- Throwback Thursday is coming early this week (I guess it’ll be Way-Back Wednesday or some shit like that), because I decided to bring back an old “essay” sort of thing I wrote for my first ever college fiction workshop class. It’s about things you need in order to write, and after randomly reading it over I had to put it up, so here it is.
Writing requires a certain kind of silence.
Y’know, that kind of quietness that’s required to experience one’s surroundings more clearly through the senses; to simply listen, to see, as Flannery O’Connor writes: “the first and most obvious characteristic of fiction is that it deals with reality through what can be seen, heard, smelt, tasted, touched.” To embrace silence is to recognize the distinct images one might identify with in the confines and context of their surroundings. In writing, to completely submerge oneself in the lie of the fiction, to create a believable sense of integrity, there must be a lack of outside distractions, nothing to pull the writer from their alternate dimension, their creation of another place that although nonexistent must also be entirely imaginable and truthful. A fiction must have the assumption of a possibility as fact, and irrespective of the question of its truth; a useful illusion of pretense. In the process of feigning or creating something alternative with the imagination, there must be a certain degree of silence, of noiselessness, as the writer must lose themselves to create something entirely new. O’Connor writes that the writer’s “ability to create life with words is essentially a gift. If you have it in the first place, you can develop it; if you don’t have it, you might as well forget it,” and that “asking [her] to talk about short story writing is like asking a fish to lecture on swimming.”
10% of communications between human beings (and therefore, characters) occurs through verbalization, while the other 90% percent is attributed to reactions, body language, facial expressions, etc. While it is not only important to determine how a character might respond to another in dialogue, it is equally important to clarify how a character might take the silences, the pauses, the inbetweens. The depth and identity of a character come to life from their thoughts, their intentions, their internal conflicts and afflictions that are left unspoken. Additionally, the unheard and unspoken thoughts of the writer’s mind itself are equally as important in writing as those that are intended and planned, as O’Connor declares, “It is a fact that fiction writing is something in which the whole personality takes part – the conscious as well as the unconscious mind.” The most important moments of communication are the silences in between words, the feelings and intentions that are not spoken. As Gunnars writes: “The wordlessness inspires mood, while words bring energy.”
A trigger, something that gives rise to a story, I think must come most often through life’s silences, when a writer is not intentionally listening or searching for a reason to write; the need to write comes of its own accord, when a story finds it necessary for itself to be told.
Life of Imagination
When writing, the purpose is not to say, but instead, to show. Words are like paint, and the sentences the artwork, splattered on the canvas that is but a measly bit of lined paper. To “tell” a story, the writer must first “show” the reader who has been created, who is where, what is happening, who and what is going to or may possibly experience. Dialogue is easy, that is why we so often talk instead of walk.
In the context of Stuart Dybek’s We Didn’t, the characters become us, we become the characters, we are injected with their feelings and needs and wants and that gets us seeing and smelling and tasting and living a life that is not our own, but is entirely believable and understandable in the same instant. I think he makes it real, makes it true even, which it very well could be, but real for the reader in the sense that the characters specifically are felt for. There are no different from me, from you. And through their simple, through inherently troubled existence, we, as readers, are shown something. Not only does Dybek as a writer show rather than tell, but his characters do as well. His characters, even though they didn’t speak or tell all that much, simply lived, or, rather, simply didn’t; “How adept we were at fumblings, how perfectly mistimed our timing, how utterly we confused energy with ecstasy,” Dybek’s narrator comes to realize, “We made not doing it a wonder, and yet we didn’t, we didn’t, we never did.” Through their lack of action, or unspoken emotion, we are shown a whole new perspective, an unexplored viewpoint of a life we ourselves are living.
The ability to create a plausible – or even implausible – living being or creature or culture or world, with words alone proves writing is not the art of telling. But the art of illustrating, drawing, painting, of making something of quite literally nothing and making it interesting.
Experience & History
I think, memories are like people … yeah, like people. There are ones you encounter from day to day, the ones you enjoy the simple presence of. There are the ones you used to love and cherish, but have somehow slipped away and you’re quite uncertain as how to remember them. And there are the ones that follow you around and simply refuse to leave. You can’t choose what stays and what fades away.
In his collection Memory Wall, Anthony Doerr writes: “Every hour, Robert thinks, all over the globe, an infinite number of memories disappear, whole glowing atlases drawn into graves. But in the same hour children are moving out, surveying territory that seems to them entirely new. They push back the darkness; they scatter memories behind them like breadcrumbs. The world is remade.” Memories hold importance and give value, meaning to a place, an object, a word, an image. As memories fade, new ones are always made; there is always new light and memory brought into the world, and must always be brought into fiction, to create story and meaning where it is necessary. In writing, each generation contributes to the regeneration of language, a beginning again, that creates new possibilities for the world, for the short story.
Memories shape who humans are, who characters are, as a character may not be the same character it was on page 1 as it is on page 3, page 15, page 137; a character is always changing its perceptions, its ideas, and therefore is constantly changing the story’s outcome, his or her reactions and beliefs that will further change their supposedly predetermined existence.
You never step in the same river twice.
When writing a short story, you have to have a tolerance for ambiguity – to be unafraid of the sense of not knowing where exactly you’re going. The short story in itself can be more powerful than the novel and more powerful than the poem, because it contains the entirety of a universe in one simple grain of sand; much of the short story’s strength and meaning lie beyond the surface. It is underlying. And sometimes, what lies just below the surface is not always entirely visible. Mystery can become a key to fiction, there is another story, possibly many other stories, behind just one, as O’Connor writes: “In fiction, two and two is always more than four.”
I have learned not to try too hard to tell a story. I have found the importance of white spaces, a break between one glimpse of time that is necessary for the story and another; there is no known value in this space between the two chosen moments of time, or rather, because of the decisions and actions that bring the character from one to the other, through even the white spaces characters are changed, though in those white spaces is the mystery of fiction. Everything is not clearly explained, step by step, minute by minute, word by word, but instead, there is always the baited uncertainty of mystery, of the unknown, that changes not only the character but the reader’s perception of the character as well.
Eloquence of Brevity
Time is fundamental in the writing of fiction. There is always a beginning, a middle of travelling through that draws us to the end – time can be summarized, shortened and sped up, but also dramatized, lengthened and slowed down.
Some of the most powerful fictions, the most evocative short stories, are briefer than even the glimpse, hardly enough words to complete a sentence. Ernest Hemingway wrote: “For Sale: Baby shoes. Never been worn.” Dave Eggers wrote: “Found true love. Married someone else.” Even with a mere six words, more emotion and memory and story can be conveyed that in some great, long novels. The words evoke a sense of history, nostalgia, meaning deeper than even the reader can possibly fathom.
The beauty of a short story is how much can be said in so little words. It is so many ways the harder alternative in writing; with a novel so many things can be said, communicated, so many clarifications and re-clarifications, and connections and building moments to bring its fictional world into a very believable version of reality. The short story, a flash, a glimpse, a quick blink of time, does not give the great expanse of endlessness to construct in, and with this the short story becomes more powerful. Because it is those who speak with the littlest words who we are forced to listen to.
Life is boring and meaningless, filled with day upon day of circled monotony. But the short story, the glimpse, has no time for such things.