BASS 2010: Kevin Moffett, “Further Interpretations of Real-Life Events” from McSweeeney’s

Oh, I love this story about a father and son who write “truish stories about fathers and sons.” From the beginning there’s a quality – vulnerability? Honesty? – that had me close to tears throughout. It’s constructed perfectly, with Harry Hodget, the son’s writing mentor, playing the part of wise outsider. His key line: “Anything worth saying is unsayable. That’s why we tell stories.” And so this father and son write stories, based on real-life events, to say what is worth saying to each other. It’s a remarkable story.

Of course, it’s a story about writers and writing, and I always enjoy those, even though they’re anathema to most journal editors. But I take away some writing advice from stories like these. I don’t know if the advice in the story is sincere or satirical, but a lot of it resonates with me.

First we have the “Six Rules of Writing” which of course the story breaks one after the other:

Never dramatize a dream.
Never use more than one exclamation point per story.
Never write about writing.
Never dramatize phone conversations. Put them in the same room, see what they do when they can’t hang up.
Never dramatize a funeral or a trip to the cemetery.
Never end your story with a character realizing something. Characters shouldn’t realize something, readers should.

This last one is key to me. I’ve put it in my “craft folder”. Along with: “Find a time for your characters when things might’ve turned out differently. Find the moment a choice was made that made other choices impossible. Readers like to see characters making choices.” And the comforting, “You’ll never earn a living writing stories, not if you’re any good at it.”

The mentor is an interesting character, a secondary father to the narrator. He asks, instead of “How are you,” “What are you pretending to be today?” When Frederick, the first-person narrator and the “son” of the primary father-son pair, complains about not having written for a month, the mentor spits out his father once tried to staple a dead squirrel to his scrotum, so stop whining. Yeah.

And there’s the element of competition, as Father starts writing stories that get published right next to Son’s. I understand how this feels to Son. But I also understand how it feels to Father, trying to communicate with a Son who isn’t really hearing, hasn’t been for some time. This effect is exaggerated as Father and Son have the same name.

Frederick (son) works as a remedial writing teacher at a community college. There’s a lot of complaining about too many stories about academics (hey, it’s what writers know) but this isn’t academia by any stretch. Frederick seems to be quite cynical about his class of literary underachievers, until a bag of Cheetos moves him to tears. I’m calling it a secondary father-son relationship, in which he’s the father all of a sudden. He doesn’t have a son of his own. He will someday. And won’t that be fun.

There are many stories told within this setup. Some are factually true; some are factual adaptations to serve truth. They are all beautiful, and it’s amazing to see what father and son are telling each other in these stories, these interpretations of real life events. There’s humor (Son calls to find out where baby carrots come from, then tries to write a story based on “babies are adults cut down to size”). There’s heartbreak. There’s not a false note throughout. Like I said, masterful. Read it – and you can, it’s available – free! – online from McSweeney’s on Googledocs.

Addendum 3/27/12: I’m so excited to see Moffett’s collection, with this as the title story, is now available.

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9 responses to “BASS 2010: Kevin Moffett, “Further Interpretations of Real-Life Events” from McSweeeney’s

  1. This sounds fascinating! And I never heard the rule about never dramatizing a funeral, or the way to a cemetery. In my experience, either of those two things can be quite interesting. Hmm. Maybe that’s my next writing prompt.

    • It’s wonderful, how the Real Life versions and the rewrites intertwine, and the story illuminates reality. The ending is superb, that kind of ending I envy. And it’s available online! I was so excited about the story I failed to do my usual scouring of the Internet to check it out. While I found few comments about it (to my surprise), I did find it on Googledocs (link above) which is free.

      As for the “rules”, I think everyone has “rules” and most of them are bullshit. I’ve never heard the funeral/cemetery one either, but I’ve never written about either. But some “rules” I’ve encountered – never start with a line of dialogue (and if you start with a line of unattributed dialogue you’ll go blind), never write about the homeless (unless you’re Sherman Alexie), never use semicolons unless you’re writing academic work. And I just learned that too much dialogue is a horrible thing. Of course, just what “too much” is wasn’t defined. I think people are given “rules” when their stories don’t work, and the reasons they don’t work has nothing to do with the rules. This story works amazingly well, and it breaks at least five out of six rules (though I think the character has several realizations and just never articulates them).

      As for prompts – the Flash Factory prompt this week is travel. I have no idea where to go with that. (ouch)

  2. I LOVED the Sam Nam! Thanks for the recommendation! I’m going to look up the others you mentioned. I agree that any “Top 10″ list is contingent on the day and mood I’m in, although the ones I listed (except “Summer, Boys,” which is so new) have stood the test of time. I’ve read them over and over and still love them.

    What did you think of “Axis” (Munro in the New Yorker)? I’ll look at your review – I was a little disappointed. . .

    • I’m so glad you liked “I Use Commas like Ninja Stars” – it’s one of those stories that stays with me, and sometimes, when I’m at the grocery store or in the shower or cooking, it’ll just pop into my mind and bam! the tears start. I used to teach ESL so I know some people who went thru such things, and parents who watched their kids move away from them as they Americanized. I hope you get to read “Further Interpretations” at some point, too, or it’s in BASS 2010. I’m hoping “Summer, Boys” will be in BASS 2011!

      I’ve never been captivated by an Alice Munro story. I haven’t read many, though. “Axis” was ok, I enjoyed it, but I enjoy most stories. I just photocopied the one from Harper’s today while I was at the library, which reminds me I should get it out of my rucksack before it gets all wrinkled… I’ll let you know when I read it. But I read her more because she’s known as a “good” writer than because I love her stories. To be honest, I don’t have any favorite authors – so many times I’ll read something I love and then something else by the same writer won’t do anything for me. But I keep reading!

  3. Just finished “Furthe Interpretations” – LOVED it (but still love Summer, Boys a little more). I actually taught remedial writers for years – loved the kid who liked to think in his “rom”! The father/son dynamic was beautiful, and so fraught with undercurrents. I always finish stories like this and wonder “How did he know to write it that way?” I’m almost sick with jealousy!

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