Friday, December 02, 2011

Slip Into Something Uncomfortable


My first semester of grad school is almost over, which is a slightly surreal. By Tuesday I''ll be completely done with classes and teaching, with the exception of student revisions and grades, due on the 13th. I'm looking forward to winter break, but not for the obvious reasons. Yes, Christmas will be fun, visiting my family in New York will be wonderful, and taking the dogs on extra long walks will be nice. But the thing I'm most excited about is a solid block of time in which I will REVISE.

In the last four months I've had four short stories workshopped by my professors and peers. That totals about 80 pages of writing (my stories tend to be on the shorter side). While most of my work has garnered it's share of positive comments, different versions of the same criticisms keep popping up.

"You're protecting your characters too much. You need to  make their lives more messy."

"Stories are best when people make bad decisions. Let things get uncomfortable." 

"You go to white space and a break in the narrative just when things get tense. What is happening in that white space?"

In one of my stories, about a woman who is trying to get over the death of her infant son, a nosy neighbor invites her over coffee. Instead of accepting the invite, the main character makes an excuse and walks away, though the memory of the invitation lingers.

After looking through my workshop critiques and thinking over the advice I've been given, I start to wonder why I didn't let the main character agree to coffee. That nosy neighbor has so much potential! She can ask the main character questions about her son, about how her marriage is suffering, whether they plan to try again - totally inappropriate and uncomfortable things that the main character has not faced and from which she is still running. In yesterday's class with visiting writer Steve Almond, he talked about the importance of characters that serve as "reality instructors" or "foils" for the protagonist. Often, stories need someone who can deliver crucial information to the main character, information needed for the changes and shifts that must occur by the end of the story. Many of my pieces lack this outside force - I tend to write insular stories about relationships, or complicated internal conflicts. My characters are usually avoiding something and face that thing in the end, but not always and often not fully. And it makes sense that this would be my weakness in writing, because it's my weakness in life. I avoid confrontation, I hate conflict, and I prefer to pretend that everything is fine and lick my wounds when no one's looking. Which is okay in real life (well, not really, but that's a post for another day) but fiction demands more.

So that's my winter break goal: look at all four of these stories, identify each moment when the protagonist must make a decision, pick the worst one, and follow it through to the end. If that doesn't sound like a good time, then I don't know what does.

I like when we have craft-related discussions here, because y'all are often way smarter and more insightful then me. So I'm going to do that thing that annoys me, but I sometimes do anyway, and end this post with a question: Do you have any moments when your art mimics your life? Do you know your own weaknesses when it comes to the things you love, whether it's writing, running, or another kind of art? I'd love to hear about it.

16 comments:

  1. I love conflict in art. Let things get uncomfortable. Go there. I don't create very often but when I do my art definitely mimics my life. I know my own weaknesses. My biggest is being too afraid to finish the things I start.

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  2. I think my biggest weakness is my pace. I don't really know how to explain this with writing, but I know that I have deliberately slowed myself down and hemmed and hawed to drag out finishing a project at times. It may be because I don't like the vulnerability of having things under review as much as I like research and writing itself. I have a similar issue in running. I know I can push myself to run faster, but I rarely do so I don't really get faster. I've been trying to change both of these tendencies over the past year. It's difficult, though, to overturn entrenched habits. 

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  3. That's a tough one, but definitely worth working through! Though you are now married (!) and have two masters degrees (!!) so I would say there are some things you see to the end. :)

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  4. Pace! I can relate to that. I feel like in my own work, I tend to be all or nothing, when what I need is a steady pace and a good balance of writing, revising, submitting, reading, etc. I'm too all-or-nothing, and I definitely procrastinate with the best of them. I hope to change that as soon as I recover from this semester. The first step to changing habits is recognizing them. (The second is posting about them on the Internet!) 

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  5. I actually have pretty much the same problem with my writing (and yes, I am very anti-confrontational in real life as well). I once took a class with Tayari Jones and she said, "You need to stop riding the bus with your characters," comparing my "protection" of them to a mother riding the school bus with her children instead of just sending them off and letting them deal with whatever happens. I try to keep that advice in mind, but it's hard. I, too, write more about internal conflicts. All of this is one reason that the idea of a novel seems so overwhelming--you've got to have multiple conflicts to keep a story going for hundreds of pages!

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  6. I love this post's title!  Well-said, Chrissy.

    I'm not sure I have anything to add to the craft discussion, which is embarrassing.  Brain, where you go today?  But something here did strike a chord with me: perhaps in life, there are hard problems and soft problems.  Hard problems require a drastic change or rewiring of the system, such as a job or relationship that has reached the point of being unsalvagable.  Soft problems are things that make it hard for you or your work to reach the full potential but that can probably be solved with some thinking and creativity, such as (in my case) an experiment that needs some tweaking or a friend who needs to be informed that they are hurting your feelings every time they do XYZ thing.

    I think you may have just solved a writing problem that I am having :-)  Funny how that works sometimes.

    And can I just say that I really cannot wait for you to publish your first volume of short stories?  Really, truly CANNOT WAIT!  xoxo

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  7. Honestly, I kind of feel that my art always mimics my life. Art (when it's not a particular assignment) is my way of expressing emotions, so there is always a piece of "what's going on with me" in it.

    Congrats on finishing your first semester of grad school! Very impressive!

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  8. I recently wrote a novel for NaNoWriMo, and I noticed the same thing with my characters. The story is very tame given the subject matter, and I was afraid to go anywhere too dark with it.  In the back of my mind, I still imagine that my ultra-conservative mother could read this someday, and what would she think?

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  9. My weakness when it come to my own personal running (which I definitely consider my craft) is that I don't let myself rest. I think that runners, especially competitive racers, tend to underestimate the importance of rest in meeting their racing goals. I know this. And I teach this to others. But I don't follow it myself. My own racing suffers because of it. In my own mind, I do fairly well competitively. If I weren't doing the running streak and were a little smarter about my training, I really think I could be on the faster end of amateur/slower end of professional running. But I keep the running streak going anyway. Mostly because I think it's a good tool to inspire others to start running...if not starting their own streak.

    Is this even relevant to what you were asking about?? :)

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  10. A novel definitely seems impossible at times, but it's the plan for my thesis. Just need to think of a plot first! (It's the little things.)

    One of the better things Steve Almond said in our workshop was that we need to pay attention to the "rate of revelation" in our stories. That each scene has to tell or show the reader something new and progress the plot. Definitely a good way of looking at writing, especially short stories!

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  11. That makes two of us! And thanks for noticing the post's title - I came up with it first and the rest followed. :)

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  12. Hm. Maybe if my art is more confrontational, it will translate to my real life? Worth a shot!

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  13. I know that feeling all too well. I think getting past that idea - what would this person or that person think? - is really important if you want to progress with your writing. I still struggle with it, but I think fiction requires honesty, even when it's uncomfortable.

    And congrats on winning NaNoWriMo! It's one of the reasons I like November so much. :)

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  14. Yes, definitely relevant! Rest is important, but so is the streak. That's a hard choice to make but you seem to be doing okay even without the rest days. :) Sometimes the joy of running is more important then the times here and there when we actually race. I think being happy is worth being a little slower.

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  15. "Sometimes the joy of running is more important then the times here and there when we actually race. I think being happy is worth being a little slower." I'm thinking this needs to be one of my FB running quotes for motivation. :)

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  16. It's not all that unlike blogging is it? Give your audience/readers something to grip on, something to stew over, or someone to have compassion before, and they'll read and connect with your characters :)

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