Two weeks ago I put the finishing touches on the first short story I’ve written since ’96. Since 10th grade it’s been nuthin’ but essays. Just in the past year I’ve added journalism, blogging and humor columnitry to the mix.
I start with sentences. Collections of words that sound good together and I want to fit into a story. “That’s your mamma’s lyme disease,” “I’m so drunk I can’t even see,” and “… whatever bootleg cereal we have,” all have potential in this regard.
I look at the words and think what sort of people would say them, and in what situation. Since most are gleaned from real life this is fairly easy, though I do not let life get in the way of artistic license. Maybe “Did I forget to mention-AURGH!” was said at breakfast, but would work better in a bar. Maybe I said it, but an old man in a Hill Top Bar cap was supposed to say it.
Whatever. I get these words, these sentences, these locales, these people. I write them all down, and if I was planning ahead they will have some sort of loose relation to one another.
Any rumors of my planning ahead were greatly exaggerated. The hardest part comes in fitting them together, where I fumble around and delete and rewrite before I have any idea what the point of the story is. I talked with my writing professor today about my next story.
“Well, that sounds great,” he said, “but have you given any thought to meaning, yet? I don’t want to douse your fire or anything, but remember that you’re stuck with me and it’s got to be a short story. It needs purpose.”
“It sounds like you’re talking about plot,” I said.
“Well, yes,” he said, “but I don’t like to use that word.”
Plot it is. This is where the trouble sets in. There is really no purpose behind my writing, except that I have this burning inside that needs to be channeled out into the world before I catch on fire and run around setting everything on fire like Ben during the demolition derby in the game Full Throttle. As in writing, as games, as in life, I have this burning enthusiasm with little or no continuity. Tonight it is anarchy and Socratic Society. Tomorrow it’s painting stands for jazz band, our weekly Wuda Wooch! meeting and Happy Apple in the Bullpub. Beyond that I have no idea where the winds of the week will blow me, beyond class and a couple hours in the library.
Life doesn’t have a plot. Things don’t spiral into you, building up to a dizzying climax followed by a tasty resolution. Life is more like falling down a bunch of stairs a lot. Sometimes you tuck into a little ball and protect yourself, and other times you unfold and take the fun head on. Sometimes you want nothing more than to fall down the stairs, and other times you just want to stop at a landing and look around for a bit. Sometimes you even get a lunch tray to slide down on, or a tight pair of freestyle walking shoes so you can grind down the banister. The first time you fall down the stairs it hurts. The second time you take offense that the stairs had the nerve to make you fall a second time. By about the tenth or eleventh time you think the whole damn thing is so funny you don’t even notice anymore, and everyone else falling down the stairs wonder what you think is so fucking funny. Humorists are the last incarnation before the soul is carted off to Poyahoga Gorge for an afterlife of motorcycles and backgammon.
To draw order out of chaos is the burden of every little human on this wide green desert, and we all need to do it for ourselves. To put order to life is the burden of the writer. I need to reduce the background radiation to a din as I explain a little bit o’ something about what it’s like to be a person. It doesn’t really make sense to you, it doesn’t make sense to me, but somehow the author and reader are going to come together right now over me, and line up all our notes into a fine little ditty.
I look at my wool jacket hanging from the back of my chair and I think it means something. It looks sad, wistful for some reason. Can I just write The coat hung pensively on the chair? Oh god, no. It made my head hurt just to write it here. Adverbs kill. Action lives. What does the coat recall? What can I recall looking at the coat, that won’t wind up being some cheesy reminiscence of bygone days spent trout fishing in America? It suggests movement, pent-up energy. A yearning for fall winds and yawning skies. Alright, that’s good. Real good. But how can I fit that into my story?
For me, the shift from detail to scope can often be the death of a piece if I try to do it too early. I clip a lot of places, words and ideas, and if there weren’t enough of each to start from, there will be nothing left over from which I can string a coherent piece. I may get too excited and rush to the conclusion, looking back and seeing nothing that can be added. Perhaps the ending will be stapled on, just as all the other details were stapled together.
I’m definitely spinning out something here, I just don’t really know what it is. I’m just gonna finish my Guinness. G’night.