The Art of Tetman Callis

Some of the stories and poems may be inappropriate for persons under 16

The Art of Tetman Callis header image 3

December 1990

DECEMBER 4, 1990

What one wants to feel in possession of is the necessary form of the work.

If you concentrate on your object, all day long and in your dreams at night, your object will provide you with the revelations you seek.  Avoid hopping from story to story without finishing one first.  There is a fallacy that one should put work away for a while, get some distance from it.  Don’t you believe it.  You must be intimate with your work, you must know it better than anyone else, you must grow sick of it, you must be married to it and you must divorce it, you must worry it to death, you must bring it to life.

A plotted piece “will always be inferior to… an accrual system” which always refers to itself.  As for the news, information is entropic.  Information interferes with “the activity of the sign.”  For the piece to be a “holistic event that is wholly perceived in a dynamic manner,” use less information, reveal fewer bits of tid.  “The more information given, the less meaningful it is.”  Meaning is revealed of a piece, not piece by piece.  “You have to begin to view information with suspicion.”  Gordon has no use, as far as I can tell, for isms, and denies he teaches a minimalism, unless it is a kind “of minimalism leached” of the typical crap, a minimalism only because “the information that is conveyed is reduced to the absolute minimum.” What you get when you reduce the information is “authority, stance, persuasion, the percussiveness of the human heart, the percussiveness of the American language.”

You want “a dynamic, nonlinear” process to produce works that will be “the most glorious possible.”

Write your error large and you have art.  “Reach into your quirkiness of a more basal kind…. What is the quirkiness that is at the very bottom of your language?”  This is what you want to tap into — “the song inside your head.”

“Information is entropy and entropy is bad news.”

Information is what comes into a piece anew, as opposed to what comes into a piece as a facet of what is already there in the piece.  Ask yourself, when you start to give information, `Is this necessary? Is it “prime?”’  If it is, “it must go from beginning to end.”  If it does not so go, leave it on the cutting room floor.

“In lieu of information, what goes on the page?  The swerved revision of what was prior.”  This revision must be performed with concentration on authority and stance.  As for form, you don’t proceed from design, but to design.  For what reason do you want to constrict yourself, your work, from the start?  “To protect yourself from the vertigo of doing art,” to chicken out, “to have addresses you can call on… out of terror.”

Proceeding to design produces an artifact that is “full of danger, unpredictable, vital, and informed of a deep, pervading structure…. It’s order is a result of — get this — desire.”  Not of forethought — by the time you get to your foreseen, plotted and planned destination, you might quite likely no longer desire it.

Non-linear dynamics are key.  Non-linear dynamics are more popularly known as `chaos theory,’ and fractal geometry is one of the better-known applications of this theory.  If you proceed in a non-linear manner, you will produce a piece that is profoundly structured, achieving its structure only by being created, not by being planned or plotted or painted by the numbers.  The metaphors involved in such work are “metaphors of allusion.”  These are not the old academic metaphors, but are the refactoring, in self-reflecting agon, of what has been already set down in the piece.  You end up with a piece appearing irrational, and reflecting the irrationality which is at the root of human being, but “this irrationality proceeds from the rational method” of non-linear refactoring.  These self-reflective agons are truer to the soul.  Here is an example “that couldn’t be more precise: `He gave the keys to the man who wanted to open the lock’ is linear; `He gave the keys to the man who had no hands’” is non-linear, is swerving, is ironic.  “It’s a version, a very profound version, of irony…. Irony is simply the defeat of expectation,” insofar as the object is turned back on itself.

“Control is at every point the energy from which the structure is created.”

“Control is best seen as awareness.”

“Metaphor is at the very center of prose fiction, but not that kind of metaphor;” not the metaphor of “childish obfuscation…. The way to make great metaphors is to be as literal, as literal, as literal as you can get.”  As for the other kind of metaphor, “for you to begin with this adolescent quaintness, this encoding, is to make a terrible, terrible mistake…. Say what it is.  If it’s one, say one.  If it’s two, say two.  Chinese wisdom is very useful on this point — `A white horse is not a horse’…. True metaphor exists in the tension between the terms, and in the congestion within the terms.”

Opening with an adverbial clause will always give you less prestige, less power, and will seem to be asking permission from the reader, asking the reader to please believe.

“The point is your object,” and any exposition takes away from that object.  Such exposition is unnecessary information, and directly contrary to the maintenance of the mystery of the object.  “Writing is bullshit anyway.  If you’re offering explanations to make it more plausible,” you’re being foolish. You’re already fucking in front of the mirror — don’t make it any more ridiculous than it already is.  Writing is nothing more than the attempt “of a vain, aggressive personality trying to impose his will on the group…. Let’s not kid ourselves;” let’s remember what is real here — words on a page — not characters, not places, not events.  “No word that you put down is true to the reality that is out there — it can’t be…. You can’t utter a true word.”  Words themselves are the signs that block the way to which they point, the glass through which you can see but not grasp.  Don’t worry about making the truth, and don’t aim at it.  “Your job is to make a good composition.”

“God is in there in all those details” — in the phonemes, the morphemes, the cadences, the stops, commas and on and on.  “The gross stuff, that’s easy.  You want to get those details down.”

“The performance must be mad.”

“Discover the place of greatest jeopardy.”

“If it sits there inertly, it is simply information, it is entropy.”

“You want the sign.  You want an unmixed state.”  Take a lesson from traffic signs.

“Who can come up and flip a coin and make it come out heads each time?  That’s a wizard, that’s God who can do that.  That’s your task.  It is very hard.  It requires labor.  It requires enormous concentration.  It requires discipline.”

“When you do a piece of fiction disjunctive with the world, the more it becomes a world of its own.”

About the academic literary establishment — “They’ll all eat their fucking words, one of these days.  I won’t live to see it.”

“Write it out.”  Take what you want to say and give it its full extension.  Don’t be stingy — you shortchange only yourself.

“The force of English lies in its vowels.”  You want to resonate the stressed assonances in your work, in a phrase, a clause, a paragraph, a sentence, especially with respect to the way the closing paragraph feeds into the final clause and word.

You must be the alpha and omega of your object.  You create your object, then you work it until there is nothing left in it that you can bring out.  The novel, rather than the short story, gives you opportunity to leach your object of life.

“If, as the thing begins, it seems to posit something going before it, the thing cannot be fully put to death.”  The best ending, for example that of Moby-Dick, is the annihilation of its beginning.

“There’s always another place to go…. Whatever it was, just keep talking.  Because that’s the blessing of life.”

The very business of storytelling must be subject to being overturned.  “The greatest god is the god of the outermost circle.”

DECEMBER 6, 1990


The implications for art of non-linear dynamics, so-called `chaos theory,’ “are tremendous.”

“The artistic artifact, quite rightly, should be undecidable.  If it’s decidable, it’s exhaustible.  It’s rich because it’s undecidable.”  Consider Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, consider non-linear dynamics, and consider phenomenology and how what they have to say can be applied to art, to putting words on the page.  And don’t forget jazz, the jazz method of improvisation — “I know what I am going to do by virtue of what I have done.”  Move beyond uncertainty to undecidability, to the `it’ that can never be known.  This is an ancient, valuable notion, this notion of the power of the mysterious. “That which is undecidable is mysterious; if it’s decidable, it’s no longer mysterious…. I suppose what I’m trying to argue for is the sense of this value as a deeply humane value.”  As for non-linear dynamics and art, you put your object into a self-regenerative system, you don’t know what’s going to come out.  Like the weather, like the Mandelbrot set, your object becomes infinitely refactorable.

The non-linear method creates its own metaphors, metaphors that are fuller of implied meaning than those ordinary metaphors which the writer reaches for, encoding in a private code.  “Always one wants to be clear, but not understood.  You don’t want to be understood because you don’t understand.”  You don’t understand until you’ve done it, if even then.  “Language will always, as a dynamic form, produce metaphor, because that’s the nature of the language.”  A word always has many referents, including referents peculiar to small, even idiosyncratic, segments of the population. Don’t reach for the coy, self-congratulatory, manufactured metaphor.  “Seek the literal; seek the plain; if it is one, say one; and understand that the distance between one and two is colossal…. You have no room for metaphor” — your task is to unpack the object.  The reader, in the interaction, will provide the metaphor.  The reader, following, as you do, the chaotic method, will read more metaphorically the more literally you write.

“Undecidability is collateral to other values” in your work.

It’s quite simple, quite complex, quite difficult; it’s all just words on a page, they are arranged in sentences; these sentences must be sequential, with “some kind of visible ligature.”  What the ligature can be is vast in its possibilities; it can be morphological, syntactical, referential, disjunctive, conjunctive, etc.

These poetics, in their way, mimic life, “the way life is…. In its structure, it is like life.  So it has some kinship with life, with the heart.”  Good art is art like life.

Returning to metaphor, here’s a trick to turn — instead of making a metaphor, make a marginal note as to what the metaphor is; later in the story, as a vertical swerve, this metaphor can plug in as an element in its own right.

Metaphor is like any other information — “inert, entropic material.”  There is a positive correlation between high information/high noise and low meaning/low signification.  If you simply must make a metaphor in the traditional manner, the two compared objects must be of the same class.  This can create a dynamic, an agon, that can be repeatedly enlarged to create a trope, a major component, or even the whole piece.

Examine your objects for the tension inherent in them, the polarity, “the natural conflict, the innate conflict, what is already there,” and in the unpacking of this tension, you will reveal, as it is revealed to you, the whole of life, the whole of your heart, and, by the way, the whole of your story, and how each unpacked object relates in a story to every other object.

Ask yourself, what is this beautiful metaphor I make?  Are its terms of the same class?  Is it necessary?  Does it contain its own tension?  If it’s not of the same class, it’s off the body.  If it’s not necessary, it’s just noise.  If it doesn’t contain its own tension, it’s flaccid, weak, ultimately unnecessary.

To make your own, powerful style, you must find “the cure to your own error;” a way to make into art that deep mistake, tic, failure of yourself.

The objects themselves cannot be thought up, cannot proceed from plot or plan, but reveal themselves only in the making.

“You look for that which is going to generate energy, not entropy,” when you unpack your objects with an eye to the polarities inherent in them, and as you unpack, to the polarities in the unpackings — like Chinese boxes or a Mandelbrot set.

“To say the characters laughed about this, cried about that, smiled at this, seems like a kind of a challenge to the reader…. You are challenging the reader to react by saying, `Aw, c’mon, they didn’t really!’  It’s best left unsaid.”

“First let your heart go, let your mind go, then let language rush in…. It seems that without even trying, we reveal ourselves.”  The difficulty is, it’s often enough too true, this revelation, for us to touch it.  “It should be so easy, but it never, ever is.”

“The effort to clarify can happen in tandem with the deepening of the mystery.”  But, always strive to be clear.  Simply ask yourself, `What would be the proper word?’  “If it’s one, say one; if it’s two, say two; if you don’t know, say you don’t know.  A white horse is not a horse.”

You must develop “a deep knowing of what the situation could bear.”

You want each of your sentences to be perfectly comprehendible, while the sum of the sentences generates mystery.  “You proceed on the page with the knowledge that the things that really matter cannot be entirely known.”  But, you are not in the business of confusing the reader.

“There are a lot of things that create a logical discourse.”  There are many ways to hook the sentences together, but these ways must be apparent on the page.

Write to be canonized; write as if the only readers who matter are those who are “impatient, informed, eager to be challenged, and have the power to canonize you…. Those people who don’t want to read anybody because they’ve read everybody.”

“It’s about power in the end.  It isn’t about `can you get away with it?’  It’s about `can you knock them dead with it?’”

People are busy, life is short, eternity is long.  Don’t waste on trivial objects your art-making time.  “Be efficient in the use of yourself.”

“You want always to speak ex cathedra — from your seat of power,” from that part of you most dear to you, most troubling, most true.  You want to speak for the truest god, “the one that’s been around forever and says, `Yeah? Come show me.’”

The thing to do, to be a great writer, a great artist, is to learn how to play the game.  “Learn how to use a bat, learn how to hit a ball, learn how to catch a ball.”

Remember, you are making objects of art, not objects of fetish.

The human heart, the human mind, human existence itself, these “are deeply, deeply mysterious.”  To write great fiction “is to give evidence of the deepness of this mystery.”

“The more you are rebuked by what you have in front of you, the better off you are.  The best comes not easy — it comes hard, hard, hard.”

“Showing is `Look at this.’  Telling is `Haven’t you noticed this?’  Commenting is ‘Don’t you think this ought to be?’”

“Be willing to resist what comes to mind first.”

“In the end, your life will be worth that which you have loved.  And you will make of your life that which you have loved.  See you in a week.”

DECEMBER 11, 1990


About your object, “don’t get into it unless you’re prepared to get into all of it.”

“It is extracting everything there is to extract from the object, and that is what it is to be the death of the object.”

“There’s a way to get inside that which afflicts you…. You must agitate your pain… until everywhere you look, it surrounds you.”  It’s no way to live, but it’s the only way to be a great artist.  “You become your own self-referential system.  You become your own heaven and hell.  You become a being who is truly saved.  This is entirely in keeping with chaos theory.”  You become your own universe.

Chaos theory works in creating art because it mimics living.  “We are not made in a linear system.”  You become “the accumulation of the error-rate… the disproportionate result of” living.  What is outside you is “random muck.”  You must make inside you the order of your own universe.  “You will be a worshipper in your own religion.  You will live in this neurotic world you have created for yourself…. Your work becomes the only space in which you are safe.”

If you reach a point where your work no longer transcends itself, skip it.  You are no longer an artist, but a vain merchant with a bad habit.

“The work really is done long before you let it go,” before you make it, before you become “now just a shaping hand,” putting the words on the page. From your stance, your authority, and “that place of greatest jeopardy within yourself,” you produce something “truly bewitching.”

You’ll have a hard time, being immersed in a fiction market saturated with work “riddled with irrelevancy.”

“The more information you give them, the less meaning you give them…. As the information piles up, the entropy piles up, and when you have complete entropy, you have the death of the system.”

It all comes down to whether or not you are an artist.  “Art is about taking risks.”

Think of “that which cannot be known as an ally in doing your work.”  Write “in a kind of partnership with ignorance…. The sentence comes out very differently if you write in connivance with the unknowable.”

To plot it all out is to make a frame in the shape of an adult and imprison a child within it.

We are immersed in a cultural stream of indeterminacy.  “You can dip into it pretty much anywhere you please.”

“You just want that one sentence, that one exorbitant statement of yourself, then you’re home free.”  You apply the poetics, not worrying where the piece is going, and you go there.  “The initial conditions are all that count.”  Make them exorbitant, and find the errror in them.

(An amazing amount of doodling went on in these classes, and at least one student brought in her knitting to knit.)

You want to eliminate the metaphorical from your initial conditions.  Your error needs to be non-metaphorical.  Your error is “your freakishness — you’re always looking for the freakishness.”

“The notion is to discover in your first sentence, where is this mystery, this freakishness, this error, this turbulence.  It’s what someone says, it’s what someone does.  It’s bewitchingly human.  It must bear on the human heart, the human body…. Always look for an error which represents a difficulty, a deep difficulty.”

“If you’re stingy, if you’re chickenshit, if you’re afraid, you’ll never ever do it.  You have to let go enough.”

“That’s how you find it, by seeing and discarding, by seeing and discarding, till you finally reach that exorbitant place.”

“Metaphor is automatically at a distance from the heart.  When you say something that is at a remove from what you mean, you create a void through which the reader cannot be counted on passing, or even wanting to pass.”

“Look, it’s very simple — you got a heart, and you got all the words there are…. The closer you are to your own heart, your own body, the stronger you are, ‘cause that’s where your seat of power is…. Think of it as a matter of mechanics.”

For closure, your final sound has “to be provided for by what precedes,” either through continuation or opposition.

You want your piece to be “the irresistible utterance of a heart engaged,” authoritative, proceeding by its own inexorable interior logic.

“If you pick up a cliche, you extrude it through yourself.  You never defer to anything exterior to yourself.  You subdue everything that is of that world, and make it your object.”

“The minute you stop to tell us the reaction of a character to something that character has done, you impede the progress.  It is never worth it.”

Don’t be seduced by “the immensely detailed construction of the object.”  Don’t lose the forest in the trees.

“Don’t lose the heart.  That’s all there is to it.  Don’t let yourself get captured by the language.  The language is not the answer.  The answer is in your heart.”

“In the end it’s authority.  In the end it’s the heart.  In the end you must be possessed by it, and possess it.”

“If it doesn’t have truth for you, it has truth for nobody — and that’s the truth, implacably.”

You take contrary terms, juxtapose them, and “energy is the result, tension is the result, drama is the result, power is the result.”

DECEMBER 13, 1990


Dasein, `there-being,’ being there.  There is a lot to be said for the value of being there, of being present, in your work, in your life — in all of its ramifications, being there.

“A certain generosity of one’s inner domain, I think, prefigures a life in art.”  We are, of course, all of us small-hearted; the best we may hope to do is to be great-hearted in doing art.  “It is as if one bears forth a chalice, and one is the sole bearer of that chalice.  It is a sacred act.”

“We are all petty, small-hearted, mean-spirited persons, but we can create within ourselves a clean, well-lighted place…. As cleansed of the small, as empty of the petty, as shorn of the spiteful, as it must be” in order for us to make art that can “save persons not yet born.”

The bifurcation of mind between whole-hearted commitment of your heart to the page and whole-minded concentration on cold, manipulative technique, this bifurcation is a fundamental part of doing the work well; however, do not confuse this irony with the necessary purity, the essential great-spiritedness you must have and must give away to make great art.  This irony and this largeness of spirit can and must go hand-in-hand.  “The larger you can make your heart, the greater your triumph will be…. Petty people make petty art…. The more vulnerable you make yourself, the more you will achieve.”  We are all Odysseus.  “We are all liars, seeking to make our way home.”

“Open up — all the way up.”  Be brave, go to the most dangerous place.  To bridge the gap between mediocrity and greatness, one must be able to put one’s heart into the advocacy of the other; and otherness “is Mommy, is Daddy, sister, brother, husband, wife, everybody who is not you.”  Put yourself lowest of all.  Find the opposite sex in yourself.

You must be a mahatma.  You must “know, and feel, and forgive everything…. The job is to be loving, and that’s a tall order, a very tall order…. In the end, the transcendent piece of knowledge that one must acquire, is where to position the heart with relation to the task…. You can be so much bigger than you think you can be, and any damn fool can do it…. You can levitate yourself right off the face of this earth, you can go to heaven in your own lifetime, all by the sentences you write.  Go ahead and dare do it.  But don’t delude yourself that you have done it when you haven’t.”

The more you give away, “writing from ground-zero of your heart,” the more you will receive.





“The question is, will you reach into that store of humanity in you?  Be smart.  Be smart.  Reckon with where that power is…. Create within yourself a place where art can happen; a cathedral in yourself; a high and lofty place…. Hold yourselves high.  Make a place where art can happen…. Sit up straight, stand upright — you are artists.”

“It is about sentences, it is about purity of heart, and it is about wanting to make a great thing.  This is what it has always been about, and what it is still about.”

There is a lot to be said for, if not mastering, then at least working out the short-story form before doing a novel, especially with regard to non-linear dynamics.

`Period doubling’ in non-linear dynamics can be seen as an analog to what goes on between sentences, with each sentence being a `generation.’ The space between generations is the `phase transition.’  “The adventure is in exploiting that phase transition moment.”

Another analog is `scale theory’ — the larger the unit of measure, the less precise the measurement.  Conversely, the smaller the unit of measure, the more precise the measurement, tending to infinity.  In the small, the whole of life can be revealed.  “You want your rule to be very, very, very small…. Render the object, all of the object, not a version of it…. If you leave anything out, all you’ll have is an abstraction.”

You have nothing as a piece of work until you have a sign that is a sign touching the human heart.  Non-linear dynamics is the dynamics most reflective of living, of life, of the cosmos, of the heart.  “Go figure it out.”

The application of scale theory will lead you to the realization that the initial conditions can never be fully measured, realized, plumbed to their depths; on the other hand, if you come to your initial conditions with a small enough measure, you can unpack an infinity of richness.

You must read your words slowly, aloud, so that you know exactly who they are; so that you may have purchase on them.

“There is much to be gained in reminding the reader of the conduit of knowledge…. You never want to let the observer be confused with the author.”

Don’t use `asked’ — `said’ will do — same for `told me,’ etc.  `Said’ is forceful, direct, almost a punctuation.

Make sure you say what it is you want the reader to see, and not some sloppy variation of it you present because you didn’t pay close enough attention to it.

When you go into your piece at a point of insufficiency, and unpack that point to a level of sufficiency, you have made a provocation for a new beginning.  You’ve thrown your piece out of kilter.  You’ve given that newly-unpacked section an altitude higher than the work around it.  What you learn from this is to unpack deeply from the very start.  When you unpack a portion of previous insufficiency, you find yourself closer to your enduring objects.  This is a way of pulling yourself up by your bootstraps.  “Your progress is a result of grappling with your failure.”

“You must feel yourself entitled; you must feel yourself on the way to having it all…. You’ve got to be able to say, `God damn it, I’m a good person, I’m telling the truth, I deserve to be heard, the world owes me this, life owes me this.’  In everything else, be humble, but in this, be a `God damn it, I will be heard!’”

“Signification is in stance and authority, not in the information.”

Be frugal with your words.  Don’t spew out any word you don’t need.

Witness Matisse — just a few lines, but all the right ones.  Witness Durer — the unpacker of the object.

“You’ll never get to that great transcendence if you don’t let go of what you know, and embrace what you don’t know.”

When “one is in the I-mode of behavior,” one must always be “extremely sensitive” about the `I’ “somehow elevating itself over the circumstance.” Your `I’ must be adorable, greatly tactful, avoiding any taint of complaint or self-aggrandizement, and must be extremely forgiving.

“Never explain, never complain.”

“This is not a history lesson.  We’re here in the present.  Don’t go back in time.”  There are ways, but not blatant ones, of going back in time — for example, through dialogue.  The past comes out best in the pressure of moving forward.

“Authority first.  Stance second.  You’ve got nothing without it.”  Stronger stances issue integrally from the object, as opposed to weaker stances, which seem to be artistic affectations imposed upon the object.

“First is authority — `I possess it, and am possessed by it.’”

Stance — to speak from a place no one else is speaking from, a place necessary to the object.

Stance plus authority equals the sign of the truth.  Stance you get by working at it, by fooling with the syntax, the `-emes.’  “An artist is his stance. Without it, where the hell are you?”

Stance’s “accordance with the object” means your stance has to be flexible.

“The world has in it so much writing, so many writers…. Such a staggering, staggering lot of it.  And most of it’s just noise…. One might succeed enormously at differentiating himself from the noise…. You ain’t never gonna get it doing the normative thing.”

You must be able to reconsider everything in your writing, in your approach to your writing, in what you have learned about writing in your past.

“Is it worth putting my pencil here?  Is this my life?  Is this my death?”

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  • 1 André // Sep 16, 2014 at 10:21 am

    This page has been everything these past few days. These past few days have garnered so much more meaning because of this page. Thank you for this; this and you.

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