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.   

Exhuming Plot: Just Ask

I used to sit down and write a short story in an evening, tinker with it through the week, prepare it for submission and send it out to literary magazines.  Only one of the week-longs has been published; the rest are sticky with rejections. Some encouraging personal rejections from editors lets me know there’s possibility on the horizon. 

So, these last years (yes, years), I’ve dedicated myself to the study of creative writing craft and practice.  I’m better at the studying part. I continue to write every day, but the complexity of understanding and applying the layers of what goes into the making of a great story is daunting: word precision; grammatical sentence variation; paragraphing; elucidating the wonderful complexities of human beings through character development; the importance of setting as metaphor; tension and movement (that winding thread of impossible-not-to-follow suspense we writers gift our readers in its many guises of plot).  

So far, I suck at writing plot. Funny thing: I can tell a story verbally, stringing along my listeners through crescendos to a climactic punchline and raucous laughter, but I can’t do it on the page.  It’s not the same thing.  It reads like a limerick: I know an old man from Nantucket…

Another aspect of writing practice I’ve learned…no, I am learning: I should suspend working on craft aspects of my story until all the generative writing (read: stream of consciousness, letting it all flow out, write to explore, write to open up) is complete.  I make the mistake of thinking I am done my “first story draft”—my “generative writing”—over and over and over and over and over again.  An absence of plot is a good indication more generative writing is to be done.  Even I get bored by my characters not doing much of anything, you know, looking out the window and sighing deeply.  

Two fantastic resources (shining guiding lights) for how to exhume plot from the heavy toil soil of drafts:Alexander Chee and Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew’s book, Living Revision: A Writer’s Craft as Spiritual Practice.  

I’ve been working through Andrew’s Living Revision exercises on a short story I rewrote [again] in July. I was actually sailing through the exercises, exhuming some pretty interesting discoveries (like, my own memories and emotions—yes, I cried several times through these exercises—that are driving this story). Kudos to Andrew’s methods for helping me get that far. But I got stuck, petrified (in the stone sense), on page 101 (of 288) when tasked to write an “expansion draft”.  

I found myself rewriting the same paragraphs of the story, and I did this without any copy and paste…it seemed I couldn’t expand anything, couldn’t go any deeper.  I wondered whether I should just quit the project for a while and try something new (which feels like admitting defeat).

Then, last week, I listened to a podcast, Between The Covers and a craft talk with Alexander Chee and Tin House called, “From First Draft to Plot”.  Chee explained his own experiences, through twenty years of teaching creative writing, how emerging writers (yes, after 6 years, more?, of part-time-squeeze-writing-into-my-busy-life I am only just deserving of the title, “emerging writer”) have not developed the skills (yet) to query the scenes they have written.  

Chee explains there are many implications in student’s draft scenes that have not been dealt with…unmet implications the writer is ignoring.  His advice: ask questions of your scenes, such as, how did the character end up there? Why? Where is this character from?  What was their schooling like?  Chee says, “to build a story and a plot is the process of interrogating the scene, again and again with questions and each time you get answers, push back further and further into the story as far as you can go.”

Of course, most of this additional writing never makes it into the story, but instead becomes the skeleton, the subtext, the backstory the writer must know, know on instinct, know on a sub-conscious level, in order to puppet master their story to life.  

So….I’m writing questions.  I’m writing answers.  I’m going deeper.  Write On.