Danièle Pétrès: Talking about the unsaid

Reviewing Carver’s tecnique of «connex events», Danièle Pétrès explores the role these narrative metaphors play within Carver’s stories. In her intervention compiled in our Pedagogical Conference Proceedings (Nov, 2012), Pétrès proposes several exercises in order to encourage students to write texts in which «the emotion lies in the blank of the story, letting the reader fill it with his/her own issues»



Talking about the unsaid

Danièle Pétrès (France)

How did the strange idea of conducting workshops come up to me?

In 2008, I published my third book. It had been difficult to write and the previous one had not sold too well (euphemism). It was a short story book. Actually, writing this sort of book is not so easy, since it implies trying to maintain in a same tone 25 to 28 different melodies that will mix together. This one took me more than three years – even if it is very short – and, because it was to be published in May, I knew that it would have no publicity and very few readers. So what was I supposed to do? Was I going to let my book just drift from the counter of the bookshop to the box of the returns, three months later?

Was it possible to stand up for my book and plead for it?

And how could I do I did not want to let this one down. So this is how the idea to apply for a grantcame to me. There are some in France. You apply, and you go to a «writer’s residence» for three months where you are supposed to mix with the people, mingle in the crowd of a village of two hundred inhabitants, all farmers or ex-
farmers. You are also supposed to do lectures, readings and writing workshops. So I said to myself, this is an opportunity to give my book at least the audience of a whole village; even if, when I arrived by bus, I realized that I only talk about urban neurotic ladies and mismatched couples in my books, and in that respect there were very few chances that I would reach my public in the middle of nowhere. But it was too late to get back to Paris, there was only one bus a day anyway. And I had already spent the money to get there. That is how I entered acareer in conducting writing workshops.

Why I chose Carver for the workshop project?

The story of how I started writing short stories is all about my reading of Raymond Carver and Stephen Dixon. And because Carver presents all the issues that interest me as a writer, I chose to make a workshop in my residence about his life, his writing, and his relationship with his publisher. Actually, I started thinking about the book I was going to write when I saw «Shortcuts» by Robert Altman. This was all very familiar, because I was at that time a video director encountering difficulties to make a whole smooth movie, especially because I could not tell one story but several short stories put together…

I did not choose Dixon; because he is all about style, but he is not about «telling».

So, I started to think about this first workshop: how to communicate to the participants the two of three things I had to tell them:

First, only consider becoming a writer if it is impossible for you to do anything else (because you are going to get bored with a life with few leisure activities and probably few rewards as well, and you are going to have to sit at a table at least three hours a day plus the time you are going to spend at your work, which will probably be a lousy job because you are not up to giving all your brain out to a job that is going to take your energy, substance and dreams.

Second, you have to work on your drafts and work again and again until it flows.

Third. There is no third.

In fact, Carver’s life was the synthesis of all these aspects which I will not develop here, because it is not my subject and because all of you know more or less what his life was about.

But once I had said that to my little group in the little village (which I did), how was I going to make them write on something?

American way of teaching, manuals of creative writing

My nephew being at the university in California at that time, he had just taken a course in creative writing, and his short stories were doing pretty well (even though he had never written any before). He told me that he had only read a manual and done the exercises so I asked him to send me the manual. And that is where I started from.

In the US you do not have problems, you only have solutions. And there they were: 228 pages of solutions.

There was a particular exercise that I liked, at the beginning of the method: about sending postcards. For me, when you write to be read, you «address someone»,here lies the difference between writing your diary and writing a short story.

Generally now, I choose pictures and a pitch of a situation, different for each participant, at the beginning of the course.

E.g.: «You left your husband. On vacation you regret, and you write him a postcard». Or: «You just bought a country house. You write a postcard to a friend who is jealous and doesn’t have one». Or: «You haven’t seen your first love for twenty years, as you are journeying in the place where you met, you send him a postcard».

By giving the pitch of the situation, the participants cannot compare each others’ stories neither think they’re competing with one another.

Even if some are reluctant to do the exercise (too simple, too childish, too boring), I am adamant. They must do it – because a postcard tells a lot on who’s writing it. It is for me as a «teacher» the first opportunity to seize their obsessions, their repertoire in a way, which will be useful later. I extract then, a personal exercise dedicated to each one, taken from their own universe (it does not work all the time, it is just a first step in individualizing the writing process).

The first sentence: beginning in the middle of the story

Then we go for the first sentence. I give each participant a different book of short stories (Stephen Dixon, John Cheever, Edith Wharton, Dorothy Parker, David Sedaris, etc.). I ask them to open the book, and to read whatever the first line is. It is an exercise to show there are no typical first sentences; and an opportunity to exchange on where exactly the story starts. In what period of time? In short stories, the beginning happens in the middle of the action. Something has happened in a recent past, and something must be told or resolved about thesituation, and that is the issue of the story…

We start with a sentence taken amongst papers in my hat, with first sentences plotting the middle of an action… (lesson two, page 7 of Anne Bernay’s book).

When the participants have written two short stories, we interest ourselves to the ending of the stories (I give the books to the participants again). Is there a «definitive sentence», «a moral of the story», what can we find as “last sentence»? And then, we go back to the middle. In fact we scan the story itself to understand how it is made. We then come back to the Carver’s story I have asked them to read at home, which is Where I’m calling from.

We are now at the step of the subtext notion

 Where I’m calling from is all about the subtext, so much so that it is the title of the collection of Carver’s best stories.

In fact, the title is in itself a subtext. Where I’m calling from is about the place where someone is «talking from». That is to say for a writer who chooses this title as the collection of all his works, the place where he is “writing from”. That is to say, when you find the place you are writing from, you have found what you are going to write.

This short story is about an alcoholic person in rehab in a house where the instructor is an ex alcoholic. It pictures the difficulties of the therapy and the relationship with other addicted persons (building the therapy itself). It pictures the path to whether they are going to stop drinking (or not).

The reason why I focused my workshop on the «subtext» is because it is directly related to what a story should look like, whether you like it or not. And this aspect especially shows in the end of the story. A story can be interesting and well written but pointless. In fact, if you have nothing mysterious to say, something that you don’t even know before you are going to write about, if there is not this something (like in the «backyard»), you are not going to write moving short stories.

In Carver’ stories, this «something» appears in the subtext in a very characteristic way: by talking about something else, unrelated to the story itself, he gives an information that could remain unseen by the reader, but that constitutes the “sub-
«text» or the «metaphor» of the story.

In Carver’s words, «writing short stories allows to pass information from one». It’s about saying something. Which is an uncommon way to talk about literature: it is very direct and can appear charmless when it is just realistic.

Last sentence and subtext

I have noticed that people found it difficult to end a story; how not to say it all onthe last sentence, and that they were sort of stubborn with it.

They really wanted readers to understand what they meant. But it is not like that. In Carver’s story for example, you have the narrative of the people, seen on one angle, the narrator, and generally something is happening which is not related directly to the story (connex event); that event puts a different light or angle onto the story, and that is what I thought would be profitable to explain to future writers. And there lies the sub-text.

Sometimes the humor can be the subtext (Woodehouse, Sedaris), it lies in the unconscious things related to someone else in an awkward or a misplaced way. Humor is never explicit, it is inducted, connoted, personal to the way the autor sees life.

But there is not much humor in Carver’ stories. Their charm is all about the subtext, about all the unsaid between the people tending to the emotion contained in the last lines that end the story with no satisfying conclusion; and that’s what remains after reading.

Extract of Where I’m calling from

First sentence

J.P. and I are on the front porch at Frank Martin’s drying-out facility. Like the rest of us at Frank Martin’s, J.P. is first and foremost a drunk. But he’s also a chimney sweep. It’s his first time here, and he’s scared. I’ve been here once before. What’s to say? I’m back.

After JP had a nervous episode at lunch, Frank tells them that Jack London used to live on the other side of the mountain, and how drinking had conducted him to ruin his life, then they all get back to their rooms. The protagonist is looking out the window.

Last paragrahs

I’ll try calling my wife again. And then I’ll call to see what’s happening with my girlfriend. But I don’t want to get her mouthy kid on the line. If I do call, I hope he’ll be out somewhere doing whatever he does when he’s not around the house. I try to remember if I ever read any Jack London books. I can’t remember. But there was a story of his I read in High school. “To Build a Fire”, it was called. This guy in the Yukon is freezing. Imagine it – he’ actually going to freeze to death if he can’t geta fire going. With a fire, he can dry his socks and things and warm himself.

He gets his fire going, but then something happens to it. A branch full of snow drops on it. It goes out. Meanwhile, it’s getting colder. Night is coming on.

I bring some change out of my pocket. I’ll try my wife first. If she answers, I’ll wish her a Happy New Year. But that’s it. I won’t bring up business. I won’t raise my voice. Not even if she starts something. She’ll ask me where I’m calling from, and I’ll have to tell her. I won’t say anything about New Year’s resolutions. There’ no way to make a joke out of this. After I talk to her, I’ll call my girlfriend. Maybe I’ll call her first. I’ll just have to hope I don’t get her kid on the line. «Hello, sugar», I’ll say. «It’s me».

The emotion lies in the blank of the story, letting the reader fill it with his/her own issues. The blanks in the story are the unspeakable thoughts of the dreams, or just the interstice of time before we take a decision in everyday life. And that is where Carver seizes his characters.

Because the question is always: what should we do, what should we say to this peculiar person that we are related to, how far are we able to go with this someone in the saying of what belongs to ourselves, what is precious. What can we bear, what is the limit? It is about secret also, of what we really think, the secrets we won’t tell.

How to make people talk about the unsaid?

I mix techniques from several manuals plus add mine to create a special exercise which in a way is the «momentum» of the workshop, everything before has tended to this moment where we’re experiencing the unsaid.

I take several pictures from a book about Carver (photographs taken in the places he has lived in) and:

1- I give one of them to the participants (different for each one).

2. I ask them:

– to depict the picture as closely as possible: just putting the related terms, the Just describing, not thinking about the story.

– to find a title for the picture.

– to pitch the story on the title

– to imagine that they are related to this scene. Maybe they are social workers going for a visit there, or they are relatives (son, daughter) of the protagonists, paying a visit to their folks.

Then, we work on the name of the characters that we see until we choose several (that expands their imagination, and contributes to the characterizing). Finally, I ask them to summarize the story in 10 lines. Where it starts, where it comes to.

3 – I give them a second picture that I think could be related to and ask them to tell the story that they can see in this new photograph in two lines. Note the vocabulary, and give a title. It will be the pitch for a new story.

4 – I ask them to write the first story and incorporate the second one in the third part of the story.

You have now understood that the second story will be the subtext of their story. If not a subtext, at least they will end up with a more inhabited story, with more depth.

Then we check if the last sentence gets back to the title, if the title provides a possible subtext to the story. And that’s it (even if other writers do not proceed the same way, which everybody reminds me of course at that step).

To go further: A conversation with Carver in 1983 with Don Swaim’s CBS Radio studio in New York. http://www.wiredforbooks.org/index2.htm

NB: Photographs are taken from the book: «Le monde de Raymond Carver». Photographies de Bob Adelman. Editions de la Martinière, 2006.

In which way does teaching writing affect one’s writing?

In fact, the analysis of the way a short story is made is indeed not something inspiring for a writer. It feels as if you knew all the building blocks of a story, how it is manufactured like an apple pie – in that case why should you write a story after all ?- If you already know how it is going to end and what process it is all about?

It reduces the power of plain emotion, although I know now why I like Raymond Carver, and I still like his short stories even knowing the way they are made better (even if he himself probably never thought about it in this analytic way). But, for me, when I tried to do my own exercise, it appeared that the stories were artificial, so I stopped doing my exercises. There is one though, I’d like to make one day, and it is from Richard Russo’s lesson: «What to do about difficult characters».

To conclude, I have not talked about what conducting workshops changed in my way of writing.

I think there are things that must remain unsaid, or maybe, the unsaid is somewhere in what I said, in this something I did not talk about while talking.