Tuesday, July 23, 2013

I do not know how to write short stories

... in case you were wondering. I have published stories, but that doesn't mean I know what I'm doing.* In fact, each time I start one, I have less of an idea of what is supposed to happen. There's supposed to be an arc, I gather. You're supposed to create interesting characters that the reader--quickly!--comes to care about. The story should create an overall experience of surprised satisfaction--the reader did not see that ending coming, but at the same time realizes no other ending could be possible. Some kind of turning point should arise; some permanent (even if seemingly minor) change should occur.

Or not. You can throw together a bunch of seemingly unrelated fragments (although I'd appreciate it if you wouldn't number them). You can take on a persona and rant in character. You can obsessively attend to the details of the story's setting, and then never actually tell the story. You can write the story all in dialog, or write no dialog at all.

I find this lack of parameters disturbing. And I do not understand how some people can just produce one story after another, one collection after another, all of them quite good. Do they have some kind of basic formula in their heads, which they alter and bend and break, but still at least start with? Because I feel like I'm starting from scratch every time. I don't trust conventional arcs, but I still want something to hang my hat on. Lots of people will say that hat-hook is character, but I don't really trust that, either. To me, character--outside of a specific setting, situation, tone, voice, structure, and purpose--doesn't mean much. I need all of it to come together, and that never happens in the same way twice. I'm not sure how to make it happen, other than to be patient and make lots of mistakes, and accept that some stories, as originally conceived, will never succeed.

Which brings me to the only other technique that sometimes helps me: smushing together two failed stories or story fragments. On their own, these stories don't suffice, but together they generate enough friction to start a fire.

*I also don't know how to write novels, although I've written two (well, 1.75). But having more room to maneuver within the novel somehow makes this not-knowing less dire. All the fumbling around eventually becomes the novel itself. Which is why the novel imitates life, right? Fumbling = living. But a story can't fumble. Or can it?

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Where does self-reflection come from?

This post on the Zimmerman verdict by William Saletan makes the insane suggestion that both parties in the murder of Trayvon Martin were equally at fault because each made a snap judgment about the other. Yes, Saletan says, Zimmerman "profiled" Martin, but Martin also "profiled" Zimmerman, assuming he was a pervert out to get him. Well, Zimmerman was out to get him--expressly so. Martin's assumption that Zimmerman was dangerous was entirely correct.

Nevertheless, Saletan did make one point that got me thinking:

In Zimmerman’s initial interrogation, the police expressed surprise that he hadn’t identified himself to Martin as a neighborhood watch volunteer. They suggested that Martin might have been alarmed when Zimmerman reached for an object that Zimmerman, but not Martin, knew was a phone. Zimmerman seemed baffled. He was so convinced of Martin’s criminal intent that he hadn’t considered how Martin, if he were innocent, would perceive his stalker.

Saletan wants us all to be more reflective, to pause to see ourselves as others might see us before we go flying off the handle and shoot somebody, or maybe call them a name. That's all well and fine. But what could have happened differently in Zimmerman's life that would have enabled him to consider how Martin might have seen him?

Here's where people like me often go into a high-minded spiel about the value of a humanities education. Sure, it won't get you a job, especially in this economy, but it's these intangible things that make the study of literature and philosophy so worthwhile. Studying fine literature (as opposed to, say, genre fiction populated by vigilante cop-heroes), presumably under the wise tutelage of an expert in the field, would have helped Zimmerman take a step outside himself. He would have thought, "Aha--if some stranger were chasing me and reaching for something, I might feel threatened! Therefore, I ought to back off!" Or, even better, he would never have blended the rather modest position of neighborhood-watch volunteer with his Dirty Harry fantasies. He would know the difference between life and (bad) art.

But that all sounds rather feeble to me right now. Because what would motivate someone like Zimmerman to take such classes in the first place? Why would he even care how he appears to others? (And by "how he appears" I do not mean Do I look cool? Do I look manly?--which he plainly does care about in abundance. It means genuinely seeing another person's point of view as legitimate and important.) Self-reflection holds little appeal in our culture; it seems opposed to action and suggests dithering and weakness. Why would someone who feels weak to begin with want to become more so?

Does it all come down to parenting and one's earliest experiences? And if so, what would motivate parents to teach their children empathy, as opposed to always being tough and, you know, standing your ground (which somehow seems to imply encroaching on others')? I don't think God and religion help here, either, since Zimmerman said his killing Martin was "God's plan." A different interpretation of God might help, but then we're back to asking where that interpretation comes from. So, what to do? How to make reflection--that least visible of human activities--cool? We can't make TV shows about people thinking. Even I would be bored by those. More shows that suggest negative consequences of violence and vigilantism might be nice. But, again, how to interpret those, assuming one already loves that craggy old vigilante sheriff in the battered old hat?

So I guess education--free, excellent, public education, from pre-k through, oh hell, college--remains our best bet. I still hope that education can help people use words rather than guns to solve conflicts.