David Jauss is the author most recently of a revised, updated, and expanded edition of his 2008 craft book, Alone With All That Could Happen: On Writing Fiction (Press 53, 2022; www.press53.com/short-fiction/alone-with-all-that-could-happen-on-writing-fiction). He is also the author of four collections of short stories—Crimes of Passion (Story Press, 1984; Dzanc Books, 2014), Black Maps (University of Massachusetts Press, 1996; Dzanc Books, 2013), Glossolalia: New & Selected Stories (Press 53, 2013), and Nice People: New & Selected Stories II (Press 53, 2017)—and two volumes of poetry—Improvising Rivers (Cleveland State University Press, 1995) and You Are Not Here (Fleur-de-Lis Press, 2002). He has also edited three anthologies, including Words Overflown by Stars: Creative Writing Instruction and Insight from the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA Program (Writer’s Digest Books, 2009).
His fiction has been published in numerous literary magazines and reprinted in the Best American Short Stories, O. Henry Award, and Pushcart Prize annual anthologies as well as in The Best Short Stories from The Pushcart Prize. Black Maps received the AWP Award for Short Fiction and You Are Not Here won the Fleur-de-Lis Poetry Prize. He has also received a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, a James A. Michener/Copernicus Society of America Fellowship, and three fellowships from the Arkansas Arts Council and one from the Minnesota State Arts Board. He taught creative writing for many years at the University of Arkansas-Little Rock and in the low-residency MFA in Writing Program at Vermont College of Fine Arts. For additional information, please go to www.davidjauss.com.
Curtis Smith: Congratulations on Alone With All That Could Happen. I really enjoyed it. Another version of it was originally published in 2008. What brought you back to the project? I know you’ve worked with Press 53 before—I think they’re one of the great indie presses—how was working on this book with them?
David Jauss: The original version of Alone With All That Could Happen was very well received, but as an obsessive and unrepentant reviser, I soon found myself wanting to improve it, so for the past fourteen years I’ve been jotting down notes about changes and clarifications I wanted to make and new material and examples I wanted to add. When the book went out of print last year, I finally had the chance to revise it. I’m pleased with the improvements I’ve made, but given the wannabe perfectionist that lives in my head, if I’m still around in another fourteen years, I’ll probably revise it again. If so, I hope Press 53 will still be around to publish it. Working on the book with Kevin Morgan Watson, the press’s rock-star editor and publisher, was an absolute delight. Kevin’s the best editor I’ve ever worked with, and Press 53 is my favorite indie press. The new edition of the book owes a lot to him.
CS: My copy is now full of highlighted passages and margin notes—and after I was done reading, I turned back to the acknowledgement page and learned that most of these chapters had their origins in lectures you gave at Vermont College’s MFA program. This made sense—and made me wish I’d been there to hear them. Was the transition from lecture to written essay difficult or challenging in any way (or perhaps rewarding)? How did the experiences compare?
DJ: Actually, all of my Vermont lectures began as essays—I’m a lousy extemporaneous speaker—so it was the transition from essay to lecture that was the real challenge. We had a one-hour time limit for the lectures and part of that hour had to be devoted to questions and comments from the audience, so I had to leave out a good number of the points and examples that were in the first drafts of the essays. That was frustrating, but giving the lectures, and hearing the responses of my colleagues and students, taught me how to expand and clarify the essays. So the transition from the lectures to the essays was very rewarding.
CS: I was intrigued by the ideas of uncertainty, contradiction, and convergent and divergent thinking. We’re a culture that embraces an answer, but not the long, often confusing road that leads us to the answer. For those who haven’t read the book, can you address the notions of convergence, divergence, uncertainty, and contradiction and the role they play in the creative process?
DJ: Sure. If I ask you what your name is, there’d be only one correct answer and an infinite number of incorrect ones, but if I asked you to make up an alias, there’d be an infinite number of correct answers and only one incorrect one. To answer the first question, you have to use convergent thinking (so-called because you have to converge on the sole correct answer), but to answer the second question, you have to use divergent thinking (because you have to diverge away from the sole incorrect answer). Convergent thinking is our default mode of thought, thanks in large part to our educational system, which teaches us that 2 + 2 = 4, etc., and it’s very important—without convergent thinking, we’d see a red stoplight and drive right through it while considering all the different things it might mean. But divergent thinking is absolutely essential to the creative process; without it, we’d all converge on what’s so familiar it’s cliched: phrases like flat as a pancake, red-haired characters with fiery tempers, and plots like boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl, boy-gets-girl-again. We do need to converge eventually—if we didn’t, we’d never write a word—but we need to delay converging long enough to come up with the right word, detail, event, etc. Emily Dickinson has a poem that describes this process superbly (#1126, “Shall I take thee, the Poet said”). In it, she compares the creative process to a job interview in which the poet considers a plethora of words—enough to fill “all Philology”—that are applying for a position in one of her lines, and just as she’s about to settle on one of the candidates, “There came unsummoned in— // That portion of the Vision / The Word applied to fill.” Without divergent thinking, without that period of uncertainty, the unsummoned word never arrives and we can’t successfully convey our vision.
As I see it, our goal as writers should be not only to learn how to persist in an extended state of uncertainty but also to seek it out, even intentionally create it, through contradiction. Paradoxically, the best way to avoid being paralyzed by uncertainty is to intensify it, and the most intense form of uncertainty possible is contradiction. The closer we look at a work of literature, the more we’ll see the many roles contradiction plays. Contradiction is at the heart of successful characters, plots, metaphors, symbols, irony, paradoxes, oxymorons, and synesthesia. And the goal of great literature is to make the reader feel contradictory emotions at the same time—witness Aristotle’s claim that a tragedy should make us feel both pity and fear, not pity or fear. If we feel only pity, as we might in a melodrama, or only fear, as in a thriller, we could not achieve what he calls “catharsis.” And I believe Aristotle’s principle applies to other combinations of contradictory emotions, too, including love and hate, approval and disapproval, belief and doubt, and pride and shame, and therefore applies to many other kinds of literature besides tragic drama.
CS: You go really deep into point of view—and you bring up layers within point of view I hadn’t considered before. If someone is about to put pen to paper but is uncertain what point of view might work best, what advice would you offer? Have you ever written a piece—and when it’s done, you realized you needed another point of view? If so, what was that experience like? What did the new point of view bring to the work?
DJ: I believe uncertainty about every element of fiction—point of view, characterization, plot, theme, you name it—is essential to the creative process, since uncertainty is what allows us to think divergently and discover our story as we write and rewrite it. If we have everything planned out in advance, our stories will almost inevitably be dead on arrival. As Keats said, the most important quality a writer can possess is Negative Capability, which he defined as the ability to endure “uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” If we’re too certain, if we start thinking convergently too soon, we’re guilty of what we could call Positive Capability, an excess of certainty that leads us to simplify rather than complicate our characters and their stories.
Converging too quickly almost guarantees that your story will fail. Our first thought is almost always a convergent one, so we have to reject that thought and start thinking divergently. As this suggests, the creative process paradoxically begins with destruction. If we don’t reject our first thoughts our prose will be marred by the kind of cliched language, characterization, and plots I mentioned earlier. So I’d tell your hypothetical writer that it’s good that he’s uncertain about what point of view to use and that the longer he can delay making his final choice, the more likely he’ll be able to write a truly good story.
Now to your question about choosing a point of view. I believe point of view is arguably the most important element of fiction but it’s also the one that is least understood. The lack of understanding is due in large part to the fact that the term point of view is used to refer to three not necessarily related things: the narrator’s person (first, second, or third), the locus of perception (the character whose perspective is presented), and, most important, the narrative techniques the narrator employs to convey that character’s perceptions (omniscience, direct and indirect interior monologue, stream of consciousness, and so forth). Since there’s no necessary connection between person, locus of perception, and narrative technique, most discussions of point of view resemble relay races in which one definition passes off the baton to the next, and the result is confusion about what, exactly, constitutes the point of view of a particular work. So depending on which definition of point of view you’re using, I can answer your question three different ways: yes, I have changed a story’s person (one example is “Constellations,” which was originally in first person but now is in third person) and locus of perception (originally my third-person story “Tell Me Something” focused on the husband’s perspective but the final version focuses on his wife’s), and every version of every story I or anyone else has ever written inevitably uses more than one point-of-view technique, sometimes even within a single sentence.
One of the major reasons point of view is misunderstood is that we tend to think of it as something singular and consistently employed throughout a work. We may call the point of view of a given story or novel “omniscient,” but not every sentence employs that technique because, to the best of my knowledge, no story or novel enters the mind and heart of every character. If there are three characters in a story and the author reports the thoughts and feelings of only one, she must use a different point of view—generally called “dramatic” or “objective”—for the other two. In short, point of view is best understood on a micro, not a macro level.
If a work used only one point-of-view technique throughout, it would be the literary equivalent of a movie in which the camera remains at exactly the same distance from the principal character throughout. As I see it, point of view is best thought of as a range of techniques that allow us to shift our narrative “camera” at strategic moments in the story from long shots to close-ups to X-rays. In the dramatic point of view, the narrator (whether first-, second-, or third-person) keeps us entirely outside the characters, reporting their appearance, dialogue, and actions but not their thoughts or feelings, and she does so via her language, not theirs. In the omniscient point of view, the narrator takes us partway inside the characters, reporting their thoughts and feelings but doing so in her words, not theirs. In indirect interior monologue, the narrator takes us farther inside the characters by conveying their thoughts and feelings partly via her language and partly via theirs. In direct interior monologue and stream of consciousness, the narrator takes us all the way inside the characters, reporting their thoughts and feelings in their words, not hers. In short, point of view is largely a question of where and to what degree the language is coming from—the narrator, the character, or both. Unless we go deep enough into that issue, we can’t fully understand point of view. I realize all this sounds very abstract and confusing, but in my essay I give numerous examples of each point-of-view technique that should clarify what constitutes them.
CS: The discussion of plot and structure was really interesting. When you write (especially a longer piece), do these two things exist and grow in tandem—or does one come to you first—or perhaps do they play off of one another, ping-ponging back and forth?
DJ: The process of writing a story is, for me at least, a process of discovering the plot and structure. I don’t have either one in mind when I begin.
Typically, the only thing I have when I start a story is a situation that I find intriguing, and I just plunk a character down into that situation and gradually discover who the character is and how he or she would react to the situation. As my pal Clint McCown says, “Plot is the journey we take to get to know the characters.” And as we get to know them, we discover not only the plot but the structure that best conveys its meaning.
CS: While I enjoyed all the chapters, my favorite was the one on flow—perhaps because it’s something I often think about but can’t really define. I appreciated your take on syntax—not just sentence-level syntax but also the structural syntax of a scene and of the story as a whole. What advice would you offer to writers, both new and experienced, when they consider flow?
DJ: Just as musicians need to practice scales, writers should practice varying the structure of their sentences. There are, of course, four basic types of sentence structure—simple, compound, complex, and compound-complex (the first two of which are the ones beginning writers tend to rely on most) but within these four general categories, there are innumerable types of structure. In her books Grammar as Style and The Art of the Sentence: Syntax as Style, the brilliant grammarian Virginia Tufte teaches us how to structure sentences by using such techniques as left-, mid-, and right-branching modifiers, balance, repetition, coordination, inversion, and apposition. It may seem mighty boring to practice these syntactical variations, but I’m sure musicians get just as bored practicing scales. No one ever gets invited to play scales at Carnegie Hall, of course, but if a musician puts in the time and effort of practicing scales, she has a much better chance of playing complex compositions well enough to be worthy of appearing on that stage.
But, as you note, we need to practice varying not only the structures of our sentences but also the structures of our scenes and our story as a whole. In my essay, I give examples of successful and unsuccessful scene and story structures that I hope will lead writers to create a more flowing “soundtrack” in their fiction.
CS: A passage in this chapter that intrigued me was the notion of all of us possessing an innate “language of thought”—a kind of personal, internal rhythm. I’m assuming you’ve heard this rhythm and brought it into your work—and I’m wondering how that came about. Did you feel it before you could name it? Did it manifest itself in whispers or did it come to you all at once? Now that you’re in tune with it, can you describe your own personal rhythms?
DJ: I don’t think of the language of thought as something that’s personal and repeatable; I believe it’s universal and variable. And I think being in tune with it is not like discovering one’s voice or style as a writer but more like discovering the rhythms and word choices that are appropriate to convey our characters’ emotions. So the rhythms and diction can—and should—change from character to character and from story to story.
I started thinking about these rhythmical issues over fifty years ago, when I first began writing stories. I found myself writing many sentences that I sensed needed a phrase or clause at some point but I didn’t know yet what words I needed so I’d just type a comma, hit the space bar five or six times, then type another comma, creating a blank I hoped to fill in later. I knew something belonged in these blanks but I had no idea what. I only sensed that I was trying to find the right rhythm for each sentence as well as the right words and that I needed the rhythm before I could find all the words. I thought my mind was working in some weird and unnatural way but when I mentioned the blanks in my sentences to my fiction-writing friends and teachers, several of them said they did the same thing in their early drafts. I was not always able to find the words to fill the blanks but sometimes I did, though I couldn’t explain how I knew the words existed before I knew what they were.
It wasn’t until years later when I read Jerry A. Fodor’s The Language of Thought and some of Noam Chomsky’s theories about transformational-generative grammar that I found an explanation that made sense to me. Both Fodor, a philosopher, and Chomsky, a linguist, argue that all of us are born with an innate, unconscious, universal language of thought whose linguistic principles underly all existing languages and allow us to learn whatever language we speak or read. If we aren’t born with such an innate language, Fodor argues, how is it that children are capable of thoughts before they learn a language in which to express them? Learning English or any other language, then, is a process of translating what Chomsky would call the “deep structure” of this unconscious universal grammar into the “surface structure” of whatever public language we use. When I read these writers, I realized that the blanks that littered my early drafts were words and phrases that had yet to be translated.
All of this probably sounds like mystical woo-woo but ultimately I believe it’s just the way the creative process works. What we call the Muse is actually nothing other than our innate, unconscious language of thought. Or so, at least, it seems to me.
CS: Another chapter addresses the advantages and disadvantages of present tense and past tense. And while there are solid arguments for both, you ultimately come down as a predominantly past-tense person—yet you’re not exclusively past tense. Can you share the situations and instances where present tense might be the best way to go?
DJ: I wrote the essay in response to the fact that present tense was the default tense in virtually all of the stories the students in my graduate workshops were writing at the time, and it was an attempt to convince them that they needed to choose whatever tense was most appropriate for their story, not just automatically use the present tense because, as one student said, “That’s how people write stories now.” I came up with a list of ten disadvantages and seven advantages of the present tense. It’d take me too long to explain all seven advantages here, but the essay defines them and gives examples of successful handling of present tense. Here’s an example of one of the advantages: in his story “Sleepy,” Chekhov uses present tense superbly to convey the temporal disorientation and delirium that results from the fact that his protagonist Varka, a thirteen-year-old servant girl, is forced to stay awake for two full days and nights because she’s babysitting her masters’ constantly screaming colicky baby and she knows they will beat her severely if she falls asleep. The story would lose most, if not all, of its effect if it were in past tense.
CS: What’s the current project on your writing table?
DJ: I’m finishing a brand-new collection of craft essays, this one called Words Made Flesh. Like Alone With All That Could Happen, and unlike a good many other fiction writing guides, it attempts to expand our understanding of the vast panorama of techniques and strategies available to us by describing what writers have actually done (and therefore what we can do) rather than by prescribing what they should do. The book’s essays rethink conventional wisdom about characterization, plot, description, modes of conveying emotion, endings, and revision. Press 53 plans to publish it either later this year or early next year, depending on when I finish my latest so-called “final” revision.
Curtis Smith’s latest book, The Magpie’s Return, was named as one of Kirkus Review’s top Indie releases of 2020.