I’ve been writing for about 35 years. I don’t mean simply forming letters with ink on paper. That’s how long I’ve been trying to communicate ideas that are at least somewhat “mine.” All that practice hasn’t left me feeling confident about what I do when I write. I have come to enjoy the process of exploring, but I don’t feel like an expert at/of writing. If I want bleeding stopped, an E/R nurse knows a procedure for doing that. If I want a room built on the back of my house, a contractor knows a procedure for making it happen. All I want to do is write some words to communicate ideas, and if feels like a mystery to be solved every time I try.
My current frustration is that I’m not sure I know what a story is. Yeah, I know: Protagonist. Point of view. Rising action, climax, falling action. Show, don’t tell. Blah, blah, blah. Those are elements to look for when reading a story, but I’m not convinced they’re present, or at least clear, as a writer writes a story. So, you tell me, I have to read the story and revise it again and again. I know. About twelve zillion writers/teachers have told me to do that, and I do it. They’re the “apply direct pressure” and “lay a solid foundation” of writing. And I’m almost completely convinced they don’t work very well most of the time.
Because I’ve read some great stories that don’t dwell on that stuff. The writer carves a not-necessarily-narrative-but-nevertheless-fascinating path. In some stories, it’s even less definite, more like the writer has rubbed a finger over a steamy mirror. The piece of writing has structure and tells some kind of a story, but the way it unfolds, you know the writer didn’t overthink the process.
Example: Sam D’Allesandro’s “The Zombie Pit.” The narrator ponders how a current boyfriend is and, mostly, isn’t like the perfect boyfriend who got away. It’s a gorgeous mix of past and present, of truth-telling and truth-withholding, as much an essay by a fictional character as a story about a fictional character.
Stories like this, the ones that fascinate me most, go against advice I’ve received to offer vivid details about characters and their actions. As a reader, I don’t care a lot about characters’ appearances, nor do I need to be able to picture every action in my mind. The experience of reading a book doesn’t need to feel like watching a movie. To the contrary, communicating via written words allows a writer to inspire the reader to imagine not just what might happen in the world but in the minds of others as well. I want to know what characters think and feel; that kind of information will probably tell me more about them than their hair color will. Maybe that’s what some of my teachers have meant when they’ve asked for vivid details, but most have indicated that it’s physical details they want.
But written stories are not movies. The purpose sharing information in a story is to give the reader a sense that something happens. It’s necessary to offer a few physical details to establish the characters exist in the world of the story. If you feel you don’t need quotes around dialogue and the reader plays along, it’s a story. If you mixed tenses and an editor plays along and approves it for publishing, it’s definitely a story. And even if I, the lowly writer, feel strongly convinced by what I’ve accomplished and refuse to change it, it’s a story. As long as I feel that way when I read it again. Even as flaws become obvious (which happens with published work), it’s possible to see the success that no one else did. What I’ve learned from the attempt will inform the next attempt, but hopefully I’ll internalize the important parts of what I’ve learned and forget the rest. Focusing too much on the prescribed parts pulls us away from writing an interesting whole. Most of my writing time is spent translating personal, preverbal language into what others might understand. It takes an enormous amount of time. As frustrating as it is, I accept it as part of the job.
The rules are mostly bullshit. At best, they’re guideposts that are true often enough to keep the masses convinced they’re true, but in practice, they don’t lead you to where you need to go, nevertheless to places you want to go and probably need to invent. The guideposts are small and poorly constructed, obviously a bureaucratic excuse that help was offered. You can’t see the next one from this one, and there’s so much room between them, you can get lost, which is exactly what I’m trying to learn to do. I could bleed to death and die of exposure, but there really are so many other ways the story could go.