Excerpt

Still In Love

Michael Downing

January 17, 2019 
The following is from Michael Downing's novel, Still In Love, in which Mark Sternum co-teaches a writing workshop with the tenured Professor. Their complicated, contentious relationship forces Mark to be present in the classroom and in his own life. Michael Downing is the author of nine books, including the national bestseller Perfect Agreement and Breakfast with Scot, which was adapted as a feature film. He teaches creative writing at Tufts University.

The Professor was a better drill sergeant and a better sermonizer than Mark, and because he had no interest whatsoever in the students’ lives outside the classroom and rebuffed every attempt Mark made to share any facts about their health or families or personal struggles, the Professor was also a better and a more useful critic of their written work. It wasn’t that the Professor could be objective, or even wanted to be. He was opinionated, provocative, and curious; a reliable, engaged, intelligent, and principled reader; a kind of North Star against which students could reliably gauge their progress on a singular journey. This was all a writer could ask for, and more than most of them would ever get again.

The Professor made writers of them. Over the course of a semester, each of them would write—and deliver on deadline, without fail—four very short stories, two full-length short stories, each one revised many times and often entirely rewritten, none with more than a few unintentional lapses in conventional syntax and grammar. It was an accomplishment most professional writers would envy.

The Professor did make writers of them, and it was impressive to witness this transformation. Mark couldn’t make that happen. But he could do what the Professor would not. He could make room for them, the all of them, in the classroom—even if it wasn’t always as elegant a place as the generous ledge below each of those twelve tall wavy-glassed windows in this beautiful room. Most of them had never written a decent story before they entered the classroom, and most of them might never write one after they left. Mark made room for them so they could see what was happening to them, so they could see themselves as writers, so that this moment in time would be forever fixed in their memories like one of Leo’s snapshots, and they would know they had done something they did not know they could do, been someone they had never imagined they could be, and see that possibility in front of them for the rest of their lives. “So on Monday,” he said, “we’ll start the class with questions from each writer about what was said in workshop today, clear up any confusions, and then we’ll look at strategies for revising, including how to make sense of contrary responses and suggestions from readers.”

“Right now,” the Professor said impatiently, “I want to get through this packet and preserve at least ten minutes to talk through the next Technical Exercise.”

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Mark counted eight figures in the windows. “Charles wrote a story,” he said. And, sure enough, under the watchful eye of the Professor, each workshop was cut off at the five-minute limit, and when Willa was gathering up the annotated pages of her story, Mark checked his watch. There were ten minutes of class time left, and only the windowsill behind Isaac was unoccupied. Mark dug out the copies of Technical Exercise 3, but before he could remove the binder clip from the stack, the Professor said, “The challenge for Monday is to use suggestion artfully to reveal the truth that haunts a simple transaction.”

Max said, “Scenario?”

The Professor nodded. “I hope your pens are poised.” He read Mark’s assignment almost word for word.

“There are two principal characters, a seller and a buyer. The setting is the yard outside the home of the seller. The occasion is a yard sale. The buyer and seller have never met before the sale. You can decide whether it was advertising or chance that led the buyer to the sale. Among the items for sale are three that must be identified in the story—a bicycle, some kind of musical instrument or music-playing machine, and a sleeping bag. All three of those items belonged to a child of the seller, and that child died recently—sometime during the last two years. And the buyer must pay for one of those three items. This is the story of a completed transaction. Assume your readers know nothing when you begin. There is no limit to the number of characters or items for sale.”

Dorothy said, “Technical Limits?”

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The Professor said, “No more than five hundred words. Use past-tense verbs to tell the story. Use third-person limited narration.”

Several heads popped up. Mark said, “Remember, that’s simpler than it sounds. The goal is to give readers omniscient access solely to the buyer. Readers can know the thoughts, impressions, and motives only of the buyer.”

The Professor said, “By choosing to limit the omniscience to one character, you make her or him the central character. Your story becomes that character’s story. All characters other than the one to whom we are limited can be understood only by what is apprehensible to the senses.”

Mark said, “Not unlike the way you judge people in movies—by their appearance, facial expressions, actions, and speech. We can’t know their thoughts.”

The Professor said, “You will decide how strictly the narration is limited to the central character. Is every sentence of the story filtered through the mind of the central character—information about the time of day, or the physical setting and weather, for example—or do you want to establish an objective narrative voice to report some of those details? You can use the limited either way. What matters most is that readers are confident they know when to attribute an observation or impression to the character.”

Anton, Isaac, Virginia, and maybe a few others had stopped writing. Mark said, “If you are confused or anxious about using third-person limited, do yourself a favor. Don’t worry about making distinctions between objective and limited narration. In your mind, imagine the whole story is delivered from the point of view of the buyer. Everything readers see and hear is from that person’s perspective.”

The pens were moving again.

The Professor said, “The seller never directly refers to the child, the child’s death, or the accident or illness that caused the child’s death. The seller doesn’t directly reveal anything about the loss or the emotions associated with the loss. However, by the story’s end, readers should be aware of the seller’s loss.”

Max said, “What about the buyer? Does he know?”

Willa said, “Or she.”

Someone said, “Or they.”

The Professor ignored the pronoun controversy. “The buyer might understand as much as readers do by the end, or the buyer might remain unaware of the tragedy. That is your decision.”

Mark said, “The real work of this story is to use suggestion, not hints and clues, and to use it artfully. The goal is to give readers the opportunity to appreciate the full significance of this sale indirectly, gradually. And I want you to know from the start, there is no formula or rule for achieving the perfect degree of suggestion.”

“This isn’t a science,” the Professor added. “It’s art. Ideally, when readers become aware that the seller has lost a child, they will recall memorable and unsettling details from earlier in the story that make perfect sense in retrospect.”

Mark said, “That’s why we call the end of a story a resolution. The implications and suggestions of the literal text are resolved, and the full meaning of the action we have witnessed comes into clear focus for us.” Mark was about to repeat the deadline and delivery instructions, but the symphony of sighs stopped him. The room looked like a Victorian sweatshop, all twelve workers bent over their tatting or needlework.

When six or seven of the students sat back in their chairs, the Professor said, “Some of you will have read the famously short six-word story Hemingway wrote that bears on this assignment.”

Mark turned and wrote on the board: For sale: baby shoes, never worn.

“I don’t like that colon,” Max said. “Unnecessary device.”

“I question the syntax,” said Dorothy.

“Isn’t it a little odd to sell off your dead baby’s stuff?” This was Rashid. “Why not give it away?”

“That’s a profound question you’re going to want to think about before you write,” said Mark.

Anton asked, “Can our stories be that short?”

“Hemingway’s tiny story is a model of efficiency,” the Professor said. “It is not a model short story. Suggestive? Yes. But we have no central character, no dramatic arc, and nothing but the generic emotions we all associate with the death of an infant.”

Mark was impressed—and a little appalled—by the Professor’s surgical summary of the famous little story.

“On the other hand,” the Professor continued, “you have a buyer—and that buyer is the central character whose story must alter or complicate our sense of ourselves. Illuminate your readers.”

Mark was thinking of the yard sale story he had written—and how he hadn’t really inscribed an arc for the character of the Professor.

The Professor said, “And mind the transaction.”

“More on that on Monday,” Mark said, putting on his watch.

“When it’s too late to do anything about it,” said Max.

“I’m happy to know that makes you nervous,” said the Professor.

Mark was still thinking about his yard sale story, and now he worried that the oddball business with the harmonica and the seller’s two $20 bills didn’t really add up to a proper transaction. He put on his watch and saw that they were already ten minutes over time.

The Professor said, “Pick up your drafts of the hit-and-run story with my responses on the way out.”

“Can you give us just one example of the difference between a hint and a suggestion?” This was Virginia, and her request was getting a lot of nods.

The Professor said, “A hint is singular. Suggestion is accretive.”

Mark said, “An obituary notice—that’s a hint. Someone saying ‘I’m so sorry for your loss’—that’s a hint. In one word or phrase, the death is made obvious. But a man who hasn’t shaved for a couple of days, or an unkempt garden with lots of droopy flowers that haven’t been deadheaded, or a woman dressed in black—by themselves, those might mean a man doesn’t like to shave, or someone hasn’t been doing yard chores lately, or that woman thinks she looks better in dark clothes. But as such details chosen by the writer accumulate—well, you get it, right? They become suggestive.”

Leo said, “Can we use words like deadheaded?”

“You should,” the Professor said. “Words that evoke death and dying or loss will echo suggestively.”

“Eight a.m. on Monday morning in my mailbox, please,” said Mark. “And thank you all for sticking around so long.”

“Now, go away,” said the Professor.

“Not you, Isaac,” said Mark.

Isaac looked up accusingly, as if he’d been unfairly called out.

Although no one else in the mad rush to the door seemed to have heard him, Mark added, “You said you wanted to meet with me.”

“Oh,” Isaac said. “Yeah.” Clearly, he had no idea what Mark was talking about. He loaded up his knapsack and rearranged a few items, stalling. Luckily, something he’d scribbled on his notebook tipped him off. “It’s about those original short stories. I was reading the syllabus this morning and saw that we’re starting them next week.”

“We are,” Mark said. Whether Isaac was more studious than he appeared or simply couldn’t find a cereal box to read this morning, something nutritional had sunk in. “What’s your question about the stories?”

“How would it be if I submitted drawings with my story? You know, like a graphic novel.”

Mark didn’t say, You mean a comic book? Instead he said, “Feel free to add drawings. I won’t consider them part of the text, but if you want to include them, I won’t object.”

“No, see, the pictures are the story,” Isaac said. “It’s a new kind of writing.”

Mark said, “Aren’t pictures the old kind of writing—what people did before they learned to write?”

Isaac muttered, “There’d be some words.”

“As you know, I’m a big fan of words,” Mark said.

Isaac shoved his notebook into his bag.

“I don’t want you to leave without this.” He handed Isaac the annotated draft of his hit-and-run story. “And I’m happy to talk this through, Isaac, and explain why I won’t treat illustrations as text,” Mark said.

“Never mind,” Isaac said. “I think I get the point.”

Mark wasn’t sure he did. But he didn’t really know anything about Isaac yet beyond that Maple Leafs jersey he wore every day, so he went with that as his point of entry. “I don’t want to forget to ask how the curling team is doing.”

Isaac’s mood visibly improved. “We’re not a team, but we got club ­status—just today. That’s why I couldn’t hang around and wait for you in Hum Hall. I had to meet with some dean to sign the forms and everything.”

“That’s great. Well done. I ask because someone was talking to me about wanting to join the team.” This was a risk, and not only because it was a lie. “He’s got his own special broom.”

“No,” Isaac said, and then he looked genuinely confused. “I mean, sure, give him my email and tell him to be in touch. But we have an equipment budget now.”

“No, no—that’s the thing. He has his own broom he wants to use—only it’s not really a broom. It’s better.”

Isaac seemed intrigued. “Better how?”

“It’s got bristles like a broom, but it’s also a vacuum cleaner.”

Isaac said, “He wants to use a vacuum to curl with?”

“The suction makes all the difference, he says.”

Isaac tilted back in his chair, apparently trying to get a new angle on this situation. “A vacuum cleaner,” he said, just to make sure.

“Portable,” Mark said, sensing that the absurdity was finally sinking in. “Battery-operated, so no cords. He says it’s way better than the standard curling brooms.”

“Like using pictures instead of words, you mean?” Finally, Isaac got it. “Very funny.”

Mark said, “Not acceptable according to the rules of the sport?”

“Probably not,” Isaac said. He tilted back toward the table. He stood up and smiled. “Here I was, trying to figure out a polite way to say no to your friend with the vacuum.”

Mark nodded.

Isaac nodded, headed to the door and didn’t look back, but when he was out in the hall, he yelled, “See you on Monday.”

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From Still In LoveUsed with permission of Counterpoint Press. Copyright © 2019 by Michael Downing.




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