Go Deeper

Last week, writer Lauren Groff tweeted this: “Recently, at every single class visit, some new writer asks me why short stories are so depressing and I usually just fumble an answer about how stories need conflict and tend to be written in a minor key (as opposed to the novel’s span of keys). But honestly, I don’t know.”

This intrigued me.  Of course, twitter is not the right medium for a conversation…it can’t contain the nuance, gesture and tone tools enacted through speech.  These tools we use (and need) to properly grasp and share meaning. Short stories incorporate these tools through craft. And though twitter can promote expansion by provoking further questions: what does depressing mean? Do students ask this question implying depressing stories are no good?  What does Lauren Groff mean by minor key? And, how lovely is that, describing a novel as a span of keys? But on twitter, debate is polarised, appreciation of nuance is non-existent, and rhetoric lands heavy.   

Lauren Groff’s recent story Wind, published in the New Yorker, is a stunning short story that is most definitely “not happy”.  The story could serve as the very definition of “not happy”.  But I would not call it depressing. The story holds a horrible truth up to the light and makes us (the reader) see and experience its facets of terror and violence and love. (And yes, these facets frequently share the same bed.) Calling it depressing is an indication the reader has not engaged in the deeper work of questioning our reactions to the story. For stories, written as works of art, are tiny calls to action.  Even if that action is a way to tip our minds toward different ways of thinking. Or feeling.  Even for a moment.   

Lauren Groff’s story Wind is a call to action: to be an active witness to violence against women. The story provokes the question: is witnessing enough?  And goes on to answer that question: absolutely not. The story raises a mirror to show us our participation as simple witness: participation through non action; participation through acceptance. And yes, that makes us feel depressed. But here’s the thing, the story is told through the eyes of a child. This ratchets up the emotional tone, and the fear is visceral. But this point of view does more work: it forces the reader into an innocent perspective…signalling a chance to learn, to experience—to change our minds. And the brilliance of this short story (although, like a diamond, her story’s brilliance has so many facets), is that the narrator begins from the point of view of an adult remembering an episode in her childhood…so…the story is inviting us, as adults, to engage deeper consideration, but from a compassionate stance…an understanding that even as adults, our knowledge in this issue is underdeveloped. We are given a chance to expand our thinking.  And this may never be named “depressing”.  

Narratively, stories do need conflict. Otherwise, they don’t really move and might be better represented as a sculpture. Or a photograph.  I believe Lauren Groff hit upon the answer herself by inserting a music analogy. Think of how many sad songs (lyrics) are layered over beautiful music?  This is what art is.  And what it does.  It uses a medium to move us. To tilt our minds. To help us experience a point of view outside our own. It becomes so much more satisfying when it explores complexity by creating a “thing” that we too can explore and experience a symphony of meaning. 

Like Lauren Groff’s students, I am learning. And when a story strikes us as depressing, it is a little poke of a reminder to ask ourselves why we react this way? Deeper reading of “depressing” short stories helps us hear that minor key. Helps us understand how it fits into the larger song of our lives. And love.   

Searching for [the] write words

“Words are the wings both intellect and imagination fly on.”

Ursula K. Le Guin, Words Are My Matter: Writings About Life and Books, 2000-2016, with a Journal of a Writer’s Week

I think about words a lot. Words are the atomic unit of writing.  I obsess about how to cram an experience, capture the essence of something, get to the elemental idea of a thought, into as few words as possible [1].  Or better, one perfect word, e.g., laconic. 

This week I stumbled upon [2] a wonderful art project, Leaning Out of Windows, a multi-year collaboration between artists at Emily Carr and physicists at the University of British Columbia “to open new pathways for the possibility of a much richer understanding of the human experience than can be attained separately”.  I was fascinated to see the words, shared by both disciplines, in a photo of a concept map (one of several products of the art project), created by Ingrid Koenig, mirror the messiness of the creation/discovery/exploratory process. 

In her latest book, Essays One, Lydia Davis counsels attentiveness to abstract words, often they disguise a real thing, such as “a herd, a seed, a rodent, a goat”. “Know what that concrete thing is.”  This is interesting, from a writing perspective for a number of obvious reasons…but also, if I were to review my own writing—notorious for tracts of conceptual thoughts and reflections, and rife with abstract words—I might discover some underlying feeling, my soul speaking through some imaginative space of authenticity that I need to divine [3].  

Winston Churchill’s essay, The Scaffolding of Rhetoric, lists “the continual employment of the best possible word” as the most important “element in the technique of rhetoric”. [A word] “must in each case absolutely express the full meaning of the speaker.  It will leave no room for alternatives.”  In this way, poets are masters of language.  

But it’s daunting, isn’t it, to find the right word?  The best I can hope for is recognition, in my own writing, for when a word is imperfect.  That my brain catches the signal there’s more to be unearthed, more digging to be done. Refinement needed.  The ripple of a misplaced word in the still waters of a sentence has the potential to wash out the larger piece.  I take heart with this quote from Philip Pullman, in Daemon Voices: On Stories and Storytelling “If you want to write something perfect, go for a haiku.” And this one too: “But you just try to do better next time.”

[1] inner critic notes: well, you failed with that loquacious sentence, didn’t you?!

[2] I read about it.  The show is on in Vancouver later this month for those of you lucky enough to be close to that city.  I will have to settle with reading about it and looking at the few pictures of the exhibition posted on the web.  

[3] might be a good exercise to try …exorcise to try? 

Read to write

Returned to work after a week and half off over the holidays.  I had planned to paint and to draw and write and read with all that time.  I didn’t paint. I didn’t draw (with the exception of the daily index card drawings). I did some writing, but it was “thoughts jotted down in my notebook with no particular purpose” kind of writing.  Nothing serious.  But I read. I always read.

Writers of books are readers first, last and always.

Bernardine Evaristo

With the roll over into the new decade, I’ve reflected using the lens of a decade instead of my usual day or week-long filter that, too often, chalks up another failure to produce something. The ten year lens is far kinder. I’ve accomplished much in the last decade to be proud of.

I won’t list the books I have read in this time, but what is interesting is the type of reader I have become. I have become a reader who writes. A reader who writes reads differently. I read more slowly now, I savour words and sentences. I re-read paragraphs. I copy sentences out of books into my own notebooks. I admire. I read books on writing craft. I read literary magazines, discovering new ones all the time, and through that process, discover new writers. And yes, often the green eyed monster of envy enters my heart. But I am deeply inspired by writers. I want to be friends with the authors. I imagine the conversations we would share over a meal, the questions I would ask about their myriad composition choices. I read poetry, creative non-fiction and fiction, cartwheeling gleefully between genres. I read works that refuse categorization, that explode into a fireworks display of writing possibilities. I have to believe reading is making my own writing better.

I have always been a late bloomer. Slow. Methodical. Last week, a dear friend told me I’m being too hard on myself. I’m forced to hold the thought up to the light, explore its many facets. Maybe I should be measuring my progress in decades as opposed to days.

Here’s a pretty cool infographic depicting the length of time different authors took to write their books (please ignore the fact it’s an ink ad). It’s a comfort to know The Catcher in the Rye took 10 years to write; not so much comfort to learn The Lord of The Rings trilogy took 16 years to write….I would have thought longer. And of course, the shiny examples of books produced in hours or days. Shit. I will never be among their company. But it’s okay.

Cheers to the next decade! Clink clink!