Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Once More unto the Breach, Dear Friend

In an ironic action reminiscent of a Zen aspirant being given a smack by a teacher, you, while preparing notes for a classroom lecture related to ways of composing the twenty-first century short story, felt a whack from the cosmos.

Or perhaps it was another kind of irony, one in which, after all the years and publications and books of others you'd brought into being and edited, you at last learned to identify a missing piece in your writing--indeed an awareness that anything was missing.

Some years back, a friend, in fact a friend from a high school creative writing class, said, after reading one of your stories, "There's always so much going on in your stuff. I feel like I've blundered into a family squabble and the family are complete strangers to me."

You said in reply something along the lines of, "Fiction is not linear. It's more like a core sample, extracted from some remote country, where you have to guess at most of the conventions and the use for many of the artifacts." 

True enough, you did talk that way then, somewhere in the last century, and, you like to think, you're successful in many of your attempts not to talk that way now.

At any rate, your friend said something like, "Ah, geez," to your remark about fiction not being linear, then showed you a check for three hundred dollars he'd received for one of his short stories which, as you recall, was quite linear.  "How," your friend asked, waving the check, "do you explain this?"  

He thought for a moment, then said, "Wait. Before you answer--I don't want to hear."  At the time, the amount of the three-hundred-dollar check meant nothing to him. He even spoke of going to the bank on occasion to visit his money. 

At the time, a three-hundred-dollar check would have meant something to you, but you had to be content with the silent satisfaction of trusting the talent you'd raised on the table scraps from your interest in writing and the sense of advancing on a goal, not quite as rapid an advance as you'd wished, still, an advance.

On your way home, you took some solace in the fact that you understood some of the implications of your status. By then, you'd published a number of longform and short fiction, book reviews, essays. You'd been an editor for a number of publishing houses. You knew this much--the span between your outstretched thumb and first finger--about writing, with this much--your outstretched hands extended to their limit of expansion--left to learn.

In time, that became your approach to most writing, in particular toward fiction. You write to learn. You contrive situations about which you have little or know experience and/or knowledge in order to grasp the enormity of your lack of awareness. Then you try to negotiate some kind of outcome, meanwhile reading, observing the world about you, asking questions of it, listening, should it care to provide some answer to your questions.

While preparing your notes for the How to Write the Modern Short Story, you thought about your friend, his three-hundred-dollar check, his linear stories, and yours, a degree or so less linear than his. You thought about material of others you'd read since then. You thought about the edits you'd done on the twelve stories you'd selected for inclusion in a collection of your stories. 

This all made you think of an essay in the works for your current book project, outlining the things you'd learned from one particular novel you believe you've already learned so much from. You spoke of its artistic and technical accomplishments and how they caused you to realize how these accomplishments had led you to show off, attempt tricks you'd not considered before, risking and, indeed, experiencing beyond the embarrassment of mere failure but the humiliation of trying tricks without first practicing them.

Then the answer came to you, like a sensei's slap on the cheek. So far, so good with the writing to expose the things you need to discover. But don't stop there. Write at least one more draft after that. At least one more.

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