Saturday, September 24, 2011

Josh Rolnick and Treasured Elements

Josh Rolnick is certainly an accomplished young writer: Winner of the Arts & Letters Fiction Prize and the Florida Review Editor’s Choice Prize, nominated for a Pushcart, Iowa grad, and an impressive list of publication credits. He has also “lived around:” Raised in the East and educated in the Midwest, he spent two years here in the Bay Area and has had stints in places as far-flung as Jerusalem and London. Hearing him read and talk about writing, and reading his penetrating new collection Pulp and Paper, one learns quickly that in all those places, Josh Rolnick was listening. Watching and listening, the two primary skills a writer must possess.

Take this tidbit, from the story "Funnyboy." Here, a grieving father is in the midst of recollecting the memory of his young son Richie, who has been tragically killed:
Quick quiz: What is the name of the light stripe that separates an earthworm’s head from its tail? Time’s up. It’s called the clitellum. Do you know how I know that? Of course you don’t. My son taught me that. He also taught me that, when nightcrawlers are cut in half, they don’t die. They regenerate.

Imagine that. Losing half of yourself and becoming whole again.

There is a thing that crawls in the dirt and eats shit that can do that.
This searing, ironic first-person portrayal of an angry grieving father captivated me from the first lines of this piece, and so I asked Josh about it. Did this voice appear organically, did it just emerge from among the loaves and fishes of his psyche, or did he have a lengthy, painstaking struggle to conjure it? His response was that he is certainly a writer who writes a lot of drafts, and “Funnyboy” was no exception. A piece that had its genesis in a story he’d heard in New York of a man who had been found laying dead on a sidewalk, “Funnyboy” had gone through many transformations in its journey to publication. But as it turns out, the one thing about the piece that was there from the start was indeed that voice. It was one of the key elements, in fact, that had given the story life and kept it alive through its many incarnations.

I personally found this to be a wonderful lesson, particularly for writers who have podmates and/or writing-group colleagues bleeding all over their pages: Even as we hold fast to treasured elements in a piece—a voice, a setting, a particular character’s particular flaw—we must also consider virtually everything else to be negotiable, if not expendable. The well-meaning commentary of our readers often intensifies our struggle, I find, to recognize those elements that hold special meaning for us, those germs of thought and emotion outside the “murder your darlings” rubric that impelled us to put pen to paper in the first place.

Some other observations on Pulp and Paper:
  • The treatment of time in the very short piece “Carousel” is subtle and sublime and would serve as an excellent example for teaching this critical element of story. Finishing the piece, we’re left with a resonant mystery: have we just witnessed the death of a character, or a hallucination portending his death, or something else entirely? Really lovely.
  • Rolnick achieves a superb balance between vivid description of the physical world and extended expositions of the emotional. He tells us this is, again, the result of doing lots of drafts, of reworking and reworking until the balance is right for the story. The key to that, of course, is patience, so it’s not surprising that early on, when he was at Iowa, Josh had gotten a stone imprinted with the Chinese character for patience, and that this stone adorns his writing table to this day.