Perspective and Other Mythical Constructs.

On With the Story

On With the Story
Photo by Markus Winkler / Unsplash

Nonfiction seems to flow out of me better than fiction. I can string a sentence or two together in ways more or less pleasing to the reader. I can also talk about, around, and through an idea to find a new perspective on it or at least one that is copacetic with my own worldview.

Fiction is harder. I can start a story. I can think up characters and a few half-clever things for them to say. I can think through a few rules for a consistent world for them to inhabit. But as soon as it comes time to move them through a plot with conflict, rising action, wants spoken and un-, and all the other Creative Writing 101 basics of good storycraft, it all kind of falls apart. I run out of steam. My characters are flat and I have no idea how to make them do or say anything interesting after their intros.

I imagine this problem is not uncommon. There are a million people out there who like to think of themselves as writers and take care to preserve that self-conception by avoiding the hard work that would prove the lie. I am not alone, but I take no comfort in this camaraderie of the wannabes.

I do want to be. I pretty much always have. As long as I can remember when someone asked young me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I would answer without fail: "I want to be an author."

But, as the poets of antiquity once said, you can want in one hand and shit in the other. Guess which one will fill up first?

I can remember early sparring matches with the telling of stories. My reach often exceeded my grasp. Plagiarism was a problem. Not the word-for-word kind, but I would nakedly steal ideas and retrofit them into short stories told in my own words. Gaiman with the serial numbers filed off. Ersatz Moorcock and off-brand Stephen King. Maybe this is natural. Great artists steal, and all that. I am thinking of Hunter S. Thompson typing out the entirety of The Great Gatsby just to know what it was like to write that well. Of course, he didn't pretend to make the stories his own. He was also much older than I was during my childish aping of the writers I admired.

The main thing I learned is that it is extremely hard to come up with and execute ideas for stories. At least for me, though I suspect this is true of most people. It might be so true as to be a tautology. Story is hard because stories are hard things. If writing them came naturally to most and was easy, we'd all be writers.

I am also thinking of a short story workshop I took in undergrad. It was one of those classes where we critiqued each other's stories. I wrote one that I was particularly proud of. I felt it captured my voice better than most of the half-finished wizard stories that cluttered my desktop. It was written from the point of view of a young man, who goes to see his girlfriend. When they meet, she pushes him to commit to their relationship - to express some feeling for her, to better emote and demonstrate whether or not she mattered to him. He is frozen and narrates the experience. He talks about how trapped and exposed he feels. There were lots of artsy metaphors about butterflies pinned in picture frames. Ultimately, he runs out of the apartment when her back is turned, having made no decision other than not to decide.

The circle critique kicked off. There were a few complimentary observations about my prose. Stylistically, it was a hit. But the professor soon drew the circle to a point: this wasn't a story. Nothing changed. Nothing was lost, nothing gained. Characters wanted nothing, and learned nothing. My writing style was competent enough, and I had given a view into the main character's thought processes. But ultimately, as a piece of fiction, it was flat, unsuccessful, and a waste of everyone's time. This criticism was delivered without malice, and I could not refute it then nor can I refute it now. But man, did it hurt. In some way, I never fully recovered from that wholly accurate criticism of my work. An old wound.

So: essays, then. I thought of creative nonfiction as a potential outlet. Maybe if I can't make up stories, I can at least retell the ones that have happened to me, hopefully adding enough color and context to keep people interested. This was even the early days of blogs, where I thought engaging in exercises like this one on a daily basis could someday pay off with a book deal. They probably could have if I had stuck with them or put any effort beyond sporadic and haphazard public journalling.

No theme or throughline. Just a collection of essays on whatever was top of mind for me at any given moment. But maybe, when I push myself to write fiction I am cutting against the grain. Perhaps those efforts would be better served working on essays.

One danger I have always been prone to is the absorption of the voice of others. If the younger me intentionally lifted plots and characters from my favorite authors, the (somewhat) more mature me was still guilty of adopting the literary voice and affectations of my favorite nonfiction writers. It's worse when I have read them lately, but I still catch a little Eggers creeping in at the edges of my prose, a dash of David Foster Wallace (though obviously a pale imitation at best), and even a touch of Thompson. This is more permissible, I think. A more natural step in my own becoming.

Why am I talking about this now? When I look around at my life, I am blessed in many ways. I am privileged, and that privilege has let me accomplish many things. But one of the areas where I have fallen flat; where I feel a lack is a creative outlet. Young me wanted to be a writer. For a variety of reasonable reasons, I put that aside. Except I never really did. It's been lurking, nascent. Groping around undernourished in the shadow parts of my soul. I am seeking a fuller expression of the real me. That means different things, but one thing it definitely means is that I am a writer.

And writers write.

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Jamie Larson