Thursday, December 31, 2009

Writing my way across the divide, to the New Year on the other side

Well it's about a quarter to five where I am right now, and as I wile away the hours until the new year, I've been tinkering away again with my short story.  I don't know if other writers do this, but whenever I'm in the middle of something that I'm very unsure about it's very hard for me to face it each day and work on it.  I hate not being confident; I begin to doubt every word I write, and for lack of a better term, I start to feel like there's no "flow."  That is to say, it starts to feel like the events are not unfolding organically, but in a very strained, contrived way.  So with these frustrations in mind I've been trying to study up on the short story as a form.  While my ultimate goal in life--the thing that would make me feel like I'd truly accomplished my dream--is to write a complete novel (and get it published), I've never actually written anything that long before (hence the dream part).  I've always just written stories.  And to be honest, I love a good short story, but if you asked me what made it good, I don't know if I could tell you.

And this is a problem.  It's comparable to baking a cake: if you don't know the ingredients, you, um, can't really make the thing.

Today, as I was perusing Barnes &'s "Best of 09" list, I found this quote in a review of one of Alice Munro's (the supposed master of the short story) books: "The novelist Benjamin Cheever once brilliantly summed up New Yorker fiction as the kind of story where nothing much happens, but you feel a little sad about it anyway."  And it's true--the stories in the New Yorker always kind of go nowhere, and frankly I'm not sure if I like that.  That said, some of  my favorite stories are just ruminations on a life--a quick peek into someone's existence, and in the end it's not as though there's a big explosion or a moment of truth with a nemesis, most of the time things just stay the same.  But it always feels as though I've gained something from just knowing their way of life for a few minutes.

When I think about my own short stories, stuff I've written in the past, I don't know that all that much does happen--usually the story starts out with something big happening and then we move forward from that point, exploring different people's reactions to it, examining the ways in which it might have changed people's lives and with a bit of backstory thrown in so we know the kind of people we're dealing with.

As I mentioned, I've been reading (and just finished) a wonderful short story collection by Maile Meloy called Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It.  She's just so good!  It makes me want to write like crazy, but at the same time it makes me want to drop my pen forever because I'll never be as good as Maile!  I'm sitting here thumbing back through the book trying to pinpoint what exactly I loved so much and trying to figure out how to incorporate those qualities into my own writing, but it's not working that well...

Frankly, I've got no answers here.  This post is basically just a summary of what's been going through my head today as I try to think about the story I'm working on in a larger context: what do I want it to be?  As always, I think the simplest answer is to just keep writing until I get a little more comfortable in my own skin again.  But it's hard.  You know my favorite quote because I've told you before: "Writing is like driving at night in the fog.  You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way."  When you think about it, that's the way many things are in life--we don't know what's ahead of us, nor do we have a total understanding of what's behind us, but we keep going.  I guess I just forgot how easy it is to get frightened, paranoid, and filled with self-doubt when you can't see a blessed thing around you.  But I'm determined to keep driving, so you can expect to read this blog in the new year.

Those are my crazy thoughts this New Year's Eve.  Happy New Year!

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