national anthology of the best undergraduate writing 2014

Plain Talk from the Fiction Editors

When reading undergraduate writing, the fiction committee hit upon the beauty and power of simple narratives: plain talk. It may look easy, but that’s the trick: it’s not. As writers who are inherently new to the task of creative writing, we often find it difficult to find the balance—or even the restraint—to be plain. After all, isn’t being plain the opposite of everything we’re taught? How can we be vivid, exciting, gut-wrenching, or joyful without pouring our hearts and words into every sentence? Why on earth would we want to write plainly?

One of our fiction editors remembers actually feeling chagrined when she first heard about plain china, interpreting the name as an insult. What were we, chopped liver? To be served on plain china? But the Virginia Woolf quote from which our name derives provides illumination. In A Room of One’s Own, she writes, “This college, where we are now sitting, what lies beneath its gallant red brick and the wild unkempt grasses of the garden? What force is behind that plain china off which we dine…?” This sentiment is reminiscent of our little college tucked into the Vermont hillside, and encapsulates the paradox of simplicity with which we often struggle. So we figured the idea of plain talk warranted some discussion.

Jess Joho: Woolf seems hard to reconcile with this idea of “plain talk.” Isn’t it the antithesis of her style? Studying To the Lighthouse freshman year, I felt as if every sentence of my own writing should have at least four commas and two semicolons, and that every paragraph should take on the whole of human experience, from life to death and everything in-between. Thinking back on it, though, it’s funny—because what stayed with me most wasn’t her high-flown language, near-impenetrable narrative structures, or hundred-word sentences. Instead, it was four simple words: Life, stand still here.

In the same class we studied Welty, who admitted that at the tender age of sixteen, she’d set out to, “write about the great world, of which I only knew Jackson, Mississippi.” She illustrated this disastrous reach toward grandiosity by quoting one of the funniest opening sentences I’ve ever read: Monsieur Boule inserted a delicate dagger into Mademoiselle’s left side and departed with a poised immediacy. In the same interview, Welty attributed this early impulse to aggrandize as, “stemming from my sense of mystery in people and places, [which is] legitimate and lifelong.” Reading hundreds of stories for plain china, we see that this feeling characterizes most early writing. It’s in every journal: that pure, undiluted, undergraduate sense of awe. And while we may combat insecurity or lack of experience with overdone (sometimes, dare I say it, pretentious) writing, it’s with the best intentions. Luckily, we’re all guilty of it. Welty didn’t start her career by writing “Where Is the Voice Coming From?”—and take a glance at Virginia Woolf’s A Writer’s Diary for evidence of convolution in aid of legitimacy. It’s a difficult, delicate balance, believing in yourself without arrogance, restraining your awe without crushing it. No matter where we are in that process, we need to trust the sense of mystery that made us pick up the pen in the first place.

Jeva Lange: The art of plainness really is an art of restraint. You read something like War and Peace and immediately want to be just as bold, as epic yourself. And I’ll be the first to admit it: writing with an over-the-top flourish is fun. But I find that—with few exceptions—maturity in writing comes from learning what doesn’t need to be said (unnecessary adverbs, I’m looking at you!). It’s the unspoken subtleties of language that floor us, not grandiloquent proclamations and romantic descriptions. The wonderful Alice Munro, recent recipient of the Nobel Prize, is one who has mastered the economy of words; she may often be “plain” in her writing, but her language communicates enormous message and content. In Lives of Girls and Women, she writes, “His face contained for me all possibilities of fierceness and sweetness, pride and submissiveness, violence, self-containment. I never saw more in it than I had when I saw it first, because I saw everything then. The whole thing in him that I was going to love, and never catch or explain.” She paints a complete portrait through minimal, plain words—and not just complete, but also vibrant, a portrait we cannot only see, but feel. Such is the power of plain writing; by holding back, we can unleash a world.

Margaret Sweeney: “When I first started writing short stories, I also wanted to be bold. But I wasn’t satisfied with what I was writing. Then one day I sat down and challenged myself to write just one scene, and something clicked. I picked an experience that had really affected me, something I could remember clearly, and the images just flowed. When I had finished the scene I wanted to go on, but I couldn’t. I was seized with the impulse to fill out every little detail: what the light was like, what the floor felt like under my feet, what the house smelled like. The scene opened out more when I realized I could write about what my boyfriend’s mother was doing at the time, and what the neighbor down the street was doing, and that what they were doing mattered. In time, what I was writing became a story. It was quiet, but it was a story, and in writing it I learned that tiny moments can be cracked open and magnified, and that the little shifts that occur can mean something. I haven’t written anything quite like it since, but I’ve been obsessed with getting back to that kind of quietness.”

Anushka Giri: “In my sophomore year, I took a class on Hemingway and fell in love with the clarity—the plainness—of his writing. Two things have stuck with me since: The first is his iceberg theory, which postulates that the words on the page are the ten percent visible above the surface of the water, but the real substance, that other ninety percent hidden beneath, is the meaning that the reader derives from the story. Things left unsaid make for a more interactive and engaging experience for both writer and reader, which is something I strive for in my writing and seek out in others’ work. The second quote that comes back to me is from A Moveable Feast: “Do not worry. You have always written before and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.” When the pressure of finding the right words begins to bear down on me, I write exactly what I would say if I were speaking face-to-face with the reader, and I leave out everything else.

At plain china, we think Jack Kerouac captured the idea of plain talk in The Dharma Bums: “One day I will find the right words, and they will be simple.” The right words already live inside us. Once we figure out how to get ourselves out of the way, the right words even manage to wind up on the page. Often, when we listen hard enough, the right words are plain ones.

Jeva Lange heads up the fiction committee, on which Jess Joho and Anushka Giri also serve. This is Margaret Sweeney’s third year of working on the anthology; she is co-editor-in-chief of plain china 2013.