Nabokov, when asked by a New York Times’ interviewer about the state of Lolita and its relevancy or lack thereof in today’s youth market—chewing gum versus heroin or some other such playground—responded “…as I have said often enough, I write for myself in multiplicate, a not unfamiliar phenomenon on the horizon of shimmering deserts.” This statement stayed with me. Story as journey toward mirrored images cast into a desert, changing as if mirages in the sun. And upon finding one such mirage or mirror, it is reflex to turn, stare it down, a De Niro in Taxi Driver, “You talkin’ to me?”… Read More at Stymie Magazine
Keeping with the previous Ask the Editors writer question, I’m going to address another writer question. I spoke with a student last week about how one knows whether or not a story is complete. It was an excellent question and evoked from me as elusive a response as any question could. My best answer, at the time was, we don’t. Then I gave her a song and dance about “fail better” and how even the great Hemingway rewrote endings and how Scribner years later released a new edition of Hemingway’s acclaimed A Farewell to Arms.
Aside: I seem to have asides each time I mention Hemingway. I’ve been rereading Arms of late. Catherine Barkley is about as real as the word darling is to my vocabulary. There is a version of Catherine Barkley who lives in an alternative 50s New York somewhere, probably a George Plimpton slash pre-Warhol party, but damn it, I’ve never seen any one woman, or man, for that matter, who have adopted “darling” with such dogmatic principle. I have resorted to skipping most of Barkley’s lines in the novel.
After the “completion discussion,” I spent the drive home from Baltimore thinking intently on completion. I thought about how difficult this is, completion. I thought about how arrogant it seems, in principle, to even think a work is complete and actually send it to anyone because the guidance I’ve always followed is that we never know. We are always accepting a certain amount of failure each time we let a work leave our desk and let it dawdle out into the world. I will admit to having let a work go a time or two too soon. They’ve stumbled and fallen and sometimes an editor has been beautiful and taken it by the hand and me by the hand and pushed me to find the best of the work before it has gone to print or “print” online. There has been a time or two when a piece has published online, and I’ve found a typo or glaring mistake that makes me choke on my coffee, and I frantically email editor and apologize profusely about not having caught the mistake before and ask for this change and that. And then sometimes, a work goes out and I read it months or years after first publication and still feel a sense of experience. The typos and the needed fixes, if they are there, are hidden behind what I’m able to read and sense and experience in the work, and that is a good day, I think. They are rare. I am a horrible, horrible post editor of my own work. Always looking for missed typos and fixes.
On a higher level, I sometimes feel like a work has more to say. No. That’s a lie. I am always certain a work I’ve written has more to say, that I have failed it somehow. I am forever feeling incomplete as a writer. I am forever certain my stories are incomplete. It is a frustrating obsession, writing. I’ve trained myself to accept a certain level of failure with every story but it doesn’t make me feel accomplished, it makes me feel like a shit. I’m sending something less than what I know it could be out into the world. If I spent five years on a short story, it would be closer to ready. And I’ve done this a few times. But some stories, I’m ready to send out in shorter time and so as a writer I am always failing. There it is. And then sometimes some wonderful editor comes along and asks for a piece for their journal and I think, Jesus, do you not know what you’re getting yourself into? And then I panic a little because I either need to write something new or I need to finalize a piece I’ve been editing for months. Then some days I write something one day, edit it the next, and send it because I am deluded to think it works, and then it publishes. And a time or two, the “quick work” still holds up for me months or years after. This completely baffles me.
And so, I have no answer for when a work is complete. The best answer for this is the work itself. It will let you know best it can.
This could be frustrating except that I am happy to let the importance of writing be in the process of writing. I don’t know what that might mean to you. What it means to me is that finding the language of a story is as important to me as the story expressing itself to a readership. Stories have personalities and lives. I often go to Flannery O’Connor in craft, and I’ll do it again here, O’Connor’s organics of story. How the structure and necessity of story will reveal itself. It’s something of an excavation, I suspect. Maybe I’m more of an archaeologist than a writer. Maybe that’s it. Maybe I should be something else and have a better answer for completion, but I really don’t. My best answer is that the story will let you know when it’s ready. Your voice will let you know when it’s ready. Like forming a relationship with a best friend or lover, there comes a point when you know a depth and breadth of your limits and needs and that of your partner’s and you’re able to make choices for the best interests of both. Craft and stories are not so different. It is a relationship you build with your voice and with each individual story. When the lust turns to love and you are able to think about long term versus short term, you can trust that you’ll know, somehow, when your voice and your story are ready to brave more social arenas and when a story should be let go, departed, broken up with.
On a practical level, I do have a particular vehicle towards finding completion, as imperfect as it is. I need to hear my stories. Literally. I write for not only story but also language and so the form of voice within language is extremely important to me. I didn’t know this when I first started to write. I knew nothing when I started. I was a bumbling idiot when I first started. Now, I am a bumbling idiot with some idea of what idiocy might work for me. Essentially, when I’ve written a work and have revised it then given it some time in the drawer then have come back to it, I’m ready to hear it. I will read it aloud into a mic or to a trusted reader/listener. I will often have a trusted reader/listener read it to me. Listening to one’s words in someone else’s mouth is a very quick way to determine whether or not the story and language are flowing.
My best advice is this. If you can find someone you really trust, someone who has a writing or editorial aesthetic that is your ultimate aesthetic and they read your work to you in a way that makes you not loathe yourself, makes you think, hmm, that’s a story I’m glad to have heard read to me, then you can be pretty sure the story is worth considering further. And maybe, maybe, it will complete itself.
Where do you get your ideas? How do you know it’s an idea worth writing about?
Last week, I had the pleasure and honor of working with a fantastic group of young writers at the The University of Iowa’s IWP Between the Lines program, as well as my fabulously talented group at Hopkins, and the question came up in both workshops, about ideas and finding ideas to write and how to know if the idea you’ve come up with is worth spending days, weeks, months, or years writing?
This is really more of a writer question than an editor question, and so I thought to pick another question this week, but then, I thought better of it. One of the beautiful facets of indie presses is they are generally run and edited by writers, writerly people, artists at heart, as opposed to commercially-minded editors, and so the question as to writing is not only appropriate but interesting, I think. Everyone has a “Where do you get your ideas?” line and answer. Right? Might as well have at it.
So how do you know if an idea is worth spending so much time on? Well, the truth is, you don’t. At least I don’t. I’m never sure of anything. I am constantly fighting with myself and am certain I’m never writing anything worth a damn. I search for the necessity of the story and hope it reveals itself along the way, if I’m lucky. We’re all there, really, right? I often go back to Flannery O’Connor and her organics of structure and the concept of story revealing itself to the writer. But sometimes, it is true, you fall in love with an idea early on and it happens to work. It could be a gorgeous idea or an ugly idea or something that will lurk beneath your bed idea for years as you write it, but it’s such a part of you and your craft, once conceived, that to abandon it would be heresy.
I tend to write heresy. It’s true. Where some people may have cute little cherub children inside, I have a goth girl with shotgun and whip and a copy of Blood Meridian and probably a whoopee cushion, too. I don’t mind spending time with concepts some people wouldn’t care to digest for days, weeks, months, years, but if you know that about me, and/or about yourself, then we can go forward. If you prefer a lighter aesthetic, then take the following in relativity.
When I’m looking for ideas I go to words from whom I’ve been fortunate to study. I had some amazing instructors and mentors in program. Alice McDermott, more than once, gave this advice. “Follow the fun” then she sent me to a bookstore for Alice Munro collections, and I came back with every collection the store had, which was about six, I think. I’ve been following fun and Alice Munro ever since. I should qualify. For me the fun might be quite a bit darker than for someone else. For me the fun is in the analyses of the dark and the darkly comedic, which isn’t always “fun” in a proverbial sense, though, it is certainly fun in an intellectual sense.
Another instructor, Richard Peabody, encouraged me to write full out. Don’t hold back. Nothing out of bounds. Then he gave me a stack of books that taught me just how mild-mannered I was and how much I had to learn about full out bad ass writing, and I’ve never been the same since. Now, with these impossible standards, Alice Munro, bad ass writers like Eurydice and Ackers, I simply try to fail as best I can. I’ve already lost. It’s not a competition and so the fun is in the process of it, not the product. With that said, writing months of trashcan material is as necessary and helpful to me as the five pages of published. I write the ideas that don’t do much and I write the ones that seem to do more. I file them away.
So specifics: I generally take a kernel of what I know, a bad moment, an experience. Something that really makes me cringe at life. Then I take something that makes me cringe at myself. Something I’m not proud of. Something that would, as Hemingway said, open a vein and bleed me out on the page. I try to let the bad and the cringe marinate a bit, weave into each other. If they amalgamate, sometimes they don’t, but if they do, I start considering the different facets. Often the easier facets of the dark, cringe moments are serious and analytical, right? So I strive to see the situation or scene from another perspective. If I can see the dark, cringe moment from some humorous place, then I can probably be assured the marination has two things…
1. Some dramatic depth and possibility.
2. Some level of objectification.
Until I can separate myself from these moments of experience, either observed or personal, enough to see them from an objective perspective, an opposites aesthetic — horrific vs. humorous, debilitating vs. encouraging, — I’m probably not far enough from the subject to write it from a craft perspective versus a personal perspective, and so it’s not a story yet, it’s simply an experience observed or personal. I’m too close to it still. But once that objectivity takes over, the fiction and details and story unfold faster than I can record it, and it’s no longer my story, it’s the characters’ story. And the ideas I had have no relation to the story at all. And I’m no longer in control of the story, I’m simply writing it. This is the gotcha moment for me. And essentially, I didn’t conceive of it at all. It grew organically from several entities all marinating together. So, I guess the answer to where do I get my ideas is I don’t get them. They grow and I hope I’m in the right place and frame of mind to accept them when they present themselves.
Or maybe I’m just full of it. Maybe I pick them off a tree.
The editor in me says, I don’t care where you get your ideas. I only care that they mean everything to you as you write them. I want to read stories written into wee hours of the morning because they were so necessary and ripe and screaming for attention.
Now, quid pro quo: How do you come up with your ideas?