On (Not) Writing the Bar Story Part I: The Amateur Writer
Mike Goodwin’s two-part essay, “On (Not) Writing the Bar Story,” explores writing (or not writing) the working-class antihero prone to spending their lives in dive bars from two perspectives, that of the writing student, and that of the writing instructor. Tune in for Part II tomorrow.
By Mike Goodwin •
I once earned a well-deserved reaming for my writing an awful story involving who I viewed as lower-class patrons inhabiting a dive bar. The narrative too often emphasized these characters giving each other the business over abundant beers and cigarettes they could all barely afford. In between, some fought out back in an alley because they were drunk and bored and had something silly to prove. This fighting occurred until a woman began showing up as a regular and embraced repeated commentary about her sizable chest. A down-on-his-luck main character fell for the well-endowed new arrival on the run from an obsessive ex and sobriety. The two characters were meant to stand out above the fray of drunkenness before slinking back into old habits, failing to fully connect because of their first love: raging alcoholism.
In my mind at the time, people struggling to make ends meet contained more valid reasons to experience a range of arresting emotions than, say, the average professor. And in fiction, especially my own stories, they all dealt with their downtrodden experience by consuming copious booze. For whatever reason, they never drank a seasonal summertime draft, messed with pinot noir, or made poor decisions under the influence of Jägermeister. The stereotypical lower-class antihero—a flawed, often white male protagonist demonstrating antagonistic behavior towards the others around him—found a nearby bar in which to drown his sorrows, imbibing whiskey before chasing it with a bottle (never a can; the poor bastard has some standards) to cope with the recognition that life is harder than the privileged folk could ever understand.
As I learned as both a student and an instructor, amateur writers structure a bar story by depicting their version of a lower-class antihero inside a derelict establishment, paying close attention to the unnecessarily vast amount of vices the clientele abuse. The main character drinks, smokes, fights, and copulates amid conflicts rarely taken seriously enough. He expresses frustration with his world, but avoids taking any action to change those circumstances. He blames everyone else for his lot in life before encountering an obstacle meant to raise the stakes for a climax or denouement that ultimately sends everyone back to drinking again.
In the Spring of 2015, I sent off my own version of a bar story to my creative writing instructor late into the morning—hours before I had to teach a first-year composition course as a graduate assistant—after reading through it two dozen or so times for the silly grammar and style errors I often made. Forgetting words. Confusing lay and lie until I drop them altogether. Tracking unnecessary movement (He opened the door, looked around, saw a stool by the bar and sat to order anything but Jägermeister). In workshop the following week, some discussed my submission with mild praise over its humor. Other men and women slung accusations of sexism for moral posturing over my inane attention to chest size. The rest offered valid nuggets of criticism for a piece that hardly functioned as story. Our instructor, Steve Barthelme, remained quiet per usual, waiting until the mood struck to challenge all of our reaching critiques. He went on to chastise my story’s jokey tone, saying that little existed on the page to help readers care about the characters. He struggled taking the story seriously because the writing appeared unserious: all beer, tits, and fighting with no substance.
After workshop, I sat down for Steve’s standard one-on-one meeting. He began by flinging his notated copy of my story toward me saying, “You need to get the hell over it.” I knew the broad strokes of what he intended to say before he began his gravel-voiced lecture because both he and soft-spoken author Andrew Milward had tried pushing me in any other direction but the one I kept insisting upon. They both implored me to move on from my hollow definition of the lower-class and from producing antiheroic characters who I believe acted as far more interesting story fodder than their higher-class counterparts. While Andrew nudged with the gentle mysticism of a yoga instructor, Steve conveyed his message through blunt force, using my character to inform me that any typical Wall Street trader would be much more fascinating than my dull-as-dirt septic tank serviceman wasting his life away at a bar.
The antihero narrative had long appealed to me, a preference which makes more sense now after reading Francine Prose’s take on high school reading lists and how they deter young people from appreciating literature in, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Cannot Read.” I had dismissed such lists, instead excelling in high school at slacking, ducking the work as best as any immature adolescent claiming to be on the cusp of adulthood can manage, dodging books like Catcher in the Rye but suffering through novels like The Grapes of Wrath in order to graduate. And like many students who seek science/speculative fiction or fantasy writing to break free from the doldrums of reading for English class, I found solace in texts that appeared to demonstrate a harder edge than the ones teachers would, or could, assign.
My tough guy stance toward ditching schoolwork for sleeping in class and a grade point average that once fell below 2.0 may have prevented me from reading much of anything ever again if not for my discovery of Fight Club. Through it, I could live out uber-masculine fantasies of fighting for fun and domestic terrorism, appealing ideas for an angry seventeen-year-old tired of school, track practice in both winter and spring, and working retail while a girlfriend who wanted too much attention lamented my disinterest in watching awful reality television. As some adults claimed to strain over a nine-to-five and hurled their early versions of insults at lazy millennials, many of us were pulling ten to fourteen hour days for four to six days a week at school, completing its subsequent homework and participating in extracurricular activities we were warned that colleges expected for acceptance, and holding down a job. We toiled in order to succeed (at what, we weren’t entirely sure), all while hearing that it was our privilege to do so.
It all launched me in the direction of Chuck Palahniuk, whose characterization of alienation felt spot-on, but whose shock value swiftly grew tiresome. Still, it led me to others like Raymond Carver, Jayne Anne Phillips, Bobbie Ann Mason, and Denis Johnson. I went on to write hollow narratives mimicking each of them, all that involved characters living in deplorable conditions. It shocked me that someone like Denis Johnson could write a collection about drug users in a way that reminded me of the stoners I once knew in high school who ironically joined D.A.R.E. A story like Carver’s “Are These Actual Miles” shows a couple fending off a bankruptcy amid their infidelity, a story with which I naively claimed connection having been born into a bankrupt family and, at least three times, experiencing the aforementioned reality-television-watching girlfriend cheating on me. But during college, when I began considering the possibilities of an actual, adult career and wondering how I might pull that off, Charles Bukowski exposed the futility of life and work in his brilliant novels Post Office and Ham on Rye.
I chose to engage with several broad aspects of Bukowski’s texts: exasperating jobs, struggling with familial, romantic, and platonic relationships, and the overwhelming presence of alcohol. It seemed many great writers (aside from some listed above, think Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Kerouac, etc.) agonized over these problems and drank to deal with it. They smoked too, which, with help from English majors, I also decided to do. One can begin understanding how the bar story comes to fruition when connecting these literary titans to an amateur idolizing them and hoping to follow in their greatness. I felt obligated to drink and let loose with my resentment toward everyone and everything to write about it. Without joining the tradition, I’d create the boring and predictable work that had been assigned to me throughout my education.
As I’ve learned since, all narratives in some way suffer from predictability. To counter this inevitability, we focus on detailing the journey so readers feel invested in the story. These journeys feature compelling characters whose relationships make an unfolding narrative interesting. Yet even the soundest and most reasonable among us manage to take the lazy route in developing fiction. We use tropes like the chosen-one character, or the aha! moment in dialogue where an innocuous statement helps the main character solve a problem (think House or a number of other television procedurals). That kind of indolence was where my own bar story had earned its scathing review by an instructor far too good at his craft to waste his time reading it.
My bar story for workshop took shape in the late morning hours before I had to teach, with physical and mental exhaustion setting in from a long week, if not a long few years after getting married, moving several times (one of those a 3000-mile trek), and simultaneous employment as both an adjunct and retail warehouse underling before working on my PhD. I felt little desire to type again with each short break, my back and my knees hurting as they had for a long time, the result of running for twenty years, of working two jobs, and of many silly instances like plunging backward from atop a ledge into a large bush on a drunken dare. My interest in writing beyond the requirement to do so waned from the anguish that would occur sitting in front of laptop or desktop for hours at a time desperately seeking something of value worth typing.
Though I had always found myself drawn to the idea of characters representative of the lower-class palling around a bar, I knew I had nothing unique to say about it, or that would compel an audience to read it. So, I tried to be funny throughout until concluding with my main character chasing after the female lead to signify that maybe they were done with their alcoholism. Or maybe not. No one knew, including me. A “profound sigh” Steve would say via his own former instructor John Barth, an attempted ending meant to represent that something important had occurred, that some significant change in character had happened even though the reader couldn’t see or understand it. In the end, I was hoping to fit some tired, hollow tradition rather than carving out space for my own voice.
“On (Not) Writing the Bar Story Part II: The Instructor” publishes tomorrow.
MIKE GOODWIN has lived in New Jersey, Mississippi, and both sides of Pennsylvania. Though his finest achievement might be the time a barber said that he grew “rough mustache hair,” he teaches, haunts used book sales, and spends much of his time with his son, a two-year-old with a convincing Cookie Monster impression. His fiction has appeared with New Rivers Press while his poetry can be found in several magazines, including Linden Avenue Literary Journal and pacificaREVIEW.