Some people have the notion that you read the story and then climb out of it into the meaning, but for the fiction writer himself the whole story is the meaning, because it is an experience, not an abstraction.
The great novels we get in the future are not going to be those that the public thinks it wants, or those that critics demand. They are going to be the kind of novels that interest the novelist. And the novels that interest the novelist are those that have not already been written. They are those that put the greatest demands on him, that require him to operate at the maximum of his intelligence and his talents, and to be true to the particularities of his own vocation.
~Flannery O’Connor, “The Grotesque in Southern Fiction.”
If you’ve taken a writing class (especially one with me because I am obsessed with this idea), you’ve probably heard the Flannery O’Connor quote about how endings should be simultaneously surprising and inevitable. Tall order? Yes.
I once heard Ira Glass speak about how important the element of surprise is in the stories he and his crew choose to air on This American Life.* I don’t remember the exact quote, just that he alerted me to the fact that writing has to be surprising, at least on some level, to sustain interest. The worst thing a friend can say after reading a draft is, “the ending was too predictable.” (Clutch my heart and fall over.)
I’m thinking about how hard it is to write surprise in stories and essays. It’s just easy (and dare I say, lazy) to be predictable in our writing. I don’t know who said it to me, but I think surprise happens on the page when we explore options; when we don’t just go with the first idea. Sometimes our first idea is great, but often, our second idea is even better.
This is the opposite of taking a successful standardized test, by the way, because standardized tests are the opposite of art.
Exploring options means understanding what our options are, which means reading a lot. That is what it means to “read like a writer”–we’re picking up options, techniques, interesting ways of telling a story, from people who took those risks before us. Often that means we have to read things twice (once for plot, once for technique). It also means we have to read slowly, asking the question, “what is the writer doing right now with this sentence/paragraph/chapter?”
Surprise is harder to accomplish when writing creative non-fiction, because we’ve literally been there and done that and now we’re writing about it. I’m wondering if maybe surprise in a creative essay is more about what you do with what happened–how you reflect upon the facts–than writing the facts themselves. That is a major difference between fiction and non-fiction. The latter must not only tell a story but make meaning out of that story, and the quality of the essay, I think, has more to do with how the writer reflects than how the writer narrates.
In fiction, we need to sit back and let our characters do surprising things, often terrible, horrible, disturbing things, but not always. Mostly, things we don’t expect them to do but when they do them we say, “Ah. That makes sense.” Hence, inevitable surprise. Watch Mad Men or The Wire for example after great example of this.
*I take writers less seriously when they tell me they’ve never heard This American Life. If you love storytelling then you love this show. Period. (Ha. Feeling a little sassy this morning.)
I just finished The Day of The Locust by Nathaniel West, which is an example of telling a story through great details (in this case, of faux-everything-Hollywood).
Next he came to a small pond with large celluloid swans floating on it. Across one end was a bridge with a sign that read, ‘To Kamp Komfit.’ He crossed the bridge and followed a little path that ended at a Greek temple dedicated to Eros. The god himself lay face downward in a pile of old newspapers and bottles.
–Chapter 18, page 126.
The book is full of descriptions like this: semi-cold language with stark images to carry the emotional weight. The protagonist (Tod Hackett) is so out of touch with his feelings. He’s got strong feelings but no clue what to do with them. He sort of reminds me of Pete Campbell from Mad Men in that regard. It’s descriptions like these that really get the job done in terms of portraying the amount of despair this dude actually has in his life.
Strong sense of setting is of particular importance to me in my own writing. Stories usually come to me first, not in terms of “who” (like we’re trained, usually, to start with), but more in terms of “where.” I get a place, and then I try and figure out who is in that place and what they want. I cannot separate people from their places. I am only sharing this in order to acknowledge the fact that not every writer works this way and I get that.
Even so, I think we writers can benefit from emphasizing place in our stories because in order to do that, we have to train ourselves to pay attention to our surroundings. Paying attention is an enormous part of being a writer, of course. Listening, we hear about often. Watching, not so much. Or maybe I’ve just not encountered too much from writers about the importance of being watchful. Maybe being watchful just sounds creepy? Whatev.
I have a grandmother who is a painter. She painted until she was near 90, or maybe she painted after she was 90, I can’t remember–she actually might have started up again. It’s been a long time since I’ve been home. She is pretty awesome for a lot of reasons but one of them is that when I used to drive her places, I’d be telling her about something and then she would interrupt me to point out cloud formations, or the amount of birds hanging out the telephone wire.
Now I’ll admit, I don’t pay attention as well as she does. I think it was Flannery O’Connor who suggested writers take drawing lessons. That is a great idea.
(Ooh! If you know me and would like to buy me a gift, I would love another copy of Drawing from the Right Side of the Brain… I left mine in Bangkok with a friend because it was too heavy to take back to Detroit. My birthday is coming up, you know. :D)
And I think it was Natalie Goldberg who offered the following meditation for connecting to our surroundings:
While traveling–walking, driving, riding along as a passenger–pick a color, say red. Next, note all the objects you see in red.
So simple, right? But it definitely works wonders for helping me connect to a place. I did this a few times while I was working and living in Thailand and I recommend it to anyone traveling. It’s especially useful when you are tired of wherever you are, or homesick, or just don’t want to be in a place. It cultivates appreciation, however bland a way it seems.
This year, I came up with a point distribution game for my walks to school (I live 19 minutes away walking from the campus where I got my MFA). It goes like this:
While traveling–walking, driving, riding along as a passenger–allot a certain amount of points to everything you notice. For instance, the coke can you you step over on the sidewalk might be worth two points but the Porky the Pig graffiti on the side of the gas station might be worth five.
This second game is particularly nice for getting you out of your head if you’re battling some louder-than-comfortable thoughts.
It’s my belief that cultivating this kind of awareness not only gears us up for better writing, but an overall better quality of life, too. If nothing else, it cultivates a nice amount of mischief.
(Yes I am aware I used the word “cultivate” three times in this post. Cultivate! See, that’s five…)