Saturday, August 20, 2011


A common thread running through stories published in such upmarket, literary venues as The New Yorker, The Paris Review, Tin House, and, increasingly, The Sewanee Review, is the near absolute lack of a common thread.  To confound a metaphor, these journals and their stories have in common their ability to see the stunning difference in the two or three basic types of story.  They also share, in many cases, the ability to drill deeper into two or three of the major characters and the further ability to sketch in the peripherals as though they were, indeed, tangible presences within the narratives.

A belief you have no immediate means of quantifying relates to the fact that authors whose stories are given homes in these venues set about writing in the first place to find out what happens.  Your added speculation is that these writers may well start out with an ending in mind, write the story to lead up to, then result in that ending, only to become dissatisfied with the result.  Then the fun begins, the writer reaching beyond expectations to that lovely terrain of uncertainty.

As thought inhibits the first draft, certainty is an albatross draped around the neck of the story as though it were a tourist debarking in Honolulu.  Safety is another drag on the potential of a story to rise above the level of mere acceptability and into the stratosphere of the memorable.

We do not write to ratify what we already know; we write to extend our time aloft, holding nothing back, reserving no insights or revelations for the next story because, if we are sincere about our craft, we write each story as though it may be the last we will produce.

Control freaks and obsessives as we are, we manufacture that faint angst as an anchor of the ego.  Our worst fear is to be called derivative.  Of whom, we ask, affronted.  And the answer comes back, Of yourself.  Oh, blow to the ego on that one.

The Internal Editor--the one that must be sent packing off--taunts with the challenge of what it is we could possibly learn from a story that we don't already know?  Try humility.  We could learn that; it is a splendid carrot to hold out for ourselves because, when fully engaged within such craft and writing self as we have, we have stepped out of the role of being a nice person.  We are too focused on being empathetic to be nice.  This requires a certain protective coating so that we can continue to discover other roads, other elephants hiding in the living room, other unthinkables for our characters to want of each other, for we are a needy species, wrapped in the Saranwrap and cling wrap and duct tape of our respective ego, fearful on some levels that our fantasies and urges may carry the taint of the perverse.  We keep secrets from ourselves, our characters keep secrets from us, and readers keep their secrets from us and our characters.

When we find ourselves listening to a reader who complains about not wanting to read bleak and dark stories because life is already bleak and dark enough, our proper response is to nod sympathetically and relate how tough it is these days to get a story taken on anywhere with a story that is a replay of Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm.  We should seriously doubt that such readers actually buy books rather than try to write against the grain of our own perceptions of the human condition.

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