Hi, everyone, and welcome back to Jess Anthony Week at the indefatigable Powell's Blog. For those of you just tuning in, we have covered a lot of ground so far, everything from Italo Calvino to dessert toppings.
I'm glad you're here.
I like you.
Over the next two days, I have a guest joining me, the writer Thomas Israel Hopkins. For the last five years or so, Tom and I have given each other writing challenges. Some of us have been successful at these challenges (Tom). Others have failed (Jess). Now when I say "writing challenge," I'm not talking about any of the commercial stunts out there like NaNoWhatWriPoWhatMo, I'm talking about a genuine creative challenge from one writer to another. I'm talking about asking someone to write from a kernel of an idea so ridiculous or absurd that it borders on a dare. In fact, from here on out, I am calling them dares.The designer of the Writing Dare must create a platform upon which another writer can build. Dares must contain Interest, Possibility, and if you're lucky, Grave Danger. Which sounds a lot easier than it is. For example.
A lousy writing dare: "Write a story about a man who wants to be a clown."
A better writing dare: "Narcissistic vegetarian clown hates children."
So Tom and I are going to discuss the nature, strengths, and failures of writing dares over the next two days. Join us. It should be fun. And look, Tom is a friendly-looking fellow:
Sorry, ladies (and gents), he's taken:
Jessica Anthony (JA): One of the best things about writing dares is that they force you to inhabit a small writing space. (For some reason I am thinking of cats trapped in paper bags right now — dare!). As a writer whose drafting process diverts constantly from itself (making achieving FINAL DRAFT achingly difficult at times), I've found that such challenges are a useful restriction, and often help me take hold of a story in surprising ways.
Thomas Israel Hopkins (TIH): I agree completely! You and I have been talking about this stuff for a while, and I usually think about a writing challenge as a way to get started — a way to get your first words on a blank page (i.e., forget writer's block, start by simply describing those cats) — but you're totally right that it's also a way to maintain your focus as you go (i.e., forget the dogs playing canasta in the next room, your job is to hone in on the whole cat-bag situation). Coincidentally, isn't achieving FINAL DRAFT also something you do in a solar-wind-powered spaceship immediately before achieving MAXIMUM THRUST?
JA: "A guy tries to write a short story but ends up building a rocketship." Dare! I think you're right that challenges can help start the writing. Or at least help you overcome that singular moment when you sit down and stare at the white of the screen of your computer or notebook pages and feel [X]. Most fiction writers I know all feel that moment in different ways, to varying degrees. I was talking yesterday about how I usually begin with voice — but as soon as something has to be made concrete, the concreteness becomes its own challenge. Years ago, I wrote a story called "The Rust Preventer" which began simply about a guy lost in the jungle until I found a military pamphlet from 1945 entitled "RUST: Its Causes and Prevention." Suddenly the story had found its form. Research, in that sense, becomes its own self-imposed writing challenge.
TIH: I've had a lot of luck with challenges from you — really, I ought to hit you up for these things more frequently! You gave me: "Topic: Leaf-peeping. Rule: Must include Biblical metaphor." That turned into my story "The Samoan Assassin Calls It Quits," which ran in One Story. You also gave me the title "I Used to Have Fun with Reggie Kopalski's Rubber Mallet," which I combined with a challenge from my friend Eric Ozawa having to do with couples breaking up in Brooklyn pizza parlors. That turned into a story titled "Reggie Kopalski's Pizzeria" that was published in Sonora Review.
JA: You are really good at this — it is why I asked you to talk about it. And I want to say more about the creative value of these dares. I also mentioned yesterday that Updike once said his stories were born from two unrelated events coming together, and that's really at the heart of what we're talking about. You can easily see why: the unrelated scenarios provide an opportunity for the writer to deal with immediate external conflict. They have two paths to connect, which is ripe for metaphor. When we begin our challenges, we are giving each other completely unrelated themes and that's probably why they worked.
TIH: Both of those above stories, I think, are examples of what you're talking about — bumping these two weird things up against each other and seeing what happens. Life, I guess, is one thing that can emerge from weird bumping. Either that or art. (Speaking of weird love, anyone reading this who has not read Jess's story "The Rust Preventer" really, really, really needs to pick up a copy of Best New American Voices 2006, pronto. I bet Powell's has a copy!)
JA: "Life is one thing that can emerge from weird bumping." I believe we have reached some kind of philosophical apex with that statement. So dares help us start writing, and just in the way a poet writes a sestina or a villanelle, and the expression inhabits the space dictated by the rules of the form's design, a challenge or dare for a fiction writer can likewise be a useful restriction...
Wait, what's happening?...
It appears that cute kittens have taken over Powell's Blog.
...We are experiencing technical difficulties. Come back tomorrow for the riveting conclusion of "The Writing Dare" because Jess and Tom do have a point to make, and it's clear that the heat on the East Coast is starting to affect them in strange and unpredictable ways.
÷ ÷ ÷
Jessica Anthony is the inaugural winner of the Amanda Davis Highwire Fiction Award sponsored by McSweeney's. The Convalescent is her first novel.
Books mentioned in this post
Jessica Anthony is the author of The Convalescent