1001′s Grant Gerald Miller on Plot

Grant Gerald Miller was born in Memphis, Tennessee. He is currently an MFA candidate at the University of Alabama. His work has appeared or is set to appear in various journals including Hobart, Qu Magazine, Bartleby Snopes, Necessary Fiction, and Nimrod.

BOBBY

In your opinion, what disaster scenario is most likely to destroy the earth?

GRANT

I got freaked out by that New York Times article about the Tsunami on the West Coast. But I imagine the effects of global warming will be the main factor, causing all kinds of weird stuff to happen.

But, really. I don’t think the earth will be destroyed. People maybe, but the earth should be fine until the sun burns out and sends it hurdling off into space. I think that process will take about 8 minutes (from burnout to hurdle). That would be a neat thing to bear witness to.

BOBBY

What are you learning as a teacher?

GRANT

The biggest think I’m learning about teaching right now is how to teach people who aren’t really engaged with the subject matter. Or who don’t even particularly want to be in the room at all. All of my teaching experience is with people who have sought out the class and paid their hard-earned money to take the class, and are engaged and excited about whatever it is I’m teaching. I’m teaching an early British Literature survey, which, to be completely honest, also bores me to tears. So it’s been interesting trying to engage my students about a subject matter that even I’m not that excited about. But, surprisingly, within the class I have a lot of freedom when it comes to lesson plans and such. I can basically do whatever I want, so long as it pertains to The Canterbury Tales or Shakespeare’s Sonnets or whatever.

BOBBY

Is it a writing class or an English class?

GRANT

It is a 200 level English class. Most of my students are majoring in something else, and are required to take it.

BOBBY

Have you figured out how to make it help your writing at all, or do you find any elements from Arthurian stories sneaking into your own stuff? And suits of armor, any blood, any invisible knights?

GRANT

I already started writing a story about a human who teaches early British Literature. Ha!

BOBBY

How are you getting people into it? Or at least getting them to learn something from something so boring?

GRANT

They have to write a couple of essays over the semester, so I engage them a lot with writing and the writing process. We also do a lot of group work, which makes them automatically more engaged (because they are forced to be, heh heh). I’ve had them do group writing, hash out ideas with each other, and I even had them write their own poems and “lays” in class. We have fun.

BOBBY

Lays?

GRANT

It’s a very specific type of love poem that was popular in the 12 and 13th century. The structure is pretty much your traditional story structure: “Integration, disintegration, reintegration.”

BOBBY

Do you give any constraints to their poems? Or any prompts?

GRANT

I usually give them some type of prompt, and they either write about football, or about how they’re being forced to write a poem. Ha! But I get the sense that for the most part they’re pretty engaged.

BOBBY

What’s the first thing you focus on when you’re teaching plot? Like, how do you start?

GRANT

What is a plot? The main events of a piece of writing, presented in a certain sequence by an author?

I teach plot as sort of the all-encompassing, pervasive, glue of a piece of writing that holds it together. Kind of like Aristotle’s aether. It’s like the gel that holds the planets in space.

Teaching plot is mostly teaching the elements of what comprises a plot, right? So if we’re talking about character driven fiction, the plot is the aether that holds your characters and their motives, your setting, your themes, your premise, and all of your events and their sequences in place. Right?

BOBBY

What do you think of Kevin Brockmeier’s piece, The Ceiling? What do you think of its plot structure?

GRANT

And if you’re talking about writing as process I tell students to think about plot, but not to worry too much about that when starting out on a piece. Things have a tendency to surface through the act of writing, right?

BOBBY

Oooh, specific stuff surfaces through the aether or takes form from the aether? Like specific events or gluey instances take shape that bring characters together?

GRANT

The Ceiling is very rich. And I think a really good example of a story that is rich on many different levels. Have your students state what the plot is: “A guy feels alienated from his wife, but he loves his kid, and he finds out his wife is cheating on him, and blah blah blah,” but all the while that this stuff is going on, there is a black square descending on the planet and it sort of crushes everybody.

That is essentially the “plot,” but there is so much material to hash out inside of that plot. What are some of the the things inside of that plot that emerge for you? i.e. themes, characters’ behavior toward the ceiling, etc etc

BOBBY

I was trying to think of if it’s written like it’s got two plots, an internal and an external. In the first half, no one is paying any attention to the ceiling except for the narrator and the reader, we think maybe it’s nothing, but we feel a little tense throughout, we really get a sense of maybe-there’s-doom-a-comin while we’re getting little scenes of the marriage breaking.

The two sides blend together completely at the end, we really feel the outside world’s been crushed as well as the inside world. But do you think it is that kind of two-sides structure?

GRANT

The plot is definitely comprised of two very large elements, right? On a close reading of that story you’ll find that everything Brockmeier did from the first line “There was a sky that day” to every scene in the story, that he chose to do things very deliberately. I think a large part of teaching plot is demystifying plot, breaking it down into the disparate elements that comprise “plot.”

I basically teach plot as an introduction to the rest of the material I’m gonna cover in class over the semester. Have your students dissect The Ceiling into its disparate parts: characters, themes (themes is a big one), scene, exposition, setting, connection, disconnection, characters’ motivations, the ceiling, why aren’t people freaking out about the ceiling? etc etc.

So in a way teaching plot is simply looking at the ingredients that comprise your “plot casserole” (I’m trying to switch up metaphors here, but I really wanted to say the planets that make up your galaxy.)

BOBBY

What about using the whiteboard, writing the categories down (themes, characters, scenes), then listing the points that hit these through the story?

Or like, how do you break it down as a group but keep track of how it’s been broken down?

Do you like things like Freytag’s pyramid?

image

GRANT

I do use that to explain plot structure. I like to break it down to its simplest terms for people. it goes by many names: “conflict, climax, resolution,” “Balance, upset balance, balance restored,” “Integration, disintegration, reintegration,” etc.

BOBBY

What is the ‘crisis’ moment in a plot?

GRANT

This is why I like that “connection, disconnection” handout that A.M. uses. What, in your interpretation is the “crisis” moment in The Ceiling?

BOBBY

Hmm, I feel like there’s the suspicion of crisis, like it’s planted in the narrator’s head when his wife’s foot is on their neighbor’s chair, then really starts forming or building when the ceiling metaphor enters the scene, I feel like the big crisis moment is when he sends his son to knock on the glass when he sees his wife on a date with their neighbor.

Then there’s the explosion of the water tower.

GRANT

See? A good plot is made up of crises within crises within crises. But all of the crises function within what I believe to be the single most important thing to keep in mind when writing a piece of character driven fiction. Do you know what that might be? Hint: It’s one of the “disparate parts of plot” that I mentioned earlier.

BOBBY

Connection, disconnection? Themes?

GRANT

THEMES!!!! And yes, use the whiteboard to keep track of the disparate elements of plot structure. Have students call them out and you write them on the board. Then look at each one and see how it functions, and to what purpose it functions in The Ceiling.

BOBBY

How do you like to explain themes?

GRANT

If plot is a galaxy (similar to our galaxy), I believe that themes are the sun, and characters are the earth.

BOBBY

Warmed by the sun, someday (if we make it) blown away by the sun?

GRANT

What is a theme?

BOBBY

Theme is something returned to over and over. Or maybe it’s like an aesthetic from which to pull out images and metaphor?

I’m not sure…

Is there like an overarching system of themes and little themes which come naturally out of it? What about when themes clash? Maybe this is too architectural… maybe themes come out naturally.

GRANT

I interpret themes as the Big Picture underlying reason that a piece of writing exists. And themes tend to emerge as a writer is writing a piece. What are some of the themes in The Ceiling? Themes are usually big abstract concepts, right?

DEATH

DISCONNECTION

CONNECTION

LONELINESS

EXISTENTIAL ANGST

LOVE

FEAR

dig?

BOBBY

So like different driving forces?

GRANT

Yes.

BOBBY

What are they in the galaxy analogy?

Cosmological disturbances?

Or physical laws?

GRANT

They are the sun, fueling your characters (earth!) to do what they do.

BOBBY

GRAVITY or SOLAR FLARES ? Thaaat’s right, sorry, you said earlier. Sun: theme. Earth: characters.

GRANT

In my interpretation, anyway. This is obviously all my humble, subjective, approach to understanding writing in my own way.

BOBBY

So in your own process then, when do you feel the sun heating up?

Do you start with the earth or with the sun?

GRANT

That’s a good question. All of these approaches (free write, frietag, whatevs) are just different approaches or ways to get into a piece of writing. Sometimes i start with a character. Sometimes I start with a theme. Sometimes I start with a sentence that sounds pretty.

More often than not, themes emerge as I write. I always tell students, when writing, to a) boil your story down to a single sentence, write it on an index card and tape it to your wall (or wherever you can see it when writing), and b) write down every theme that emerges from a piece of writing and do the same.

Then have all of your scenes, expositions, characters, paragraphs, sentences, words, work toward that sentence or that theme.

BOBBY

Can you move closer to the sun? Or do you have to move around on the earth to find shade? Either way, does the sun ever get too hot? What do you do if it gets too hot?

GRANT

If the sun gets too hot, you cool it off.

Always show don’t tell.

Have your students break down The Ceiling into its disparate parts. Have them identify the characters from most important to least. Have them identify the themes that emerge.

Have them identify the plot: i.e. “what happens.”

Write it all on the board.

BOBBY

Do you ever try to push your characters into misery?

GRANT

Your conclusion, or point, should be something like these are all different elements that we talk about when we talk about plot. Right?

I’ve never written a character that wasn’t utterly suffering in some way.

LOL

BOBBY

Who are your characters? Do you feel like they’re you suddenly in a new situation? Or are they parts of you you haven’t heard from before?

GRANT

My characters are parts of me, but I’m part of everything that exists in the entire universe, so there part of everything that exists in the entire universe, too. On a less abstract note, in one of my classes one of my students stole my sunglasses. I don’t know who stole them. I made a joke about it in class to them. But really, I don’t really care about the sunglasses or who stole them.

But I’m writing a story about a brit-lit professor who gets their sunglasses stolen by a student, and because of it becomes very paranoid and the story goes really really dark (I love the likes of Kafka, Stacey Levine, Ottessa Moshfegh) really really quickly. So it’s hard to say. I use some of my own experiences in some of my writing and characters, and in others I don’t at all.

I believe the writing itself tells me what to do a lot of the time.

BOBBY

What makes a good resolution in your mind? Like when are you really moved by resolution?

GRANT

Same with resolution. The writing dictates. In my own writing I always know when a story or poem is finished. I just do. That said, I have a whole bunch of unfinished stuff lying around.

BOBBY

Have you always known when a story is finished or were you uncertain how to tell when you first started writing?

GRANT

I appreciate really “a-ha moment” resolutions (Fight Club, Book of Eli, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, etc) but I don’t think I’m clever enough for all that.

I usually don’t know how a story is going to end. But I find that when I start a piece of writing with at least some vague idea of how it’s going to end, the whole process is a lot smoother.

BOBBY

Where do you write? Out walking or at a cafe? Do you need different locations depending on the stage of the work or the kind of work you’re doing?

GRANT

I primarily write at my kitchen table.

BOBBY

You write in the mornings or at night?

By hand or computer?

GRANT

I write on the computer 99.9% of the time. I take a lot of notes and make a lot of lists by hand, but I mostly write on the old Macbook.

GRANT

Historically, I’ve always woken up, read for a while, and then wrote for as long as I could. Now that I’m in grad school I don’t have the luxury of all that sometimes. So I have to go day by day. But I tailor my schedule to make sure I have at least an hour to write each day.

A.M. write a poem everyday and send it to each other. We hold each other accountable in that way. So even if I can’t get my hour in, I get something out in the world every day.

BOBBY

Yeah, you have to burn each other’s house down if you don’t send a poem right?

GRANT

Basically. Or we berate each other and call each other horrible names.

BOBBY

What have you learned working for Black Warrior Review?

GRANT

I’m reading poetry for them. They have a neat process that is way more democratic than 1001 was. Mainly because there’s like 10-15 people voting poems into BWR, as opposed to just you and I reading everything. BWR gets a LOT of submissions and has a lot of clout, and it’s nice to come into that fold of a journal that’s been up and running for a long time, all systems in place, lots of experience, whereas with 1001 we were pretty much just making it up as we went along.

BOBBY

BWR do any readings?

GRANT

Yes. There are a lot of different readings hosted by different campus programs, which is good because Tuscaloosa might be the single most boring and uninteresting place I’ve ever been for any significant amount of time. But Tuscaloosa being so awful is actually really good for me because I only leave my apartment to go to school and to teach, which means I get a lot of work done with minimal distraction.

BOBBY

How do you do with focusing? You like absolute quiet?

GRANT

I still have trouble focusing. But that’s always been part of my process. For ever hour of “creative output” I probably have three hours of pacing around the apartment, staring out the window, watching football, pacing around the apartment some more. But now that I’m not just writing, and also learning how to be a student again, I have do things like set timers for myself and not let myself stop whatever it is I’m doing until the timer goes off.

BOBBY

While you’re pacing, what’s going through your mind?

GRANT

Yeah. When I’m writing it’s usually me working out the writing. When I’m doing school work it’s just sheer procrastination and who knows what’s going on up there.

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