On (Not) Writing the Bar Story Part II: The Instructor
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. Check out Part I here.
By Mike Goodwin •
In my brief career teaching fiction workshops, the bar story has appeared too often as a genre vying for literariness. Students have written about debauchery at house parties, barns, parks, cemeteries, and, of course, bars. All involved similar commentary on class hierarchy, where some students seem aware halfway through that their story bores. Those who feel it figure some other method of enlivening the narrative by including near–deus ex machina moments to push the plot forward. A former student of mine once placed a main character—a liberal journalist writing conservative news—in a bar whose patrons implored him to quit his job and finish his (undescribed) book. Instead of further development on why the book went unfinished, the student trapped everyone inside a dive bar and focused too heavily on its deadbeats. Later, a new character appeared more than halfway through and altered the narrative with gun running, drug dealing, and prostitution. The writer had already established a clear conflict and motivation for the character, but the student insisted on maintaining the narrative’s gritty façade.
An amateur writer who creates a bar story struggles maintaining verisimilitude. They develop obnoxious characters inside a setting believed accurate from having been drunk a few times or, more likely, watching too much television and film. The narrative lacks authenticity, a word that chaffs a number of writers, but that in this case seems necessary as it often acts as a primary goal of the bar story. Amateur writers look to render some experience they suppose as truth, or what my students have mistakenly referred to as “real,” rather than construct their fiction around strong details and descriptions that help along a story’s plausibility. Perhaps their lack of practice toward producing imagery in unique environments causes this dissonance, but I also believe these writers try too hard channeling a blue-collar voice with which they want to identify, a mimic of what they think the poor, white folk sound like, making sure to drop f-bombs every other line on their way there. And these characters apparently spend much of their time in dive bars.
Students miss opportunities to establish a voice detailing their own struggles. We can understand why some college students want to feel part of a tradition that depicts strapped characters toughing it out. They take on massive debt for an education stressed upon them by many corners of culture, an education we know remains essential but increasingly question in large part due to its cost. Many students require assistance to ditch ramen as a primary food source, and upon graduating, they begin their adult life owing a great deal of money. And how do many students blow off steam from the anxieties and pressures of college life and all that remains ahead for them? Among a few other sordid, risky behaviors, they drink.
Students struggle to translate those fears and experiences and write the bar story instead. They fail to develop compelling characters that go beyond the drinking, drugs, and sex they seek to place into their work. Some of it is the fault of generational dismissal, the old “kids these days…” chagrin that we can’t help but aim at those younger than us. While we generally don’t want to read the experiences of the high-school or college-aged demographic for their supposed immaturity, we tend to turn away at treating them like adults. Realize for a moment that some students date longer than some adults stay married, that some raised younger siblings in place of absentee parents, and that some just know how to handle life better than their older alcoholic family member livestreaming another Wednesday night drinking session screeching karaoke. But because younger writers frequent establishments more known for flights of microbrew than fights for fun, we scold them into nervous young professionals who, in writing fiction, eschew appropriate narrative development for something they believe to be more adult, more authentic.
The bar story imitates a particular voice when written in first-person for a greater appeal to authenticity, producing a brusque, cynical, self-indulgent jerk in the process to represent some naïve view of lower-class people. It goes on to create familiar conflicts and crises to attempt portraying some seedier side of society. Students believe that the bar story shows readers some truth about the world underneath the veneer of suburban life, a likely—though probably unintentional—personal critique of what they see as their own limited experience growing up in fine sectioned neighborhoods or relatively pleasant rural areas.
Few want to live poor but many wish to represent it as some badge of honor; however, a character’s financial status creates little of interest. Students expect their audience to care about a poor, drunk man’s mindset and automatically understand his motivation, or lack thereof. This motivation leads to unoriginal reasons—often through misperception of circumstances (like mistreatment in a straight relationship)—for our character’s inevitable return to haunting the dive bar. Instead of building the story and developing whatever complex conflicts exist for the character that might move him toward some change, we instead receive more excuses to drink and heavy emphasis on the squalid atmosphere.
Characters take shape as low-life clowns and, if they aren’t being acted upon and actually make decisions, choose to remain in or around alcoholic tendencies. The writer keeps their version of a lower-class character in his narrow lane, perhaps a subconscious critique on the American dream and its impossibility without luck or heaps of help, but more likely representative of looking down on the drunks who fight in an alley. In essence, the bar story disrespects its characters by making the lower-class spectacle for audience amusement.
Bar stories tend to be written by folks performing as writers rather than thinking through what they really want, or ought, to do. They focus on hardened or cynical blue-collar characters to brand themselves as an experienced, edgy writer wise to an ugly world while looking to build some antiestablishment credibility. In doing so, students take on an attitude that their view of the lower-class means something more than what appears in the typical story.
As an instructor, I see the obvious flaws in student stories now, but my own amateur writing ended up preparing me for their work. The last time I wrote a bar story for workshop became a moment of valuable teaching material. I thought myself edgy and antiestablishment at the time, hoping to push boundaries like some of my students do now. I thought I possessed something worth saying over my university cohort having spent time in dive bars myself and knowing many others who shunned a college education. In doing so, I had concocted a skewed worldview and believed that my writing contained more value because I thought it said something important about culture and because I thought I knew something the academics did not. I could write a story that others in workshop wouldn’t dare attempt, their prude views and experiences about life and literature limited and stereotypical of a high and haughty professorial attitude that saw the authors I appreciated most dismissed in favor of the classics and modern agendas.
I ended up writing with arrogance and ignored that I was choosing the simplistic route rather than growing as a writer, something I implore my students to consider now. Rather than work harder at the craft, we remain insular by writing stories with antiheroic characters that we expect readers to automatically appreciate. In writing the bar story, we form imitations of literary fiction to ease the process of story-writing, expecting some sort of natural talent to shine through in a way we might assume it does for many published writers as if they conceive an idea and type it out in one try, too drunk or contemptuous to care for revision, letting some loathsome editor handle jagged sentence structures and spelling errors on the way to publication. If we think that way, we write dismal stories that achieve little, if anything.
In discussing writing fiction with students, we look to define specific terms, especially abstract concepts like “real” in the context of reviewing the strengths of a story. Characters who act out, abuse obscene language, and fornicate just for the sake of doing so appear genuine to them despite these actions having no relevance in their own actual lives. Furthermore, they attach such abstract concepts of realism to their skewed perspective of the lower-class, a status with which they want to identify and simultaneously distance from by virtue of attending college, using their experience of having survived it all as something symbolic of their credibility. All of that matters little in writing a good story.
We first try to make the initial premise and characters compelling enough for ourselves before we consider audience and what the story might achieve. We begin that way, as John Gardner advises in The Art of Fiction, in order to understand the elements of storytelling. We learn how to shape a story by imitating those we enjoy and appreciate. But we need to progress. As a student, grit literature captured my attention, and in my goal to write like my favorites, I produced generic stories that failed because I stopped evolving. I focused too much on ridiculous behaviors that made little difference on the larger story, like my students now who insist on emphasizing smoking cigarettes or vomiting after what they view as a wild night. And like I did with drinking in my own work, some students aim to create a character with edge, using vices to make them more interesting.
In workshop now, we come to realize diverse experiences offer much more interesting minutiae for characters, in contrast to tracking their self-indulgence. Notable stories show what occurs in the fight onward; otherwise, a writer idealizes something like addiction and denigrates their lower-class characters into one-dimensional cretins. The bar story establishes a kind of ready-made voice, setting, and characters with which we can enter what Gardner calls the fictional dream without working terribly hard for it. The bar story likely generates much of its interest in uncanny images, the combination of familiar and shocking. For instance, I recall frequenting a dive bar in Hattiesburg, Mississippi that used old toilets as a row of stools. The men’s bathroom was a trough with ice in it. Every wall contained graffiti. Out back there were ripped up couches in an alley where people drank near a tube television. A fire burned from a garbage can during colder months. Yet, because we have a tendency to romanticize this kind of lowbrow setting and treat it as something special in a materialistic culture inundated by sleek technology, I wonder how much of the above image I unintentionally conjured (the toilet bar stools were real, though), having mixed in memories of other establishments during my time as a do-nothing, white-collar, silent-type angry at my inability to afford much of anything nice.
I do remember, however, that across the street stood a coffee shop where we held readings, and afterward, we would sometimes cross over for cheap beer and further commiseration. The bar attracted all different kinds of people in that way, including graduate students seeking refuge from piles of papers to both write and grade and the morass of convincing tired, disinterested students to do assigned work. The guileless graduate students and local townies made the place worth visiting, unlike some other establishments that saw its fair share of roughnecks and racial tension. We aim to create such thought-provoking character dynamics, though I would suggest that if the writer insists on using any place like the above dive bar, they should have the characters leave it sooner than later. We want to stay away from trapping our characters inside of one place, which often results in a kind of claustrophobia that sends readers looking for an escape route from the text. Steve Barthelme taught me that, too, and I continue to pass along his knowledge to my own students.
“On (Not) Writing the Bar Story Part I: The Amateur Writer” is available here.
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.