Vintage Interview with Donald Barthelme

There’s a lot of interesting stuff here from someone who is both an accomplished writer and teacher, but a few things in particular stood out to me.

Barthelme says that the only rule he has in his writing workshops is that his students aren’t allowed to mention the weather in their stories, saying that it saves pages of “ordinary” language.  Now obviously, great stories can still mention meteorological phenomena, but the central insight in this idea is that the writer should avoid that which is isn’t there own.  In other words, when you force yourself to abandon conventional modes of setting scene, mood, themes, et cetera, it leads you on the pursuit of something much more interesting.  Rules or exercises like the one Barthelme suggests teach you that there are always infinitely many ways in which you can communicate with your audience, meaning that the “ordinary” is not always what suits a work best.  One should always stop themselves after every sentence and ask, “where have I seen this before” and “should it be used here.”  Its a long and convoluted way of saying, how can I say something fresh, and how can I make this story a product of myself.

This leads me to his next major point at around 19 minutes into the interview, where he talks about clarity and accessibility.  He talks about how though his works might appear difficult, in the process of writing, he avoids being “needlessly obscure” in favor of being “needfully obscure”.  Needful obscurity, for Barthelme, is created when a work pairs two things that are very unlike together.  This pairing is where the ability of fiction to communicate with the reader becomes very important.  The writer making connections where others don’t see them is what makes for a challenging, but also engaging, read.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s