Ross School - Senior Project 2008-09

Student: Charles Hoffman

Mentor: Mark Foard

Title: Not Knowing

Description: I wrote a series of short stories for my Senior Project. My research consisted of two branches. The first branch encompassed an in depth analysis of works by the two great masters of the American detective novel, Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. The second branch was less comprehensive and more sporadic, but it was necessarily so and has been equally as fulfilling as the first. It covered content ranging from “The Garden of Forking Paths” by Jorge Luis Borges to Watchmen, the acclaimed graphic novel by Alan Moore.

Details:

Etude, Everett Rex, Hopper, the parkin lot

My original Idea was a project that would involve an in-depth analysis of the relationship between philosophy and literature but whose product would be creative. As I vaguely understood it then, it would be some work of fiction (I hadn’t yet decided between a collection of short stories and or one long narrative) that demonstrated an understanding of the relationship between the two fields. However, this project has taught me that the quality of my writing is greatly dependent on how, psychologically, I approach the writing process, and attempting to more or less translate philosophical theory into fiction was about as fruitless as you’d think it’d be. After I realized how creatively stifling writing such didactic fiction could be I changed the direction of the project, setting it free from the constricting limitations of philosophy.

With a new vision for the project I developed a concurrently new and more fiction oriented set of goals. (A) I was to learn to read like a writer. That is to say, I would hone my ability to analyze works of fiction broken down and according to the elements of craft but also to learn how to “steal” things from other authors—little things like a turn of phrase or even the overall shape of the story. (B) I was to become more familiar with the function of form in stories, as in the author’s use of character, point of view, setting, and style to reflect some embedded theme or to add credibility, flow, and depth to a story.

After I was done formulating goals specific to the reading portion of my process, I added a couple goals more directed towards the writing component. (C) “Ass in chair, write.” As Foard put it. This goal refers to the difficulty a writer can face in summoning the gumption to actually sit down and start writing, to overcome any preoccupation with the story’s intent. This goes back to the problem I referred to earlier as my approach to the writing process. The best way to stop yourself from over thinking a story before you’ve actually written it is to start writing, which will in turn distract you long enough for you to “get out of your own way.” That’s the advice my outside consultant gave me when I asked him what he thought I should do about my problems with intent and approach. And finally, (D) I was to better understand myself within the creative process. This was the first fiction project where in I really felt like a writer. I really took the writing process seriously, respecting the spontaneity of creativity and the huge role that process plays in writing.

 Before senior projects began I was reading mostly 19th century fiction. This had me writing in a sort classical outdated voice, that of Moby Dick or Heart of Darkness. Foard recognized quickly that this led to difficulties pushing plot. While my understanding of the character and his thoughts and feelings were highly developed, I had a hard time getting this to actually happen. To combat this problem with progressing the plot, Foard had me read detective fiction, a narrative form that relies almost exclusively on plot progression. I read Farewell, My Lovely by Raymond Chandler and Red Harvest and The Thin Man both by Dashiell Hammett. This did help me to push plot along, but after reading some much detective fiction I couldn’t help but try to write my own detective fiction. The longest of my four stories, and my second to least favorite, “Hopper” is the one detective story included in my product. It was more an exercise in moving plot than a story, and for that reason it tells a tale about the process of the whole collection.

I moved on from writing detective fiction, taking with me a newfound ability to push plot. But while I was still finishing “Hopper” I sat down and wrote the first draft to my favorite story of the collection, “the parkin lot”. I was supposed to be writing detective fiction and was scared to show Foard a draft of something else before I’d finished “Hopper”. I think that fear, and the fact that writing that story didn’t seem like work and instead seemed like further procrastination, strengthened the quality of my writing because I never drifted from writing the story to ponder where the story would go or what it would do for me or anything beyond the next sentence. This was a pivotal discovery for me because it turned my focus away from the daunting process of revision, which was never that difficult nor that fruitful for me because of how long I take to write anything. My focus became learning not to focus. My goal became learning to forget my goal. Writing became about not knowing, not knowing how the story will end, not knowing whether it’s any good, not even knowing if what I’m writing is fiction or non-fiction or a story or an exercise or that I’m writing; to write in mental silence.

I realized that not knowing was an essential aspect of a lot of fiction. When a character experiences what is called a reversal—a discovery of some sort that changes the direction of the story arc—he is overcoming what Aristotle called Harmatia, which was for a long time translated as ‘tragic flaw” but more recent scholars have claimed that it really means “mistaken identity.” The second definition refers to a character who has misjudged himself or his situation and therefore does not know the truth. For me to truly take on the vicarious experiences of my character I too must for most of the story not know the truth of the situation and only discover it just as the character does. That’s why I called the project “Not Knowing,” because for me what worked best was an approach to writing that gave reason back to the practice of revision while it simultaneously placed a paramount emphasis on the first draft and its concomitant purity of expression.

Works Consulted

Blood Meridian: Or the Evening Redness in the West. New York: Vintage.

Borges, Jorge Luis. Labyrinths: Selected Stories and Other Writings. Ed. Donald A. Yates and James E. Irby. Grand Rapids: New Directions Corporation, 1964.

Chandler, Raymond. The Simple Art of Murder. New York: Vintage, 1988.

Farewell, My Lovely. New York: Vintage.

Gibbons, Dave. Watchmen. New York: DC Comics, 2008.

Hammett, Dashiell. Red Harvest. New York: Vintage, 1992.

The Thin Man. New York: Vintage, 2005.

The Continental Op. New York: Vintage.

Kierkegaard, Soren. Fear and Trembling and the Book on Adler. New York: Alfred A. Knopf Incorporated, 1997.

The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. New York: Broadway Books.

Community Member (Details)

Stephen Taylor: Short Story Author