Tim Tomlinson – Guest Editorial

Tim Tomlinson LE P&W May 2022

Download PDF Here Live Encounters Poetry & Writing Spring Edition May 2022.

Heaven Never Treats You Like Yourself,  guest editorial by Tim Tomlinson.

1. About writing fiction, Flannery O’Connor said, “You can do anything you can get away with, but nobody has ever gotten away with much.” It’s hard to argue with an author of Ms. O’Connor’s stature, but I’m going to. Certain conventions endure, of course. You can’t have a play if you don’t have an audience. But even back when O’Connor said this (late 50s/early 60s), it was only partially correct. Writers have been getting away with quite a lot for a very long time, if we understand “getting away with” as playing with, even abandoning the conventions and yet still managing to keep (enough) readers on the page. Can you spell Ulysses [1] ? The very long “tradition” of formal innovation, and formal formal challenges, pre-dates Ms. O’Connor, but ever since Jasper Johns started hanging straw brooms off picture frames, it’s seemed more and more easy, more and more common, and maybe more and more attractive to get away with at least some, if not much.

2. In 1994 Janet Malcolm published an essay in the New Yorker called “41 False Starts.” It was, ostensibly, a profile of the 1980s downtown NYC artist David Salle, whose work was characterized by, among other things, its salaciousness, its dubious originality, and its (eventual) value: Salle made millions.

Many millions. Many many millions. Malcolm’s profile of the mega-rich artist became a template for how to fail at capturing your subject, but failure in the Bob Dylan sense of “there’s no success like failure,” (“Love Minus Zero/No Limit,” 1965). The essay showcases Malcolm’s forty-one individual attempts to get her arms around Salle, whom she finds elusive and alluring. She tries setting first, subject later, then subject first, setting later. She tries art historical. She tries secondary sources. She tries the man. She tries the interview. She shows us, in enumerated entries that amount to some ten-thousand-plus words, that not knowing is a very good way to get to know … if not an answer, something.

In this case, we get to know, as does Malcolm, that ambivalence about a subject (and Malcolm is ambivalent, about the sexual nature of the work, and about the amount of money it’s provided the artist) can lead to uncertainty about form. Further, that uncertainty finds its own form, a form to accommodate the mess, as Beckett had it.

3. A favorite example of uncertainty: “I once had a girl—or should I say, she once had me” (“Norwegian Wood,” the Beatles, 1965). Thus begins John Lennon’s mini-saga of a date gone wrong, at least for the protagonist. He doesn’t even know how to tell the story, and then he tells it. He includes details: the chairless room, a rug, a bath. Cheap paneling, the Norwegian wood of the title. What do they add up to? Hell if the protagonist knows, hell if we know. We’re both left in a state of wonder. Wonder finds its own form, then sets it on fire. Maybe.

4. Compare Lennon’s confusion with McCartney’s certainty: “In Penny Lane there is a banker with a motorcar…” (“Penny Lane,” the Beatles, 1967). In McCartney’s evocation of childhood, the empirical data piles up: a barber shop, a roundabout, a pretty nurse with poppies on a tray. McCartney’s so certain, he even knows the contents of a fireman’s pocket. But as he says, all these details create a picture that’s “very strange.” It’s a reworking of Kierkegaard’s either/or dilemma: don’t know something, you’ll be uncertain; know something, you’ll be uncertain, too. What’s a writer to do?

5. “Don’t fear mistakes,” Miles Davis said. “In improvisation, there are no mistakes.”

6. Mondegreens—or some mistakes are better than the original. Tom Waits’ wife, Kathleen Brennan, thought Creedence’s “There’s a bad moon on the rise,” was “There’s a bathroom on the right.” A student of mine, whose ambition was to become a sexologist, thought the Shirelles’ “Can I believe the magic of your sighs,” was “Can I believe the magic of your size.” I thought Fleetwood Mac’s “Have you any dreams you’d like to sell?” was “Heaven never treats you like yourself.”

7. In a Paris Review interview from the mid-1990s, Sam Shepard said, “A lot of the time when writers talk about their voice, they’re talking about a narrative voice. For some reason my attempts at narrative turned out really weird. I didn’t have that kind of voice, but I had a lot of other ones, so I thought, Well, I’ll follow those.” John Lennon said, “I think a no, I mean a yes.” (There are no mistakes.) (You can get away with much.)

8. In a recent New York Times interview, Ocean Vuong cites Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft as a book that infuriated him. This is a book that cites the rules, that advances the paradigms. Quite a few of its sections reference Flannery O’Connor. He recommends Jane Alison’s Meander, Spiral, Explode: Design and Pattern in Narrative. This is a book that questions the rules, challenges the paradigms. It contains no Flannery O’Connor.

9. Once I did a reading at a conference in Bali. In the audience were some friends. By the time I finished the reading, even before, they had become enemies, something I learned only the next morning when, so radioactive was I, they wouldn’t even sit with me in the same taxi. They couldn’t bear to walk the same halls as me. I’ve never heard from them since. That was five years ago. Oh, the judgments of the culturally sophisticated, of those-who-are-certain, those-who-uphold-the-standards and embody the virtues. I followed a voice, but not their kind of voice. Or: I read a story, but not their kind of story. Or: I didn’t include a point of view. Or: I didn’t know another point of view existed. Or: the author was the narrator. Or: Or: Or:
                            I once had some friends, this song might begin.

10. My father was not a praying man, he was a working man. He used to say, “Work is prayer.” By which he meant, work is labor, observable labor. Effort of a physical sort. Sometimes he’d see me looking out a window or staring down a blank page and ask what I was doing, a question that was always an overture to work, an overture that wasn’t a request. “Thinking,” I’d tell him, not meeting his eyes, because mine were already filled with fury. I knew what was coming.

“Oh yeah?” he’d say, “well think outside with a rake in your hand.” Oh, how many Kubla Khans expired in the leaves piled outside my windows? How many blew away? Probably none, but that’s not the point. “Lost time is not found again,” Dylan, (“Odds and Ends,” 1967).

11. Jasper Johns said, “Take an object. Do something to it. Do something else to it.”

12. If you’re working class, you enter the world of the culturally sophisticated not knowing if you should shit or wind your wristwatch. You think a yes, you mean a no. You’re certain of only one thing: you can’t get away with very much, if anything. This is a critical awareness in Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels. Lila takes an object, she does something to it, then does something else, and everything she does turns out wrong. Nino, the son of a writer (who molests minors) who becomes a professor (who fathers children that he abandons [2] ), says, “[Lila]’s really made badly: in her mind and in everything, even when it comes to sex.” Lenu, Lila’s perennial friend, recoils. She thinks, even that we get wrong? It’s not just men judging, it’s class. For Lila and Lenu, there are nothing but mistakes, even in the things they do well. Lila makes mistakes, Lenu fears them. Lila hears voices. She tries to outrun them. They drive her mad. Lenu hears Lila and her voices. She absorbs them. She gives them voice. Her friends become her enemies.

13. There are mistakes. You have to live with them. But it’s not a mistake to read your story. It’s not a mistake to write it, to think it, to imagine it, even to borrow or steal it. You might not get away with it, but the only mistake is to keep it inside. “If my thought dreams could be seen, they’d probably put my head in a guillotine, but it’s alright, Ma,” Bob Dylan (“It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)”).

14. I used to teach a workshop called “Building the Dramatic Arc.” In it, I would, on occasion, assign sections of Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft. And often I’d draw on the work of Flannery O’Connor [3]. Now I teach a course called “The Fragmented Text.” It begins with Janet Malcolm’s “41 False Starts.” Then it meanders, spirals, and, one hopes, explodes.


[1] On the other hand, can you spell Finnegans Wake?
[2] I point out Nino’s flaws not to judge him—I don’t. He’s forgivably, if unsympathetically, flawed. I do judge his father. His father is the kind a predator that sniffs out opportunity among the disadvantaged—a hyena.
[3]Whose work I still love and admire.

© Tim Tomlinson

Tim Tomlinson is the author of the chapbook Yolanda: An Oral History in Verse, the poetry collection, Requiem for the Tree Fort I Set on Fire, and the short story collection, This Is Not Happening to You. Recent work appears in the Tin Can Literary Review, Columbia Journal, Litro, and the anthology, Surviving Suicide: A Collection of Poems that May Save a Life.

His current projects include Listening to Fish, which fuses strains of scuba diving, poetry, lyric essay, and autofiction into … something. And a second collection of short stories, the highly fragmented Parentheticals, some of which appear in Home Planet News, Another Chicago Magazine, Big City Lit, and elsewhere. He has lived in Miami, the Bahamas, New Orleans, London, Florence, Shanghai, Hua Hin (Thailand), and currently resides in the borough of his birth, Brooklyn, New York. He is co-founder and director of New York Writers Workshop, and co-author of its popular text, The Portable MFA in Creative Writing. He teaches in NYU’s Global Liberal Studies.


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