TMR reader Melissa Madore synthesizes advice from essays we’ve published in the last year and elsewhere and reflects on her own process on writing in this fabulous essay on the craft of short-story writing. Look no further for the perfect advice to apply to your own stories as you polish them up for our Fall Fiction Contest!
Kim Winternheiner, founder of The Masters Review, said in an interview: “I sometimes think people don’t realize how close they are to the finish line.”
If you are the writer who’s just received a rejection letter, you’re probably asking yourself: Is that me and How close am I?
That’s part of the reason I submitted an application for the readership at The Masters Review: I wanted to read stories, yes, definitely, but I also faced rejections and I was stuck with my prose. I wanted to immerse myself with stories, swim the waters of the so-called slush pile.
How was the experience as a reader for TMR? Extremely humbling. I found myself reading stories, often thinking, This is good, but no. Why? Because stories that are almost there are not there. Good enough is not a yes. This was the truth I simply couldn’t admit about my own work.
So when are we close to the finish line?
Creative writing classes offer us tons of advice. If we don’t know where to start, they tell us: Begin with what you know. Say something true.
I’m from a small town in Canada. In the spring, sometimes, the river swells over the street. I might hit a deer while driving home at dusk. Once, a child fell through the crack of a frozen lake. Is that enough? (Well, yes there is Alice Monroe.)
But, and Melissa said it in her recent essay Against the Great Sadness of the Upper-Middle Class: There are heaps of stories about broken hearts, grief, etc. Your cancer story will sit in the shadow (for me as a reader at least) of “Do Not Disturb” from A.M. Homes (from her collection Things You Should Know) about a woman with ovarian cancer. This is not your average cancer story. Let me give you an example with an excerpt. Here the wife is speaking with her doctor. Her husband, the narrator of the story, is also present in the room.
“What has to come out?” she asks.
“What do you want to keep?”
“I wanted to have a child.”
“I could take just the one ovary,” the doctor says. “And then after the chemo you could try and get pregnant and then after you had a child we could go in and get the rest.”
“Can you really get pregnant after chemo?” [the husband] asks.
The doctor shrugs. “Miracles happen all the time,” he says. “The problem is you can’t raise a child if you’re dead.”
Your coming of age story will be measured against “Girl on Girl” by Diane Cook in which a teenage girl is beaten by her peers. But then it’s revealed she is in cahoots with her assailants; she asked them to kick her in the stomach in the hope that she would abort. Ouch. The competition is fierce.
At the same time, can we honestly escape writing about what in fact composes the very essence of the human experience?
Recently, I read Less by Andrew Sean Greer.
In the book, Arthur Less, the main protagonist, speaks with a woman named Zohra. He has just told her his book was rejected by his publisher and Zohra says:
“What was your new novel about?”
“It was about a middle-aged gay man walking around San Francisco. And, you know, his…his sorrows…” ‘
“A white middle-aged American man walking around with his white middle-aged American sorrows? … Arthur. Sorry to tell you this. It’s a little hard to feel sorry for a guy like that.”
What is Less about? It stages a middle-aged upper class heartbroken gay character traveling abroad and reflecting upon his failed love life. The book was the winner of the Pulitzer Prize.
Okay, so maybe we can write about what we know.
A writer I admire, Laura Van Den Berg, said in an interview: “Also, don’t listen to people who say, ’Write what you know.’”
Emily Fridlund (another writer I’m very fond of) published an essay with The Masters Review titled “On Not Knowing Just Enough,” where she discusses one of her first published stories, “Expecting.” She refers to the story as being “about babies.” She says: “I was twenty-four years old when I wrote my Baby Story and pretty clueless when it came to babies…—and knowing a little but not too much about babies made it possible for me to test these ideas out.”
She also opens up about her experience of child loss: “Here’s what that miscarriage was like: I packed up a lump of tissue in a Tupperware, like a lunch, to take to the OB-GYN. I did not ever write a story about the Tupperware, the lump. That year, the third year I’d failed to carry a child to term, I wrote instead about a precocious boy whose parents and babysitter stand by and watch as that boy dies.”
The novel she is referring to is History of Wolves, shortlisted for the Man Booker prize in 2017.
So it isn’t that wise to draw from what we know best? Yet, from my experience both as a reader and writer, trauma is often the first place we dive into to get material for our story. We want to turn our pain into something meaningful. We want our sorrows to matter. Nothing wrong with this. Using story-telling as part of a healing process has its merits. South Africa (where I currently reside) would be in a different position without the Truth and Reconciliation Commission where victims of apartheid were called upon to give statements about their experiences. In having the people telling their stories, it is believed that South Africa avoided a civil war.
And let’s face it: It’s hard to resist the temptation of drawing from what we know a lot, or made a strong impression on us: the day we stumbled onto a pod of beached pilot whales; that evening when the music was soft and we heard the sound of the lobsters scratching at the side of the pot where, we knew, their flesh was being scalded so that we can eat them later on; that afternoon we carried the ashes of our father in a washed ice cream container. We think this would make a good story. (Hemingway got away with worse, didn’t he?)
And it might if you have a way with words, but more than likely it will not be enough. And you’ll run the very real risk of being too close and falling into the trap of mushiness.
* * *
Kim Winternheiner said, “So instead of adding depth and letting things layer, the piece ends up feeling empty.”
Layering. The other stories that are within your story.
According to the Guinness World Records as of 1995, the Bible is the best-selling book of all time, with an estimated 5 billion copies sold and distributed. I’m taking this example (and this will echo what Robert Olen Butler said in a lecture relayed in the book From Where You Dream) because, well, the Bible is a book and it happens to be a bestseller and I feel that as a writer I would be a fool not to consider this. But especially because it’s a book about a man who wants to say something about the world, and he says: Let me tell you a story. And he does, except he doesn’t tell the exact story, he tells other ones that are meant, within their layers, to tell you THE ONE.
A psychologist once spoke to me about the rubber band effect. She said experiences echo with another so that when your boyfriend, for example, merely frowns at you (for whatever reason) and you find yourself reacting as if he’d thrown hot water— the rawness and intensity of your experience might find its origin in the fact that it awakened other pains, say an experience of bullying as a child. Pain doesn’t come alone. This means that if a story only tells one story—it doesn’t reflect life.
My husband once asked me, Why do you read fiction? He prefers biographies; to him it’s a better use of his time because it’s ‘real life.’ Now, we could enter a debate about the fiction in non-fiction (memory is subjective—there are tons of accounts of people remembering the same event differently; we are emotional beings and memory is often linked to our value systems, etc.) But apart from this, one rule in fiction is that we ought to create characters that readers will care about. To accomplish this (and I will stick to human characters for this example, but will suggest Karen Russell’s essay for the rules in alternatives realities), we need to give our human characters human characteristics: dreams, fears, desires, secrets etc. If we fail—we will lose the reader. If this is true, I told my husband, how can I not consider that the lessons I draw from the experiences of characters who, although fictional, act, react, dream, and desire like human beings, are not as valuable as the ones in non-fiction? (Of course they are; that’s the point of literature, isn’t it, to connect us and show what it means to be human?)
But how do we do this? Where is the Blue Fairy that can change our characters into real boys and girls?
Corbett gives us some clues in his essay, Secret and Contradictions. Let’s take the example from above—a girlfriend reacts exaggeratedly at her husband when he frowns. Let’s say that the girlfriend, throughout the narrative, has been described as even-tempered and has been acting as such, with a steady, quiet, attitude. And then there is a scene where she lashes out at her husband for a frown—there is a pattern (her soft nature) that is broken: suspense is created. And then later, through a backstory, we find out about the bullying (her secret). Here not only is there the manifestation of conflict that reflects life, but also the readers are engaged; they make hypotheses (Why is the girlfriend suddenly reacting like this?), they are given the tools—background stories— to draw their own conclusions (Ah, poor girl, she was bullied as a child! Of course she is reacting like this!) As a reader, this makes us feel clever, involved, satisfied.
So we need to be close, but not too close (not knowing just enough)—it seems like hard work. It is. Writing is hard, hard, hard work and I guess that is why we sometimes indulge in the day the sun entered our bedroom and lit it like a stage; we think, Ah, this is something. We think we can get away with it. But if our story only tells one story, then that’s not the story.
By Melissa Madore