Thursday, October 23, 2008

The Devil Is in the Difference

Seated in a panel discussion among whom were my "boss" at the SB Writers' Conference, Marcia Meier, and the preternaturally observant short story writer and former student, Jean Harfenist, I was reminded of a remark Jean had made some years back as a guest in one of my creative writing classes. "I write literary stories," Jean said. "They don't have plots."

At the time, pre-Moleskine time, I wrote that observation in a notebook that came gratis with one of the few American-brand fountain pens I own. There are some pages of funny- or fanciful-sounding English place names I encountered in a romp across London and through the reaches of Devon, a few pages of grades assigned long ago to students who have long since graduated. Mostly I keep the booklet to remind me of Jean's quote.

Her short stories (many published in hardcover as A Brief History of the Flood) are to be sure not propelled by characters following a plot line as though it were some To Get list for a scavenger hunt. They are about gritty, determined or deluded persons, wanting something but not necessarily wanting what they think they want, waiting for some opportunity that will allow them to dash toward what they think they want, leaving us as readers to think through the possible outcomes after the characters scurry forth like an impatient or impossible Australian Cattle Dog, attempting to be first out the door. They have thematic resonance, which is to say they have a direction, which is to say they proceed like two cars approaching playing chicken at an intersection. They have beginnings which lead to the section I call the muddle instead of merely the middle, and some form of emotional payoff.

Thus have I described a literary short story, the saga of someone pursuing something, if only a dream (which, by the way, does not have to be realistic. In such stories, characters behave as they do because they can't seem to help it: they go out for a ficelle or a quart of milk and instead fall in love. They rush to get kids to school and then get to work on time but instead become side-tracked and buy a perfectly horrible bud vase. They grow suddenly restive and impatient during a PTA meeting and direct a stream of invective at the chairperson. They should know better; most of the time they do know better, but this time, because this has to be a story, they do not know better. And thus the story propels them into the Terra incognita where the usual boundaries have been erased or transduced, leaving them to discover things--things about themselves and the world they may have never even considered much less experienced. They are Sarah Palin forced to buy her clothing in thrift shops.

The plot-driven story has an articulated path from its point of beginning to its ending, establishing an intuitive fear within the reader that this is where things will go because the characters have no other operating instructions. There may be some surprise which, on further consideration, is less a surprise than a contrivance, an ironic variation on a theme.

Even though as writers we are fueled on obsession and compulsion, we nevertheless loathe to accept the world of fiction being thus manipulated. True, we want our fiction to be orderly, but we want the order to be rational, affirming our belief in the interrelatedness of all things including faith, superstition, science, Fate, and luck.

So look at it this way: Literary = a random universe, with opportunities for magic, unrelated surprises, sad wisdom, and the wrong persons winning the wrong contests.

Plot-driven = deterministic results, safety, justice triumphing, happy wisdom achieved, luck, approval of the gods.


Anonymous said...

Sometimes when reading about writing I realize for the umpteenth time that I don't know what I'm doing.

Matt said...

Tangent: what American-brand fountain pen was this? I have a couple of Esterbrooks (which haunt me from above my desk because I haven't touched them in a long time).

Anonymous said...

Isn't there a way to have both?

lowenkopf said...

Marta: You don't have to know what you're doing; it's a satisfying sufficiency that you merely continue doing it.

Matt: I was thinking Schaeffer from Ft. Madison, Iowa. Similarly, I have memories of Esterbrook and indeed have some of their fountain pens bought in nostalgia from Pendamonium dot com.

Sarah: I believe it is perfectly possible to have both. Much of it comes from the writer's basic approach to construction. I, for one, can't do the plot-driven stuff; I need to fudge around that.

Anonymous said...

The plot-driven stuff fairly rolls along for me- it must be my thousand of hours reading literary mysteries, which, while full of character depth, always, relentlessly, come back to the plot. The harder part for me is letting the story breathe in between and even within, the action. I so appreciate your delineation though. It depressed me at first ("is my writing too conventional?") and then, it challenged me.