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The Near Impossible

In the region of paradox that best defines fiction, precise laws govern yet lawlessness abounds. Like an anomalous planet from Antoine De Saint-Exupery's The Little Prince, in the realm of story, dictatorship and anarchy may co-exist, a king can reign most justly over no subjects, a phenomenologist will ponder an utter absence of objects. While the so-called rules of writing, as well as the books that shelter them, are mostly dull rant and fatal habit, the rules of writing—addressing issues of grammar, syntax, characterization, plot, setting, language, theme—are nevertheless essential, and every writer would do well to own at least one such text or better still, commit it to memory.

A fiction writer should strive for an ineffable quality that demands attention, and beyond attention, respect and an emotional response. And one should yearn, through writing fiction, to connect, to deepen connection. What all judges look for—picture every judge as jaded, dyspeptic, a precocious two year old—is the near impossible. A judge must select one manuscript and hold it above the others because of two seemingly contradictory qualities: wildness and impeccable form. Wildness arising from the courage to confront what is terrifying and often beautiful, as it is contained within an elegantly conceived form. If one imagines a story as a vessel of language, a container of words, it must succeed in holding wildness without harming or overtaming it. Wildness (that which is bold and lawless) shapes the vessel, while the vessel (rules, craft, form) carries but does not domesticate the wildness. Sustained tension between the two creates powerful fiction.

From a judge's jaundiced yet perpetually hopeful viewpoint, there are fatal flaws immediately evident in stories, flaws from which there can be no recovery. Tired and boring subjects, inattention to the exquisite properties of language, the absence of emotional passion and ethical courage—these are the major flaws. The French surrealist Antonin Artaud once declared an actor should be like a figure burning at the stake and signaling through the flames. An extreme image, extremely apt. As a reader (and a judge is also simply that, a reader) I want my curiosity piqued, my passion aroused, my heart opened, my intellect entertained. Through terror and pity, I want to be made more empathetic, more human. All the stories address love on one level, survival on another. These are what matter to us, the instincts for survival, the issues of the heart.

Jim Nichols' winning story, "The Slow Monkeys" demonstrates a practiced knowledge of craft, subtle use of language, the beginnings of ethical courage and a clear emotional passion. An artful vessel of words, "The Slow Monkeys" has been shaped by a wildness Jim Nichols uncovered in himself through the unique chemistry of his characters. This story lifted itself above the others because it acknowledged the rules of craft and then transgressed them—the best stories abandon the safety net of rules. Jim Nichols has shown a rare ability to balance form and formlessness, artifice and rawness, to so lightly tether eros as to showcase, through language, that which is inexpressible, catching wildness within an admirable and precise form. I congratulate him.

Printed in the Fall/Winter 2000 issue of CLR

Melissa Pritchard

Melissa Pritchard, Associate Professor and author of Spirit Seizures, Phoenix, The Instinct for Bliss, Selene of the Spirits and recently completed story collection, Funktionslust, teaches in the Creative Writing Program at Arizona State University.

You can find Melissa Pritchard on the web at:
—  Arizona State University
—  Rambles
—  Weber Studies
—  Holland Sentinel
—  Amazon
—  Barnes & Noble

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