Feature: A Lesson

Interview with: Steve Schauz


Your story seems to focus on a man’s conflict with his sexuality and his awareness that his son is undergoing the same process. When you chose the title, “A Lesson,” what is it that our characters learn in the story?

On the surface, the titular lesson might appear to be how to chop wood, but, for me, the real lesson that the father is attempting to teach his son is how to repress some deep truth, to learn how to never name desires. Chopping wood becomes an outlet. It is a lesson in words unspoken and in expectations you cannot hold in your hand but must still abide.

In the case of this story, those particular expectations are latched into prescriptive masculinity – the performative behaviors that one must perfect in order to be considered a man by society. Somewhere along the line, in some unexplored history that is too vast and pervasive to examine in one little short story, these men all learned that there were certain acceptable ways to behave, certain acceptable ways to be a man. And queer desires do not fit that societal equation of masculinity. Gender performance and sexual desire are two distinct identities; yet, our culture has often conflated and entangled these identities so tightly that, unless one studies gender theory or is introduced to this notion of distinction, it is impossible to unravel them independently. These men have grown up in an environment that cannot deconstruct these notions because they have no permission to discuss such things. Repression breeds further repression.

You create a really compelling narrative surrounding an activity most people don’t associate with a deeper meaning. Clearly, chopping wood means more than just chopping wood in “A Lesson.” What inspired you to write about this topic when you began your story?

I enjoy storytelling that provides a bit of a sucker punch. You think you have a sweet little tale about a father teaching his son to chop wood, and then – boom – right in the jawbone, you’re hit with a deeper layer to what this all means.

As a writer, I often strive to take motifs and subvert them in some way. I’m tired of overused metaphors and clichés; let’s be rid of them or make something new out of them. From my own experience as a reader, I have seen the set-up of a father teaching his son to chop wood as a device for imparting lofty ideals of what it means to be a man, of a passage into the first rites of manhood. I have seen this motif presented in a way that is nostalgic or reverent, so self-assured that this performance is the pinnacle or genesis of some perfect masculinity. When not tread carefully, this image becomes representative of an unquestioned masculinity powdered with problematic behaviors and fragility. In “A Lesson,” the act of chopping wood becomes a device for obscuring latent sexuality, for repressing queer desires. This repression is rooted in our characters being able to perform a prescriptive masculinity in a way that distances them from effeminacy, from anything that could suggest the fragility of their masculinity or the secret queer desires they hold. In so doing, I hope it calls attention to the problems of this trope.

There is violence in repression, in keeping a part of yourself concealed and in hindering another to blossom into their true self. That violence is simultaneously self-imposed and also policed, as we see in the father who must not only keep his own desires in check, but who also feels the need to teach his son to do the same. Where this motif of chopping wood has often been a device for father and son to connect, “A Lesson” subverts this image, making it the place for schism instead. They are both denying the truth that could lead to true connection. Repression is anger and shame, internalized and private; no one in the story has any way to discuss this reality, so in the end, we have only the violence of bleeding and broken calluses.

There is a strong parallel between the lives of the father and son, which is enforced by the phrase “like father, like son” used a couple times in the story. Do you think that the son will have the same life that his father had, or is there an opportunity for change somewhere?

Well, I certainly leave this story at a place of hopelessness, don’t I? And my answer for you all is that I simply don’t know. Once you write and finish a story, it takes on a life of its own; I don’t get to control the outcomes. I want my storytelling to feel real and grounded; I want my characters to feel like real people, like your neighbors just down the street. Which means, outside of the perimeters of my writing, they are unpredictable and their circumstances will become unpredictable. They might be batted by the winds of chance or fate, which could change them all for better or worse.

Perhaps the son will meet a cute boy who was never taught to chop wood. Perhaps the wife will file for divorce. Perhaps the father will never be able to admit the truth and eventually die of exhaustion while in a downswing. Or perhaps not one of those plots will occur. I capture these characters at particular moments in their lives, and I hope that in the space I gave them, they demonstrate complexity. Yet, as all real people are, they are infinitely more complex than any of us could ever know.

As a writer, I tend to end plots in the thick of it all. It might leave you with more questions than answers; it might make you want more or make you really pissed off at me for leaving it at that. But I want to end on a theme. I want to end on a mystery, on the exact mystery of this very question: what comes next? I guess I am an optimistic cynic. I want the best for all of these characters. I want the son to bandage his wounds and heal. I want the wife to speak. I want the father to pitch the axe deep into the woods and emerge whole. But these are characters who are so trapped in what goes unspoken, so trapped in the world that they know, that it seems unlikely that things will ever change. I have to hold the ugly truth of reality with the daydream for the better. I hope with this response I leave you at a place of hopeful hopelessness rather than just plain old hopelessness.

We learn a lot about the father’s past, and through this we get a short glimpse into his son’s future. However, you chose to include another character. The wife clearly has an opinion on what her husband is trying to do with their son, yet she has not a single line of dialogue through the entire story. She must be important to the narrative though, as she watches her husband teach their son to chop wood. Why did you choose to include her?

I want my stories to feel like they are grounded. I opted to include the wife because she is a part of the family, though she is excluded from the interactions between father and son. She needs to be there in the sense that she takes up space in this fictitious reality, both in her place at the window and how her husband reflects on his sexuality. There are more people in this world other than just the man and his son; they cannot be an island all to themselves though they attempt to make it that way by ignoring or blocking others out. The wife tethers them to a world that must exist beyond themselves.

However, this tethering is clearly a sore spot for both of the male characters for a number of reasons that I will leave up to reader interpretation. But what I will say is that the wife is without dialogue for a purpose. She clearly has thoughts on the matter of teaching her son to chop wood, but they are not allowed within the text. She is not given space to talk or be heard by the other characters, who are consistently ignoring or disregarding her. I reflected the way these characters treat her in how I wrote about her. It makes me wonder how her narrative would read… And I think it is important to recognize that it has been omitted. Her silence in this speaks just as loudly.

The old adage goes, “Write what you know.” Do you find it helpful, in either this story or others you have written, to draw from real life experience when you are writing?

I am not the most experienced writer, so please take this thought with a grain of salt! It was only recently that I felt I came into my voice as a writer, that I discovered the niche of my style and felt comfortable in moving forward. In that sense, I consider myself a Midwestern writer as much as I am a Midwesterner at heart, and it is my goal to give the Midwest more of a voice that cannot be discounted or ignored. I know the Midwest, so in that regard: yes, I think it is crucial for you to write what you know. It gives you ground to stand upon. It gives you a place to drop a little pin for “Point A” on a map. But I also think it is important to write what is unknown or distant to you. That is what gets you to “Point B.” If you are writing about only what you know, you might be writing more of a creative memoir than a piece of fiction. Nothing wrong with creative memoirs, but you have to keep that destination in sight: what is your purpose?

Depending on your subject matter, I also think there is a need for that distance in order to preserve your sense of self. I wrote a story about ancestral repression; this is, fortunately, not something I have had to experience. It was just a passing thought, a curiosity of what that might be like that lingered long enough to evolve into a story.

For writers who have marginalized identities and have experienced traumas at the hands of cultural expectations and oppression, storytelling can be a challenge. Those traumas feel like they ought to be shared, perhaps to enlighten the world or perhaps to release one’s rage. In the wise words of Beyoncé: “Don’t hurt yourself.”

Healing is an important step, and not everything that we have directly experienced is ready to be shared. So in short, yes, writing from what I know can be helpful for getting started and for finding my footing and voice, but I think one must be conscientious to avoid remaining too tightly within their known perimeters.

“A Lesson” approaches a theme that does not really have a “happy” ending. Do you have any suggestions to writers who are trying to write stories about topics outside of their comfort zones?

I agree that “A Lesson” does not end happily. No one is riding off in a pumpkin carriage in glass slippers, for sure! For me, it was important to end this story in a moment that was poignant and shocking, in an image that reveals how damaging repression can be. It is unpleasant, but it needed to be real and raw. Not all stories can have happy endings. We need the sad, shocking, disturbing, mysterious endings to make a point, or at the very least to appreciate the happy ones.

Again, I am not the most experienced writer, so please take this advice with a grain of salt, but here it goes! Here is what I say to writers who are trying to write outside of their comfort zones: Write into it. It is going to feel clumsy and clunky. It will also probably be ugly and uncomfortable; you’re not going to like the experience, so just keep writing until you want to scream and run away. When you can’t take it anymore, go ahead and run away, but then come back to it. Ultimately, if you can’t make yourself cry at your own writing, you won’t make anyone else cry. You have to experience the ugly to arrive at something beautiful, even if it is painfully beautiful.

* * *

Formerly an editor for Portage Magazine, Steve Schauz is honored to have his first ever publication within this magazine.  He is currently a college administrator, but he is in the process of transforming his passion for writing into more of a calling and a career.  He lives in Minnesota with his feline sidekick, Cora Rey.