Madeline ffitch on “The Private Fight”
I’m very happy that Madeline ffitch agreed to expose the process behind a piece of fiction in her new book Valparaiso, Round the Horn (out now from Publishing Genius) for the benefit—and to the great joy—of all. Her fiction is loaded with je ne sais quoi—dense and knotty but also generous—durable—delighting in the abundance of ideas as much as the little strangenesses of human communication. Or that’s what I see there, anyway. Here’s the point, here’s Madeline:
. . . . .
Excerpt from Draft One of “The Private Fight”
“We don’t take cream with our coffee,” said Murray. Phil looked at Maxwell and shrugged. They left him standing there by the bleachers, one toe sticking out of his converse, coated to his calves in red dust.
“I’ll come home right away,” said Helen who had grown up and moved some way out of Seattle to try farming, the only pursuit that is sure.
“That’s what I thought you would say,” said Maxwell Conley, resigned.
On her farm, Helen loves a man who comes from a culture of no pointing. If his people must make such a gesture, they do it with their thumbs or with their chins. Helen knew it was important to pay attention to what can make some people feel like a dislocated joint. For some people it is pointing. It is pointing and when you accidentally do it you can tell what has happened. The world doesn’t exactly come to an end, but still, everyone feels bad.
Yet soon after Maxwell Conley was left on the baseball field, Martin Luther King Junior was shot and killed in Memphis. Maxwell Conley and many others went to school the following day. From a long way off, he could see a single figure standing at the school door, and as he got closer, he recognized Murray Rose. Murray stood guarding the door, motionless except for the cigarette he was smoking. He moved it mechanically from his mouth back to his side. Other students drifted around the schoolyard in small, tense groups. Murray stood at the door, his face closed up, cold metal, and Maxwell Conley was drawn there. He drew near to Murray, nearer, he came to the bottom step. Murray looked down, raised one powder blue arm, and pointed at Maxwell Conley as if he’d been waiting for him. He pointed at Maxwell and he said, “White boy ain’t got no soul”.
Excerpt from Published Version of “The Private Fight” (published on The Collagist, and in my collection, Valparaiso, Round the Horn)
“You remember how the Black Panthers saved my life?” asked Maxwell.
“I just told my man that story,” said Helen Conley.
“What did he have to say?” asked Maxwell.
“He said it happened forty years ago. To him that seems like a long time. What if I can’t make him understand about time passing and not passing? About what makes some people feel like a dislocated joint?”
Maxwell Conley said, “Look at it this way. Your man comes from a culture of no pointing. If his people must make such a gesture, they do it with their thumbs or with their chins. When you accidentally point at him you can tell what has happened. The world doesn’t exactly come to an end, but still, everyone feels bad.”
“And so?” asked Helen Conley.
“So. Soon after Murray and Phil Rose left me on the baseball field, Martin Luther King Junior was shot and killed in Memphis, Tennessee. I went to school the next day. From a long way off, I could see a single figure standing at the school door, and as I got closer, I recognized Murray Rose. Murray stood guarding the door, motionless except for his cigarette. He moved it mechanically from his mouth back to his side. Other students drifted around the schoolyard in small, tense groups. Murray stood at the door, his face closed up, cold metal, and I was drawn there. I drew near to Murray, nearer, I came to the bottom step. Murray looked down, raised one powder blue arm, and pointed at me. It was as if he’d been waiting for me. He pointed at me and he said, ‘White boy ain’t got no soul’.”
Explanation of Movement From Draft to Published Version. Or How I Made This Story Behave
First of all, this is maybe a bit like a total makeover where the after is supposed to be obviously better than the before, but most people are secretly left thinking, maybe the before is better than the after. I find drafting and revision to be a much more mysterious process than a straight trajectory towards improvement. It can be frustrating to be a reader of work that is rushed over, or overly self-congratulatory (“I just let it flow, and I don’t edit, that’s self-censorship” “Yes, and it shows”). On the other hand, there is something real and vital, something that we writers should pay attention to about the rhythms of first drafts, and the unjustified exhilarated feeling we get about a misbehaving piece of writing, a piece of writing that is unhinged, unexamined, and out of our control. For one thing, this kind of writing is often very closely related to the logic of the ear, and the logic of the ear, for me, is where the writing has to start from.
I write fiction, but of course I try to take my cues from the poets, who always seem to do it better. As such, in the first draft of this story, there is a movement and causality that is unrelated to narrative, conventionally defined, yet it is related to the logic of the ear. In the first draft, the movement comes from what makes sense to me rhythmically, so that the causality comes from the way one paragraph or line moves from the paragraph or line before it, almost like playing “Exquisite Corpse” with yourself.
Here (in the first draft) with no white space or exposition or clear transitions, I move from an old story about Murray and Phil Rose (Black Panthers who saved Maxwell Conley’s life), forty years forward to a phone conversation that Helen Conley has with her uncle Maxwell Conley, in which she tells him she’s coming home, then to an interlude about Helen Conley’s man’s feelings about pointing, then to another old story from Maxwell Conley’s past. The motion of this is certainly not justified within the plot, but story doesn’t come to me via plot, it comes to me fragmented through language, through unlikely pairings of conversation snippets and memory and image and action. For example, the discussion of the culture of no-pointing is meant to prepare the reader for the following scene where Murray Rose points at Maxwell Conley. This doesn’t make a conventional narrative kind of sense. What would be more familiar here is for there to be an interlude providing some context for Helen Conley’s reception of Maxwell Conley’s stories, some orienting of the reader. Here, the reader wonders where the stories about Maxwell Conley come from. Who is telling them? Who is hearing them? Who knows them already? Instead of answering these fair questions, this section does its work through a kind of linguistic misdirection.
The final, published version behaves itself better, and acts more like a story is supposed to act. The actions are clearly oriented in time and space, and the storytelling is taken possession of by particular characters. Is it then an unforgivable betrayal of the logic of the ear? Is the makeover more conventional but less effective? Is it a retreat from aesthetic boldness? Does it show a lack of faith in the lively reader? Possibly. But after setting aside the first draft for a couple of months, and after a bit of feedback from some trusted allies (not a committee), it was easier to for me to make decisions about where I wanted the reader to work to orient themselves, and where I wanted the reader to focus on other concerns. I decided that in this section of the story, it is important to me to keep the rhythm of the section about pointing, but it was not important to me to keep that section disembodied. It was important to me to keep Maxwell Conley’s stories whole, delivered as long images, but it was not important to me that they be unattached to character or perspective. I also came to believe that the things that mattered most to me about how language, rhythm, and image work in this story work just as well when nestled into something more easily recognizable as a “story” and that (according to the trusted allies) the writing didn’t become dull just because they could tell who was talking and whether or not it was forty years ago or now.
Yet, in making the story behave better in one way, I led it into another kind of misbehaving. Maybe this is why I was willing to strike the bargain I did. I think that now, in the finished piece, the characters deliver long-form dialogue that is heightened and departs from the concerns of “real” sounding speech. When Maxwell Conley describes the no-pointing culture, and when he tells his talismanic memory, these images are not delivered within a character voice that reads as recognizably “realist”. I have long since decided that the quest to make my characters speak in a way that is resonant and real is a separate project from trying to faithfully uphold the artifice that dialogue is dropped onto the page directly from a character, unmediated by the writer. This comes from my experience as a reader, in which often the dialogue I read that tries to imitate speech patterns most slavishly reads as somehow hollow or false, while dialogue in which I can hear the intrusion of the writer, or dialogue where people say improbable things often resonates more strongly with me, or feels more real. For example, I think of the way that Grace Paley’s characters talk to each other, their speech held to the same standards of rhythm and revelation as the prose that surrounds it, and if I could always have that experience as a reader, I could ask for nothing more.
In conclusion, my before and after excerpts might stand as open-ended questions about what we, as readers, require from form, and how we, as writers, might avoid gratuitous formal hijinks, while also resisting ironing out the unhinged hearts of our stories.