Friday, May 01, 2009

Journal of a 'Novel'-Entry 53

On Writing Short Stories: A Second Meditation

I got to thinking about writing short stories not too long ago on this blog, as a means of keeping my creative juices flowing when the novel I am writing was sputtering, as it is now again. It seems I have run into some kind of trouble keeping things on course in each of the last 3-4 chapters. Somehow I have managed to work out of the jam in each case so far, which is positive, but the delays this way of writing the novel causes are more or less unacceptable if I ever truly want to see this novel through and get it done.

Other writers, like T.C. Boyle, seem to take a run at a story or several in between novels they have written; in my case, it looks like I have some kind of weird propensity to taking a swing at one inbetween chapters of a novel……which is not very good for the novel’s momentum, of course. And it doesn’t ever seem to advance my prospects in the short story market, because as I’ve said here ad nauseam, after almost 15 years of sending out stories I’m still searching for my first publishing success in fiction. (I have two stories I’m still peddling out there now, waiting to hear their fate, one of which has already been rejected three times, the other once so far. But just to show you that I haven’t given up.)

In any event, here I am working on Chapter VII of the novel and I have hit yet another creative snag. I am struggling on one scene in particular, and sometimes when that happens the whole thing grinds to a halt. It’s hard when you hit these creative dryspells. You learn only through long experience, even if you’re not a household name, that the only way through is straight ahead. You have to kind of power your way through like the pointman of an infantry patrol who has to stay on azimuth but finds himself pushing through thick brambles. We’ve all been there, right?

For me that method doesn’t always mean sticking to the particular scene or story I am writing, but it does mean continuing to write, nearly at all costs. Sometimes you have to shelve something for a small period of time and return to it. It really hurts you on the timing front, more delays to completing your masterpiece, but then again, you never know where your tangents can sometimes lead. My last two short stories are among my best writing in my own opinion, and both of them were written while I was logjammed on the novel.

So I am beginning another short story. The tentative title is ‘Angel Accelerating’. I don’t really know how or why it got started. I had this image pop into my head that had to do with an angel that crashed to earth – operative word ‘crashed’, no soft flight, as if he’d been expelled – and stole a car. Why’d he steal a car? I wondered. Doesn’t an angel have wings? What was he doing down there? Where could he go? This story started as an attempt to answer those questions. Although at this early point it feels like it’s oriented towards a weirder vein than mos t of my other short stories so I am not sure if any, or all, of these answers are going to be provided. We’ll see. It may become more about, well, other things.

This is the second story in a row, if you count my previous short story ‘Suicide Station’, that started with a fragmentary image, and a strange/surreal one at that, and grew out of an attempt to determine what the story behind the image was. The only difference is that the prompt for ‘Suicide Station’ came from my subconscious in a dream, literally, whereas the image of the fallen angel jacking someone else’s car – as opposed to singing God’s praises or rolling stones away or delivering messages or what have you – came to me smack in the middle of the day for reasons that are entirely obscure to the writer. Call it living in a fantasy world to a frightening degree; call it a by-product of my crazy reading tastes; call it what you want, but that’s how the ideas seem to be coming these days. In pieces, and at odd times.

By the way this story is also revealing an even more baffling trend towards two-word story titles on the part of yours truly, if you consider one of my more recent stories was 2005’s ‘Start Something’, and my last two were ‘Auto-Response’ (still two words!) and ‘Suicide Station’. Now here comes ‘Angel Accelerating’. What the heck this reveals is minimal to the point of irrelevance, but it’s still kind of weird.

I feel increasingly like I go into writing short stories in particular with almost no real idea of what I am trying to accomplish. I don’t think this is a bad thing. It may represent me learning some lessons about fiction writing which would have stood me well if I had only learned them like 15 years ago instead of now. But no matter. I’m a late bloomer, I always have been, and that still can give me some hope. My brain these days feels better equipped to dig into nebulous material and find the story there, as opposed to beginning with some kind of concept or plot idea and attempting to construct the story around that.

This story I am beginning now seeems to be informed in an off-handed way by a few things. The first was the image popping into my head as I said before. But following that, there have been other prompts to persuade me to give the story a try. For a while I was listening to an audio version of the New Testament in my car, read by actors, the most notable being Jim Caviezel, best known for playing Jesus in Mel Gibson’s film The Passion of the Christ. I was listening to the first two gospels, Matthew and Mark, and I kept getting struck by the almost casual mention of angels here and there in the narratives. They would just pop in to Jesus’ words from time to time, or into the narrative itself, but never with much explanation. Like how Jesus, early in the accounts of his adult life, spends 40 days fasting in the desert, the Scriptures say ‘angels came, and administered to him’. What? Who? In what way? Does that mean they brought him food? How many helped him out? But it just kind of breezes past you. Ditto when Jesus is being arrested in Gesthemane, and he tells his disciples, ‘Do you think I could not ask my father right now, and he would send legions of angels? …… but it must be thus, that the Scriptures may be fulfilled.’ He would? How many angels? To do what? Trash the Roman soldiers?? It just got me thinking about the mysterious idea of angels at all. Not human, not God…….

Also I think I am being subconciously influenced by some writers I have read recently. The young but rising writer Chris Adrian’s novels and stories have an abundance of angels in them, and last year I read his collection A Better Angel. In an anthology I just finished I came across a story I had read once before, A.S. Byatt’s ‘The Thing in the Forest’, which is a magnificently written, strange, and sinister tale which recounts a single incident shared by two girls who meet during the evacuation from London during World War II. They are sent to a large country estate, and there they wander, unsupervised, into the woods where they encounter, quite literally, a thing in the forest. The remarkable thing about this story is that even though the entire conceit of meeting a monster in the woods has no basis in reality, the ‘thing’ is described so vividly and the reader experiences it so viscerally that you accept it anyway as the truth of the story. It happened. Reading this the second time around I was not only impressed so much by the writing, but I also realized, again, you can do anything. Just because something can’t happen in real life doesn’t mean it cannot in your story. You just have to find a way to express it in a manner that makes it real. It’s not easy to do, but the idea of attempting to do it is liberating. Finally, I have been reading some of the work of the inimitable Denis Johnson over the last year, and in the same anthology I happened across his remarkable novella called ‘Train Dreams’. This story ends with a kind of wolf-creature howling on a stage in front of a rapt crowd. The notion sounds preposterous. But in the context of this startling and powerul novella it comes across not only as a guttural, harrowing experience, but it seems to reach far beyond that, to signal that an entire era of human history has come to some kind of wounded close, and some new and darker reality is stepping in to plug the gap. Now THAT is powerful stuff. And yet it all comes out of a scene that in my description sounds ludicrous and hokey.

Does this mean my new story will be anything BUT ludicrous and hokey? Probably not….but I know what is possible. And I can dream as hard as I can towards it. Maybe this way I’ll write a good story, maybe someone will want to publish it. Maybe it will simply succeed in breaking the logjam and getting me going on the novel again.

Either way, pressing on with my story is a good move.

No comments: