“When I Pulled Over on the Side of the Road” by Katey Schultz
This craft essay by Katey Schultz is proof that inspiration doesn’t follow a particular timeline. In her case, a story percolated for over decade before she saw it take shape. What resulted was “Wait for Me,” which appeared in the summer 2020 issue of the Missouri Review and was a finalist for the 2019 Jeffrey E. Smith Editors’ Prize. You can read the story here.
What matters about the above side-by-side photos is not that they’re blurry or that the handwriting is illegible. What matters is that eleven years ago I was still waitressing two shifts a week and hadn’t published my first book but was so desperate to write down these words that I grabbed whatever I could find.
The blurry image is the new wine list I was trying to memorize. The handwritten image is my scribbles on the back of that wine list, and if you dare attempt to make out the words, you’ll see that, oddly, I wrote from the far right corner, over to the left (rather than our standard composition direction of left to right.
So many years later, this sheet of paper is still tacked to my bulletin board as proof that sometimes writing maxims are actually true: You have to let time pass. The story will reveal itself through drafts. Write whenever and wherever you can. Just start; worry about finishing later. It’s OK if you don’t know how you’ll get to the end.
If you’d told me those things the afternoon eleven years ago when I pulled over on the side of Interstate 26 in North Carolina and started writing, I would have rolled my eyes. Not because I didn’t believe them (well, maybe because I didn’t believe them). But because I had yet to experience just how deep the roots of story can go or how successful its final bloom can be.
For at least seven or eight years, I did nothing with that sheet of paper other than to move it from bulletin board to bulletin board, file to file, wall to wall, as my life expanded around me. I moved a few times. I got married. Bought a house. Had a kid. Went to a residency. . . .
And there, at Arrowmont School of Arts & Crafts’ Pentaculum artist residency, “Wait for Me” unspooled. I had the wine list with the scribbles in my folder of other similar scraps and notes. I had reread it a week or so beforehand, in anticipation of the uninterrupted work time a residency affords. When I sat down to write, I didn’t even have to take out that wine list. The voices were already there, waiting. The activity of the opening scene appeared as vividly as my own hands in front of me. The characters—somehow I knew their gender roles should be reversed from my initial scribbles, that the girl would bully the boy, not the other way around—were talking faster than I could type.
But I’m not going to lie and say that “the rest is history.” That’s a cop-out, and, besides, it glosses over the very best of what happens for writers when inspiration, discipline, time, and alchemy line up. Which is to say, I opened up Google Maps, switched it to satellite view, found a small town in West Virginia, moved the screen around a little bit until I found Morgantown, and then a not-too-distant large swath of forest and a lake. Now I had a setting I could work from, manipulate, and make my own (fictionalizing some bits, borrowing other bits).
From there, another maxim proved true: Landscape is character is plot.
At least, for me it is. Because as soon as I hear the voices of my narrators or characters in dialogue, I have to make their feet touch the ground in order to believe whatever they’re going to do next. And as soon as their feet touch the ground, they’re in reaction to the world around them. After that, plot really gets going.
By the end of that residency, I had a draft of the story not too terribly different from the version named Finalist in the Missouri Review’s Jeffrey E. Smith’s Editor’s Prize.
KATEY SCHULTZ is the author of Flashes of War, which the Daily Beast praised as an “ambitious and fearless” collection, and Still Come Home, a novel, both published by Loyola University Maryland. Honors for her work include the Linda Flowers Literary Award, Doris Betts Fiction Prize, Foreword INDIES Book of the Year for both titles, gold and silver medals from the Military Writers Society of America, five Pushcart nominations, a nomination to Best American Short Stories, National Indies Excellence Finalist recognition, and writing fellowships in eight states. She lives in Celo, North Carolina, and is the founder of Maximum Impact, a transformative mentoring service for creative writers that has been recognized by both CNBC and the What Works Network. Learn more at www.kateyschultz.com.
In Praise of Frank Underwood
By Michael Nye
Last weekend, the third season of Netflix’s hit series House of Cards was released. The show, a re-imagining of the British show of the same name from the 1980s, follows South Carolina Congressman Francis J. Underwood and his wife Claire on their vindictive climb to the top of U.S. politics. Filled with drama (or melodrama) straight from Shakespeare, the Underwoods use and abuse, seduce and betray, charm and belittle, just about everyone (including each other) all the way to the Oval Office, which is where season three picks up.
There is, of course, a very good chance you already know this. Starring Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright, as well as a slew of talented actresses and actors and filmmakers, House of Cards has not just been praised for the show itself, but also for what it means as a distribution model for Hollywood, a subject for someone far more knowledgeable about technology and distribution than me.
One of my favorite essays on the craft of writing is Susan Neville’s “Where’s Iago?” I first read this essay in the collection Bringing the Devil to His Knees, and I’ve returned to this essay, both as a writer and as a teacher, ever since. I can’t truly do justice to this essay with a simple summary, but what Neville explores is the idea of a Iago character in all fiction: the one who is the catalyst for events, an exploration of evil, the fall from innocence, all of which is wrapped up in some sort of seductive delivery. Neville writes that Iago is “as much a victim, often, of his own evil as anyone.”
This all sounds like … well, Frank Underwood.
One of the reasons I love Frank Underwood is because he’s played by Kevin Spacey. No matter how good an actor is, viewers are always aware they are watching a television show or a movie or even a play. Part of the pleasure of watching anything Kevin Spacey is in is that you are always watching Kevin Spacey. There are certain actors and actresses that, no matter what, no matter how good you might objectively (try) to be, you know you just can’t be swept up by the performance because you just don’t like the performer. It’s nearly impossible to watch House of Cards and not think “Man, Kevin Spacey is having so much fun with this.” He is, and always will be, an entertainer; his performance as Bobby Darin in “Beyond the Sea” is, in part, a testimonial to the joy in being an entertainer.
Another reason I enjoy Underwood as a character is his boyish qualities that are often exhibited in the show. Early in season one, Underwood is shown in his basement, decompressing by … playing video games. He has a fondness for first person shoot ’em ups, and wears headphones so as not to disturb Claire. Later in season one, when he drops in on Congressman Peter Russo to tell him that twelve thousand jobs are being lost in Russo’s district, Underwood is momentarily distracted by a PSP belonging to Russo’s son. Underwood seems genuinely intrigued by it (“I oughta get one for the car”) before laying the boom down on Russo.
Another huge reason I’m hooked on President Underwood is his love of Claire. On a recent Decode DC podcast, House of Cards staff writer Bill Kennedy discussed whether or not he and the others believed that Frank Underwood was a sociopath. He said, no; he and the other writers pointed to Frank’s love and devotion to Claire as the key reason they don’t consider him a sociopath Now, to be fair, I believe this is a gross simplification of what “sociopath” actually means, and is counterbalanced by some pretty damning words and actions by Frank. Nonetheless, they are the writers, the actual creators of Francis J. Underwood, and I do find that Frank is humanized and complicated by his devotion to Claire … especially given how often he betrays her.
There are other reasons to get a kick out of Frank—the way he devours a rack of ribs, speaking directly to the viewer by breaking the fourth wall (which, I’d argue, implicitly makes us his accomplice), his complex sexuality, his snark and his wit—none of which takes away from this simple fact: Frank Underwood is a villain. What in large part makes him so seductive and intriguing (to me, at least) is his complexity.
Even Darth Vader was a dad, you know?
In the last twenty years, Hollywood has churned out several charming villains: Tony Soprano, Don Draper, Walter White, and Frank Underwood, just to name a few. One of the benefits of these serial shows is that there is time to show all the complexity of these characters (ex: Tony Soprano and the ducks in his swimming pool) in a way that a film, in roughly two hours, often struggles to do. Great film villains (Hans Gruber, Nurse Ratched, Hannibal Lecter) do tend to be, well, a bit one-sided.
Frank Underwood has more sides than a dodecahedron.
Above all, what I love about Frank Underwood is that I know he’s evil and even though I’m not rooting for him … I’m sorta rooting for him. He’s an indefensible person, but an indispensable character. And that’s what we want in a narrative. Without Frank, there’s no show, and I want to see how deep and dark and awful this spiral can become. Which is what great characters do: take us to a place that is unknown and truthful. In some ways, House of Cards is more a horror show than a political show, a visual pageturner that we cannot look away from.
Welcome back, Frank. I wish I could say more about season three … but I couldn’t possibly comment.
Follow Michael on Twitter: @mpnye
Unearthing The Bones
Yesterday, I came across a quick post on The Bark, the energetic blog of Willow Springs. Kathryn Houghton posted briefly about Philip Pullman’s scathing response to the heavy usage of present tense narration in three of this year’s Man Booker’s Prize nominees. Kathryn asked a pretty simple question: So what?
I started to write a response in the Comment section, realized I had to go to teach class, bolted, and have been chewing it over ever since. Usage of the present tense can be found in literature going back to the Greeks; it’s not a brand new phenomenon that has recently been unearthed in the Nevada desert (though that would have been really cool). But the present-tense has become more commonplace in short fiction over the last couple of decades and gained popularity in the novel. If nothing else, it is certainly a trend, and when writing moves in a generally accepted direction, we should take notice.
In fact, others in the literary world already have. Subtropics, the literary journal out of the University of Florida run by the writer David Leavitt, has this on their submission page:
A preponderance of the stories coming our way are written in first-person present tense; we are starting to grow weary of this perspective. Please keep this in mind.
That’s been up there for at least two years now. Why do we see so many of these present tense stories, and why are they making magazine editors cautious?
Let’s first get this out: it does matter. In literature, form and meaning are intertwined, and the choices a writer makes are significant. Everything in a story is the writer’s decision; nothing is preordained. A story’s setting, point of view, protagonist’s gender, narrative voice, and any number of other nuts and bolts (or bricks and mortars) of a strong story should be chosen with deliberate intent. All of it matters.
So it would be nice to be able to safely assume that present-tense, then, is a choice. But in the present-tense stories coming across my desk, it rarely feels that way. Instead, it often feels like a short cut.
In the fiction writing classes I’ve taught, present tense seems to be the default when the story lacks narrative drive. Present tense, my students say, creates immediacy, makes the action more visceral, keeps the reader in the moment, and add tension because the narrator does not know how her/his story will end.
All true perhaps, but more often than not, present tense feels gimmicky. Take the last example of the narrator’s knowledge of the story’s events: the idea is irrelevant in the third person (the third person narrator of course knows how things end) and second person is often nothing more than first person weakly disguised. In the first person point-of-view, a character that knows the outcome has an amazing strength to focus on things that seemed irrelevant in the moment, but with hindsight, are quite significant. Great memoirs seem built, at least in part, on this idea. Instead, a present tense story makes me feel as if I’m reading a play. And, fiction isn’t a screenplay: writing for the stage or film is an entirely different form, one that is interpreted by the actors and director, with minimal prose other than stage direction. Why would fiction want to replicate this?
Present-tense seems to be a default mode for someone who isn’t carefully considering the style choices being made. It flattens the story. It flattens emotional and narrative distance and lacks the sense of shadowing, the illumination and darkening of a character’s world that strong narratives can create. The narrative choice suggests that there is nothing to remember about the past (and the past, to badly paraphrase Faulkner, isn’t ever really in the past) and nothing to expect of the future. There’s a smoothness to this flattening of time and distance that leaves whatever has transpired before page one of the story as wholly irrelevant.
Further, the present tense restricts the narration and, consequently, the writer. This restriction is deliberate, I’d argue, constipation from tackling bigger and broader events by eliminating the possibility of there being anything else that the characters (and, consequently, the narrator or the writer) must be conscious of other than the Here and Now. Opening up the story to the past takes courage and confidence, a writer’s willingness to chisel back into the past for the bones of the story.
Perhaps it’s indicative of our modern lives. As Americans, we love saying “That’s history”, a ridiculous dismissal of knowledge and tradition because as an American, we know what we know, and don’t need all those books and all that schoolin’ (or something like that). This modern age-ism also highlights what might be the biggest influence on writing: the silver screen, which might be one reason why the present tense has become the popular default. Films taught us how to quick grasp shifts in time and place, leaping from one character to another, one era to another, experience non-linear events rapidly, and encouraged us to demand media to entertain us rather than engage us.
Can present-tense stories work? Of course, they can. The Missouri Review has published plenty of them. Good editors can’t be dismissive of a story (or poem or essay) because of some preconceived notion of what stories should do or must do. Breaking expectations is one of the aims of good art. But when we choose a form, we must choose wisely. Otherwise: well, here’s your silver screen moment.
(We really aren’t obsessed with Indiana Jones. Honest! We just dig his hat.)
Michael Nye is the managing editor of The Missouri Review