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I Am Not A Camera: Gary Lutz


Writers On Writing

I Am Not A Camera: Gary LutzMichael Kimball: Let’s start with how you start one of your short stories. I’m pretty sure that it isn’t with plot, story, or even character. But is it, say, with an idea or a word, maybe a particular usage, or is it with a phrase, a feeling, or something else?

Gary Lutz: What often happens is that a word will force itself into my mind and lodge itself there for a week or longer, and I won’t be able to shake it out. It is usually a common word, nothing fancy or obscure, most likely just something I fixated on while idling my way through a newspaper, but it’s as if I had never before beheld its singular weirdness as typographical matter. I’ll probably write it down, and a day later it might be joined by another word, another specimen of humdrum, workaday English, and these two words will start to pal around in my head and maybe decide that they’re together for the long haul. Then I will set them out on a line on the screen of my computer, and I’ll insert other words between them and see how well they can handle being separated and how politely they treat the interlopers. A usable phrase, and sometimes even a sentence, might result from that sort of instigation and manipulation. I never start with an idea-I am not a person who has ideas about anything-and I almost never start with even a glimmer of a situation or a plot. (I think of plots as patches of ground that people get stuck on or stuck down into.) On those rare occasions when some sort of story-starting circumstance does throw itself at me, I sometimes decide to have a go at it, but the result is usually laden with dialogue or an excess of action, and I’ll eventually cut out the conversation completely and boil down most of the action and maybe retain a few snippets of description.

Kimball: Does what develops, if it develops into a sentence, usually become the first sentence of piece then? I’m asking because there is this startlingly break that happens in the first sentences of your stories and often it seems as if it is because of a particular usage, say “warringly” in “In Kind” or before that two different phrasings where you put two words together that don’t often go together-”browless child” and “expressive swoop.” Were any of those the words that you started with in “In Kind”?

The first paragraph to Gary Lutz’s “In Kind” is this:

“To hear me tell it, I had been a browless child in shoes with an expressive swoop to the lacing, and I came out of college about the time the profs were just starting to get eerie about grades, and after graduation I walked out warringly into society for a while.”

Lutz: Well, as far as I can recall, when the sentence in which “warringly” now appears was erupting, I was futzing around with the clause “I walked out into society for a while,” and I sensed that it needed a decisive adverb of some sort, something that would round out the sound of the clause, so I believe I took the “w” (already twice in attendance as an initial consonant) and threw it against the “or” in “for” and then saw I had “war,” which I then participialized into “warring,” an ugly, overfamiliar, nightly-news kind of word, and then I tacked on the adverbial “ly.” The result-I couldn’t find the thing in either of the unabridged dictionaries I haunt-seemed appropriate to the narrator’s self-important tone. The whole business seems to have been just an instance of applying the precept that you find your way to the word you want by letting the word extrude itself from pieces of words already present in your sentence.

The little method I described is one I resort to when putting together most of the sentences that eventually find their way into a story, but I can’t pretend to know what I’m doing. When I was writing the stories in my first book, I often worked on runs of consecutive sentences (maybe a couple of paragraphs’ worth) at a time, but when I was halfway through my second book, I started to fixate on stand-alone sentences that I only later pieced here and there into the arising paragraphs. I wanted to get away from the long, streamy sentences and paragraphs, and the unsegmented stories, that I had got into a rut of writing for the first few years after I finished my first book. So I started composing in a different way. These days, after I’ve got going on a story, I might be working on a dozen nonsequential sentences at a time over the course of a week. I’ll labor at one sentence until I get frustrated, and then I’ll move on to the next and toil away at that until I find myself getting nowhere. Sooner or later, I might trash half of two sentences and graft the surviving halves together, or I might take one phrase from each of three sentences, discard everything else, and fit the three phrases together into one new sentence. (This may account for those “breaks” you mentioned, but it’s often just a matter of my trying to make the sentences feel true to the jolts and didder of my nervous system.) At that stage, I will have no idea where any of these sentences will later belong in a story. In fact, each sentence will likely end up in a completely different segment. I proceed largely by hunches, by intuition. I try to heed any emerging rhythms or patterns of sound, and I do my best not to think.

Kimball: This gives me an insight into your recent work that I did not have, that you construct sentences separately and that you then set those sentences against one another, or next to each other, to create paragraphs. There is a feeling in your more recent work, and especially in “In Kind,” a feeling I have reading it, that I was struck by: I think this approach gives your work greater scope. It’s as if you are putting great spans of time, periods of a character’s life, into one sentence. There is a grandness to it. But let me ask about a couple of other topics you mentioned. Since you’re not writing consecutive sentences, how do you decide that one particular sentence should come before or follow another sentence? And when you’re looking for emerging rhythms or patterns of sound, are there particular rhythms or particular patterns of sound that repeatedly feel right to you?

Lutz: One of my troubles is that I do not have much time or energy to write, so when the opportunity presents itself, I always think of any story as an occasion to record, however half-assedly, the allness of how life-the sweep and the specificality of it-feels to me at that stage in my headway toward demise. So my stories now riot around in decades of a narrator’s life and do not so much advance as narrow themselves out unamelioratingly. When it comes to determining which sentence goes where, I often just feel my way forward. I’ll set a sentence down in a variety of paragraphic environs and see how ill at ease it seems to feel there. I don’t want my sentences leaning cozily against each other. I want frictions between them. I favor strifeful, spurtive paragraphs over ones that offer cushioning notions of continuity and causality. I like paragraphs that flutter the way time itself flutters. As a reader, I gravitate toward books that can be opened to any page and to almost any sentence and make some kind of instant, discomfiting sense of everything. I am drawn toward rhythms in which there are lots of stresses and hardnesses, and toward phrasings steeped in, or saturated with, a dominant vowel. I like inclemently declaratory sentences, sentences that disingratiate, sentences that feel full and final.

Kimball: There are a lot of short paragraphs in “In Kind,” a lot of one-sentence paragraphs, and one of the great things about the story is how one paragraph follows another, how they build on each other and create these strange links and swerves. There are great leaps between paragraphs and often there is a great amount of implied action. There is so much that can be done with voice and different narrators, opening new ways to tell stories. OK, none of that is really a question, so let me try to ask one. Maybe you could talk a bit more about the frictions between the sentences, what these frictions are, or how you can sense how ill at ease a sentence is in a particular paragraph. I find this notion of friction especially interesting when you set it against the way that you use syntax and acoustics in and between sentences, which tends to smooth things out in another way. OK, I know there isn’t an actual question in there, but it’s implied, right?

Lutz: I went through a phase of writing single paragraphs that massed themselves out over several pages, and it one day dawned on me that letting a paragraph assume such hulking proportions had become little more than a sneaky expedient allowing me to conceal underworked or unforgivably imperfect phrasing in a dense paginary surround. The much shorter paragraphs I have been writing of late seem uncloaked, exposed. Everything in them seems more available, visible, riskful. The neighboring sentences aren’t neighborly: they don’t mix with each other; they don’t honor the niceties of discursive narration. They provoke and protrude. The mistakes, the flubs, the ineptitudes of wording-they’re all right out in the open. (And, true, I do try to give a sequence of sentences a unifying, stabilizing pattern of sound or syntax; I believe that acoustical intrigue alone can hold a paragraph together.) Anyway, the longer paragraphs seemed not only counter to how my narrators apprehend experience, which is through unbidden glimmers and inklings (none of my narrators are blessed with a voice in the head that furnishes a running interpretation of human incident; they live outside psychology; the world comes through to them only in bursts, in blurts) but also counter to the rhythms of the narrators’ lives, lives that motion brokenly this way and that, lapsing a lot. And limiting myself to short paragraphs frees me to do away with much of the obligation to report or render the bustle and ruck of daily, weekly, monthly life: all the stage business, all the entrances and exits and wayside scenery, the pointless turnabouts between turning points. I am not a camera.

Maybe part of the explanation of why I write the way I write has to do with the way I sometimes read. I sometimes read a book from back to front, sentence by sentence-a practice that, as one might imagine, can give a completely different disposition to a book. (I was heartened, a few months ago, to discover in the journals of Ralph Waldo Emerson that a decade before he died, he realized that a “safer” way to read a Shakespeare play is “backwards;” otherwise, “the interest of the story is sadly in the way of poetry.”) And sometimes, when I chance upon something that has been edited with especial attentiveness, I read just for the grammar alone, or just for the punctuation, and find a rare and uplifting delight in the perfections.

Kimball: I love what you just said about “all the stage business”-leaving all of that material out. I hate that story that opens with a character’s name, a physical description of the character, all of those words that don’t tell us anything that we need to know. Unfortunately, that describes far too many stories. I sometimes think that there must be a checklist posted somewhere and I’m glad that I don’t know where that is or what exactly is on that checklist. And I’m glad that you have found a different way to tell a story. I’m assuming that you must be close to having a third collection together. Is that right? What I’m wondering, though, is whether you have ever thought about writing a novel, whether you think that is possible with the method we have been discussing? I think it must be possible (I’m thinking of Beckett’s How It Is and also, say, David Markson’s late novels), though it might also be unbelievably difficult. But maybe you haven’t considered a novel because each of your stories is already a kind of tiny novel.

Lutz: I’m maybe a third of the way into a third collection. I doubt that I could write a novel, unless I changed the way I write, and I doubt that I could change. For one thing, I lack the reach a novel would require. Anyway, I’m no fan of conversation or action. I’m big on upshots and bitter ends. As a reader, I now and then go through periods of wanting to see lots of description, and whenever I do, I turn first to John Updike, who I think is the most hauntingly precise describer this country has ever had. But mostly I like writing that’s capsular, conclusional-writing that gives you the precipitate of experience and not the experience itself. For me, the residue is usually more interesting than whichever person, place, or thing the residue might be residual of. My own characters are just remainders of people, I guess, and their “back story” (a term I never warmed to) doesn’t much concern me. I am concerned instead with the wonderless ways in which they’re finished. My stories are probably not even stories at all but just sobs in clausal form.

Kimball: I know that we’ve already talked about this, but I want you to talk about it a little bit more-particular usages and phrasings. There are things you do in your stories, words and phrases that you use that set your stories apart from what so many other writers are writing. It is still English, impeccable English, but it does something strange to the reading experience. In “In Kind” there is “confusable buildings,” “thorough hair,” “upheavalist,” “unmonstrous,” and “morbid swither.” Even in this interview you have said “participialized,” “conclusional,” “paragraphic environs,” and “strifeful, spurtive paragraphs.” I would love to hear anything else that you are willing to say about this thing you do and I would like to coin a term for this. I’m thinking Lutziciple, no, Lutzafix, but I’m open to suggestions.

Lutz: To me, language is matter-it’s a substance to be fingered and disturbed. All sorts of stuff can be pinned onto a word, or poked into it. I like to fasten an unaccustomed affix to the base of a perfectly drab noun or adjective. Oddballery of that kind appears to suit my narrators, who are forever in search of further, fussier ways to insist upon their difference. Yet I almost never resort to words that don’t officially exist; the ones you listed (“unmonstrous” is the lone exception) dwell snugly, if neglectedly, in my favorite unabridged dictionary of American English. (I would rather not invent words.) Another thing I like to do now and then is bring together two words that ordinarily would not want to have anything to do with each other. I like to see what happens.

Kimball: OK, last question: Is there some aspect of your fiction that you work very hard at or that you find personally fascinating, but that most readers or reviewers don’t notice?

Lutz: The traces of humor in most of my stories are, I guess, often overlooked.

Kimball: (Laughs.)

Gary Lutz is the author of Stories in the Worst Way, I Looked Alive, and Partial List of People to Bleach.

This interview originally appeared in print in New York Tyrant.

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