Blowing Up the Teapot, Part II: Destroy Your Idols

From Trusty Guides by Allyson Wells

By Your Salonniere

Who makes up your literary ancestry? Which authors stand as your lettered godparents, your artistic aunts and uncles, who have passed down, whether you asked for it or not, their characteristic genes with all their faults and strengths? Just as we have a biological genealogy, we must also recognize and come to terms with our literary heritage. Brainpickings‘ Maria Popova and Michelle Legro recently covered Circles of Creative Influence illustrated by Wendy McNaughton who visualized for us an artistic dynasty wherein poets Rachelle Cruz and Barbara Jane Reyes followed suit by mapping out their own creative family trees.

Part of understanding one’s influences is also seeing the cracks. Every idol has them, and we’re not talking about personal defects such as womanizing or man-hating, or being a class snob, but artistic weaknesses that rupture fissures within the art itself. At the salon, we’ve been discussing the downfall of a former champion, E.M. Forster, (see Part I: “How E.M. Forster Jinxed My Writing”). I’ve had to come to grips with the negative influences he might have had on me such as his lack of spinning real, bone-breaking conflict. Anyone who’s every lived by Forster’s decree “only connect” may find it difficult to sever and destroy. Perhaps our inclination is because we don’t like conflict in real life. We’re always trying to avoid conflict. But on the page, conflict is what keeps the reader going.

Forster’s work embodies compassion, which is inspiring for life, but everyday life does not make great literature. As Flannery O’Connor argues in her book Mystery and Manners, from the talk “The Grotesque in Southern Fiction”:

Compassion is a word that sounds good in anybody’s mouth and which no book jacket can do without. It is a quality which no one can put a finger on in any exact critical sense, so it always safe for anybody to use. Usually I think what is meant by it is that the writer excuses all human weakness because human weakness is human. (43)

O’Connor essentially indicts the very strength that pulled me to Forster as a youth. I loved his novels because they were filled with compassion, but compassion was merely Forster’s way of playing the novel safe.

In a Saint Mary’s Fiction Craft class, dated around 2006, novelist Julie Orringer stated something like the following:

Good fiction is when characters are forced to make decisions, forced to do scary things as they get deeper and deeper into the situation. Characters need to be thrown off balance where they want to regain some sense of equilibrium–whether its good or bad. Disrupt the normal pattern of motivation. Natural motivation vs. momentary motivation. Plot and characterization have to be working in a problematic disharmony.

Writing novels is not for the weak of heart. Thomas Hardy commits a horrible plot act toward the end of Jude the Obscure, absolutely horrific. Critics lambasted him for his supposed obscene treatment of marriage, but they missed the true obscenity, which won’t be revealed in this post. If you’re going to spill blood, you might as well do it on the page, that’s what its for. And, if you want to know how to effectively spill blood, you may want to take a look at Hardy’s Jude. He explodes his characters from the inside out and effectively punches the reader in the gut.

Fiction serves the same purpose as nightmares, allowing us a chance to explore the darkest, most dire possibilities without risking too much in the flesh. Risk is what makes or breaks a writer. We constantly take risks, from setting aside hours of our day to pen words and wasting countless sheaves of dead trees and postage in the hopes for some redemption for the time spent hammering at the keyboard. Writers must take risks both on page and off, which means moving beyond compassion, beyond safety, and beyond what feels comfortable. We must practice employing IEDs in our story-lines. If we care about our work, we will use guerilla force. We won’t stop at inserting shrapnel into explosive plot lines, so we can spread conflict. Otherwise, why write stories? Everything has to be at stake or its not worth it.

So how do we put lives on the literary line?

Firstly, when drafting, don’t worry about piecing everything together by leading through a step-by-step narration. Jump and jump often. Build through clues, pent up emotions, and disjunctive actions that remain true to the character but don’t exactly add up for the reader. It’s not necessary to explain every step. Withhold plot points but never motivation. We need to see why characters do what they do, but we don’t always need to know how.

We needn’t concern ourselves about answering all the questions. Life is comprised of endless loose ends. Think of Charlotte Brontë’s “suspended revelation” where she emphasizes the importance of concealing information to keep the reader in suspense. Nothing is ever neatly tied, so we just need hone our vision and see how many strings are necessary to hold the story together. The fewer the better. Some ties can remain slack, others may need to be extremely tight. It’s all about lifting the work up, getting as much height as possible to capture the reader’s imagination.

A lot of times we’ll put all our cards on the table, which is the last thing we want to do as writers. The game is to keep readers guessing up to the very last word. We do need to have the whole story straight in our heads, only straight enough to create a universe. Whether its a microcosm or macrocosm, the story must encompass a network of lives. When drafting and revising, trust in yourself that you’ll fill in the necessary gaps as you move back and forth through the story, combing through it until its impeccably polished.

As you revise, drop explosive hints at critical junctures. Find the hot spots and train readers to leap with the story. Train them to be athletes in the obstacle course you’ve created. You want readers to leap to conclusions whether right or wrong. So, how do we keep readers leaping and guessing?

  • Figure out the reversal of situations with each character. Simply flip the plot around from where they started. It’s simple, really. Hamlet wants to kill father. He can’t kill father, so he ends up being killed himself.
  • Make a running list of verbs for each character and track their evolution or devolution of verbs to ensure you have maximum explosive action.
  • As salon member Virginia Jones says, “the climax is the point at which a character can’t go back. There’s no return, each character has to keep to the decisions they’ve made,” so we, as writers, have to make each decision count. Each choice has to be a stab at the body.

J.J. Abrams gave a recent TED Talk on the mystery box, his personal method of suspended revelation, which can help give insight on how to explode the teapot.

How do you punch the reader in the gut? How will you take stabs at your idols? What’s the best way of setting down literary land mines?


  1. This is an excellent post! I am thinking about the poetic equivalents of what you are saying here about safety and risk., which I would love to write about soon. I love what you are saying re: the blood we can shed on the page, the difference btwn the page and “real life.” I think many poets can afford this reminder! Certainly, the poetry I find least compelling and least appealing is that which mirrors the details of our mundane lives; even when mining in lovely detail the wonder of our everyday, I think, push this sh*t! Am trying to reconcile these crucial craft issues with the WOC poet essays I’ve been rereading. Anyway, thanks for this!

  2. Thanks for this Barbara and for stopping by. I tend to be a sucker for prose that turns the mundane details on its head, revealing the knife-edge that our everyday life balances on. But how to do this? How to consistently and effectively jab the knife toward the reader, which really means jabbing the knife at myself, the writer. That’s the challenge. I look forward to hearing/reading more of your musings on this and am especially curious about the WOC poet essays you’re re-reading.

  3. Excellent post, and really, excellent site in general. I like your tips for keeping the fictive teapot from going tepid, or smashing the pot altogether. Re: Forster and your part I post, it’s interesting that Maurice is a notable exception to the mild-mannered, play-it-nice fiction that Mansfield felt impatient with. Forster suppressed publication of Maurice during his lifetime b/c of the personal dangers it would have posed to him to be out as an author writing about explicit gay themes. There’s true angst & conflict in that novel, and even though the scenes are fictional they feel very raw, presumably b/c they struck so close to his own autobiography. Which brings up the question of fiction vs. memoir/autobiography– autobio is often automatically more raw, laying bare the risk & conflict, but how to channel autobio into fiction so that it really is fiction, while preserving the “real” risk & conflict of the original feelings & events?

  4. Roz- Thanks for visiting and thanks for your much appreciated comments. “Maurice” is an extraordinary exception to Forster’s typical modus operandi. You raise a keen insight about how the risks are much more urgent and transparent (perhaps its the transparency that makes the risks urgent?) in auto-bio and memoir. You’ve got my wheels turning on how to transfer the auto-bio/memoir risk into fiction. Why does risk get lost in translation between the genres? I’m gonna have to think on that for a while. Thanks again.

  5. i was led to your blog by barbara jane reyes’ blog…and in a minute, i’m going to go find part 1…but wanted to leave 2 comments before i get too blown away to write anything…thanks for a great post…i’ve been struggling through my first novel for the past few years and have just worked up enough momentum to enter the fray again…and this post just tossed some fuel my way..
    1) idol-stabbing:
    aybe it’s just me, but all the writers i’ve ever loved have led me to pore over their work looking for flaws and cracks and lulls in intensity or honesty…they may have one or two books i find nearly perfect and then half a dozen others that i want to toss aside in disgust or disappointment…then there are a few writers whose way of writing i love but i can’t stand how they re-affirm oppressive systems….& some writers who have taught me who/what i don’t want to be as a writer, as a public person….
    except for one book (Juan Rulfo’s Pedro Paramo) which i wish i could eat and have it become the world i inhabit, i think the flaws have taught me much more than i might have otherwise learned from them….
    although there are different kinds of flaws–and i find myself looking for the ones without which the story or the character would not be possible…where did the writer deliberately choose to lessen their grip on one part of the story in order to achieve something else…because how much of our individual style/body of work is shaped by the very specific flaws that we choose as writers or that we can’t avoid in our pursuit of other things?

    2)risking/punching/kicking ourselves/our readers:
    .i like to call it naked writing…we risk when we’re naked as writers…which i think is a much more profound nakedness than we can ever be in our physical bodies…and if we are naked as writers, our readers have no choice but to be naked with us….
    i know i’m taking risks when i feel naked, when i’m revealing secrets, when i’m sharing the things i think/feel/see that i would fear for other people to know about…and not just me ‘me’…but me as narrator, me as the creator of a character, me as the creator of a scene/a storyline….it is easier to see when it’s an (semi) autobiographical work…but it’s very possible when inhabiting a character’s mind…i wrote a passage where my main character, a hermaphrodite in his/her teenage years is daydreaming about a fantasy lover while masturbating…to say the least, i felt very exposed…so i was really surprised the first time i read in public from this work in progress to find myself drawn to read that passage…and i loved it…every word is searingly honest…and it’s what i go back to as the heart of this character and of the novel…the risks he/she takes to be himself/herself…

    because you’re right–why write stories if everything isn’t at stake? we leach our lives of risk, cloud our minds to our mortality, numb our emotions daily…if we don’t come to writing to wake up, why are we writing?

  6. Welcome Ire’ne to the salon! Thank you for such thoughtful comments. I love your point on “naked writing”, what a beautiful and apt term. I’m curious to know which works and which writers you consider who shine with naked writing?

    I also love your expression of wanting to eat “Pedro Paramo.” So true about our most favored works. Now I’m rifling through my mind over words and stories I want to devour whole. I think its a good thing those kind of titles are rare. We don’t want to become gluttons. I may have to borrow this idea from you and create a blog post on eating words. Brilliant!

    I definitely have to put politics aside with a lot of favorite writers. The craft is one thing, personal lives completely separate.

    Best of luck with your first novel. I know the feeling and am right there with you for the long haul! Thanks again for stopping by!

  7. thanks for the welcome! I’m looking forward to reading (and commenting) more on this blog…
    as for naked prose writing–i have to go with my favorites: some jeanette winterson (gut symmetries, written on the body…though i really dislike it when she tries to be funny…all the beauty dies in beauty for beginners and the weight of atlas), some toni morrison (song of solomon), some leslie marmon silko (ceremony but not garden in the dunes), some ana castillo (esp. peel my love like an onion which i can re-read endlessly and sapogonia but not a lot of her other work),
    arundhati roy, parts of benjamin alire saenz’ work….early dorothy allison…i’ll probably think of half a dozen others by this afternoon but i think that’s a good beginning….

    as for borrowing the eating of words, books, or writing, go for it…all yours…

    and thank you too for writing about risk in the original blog post…it helped me formulate some thoughts about the difference between fear and the fear of risks…which i wrote about today on my 3 week old blog…come visit if you like:

  8. Ire’ne, You’ve named many of my favorite writers! Winterson is incredibly inspiring, so tactile. Roy’s “God of Small Things” is one of my top favorites of all time. Silko has formed who I am and inspire to be as a writer and a woman. My husband introduced me to Castillo’s “Peel My Love,” which work blew me away. I haven’t read Saenz but will have to under your recommendation. I’m also going to blogroll you and look forward to reading and learning more about your work! Many thanks. Hope our virtual paths cross again, soon!

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