On (Not) Tracking Movement
By Mike Goodwin •
Part I: In Action
On its own, readers see a sentence like the opening of Raymond Carver’s “The Bath” which reads, “Saturday afternoon the mother drove to the bakery in the shopping center,” and react to it in one of two ways: This is boring or Hey, I can write like that. Few think: Wow, what a phenomenal sentence. But those who do probably enjoy the minimalist style, a kind of writing which seeks to produce sentences using few words. It appeals to writers like me who, in their actual lives, feel inconsequential, dull, and without interesting stories to tell friends or colleagues. We are all Chris Farley interviewing Paul McCartney: Remember when you were with the Beatles? That was awesome. So we get to it with a simple plot, aiming to generate tension between characters for story complexity.
We might also lack poetry in our sentence work, as do many amateur writers who go on to imitate this form of writing and produce what they think looks like Carver. Those who imitate him or his style—including me for a long time—tend to oversimplify sentences, focusing too much on minor, unnecessary movements of characters. This plays out most often in pieces seeking to convey something profound without actually saying it. For instance, a sentence like, “He picked up the bottle of whiskey, poured some into a glass, and gulped it down,” often aims to tell us something about alcoholism through an ordinary activity. Oh no, he’s drinking again, we’re supposed to read into the action, without the writer doing any work toward dramatizing why the alcohol acts as or represents a problem.
In describing minor action, the amateur writer dramatizes routine, a way of detailing common movements in familiar situations. Perhaps removing the glass and depicting the character drinking straight from the bottle would work. Unfortunately, many writers have thought of that already, the image still too familiar from the dozens of other short stories, novels, televisions shows, and films involving a character downing liquor that way. Maybe it works if the character never took a drink until that moment. If he were desperately drinking the leftovers of bottles at a family reunion, then that could be something. Otherwise, drinking is a mundane activity. Tracking the movement of a character drinking offers nothing important or compelling.
Tracking movement produces wordy sentences, exhausting readers and failing to incorporate drama or tension. Sentences must deliver critical narrative information so that we sink into the story and conjure its events in our minds. The poor imitation of Carver shows characters opening and shutting doors, walking down (why never up?) hallways, or sitting at a table (made of hardwood, if we’re lucky), all imagery we can easily invent without the writer tracing each insignificant motion. And such sentence construction is likely why many have complained about how condensed prose shortens sentences to the detriment of good storytelling. Consider Madison Smart Bell’s “less means less” in eschewing minimalism, or John Aldridge’s claim in Talents and Technicians to the production of “Assembly-Line Fiction,” a critique of writing-program culture producing ineffective stories. Yet Carver himself admitted to doing less for good reason in “Fires”:
During these ferocious years of parenting, I usually didn’t have the time, or the heart, to think about working on anything very lengthy. The circumstances of my life, the “grip and slog” of it, in D.H. Lawrence’s phrase, did not permit it. The circumstances of my life with these children dictated something else. They said if I wanted to write anything, and finish it, and if I ever wanted to take satisfaction out of finished work, I was going to stick to stories and poems.
With obvious influence from Anton Chekhov among others, Carver wrote complete texts in the short times he had between marital, parental, and professional responsibilities. A lot of us feel his desperation to our bitter, tired cores, much as we love our spouses, kids, and paying bills. So, to avoid losing interest in an art lost so easily by the demands of our culture, Carver adapted to a form already well-established in literature long before his arrival, one that helps along the participation of readers without overwhelming them with dense prose and convoluted plot.
While my entertainment preferences can somewhat accurately be summed up by the Ain’t nobody got time for that meme, tension matters a great deal no matter the length of a text. Character interaction that moves the plot forward affects me more than overwritten, brilliant formations of words, dazzling the audience into a Well, I don’t get it so it must be good kind of compliance. Writing with that kind of unnecessarily difficult language and sentence structure calls too much attention to the process itself and becomes an act of arrogant, sesquipedalianist nonsense. See?
Carver avoids flummoxing his audience with overwriting. Again, using Carver’s story “The Bath” as an example, the opening sentence appears innocuous by merely mentioning mild action to get the story moving, seeming as if it merely tracks movement. But this initial foray establishes setting (time and place: Saturday afternoon, toward the bakery in the shopping center), the main character (the mother), and a simple action (driving) that, on subsequent reads, will feel somewhat disconcerting given the accident involving Scotty. It stays away from detailing unnecessary imagery and movement, where an amateur may be more prone to writing, “Saturday afternoon the mother stepped into the car, turned the keys in the ignition, and drove…” or “Saturday afternoon the mother drove with a heavy foot, pushing the gas pedal to the floor on her nervous way to the bakery, arriving in the populated shopping center, where she curiously took her time to park the car in a narrow space between two pickups, one loaded with mulch.” This kind of sentence drives mad the instructor/editor/reader of any work. It manages to use active verbs, but it exhausts the reader with its excessive length and scattershot imagery. It gravitates toward the sentimental by announcing that she is “nervous” (not to mention possibly exacerbating the “hysterical” trope) and tracks minor movements. Aside from the annoying repetition of “heavy foot” and “pushing the gas pedal to the floor,” why do we need to know she was speeding? Why do we need to see her taking time to park the car at all? Does it matter if the shopping center is populated or not? How does the adverb “curiously” affect or change our perspective of the sentence? Are the pickup trucks important? Does one carrying mulch tell us anything important about the characters, plot, or setting? Being the first sentence of a story, these details could eventually work into an unfolding narrative, but I still question combining them all into one sentence. The disconnected details offer too little value and distract from our reading.
“The Bath” employs precise language to settle its audience into a plotline that becomes largely unsettling, encouraging readers to conjure specific moments from line to line, scene to scene, to stay active with the reading. This should come as little surprise given that Carver’s former instructor, John Gardner, preached the fictional dream, the state in which readers imagine the text as it unfolds. The reader remains in the fictional dream until jarred by an error in the writing process, some moment that calls too much attention to the artifice of writing itself—like tracking movement. Concise, efficient writing limits such errors and lets the audience do more work toward dreaming up the story, thus increasing their interaction with, and ideally appreciation of, the text.
Part II: Evolving
When I was an older-than-most-others graduate student at the University of Southern Mississippi, some colleagues enjoyed torturing their cohort in workshops with sprawling prose more fitting for a novel, disparaging the short story writing ilk of the ’80s in the process. On a day a piece of mine would be workshopped, an older man ranted in his soft-spoken Southern drawl about the negative effects of Raymond Carver on creative writing programs. That denunciation began a justified, though suspect, deconstruction of my early work.
Graduate programs instill a competitive nature. Some students acknowledge it and pursue opportunity on friendly terms while others work to subvert expectations in the style of Game of Thrones’ last season. It tends to separate writers into factions, rendering the feedback questionable. In my case, I ignored writers who set out to detail every little internal feeling, mining every possible metaphor from nature, finding ways to incorporate Greek and Roman or whatever ancient cultural references into their work at the expense of a sensible plot, and waxing philosophical like mini–David Foster Wallaces. As they wrote narratives over forty pages and lamented the hold of minimalism or Carver or whoever like him on short stories, they also feigned exhaustion over the lack of anything new, a criticism better aimed at their instructors from prior experiences if not themselves and their own habits. In his New York Times article, “On Being Wrong: Convicted Minimalist Spills Beans,” Frederick Barthelme offered a kind of recent literary history. In his view, postmodernists John Barth, Donald Barthelme, John Hawkes, and William H. Gass wrote top-tier fiction in their own talented and profuse ways, but, “they couldn’t keep up with the demand,” and others came along to “fill the need”:
[I]t was tiring—the work was so frail. You had to hold it up all the time. You had to go along with it into readers’ houses and explain it, adjust their glasses, help them get their feet up, turn the pages and point out the highlights. Full-throated it wasn’t. So writers started looking around for other things to do […]
This was the tail end of the post-modern times […] and you had these four guys out there dancing in the street, walking the dog and walking the cat, and you had 35 imitators doing minis, and you wanted to learn something from that, so what you thought was (A) you couldn’t do it as well as the four, and (B) you could do it better than the 35, but who wanted to? and (C) doing it didn’t fit your world view anyway—yours was closer to that moment when Indiana Jones pulls the gun and blows the swordsman away—why futz with the rules, why not just get it done?
Though emphasizing that last phrase feels a bit too Larry the Cable Guy for my liking, it captures the frustration of readers everywhere who want to experience a good story over the pretentious presentation of literature. After encountering Carver among several others, I found that imitating their style seemed easy enough because it got to the point. But instead of developing a style or voice, I ended up tracking unnecessary movement in my imitation. Since my stories often featured malcontented people, my sentences typically involved a character drinking or smoking, like this unfortunate line: “Jimmy inhales on his cigarette, shakes his head, and exhales on a laugh.” Maybe that last bit works (Smoking, Jimmy exhales with a laugh) depending on the context and why he smokes (an attempt to show an addictive personality), but its presentation in a story that hasn’t been viewed in eight years dramatizes routine for drama rather than to explore the nuances of character. It emphasizes the inhale and exhale here for no good reason, offering a shake of the head like anyone could know what that means, all adding up to mild action attempting to show something more profound than actually appears on the page.
The amateur writer who imitates the often-imitated minimalist style too often translates it into textual meandering. The writing stays in place, a holding pattern that, despite its attention to basic movement, stops the entire story from moving anywhere with each line like, “He opened the cupboard, found the sugar, and scooped an extra spoonful into his morning coffee. He was tired so he needed it.” The first half of the first sentence tracks movement, the second half gives us some meaning, though we’re bored by the time we reach it, and the second sentence merely explains the first one, which makes it repetitive. Combined with other sentences like it, we quickly lose interest in a story that too often churns in place with petty action and too many words. The better sentence which keeps our attention looks more like: “He broke his morning routine by scooping extra sugar in his coffee.” Twelve words in one sentence does more work toward adding tension, if not possibly conflict (breaking the routine), than the original twenty-three words over two sentences. It gets to the point in a more artful way, ditching minor movement for more important details provided efficiently.
I read stories often now that offer sentences like, “We were at the bowling alley in town. There was a sound of bowling balls hitting pins.” This kind of writing depicts characters and situations in their most mundane. Yes, bowling alleys exist, and inside of them, heavy balls striking pins produce sound. The weak verbs “were” and “was” only compound the dullness of the sentences. A simple word, like “visited” or “arrived” helps specify at least some action in place of “were.” The sentence using “was” requires a bit of trimming to get at something like, “the balls thundered into pins.” In any case, the writer using more active verbs will likely find ways to make a sentence pop off the page more to keep our attention.
The worst part of tracking movement is that few commit this error only once; the writer aiming for short sentences but who dramatizes routine movement will almost always do so repeatedly throughout their text, making even the average reader want to locate their inner Gordon Lish, who hacked away at Carver’s writing so much that the writer begged his editor not to release the collection What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. Again, to use my aforementioned bowling example, this would go on with a paragraph or two describing the experience with sentences like, “We sat on the leather seats, laced up our bowling shoes, then went to the racks and picked out balls.” Yes, this is generally what happens at bowling alleys and we all know it. So what about it? Why do we need to see it? No answer, no connection, no point, and on and on it goes.
An audience will automatically conjure simple images without the necessity of the text guiding them to it. Rewriting such an image as tying shoes for no particular purpose then appears uninteresting and dull for its repetition of stating the unnecessary. Perhaps the bowling shoes and their sizes tell us something about a character who feels self-conscious about feet or something else related. When I was a kid, my mother drove us to the grocery store during the summer in a car containing pleather seats; when we got home and I exited the vehicle, my skin had stuck to the chair, tearing a long cut that looked like a lightning bolt down the back of my scrawny leg. And yes, it stung like hell. Do the leather seats in the bowling alley do anything like that? Or does it just remind a character of some event that helps develop characterization in some other way? Furthermore, does a boy feel weak around his friends if he picks out a light ball as opposed to a heavier one? That sounds like something the jackassed kids from my childhood would have done. At any rate, the details have to matter.
Frederick Barthelme writes toward the end of his New York Times essay that “you’ve got to use the language carefully, so that you get more than just language. It’s hard, but when it works it blows you away, not because you have the world on the page but because you have a world, palpable, compelling, frightening.” Merely presenting action as a list of simple details that track movements like opening doors dulls the senses, but using distinctive images to spark something in the mind of a reader garners interest. Tracking minor movements of characters offers little help to the audience in conjuring what the story looks like, nor does it develop any facet of a story. Carver and Barthelme and the rest of the accused minimalists do much more than write about turning doorknobs, walking through doorways, or much at all about the damn door in the first place.
MIKE GOODWIN earned his PhD in English at the University of Southern Mississippi with a focus on creative writing: fiction. Squint at an internet search long enough to find his fiction and poetry in several magazines. He has also taught at several universities and colleges, though he can now be found at the University of Pittsburgh. Otherwise, he spends a majority of time with his wife, an optometrist who hates literature, and son, a three-year-old with a wicked arm when throwing balls around the house. His essay “On (Not) Writing the Bar Story” is in the CRAFT archive.
Featured image by Ahmad Odeh courtesy of Unsplash