Suspend Your Disbelief

Shop Talk |

Under the Influence… of Janet Peery


Janet Peery

Janet Peery

For me, the beauty of Janet (besides her flowing hair and karaoke skills, obviously) is that she forces students to name things, to make the abstract concrete. She won’t tolerate imprecise language, lazy writing, limp sentences.  I think her “Janet-isms” are in keeping with that. A lot of her funny sayings, some of them her own creations and others drawn from a lifetime of reading and study, concisely label common student writing flaws.

Another former writing instructor once wrote in the margin of one of my stories, “I’m bored.” Fair enough. But, for me, that criticism was never helpful. After all, I didn’t set out to write a boring story, and I left the workshop without a clue how to fix the problem, only that I had a BIG problem. My story was boring.

I’ve disagreed with Janet’s advice before, but because she is so clear in her own direction, I’ve never left her side feeling hopeless about a story. (Well. There was one story, but that one was baaaad.)   Janet holds writers to a high standard: name the “thing” and name it correctly. But she holds herself to that same high standard in delivering her feedback. Janet would never say, “I’m bored.” She would say, “Mary, oh sister of the Ozarks, you’ve written yourself a worm boy story. Here’s the fix.” (And then she would ask for department gossip and tell me about the time some family member stole a favorite picture, but that’s for another article.)

I reached out to some of Janet’s other former students for help compiling a list of Janet-isms:

Cul-De-Sac (96/366)Productive cul-de-sacs: Moments in workshop or class where you get entirely off the craft topic at hand to delve deeply into a marginally related topic, like the vast differences in the many translations of Madame Bovary and what that ultimately tells us about the power of precise imagery in narrative (and the importance of buying good translations). syn. teachable moments. [Andrea Nolan]

Worm Boy Stories: In which the main character lies flaccid in the present action, only to tunnel into his personal history, and then back into the present and then back into the past, over and over again, with nothing of interest every happening in the present action. [Andrea Nolan]

Alarm Clock: A cheap excuse for a literary device when the author has (a) run out of ideas or (b) realizes that his/her plot is unrealistic. Alarm clocks most often appear at the beginnings of novels, when the author is unsure of how to effectively begin in medias res, or at the ends of novels, when the author recognizes that the plot is untenable and the only possible resolution is to have the protagonist wake up from a dream. In both cases, the reader feels cheated. [Rebecca Lauren Gidjunis]

DiagonalOrange-Carpeted Churches: A lot of us have them in our pasts, these ugly, outdated fire-and-brimstone places. In fiction, they can make for effective front-loaded conflict. In real life, they can make for decades of therapy. [Rebecca Lauren Gidjunis]

F.A.T. (Feelings, Actions, Thoughts): Too often, when dialogue exchanges are meant to carry the tension, they don’t, simply because the exchanges—however good they are on the surface—are out there in the air and not tied to feeling. This can result in a generic kind of talking heads dialogue that, sure, fills up space, but doesn’t ground character in the “what matters” to the character, which is where true tension comes from—not from the snark and snipe and back and forth of bickering, arguing, or even plain old conversation. Think of it in sports terms. The feeling is the ball. Keep your eye on it. And direct your reader’s eye to it. [Dana Staves]

The Three D’s: The moment when a character does, declares, or decides something. The crisis action must hinge on some action, some conscious decision, some transformative moment in the story, to which all prior events lead, and from which all future events will spring. The crisis action begins the ripple effect—it is the stone hitting the water. [Dana Staves]

Some of Janet’s best advice comes via e-mail in the middle of the night, often in response to a desperate plea. (“I can’t finish my thesis. I can’t.”) She delivers other gems (and, let’s be honest, zingers!) in the margins of stories. Here are a few common refrains that we remember, years after leaving Janet’s class:

From Mary Westbrook:

  • Adirondack ChairGood writing depends on “emotion recollected in tranquility.” An Adirondack chair is a fine place to spend an afternoon.
  • Objects are powerful in fiction. Tears are not. When you have the urge to make a character cry, do better. Let her do something else instead.
  • Also, let your characters be bad.
  • Be specific. Learn the exact name of a tree or a bug or a household object and use it.

From Rebecca Lauren Gidjunis:

  • RoadblockTriangles are good.
  • Make your characters say “no” to each other.
  • Put your characters in a small space and make them stay there and fight it out.
  • Fiction is no place for moral imperatives.
  • Sometimes teachers are guideposts and we’d do well to follow the signs, but sometimes they’re roadblocks and we’re best served by running over them and flipping them the bird on our way to better places.

From Joanna Eleftheriou:

  • Shuffling the deckMake sure the deck isn’t stacked against any one character, because that makes it too easy for the reader to choose someone to root for.
  • Read a poem before going to sleep. You’ll wake up a better writer.
  • No teacher will make you a better writer “only reading will.”
  • Bring drama to every sentence.
  • Honor our shared language by looking words up.

From Andrea Nolan:

  • A Cup of waterStart a story as close to its ending as you can. Janet would put a cup of water (or whatever was on hand) in the middle of the table, to show how there is no drama iin that; it would take a lot of maneuvering to put that water at risk. But if you put that same cup at the edge of the table, you feel the drama. The edge is where you grab your reader, and the story is how and why the water gets pushed off the edge, and what happens when it does (or how does the water avoid being pushed over the edge?).

From Dana Staves:

  • PathYou are your own best teacher. It’s from your own mind the best solutions rise and once that story-problem solver synapse lays down its path in your brain, you’ll have taught yourself something you won’t forget. Better, I’m saying, to solve things yourself.

Further Reading:


Join the Discussion

  • Forrest

    I had Janet Peery and Barry Hannah, together, as teachers for two great weeks at the Sewanee Writers Conference. I was a big fan of the unequivocal ending in my writing (I didn’t realize it, but she pointed it out). Peery kept saying write two pages beyond that ending and see what else happens. Great advice, great teacher, great person. Honestly, I’ve never had a better workshop experience. Thank you for your post which brought back all those good memories.

  • Such a great post. Thank you.

  • What a wonderful post and what a wonderful teacher.
    Thank you so much.

Literary Partners