Andromeda: Buy Fresh Fish Here: Rick Moody and Why Great Writing Is Hard to Teach

A few of you asked me what I learned at my latest MFA residency. You may have expected a shorter answer, nonetheless….

Earlier this month, I had the pleasure of attending a graduate seminar taught by visiting guest Rick Moody (Ice Storm, The Black Veil), often lauded as one of our top chroniclers of contemporary culture, a 1990s peer of post-post-modern stars like (RIP) David Foster Wallace. Moody had great stage presence. Wearing a stylish hat and slouchy jeans, he spoke slowly and leaned in close to the microphone, delivering his advice on the subject of revision in a gravelly, wry, Tom Waits-kind-of voice.

The large audience of faculty and students, myself included, enjoyed Moody’s sense of humor and his aura of hard-won success. I appreciated that he came to the seminar prepared (some don’t) and that he came with strong opinions. Exposure to other writers’ “rules,” beliefs and attitudes helps us create our own sense of authority. Whether we agree or disagree, at least we find, in pressing up against others’ sharply defined opinions, the shape of our own.


However, not only did I not agree with some of Moody’s basic precepts, but much more troubling, I did not think that Rick Moody agreed with Rick Moody’s basic precepts. Which raises an issue: what can we learn from writer-instructors who say one thing but do another?

I’m tempted to coin a new term for this: pedagogical irony. Dramatic irony, as we might recall from high school or college, is that gap between what characters know and what readers know. Pedagogical irony could be a new label for that gap between what a writer-instructor believes and what he says, or even more complexly, between what he thinks he believes and what he really believes unconsciously (or uncomfortably, with denial and literary angst helping to mix the signals) and then further, between that and what he says and what he does.

Examples from my own teaching life.

I advise peers and students to edit by reading their work aloud. It’s great advice, it really helps, and I rarely do it, or only for a few paragraphs or pages here and there.

More complexly: If asked, I’ll tell you that a story should arise organically from well-developed character, and I do believe this would be optimal. However, what comes to my mind first in conceiving a novel is often a scene at the very end­—whether in detailed or very hazy, imagistic form—and I have been known to mold and nudge characters to become the people who would end up in a such a climactic scene. If they refuse to go, I will occasionally kick them. And then I will run after those characters, apologizing, and begging them to wear long pants in order to hide the bruises, because the last thing I want fellow writers or readers to know is that I mistreat and stifle my characters. (Full disclosure: the final imagined scene or key image usually changes, often reversing from what I first imagined. Nonetheless, it’s a starting point.)

But see? I’m still using examples of the gap between what I say and what I do, not really, truly, the gap that starts way back at unconscious belief and results in unacknowledged inconsistencies.

Example from Moody.

Moody started his lecture, as he probably often does (given that I found these great lecture notes from another MFA lecture, online), with an anecdote from his pre-novelist days in the 1980s, when he worked as a New York editor. A superior gave him a crash-course in editing with this mental exercise, which he guided the rest of us through, to much approving laughter.

There’s a sign over a fish stall. It says BUY FRESH FISH HERE. Which word, if any, is unnecessary?

(“One at a time, please, one at a time!” Moody drawled sardonically as people clamored to point out multiple words.)

The exercise was stretched out, as words were discarded as unnecessary. Discard “Fresh” – what fish seller admits his fish isn’t fresh? Pointless even to claim. Delete “Buy” – what else are you going to do at this fish stall? Delete “Here.” Obviously, it’s here. When Moody learned this anecdote from his editing superior, the point was that “Fish” was the only necessary word. At this particular MFA lecture, someone suggested that even “Fish” was unnecessary (who needs the word instead of the thing, right there in the fish stall or sidewalk cooler?) and Moody laughed and happily discarded that word as well. Leaving no words on the sign at all.

This anecdote was a lead-in to his number one rule of revision: “Omit Needless Words.” (Borrowed from Strunk and White, of course.)

There are many problems with this anecdote.

As any advertiser knows—but also as any poet, novelist, or creative writer of any kind also knows—the conveyance of literal, stripped-down, unambiguous meaning is not language’s only, or even main, purpose. The best poetry or prose is not delivered by telegram. The alliterative, suggestive, oceanically sibilant sound of “Fresh Fish” may be just the thing needed to make a stroller stop and think, “Yes. Fish sounds great.” “Buy” and “here” are authoritative words – the first an active verb (and active verbs are generally good) and the second a word that does indeed have meaning: “Here, not there across the street, where they don’t change the ice as often.” The four monosyllabical words have a cadence suitable for putting someone in the mood to eat pure, good, clean fish instead of some polysyllabic, overly complicated or starchy dish, like ratatouille or spaghetti carbonara. Put a blank sign on the street, and frankly, I may just keep walking, especially if that cooler (the question of how the fish was stored or displayed was not well-defined) is closed and I can’t see what’s for sale and hopefully, can’t smell it either.

So yes, there is a reason to write, “Buy Fresh Fish Here.” And if you become such a word-pruner that you end up even deleting “Fish,” then what kind of point are you making about writing? That we shouldn’t write at all? Is this a postmodern statement or a satire? Was Moody pulling the legs of the hundred-plus writers present, only to find that no one yelped back, challenging him?

After all: in Moody’s latest novel, The Four Fingers of Death, a 725-page hysterical-fiction spoof set in 2025 and involving a severed, crawling arm, the character Monty Crandall has become obsessed with trimming his own prose. He succeeds, in the novel’s opening pages (which had me laughing out loud), in becoming an expert author of six-word fiction.

Here is Monty’s first innovative erotic novella, trimmed from an unwieldy 45 pages to six perfect words:

“Go get some eggs, you dwarf.”

Monty’s wife asks the author where and how he will get it published: a run of hardcovers? Instead, he places it in an online periodical. An entire page to itself. No title. No byline.

Are we still to think Moody wasn’t being a little facetious in his lecture? (I’d be tickled to think he was making fools of us all.)

But maybe not. Maybe this idée fixe is so “fixe” precisely because it’s the idea that Moody himself not only can’t seem to follow in his own writing (hear ye, my fellow tuition-paying apprentices— the novel is 725 pages long!), but doesn’t even want to follow, though he insists on prescribing it to others.

Here is what Moody has said elsewhere about why he has “contempt for Twitter”: In general, I think the way to describe the world is to get longer not shorter. Twitter, by virtue of brevity, abdicates any responsibility where real compl
exity is concerned, because it forbids length.

Here is what Moody does in his own fiction (excerpt from Four Fingers of Death, in a review written by an effusive fan-critic who nonetheless wished that an editor had taken a “hatchet to this entire novel and whacked it down to a size where readers other than Moody devotees):

“Night fell over the desert … and the stars were like the future perfect of an uncommon verb. Or the stars were the filaments of discarded human aspirations. Or the stars in the night sky were the innumerable preschoolers of September, afraid to climb onto the bus in order to have their liberty abridged. Or the stars in the night sky were like so many holes into which our heads were to be stuck. Or the stars in the night sky were the innumerable computations of some frail and overburdened supercomputer …. Or the stars in the night sky were the total sum of responsibilities, grievances, loves, of a certain nation listing to the end of empire. Or the stars in the night sky were an example of every possible color in the spectrum of all colors … Or …”

This is the author who prescribes, “Omit Needless Words”?

This is the teacher who tells us about, “Buy Fresh Fish Here,” a.k.a., revised = “Fish”?

Moody is in effect one of the most manically verbose, digressive authors publishing today. Instead of “Omit Needless Words,” a better opening principle for his lecture might have been, “Why I love words and let myself get carried away with them, who gives a fishy fart what old Strunk and White – or even inappropriately savage critics like Dale Peck — have to say about it, and here’s precisely when and why I break the rules and how it has led to the evolution of my current style, because I know that’s what you’re all trying to figure out, and Strunk and White have very little to do with it.”

(Disclaimer: Moody did go on to discuss other revision practices, including the writing of more complex sentences. But he also came back frequently to the paring theme, including points about cutting the ends of stories, abstaining from use of adjectives, adverbs, metaphors, and so on.)

A kindly fellow student approached me at break wondering if I was feeling okay (because I hadn’t asked a question—and I always ask a question). So after break, I took a deep breath and decided to ask Moody one question regarding his feelings about plot. He answered that he has “no interest in plot or character.”

By this, I think (hope) he means that he has no interest in mechanical, preconceived, formulaic conceptions of plot or character at the early-drafting stage. He emphasized, under further questioning, that he really does trust the laying down of precise language (rather than any kind of planning) to get him where he needs to go. Yes, yes, the discovery process: a familiar concept. Storylines change, characters surprise us. Whether we’re kicking them or not.

And yet: I still think he didn’t answer the question. The seminar was about revision, but he did not address how he revises for plot and character. Surely, after giving birth to 700-plus pages, there must be elements of plot and character and larger structural issues that require revision, just as individual sentences do.

Moody’s talk, I want to emphasize a final time, was not at all a bad one, and I wish it had gone longer. Perhaps what frustrated me more, as I think about it now, was less his performance than the audience’s limited response. Very few challenged Moody’s over-the-top or oversimplified prescriptions, and none, that I recall, made any connection between what he was saying and anything he had written and published. People laughed and clapped but they let him end the seminar twenty or so minutes short, when the very few questions ran out. The audience had sensed, I think, what I too had sensed—that this was a very entertaining one-man show, but not a true dialogue. (And yet it might have been: Rick Moody has a wonderfully sharp mind, as is clear in both his fiction and his essays, and perhaps that was the problem– that few attendees wanted to risk his withering disapproval.)

If we are to learn as writers, we need to do more. We need to narrow the pedagogical gap. We need to know what other writers really believe, and what they really do. We need to question and probe. We need to look more closely at process: for example, how does someone who doesn’t care a fig about plot and character come up with winning and cinematic plots (Moody’s Ice Storm and Garden State were both made into successful movies) and intriguing characters? How does imagination and early-drafting really work? How does revision and re-drafting really work?

Here’s what Moody told the Paris Review, when he was asked about how he wove the three parallel narratives that make up his story, “Ring of Brightest Angels”:

Moody: “The best work, for me, has to come from organs that are removed from the brain: liver, pancreas, pituitary gland. So the prose was first, and then I realized what I was getting at, and refined the structure to cohere with where the prose seemed to want to go itself.”

Sounds like we’re on the right track, and my own mute glands are envying his glands’ intelligence, moxie, and ambition, but I want to know a little more. So did the Paris Review interviewer.

Interviewer: When you revise, is the process generally additive or reductive?

Moody: It’s both additive and reductive.

OK. I’m still needing more.

I still want to know, from all the opinionated and complex and contradictory writers of our generation (as well as generations past): how do imagination and initial composition and revision proceed through successive drafts, and how does revision operate differently in a poem, a story, a novel? How do the different strategies operate differently for different people?

It’s hard to figure out, and even harder to teach. I’m not giving up yet. I hope you won’t, either.

10 thoughts on “Andromeda: Buy Fresh Fish Here: Rick Moody and Why Great Writing Is Hard to Teach”

  1. The same old bromides? I search my mind for that word, bromides. Old fashioned and, without looking it up, I think it means weak common cures for slight sickness. I am with you, Andromeda, with the idea that students should step up and engage, though it is sometimes not allowed. I have been in a program where the famous could only be admired; where the students were required to assume a position of homage. Maybe some well-known writers are not used to engaging with other minds, esp. in a public arena. Some may consider student's questioning to be a challenge or threat and respond with caustic dismissal. The old rules for writing rehashed by these wonderful visitors, do not become new. They are, in fact, tired and cliche. High school 1962, with Miss Stickney, "Cut all the deadwood from your paragraphs." I have far different questions. I ponder things that I have never heard asked. I wonder, for instance, how the deep structure of poetry might permeate a longer work. A simple application of this idea might be like in the foreign cinema, we start with the funeral of a bird and end with the funeral of an important character. Or moving out of the visual of cinema, to (again the example is simplistic)begin with talk on a certain subject, funerals or the color blue, and at the end a similar discussion surfaces but maybe a generation, later. Possibly beneath the radar of all but a very alert reader. The purpose of such things? Maybe, just the play of art. To show that an alert consciousness is involved in the writing or maybe deeply places cues and codes, assonances and dissonances can serve both plot and character. The impact might only be resonance in the mind of the reader – secret communication. This is one alternative. There are other ways to work in fiction; ways we have not discovered; lessons beyond the repeated guidance toward competant delivery (Strunk and White). Your visiting writer delivered the expected lesson. He will be invited back. One should not stray from the gospel. The BUY FRESH FISH HERE, exercise is not new with him.

  2. Thank you Andromeda. I so appreciate this post. (I have much more to say on the subject but for the sake of being polite I have omitted most of it. ) I'm not sure how it happened, but it seems like any time someone is described as a friend or peer of David Foster Wallace, the intimidation and awe factor seems to be ratcheted up a few notches. Why is that?

  3. That's a fabulous post, Andromeda. I catch myself doing this all the time–that is, recommending "best practices" writing techniques that I don't actually employ myself. I sometimes justify it by telling myself that these students are not as polished or practiced as I am, and so need these techniques, but with many advanced students that's not the case. All I can say is, ouch! Nice piece of investigative…pedagogy?

  4. Andromeda Romano-Lax

    "Bromide" is a good word and I appreciate your thoughts on this, Sandy. There must be a balance to strike between honoring (even bowing down in front of) visiting writers while still engaging them in a meaningful way — otherwise their time, and ours, is wasted. I bet some visitors are disappointed if there is a lack of a questions and hearty discussion. And also: I share your interest in examinations of deeper structure and other harder-to-pin-down concepts.

    Anonymous: curious what you left out, but no doubt, you're more diplomatic than I am! Thanks for reading.

    Eric: Good to see you here, and I zipped over to your blog where I enjoyed some of your travel photos and memories from 2011. Investigative pedagogy" (or investigations of pegagogy?) — good term.

  5. You're far more generous than I am… and more patient. I walked out of his lecture after nearly dying of boredom. Found him pretentious and condescending.

  6. Great post Andromeda. I actually didn't think he was prepared, though. The imagination part, which was the part i was most interested in hearing about vis a vis revision, was mostly taken up by him asking us our ideas. As he said, "Talking about imagination is a lot more difficult to talk about than revision." Exactly, and that's what i wanted to hear, so i felt that he let me down on that important part. Loved your re-cap, though!

  7. Thank you, Andromeda! Your analysis is razor-sharp. If you don't mind, I'll be using your coined 'pedagogical irony' for my education courses. If I might add,as a writer who is attending teacher's college, yes, very much indeed is this practice maintained by the current system. I think it's a systemic problem with teaching, dating back, oh, probably to Socrates' time and before: teachers the seat of the knowledge, thus taking on the role of someone who must impart this knowledge to others. Inevitably, there's going to come a time when the teacher, aspiring perhaps to be that crowned king/queen of wisdom, will come up with something, or things, entirely inane and so untrue in his/her own life, as to be insulting. I've seen it a number of times. I think this probably happens more in programs such as teaching and writing, programs which used to be more apprenticeship-based. Insofar as the craft is being taught, the one who crafts, the homo-faber is naturally the text. "Read me," says this text, like some mad Alice In Wonderland liquid; and we oblige. We don't have a choice. The only thing to do is question and reveal the irony. Thanks again!!!!! You're a fabulous writer!!!!

  8. Andromeda Romano-Lax

    Nancy — I agree. The imagination part was not thought-out.

    Sharon — thanks for the great comment, with so many interesting thoughts. "The one who crafts" as the text or thing being studied –well put.

  9. Andromeda Romano-Lax

    Nope, I think one Dale Peck is enough. This was just an honest first-person account of my attempt to grapple with a difficult pedagogical issue. It also praises Rick Moody quite a bit–perhaps too much, I've been told.

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