A Dialogue on the Practice of Fiction


Sternly instructed by the Winnipeg Review to talk about fiction, especially short fiction, Struan Sinclair and Steven Heighton look around for an initial prod or provocation. They consider discussing hockey instead, but since one of them (who prefers to remain anonymous) is a Leafs fan, and the other a Jets fan, cooler heads prevail. In due course, Heighton extracts from his small volume Workbook a few aphorisms, or epigrams—or, as Sinclair calls them, apothegms (where does he get these words?)—and the conversation begins.

From Workbook, IV, 3:   Always start by giving a book the benefit of the doubt, as if broaching the book of a known master. This is a reciprocal gift on your part, a generosity the writer has earned over the year or years of work it has taken to complete the thing. For the first twenty or thirty pages, even if it doesn’t seem much good, stick with it and its author. It may be as unsuccessful as it looks, or it may be something new—something you have to learn to read. 

IV, 4:  When reading a book that doesn’t seem much good, outbursts of scorn can be satisfying (much like sprees of self-pity, in fact), but simply harden the arteries of awareness.

SINCLAIR: Reading and writing well requires the investment of attention. And that investment, if I’m reading you right, should be a generous one. So here’s my question: how generous ought we to be (or are we minded to be) as writers and readers of short fiction? The short story is both a generous and an ungenerous form; focusing and testing attention, rarely getting the benefit of the doubt we often cede to novels, while forestalling restlessness in ways the novel finds hard to manage. I like your idea in 3 that we begin each book charitably – that reading depends on us too, involves the same generous awareness we muster when meeting a stranger, and potentially the same sorts of payoffs. That the steeliest pleasures of reading, like those of writing, are earned.

On attention. When I think about attention and the short story I’m often reminded of the closing of Alice Munro’s “Material,” which is a story partly about the material of fiction, where it comes from and how it is recognized, and how good writers seem to recognize it where others, however well-meaning and observant and self-aware, do not: 

What matters is that this story of Hugo’s is a very good story, as far as I can tell, and I think I can tell. How honest this is and how lovely, I had to say as I read. I had to admit, I was moved by Hugo’s story; I was, I am, glad of it, and I am not moved by tricks. Or if I am, they have to be good tricks. Lovely tricks, honest tricks. There is Dotty lifted out of life and held in light, suspended in that marvellous clear jelly that Hugo has spent his whole life learning how to make.

Our narrator sees everything, while Hugo, the writer, sees only what he needs to see – and what he sees is a truth about Dotty that no one else has noticed. That marvelous clear jelly demands and rewards our attention without changing or obscuring the background; it illuminates while doing no harm. Its use, like its manufacture, is an act of generosity:

an act of magic, there is no getting around it; it is an act, you might say, of a special, unsparing, unsentimental love. A fine and lucky benevolence. Dotty was a lucky person…she has passed into Art. It doesn’t happen to everybody.

No one who pays to see a really good magician threatens that investment by worrying while watching about how the trick is done; that comes afterward. So to read generously is maybe the least we can do for the most.

HEIGHTON: A disclaimer about those aphorisms, or “memos,” as I call them. I’m not trying to hector or lecture others about how they should read, or write, or think. Primarily these are memos to myself, condensed and polished out-takes from an ongoing inner monologue—or dialogue, really. I mean, it’s me goading and coaching myself, then publishing selected bit and pieces on the hopeful assumption that other writers and artists might be interested.

So, in memos #3 and #4 I’m urging myself to be more patient, mindful, generous. Years ago when I was editing a literary magazine I developed captious habits, because in working my way through a heap of submitted short stories, especially late in the day, I would start to look for any excuse to say “no, sorry” and hence accelerate the triage. And I did get better at spotting flaws and speeding up the process. But eventually I recalled that I’d first become a writer and editor because I loved books, stories, poetry, and language, and not so as to become a superior flaw-spotter, like some veteran of the speed-dating scene. It was around that time that I left the magazine.

Obviously the benefit of developing a hyperacute critical eye is that you can also apply it to your own work. But then there’s the danger of over-applying it to your own work. Worse, there’s the risk of losing your ability to dim the switch when you walk away from your desk, so that you project that captious, order-imposing gaze outward into your non-writing life. Then you find yourself applying it to most anything, including other people. Including yourself. And since we humans are nothing but a plexus of fascinating flaws . . . And this particular life-or-death danger takes us back to what you say about the generosity of reserving judgment—how it’s as important with strangers as with a stranger’s book. (More important.)

As for how long to withhold judgment when reading a short story, I’d say wait until you’re at least halfway through. God, how fraudulent I feel writing that sentence! The truth is—here comes disclaimer number two—for reasons that remain foggy to me, these days I lack the patience for fiction, especially novels, even while I go on writing the stuff myself and hoping others will want to read me. Isn’t that a bit like being the seedy guy at the bar who wants to tell you his stories but not really listen to yours? Don’t get me wrong. My feelings have nothing to do with the quality of the work that’s out there these days. (Now I sound like I’m trying to wriggle out of an affair with my own vocation: Hey, listen, this is not about anything you did—it’s about me!)

SINCLAIR: Got it. Memos, reminders to oneself, overheard by readers. It’s a lovely, relaxed metaphor. That ongoing internal dialogue on writing; goading and coaching – we’re never really lost. Spot on. It’s a feature of the process that most writers would recognize, and perhaps the one that usefully distinguishes writers from those who write. Neurosis or coping mechanism? And is this dialogue specific to the work under construction or does it run edge to edge of a career? I ask partly because of a line of advice I remember from my first-ever workshop, in high school, with a playwright whose name was a hat, and who said all serious writers must be both near- and far-sighted; in order to edit well, and live through disappointment. The long, the generous view. Patience – not the enemy of ambition but the favour you’ll one day do for yourself.

Since I started writing novels I tend to hedge my readerly patience, distributing it between the several books I have on the go at any one time. I almost always try to read as a fan (even as a Leafs fan), entranced by this line or phrase or scene or character composition, gliding through the rough patches, working to become that charitable reader we all want, recruiting bits that strike me into the ongoing conversation you describe. Few books are lost causes and no writer is; surprises are manifold and always possible. Maybe it comes with chastening. Reading fiction for me involves different gears than reading poetry, which I don’t and can’t write, but thrive on/enjoy guiltlessly. It’s training.

Reading, writing or living hypercritically are, as you note, damaging. It isn’t much fun and it’s also isolating, since few will be able to hate as much or as consistently as you do. Writing isn’t a sport. It’s an orientation, a state, sometimes a permanent one. May as well get used to it.

HEIGHTON: Resign yourself to the road, there’s no arrival.

*           *             *

IV, 5:  When it comes to prose style, the line between dazzling and blinding is a fine one.  The blinded reader has a right to wonder: why does the writer want me blinded?  What is it she wants to hide? 

SINCLAIR: Absolutely. And I feel the same way sometimes about technique. I think because we tend to view short fiction as amounting to the technical wing of prose-writing, we imagine that it can be taught as a workflow or template or technique, with a beginning, some problem or diversion, the epiphanic end. And it works; or at least, it works as well as any template or technique works, in that it produces short stories that are recognizably short stories, even if they’re nothing more than that. In such cases I’d rather be dazzled or even blinded because writers who dazzle or blind usually find their own way of doing so which isn’t a way they can have been taught.  But, yes, far better to dazzle than to blind, and to write a story only you could have written, with your own special luminosity, in your own words.

HEIGHTON: One thing I love about the short story (yup, even now—I may feel a bit estranged, but I’m also still in love) is the way it allows you to adopt a voice, a point of view, a setting, a subject that you’d never want to sustain over the course of a novel. And short story readers understand the contract. They lend you that freedom, grant you the gift of their patience, knowing you’re only asking for an hour’s worth or less.

SINCLAIR: Yes. I have to say the short form feels more embodied also, more part of me, while working on a novel is a little like crashing the same stranger’s party, night after night (though this would have to be an afternoon party) for a year. Same place, same people, same upholstery and wine and cheese. Not so much sustained as dragged-back screaming. You go because you have to, because someone’s lost his watch.

For me, short fiction is the sandbox. Newer for longer. More room. Harder in some ways, especially during revision, because the balance can often be finer, since small changes can have fundamental effects. I guess I think of the short story as a length of rope you can hold and still see both ends of. Novels are lines cast/spools in the dark.

*         *           *

IV, 8: In his early books Cormac McCarthy, like William Styron, William Faulkner, and certain other writers of the American South, consistently overwrites but is saved from badness (by a long shot) through a certain integrity of excess—a total and knowing commitment to his style. 

SINCLAIR: I’d like to hear more about this one. [By which I only mean that I’d like to hear more about this idea. Because I’m not sure I see how integrity breeds excess, or even understands it.]

HEIGHTON: Oh, no, now you’re calling me on these memos. In each case, I could have, maybe should have, elaborated the basic point into an essay. But essay-writing reminds me too much of academic obligations I fled years ago. So I’ve taken the opposite track. I’ve pruned each idea into a kind of bonsai, quintessentiallized it into a conceptual haiku. Or call it a highbrow Tweet. The form’s advantage: you can’t really expect me to develop or prove my point in thirty words. In short, I can get away with mere opinions, postures, provocations.

I won’t expand IV, 8 into an essay now, but I will add the crucial point that’s missing from it. Because, you’re right, “excess” alone, however passionately sustained, is not enough. Overwriting is overwriting. The difference is that these writers, along with certain other maximalists, not all of them Southerners (think of Lowry; I know you are), share a certain requisite and redeeming feature—acoustical genius. A finely tuned ear. A foot that can tap out changeable, enchanting rhythms. Sound is the way they make you see. Their prose has a powerful, irresistible pulse. Bad maximalist writing is a mere cataclysm of adverbs adjectives nouns—a word-wall of sound created by a writer who lacks the ear and the rhythmic sense to detect what McCarthy or Lowry are actually doing. McCarthy and Lowry achieve what they achieve not because of the verbiage but in spite of it. Naive maximalists (and at times when starting out, I was one) long to cast the same sort of spell but misunderstand the methodology. They see the mind-pictures that Faulkner’s dense passages induce and they try to recreate the effect through paragraphs as dense with words as a levee is with sandbags. For one thing, they don’t see that good maximalists deploy a high quotient of verbs relative to nouns and adjectives. They don’t get that it’s the prosody—the metrical feet, the assonance, consonance, alliteration, all stuff taken from the poet’s playbook—that turns a static word-wall into a sort of moving picture screen.

SINCLAIR. Ah, so nothing exceeds like excess. I follow you now. And yes to rhythm. Really good prose swings. One of the first stories I remember clearly, because it was a rare playable LP on the ancient suitcase record player that was one of the few perks of being sick in my house, was Poe’s “Tell-Tale Heart.” The final paragraphs are fractured by double hyphens and exclamation marks (more than 20 of each across 260 words or so) that puncture and pace the internal monologue, alternately speeding up and slowing down the narrator’s confession, with its odd and unkempt rhythms, until we read as he thinks – to read these passages, especially out loud, is to participate in the narrator’s careful, fastidious breakdown It’s both controlled and pell-mell, and yet Poe is able to maintain it under tremendous pressure line by line. Sometimes and for some writers, an emphasis on story, story, story keeps the prosodic qualities of the prose at bay. One excess for another.

*       *       *

IV, 9: The novel of a writer working too fast, fluently, skimmingly, may have a facile readability and enjoy more initial success than a denser rendition of the same concept. But the facile novel, spilling along a shallow horizontal axis, lacks the vertical resonance that gives the deeper book its staying power, and eventual success.   

SINCLAIR: Yes yes yes. I guess I tend to remember the stories and the books I remember. And with these I feel glad to have been caught. And kept. Do you see this verticality as a product of the original conception, something good writers can manage right off the bat, or as emerging through revision, as layers are added over old ones scraped away?

HEIGHTON: Definitely the latter, at least for me. I’m a painstaking layerer. I have no choice. Maybe other writers can instantly inhabit a kind of Sistine vault of richly overlapping echoes, but if so, man, I don’t want to hear about it.

IV, 9c: Vertical resonance means a downward echoing, the potential for soundings into a textual subconscious, the swimmer’s thrilling sense, when crossing a mountain lake, of unmeasured depths in the dark below the thermocline.   

SINCLAIR: I’d like to hear more about this one too. Partly because I’m interested in the idea of the vertical in fiction, of moving up and down even as we move across pages and back and forth in time. You characterize the resonance as something more felt than heard – staying power, thrilling sense – one we arrive at, perhaps insensibly, or come to know, like an open secret. How are such echoes achieved? Worked at? And is there any menace in them? At what point does such a resonance go too deep, persist too long, drown out the smaller sounds nearby, so that we feel it over anything else in the work?

There’s a temporal element in the way these resonances seem to persist, hang around, deferred or kept at bay. How do these ideas play out in short fiction, where the waters are narrower if not shallower, where we meet more rivers than lakes? I’m thinking of the endings to some of my favourite Katherine Mansfield stories, like Bliss or The Fly,  where a pane of glass seems to slide home between the last line and whatever’s behind it, so that the vertical resonance is accrued, rather than introduced.

HEIGHTON: I think one way to achieve those echoes is to overwrite (overwriting again!) in your early drafts, putting in whatever occurs, overdeveloping characters, complicating everything, then simplifying in the later drafts, cutting ferociously so as to drive the complexity underground, like a textual unconscious. The materials you cut—the rich or jagged silences you create—are the textual subconscious.

I remember writing memo IV, 9 in a fit of envy—how unsurprising—because a colleague was raving about a commercially successful literary novel that I’d found disappointingly lateral (overly fluent, facile, simple, easy and pleasant to read, devoid of vertical resonance). Naturally I wanted to tell myself that that novel’s success was simply a matter of ease and of a gratifying superficiality—gratifying because the book could be absorbed in a sitting, thus giving a reader a sense of neat readerly achievement. Naturally I longed to attribute my own latest book’s, ahem, lesser success to its complexity—to how its “vertical resonance” and “textual subconscious” imposed more serious, adult demands, while deferring what I took to be greater eventual rewards. In short, I wanted to blame lazy readers corrupted by a culture of impatience. But these days, when most of my friends, colleagues, family and community are either depressed, laid off, gravely ill, getting divorced, or being sued, I’m less inclined to blame readers for craving literary escapes or “entertainments” (to use Graham Greene’s epithet for his “lighter” novels). These days, which book would I rather read—the turgid and morbid Catholic propaganda of The Power and the Glory, in all its literary self-consciousness, or a very good “entertainment” like Our Man in Havana? The first book exudes more vertical echoes, no question. Yet I could make a case for Our Man in Havana being the superior book, and certainly the more enjoyable.

And that brings us to your current project which, in an email to me last week, you described as an “entertainment.” May I put you on record as having said it? What else can you say about it? Are you more inclined toward reading “entertainments” yourself these days?

SINCLAIR: Well, first, I think “complicate everything” is an excellent recommendation for a fiction draft; unless, like Lowry, “complicate everything…always” overtakes it and settles in, becoming a trait and not a method. Drafts should be bad, should need work and should be worked. Writing is slow hard work. Writers are not vessels: they are doers who by and large understand writing as the product of skilled, attentive, hard slow work – their hard slow work. Here’s Francis Sparshott:

To ask a poet to describe [her] creative process is to ask [her] to formulate a rule, or something that will do in place of a rule, by following which any idle ninny could make a poem. But writing poems is something idle ninnies cannot expect to do without forfeiting their idleness and their ninnyhood. A poet is not an idle ninny who just happens to own a sort of magical sausage machine that [she] might lend (or of which [she] might deliver the patent) to [her] neighbour, like lending him a power mower. If there is a creative process it cannot be a substitute for intelligent work. It must be a way such work is done.

Part of writing, and of teaching others to write, I think, is setting up the conditions – pedagogical, structural, psychological, environmental – within which the intelligent work of reading and writing can occur. So yes, absolutely, complicate and prune.

As to “entertainments,” I must have been thinking of Graham Greene, who was so good (and reliable) a writer that he could afford to stream his novels as alternately serious and not-so-much – literary observation and populist plots, as one critic put it. But what do I mean by that in relation to my entertainments? Learning how to write plot, for one thing. And then maybe a question of orientation, focusing things outward and towards readers rather than away from them (no keepaway!). I’m trying to withhold less in this new work, provide more navigable space, fewer shoals and tangles. The Greeneian (?) entertainment is complicated but not inscrutable, a generous form that rewards rereading but needn’t be reread to be comprehended.

I think of this sort of invitingness (more generous than an accommodation, and no one’s fault but one’s own) as a built-in advantage of the well-made short story, and I suppose it’s one reason I find myself writing stories side by side and even in time with, novels and other larger projects: less scenic and more approachable, and a way of solving problems that can be stupefying elsewhere. Sometimes it pays to lower, or change, the stakes.

HEIGHTON: All I want to write these days is short fiction and poetry. Novels are impossible. And I don’t just mean for me. Everyone struggles mightily with them, or should. (If a writer tells me that he or she finds the novel a pleasant, rewarding form—and, improbably, a few have told me so—I make a point not to read them.)

*         *        *

IV, 15: Sometimes, rereading passages of my earlier writing, I’m surprised by the power or clarity of an insight and wonder who I must have pinched it from. Occasionally, I remember.

VII, 3: The work of talented writers can show a concentrated maturity of outlook—a wisdom, a compassion—not always apparent in the writers’ lives. Writers, working well, cast a sort of spell on themselves. Years later they reread passages and say, How could I have known that then? I don’t even know it now.

SINCLAIR: Me too, to the bolded bits. It’d be nice to have all of these versions of one’s writing self accessible still, in harness, knocking out just those bits they did best. An all-star lineup.

VII, 7b: The virtue of good prose lies mainly in this dishabituation; it triggers conceptual stammers in the mind, momentarily rerouting hard-set neural circuits, even laying the ground for new ones.    

SINCLAIR: I like this idea a lot – how hard do these new patterns set? How can we prompt ourselves to receive these stammers and not simply whack things back into place?

HEIGHTON: Here we’re crossing a porous border into the territory of spiritual practice. Or maybe there is no border; maybe reading well is a kind of spiritual practice. Yes, I think I want to propose as much—that reading well is, like Buddhist meditation, a way of slowly waking from the life-snooze of set patterns and habits. Or call it a coma. But although we can wake ourselves by reading with Zen-sharp attention, as preoccupied twenty-first century adults we remain narcoleptic and prone to doze off again at any time. Which is where the spiritual discipline comes in—rereading and rethinking whatever wakes you in the first place. Meditating on it, in all possible senses of the word. (Whether we’re talking about a poem, a fragment of prose, or an epigram, the best way I’ve found to do it is to commit the thing to memory, so it becomes part of your mind and not just something that passes through it.)

VII, 9: On poets who write fiction: while a literary novelist strives to get every sentence right, and a story writer struggles with every word, a poet is actually attentive at the level of the syllable—attentive to each syllable’s length, stress, latent or overt music, onomatopoeic potential and so on. Over the course of a text, the meanings developed and/or stories conveyed are not separable from this interplay of syllables any more than the externals of a galaxy are independent of the microscopic dance of its atoms.  Put simply, poets writing fiction build texts from the micro-level upwards.

VII, 18: When a poet is creatively on fire, each word seems to pick and ignite the next one, a smoking chain of mots justes.  When a fiction writer is hot, every scene generates the next in organic succession.  When an essayist is flying, every idea births its successor.

SINCLAIR: I’d like to close by talking a bit about 9 and 18, both of which address this idea of poets writing from the micro-level, from the word, one or more layers below that of short fiction writers (no novelists, because they don’t get in the door in this exchange). I guess I wonder (as someone who when writing short fiction cannot only be word-led but punctuation-led, kern-led, where-the-bits-of-white-space-are-on-the-page-led) whether the level a writer works on sometimes has less to do with genre or inclination and more the surface-tension generated by the piece itself. So does the story writer begin with the word or the idea? Depends.

HEIGHTON: Well, Flaubert gets in the door on this exchange . . . But of course, his fastidiousness destroyed him. Nowadays a writer with OCD to that extent would likely be medicated. Which makes me wonder if we owe Madame Bovary to the nineteenth-century artist’s freedom from pharmaceuticals.

SINCLAIR (IGNORING THIS FACETIOUS INTERPOLATION): And is it an authentic demand of the form or a convention, trained into us? Poets writing prose as poets, insufficiently hindered, and/or fiction writers taking unearned shortcuts? Back to excess and integrity. Back to school, where fiction writers can learn some of the poet’s discipline, that awareness of how each stroke impinges on the next, back and forth, up and down. To school, where poets who write prose like it’s poetry without the line breaks can learn to relax, make a mess, be colloquial, let a little air in. A split attention. Attentiveness without the obsessiveness or handwringing. There’s value in the generalist, in a world that wants to make specialists of us all.

One Comment

  1. Sue Sabbagh
    Posted May 4, 2016 at 12:24 pm | Permalink

    Fascinating to overhear writers converse like this which they must occasionally do, even unprompted, as opposed to talking about hockey. I don’t feel clever enough to dare to comment except to say I loved the distinctions made between the way writers write novels/short stories/poems with different-sized bits of mosaic. And I enjoyed the comment about “What genius I had then…” the mysterious wisdom which is given from time to time (possibly by other writers, as you admit) and is rediscovered later with delighted surprise. The intelligence is awesome but the honesty disarming.

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Steven Heighton and Struan Sinclair

Steven Heighton’s most recent books are The Waking Comes Late (poetry, April 2016), and the Trillium Award finalist The Dead Are More Visible (stories). His novel Afterlands was cited on best of year lists in ten publications in Canada, the USA, and the UK, and is in pre-production for film. His stories and poems have appeared in the London Review of Books, Tin House, Zoetrope, Poetry, Best American Poetry, TLR, and five editions of Best Canadian Stories. He is also a fiction reviewer for the New York Times Book Review.   Struan Sinclair’s novels, short fiction, plays and new media projects have been widely anthologized and reprinted and have received critical acclaim and awards internationally. His works include Strange Comforts, Everything Breathed (Granta) and Automatic World (Doubleday/Anchor Books), as well as a forthcoming novel, short fiction collection and the interactive graphic novel Tomorrowless.