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Conflict, the Passover Question, and Fear of Sentimentality

Today, we wrap up our question-of-the-day from Joshua Henkin, author of the critically acclaimed novel Matrimony. Thanks for Joshua for all this time and great information this week.

Slushpile: What is your single-best, most-important, can’t-live-without writing tip you would offer to aspiring authors?

Henkin: First of all, I want to thank you, Scott, for having me here as a guest on your blog this week; it’s been a real pleasure, particularly since I love Slushpile.net.

I’m afraid I’m no good at giving single-best, most-important tips. As soon as I think of one, there’s another that competes with it. And certainly some of the things I mentioned earlier in the week (read widely and deeply; tie yourself to your chair and just write) would be good contenders for most-important, can’t-live-without writing tip. But since I said those already, I want to use this space to give a couple of tips that grow out of problems I see in my graduate students’ work and that afflict writers of literary fiction more broadly.

First: conflict. Don’t run from it; embrace it. When I say conflict, I don’t mean a character sitting alone in a room feeling conflicted. I mean narrative conflict. I mean character A wants something, and character B wants something else. To my mind, character is at the heart of good fiction, but the way a writer explores character is through crucible moments. You’re faced with an important choice, and that reveals something about who you are. Too many MFA student stories are about watching. The stories are often very well written and they’re filled with moments of astute observation, but that’s all there is—observation. You yank your protagonist out of the story and not much changes. In fact, that’s a good test. Ask yourself whether the removal of your protagonist from your story has a significant impact on the narrative action. If it doesn’t, then the story is likely in trouble, because your protagonist isn’t sufficiently implicated in her own story.

Desire is essential in life, and it’s essential in fiction. Ask yourself a series of questions. What does my protagonist want? What does he think he wants? What is he going to do to achieve these wants? Who’s getting in the way of his achieving these wants? It’s easier to answer these questions in some stories than in others, but the questions should never seem incoherent/befuddling. If they do, something is amiss in the story. Too often, I see stories where the animating desire is the desire to be left alone. But that’s not enough to hang a story on, and it’s the product of the watching problem. Someone who’s predisposed simply to watch is likely to be animated by the desire to be allowed to watch.

Watching—observation—is an important element of fiction, but it’s not the only element, and too often aspiring writers treat it as such. I live in New York City, a place where people are wise to avoid conflict. You sit on the subway and you do your best to avoid a stranger’s glance. But it’s not just New York City writers who are afraid of conflict. It’s true everywhere, perhaps because writers are observers by profession if not also by temperament. They remove themselves from the crowd and take notes. But you can’t let your characters themselves do that—certainly not to the exclusion of everything else.

Imagine you’re sitting on a bus, thinking your thoughts, when a stranger sits down next to you and puts his hand on your thigh. What do you do? You can scream. You can push his hand off. You can get off the bus. You can put your hand on his thigh. You can do nothing, I suppose, but in that case doing nothing is really doing something. One way or another you are forced to act, and how you act—the choice you make—reveals your character. For that reason, I’m always telling my students that they need to have strangers lay their metaphorical hands on characters’ thighs.

And be ready to answer the Passover question: Why is this night different from all others nights? That’s the mother of all Passover questions, and it’s the mother of all fiction questions. Of all the days you could have written about, you’ve chosen to write about this one. Why? What’s important about it? Every story needs to answer that question.

People ask me whether I knew where Matrimony was going when I started to write the book, and I say, “Are you kidding me?” I never know where I’m going. Or sometimes I think I know where I’m going, but I’m always wrong. At least, I better be wrong. If I’m right, then I know the story is in trouble. If you inject your characters into a preordained plot you get what a friend of mine calls “Lipton-Cup-a-Story.” On the other hand, if you’re not writing toward anything at all, you can end up writing a lot of pretty sentences about mountains and sunsets that don’t add up to anything. So what I try to do is set my work in situations where the stakes are high and where there’s potential for conflict. Weddings, Bar Mitzvahs, graduations, college reunions, Thanksgiving dinners.

When I started Matrimony, I thought it was going to be about a love relationship, and that it would take place at a college reunion. Well, Matrimony is (in part) about a love relationship, and there is a college reunion in the novel, but that reunion doesn’t take place until page 260 or so, and it lasts for all of six pages. Pretty early on, then, it became clear to me that the book was going in a direction I hadn’t divined. But I think the reason I thought of a college reunion was that I was trying to generate conflict and thereby locate the book’s meaning. I wanted to thrust my characters into contact with one another in situations where the stakes were high. How you do this depends on the story you’re writing, but one way or another you have to do it.

My second piece of advice is not to fear being over the top. You don’t want to be over the top, of course, but there’s always room to cut the excess when you revise. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve seen a student story in which the writer is so fearful of being heavy-handed that he’s subtle to the point of obfuscation. It’s fine to be subtle—it’s good, in fact—but as a colleague of mine once said, you better have something you’re being subtle about.

Often with my student stories, I end up confused. I understand what’s happening on a superficial level, but things are emotionally fuzzy. I have no idea what I’m supposed to feel. And sometimes when I ask the writer what she wants me to feel, she’ll say, “I don’t know,” or “It’s up to you.” She doesn’t know? She has to know! And it’s because she doesn’t know that the story is emotionally out of focus. It’s up to me? No. It’s up to her. Any writer worth her salt is a control freak. She labors for years over every clause, every comma, in order to make me feel exactly as she wants me to. We writers want to make our readers have an emotional experience. If we want them to be sad and they feel indifferent, if we want them to be amused and they feel angry, then we have failed them, and ourselves.

There’s way too much tentativeness on the part of aspiring writers. Years ago, after White Teeth was published, I saw Zadie Smith interviewed on Charlie Rose, and Smith told Rose that there are things in White Teeth that don’t seem particularly believable but that she refused to let her readers not believe. She simply took her readers by the lapels and made them believe. That’s what every writer needs to do. You can never be tentative. And one important way not to be tentative is by risking sentimentality.

It’s true that you want to avoid sentimentality, but what I see for more often than sentimentality (among good writers, at least) is an absolutely paralyzing fear of sentimentality, to the point that the stories get shorn of all feeling. You need sentiment, in other words, and you should risk sentimentality in order to achieve it. Fear not the Hallmark card. Your story is likely to be less Hallmark than you think, and there’s always time to remove the offending passages. It’s much easier to pare down the excess than it is to add feeling when there’s nothing there to begin with.