What is Intermediate Fiction?

Lit by Dan Coshnear, 05/29/08

It is the class that comes between Introduction to Fiction Writing and Advanced Fiction Workshop. It is the class I am now teaching. It is, as a concept, somewhat uninspiring, except in an amusing way. Let's all write intermediate fiction! Let's take middling risks on moderate themes!

By now, presumably, we are all familiar with the elements of the craft: Point of View, Characterization, Plot, Setting, etc. We've analyzed a few dozen stories and employed some of the vocabulary that goes with analysis. We have a sense of why writers make some of the choices they make. We know what resolution means, though we're often confused by contemporary work. We've written and revised our own stories, at least two, and if not to our satisfaction, then to completion in that there is beginning, middle and end. Now let's go a little deeper. Let's try intermediate moral complexity!

Bullshit aside, I'm honored that the university extension program offers me Intermediate Fiction to teach. Every few semesters, for reasons I don't know, I get a bump up the ladder from Intro. But here's the rub: how many rungs? In our one, two, three easy steps, aren't we presuming that learning writing happens in an incremental and measurable way? In a predictable way? Aren't we treating this ancient and mysterious craft as if it were something very different from what it is, something more like taxonomy or economics? The evidence of your mastery can be shown by your ability to swallow and spit back X amount of info from Y body of knowledge. (Apologies right now, because I know I'm being unfair to taxonomists and economists, particularly the latter who must employ a great deal of creative thought and expression). But what if there is no body of knowledge, or nothing that any two experts in the field would ever agree on? And more to the point, what if improvement almost always comes as a surprise, as much to the teacher as to the student writer?

When I was teaching Intro I never felt I was engaged in a sham. The promise of Intro always seemed simple and straightforward. I am hosting a party. I open the door. I introduce you to our esteemed guests, Ms. Bambara, Mr. Wolff, Ms. Paley, Mr.& Ms. Frank & Flannery O'Connor. Meet some of the new neighbors, Mr. Moody, Mr. Wallace, Ms. Packer. Over there are the crudites and this way you'll find the elements of the craft. Enjoy. Try to make yourself at home.

What is the promise of Intermediate? We've gotten past the greetings, now must I show you a good time? I can't do that. I wouldn't do that. The writers I've selected for the reader won't permit that. They'll capture your attention. They'll stimulate your imagination. But most of all, you'll find, they'll worry you, deeply. These folks are not just about a good time.

It seemed to take me forever to construct a syllabus. As if I could know what comes after what, even for myself. My education is far from over, but when I think back to my days in grad school, most often I felt like the dog who is being trained to fetch by the master who loves to tuck the ball and watch him jump at nothing. I never had the sense of a progression, but perhaps the opposite, that everything I thought I knew could easily be shown to be false. That damned word, "intermediate," makes me feel like I've lost my bearings, like times I've been driving at night and should have been sleeping. And when I tried to imagine my opening lecture, I pictured a room full of my own fathers, wincing. I dreamed of my mother, now deceased, saying as she often said, "How can you take yourself seriously?"

Or am I overstating? It's not all fog.

Welcome to Intermediate Fiction. It's nice to see some familiar faces. Much of what we do here is similar to Intro, except that my expectations of you will be higher. I'll expect more detailed and more thoughtful criticism of our published authors and of one another in our workshops. I'll expect more stories, three this semester rather than two. I'll expect a more substantial revision. Yes?

"What do you mean by more substantial?"

I expect that by now you all know that writing is a mix of inspiration and hard work. Good luck with the inspiration. I want to see harder work. I want to see you put more pressure on your language, hold your metaphors up to the window, not just at night after two glasses of Cabernet, but in the morning in the bright sunshine. I expect you know the difference between scene and summary and that your story reflects meaningful choices about when to employ one or the other, if not in the first draft than in the fifth. Intermediately speaking, I expect consistency of voice and character, coherence if not truth.

I see a hand up in the back of the room. Yes?

"This is fiction, right? What do you mean by truth?"

These are fair questions. These are good questions. Did you take the pre-reqs? Let's take a ten minute break.

Eight flights down to the front of the building and fifty feet beyond, I can light up a smoke. I've been teaching these extension writing classes for a decade. For the most part, I've liked my students; congenial, responsible, ambitious people. And I admire them. Most come straight from work to class. Some have children or parents to care for. This is how they choose to spend their free time. Who would blame them for plopping on a barstool or a sofa, sipping on a Jack & Coke, or soaking in the latest episode of "Elimidate"? I think they think these classes will make them better people. Maybe so. As habits go, night school seems like a healthy way to go, nutritious.

In the first few years it seemed there were always at least one or two students, fellow smokers, who'd take their breaks with me. When I was getting my MFA, nine ten eleven years ago, it seemed we all smoked, sprawled out on a green hollow, or if raining, huddled in some brick alcove, cracking jokes, releasing tension. Some of us pulled fancy packs of imported cigarettes from our breast coat pockets. We wore berets, tinted glasses, candy-striped stockings, badges of our individuality and our artistic sensibility. We accessorized with the relics of our writing heroes. Sometimes I packed along a half pint of Irish, ala J.P. Donleavy, or was it Bukowski, took a swig and passed it on. We were in the program because we'd been chosen from a large pool of applicants. We were cool. We were trying on cool. We were arrogant. We were trying on arrogant. Break time is over and what's any of this got to do with truth in fiction?

Truth, I say, is, um, like an attitude. I see puzzled faces. Where am I going with this? Let me back up, I say. Truth in fiction can mean a number of things. It means formal consistency. If you start by numbering your paragraphs 1,2,3, you don't then switch for no reason to D,E,F. You don't write five pages in the limited third, then jump to the omniscient point of view. It means there's consistency in the narrative voice. Her fourth grade vocabulary doesn't take a sudden detour through the Oxford English Dictionary. It means plot events don't just come along to get you out of trouble, they are bound up with character wants and needs and with the story's central conflict, with your theme, you know, with the thing your story is about. Truth in fiction means that the words, gestures, images and actions you choose are meaningful. I don't mean symbolic, get that idea out of your heads, but purposeful, serving the fullest effect of the story. I think I hear something like a collective sigh, perhaps a yawn. I've said all this before, but I haven't said what I meant to say. I was reaching for something a little more elusive. It came to me half-formed on the elevator up.

Truth, I say, is when the story fulfills its promise to the reader. Yes, of course. But more. Truth is when the story fulfills its promise to the writer. Truth is when the writer fulfills her promise to the story. Puzzled faces again, a hand, two hands twitching, rising.

I say, You have lives! I see glances shooting sideways. On the face of it, I haven't asserted much of anything, yet I feel I'm close to the crux of my ... what ... my idea, my imprecation.

Hold on. Here's what I think I mean. There's no such thing as Intermediate Fiction. There's Intro, sure enough. You get a taste of what's possible. It's dazzling. It's a lot harder than it looks. It's fun. One night you wrote for five hours and forgot where you were. Your pits were wet and you were shivering.

But beyond Intro there is only this, a choice. Dare you tell your truth? Dare you translate your deepest fears and regrets and desires into words on a page to share, to stand behind? Dare you impose yourself in the company of Frank & Flannery O'Connor, take out your flask or your fancy cartridge pen, and assert your artfulness, your world as only you see it? Dare you forge into the realm of what you don't know you know? Are you arrogant enough? Yes?

"What was that about a cartridge pen?"

"Why should we be arrogant?"

There are no prerequisites for Intro, but there is one big requirement before Advanced, and it can happen here and it can happen now. You can dismiss the idea of talent, or you can decide that you have an abundance of it; it doesn't matter. What I'm talking about is called copping an attitude. I'm not talking about mere self-confidence. I'm talking about entitlement. You breath the same air, employ the same alphabet as Baker and Boyle, the same as Munro and Moore. Regard them with collegial respect, but know that they're stealing your column inches, your bookstore window display. Know that your story, real, imagined or both, is the most compelling piece of work you'll ever read. It is so because you live it. And your life is the most compelling life you'll ever live.

What right have you to tell your story? What right have I to teach this class? The same as anyone else, which is to say, none at all. Now go claim it.

"Does it have to be a cartridge pen?"

Could be a red rubber nose.

Daniel Coshnear -dan@coshnear.org - lives` in Guerneville and teaches writing at a variety of institutions: UC Berkeley Extension, SSU Extension, through The Sitting Room, sometimes at USF and also SFSU. He also works at a group home for men and women with mental illnesses where he runs a reading/writing/discussion class. He writes short stories and occasionally an essay, a poem.

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