Craft Lessons from Matt Bell, who reads at SDWI on 6/30 (Sunday)
Introduction and compiled by T.C. Porter
I first discovered Matt Bell through my Gotham Writers’ Workshop teacher, Kyle Minor, one of Matt’s friends. I followed Matt on Facebook and have learned about writing through his enthusiastic posts which appear several times daily, often with tags to other writers and teachers. Through Matt on Facebook, a whole world of writers and publishers has opened to me. As editor of Dzanc Books and its literary journal, The Collagist, Matt has many connections.
There are many editors who are well connected; Matt’s specialty is a certain quality of character exuded through his generosity. On the web I’ve asked him a handful of questions such as, “What is your writing routine?” (basically, early and often) and, “Why don’t you use italics in stream of consciousness? (basically, because I don’t use stream of consciousness, but rather narrate the thoughts of the character within action). At one point I asked him essentially, “What is a chapbook?” and he had the courtesy to give an earnest answer. But I hope his memory voids that in favor of my review of Cataclysm Baby.
The last question I asked Matt via email was, “I see the Ink Spot is not booked on the eve of your book tour event in L.A. – would you like to visit San Diego?” Within an hour his publicist responded affirmatively. And I could not be more thrilled for our writing students and book enthusiasts of all ages to be able to spend time with Matt on Sunday, June 30, at 7 p.m., in one of the Ink Spot’s final events in East Village on 13th Street before the mid-July move to Liberty Station.
Matt’s warm-up act is a trio of our very own writer-teachers, Jim Ruland, Elle Brooks and James Meetze, who will read from their own work. Matt will read and sign his novel, In the House upon the Dirt between the Lake and the Woods, which was released Tuesday, June 18, to a chorus of glowing reviews.
Sifting through the ubiquitous coverage on literary sites I have uncovered a virtual writer’s workshop, which is compiled in part below.
I hope for many of you this is an appetizer for Sunday. Please introduce if we have not yet made acquaintance. I will be hosting and introducing readers – unless I’m speechless by all the talent in the room.
I lead with Matt’s blurb on locality as a way of honoring and encouraging our local teachers and writers such as Ruland, Brooks and Meetze. I think Sunday’s reading will be a meaningful coming together of national writer and local community.
On local writers and teachers
Matt Bell: When I came to Northern Michigan University, I decided to start every semester by having students read a story that takes place in our shared place, our shared time—and so this semester we read Ander Monson’s “Other Electricities” in my intro workshop and Roxane Gay’s “North Country” in my advanced workshop. I think it’s important to demonstrate that innovative, progressive fiction can be written about this place we live in together—where many of my students have lived their whole lives. So much of what we’re going to read is about other kinds of people living in other places, and there’s so much worth in that—the great project of empathy that fiction is engaged in doesn’t work if we don’t read about others—but as writers I think students also need to see what contemporary fiction might do with their hometowns. The first sources my students have are their own lives (not to mention the magnificent landscape of the Upper Peninsula). While they don’t have to write about those things, I do want to make sure they know their surroundings are a powerful option—something I don’t think I knew when I was a student of the same age, when I thought stories were always something that happened out past the bounds of my personal world.
Craft lessons on words, language, voice – and reading aloud
Andrew Ervin: What impresses me the most about In the House is the immersive experience you’ve created. The first-person voice carries a mythic or timeless quality, and it’s sustained beautifully for hundreds of pages. Tell me how you found that and how you pulled it off so well.
Matt Bell: There’s a glib answer possible here, where I just say, “Slowly,” and then leave it at that—but of course I’ll go on. I suppose it really did take a long time to flesh it all out, but I had a kind of sketch of the voice early on—I can’t usually get very far into a story without having the story’s way of speaking at least partially in hand. Before I was finished, a lot of other influences had been mixed in: there’s a little bit of King James Version, some Greek myth, a little bit of Old Norwegian, a smattering of unusual words lifted from nineteenth-century dictionaries, some Cormac McCarthy and Brian Evenson and Hiromi Itō and Christine Schutt, all these writers who work so well at the sentence level, who write so wonderfully about the body. I’m sure there are plenty of other influences on the voice, ways of speaking I’d never be able to untangle from the novel’s, some of them there for the beginning, some folded in later.
One thing that I’m sure helped me: I was constantly reading aloud from the book, from the first day of drafting to the last day of revision, years later. I’ve read the book out loud cover to cover multiple times, at the end of every major draft, and there was never a day when I worked on the book in silence.
I think that there was also some want on my part to prove wrong a truism I’d heard too often in grad school and in other places: When I was in school, it seemed to be a given that an intense focus on language and acoustics couldn’t be carried over an entire novel, that this kind of voice was the province of the story, the poem, that it was too difficult for the writer, too exhausting for the reader. From the first time I heard someone say that, I didn’t believe it—there are plenty of books out there that prove otherwise—and I think I wanted to find out for myself what I could do at this length, with the kind of voices I’m drawn to.
Craft lessons on writing habits and revision
Andrew Ervin: Did this novel involve creating new writing habits? Can you say a little bit more about your process?
Matt Bell: Toward the end of writing the stories in How They Were Found—and while working on the few stories I’ve written since—I started writing very long stories—six thousand or eight thousand or twelve thousand words—and I found a sort of hard limit to how much story I could remember at once. It’s around forty pages: that’s about how much I seem to be able to remember in great detail while I’m working, down to the sentence level, in my normal process. In other words, I might be editing a sentence on page 37 and be able to go back and make a ligature with something that’s on page 12—but I’m less likely to see what’s on page 125 or 240. And forty pages only happens if I’m working three or four hours a day—the tunnel vision gets worse if I work less.
But, thankfully, it gets better if I work more: at the end of every major draft—I wrote four or five “drafts,” in my way of accounting, with the longest taking about ten months—and at the end of each there was a month or six weeks where I worked five or six hours in the morning, plus two to four at night, even more if I could do it. I can’t keep up that pace very long without destroying the rest of my life, but when I can do it I find I can work fast enough through my pages that I can remember more of them: Now I can write in whole-book passes, reading from the beginning of the book to the end over a couple of days or a week instead of a month, which means that when I’m working on page 300 or 400 or 500 I’m closer to page 12 and 37 and 125 than in my normal process. So that kind of intense work pattern became something new, developed in order to be able to see the book as a whole and to edit it as a book instead of a progression of discrete chapters—I’d never had to do this with shorter works, but the novel seemed to demand a way in which I could see the book as a whole, that even if only for a couple of days I could hold the entirety of it in my mind for a little while.
Other than that, I think my process is fairly simple: I write seven days a week, as often as possible, from the time I get up until 11 or 12 or 1, depending on what the rest of my day holds. In the afternoons I teach or edit, in the evenings I read—if my other work is finished and if I’m not with my wife or my friends—and then before I go to bed I tend to look over the manuscript I’m working on, so that I both start and end the day with the book I’m working on. For me, there’s a lot of power in routine—and within this routine, there’s a lot of variety to what any particular day actually looks like, which helps keep it from becoming stale or stifling.
Craft lessons on teaching, revision and humility
Erinrose Mager: Your new book In the House upon the Dirt between the Lake and the Woods feels, in many ways, teachable. That is to say—the novel has an impressive wealth to share with its reader and the reader, thus, has much to dissect; it’s a gorgeous, bottomless book. When you were writing it, did any pedagogical musings come into play?
Matt Bell: … (T)here was a long version of the novel that was at least two hundred pages longer than the final book and much less reader-friendly, a version that on reflection I know I arrived at partly out of a want to make something impressive, something that would prove I was capable of writing a certain kind of novel. I think it was, in that form, the kind of book that revealed the author’s own need to be taken seriously in a way that could have destroyed anything else good about it. What remains—after the helpful intervention of friends and my great editor at Soho, Mark Doten—is a massively better book, one that I think serves the reader instead of the writer.
So here’s your pedagogical musing, something I try to share with my students, something that I often have to reaffirm for myself: it’s my belief that the drafting process is and must be for the writer first, and if she believes this, the process will give her everything she desires (and much that she don’t know she desires), as long as she does the work diligently, honestly, and with a powerful form of attention each time she sits down to manifest herself upon the page. But there will come a point in the writing when what the fiction needs most is for the writer to stop serving herself. She must then make a turn toward the reader, with the aim of better translating that experience into a space in which a reader might act, feel, and think on her own. Because in the end, the published book has to serve the reader, not the writer.
This doesn’t mean the book can’t be difficult—only that the difficulty has to serve the reader first. It’s a violation of the contract for it to do anything else. This part of the process is what finally requires great humility and mercilessness: to allow no cheap cleverness or false grandeur or fake emotion to remain in the final book, to cut the thing down to the bone, to leave behind only what is strongest, what does the best work. Or as Francine Prose says, in her essay “Close Reading”—which I always teach on the first day of my intro workshops—”to put every word on trial for its life.” That’s the path to greatness. One of the best things we can do for one another in a workshop is to point out where in our manuscripts that path might lie, and then to hold each writer accountable for sticking to it the whole way home.
T.C. Porter facilitates Monday’s Room to Write and Sunday’s twice-monthly writing prompts. His most recent publication was about pride and the Miami Heat. That and his other work can be found through his website.