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In prepping for a writing panel I was thinking about what I know about story that might be useful to other writers. I love stories. On a good writing day I love writing stories and I’ve written a lot of them – short stories, poems, essays, a novel. No matter which genre, what sustains my interest is a strong story line. My poetry is usually narrative poetry. Even in an essay I tend to tell a story.
One thing I know is that stories that don’t end up in the basket, and especially stories that get published, are the ones that really interested me while I was inventing them. Beyond interest, something about the story not only held my attention, but challenged and intrigued me because some aspect – why a depressed man becomes suddenly elated, how religious affiliation affects sexuality, how a neighborhood reacts to a death – something about the story confused me. There was something I didn’t get and wanted to better understand.
I often write about illness, class, and sexuality. Sometimes I write about being a nurse or a mother or a lesbian. That is to say, I usually write what I know. To keep me interested, besides the layer of what I know there has to be a layer I don’t know. When I read, much of the pleasure comes from the unfolding as the story is being read. And it works the same when inventing a story. The joy, struggle, frustration, and a big chunk of the work is in getting the story to unfold, to reveal something about what initially confused me, to discover something in the act of creating.
So, unconsciously or not, the story that’s going to keep me interested and writing also perplexes me. It’s the discovery in the writing that drives me. I function not so much under the old chestnut “write what you know” as much as “explore what confuses you.” The best examples of writing that interested and confused me are from The Girls Club, a novel that took 20 years to get published. If you’re going to pick up and put down a looong story for a couple decades, taking time out to make a living, raise a kid, do the laundry, complete other writing projects, and wallow in your dissatisfaction about not getting the story right, as I did, but keep coming back to that same story, you have to be mighty interested in your questions and confusions about the story. You better have a fire in your belly to tell the tale and be curious about what’s working and what is not working in the story. You better be ready to ask a whole lot of questions.
Throughout the novel three sisters harass and defend each other. The shame of the protagonist Cora Rose as she deals with her disease and sexuality is front and center. The question “Why do people purposely humiliate each other?” kept poking me. While attempting to answer this question I recognized that, being human, every character in the novel faced humiliations. In one scene, after an exchange of insults, Cora Rose is shamed in front of their young sons when her sister Marie pins her to the carpet. By the time the last draft was written the sisters and their kids were not as badly shaken as I thought they would be when I first imagined the scene. In fact, the sisters come to an understanding of sorts. As the story got written and the development of this scene influenced others scenes the humiliation question became refined to “Why do some people survive and even learn from humiliations while other people get crushed by them?” I “literally” had to pin the protagonist to the floor to get to this question. In a story you can get to questions by any means necessary – pin people to the ground, kill them, leave them alone in a cave for 10 years until they give up the information.
I also know the down side to this “ask questions that interest and confuse you” method of story making. Three-quarters of the way through my novel the protagonist, a 22-year-old mother of a five-year-old son, estranged from her husband, failing in nursing school, and impoverished, is tested by her son’s bad behavior. When I came to this scene, the story was yelling at me, robbing my sleep, making me cry because I couldn’t find the right way to finish the scene—or rather, I was hiding from it, because somewhere as a storyteller I knew that this woman was going to snap, this person who wanted to be a good parent was going to do something bad.
So as a writer, what did I do? I did the laundry. I called my mother. Anything to avoid making the poor diseased confused young woman wail on the little guy with the Dutch Boy bangs. But sooner, or in this case later, the desire to tell the story got stronger than the desire to run away from the story. The conflict demanded attention, the story’s questions about why and how good parents snap and how we then go on got answered or at least examined. And the story finally moved forward.
Another frustration is that even fabulously interesting scenes, ideas, or plot points have to belong to the specific story a writer is telling. Once you set up a world and characters, you have to stick to what makes sense to what you’re creating, what moves that specific story; cause and effect has to build on cause and effect has to be integral to the characters relationships. Every damn thing about the story, the environment, the tone, the language, has to move the story along. We all know this, but it’s really hard to execute. So hard when you work your butt off on a scene and the answer to the question “Does this scene belong in this story?” is no. So hard to stick to the story in our stories.
I once wrote a story about a man having a seizure. Because I’m a nurse who worked for decades with folks who have seizures, I was having a good time showing off in writing what I knew about seizures. I was enthralled by my knowledge of the many ways tonic clonic jerks can manifest in different people, the way the veins bulge and the challenges of setting up an IV during status epilepticus, the relative merits of 80 percent versus 100 percent oxygen. You bored yet? Well, this actually interested me, but the over-telling impeded the plot and bored the readers in my writing group. The questions I had about how a person in seizure feels, how the nurse feels, and the aftermath of the seizure were of more interest to readers and in the end more interesting to me.
The last example I have is also a near-mistake that almost made it into the novel. This is a scene involving a dump. I became enthralled with dumps and thought why not have Cora Rose and her estranged husband take the Christmas tree that caused their son to have a life-threatening asthma attach to the dump. I became very attached to this scene, the setting I especially loved, loved the mood, the detail of the crows flapping their wings above the mound of dead appliances. I had to ask myself basic questions: “Why are these two in a dump? What’s it got to do with this story?” I had no answers, not even the intuitive answer “Because it feels right.” These two characters did not belong together in a dump at this point, or any point, in the story. The imagery was overloaded. The dialogue was pointed and false. But I kept trying to make it work until finally I listened to a respected reader (thank you, Susan Stinson) and my own good sense and took the scene out of the novel. Eventually I stuck two other characters in the dump and a different story, still a story of a couple arguing in a dump, started to make sense and in fact became Fishwives, the basis of a collection of short stories, in progress, as we say.
Having finished the novel, did I come to any conclusions about the nature of overcoming humiliation? Well, yes, partial answers about support systems, luck, endurance, culture and individual response.
Maybe writers who want to write better stories need to ask more interesting questions and readers need to be willing to be left with interesting questions when the story ends. The world is complex. The best questions may never get fully answered, not in literature, not in life. Questions, so many interesting questions.