Sunday, March 29, 2015

In Service of Story

I have been living in the land of fiction this semester. This is different country than the nonfiction landscape I am accustomed to. I am no longer in my familiar backyard, with its loquat trees and saw palms. With fiction, I am exploring new territory: the Badlands of the West, water-less and harsh. Or sub-zero terrain on which little life can grow. I am a stranger here, taking notes as I roam.

I'm learning that my process for writing fiction is much different than my creative nonfiction. With memoir, you know the story already. You may not be 100% sure who you will tell this story, but you lived it so you know it intimately.

I'm finding that writing fiction mainly looks like this: me, staring out my window, pen in hand, thinking. What am I thinking about? The story, of course!

I am learning now more than ever what my teachers have been saying - it's all about the story! The writing has pretty much fallen away at this point. This journey is no longer about being a good writer. It's about telling a good story. As my teacher says - you can write pretty sentences all day. But those are useless if you are not putting them in service of the story.

With fiction, you need to know the story in order to write it. Not know it but know it. Really, truly, intimately, from the inside out. And this takes time. Hence, the staring out the windows watching the blue jays fight the cardinals for bird seed while I ponder - should my main character have a best friend or fly solo? How does she experience the world? What does this character want more than anything and how can I show that without telling?

Sometimes, knowing the story means writing to figure it out, following the story down sandy paths or chasing after the story through a wild jungle. You must go wherever the story takes you, even (especially) if it takes you somewhere unexpected.

I am also finding that fiction looks like this. Let's say you've spent all afternoon raking leaves into neat piles. You're nearly done with the job when, all of a sudden, a strong gust of wind sweeps across your yard, sending thousands of leaves flying. All of your hard work, undone in one fell swoop.

What can you do but pick the leaves back up again? And along the way, you will put leaves together that you never thought to bring together before. You will see things in a different way. You will make new connections, draw new formations. Re-envision your story. Same parts, perhaps from a new angle.

You can only write from a place of truth. Even fiction must be born from an essential truth. What is at stake for you, the writer? What emotion are you writing to explore? What question within you are you seeking to answer?