On Constructing the Short Story: Fiction (part eight)
How many times have I heard this as part of a spirited explanation of why the workshop reader/critic is wrong in their criticism: "...and that’s how it actually happened." People usually say this defensively, when what they should be trying to do is understand what the critic means. Frequently the critic him/herself won't know what they mean, but I will be happy to tell you.
What actually happened isn't good enough. Even Ernest Hemingway said that the writer’s job was to make it truer than true, realer than real. That the writer had an obligation to improve on reality.
The importance of the event that "actually happened" is obvious to YOU, who have lived with the reality of "what actually happened" lo these many days or weeks or years. Problematically, the reader is NOT inside your head, and so CAN'T know "what actually happened" the way YOU know it.
James Michael Robbins, Publisher of The Sulphur River Literary Review, said, of the first line of my story, "Leaving the Station," ("Adrianna left this morning, like the trains she used to love to watch from our window as they traveled silently in the night between Lausanne and Geneva.") "Down here in Texas trains make a lot of noise. So are they a) electric, or b) way off in the distance?" To which I responded, "c) both of the above."
I had written the scene exactly as it happened, because my wife, Joanie, and I were house-sitting a friend's apartment there in the little Swiss village of Gilly-Bursinel, and both she and I had admired the view down the long slope to the Lake of Geneva (Lac Leman) and the "blue-gray hounds-teeth of the lesser Alps." The fact that the trains (electric) were far off way down the hill, just before the M road (a super-highway), DIDN'T NEED TO BE EXPLAINED BECAUSE ANYBODY WHO'D EVER SEEN IT WOULD UNDERSTAND.
Obviously, things which YOU'VE experienced and therefore KNOW, are, oftener than we think, things which the ordinary reader, WHO LACKS YOUR PARTICULAR EXPERIENCE AND EXPERTISE, CANNOT POSSIBLY KNOW.
This means, incidentally, that you must take the responsibility for shortening the story (or novel) by writing MORE and making it longer. See my earlier note re: Frank Conroy and his feedback on one of my short stories.
Or, as Davey Marlin-Jones was fond of saying, “Fix act three in act one.”
So here’s a little writing assignment from a workshop in creative writing which my father took in 1949. I quote from his notes in italics.
1) Write of a real experience
2) No plot
3) Any length
4) Must be about an emotional conflict
Then turn it into a piece of fiction with these conditions.
1) Avoid trite and dated ideas
2) Avoid weak plots
3) Avoid a dull style
Remember Poe’s three rules, especially the one about not being too long, and getting rid of anything which does not directly lead the reader where you want them to wind up emotionally.
In one of my many anonymous roles, I read poetry and fiction for another publication, and give the publisher, a personal friend, my feedback on whether or not I think the work is a) good enough to be published in his magazine, b) the right sort of good-enough story for his magazine, which has a specific thematic content, and c) if meeting those criteria, whether there are any places in the poem or story which could be improved upon through some revision on the part of the author. I suggest the kind of revision which I think will help clarity, whether in grammar, word selection, punctuation, or just plain scribal error. These last are of (at least) three types. Where a) a word is misspelled, or b) where the word is misused, or c) where an insertion or deletion was made in the text and a transition is lost entirely.
Clarity is perhaps the most important thing you need in writing, whether you are writing poetry, fiction, or even a college paper. As my former students can tell you, the purpose of a short story (Uzzell) is to evoke an emotional response from the reader. Lack of clarity leads to confusion, and confusion is NOT a valid emotional response!
What, after all, is the point of antagonizing your readers by confusing them? They’ll merely hate you and never want to read your work again.
(from The Broadkill Review, Vol. 2 No. 4, July 2008)