Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Crafting a Chair

When I'm working on short fiction, invariably I have half a dozen books lying open--a kind of loose reference to see how an accomplished writer evokes their magic in a turn of phrase or when utilizing tone--if only to remind myself what I'm attempting to do with my 6500 word story that is on the fourteenth draft, the fifth title change, and contains more mixed metaphors and false sentiment than a Harlequin romance.
The books I'm looking at (at the moment) are Paul Theroux's The Collected Stories, Ian McEwan's The Comfort of Strangers, Jhumpa Lahiri's Unaccustomed Earth and Norman Rush's Whites. You can't go wrong with such a stellar selection (one of these is a novel, and McEwan is about as masterful with tone as Yehudi Menuhin). Or maybe you can.
The best writing looks effortless because maybe it is--for a master. For the rest of us, I think reworking a story beyond reason becomes apparent in the reading. I can't tell how many times I've had a story idea that I worked and reworked to the point where I should have simply put the thing out of its misery. Too many to count. I'm sure this is the case for a lot of writers starting out, and once you find your "method" or at least a method that works, you shouldn't linger any longer in the workshop than you have to.
Chris Abani once told me writing fiction should be like crafting a chair. I interpreted his words to mean you go into the workshop with a clear objective in mind. Maybe you pick up where you left off the day before, and you can see this chair is going to take a few weeks. But you are working to get it finished. Hopefully it will be beautiful when you are done. It's not about mass production, in other words. Too often I compare my story to another writer's story as that is what it suggests to me--in other words, it's a kind of copy cat style--trying to replicate what another writer has done successfully. Which is both the danger and solace of returning to those reference works. You can try too hard with a story to make it fit into a mold that it will not fit into--and the organic growth of the story isn't there. 
There isn't anything wrong with imitating a successful story, as long as what you end up with is distinctive enough to stand on its own. Once it takes on that life it will never (or rarely) be compared to what has gone before. But the best stories I've written, the ones that have gotten me notice and acknowledgment from editors and readers are definitely not the ones that I am still working on after nearly two years and more than twenty or thirty drafts. (And is there a limit? Maybe seven or eight solid drafts. If you can't get the story down in the first two or three, maybe the idea is half-baked and you should let it sit until you can finish a first draft.) On the other hand, the best ones are written in a kind of fever of inspiration, where I took the trouble to commit it to paper. In a sense, I felt as if I had to write it. I'm grateful for that. I think you can force inspiration, but it's sweeter when you can trust it to come to you, eventually.

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