Monday, September 17, 2012

Which Reminds Me of a Story

Over Tuesday and Wednesday of last week, I wrote a long story, nearly 10,000 words, that fits together some ideas I've been percolating for months or years. Something central and sad that I've noticed about the world and how we behave in it. A story idea I'd had for so long that I'd gotten impatient with myself about having not written it. Smaller observations and ideas, all important to me and nagging from my notes books to be written, that somehow hooked together as I wrote.

I also tore down the wall between fiction and specifics of my own experience, putting my own childhood dresser into my narrator's bedroom and my own opinion of FJ Cruisers into a character's brain. I've always tried to skirt doing this, because I don't want people making assumptions about what's in my head due to what's in my fiction, but it becomes an elaborate problem to be inspired by my own life but to try really hard to disguise it, more tiring than the main issue of writing the story. So I gave up on striking the right balance and just wrote what was there.

I wrote. And wrote. And wrote. I spent about seven hours on the story on Wednesday (after putting in a workday). And I knew there was a good 2,000 words of it that wouldn't stay, that even as I was writing I knew were the wrong words. Probably I'll have to do a lot more difficult work on it. But I think I've really got something here. It's the first time in yonks - if I'm honest, the first time I remember since 2003 - that I've written something setting forth a clear intellectual idea in which I believe. (As opposed to a story idea, that is.)

I fooled with it a bit on Thursday, cutting out a bunch and rewriting a bunch. Trying and failing to sit back in my chair and look at it objectively; hoping before I went to sleep at night that I hadn't been too much influenced by the Wallace stories I've been reading over the last two weeks. I'm going to give it at least a week, preferably two, before I look at it again.

Part of the reason this story feels so different (and it feels like a total sea change) from what I've been writing in the last two or ten years is that, thanks to the Wallace stories, I stopped thinking about standard technique. I watched a video of him reading from A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again and discovered that the "And but so"-and-similar tic that he uses at the beginning of many sentences sort of runs together into a mush of connective words when it comes out of his mouth. I'd read it as the same disguised formalism that earmarks most of his work, but having now heard it, I wonder if all along he's just imagined he's telling us these stories. As a bard in the king's court.

Hence I gave some thought to how I talk to people, and how I write on this blog, and I realized that I like to give illustrative examples before (and while) I explain how I feel or think about something. (I simultaneously realized that it's probably sort of a bore to talk to me.) This illuminates the manuscript for me - makes it easier to get my point across and adds verity to whatever point it may be. I wondered how this would translate in fiction writing, because I don't do it in fiction writing, and part of the answer is that it translates to a lot of what seems like digressions but are very much not, which for me make a piece of fiction richer (and I know for some people make it obnoxious to read). Another part of the answer is that it feels like exactly how I should have been writing short stories all along.

When I wrote this story, I tried to do two things. I wrote with the central intellectual idea firmly in mind with every single word, with the idea never once leaving my head for any single sentence. And I tried to write it the way I'd tell if it I was one of the characters. I.e. event X happened today, but event X only mattered to me and felt Y way to me because of event Z two weeks ago. And of course I made the effort to hide X and Y and Z in showing, not telling, and the showing came in the form of digressional examples. Which is why the story was almost 10,000 words in its first draft, because there are four stories leaved together and numerous digressions to show and show and show.

Instead of worrying about Omit Needless Words, I just wrote, in the voice I felt suited the character, in the style that felt like a loose pair of jeans, with a great deal of lovely crazy English. Instead of chewing my nails about not being good enough to forget the ever-clanking mechanics that turn today's wheezing literary market, I just wrote, thinking (when I thought about it) that eventually, maybe today or maybe five years from now or maybe twenty years from now, I'd write well enough to find an audience. Instead of nervously donning white gloves and treating this story as the next piece of copper I'd have to shine to perfection, I just wrote. And since I haven't reread this thing yet, I could be wrong, but I'm starting to wonder if (with at least a half-full toolbox, which I think I've got) this is how to do it.

Overintellectualizing is not new to me. And I've wondered kind of faintly whether it's what I've been doing since 2006 or so. But I got it in my head that writing was supposed to be meticulous and difficult and miserable if you were doing it right, and that doing it the way it felt right was going to lead to sloppiness and ignominy and cries from the audience that you didn't know what you were doing. I think it's somewhere in between: after you get the toolbox and get your head right, it's supposed to feel good.

Like sex, come to think of it. But I won't get into that today. 

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