs an engaging beginning followed by a distinct middle and end? Or that good stories require resolution and sympathetic characters?

“There are no rules,” he says emphatically, really putting assumptions to rest. “Some writing teachers have certain rules—these things you can and cannot do. I think that is patently absurd because you”re working in an art form and you are the only one who can write your own stories for better or worse of everybody who has ever been on this earth. That”s one of the miracles of it. In order to do that, you have to find out what your own way is. Any story can break any rule and be great. All you have is an individual work by an individual person. Once that work is complete, you examine it.”

That”s not to say that Boyle and his class might not suggest that an individual story might need a more engaging beginning or stronger resolution. “When I say there are no rules, I mean there are no general rules. How could there be because each work is individual? However, I give my opinions about a given work. I may say to the author that perhaps this needs more resolution or perhaps this is confusing or why end here, should this go on to here?

In my class, the author also gets nineteen other opinions. I emphasize that I may be the pro here but I have my prejudices, too, and I am giving just my opinion on the story and the author can take it or leave it. Unless it”s a grammatical change, they are free to do what they want. I cannot impose my will on them. It”s not my story; it”s their story. I emphasize to them that throughout their careers, no matter who might ask them to change an ending, let”s say, that they have to think long and hard and believe that”s the case. Otherwise, don”t do it. Of course, every writer comes to a point of crisis where an editor for a magazine where they really want to be published says ”I think you ought to change this” with the implication that then they”ll publish it. At that point, the author has to do a little soul searching.”

Back in the late ”seventies when Boyle started the writing program at USC, he taught beginning students. These days he concentrates his personal time on more advanced students who have already shown a talent for writing.

“Writing is not for everybody. If you don”t have a talent for it, no amount of teaching will make you a good writer or a great writer. That said, studying writing in depth in the way I would study it with my students, taking it apart and seeing what it is, gives you a great appreciation for it. So even if you don”t become a great writer you can know the work from the inside out and appreciate it that way. Many, many people though have a great gift for writing and may not be aware of it. By the time my students come to me, they”re aware of it. They”ve made their choice to pursue it.”

As for less advanced writers, Boyle concedes that their work is more apt to suffer from poor mechanics but he doesn”t endorse the typical list of complaints from instructors of beginning writers—inordinate attention to detail, overabundance of modifiers, telling not showing. Rather he bemoans beginners who do not have a foundation in the art form they wish to pursue.

“The biggest problem I find is with students who haven”t read much, especially in terms of their contemporaries—who”s alive and who”s writing today. And so they write in an unsophisticated way and sometimes in an archaic way because the only literature they know they”re studying in other classes. They don”t know what”s current. On the first day in my intermediate class, I ask the students to write down their ten favorite books of fiction and their authors. A lot of them can”t name ten.

A lot of them fill in with genre writers, thrillers and what not. I say to them, ”I bet you can name ten CDs. I bet you can name fifty! I bet you can name ten movies. I bet you can name ten TV shows.” So they come into this art form presuming or wanting to be artists with the presumption that it just happens. They have no idea that it”s an assimilative process and that they have to read in order to produce their own good work. I find beginning writers writing stories that have essentially TV show plots. They have nothing to do with the real world or love of language. Over the years, I have found that better readers invariably prove to be better writers. The only way you can write stories is to have read thousands of them.”

As such, part of Boyle”s writing class is analyzing the fiction of established writers or “pros,” as he likes to call them. He likes to examine the works of these pros not to copy so much as to stimulate the exploration of other possibilities to achieve certain effects. In recent years, the class has focuses on such contemporary writers such as Jamaica Kincaid, E. Annie Proulx, Kent Haruf, Stacy Richter, Tobias Wolff and Mary Gaitskill.

Back in the ”seventies when he attended the Iowa Writers” Workshop, Boyle studied under John Cheever but avoided reading Cheever in favor of then current heroes like Robert Coover, Thomas Pyncheon, Donald Barthelme and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. It wasn”t until after college that Boyle read Cheever”s stories and came to consider the diminutive teacher who wore bow ties to class a masterful short story writer.

Those who didn”t grow up with a book under their arm may take heart in Boyle”s own history. In an autobiographical essay entitled “This Monkey, My Back,” he recalls that it wasn”t until college that he first became interested in writing. He began to read in high school but with nowhere near the intensity he developed later on. “Unlike most of my compatriots at the Iowa Writers” Workshop in the ”70s, and the majority of my own students now, I didn”t develop my addiction in the womb or drink it up with my mother”s milk. I wasn”t touched by an angel, I didn”t wear bottle lenses and braces and hide out in dark corners, my only friend a book.”

Boyle also runs contrary to convention in advising writers to write what they don”t know. “I love to write fiction and only fiction because it is a process of discovery. I don”t know what will come. The old saw with writing is ”write what you know.” I feel just the opposite. ”Write what you don”t know and discover something.” That”s why it is so exciting for me to continue to write fiction. I never know what will come next.”

Sometimes that process of discovery comes slowly. “You just have to think of yourself as a writer and you”re going to write and here”s the idea and you begin. Maybe it doesn”t go so well today. Maybe it doesn”t go well for a week. If you keep working, whether you”re inspired or not, hopefully you”ll break through.”

Back in the ”70s, when Boyle attended the Iowa Writers” Workshop, things were pretty loose. It was the hippie era. If he didn”t feel like writing, that was fine. But that”s not how he conducts his classes. “My students are always under the gun—they must produce work by a given date. I believe in discipline. I don”t believe you wait for the creative impulse to hit. I think you make it hit. I think you force it.” He pauses like a comedian timing his punch line. “In other words, I don”t let my students get away with what I got away with.”

Teaching methods aren”t the only thing Boyle has adjusted in the last thirty years. “Tom” to friends, his early books list his name as “T. Coraghessan Boyle.” He claims his greatest joy is to have his works read. Consistent with that joy, Boyle is a terrific self-promoter as well as a terrific writer. “Coraghessan” would stick with potential readers better than either “Thomas” or “Boyle,” even if no one was quite sure exactly how to pronounce “Coraghessan.” (On his web site, he has posted a New Yorker cartoon where a man says to a bookstore clerk, “I”m looking for something by T. What”s-His-Face Boyle.”)

He jokes self-deprecatingly that he changed to “T.C. Boyle” on his book jackets a few years back when his publisher told him they could print his name in bigger letters if he thinned his handle. He may have the distinction of being the only author who writes a single book under two names—his new covers show “T.C. Boyle,” the title pages still credit “T. Coraghessan Boyle.”

When in front of an audience, Boyle happily discusses how he works. But he questions whether it helps anyone. “People ask how I work as if there”s a formula, as if they knew how I do it that they could do it. I can only tell them how I work which may not be right for them.” He works intuitively, trying to shape an idea into the beginning of a story. The first few lines or first page are the hardest part and may take as long as a week as he searches for voice and language and characters slowly form. All the while the story is starting to take shape on an unconscious level. He follows the trail, on the path of that process of discovery.

Likewise, people often ask how writers get their ideas. As far as Boyle is concerned, stories are everywhere, in our own lives, in history books, in the morning papers. “I feel anything can be a story. I write from my own experience or the experience of historical figures. ”The Love of My Life,” about two teenagers who had a baby and dumped it in a bin—that stemmed from a news story.” As far as Boyle is concerned, we”re all storytellers whether or not we”re writers. “We tell each other stories every day. ”You know what happened to me, man? Just yesterday, you won”t believe it.” That”s a story and that story might involve real people or might be a fantasy or could be any kind any other kind of different story.”

Whatever Boyle chooses as his subjects, he considers them as personal and individual as any other aspect of writing. He doesn”t want other people”s ideas. “I write my books because I write what obsesses and interests me. That”s how I relate to the world and that”s how I figure out how I feel about things. A story for me is an exercise of the imagination.”

While he exercises his imagination, he works single-mindedly—a short story or a novel at a time. Since the publication last fall of After the Plague, a collection of sixteen new stories, he has put stories aside entirely to spend this year working on his next novel. Once that novel is finished, will he take some well-deserved time off?

Probably not. When he finished A Friend of the Earth, he was up at a mountain hideaway. His family was back home near sea level (“where they had run to hide”). To commemorate completing the novel he enjoyed a solitary walk in the woods. The next day he started a new story. He had no choice. “Writing is a habit, an addiction, as powerful and overmastering an urge as putting a bottle to your lips or a spike in your arm.”

This interview appeared in Novel & Short Story Writer”s Market. Click here to learn about the current edition.

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