One Question Interview: David James Poissant
A semi-regular series, One Question Interview examines the nature of "good" things in fields as disparate as art, advertising, business, film, food, music, and prose, via one question answered by someone in the know.
Like to participate or know someone who should contribute to One Question Interview? Let me know.
One Question Interview: David James Poissant
This week's One Question Interview features writer David James Poissant. Poissant is the author of The Heaven of Animals: Stories, longlisted for the PEN / Robert W. Bingham Prize, winner of the GLCA New Writers Award and a Florida Book Award, and a finalist for the L.A. Times Book Prize. Poissant’s stories and essays have appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, The Chicago Tribune, Glimmer Train, The New York Times, One Story, Playboy, Ploughshares, and elsewhere. Visit him online at davidjamespoissant.com.
Joel Wayne: What's good writing?
David James Poissant: In 2006, I had the great good fortune to study fiction for two weeks under Barry Hannah at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference. Barry was dying, and he knew it. He didn’t hold back. He didn’t spare feelings. He taught writing like it was a matter of life and death, which, for him, I’d say it was.
He said many things, but there are two moments I remember best. When a student asked, “What makes writing good,” Barry rose, moved to the chalkboard, and wrote: Beginning, middle, end. “That’s everything I know about good storytelling,” he said.
Barry was dying, and he knew it. He didn’t hold back. He didn’t spare feelings. He taught writing like it was a matter of life and death, which, for him, I’d say it was.
Later, Barry rose from his seat midsentence, and, apropos of nothing, beneath his last pronouncement, he wrote: No adverbs.
Some hyperbole, here, can be assumed. Of course there is more to good writing than that. But, if you had to distill good writing, the idea of it, to two bits of advice, these aren’t bad bits to live by. All stories, told or retold, fact or fiction, tend to benefit from a clear narrative arc. A clear narrative arc is typically the product of a clear beginning, middle, and end. There are exceptions to any rule. But, for the most part, this is the best way to write.
Ever met one of those people who can’t tell a story? Who can’t even tell the story of their day? They back up. They start over. They leave out important parts, or they spoil the ending before they get started. Listening to such people is all but unendurable.
Writing’s the same. It’s hard work reading bad writing. When a short story or essay, novel or parable, article or account of one’s day leaves out details, ends before it’s begun, skips the middle, or fails to give enough backstory, a reader leaves the piece frustrated, maybe even vowing never to read work by that writer again. And we don’t want to be ostracizing our readers, now do we? Readers are precious, and they are few. They shouldn’t be coddled, but neither should they be driven away.
And nothing drives a reader away like a disappointing ending. Some endings are ambiguous, sure. But there’s ambiguity, and then there’s willful obfuscation. The latter shouldn’t have to be tolerated by anyone.
And what of Barry’s second declaration, no adverbs?
For me, this reads not as no adverbs, but as use adverbs sparingly. (Again, you have to read between the hyperbole.) But why stop at adverbs? Adjectives can be major offenders. Interjections, too. And exclamation points! Any excessive ornamentation, any language or image that doesn’t contribute, somehow, to setting, atmosphere, characterization, or mood, anything that doesn’t in some tiny way advance a story’s plot, can and probably should be cut. Fancy, fancy prose (what some call purple prose) often (not always, but often) tells the reader more about the writer than it tells the reader about the characters or world that the writer is attempting to bring to life on the page.
When a student asked, “What makes writing good,” Barry rose, moved to the chalkboard, and wrote: Beginning, middle, end. “That’s everything I know about good storytelling,” he said.
When I write, especially when I write fiction, I want to be invisible to the reader. I want to fall away, so that the reader forgets that she’s reading. I don’t want the reader to see the puppeteer, the strings. “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!” is my motto.
But, how does one do this, any of this? Well, first, one grounds a story/essay/article/novel/etc. with Barry’s beginning, middle, and end. Second, one watches out for adverbs and, in revision, pulls most up by the roots and feeds them to the rabbits.
There is more to writing than that, of course. That’s just for starters. But there are worse ways to start.
Finally, good writing is writing informed by good reading. If you want to write a novel, you better have read a hundred of those suckers before you even think of beginning your own. If you want to master the short story, reading a thousand wouldn’t hurt. (Read three short stories a day for a year, and you’re there.) Want to be a journalist? I hope you’re reading the paper every morning, your local edition, plus the Times, plus a few more of your choosing. Until you’re immersed in the voices of your generation, and in the voices of those who’ve come before you, and in the world of what you want to do, you’re going to unknowingly make mistakes that many people solved before you came along. You’re going to write something “original,” only to find that it’s been written many times before.
Educate yourself. Sunbathe in words. Get serious about writing. The more you read, the more something happens that is not entirely unlike photosynthesis. Those words on other people’s pages, they’ll shoot light into your head, and you’ll begin to intuit the rhythms of sentences, the structure of story, the sense of sound, and the importance of economizing your language. Before long, parts of the writing process will become second nature. Other parts you’ll work through in revision.
Educate yourself. Sunbathe in words. Get serious about writing. The more you read, the more something happens that is not entirely unlike photosynthesis.
But don’t even think of getting started before you’re well-read. Barry Hannah’s a good place to start. What’s that? You’ve never read Airships? What are you even doing here? Don’t spend another second on how to write. Experience writing itself. Go read a book. Go read Airships.