Conjurers' Arts

Scott ElliottScott Elliott forgoes the computer to record his literary fiction with paper and pencil. The family cat, Grendel, weary of the photographer’s presence, retires to another room.

Conjurers’ Arts
Scott Elliott, Assistant Professor of English

In the early 1990s, when he was in his 80s, my grandfather Barney Elliott recorded a series of reminiscences of events from his life into the microphone of a “jambox” my family gave him one Christmas. The proprietor of a hamburger stand and later a restaurant in Owensboro, Ky., Barney was a natural storyteller and a colorful character who often brought interesting misfits home from the restaurant to stay with him, his wife, Wilma, and their five children.
Scott Elliott Elliott works in his home office with a photo of his grandfather Barney Elliott as inspiration.

One time their guest was a man attempting to push a wheelbarrow around the world; another time, a peripatetic preacher with a prosthetic leg; on another occasion a blind piano player who taught my Uncle Bud to play the blues.

When he made these recordings, Barney couldn’t have known that 10 years later one of his 20 grandchildren would look to these tapes as the basis for a collection of literary short stories. I didn’t know I would be moved by the recordings to “do something” with them until some of the stories on the tapes and the richness of the world they invoked initiated the sort of inchoate yearning that lets me know I’m being called to write something.

In the proposal for a Perry Research Grant to help me pursue the translation of Barney’s accounts into literary fiction (in collaboration with talented Whitman writing students Miriam Cook ’10 and Christine Texeira ’10), I wrote that I was interested in the ways in which a consideration of the stories on the tapes might help us isolate and better interrogate the elements of good oral storytelling as set against the elements of good literary story-writing and the way these two strains inform each other. From the beginning, I looked at the project as a collaboration between myself and my grandfather and wrote in the grant proposal that I was interested in the way the project might allow for a useful juxtaposition between a more or less unselfconscious, naturally gifted storyteller and a writer of literary fiction.

As I listened to the recordings on cold February nights during a difficult winter in Walla Walla, the potential in the tapes, the poignancy they stirred, made the project seem daunting. How could I move a reader to experience the layers of which I’m aware, for example, when I listen to my grandfather tell a story about the time when at 10 or 11 he rode high on corn cobs in burlap sacks stacked 10 high (bound for sale across town as fuel for fires) in a cart pulled by a run-down mule named Nelly past his millworker father, who, dressed up in a polka-dotted tie, suit, and sailor hat and milling with the Saturday crowd in the courthouse square, out of embarrassment at young Barney’s disheveled state, twice denies knowing his son when directly hailed: “Hey, dad! Hey, dad!”? What portion of the up-welling of emotion I experienced as I listened to this story came from the experience of occasionally feeling the want of my own father’s attention at a public gathering? What portion from having a son myself now and working out what kind of father I’m trying to be? What portion from having known the man who was speaking and my awareness of the fact that his life meant something to a lot of people, that his funeral was attended by more than 300 souls, many of whom told stories about his kindness, some of which stories included his crossing a Jim Crow color line? What portion of the effect of the stories on the tapes comes from the mode of delivery and the way it seems at odds with the current century and moment of madness – the colorful phrases and Kentucky drawl, the slow, calm voice which one of my research assistants tells me forced her to slow down when she listened to it? What portion of this feeling comes from the placement of words? How would I need to arrange my words in a literary story, what would I need to add or cut or embellish or change in other ways in order to offer a reader who’s never known my grandfather something approximating the fullness of meaning I feel when I listen? What could I borrow from the stories in order to make effective literary fiction? What could I add or combine that will seem as authentic as what I heard on the tapes? Was there value, not just for me but for a reader, in such a collaborative endeavor?

“As I listened to the recordings on cold February nights during a difficult winter in Walla Walla, the potential in the tapes, the poignancy they stirred, made the project seem daunting. How could I move a reader to experience the layers of which I’m aware, for example, when I listen to my grandfather tell a story ... ”

When I listen to the best of Barney’s stories, I experience the poetic moment, which, as writers know, is only the beginning, really not even the beginning. If you’re a writer, once you’ve experienced that toe-tingling moment, hair-on-the-back-of-your-neck-moment, you have to figure out how to communicate it in words in such a way that will lead others into an experience of it. The best route to a translation of a literary poetic moment, as Emily Dickinson and Henry James and Flannery O’Connor knew, is never straightforward, always at a slant. It’s daunting to consider the layers I wish to communicate: moments of rhyming history in his and my father’s and my lives; a weird old America vibe but with a hint of an awareness of post-modern possibilities for freedom and multiplicity; a work that both of us would appreciate. Undertaking the project brings me into a contemplation of differences between telling a raw story off the cuff and crafting a literary story that’s meant to be just as emotionally raw but more layered and longer lasting. There are also the usual matters to consider, or feel my way into: choices of point of view; whether to include my (or a narrator’s) perspective and to what degree; whether to write in first or in third person and if in third person from what degree of psychic distance; how to handle dialect (“washed” or “warshed”); where to begin?

In a story meant to illustrate the abundance of rats in the “good old days,” which, Barney wishes to point out, were not so good at all, he talks about trapping rats in an alley behind a drugstore where he was working:

“About daylight the next morning I heard this dog barking real bad out in the alley, and I went outside and that trap was full, completely full of rats, just squirming. There was so many of them they couldn’t even move, just literally full. And this dog had come across them and he was just having a fit to get to those rats.”

That hungry dog “barking real bad,” having a fit next to the rat trap, makes his listeners believe in both the trap and the rats in a way that we wouldn’t if this detail were missing.

In another story, a scene right of out of Heller’s “Catch-22” about a stop at Camp Bradford, Va., prior to going to Okinawa, he talks about being made to guard a mostly abandoned clothesline the men were told had recently been robbed:

“My clothes line where I was supposed to guard had one pair of shorts hanging on it that had been hanging out there for six months. The wind had blowed on ‘em until they were nothing but rags. No one lived in the barracks there where I was guarding the clothesline; no one had lived there for months.”

“Mimi, Christine, and I meet up for Tuesday lunches at mom and pop places in Walla Walla to talk about issues of craft and questions that arise as we work with the recordings ... ”

In the following scene Barney falls asleep on duty because “the sun was so nice and warm and everything and it was so lonesome way back there in the back of the camp.” After he’s found asleep on the job with his rifle in his lap by the camp’s “main commander,” who happened to be coming up a back road with his entourage, he gets “read off like you’ve never been read off” and salutes the officer in proportion to the yelling. The success of this scene, which demonstrates the ridiculousness of their task, and his unlikeliness as a soldier, depends in large part on the details of the depiction of those shorts on that line.

To emphasize the importance of detail in fiction to student writers in my classes, I sometimes quote Checkov:

“When describing nature, a writer should seize upon small details, arranging them so that the reader will see an image in his mind after he closes his eyes. For instance: you will capture the truth of a moonlit night if you’ll write that a gleam like starlight shone from the pieces of a broken bottle, and then the dark, plump shadow of a dog or wolf appeared.”

Other times, I invoke Nabokov’s: “Caress the detail, the divine detail.” Or John Gardner, who, in “The Art of Fiction,” talks about the fiction writer’s need to build a continuous dream from details, which he says are fiction’s “lifeblood.” I’m also fond of quoting Flannery O’Connor, who says in one of the lectures collected in “Mystery and Manners” on the relationship between detail and symbols in fiction:

“I think that for the fiction writer himself, symbols are something he uses simply as a matter of course. You might say that these are details that, while having their essential place in the literal level of the story, operate in depth as well as on the surface, increasing the story in every direction.”

Barney Elliott, whose formal education stopped after his sophomore year in high school and who says a number of times on the tapes, “I’m dumb as an ox,” knew all of this about detail in a natural storyteller’s way, in a deep in the bones way you can’t teach but have to live.

Working with his stories for my own, at-first nebulous literary purposes, I find myself feeling like a phony, a high felutin’ smart alec who’s setting about gilding the gritty, unselfconscious details he’s already laid down and which, like good seeds from ancient stock, naturally begin to discover symbolic height and depth in a listener’s ears and brain. Shouldn’t I just leave them alone? How can I reproduce them on the page? Am I kidding myself to think I can improve upon them, work them into richer, more universal iterations, gain a wider audience for them with my own supposed abilities in and talent with language and what I’ve learned in my craft? On the other hand, I answer myself in these musings, is my life any less real or worthy just because of the self-consciousness that arises from my education, my craft, the age in which I’m living and the advantages I’ve been afforded?

Both of the snippets above demonstrate Barney’s penchant for exaggeration, the electric fizz that enlivens his stories. It can’t be verified, but I suspect that that rat trap in the moment he describes wasn’t “just squirming” with rats who couldn’t move. Those shorts blown to rags on the line, I suspect, may have been more than one and not in such bad shape. I also have to admit my suspicions about the size of the “14 foot” shark he later catches on the destroyer and that he and his shipmates hang from the fantail.

In partial fulfillment of the Perry grant, Mimi, Christine, and I meet up for Tuesday lunches at mom and pop places in Walla Walla to talk about issues of craft and questions that arise as we work with the recordings and as the students attempt to translate their own family stories into works of literary fiction. At the Walla Worm Ranch, Mr. Ed’s, The Cookie Tree, and Pho Sho, we talk about our hopes for our projects and try to isolate specific family stories we’ve been hosting that might be ready to begin to find their way to the page. We talk about obstacles to effective translation of oral accounts into literary fiction: the potential pitfalls of sentimentality, nostalgia, the existential import of already-formed oral accounts which might make them resistant to the perfect shapes we want to find for them in our fiction. We talk about Christine’s penchant for small moments of magical realism and Mimi’s progress on a project (working title: “The Unsettled Shore”) based on her family’s longstanding connection to Rehoboth Beach, Del., and the way the beach community has changed over time. We talk about collections of short stories relevant to our projects, and the students report on their visit to the Fishtrap Gathering in Enterprise, Ore.

Over the course of the summer, both Christine and Mimi write two, new, original stories in addition to helping me research and trans-mediate some of Barney Elliott’s stories into a word document. One of Christine’s original stories is narrated by a character who can see her good friend’s organs at certain vulnerable moments, a strategic choice to make the metaphoric literal in order to more vividly portray the fragility of this relationship as it comes under stress when her friend moves into a serious relationship. Mimi conducts interviews with family members and completes a draft of a story about a Pittsburg man’s return to a fictional Delaware beach community after an absence of many years.

“The stories live, moment by moment, because of the way they were told and they were told as they were because of the way the man lived. ”

I bring to our sessions concerns arising from my work with Barney’s stories. Over the course of the summer, I write drafts of three stories based on the recordings: one, an amalgam of many of his stories from childhood; one centered on his eye-witness account of the last public hanging in the United States; another based on his work as a cook in the galley of an SPT ship off Okinawa toward the end of World War II. In all of these drafts, I borrow crucial details of the sort it would be difficult to make up – Barney as a first-grader slipping into an open sewer and rushing into the Ohio river where he loses his first primer, an about-to-be-hanged man removing his shoes before ascending to the scaffold, a tomato can exploding under an oven in the galley at the moment when the sailors are expecting a Kamikaze attack – while also trying to leave myself room to shape the stories in necessary ways.

Trying to discover the point I want to make about the experience of working with these stories, I very quickly lose sight of any singular point I want to make about them, in the richness of meaning in the stories themselves. I want to retell them, to hit their high points for whomever will listen, to attempt to communicate the subtext I feel when I hear them, to look into someone else’s eyes to see if they see what I see in them, which comes from an experience of the man and the stories about him and from my own life and the choices I’ve made in it. I want to honor the stories and suspect this may best be done quietly, free of too much irritable grasping after their meanings or any singular points they want to make.

The stories live, moment by moment, because of the way they were told and they were told as they were because of the way the man lived. The strange world they evoke seems lost except in assemblages of words which waver delicately as they vibrate in the air – nothing more than flimsy machinery reading electromagnetically-applied flux on oxide. Delicate too is my own twin conjurer’s art – just some tricks with words and a way of being in the world I’ve picked up – a habit of art kept alive through watching and listening and reading and teaching talented student-writers like Christine and Mimi – that I hope will help me bring something of the wonders of Barney Elliott’s life and world into a new life on the page, thereby re-affirming my own life through its presentation as a gift for others.

Robert “Scott” Elliott is an assistant professor of English. He earned his bachelor’s degree from Vanderbilt University; master’s degree from University of Colorado, Boulder; and his master’s degree in fine arts from Columbia University. He joined the Whitman faculty in 2004.