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

October 1990

OCTOBER 9, 1990

Escape the hegemony of the object.  While you must render your object with precision, staying on its surface, ever sliding, ever moving, ever illuminating a facet here and a crevasse there, remember that you are in control of the rendering; while you must speak truly of your object, you must not be helpless in the face of the truth of your object.

Keep analogies close to their objects.  `The white wall was as white as the whitest white,’ is a stronger analogy than `The white wall was as white as a virgin’s heart.’

“The only sentence that matters is the one you’re writing.”  Do not look ahead two or three sentences, thinking, Oh, but wait, I have to get through two or three more of these sentences before I can get to the really good stuff.  Make the sentence you are at the place you are at, and make it a place of stone and steel, not a place of sand and clay.  Fashion this sentence out of what has gone before on your page, always moving forward by looking back.  Turn, swerve, torque and twist upon what you have written, finding new ways to render your object, and through these maneuvers, finding the way to write your heart out.

“The job is not to know what you are going to find.”  What you will end up finding is your own heart, and finding that, you will find the hearts of all other women and men.

It takes courage to speak your heart, to really speak all that is in your heart.  This courage, this is what made the great writers great — their audacity, their will, their courage to speak.  They did not wait for permission to speak their hearts — they spoke out of having no other choice but to speak.

“No one is chosen.  One chooses one’s self.”  No one owes any debt of attention to be paid to you; there are a million people just like you clamoring to be heard.  Do not wait your turn — take your turn, take everyone else’s besides.  Do you dare to “piss with the big dogs”?  Who told you you could?  Who told you you could not?  Bite their cocks off and spit them back in their faces; tell them, `I am here, in town and on the page, and I’m not here to piss with the big dogs, I’m here to piss on the big dogs.’

Not just any speech will turn the trick.  “You want a sentence that has pressure pressure pressure pressure.”  You want a sentence, and not just a sentence but every sentence, to be like an ace in tennis, like a line drive with “high spin, low wobble.”

You want, in your work, repetition and closure, a peripateia, a tying up of the loose ends.  You want to unpack your object again and again.

Find the major, basal, fundamental, ineradicable losses of your life.  In these losses lie your artistic powers.  “The thing taken from you is your gift.”

Stick to it.  Stick to your object, stick to your writing, stick to your dreams, stick to yourself.  You will find that such steadfastness will perpetuate itself.

Beware of exposition in dialogue.  Keep your dialogue numinous, not narrative.

Curve back in your stories in every possible way: thematically, structurally, acoustically; be aware of the power of assonance; be aware that every morpheme, every phoneme counts.  Do not write in a linear fashion — such writing is weak.  Do not spew out actions and ideas in the manner of a comedian or magician whose every trick or joke is bombing, who tosses new material out in a desperate attempt to connect with his or her audience.

`The act of writing is an opportunistic act.’ — Dennis Donoghue.  Do not confine your work to plodding plot; rather, let your work go where it and your heart will lead you.

“Stay on the body.”  Do not go below the surfaces of your objects, seeking to explain their inner truths.  Write for the readers who will be able to find the signs of depth and truth through empathic reading of accurate description.

Don’t hold back, and don’t save it up.  Love your work and love your reader, and give every line everything you have.  Remember, in reaching through your writing to a reader, you are engaged in nothing so much as an act of seduction.  Seduce the whole fucking world, for all time.

Shun the “airy persiflage.”  By all means, keep your sense of irony about yourself and your work, but hit as a heavyweight would hit.  Write with gravitas.

“Render the object.”  This is it: describe the thing as to you it is, and through such description the truths of your heart and of all humanity will be revealed.

“‘Before I traveled my road, I was my road.’”  (Gordon quoting Merwin translating Porchia.)

Stick to simple, concrete objects.  For instance, as an opening sentence, `The table held a book,’ is no great shakes, but think of where you could go from there.  What you want, really, is an exorbitant opening sentence, a hook that hooks your reader to a line that could lead anywhere and everywhere.

The more you tell your grand truth, the more you become embedded in your own mythology — make a mythic figure of yourself.  Kick Shakespeare in the balls and shove Homer down the stairs.  It’s easy — it costs you no less than your life.

OCTOBER 11, 1990

As Thoreau said, there are two kinds of writing: the one reports on the event; the other is the event.

Remember your Zen koan — `First there is a mountain, then there is no mountain, then there is.’  It is the same with developing power on the page.  First you have to know how, then you must forget you know how.  You must practice all the time.  You must fall in love with your language, learn its strengths and weaknesses, come to the point where you are automatically making strong sentences in your mind all the time, sentences you have no fear of discarding as with your language you become more and more adept.  You must never fear throwing your work away.  Such a sloughing-off will make you stronger, larger, more mature in your art.

Gordon told us beginners at the end of the first night of class to go home and throw everything away.  He told us not a one of us knew how to write, that our present and past work would be the anchor that would surely sink our boats, that our ability to emblazon the page would be directly connected to our ability to throw our work away.  He said most of us would not be able to do it, and most of us would never make it — and even the ability to throw work away will not guarantee success.

Consider cadence; consider the value of ending sentences on an upbeat note; consider the various stops and how you want to make use of them in your work.

Write it out, write it out, stretch it out and write it out some more.  Write your heart out, write your mind out, write your soul out, give, give, and give again, and great rewards will be yours in return.

Beware units of measure, numbered or otherwise.  Like brand names, they do not wear well.  `All afternoon’ is much better than `For five hours after lunch.’

It is this simple: simply say what a thing is.

“When you put down a word, immediately interrogate it for its opposite.”  Question everything you put down, all the time, always asking yourself, `How can I find a stronger way to say this?’

“Presentation, not representation.”

Write it out.  Tell what it is.  The reader cannot see what is in the eye of your mind.

“Anything is a story; everything is a story; you can start anywhere.”

Do not automatically use contractions.  Consider the power, the acoustics, the cadences involved, the tone of your piece, your stance and your authority, when you make a decision regarding contractions and their employment.

“Never judge, unless the voice of the judger is clearly suspect.”

Like units of measure, directions are to be regarded as suspect.  Any time you say, for instance, `He went north,’ you plant in the reader’s mind a world of wondering about what was going on in every other direction but north.  Same with saying, for instance, `She was six-foot-seven.’  You leave the reader open to ask, `Are you sure she wasn’t six-foot-six-and-seven-eighths?’  Any such questioning on the reader’s part is an undermining of your authority to speak about your object.

Keep focused, keep concentrated in time and space.  Any change in time and locale, most particularly any jump-cut, is a blow struck against the unity, the strength and integrity of the piece.

Keep mystery in your work.  Mystery gives power to a story, but remember — mystery is not the same thing as confusion.

Read your work aloud.  Your work must work aloud.  Prose fiction should be speech, and that doesn’t necessarily mean it should be ignorant speech.

Build patterns in your work.

“You want to write in cadence, not in meter.”

Be chary in the giving of the news.  The story is not in the news, it is in the moment.

OCTOBER 16, 1990

Strive for perfect cadence in your sentences; strive to utter “utterable statements,” statements which not only could not have been said in any other way, but through their very saying reveal that they were of necessity said.  Herein lies power — an absence of self-consciousness, bent only on finding speech.  You ask yourself, “What can I say?  What can be said?”

Speak to be the only one who is heard.

Little changes reveal whole worlds.  Every phoneme counts.

“Doing prose fiction is an occasion for you to invent yourself.”

“You are the god of the page.  Be God first.  Entirely.  Wholly.  The rest follows.”  The page is your world, and you are supreme there.  You are Siva, the creator and destroyer of worlds, and you dance upon the infant page.  You control the horizontal; you control the vertical.  “Don’t waste your time reporting on the event — be the event.”

Be liberated by the page, not inhibited by the page.

If you can make an audacious, complex, exorbitant beginning, in the first page or two, “the rest of the piece is a coast.”

“The farther you can get from the history of your life, the closer you may get to the story that is you.”

Courtesy Rick Whitaker, here follow Dennis Donoghue’s three levels through which a writer passes, one would hope, to arrive at, finally, greatness:

1) Self-expression;

2) Communication;

3) Exploring the form of the language itself.

Shun conventional metaphor, making your metaphor of your prose itself.  Individual analogies subtract from the overall metaphorical effect of the piece.

OCTOBER 18, 1990

If you diminish yourself in your work, you make yourself larger than life.

Consider the phoniness of flashing back.  Consider how flashing back rips apart what should be the seamless fabric of your piece.

Be patient in the giving of the information, in the spewing of the news.  “If it goes without saying, don’t say it.”  If it can wait, and it almost always can, make it wait.  “Pay it out later.”

“Form to begin with. The substance will take care of itself…. Form, format, formulations.”  The force of the form can overcome the discouraging actuality of the words; always, the words, somehow unsatisfactory, never getting quite to the truth of your heart, always acting as signs that block the way to which they point.

“The work must be worthy of your death.”

Respecting so-called `characters,’ and paraphrasing Grace Paley, in a story, there are no characters — there are people; furthermore, they are not people, they are ink on a page.  What gets onto the page is not well-rounded characters, it is the evidence of your desire to be heard.

Write from the Oedipal principle; write to overcome the preceding generation, be it those writers who have gone before you, the last piece you wrote, or in what you are writing now, the most recent sentence you have placed upon the page.

Write in a self-reflexive, self-referential way.  This extends from constantly turning your piece back on itself to never referring to other writers or their work.

Opening a sentence, especially your attack sentence, with an adverb, adverbial clause, or prepositional phrase, this is a weak move.

In your attack, which is, of course, your opening, present objects real, physical, tangible, visible — do not present the abstract.  The abstract arises most naturally, most powerfully, and most subtly out of the presentation of the concrete.

Stripping away the adjectives, those pretty, petty flourishes, this will make a more powerful piece of work.

Pay attention to “the conduit of knowledge” — who knows what in a story and how is it known.  The strongest position to take is to reveal only that which could be known by whatever `person’ is speaking in the story, and to reveal as little of that as you can get away with.

A strong story is unpredictable, “is its own pattern.”

“I’m trying to get you to dance with the language.”

OCTOBER 23, 1990

“The Ur-sentence:” a basic sentence form, reflecting the acoustics and cadences of the language as you learned it.  Every writer has an Ur-sentence, and the development of this form is the development of your style.

A repetition of the Oedipal principle in the making of art:

1) Belatedness must be defeated, and the feelings of belatedness arising in your heart when you see a piece of work you wish you had done first, these feelings must be overtaken.  Defeat the feeling of “the absence of priority…. Stand on the shoulders of giants.”

2) You must overtake, you must consume, that which has gone before.  “You take strength from the parent by eating the parent.  You honor the parent by eating the parent.”

3) Eating the parent makes the parent part of the child.  Consider, what is the parent?  What is your parent, the parent of your work, the parent of the sentence you are writing right now?

4) When you fashion each sentence to consume the previous sentence, each sentence, in a way, becomes the first, the attack sentence.  “The sentence I’m putting down must contend with the prior sentence.”

5) Through such contention and consumption is irony born.

6) Yes, this is very, very hard work.  “Priority is truly the undoing of us all.”

7) Each sentence struggles against each sentence, each story contends with each story, and through such struggle and contention, your work is made stronger.

“Refactoring” — searching for better ways to put a thing.  There is always a better way.  “If you refactor, you don’t have to invent.”

Always be prepared to overtake, argue with, and undercut what you just wrote.

Cultivate a memory for what you have written, so you learn to almost automatically capitalize on resonances phonemic, morphemic, and thematic.

You are always showing one whole object, but piece by piece, its wholeness implicit, its every part contingent upon its every other part, such contingency leaving the reader ever alert to the wholeness of your object.

To be the only one who speaks, go far — “You can’t go far enough.”

“You can’t go far enough.”

“You can’t go far enough.”

“You can’t go far enough.”

“You can’t go far enough.”


You must write with consecution, so that each sentence follows naturally from each preceding sentence, but the range of what constitutes consecution is broad.  You want to swerve and torque, going forwards by looking backwards.

“Please, for pity’s sake, read slowly, write slowly.”

Pronouns give mystery, but when misused, they are weightless; nouns possess less mystery, but more weight.  Pronouns do not gain mystery automatically, but must be invested with it by the way they function within the piece.

Each part of your writing must resonate with every other part of your writing, throughout your life.

Never defer to other stories in your stories — this undermines your authority.

Reinvent what is prior — do not be in service to what is prior.

“There’s no end to the labor.  There’s no end to the labor.  There’s no end to the labor.  There’s no end to the labor.  But isn’t that wonderful?”

“You must learn to see things in a many-eyed way.”  You overcome the priority of what has gone before by looking at it anew, finding a new view. As you compose, you constantly ask yourself, “What else might I say?”  You “unpack your objects…. You unname and rename.”

The moment you write a sentence, you look down the line to negate it, but you take the source, the seed, the root of this negation from what you have already written in the piece.

“Render the thing such that we are meant to see it.”

“It isn’t enough to be a writer — be a re-writer.”

You must be most careful about the consistencies of various voices, especially the authorial voice, if your authority is to be maintained.  If you do not have authority on the page, you have nothing on the page.

Being a great writer is little more than learning how to move the words around; how to put them in, how to take them out.

You must be attentive to consecution in every detail.

“Your task is to develop intimate relations with the reader.”

In no small way, you are engaged in an act of self-psychoanalysis.

Your attack sentence is a provoking sentence; you then follow it with a series of provoking sentences.

Speaking of `then,’ leave off with using `then’.  Same goes with `later.’  These go without saying, following from the very structure of a piece of prose — of course it happened then, and of course it happened later.  Same with `after a while.’  If it was later, if it was after a while, write it out.  Tell when it was.

OCTOBER 25, 1990

“If anybody can see your sentence better than you can see your sentence, you do not own it — they own it.”

Attention to detail is of importance paramount.  As in the work of a great painter, it is in the brush strokes that the presence of the artist can most strongly be perceived.

On the matter of courage: the writer must come to grips with his deepest knowledge of herself.  “Undoing the self is the greatest jeopardy,” but without this jeopardy, there is not greatness as a writer to be had.  “Truly, on the page, you can get away with anything, anything, anything.  It’s just words….  You must be liberated from this fear to have the life of a literary artist.”  Don’t pull your punches — there is nothing to be gained from it, and greatness to be lost.  Don’t hold back.

Address “the objects that are at the center of you.”  There are only a few of them, of these truly vital objects of yours.  Turn to them, speak to them, speak of them.

“If you can learn to follow Emerson, you will be a great artist.”

The only stories to write are the stories that come from “that centrality that is ineluctably you.”

“Speak from your center of gravity.”

Refactoring has nothing to do with a thesaurus; throw your fucking thesaurus away, if you have one, and throw away every fucking thesuarus that might be foolish enough to cross your path.  Refactoring has to do with re-using the same words, the same tightly-focused idea, the same phoneme or morpheme, repeatedly in altered contexts.  This refactoring is the turning of a chosen unit into a trope.

“You wanna be a great bullshitter.  For God.”

Write like a jazz musician plays.

“The art of all art is making out of a meagerness a muchness.”

You hit repeatedly upon your initial conditions, following non-linear dynamics.

You don’t need much.  All you need are stamina, will, desire, confidence, and courage.

Never think you need to stop learning — don’t get soft!  Get hard, and harder still.

You also need patience, the patience to develop power on the page.  The more powerful you become, the quicker you will become.

“You must have infinite respect for the infinitesimally small, because, believe me, it’s waiting for you to fuck up.”

Fuck plot.  “There are only two plots anyway — there’s Cinderella, and there’s Moby-Dick.”  Therefore, be careful with the revealing of the news. The more you tell, the less you give your reader.

“It’s like music, it’s like painting, it’s like engineering, this making of well-wrought prose fiction.”  Ascertain within yourself the cadence which you can tap into when you compose your sentences.  “You dress in harmony — write in harmony.”



“It is not about writing, this thing that you are doing — it is about composition.  Com Po Si Tion.”

It is about knowing what to put in and what to leave out, and knowing that knowing what to leave out is just as important as knowing what to put in.

From each moment to each moment as you write, leave yourself free to abandon whatever direction you think you may be taking, and write opportunistically.  Throw away your plots, throw away your history of you, and write from your heart.

A convenient piece of narration which then moves directly into conversation is “the death of so many stories.”  It’s a set-up smacking of its phoniness, and is structurally weak.  If your structure is A to B to C to B to C, etc., instead of A to A1 to A2 to A3, etc., you are not building on your initial conditions, you are not unpacking your object, you are not creating a self-sustaining world.

There is a certain amount of authority in the negative assertion, eg, `I want to tell you this story but I don’t know how it ends.’

You want to make as many points of contact with the reader as possible.  Metatextuality is one way to do this.

Position yourself as an artist with respect to what is going on around you in all media of art, as the best of that art expresses the human heart.

The English language is a lot larger than the confines within which most writers work and move, larger both in vocabulary and in its structural possibilities.  Being a hybrid of Teutonic and Romance languages provides to English great structural flexibility and a natural musicality.  If you start listening for the musicality, for the cadences and the phonemes, you will find the structure opening up for you as you write.  As for vocabulary, witness Shakespeare, who used four times as many words as most writers use — no few of which words he coined himself.  Be a regent if you dare, rule the language and mint the new coin of its realm.

OCTOBER 30, 1990

What happens between the reader and the writer has more to do with form than with narrative — all the stories have been told, and anyway, there are only two of them.

You must be able to feel greatly while maintaining an ironic distance — you must be able to be in the place where the mountain both is and is not. You cannot create an effect on the page if you are a victim of the feeling you are trying to recreate.  This does not mean that you do not feel this feeling; rather, this means that you write as a schizophrenic, or as a lusty lover, a lover who sincerely pleads, `Oh, baby, please, you are everything to me, you are my joie de vivre and my raison d’etre,’ while at the same time thinking, `One more line like that and I’ll have the pants peeled right off this babe.’  While you are writing you learn, as a dancer dancing dances learns, to make the precise moves necessary to generate an effect which you do not feel in the moment, though of course it lives in your heart and you know you are creating it and what it feels like.  The only reality for you in creating is the will to create; the will to do your best, phoneme by phoneme; the will to power on the page.  You don’t have it and somebody else does?  Tough shit.  You don’t make the canon.  You don’t become immortal even as would be and befit a god.  Great effect will live in your writing if all you feel is desire to be great as a writer.  That’s all — seduce and subdue, that’s all.

Words fail in themselves and because of themselves to express emotion, to illumine the truly human side of human being, but taken as a whole, as a story, as an artistic form, they can provide such illumination.  Remember, it’s not content that counts, not what’s-this-about, but form that counts — you take care of the form and the content will take care of itself.

A work of art is not an expression of feeling, but is the demonstration of the artist’s knowledge of many feelings.  Thereby is your connection to your audience made, for whether we like it or not, we all feel all there is to feel.

You don’t want to make a static thing, you want to make a dynamic form, intentional in the phenomenological sense, a form the truth from which emerges in the interaction between you and it and the reader, a form with a life of its own, a form that will endure as long as endures the human heart.

You create such a dynamic form when you interact with your story as you compose it, as you swerve, as you torque, as you consecute, unpacking and turning back to look and look again, to see and see anew — you make a motor that starts every time somebody reads it.  It’s a virtual entity. This entity will reveal to the reader profundities you would have missed entirely had you aimed directly at attempting to reveal them.

If you reach a point in a piece where you have an obvious situation developing, you’ve narrowed your story down to two choices — either it happens, or it doesn’t, and you have become predictable.  Be not predictable.  Keep your reader guessing, keep your reader on seat’s edge, keep your reader coming back for more and still more.

You do not want to explain a thing.  “You want to bewitch by the preservation of mystery.”

You undercut your authority by declaring a plain facticity with overwrought prose.  Decongest your pages.  Triple space.  Leave wide margins. Use paragraphing the same way you would use any other trick of your trade — play with it, make it work for you, not confine you.  The white spaces count, too — you are making a visually-perceived work of art.  Play with it.

Don’t turn your trade tricks simply because you can.  Too many writers move from clever trick to clever trick because they can do that, and because that is all they can do.  Instead, ask yourself, `Is this trick really necessary?’

Just as you can never go too far, you can never be too tough on yourself.  You must learn to look and see if what you are writing is appropriate to the form of your story, or if it is mere decoration, empty and pointless fluff.  Your work “must be shorn of everything that is incidental.”

As for symbolism, you make the piece a symbol in itself through powerful form — nothing else will achieve this symbol-making effect.

What you are doing is not about self-expression — it is about obtaining dominion over the reader, about obtaining power on the page.

“Your job is to be larger than you are.”

If you have an argument, a point to make, an ideology, some trendy political correctness, you weaken your work.  If you have no other point than making a piece of art powerful and true, said piece becomes its own point.


5 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Luke Tennis // Aug 20, 2012 at 9:15 pm

    Hey, thanks so much for putting up this Gordon Lish stuff. I’ve heard about those classes (from Michael Kimball and others) and wondered about them. There’s powerful stuff here.


  • 2 Tetman Callis // Aug 21, 2012 at 6:31 am

    He was a powerful teacher.

  • 3 Jim Brennan // Oct 27, 2013 at 9:49 pm

    Thank you Sir. Gordon Lish is truly in a class by himself. I wish I had been there with you.


    Jim Brennan

  • 4 admin // Oct 28, 2013 at 3:44 am

    You’re welcome.

  • 5 Sean Palmer // Jan 19, 2017 at 2:43 pm

    Thank you for posting these notes. Information worth bleeding for. Grateful I don’t.

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