In January of 2004, I somehow convinced Gary Lutz to come to Seattle to give a short workshop and reading. I had unused air miles. Lutz was willing to fly, although over email and then the phone he expressed his dismay at the idea of air travel. But something about Seattle was appealing to him. Diana George first recommend him to me and I had to track down his book which was out of print, then. It had been published in 1996 by Alfred A. Knopf along with several other soon to be hard to find, but influential books: The Age of Wire String by Ben Marcus and Diane Williams’ The Supefaction. All were edited by Gordon Lish in his final years at Knopf. Diana G. eventually wrote a review of Lutz’s first book when it was reissued by 3rd Bed.
It was kind of surreal picking him at the airport. He looked very normal. His stories, too, were normal but at first they didn’t seem normal. At first they seemed experimental or put on (not a negative quality), but then gradually, they seemed perfectly reasonable. Gary Lutz uses language and syntax in a method perhaps suggested to him by Gordon Lish to shock the realistic story into something else. He doesn’t write allegorical or fantasy stories. He doesn’t write with OULIPO style constraints; rather his stories seem to me to balance both a perceived world and the nearly arbitrary difficulty of putting that perceived world into words. A similar effect occurs in a constraint novel, where the game of omitting something or following a rule in order to write throws makes the authors choices part of the story. However, where a constraint is a kind of operating parameter for the writer, Lutz exerts an aspect of mutilation. Gordon Lish was said to have gone too far in cutting down Raymond Carver’s What We Talk about When We Talk About Love. Lutz, I think, shows a similar zeal for reshaping and cutting his sentences. I think, “too far,” is a matter of taste.
In his workshop, Lutz selected a handful of opening stories from well-regarded sources. He chose well known literary magazines. We looked at the language used in these sentences. Lutz became agitated. He wasn’t angry, but he seemed to summon the righteous wrath of a seventh grade composition teacher railing against the passive voice. The language of these writers, he pointed out, didn’t communicate any perception. Instead they delivered what we already knew. They asked nothing of the reader. They didn’t make any leaps, discoveries, or show the reader anything. He then presented a series of sentences from writers he admires: Dawn Raffel, Sam Lipsyte, and Amy Hemple.
He then walked us through the exercise of rebuilding a sentence. For example, a sentence might contain a number of expected words. For instance: The short boy leaned into the bat and managed to hit the ball. Bat, hit, ball, are expected words. A sentence can be a dwindling of a options. Each element in the sentence because of English’s dependence on word order gradually eliminates expectations. We are presented with a sentence that begins with a boy with a bat, we expect hit (or miss) and ball.
This was a concern shared by Gertrude Stein (How to Write):
“Successions of words are so agreeable.” and later the OULIPO. The OULIPO contended any literary form has one ideal expression. Original expression should be located in the creation of a form. A proof of the ideal is Raymond Queneau’s sonnet. For an idea of the form, check out Italo Calivino’s algorithm for If On a Winter Night a Traveler, “How I Wrote One of My Books.” Most writers aren’t exactly good at math, so a popular way of creating a form is to mutilate an existing form with a constraint — say a detective novel where the letter “e” is omitted, Georges Perec’s The Void.
Most writers are taught through the peer-pressure of MFA programs of trying to publish their stories in committee-run literary magazines not to defy expectations. There are no rewards in private jokes and obscure methods. Do not write: The short boy leaned into the bat and managed to smack the old woman with the outer rim.
Lutz however asked us instead to consider the words and their order (their succession) and how we could change the vocabulary to make something new. He asked us to reshape the sentences and alter their shape as if they were made out of a plastic substance. He wanted us not only to rearrange the words like plastic blocks, but then to melt them with a butane lighter.
Many writers he pointed out will use a thesaurus. Instead he used a cross-word dictionary. He had a favorite one. He identified the dead-wood in in a sentence and began to rebuild it. Lutz begins to rework using phonic elements as opposed to trying to maintain the function of the sentence to communicate something else–plot, or story, or character.
This method echoes Richard Hugo’s:
This is probably the hardest thing about writing poems. It may be a problem with every poem, at least for a long time. Somehow you must switch your allegiance from the triggering subject to the words. — The Triggering Town
Gary Lutz writes in “Spills,” a story fromI Looked Alive:
The youngest of the girls had proposed herself out of the least promising of bodies and had ever after let her life take its line from the coercive slants and downturns of her sisters.