An excerpt from Peter Turchi’s A Muse and a Maze: Writing as Puzzle, Mystery, and Magic.
For more information about the book and its author, be sure to click over to Fiction Writers Review for an interview between Peter and Robert Boswell.
My wife has a fantasy, a desire she often expresses, which I feel certain she would be delighted to have me share with you.
“Let’s just float in the pool and drink gin and tonics,” she’ll say. “Let’s bake like lizards.”
We live in Arizona, where we have a pool, and where gin is sold in every grocery store, and where it is no challenge at all to bake like a lizard.
From this you might understandably presume that my wife is an aspiring alcoholic, or an idle and frivolous person. But in fact the -holic my wife is closest to becoming is a worka-; and as I am writing this, at eleven o’clock at night, she is standing in her study, playing her viola. She’ll do this for an hour, maybe longer; she does it virtually every night. My wife is not a professional musician. While she’s played violin or viola since she was eight years old, and she has played in any number of quartets and chamber groups and orchestras, the vast majority of her playing is not for other people to hear. For a while, when we lived in Asheville, North Carolina, she was a regular on the wedding circuit, making pocket money playing, as she cheerfully put it, “the same damned tunes. Pachelbel’s Canon, Handel’s Water Music, and the Mendelssohn. Most of the time people wouldn’t know if it was us playing or a radio.” She stopped playing weddings not because we became independently wealthy, not because she didn’t enjoy the other musicians, not, she assures me, because she’s become cynical about marriage, and not because “playing” had become work—but because the work had become tedious.
In contrast, the other night she drove to a church where, with about sixty other musicians she had never met, she sight-read Mahler’s Fifth Symphony. They played it beginning to end, without a break, without an audience. She came home exhausted. “That was glorious,” she said. “It’s so complicated.”
“Complicated,” I said, trying to look sympathetic in a knowing way, when in fact I am a heathen. I can sing along with “Morning, Noon and Night” and “Chug-a-lug,” but I can tell you nothing about Mahler’s Fifth Symphony. I can’t even tell you with complete confidence that Mahler had previously written four other symphonies. I asked my wife, “But you had a good time?”
“Glorious,” she said again. Then, shaking her head: “It was terrifying.”
I would have given her a hard time about the apparent contradiction except for the fact that I am currently learning how to ride a bike. I exaggerate only a little; I never rode much as a child, I have virtually no sense of balance, and my feet are attached to my legs nearly perpendicular to the desired angle for feet, so situating myself on a potentially fast-moving, foot-powered object requiring some combination of balance and dexterity never seemed like a good idea. A month or so ago, though, my doctor suggested I take up swimming or biking.
My wife would not look kindly on my splashing and making a lot of commotion in the pool; it dilutes the gin. So for the past week I’ve been riding out to a desert park in 104 degree heat, then turning around and riding back. Most of the last mile is uphill, part of it fairly steep, and I have not yet been able to make it to the top without pausing. There are many other places I could bike, flat places; but I ride out to the park every day now, then turn around and try to climb that hill.
“Did you have fun?” my wife says from her blue pool float, glass in hand. “You look like you’re going to have a heart attack.”
“Nah, it’s great,” I tell her before going under. “Damn it.”
I don’t think my wife and I are unusual in this: most of us lie to ourselves. We say we want the good life, we say we want to live on Easy Street, but we suspect it’s true that heaven is a place where nothing ever happens, and it sounds pretty dull. So while we might lounge in the sun for a while or have a drink, before long we dry off and make trouble for ourselves.
Not everyone is like this, but most writers (and other artists) are. Most of us are, at least for periods, unsatisfied with our current degree of fluency. Sometimes—maybe often—we find writing frustrating, even aggravating. Absolutely no one is telling us to do it. The financial rewards are, for nearly all of us, modest. And yet we continue, trying to do a difficult thing well.
To argue for the pleasures of difficulty is not to promote the products of laziness, self-absorption, or hostility—that is, work that is intentionally vague, obscure, or encoded to prevent accessibility, work that doesn’t intend to communicate with readers but which instead exists as a fortress without doors. This is the sort of writing some of us produced as teenagers in a misguided display of (we thought) superiority that was, in fact, a fear of being understood, and so revealed to be not unlike other people. (Tom Wolfe argued against that kind of elitism years ago in The Painted Word.) I am not arguing here for fiction or poetry that only certain trained readers can hope to understand and admire. While we may say that we read to be entertained or enlightened, often we find that the books we return to, the books we find most valuable, are the books that disturb or elude us, defy us in some way, even as they appeal to us.
I first read Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita as an undergraduate English major. Over the years I’ve reread it many times; I’ve read and reread The Annotated Lolita; and I’ve taught the novel to undergraduates and graduates. I’ve referred to the novel enough that one student, only partly kidding, said she wondered if I could teach an entire course without mentioning it. “You must love that book,” more than one person has said to me. But “love” is a word I would never use to describe my feelings toward it. “You really understand that book,” one or two people have said to me, but I strongly doubt my understanding of the novel—which is to say, I have an understanding of the novel, but that understanding has certainly changed over time, and is very much open to interrogation; I feel challenged every time I return to it. Poet C. Dale Young described a similar—though superficially opposite—experience reading Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. The first time he read it, he said, the book seemed perfectly clear. Why did people make such a fuss? Moved to reread it, he found Conrad’s tale increasingly elusive, more complicated. Richer. However it happens, the appeal of the books we return to is often, at least in part, a fascination with what we can’t quite reach.
Within a sentence, diction can be used to clarify or to strategically obscure. The first sentence of Antonya Nelson’s short story “Strike Anywhere” is, “This was the next time after what was supposed to be the last time.”
There’s nothing about that language or its arrangement that is hard to comprehend; the difficulty comes from the fact that we have signifiers, but no specific content. What is “this”? we think. The next time for what? The last time for what? All we know for sure is that “this” is an occasion, and it’s significant because it wasn’t supposed to happen. The sentence appears to be telling us something, and we understand the logic of its grammatical construction, but we need to know more—a deliberate mystery pushes us forward.
The next sentence puts us at ease by offering clear and explicit information—two characters and a bit of action: “The father parked at the curb before the White Front, and the boy found himself making a prayer.”
So we’ve got a boy and his father, and the boy seems to be worried. Despite the matter-of-factness and absolute clarity of the sentence, tension is maintained, as is the mystery—we still don’t know what’s going on, or why it’s important. The boy’s worry mirrors our own unease about not knowing what the narrator is referring to.
The paragraph continues, “It was Sunday, after all, and this was what his mother did when faced with his father’s stubborn refusal to do what he said he’d do. Or not do what he said he’d not do.”
We understand that “this” refers to prayer, but all that doing and not doing conveys more sound than sense—and echoes, it’s worth noting, the first sentence. The first sentence created a desire to know certain information: What is this significant event? And why isn’t it supposed to happen? We still don’t have answers, but the context for the questions is becoming increasingly clear—so while we’re eager to have those initial questions addressed, we’re content to wait a little longer, because we’re getting what seems to be important information. By the third paragraph, when we learn that the White Front is a bar, we’ve got a clue regarding the source of the trouble; yet by that time the focus of the narrative is no longer the simple fact of what’s going on, but the difficult situation the boy is in, and his father’s obliviousness, or self-interest, and the mother’s influence, or lack of it. (This opening would unfold much differently if Nelson had chosen to call the establishment the White Front Tavern; even the specific information she releases is calibrated to sustain curiosity.) The opening passage ends with these two sentences:
“Not one inch,” his father reminded him, face looming at the window before locking the truck door, slamming it, and crossing the sidewalk. He slapped the wallet in his back pocket, cinched his hat, drew breath to make himself tall, and disappeared through the dark entryway of the bar.
The dilemma—or rather, the dilemmas—have been set up with tremendous economy, and that’s possible because, while the situation is familiar, a classic—we’re told something bad has happened, that there will be hell to pay if it happens again, and then we’re shown strong indicators that it’s about to happen—as readers we have been artfully misdirected. The author has put the opening cards on the table, but at least some of them are face down. The opening of “Strike Anywhere” shifts our attention from a minor mystery to a more significant one.
On some level or another, nearly every successful story works this way, leading us from one specific unknown to another, like stepping stones across a river. But just as important as the stepping stones—those secure places to rest our feet that make our progress possible—are the spaces between those stones, and the water rushing through those spaces. In Nelson’s story, omitted and withheld information represents the difficulty. And while this might seem like a narrow, shallow stream to cross—few if any readers would be inclined to give up in frustration—by increasing the span of the river, by increasing the spaces between the stones, by deepening and hastening the water, difficulty can be increased.
We might tell ourselves that every sentence in a story should be beautiful, or finely wrought, or exquisitely detailed, or should present the reader with a new and brilliant figure of speech. But that first sentence—”This was the next time after what was supposed to be the last time”—taken on its own, out of context, might seem vague or confusing, and in a draft by a lesser writer, it would probably be followed by similarly abstract assertions. The combination of the abstract and the concrete, coupled with the deliberate release of contextualizing information, is what makes this writing strategic. In that first sentence, Nelson is not trying to find her way into the story—she’s creating questions she knows we’ll want answered.
Simply omitting information doesn’t create a sense of mystery or tension (you don’t know my shoe size, but you don’t care). The reader needs to be made to want to know what’s being withheld or obscured. If the reader isn’t provoked to want to know more, the story has no forward momentum, no sense of urgency.
Virtually no one is likely to find “Strike Anywhere” difficult to read. And that’s the point: even when it seems most accessible, good fiction is rich with minor complications, interruptions, suspensions— all of which serve to engage us and, perhaps perversely, increase our reading pleasure.
Peter Turchi’s books include Maps of the Imagination: The Writer as Cartographer; Suburban Journals: The Sketchbooks, Drawings, and Prints of Charles Ritchie, in collaboration with the artist; a novel, The Girls Next Door; and a collection of stories, Magician. He has also coedited, with Andrea Barrett, A Kite in the Wind: Fiction Writers on Their Craft and The Story Behind the Story: 26 Stories by Contemporary Writers and How They Work; and, with Charles Baxter, Bringing the Devil to His Knees: The Craft of Fiction and the Writing Life. Turchi’s stories have appeared in Ploughshares, Story, the Alaska Quarterly Review, Puerto del Sol, and the Colorado Review. From 1993 to 2008 he directed the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College in Asheville, North Carolina. Turchi recently taught at Arizona State University, where he was director of the creative writing program, and he’s currently a professor of creative writing at the University of Houston.
[Editor’s Note- This essay has been edited from its original print version.]