All too often I start writing something that goes nowhere. Sometimes it’s because I’ve been interrupted by a dog or a husband or by UPS with another thing from Amazon – and can’t seem to get back into the dream state I was in when I started writing. But just as often, I’m dreaming away, yet the words have become dry and uninteresting – suddenly the work is cracked, it’s done.
When I was in grad school I often got to a place in a story where the story felt over and so I’d just end it there. Sometimes this worked and I had a pretty decent piece. But usually it didn’t – and I had a story that fell off a sad cliff instead of ended in a satisfying way. Or I had an ending that I forced shut, like a rusty gate – pushing my story toward an ending I had in mind when I started the piece. This was fine. But it also meant that these stories ended in a way that was inevitable and not transcendent. I was frustrated because my favorite writers wrote stories that end in a way that was both right and unexpected, that made me gasp.
Plot vs. Story
Recently I read a book a friend of mine suggested called Story Genius: How to Use Brain Science to go Beyond Outlining and Write a Riveting Novel. It’s by Lisa Cron, a screenwriter and former literary agent. I like the book, she’s a good writer and she has good ideas about writing without spinning your wheels. One of these is about getting to the end, finishing the project sooner rather than later.
The first thing Cron says is this:
“A story is about how the things that happen affect someone in pursuit of a difficult goal, and how that person changes internally as a result.” I love this. She makes the distinction between story and plot. The plot is the sequence of things that happen in order for the story to be the story, but the story itself is about change. The story is always about why characters do what they do – the emotional context which gives plot its trajectory. And in order to have that context you need to know what it is that you are writing about. You need a theme, or, (to crossover into my life as an instructor of academic writing) you need to have a kind of thesis.
When I teach short stories and poems, I often show students how short stories and poems have a thesis – a theme/claim that the writer uses as a motivating truth. Take Harry Potter, for instance: I think one of J.K. Rowling’s claims is that the solitary life is no life – it is only friendship, family, love that conquers all. Harry is never a solitary traveller, whereas Voldemort is. Sure Voldemort has helpers, but at his core he is alone. No one loves him and he loves no one. Harry cannot win without all sorts of people who love him. This theme drives the book and sets up not only the main story but so many of the subplots.
I think being able to identify your thesis, or theme or story, whatever you want to call it, is crucial to writing what you’re writing, whether it’s a piece of flash, a short story, or even a novel. Particularly when you’re writing something big.
But Cron asserts you need to decide on this theme early on, that you should figure it out before you start to write. Otherwise you could find yourself down a long road that has suddenly turned to dirt that narrows into nothing.
I get what she is saying, you’ll save time if you have a focus, and this might indeed be the best way to write a screenplay or even a novel. Though, now that I seem to be writing an actual novel, I have only recently begun to see what my theme/thesis/ story is and I’ve got over a hundred pages of the thing written. My point is that without all the spinning I’ve done thus far, I don’t think I’d have figured out what it is (I think) I’m doing.
For me, heading down a road to nowhere is the most exciting part of writing. I like the feeling of writing in to the void, of not knowing where I’m going until I’ve gotten there. I love feeling terrified that I might fuck it up, that I might actually have spent time on a page only to throw it away – because these are the times when I’m just letting go, loving words and the way they fit together, the way they make things happen for the people charging their way out of my brain.
“There’s a City In My Mind” (Thank you David Byrne)
There’s a city in my mind – whole huge city – visiting it is like seeing out of the corner of my eye. Look directly and it’s gone. I don’t want to limit myself by deciding what I’m writing about before I’ve had the chance to wander around and go nowhere in particular.