Matt asked me why I felt the story had to be in a dialect at all, and I didn't have a proper answer for him. Because that's how it sounds in my head. I could strip away the dialect and it would probably be much the same story, but it wouldn't feel right to me. Would it be better, though?After I wrote that, I started to go off on a long tangent about changing things in my work despite not wanting to, and decided that it would make a better separate post instead.
Multiple times now, I've written stories or chapters or whatevers, and when passing them to audiences I'm handed back confusion. What was this supposed to mean? What relationship did those two characters actually have? I get frustrated about this because books by literary authors and stories in litmags are allowed to be so obtuse that I don't even know what's going on (cough The English Patient cough), but my stuff is apparently too subtle.
As an example, I wrote this story last year that...well, its central subject is pretty screwed up. Let's just talk about some changes I made in the first couple of pages. Original version:
I surveyed the lot for Marty, my brother’s goodish college friend, who’d hung back and watched me throughout all the handshaking and headshaking. His eyes were a little hungry. Clearly he knew nothing of me. But I thought there was yet a chance he’d stay after and catch me in the parking lot and ask me to go for a cup of coffee.I got feedback that indicated "Clearly he knew nothing of me" was a confusing sentence, one that made the reader ask more questions than the text answered. Final version:
[No one had followed me to the funeral home.] Not even Marty, I noted with some relief. He was my brother’s friend from college, lo those many years ago, and he’d hung back and watched me throughout all the handshaking and headshaking.Not only did the text change in editing, but the implication did, too. Originally I only meant to say that Marty didn't know what he was wishing for by sending hungry eyes the narrator's way. Any male with sense will stay away from the narrator. But by the time I was finished editing in the second version, I wanted it to be clear that even though Marty fancied himself a predator, the real predator is the narrator. It turned out a much stronger and more specific implication rather than just vague danger, and it fit in pretty neatly with the thematic thrust of the story.
His eyes were hungry. To the brother in my mind I mocked Marty: a squirrel licking its lips at a grizzly bear, oh how adorable. How little he knew of me, eh, Dorian? But I thought there was yet a chance he’d drive over here to catch me in the parking lot and ask me to go for a cup of coffee.
Although I think these changes are for the better, it originally exasperated me to make them, because I thought that "His eyes were hungry. Clearly he knew nothing of me," the two sentences next to each other like that - particularly because their lengths were notably, similarly short with no commas or additional full phrases (as my sentences infrequently are) - was enough to pass, enough to make the reader go back and read the two sentences again and see the connection and the implication. Term papers have been built on less.
I didn't want to write any more words. I wanted these words to be enough. I wanted it to be the reader's problem if s/he didn't get it, not mine.
After I sent the revisions to my reader, he wrote back with great enthusiasm. He asked me if I saw how much more power and promise the story had with these revisions and others. I wanted to write back and say no, I didn't, I just felt deflated. I felt like I'd smeared makeup over a birthmark so others would find me pretty.
Last week I read the story and I can't believe I'm getting away with so few words now. I reread the original draft and I think I was a complete idiot for believing it was comprehensible to an outside audience at all. But I can't forget that yucky feeling of compromising something I loved in a way I didn't genuinely believe was necessary.
The same thing happened just last week with a story I recently finished about a boy and his mom in a bad crisis. Original first paragraph:
In the movies, they always say It isn’t what you think or It wasn’t like that, both sentences I might have said. Her face, though – the little twist of fury her mouth had become, the way her eyeballs seemed dried out, no longer capable of tears for me or for anything. It was enough to stop me trying to say anything that might’ve been said in a movie, or trying to say anything at all. In the end, she had to begin.Final first paragraph:
In the movies, they always say It isn’t what you think or It wasn’t like that, both sentences I might have said when my mother caught us, me and Ariana, tangled together in heat on the couch. Her face, though – the little twist of fury her mouth had become, the way her eyeballs seemed dried out, no longer capable of tears for me or for anything. It was enough to stop me trying to say anything that might’ve been said in a movie, or trying to say anything at all. In the end, she had to begin.You'll see that I added exactly who caught who doing what. I meant for that to be gradually revealed over the course of the story, for the reader to get one clue at a time, which would keep the reader reading (or so I presumed). Two readers told me that they really liked the story but didn't know what had happened between the three main characters (boy, mom, Ariana) until the end and/or the second time they read it. I felt that same deflated sensation as with the prior story when I made these changes to the first paragraph.
This disgruntlement arises from the sense that everyone is wrong except me. That readers are in the wrong to be confused or to misunderstand. Which is the most insanely arrogant and wrongheaded way for a writer to be, so much so that it takes my breath away, so much so that I'm ashamed to admit it. But when my husband told me he didn't really understand until the very end who slept with who and what it meant, I glimpsed a long and depressing future of compromising what I put on the page for this unnamed, unnumbered audience who does not understand what I mean, most of whom might not really exist at all.
The act of creation is such a perfect, crystalline sensation, and chipping away at the result in order to make something less mine and more yours is exceedingly painful.
My attitude is all wrong. In reality, art cannot be consumed unless it's understood, particularly not for an artist as untried as I am. Many people create challenging and experimental and tedious art, but they are generally pretty well-trained before they do so, and that's not even my goal. For fuck's sake, I want it to be yours. I want people to read Highbinder and love it so much that they cosplay and write fan fiction. It'd be nice if I could create a completely uncompromised piece of art that was good enough on the first or second try to be yours as well as mine. But it just ain't how writing goes. And ultimately it has to be yours, even the literary stuff, unless I want to shut myself up in a garret and write all alone.