An Exercise Inspired by George Williams, Author of The Valley of Happiness
Friends, I had the honor of doing this interview with George Williams, a short story writer and novelist who teaches at Savannah College of Art and Design.
Mr. Williams is a very interesting man who had the great fortune to work with Donald Barthelme, whose writing marginally resembles the stories in The Valley of Happiness. If you don’t know Mr. Barthelme’s work, why not pick up one of the man’s books? Failing that, it looks as though a kind Internet citizen has secured permission to collect some works online. (Cool…look at one of Mr. Barthelme’s syllabi!)
(A slight tangent: one of the things in life for which I’m most grateful is that I can say that I worked with some all-time great writers and teachers: Ira Sukrungruang, Robert O’Connor, Lee K. Abbott, Lee Martin, Erin McGraw, Kathy Fagan, Michelle Herman… Writers and scholars are all part of a line of knowledge seekers that goes all the way back to Socrates and beyond. Mr. Williams is in Mr. Barthelme’s line. I know folks who are in Raymond Carver’s line. We should all take a moment to reflect upon how thankful we are for the teachers we’ve had along the way.)
One of the stories in Valley is titled “Televangelist at the Texas Motel.” The story is a single page; three paragraphs of relentless sentences and exclamation points. When I read the story, I made the note that the piece is “a kind of prayer.” During the course of our conversation, Mr. Williams pointed out that “Televangelist” began life as an exercise assigned by Mr. Barthelme, who told his students to write a rant.
Remember, friends, no word we write is ever a waste. Even when our lines are flabby and our characters flat, we’re building our skills and increasing the likelihood that the next piece will be better. In many cases, including this one, exercises can even be published. This story appeared in Gulf Coast in 1989.
Mr. Williams has published two collections, both with Raw Dog Screaming Press. Both volumes also feature jacket art created by great artists who also happen to work for free, seeing as how they’ve been dead for hundreds of years. The tone of The Valley of Happiness and its stories is set by “The Magpie on the Gallows,” a painting by Pieter Bruegel the Elder.
Mr. Williams admires the feeling of the painting. At first, you think that one of the men is being led to the gallows for a hanging. Then you realize that there is simply a party happening…in the same place where those folks witness executions.
For this exercise, I’m pretend-assigning you in Barthelme style to compose a rant based upon a classic (public domain) painting. What are some of the qualities of a rant?
- Extreme emotion. Rants are what happen when our reasonable rhetoric has been ignored.
- Brazen language. Subtlety doesn’t quite work for a rant.
- A subject worthy of the above. Did the drive-through worker forget to give you a third napkin? You’ll live. Confront a subject of real importance to the individual or the larger world.
Here are some examples. Feel free to download the images so you can see bigger versions.
Edgar Degas’ “The Dance Class”
Caravaggio’s “Boy With a Basket of Fruit”
There’s plenty to rant about in these paintings. Are you pleased or angry that the all-male space seems to have been turned into a co-ed gathering? Can you believe what the ballerina with the green bow said about the one with the yellow bow? They’re supposed to be friends! And can you believe the lengths to which dieticians will go to try and make you add more fruits to your diet?!?!?
Those paintings don’t do anything for you? That’s fine. There are plenty more paintings where those came from. You can find 44,000 paintings here.
Want an example of an audio rant? Here’s playwright/comedian Lewis Black laying down some truth:
Good luck writing your own rants. You never know; you might produce a publishable piece of work! And keep in mind that you could always paste the result of your labor into a comment on this page. Who knows? Maybe I’ll publish your rant on its own page and write about what we can learn from you!