Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Talking To Myself, Or Alternately, Freedom and Life In Stories

A lot has happened to me this year. Some of it I've talked about, and some of it I haven't, but suffice it to say that landing an agent + getting a book deal + graduating college + all the other stuff is a lot of change to process.

Unsurprisingly, the best method I've developed to process big changes is forming a narrative. That's a slightly more fancy way of saying that I retell this year to myself, over and over again, starting from different places, pulling in different details, focusing on different themes. I try to explain the gaps between the events I don't understand, searching for reasons that make sense-- and then find them unsatisfactory, and begin again. (I think you'll find, if you start to do this, that real life doesn't make nearly as much sense as fiction. This is difficult for me to accept. I'm trying.)

What I've learned is that retelling my own life is not only useful for processing changes. It helps me with the way I think about my fiction. A real life is so rich with detail and so packed with events that it can be told in a thousand different ways, each one slightly different and each one completely true, if incomplete. In fact, it is impossible to capture this last year of my life in a single narrative. I just can't hold that much information in a line at once-- I would have to double back every few seconds to flesh out the parts I missed.

I want my stories to be the same way. Sometimes when I get revision notes that say things like "there should be more of this character" or "can something like this or this happen?" I find myself resisting, thinking, well, that character just wasn't there or no, that can't happen, because it just didn't-- duh. (Okay, I don't actually say "duh" to myself, but...let's move on.) As if the story is always restricted to the course of events, or the details of the event's realization, or the rationale of a particular character, that I decided on when I wrote out the story the first time. Which it's not.

The story could have a life. I can approach it differently. I can focus on different events and bring out different themes. I have even more freedom with fiction than I do with telling my own life narrative, if I can be creative enough to fill in all the spaces it has. I say more because I have no real events to be faithful to, no real people to capture with some semblance of accuracy.

I have noticed this in some of the things I've read recently. Sometimes I get a glimpse of another part of a character's life, one that doesn't directly relate to the story at hand-- a detail that seems to be arbitrary, that hints at a different story, or at least a different way of telling that one. Part of me resists that kind of thing in writing, because I want everything to be intentional and relevant-- take only what you need to get to the top of the mountain, right? But done right, I think these kinds of details can do something important for the story. That is, they can make the story feel real.

I think there's a line in Divergent, or maybe it's in D2, that mentions Tris jumping over cracks in the sidewalk. ...Come again? Is this behavior superstitious? Is it a game? Or is she just bored out of her mind? Why did she start, and when did she stop? And why am I even spending time thinking about this? I'll never answer any of those questions in the narrative itself, because it's just not relevant. But I like that it's there. I had no idea that Tris jumped over sidewalk cracks until it appeared on the page. But it breathes a little more life into her anyway.

But that's kind of a tangent. What I'm thinking, mostly, is that I am trying to free up some space around my stories to let them form in different ways, like the narrative I'm developing of this past year. I think it will help me both with writing the rough draft-- if something's not working, for example, I can come up with a different way to tell it, or a different thing to tell entirely-- and with revision-- because I haven't limited myself to a particular way of thinking about the course of events in a character's life.

I'm one of those people who likes rules and limitations in writing, because they have a way of forcing creativity, but there is something to this whole freedom thing, I think. Letting the story breathe. Not as concrete as my practical self would like it to be, maybe, but there you have it.


That is all.


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