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.