On Patient Writing

Chris Bachelder

Summer 2019


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Steven Millhauser’s story “A Visit” begins with a destination. In the opening sentence, the narrator, lonely and dissatisfied with the conventional drift of his life, reports that he received in the mail an invitation to visit his peculiar college friend Albert, whom he hadn’t seen in nine years. The letter includes a scribbled map to Albert’s “remote upstate town,” as well as the mysterious news that Albert has “taken a wife.” The narrator—curious, envious, nervous—cancels his weekend plans and heads north to Albert’s house. By the end of the first paragraph, we have a dramatic vector, a narrative shape. It’s pretty clear: there’s a story at Albert’s house. We’re headed there with a crude map and an uneasy feeling.

The second paragraph then executes what one writer friend calls “the page two move.” Having established shape and movement, it now backs up to fill in some critical backstory and to bring into focus the ground state of the story, which has been perturbed, to use John Barth’s term, by Albert’s letter. The emotional valence of an event is never self-evident. Going to see an old friend could mean ten different things to ten different characters, so readers need to know to whom this is happening. The narrator briefly relates the history of his friendship with Albert, and he admits that he has thought frequently of Albert in the last nine years. That he still considers Albert his best friend is sad and strange, and it perhaps reveals more than the narrator imagines or intends. Though we learn some key facts and a basic timeline in this passage, the crucial information here is the narrator’s attitude toward Albert. That attitude is a complex alloy of respect and disdain. Albert might be an iconoclast, and he also just might be a flake, but at any rate he troubles and attracts his old friend. Ambivalence in fiction can be a source of drama.

In the third paragraph we’re on the road, following Albert’s imprecise map, seeking the destination established in the first few lines of the story—“a little white square marked MY HOUSE.” The story, not just the narrator, is following the map. Readers at this point understand well that whatever terrible and wonderful events will happen in this story will happen at Albert’s house. “Time draws the shapes of stories,” Joan Silber writes, and even inexperienced readers know implicitly that the visit with Albert is the story. They are overlapping categories. When the visit is over, the story will be over—this information is coded into the opening paragraph. The story needs to get to Albert’s house—there is a strong dramatic current pushing writer and reader there. It’s perhaps useful to pause here in the third paragraph to consider that many writers would be at Albert’s house already, knocking on the door, shaking hands, observing the changes wrought by time, trying to get a glimpse of Albert’s wife. In “Serious Noticing,” an essay on detail and observation, James Wood writes, “Often with great writers, it is instructive to stop at the point in a sentence, or in a metaphor, or in a perception, where the ordinary writer might come to a halt.” Analogously, I would say that it is instructive to note the destinations at which ordinary writers might arrive too quickly. Wood’s point is about imaginative extension; my point is about imaginative deferral. Both points have to do with patience and the lingering eye. Here is what Millhauser, not an ordinary writer in the least, does in the third paragraph:

Chris Bachelders most recent novel is The Throwback Special.  He lives in Cincinnati. 

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