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    My daily writing--emails, journal entries, marginalia, more emails, blog posts, and tweets--shapes me as a writer, helping and hindering the big stuff I'm trying to accomplish. Every word counts.

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Ambiguous, Clear, and Sprawling by Design

I’ve been revising some pieces of writing during the past few weeks in my spare time. By “spare time,” I mean that I’ve been sitting my butt down and limiting distractions as much as possible. As a writer with a day job that doesn’t allow me time to write what I want (i.e., like anybody who writes), I’ve got to give myself deadlines, because no one else is going to do it for me. And it’s shameful to note how much time I have wasted over many years–so I won’t dwell. Moving on.

A few weeks ago, I began revising an essay about, among other subjects, grief. There was way too much of it (grief, but especially text) when I began writing it five years ago, and since then I’ve pared it down, sent it out, got rejected, etc., etc. This round of revising felt good, and I think it’s as finished as it’s going to be. If it’s rejected, I feel pretty confident that I’ll consider it their loss and send it elsewhere.

The short story I’m revising now is a very different situation. I started it in grad school, about ten or so years ago. The original version was well received in workshop, and I had many ideas for revision. Then many obstacles (some real, some imagined) appeared on my path, so I didn’t even read the story again until about four years ago. It wasn’t horrible but had more problems and gaps than I remembered.

After some revision, I shared a draft with my friend Alex, who began his response with the most useful comment: “I thought it needed to be more ambiguous , but also somehow clearer.” Yes, exactly. Even without his comments about specific passages, his overview would have made sense to me. I just didn’t know exactly what I would do clarify and ambiguize (if it’s not a word, it should be) in proper scale.

So I put the story on my back burner for about six months. Like the essay I just finished, the story comes from a decade-long arc of grief that has only recently stopped interfering in my life. I’m in a really different place now. Processing the grief by writing and revising the essay helped me a lot to understand how I wasn’t being real, even in the essay, until recently.

The story is still potentially wonderful, but what does it want to be now that it’s in the mind and hands of someone not so out of balance? Although Alex didn’t advise any major changes, making minor adjustments to what I’ve written doesn’t seem like the thing to do. Also, I’m realizing that for a long time I haven’t believed the main premise, which is that the main character believes his dead lover has been resurrected in the body of someone who happens to look like him. Various readers have given me the benefit of the doubt and said they were interested in seeing what I would do with this idea. It’s pretty far-out, if not terribly original (basically a psychological game with hints of a haunting), and I’m not interested in developing a character who is that out of touch with reality. I am, however, interested in a character who knows from the beginning that Person B is not Person A but cannot help but merge the two in his mind.

The original idea seems like a “What if” exercise, and it is finally developing into a story I would want to read. Particularly interesting to me is that the revised premise is closer to my own reality, even though the psychic distance feels greater and more like fiction. Likewise, there are other bits of my experience that belong in the story. They will fit well and honestly, but they will a create a reality that was never quite my own. That’s how I’ll build the truth of this fiction.

There’s much work to be done, and it really is the literary equivalent of a home renovation. Some rooms are getting completely repainted and decorated, but others are being stripped to the studs, and I’m adding on some rooms. I want the story to sprawl a bit and give the reader room to wander around without feeling lost.

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One Response

  1. This strikes me as a really, really interesting question: What does [a story] want to be now that it’s in the minds and hands of someone not so out of balance [as the person when s/he wrote it}?

    A person often starts writing out of person urgency, but then the writer who finishes (the writing) has to have a cooler head. When this happens to me, I find it really challenging to keep both that heat of original urgency and composure of… deliberate composition.

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