All Bad News: Author's Commentary
Updated: Dec 31, 2018
Part of a continuing series wherein I make commentary on my stories from a craft, narrative theory, and general writing perspective. If you haven't read the story, I recommend heading to my fiction page and reading it first. All the stories discussed here are available there—most for free.
The Author’s Take: (high probability of spoilers and guaranteed narrative theory wonkery)
Much like the title denotes, this is a story about reaching rock-bottom, but it didn’t really start that way. I began to think about “All Bad News” while I was doing research for Sleeping Ugly, which involved heavy reading on cognition, sleep, dreaming, and especially lucid dreaming. I only ever had three actual lucid dreams in the year-or-so I was trying to make them happen.
I can still recall in sharp detail the first of these experiences. I was standing on the fairway of a golf course I’d never been to in my life when I became self-aware, so to speak. I knew I was lucid and that I was dreaming, and I decided that it would be a great idea to try and fly around this golf course, which I did for what seemed like a long time—long enough to fly over many of the holes, to hover at the level of the treetops, and to fly high above the course, taking in the entire landscape like a hawk circling overhead.
What struck me when I woke up from this experience was the duality of mind that was taking place in that dream. I was both generating this fictional landscape from God knows where; meanwhile, I was observing it in real time—a tremendous cognitive feat. And it’s hard to express just how perfectly detailed and life-like the trees, the sounds, the colors, and the sensations of flight all seemed.
The cognitive trick of generating people, places, and situations is a nightly occurrence that most of us rarely get a window into, yet we all perform it seemingly effortlessly and without conscious knowledge. That first lucid dream helped me to realize how deep and rich our creative capabilities are. If only the window were more accessible to our conscious mind. I only ever had two other lucid dreams.
During that period of research, though, I had countless incredibly vivid dreams, many of which I would remember in great detail when I woke. Most of “All Bad News” was the creation I invented to put around an incredibly vivid dream I had of a strange triangle-shaped dining area in a restaurant that served rotisserie chickens. I also remember that I was in there because I was hiding from this menacing something outside the restaurant. But like most dreams, you don’t remember how you got there or why. There’s just a wall full of delicious-smelling chickens rolling downward and you go with it.
I took up the challenge of trying to force a vivid experience like this upon the reader. (Warning: narrative theory wonkery ahead) Narrative scholars are weirdly obsessed with the layers of narration between the living author and the living reader and they debate about this point far too often, at least to my mind.
The short version is that there are layers; most story geeks see it something like this: a living author [Melville, Hemingway, Bronte, etc.], an implied author [the reader’s idea of the real-life person the author is], the narrator [the imaginary entity generating the words on the page], the storyworld in the middle [this is the place where the action unfolds as you read], the implied reader [the author’s idea of who the reader might be], and the living reader [you]. So the challenge when communicating telepathically with words, as an author does, is to get the ideas into a reader’s head, and most authors, most of the time, are striving to do this as smoothly as possible, because any obstacles a writer provides to a reader can take them out of the story and give them a good reason to do something else (like you probably want to do right now, my dear implied reader).
(Warning: narrative theory wonkery continues) What I wanted to do with “All Bad News” was to try and cut as many of these layers out as was linguistically possible. A good example of what I’m talking about is onomatopoeia: if the word ‘WHACK’ appears on the screen or page in the middle of a story, there’s no filter between what the character and the reader generate theoretically—the reader “hears” the same sound as the character when the reader reads the word ‘WHACK.’
I was hoping to generate a type of stream of consciousness that wasn’t unfiltered, annoying, and off-putting, as much of that style of writing tends to be. I also wanted the reader to experience the sensation of thinking Austin’s thoughts for him as he struggled to get through a very tough day. Not exactly an original concept, but I couldn’t remember having read anything quite like it, and I wanted to take on the challenge.
(Warning: narrative theory wonkery mercilessly continues) I struggled with what seemed like a dozen narrative postures before coming to grips with the fact that you can’t really get any cognitively closer than an extradiegetic, omniscient narrator using free indirect discourse, closely focalized through a single character in the present tense. And if you don’t know exactly what all that means, congratulations on being a normal person. (at least in this regard :)
But that was the narrative posture that seemed to do the best work with the least obvious drawbacks. And the positive was that I got to experience the limitations of everything else I experimented with: like how narrating Austin’s thoughts from his perspective in the present tense read an awful lot like a kid simultaneously commentating on his one-v-zero imaginary basketball game: “I take a sip of beer. I walk across the highway. I run! I wonder how much longer it’s going to take for me to get out of these damn woods. I continue to ridiculously narrate my own life, etc.”
After going through all that with numerous narrative postures, and finally settling on the current narration of “All Bad News,” I re-read a story I’d largely forgotten, “The Jilting of Granny Weatherall” by Katherine Anne Porter. And I found the exact narrative posture I’d been struggling to create had already been well-mastered in the 1930’s by Porter.
(Phew! Narrative wonkery over, thankfully) On the content of the story itself, I wrote this as part of my master’s thesis in fiction writing. Having written several novels before enrolling, my advisor and I decided that I’d get more out of trying to stretch my abilities in a domain where I felt far less competent—the short story.
I decided that before I defended a thesis composed of short stories, I should read a few, so I started by going back though The Best American Short Stories, reading each volume from 1995 to the present. And, God were the 90’s filled with some depressing fiction. The literary zeitgeist of the time was nihilism, depression, and cynicism with a dash of sadomasochism thrown in for good measure.
I complained about the damn 90’s to one of my thesis committee readers one too many times, only to have her quip something along the lines of: “So where are the fluffy clouds and rainbows in your stories, Rowe?”
Then I realized that, damn, the 90’s had dug in deep and wedged their way into my short story writing. One place where I knew I needed a moment of grace, compassion, and joy was in Austin’s struggle back to personhood.
My hope was that the reader’s experience of that final moment as Austin remembers what it’s like to feel happiness might be a worthy counterweight to the horror I’d experienced as a reader with Granny Weatherall when reading Porter’s masterpiece so many years before.