After finishing Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned, I am ashamed that I needed a workshop to force me into reading Wells Tower’s work. Angry, frustrating, dark, and full of pain, his stories succeed without trying to be clever; they push so much emotion without getting lost in sentimentality.
There are many ways to describe the short story, and today, Wells Tower used a punch bowl allegory. A friend of his couldn’t seem to hold onto a long-term partner; at some point in the relationship, he was afraid that someone would make him hold a crystal punch bowl. There were different kinds of punch bowls out there, and short stories had different kinds of functions. Maybe you wanted your reader to enjoy the language of your piece, maybe you wanted them to invest in particular character. Whatever the case was, that function was a punch bowl, and you had to convince your reader to hold it.
During the workshop, we examined two different short stories: ‘Bullet in the Brain’ by Tobias Wolff and ‘Forever Overhead’ by David Foster Wallace. While ‘Bullet in the Brain’ moved efficiently, ‘Forever Overhead’ meandered in its description of a thirteen-year-old boy sensory experience at a public swimming pool. In each, Tower discussed the overall structure of the piece, the techniques used, and his peculiar notion of ‘credits’. He spoke of checking sentimentality with the analytical. For instance, ‘Forever Overhead’ begins with clipped sentences, growing more sensory, more lyrical, before tapering off, returning to the clipped and analytical.
After lunch, he emphasised the importance of revision. For one idea, Wells wrote up to ten completely different short stories, and he ‘expose[d his stories]…to every single piece of editorial violence’ until nothing in them felt like a ‘cheap trick’. He then handed out two different drafts of ‘Door in Your Eye’, and it’s fascinating comparing the two. In the earlier draft, his protagonist is a twenty-year-old who checks out the ‘hooker’ next door. In the final draft, the protagonist is recast as an old man who is looking for his last erotic experience in life: ‘…it came into my mind that maybe this would be the last woman I would ever get the chance to touch.’
Most of the writers who attended the workshop had been previously published, so much the workshop material was of a decent standard: Samuel Rutter had a piece that read beautifully, a novellist gave us a chapter from a draft manuscript, and Chris Currie snuck in a piece published in the current Lifted Brow. Among such literary types, I felt a bit audacious sounding out my second draft of a sci-fi short story—’She brought science fiction to a serious writers’ workshop…how dare she!’ There were a couple of ‘I don’t usually read science fiction…’ comments, and I think Wells Tower was being conciliatory when he complimented my writing style, but I got what I wanted. I knew the piece needed more depth, and it was good to have that reiterated by other writers. I wished I had been as equally helpful with other people’s stuff. ‘Tis hard listening to people’s stories; reading them is much easier on the noggin.
For more on Wells Tower, Bookslut has an interview with him on their site. Chris Currie will also be putting up his interview with the author on Literary Minded in the near future. Aaaaand to get a better sense of Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned, Estelle Tang has reviewed his book on her blog, 3000 Books.