22 January 2016

The Possiblities Are Endless

By Art Taylor

This week marked the start of the new semester at George Mason University, and except for an immediate snow delay Thursday and the cancellation of classes Friday (and potential syllabus reshuffling), all has been going well.

One of my classes this semester is a fiction workshop, and on the first day, I invited the students one by one to introduce themselves, to provide some background about their writing, and to say what they hoped to get out of the semester ahead in terms of honing their craft. Several of them mentioned various elements of fiction—character, plot, setting—as areas they'd like to focus on, but one student's response seemed particularly frustrated. She said that she simply had trouble finishing her stories.

I asked for clarification about that, since—to my mind—there were at least three different things she might be saying, specifically: 
  1.  I have trouble writing full drafts of stories.
  2.  I have trouble writing endings in particular.
  3.  I can write full drafts and get endings, but no matter how much I revise, the story on the page ever feels done, never seems good enough, never seems like it matches what I pictured in my head, etc. 
Turns out the answer was a little of all of that.

I assured her and the class that many writers have struggled with these same issues. Endings are indeed, for me, often the hardest parts of the story to write. And I'm a constant reviser—even after I've submitted a story for publication, I often keep tinkering with it—so I understand that sense of a story never feeling like it's entirely finished.

I've written elsewhere before—in other blog posts and interviews (so excuse me if you've heard it)—about a lesson I took from the work of sculptor Alberto Giacometti and specifically his Women of Venice series. Back when I worked at the North Carolina Museum of Art, we hosted an exhibition that included one of the sculptures (the series as a whole is pictured to the left), and I was fascinated not just by the artwork itself, the texture of it, the existential starkness of it, but also by the story of how Giacometti created the series. As I understood it, all of them were cast from the same mass of clay, clay which Giacometti worked and shaped and reworked and shaped until eventually it reached a form that he found suitable, at which point he called his brother in to make a cast of the "finished" product.

And then he began working and shaping that same clay again.

In the end, Giacometti ultimately created ten sculptures, each unique in its own way, each with a kinship, clearly, to her sisters, and each—here's the key—equally finished, perhaps equally perfect, as the next in the series.

Over the years, as I've thought and reflected on this anecdote (and hopefully not transmuted it in my own mind from the truth of it), it's become core to my own sense of process. Certainly we can and should keep searching for the best word, the best rhythm of a given sentence, the best flow of a paragraph, the best structure to a story, etc.—but after a point, we could keep working and reworking any choice we've made as writers and it might be tough to say with certainty which revision is better.

I'll likely bring up this story to my fiction workshop later in the semester, and as we embark on the revision section of the course, we'll study Raymond Carver's stories "The Bath" and "A Small Good Thing" in their various incarnations—the same story told in two dramatically different ways, and each with its own strengths and weakness, to the point that in the past when I've taught them, no class can agree which is better, which more finished or complete than the other.

It's not only the new workshop that has me thinking about this, but also a book that I've recently picked up. As I mentioned in my previous post here at SleuthSayers, I like to kick off a writing session by reading a little something about writing: craft essays, exercises, etc. Having finally completed Rules of Thumb, the book that had become a regular companion in that regard, I've just started browsing between two other books: Patricia Highsmith's Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction (a rereading in that case) and Raymond Queneau's Exercises in Style, which was recently recommended my way.

Though I'm only partway into the Queneau, I'm already fascinated by the project—which reminds me of the Giacometti anecdote but also takes things a step further. Exercises in Style presents a very short story about a man on a bus—an argument, and a chance encounter later the same day, the whole thing barely a half a page in length—and then retells that story 99 different times, determined in each case by certain approaches. "Notations" is the headline of the first version, which presents the story as fragmented notes. "Litotes" tells the story in understatements. "Retrograde" tells it backwards. "Metaphorically" tells it... well, you can see where this goes. In addition to underscoring the fact that there are many, many, perhaps innumerable ways to tell any story—and tell it well each time—Queaneau's project also reminds us that writing is or can be or should be fun, playful even, which is something that I sometimes forget, I'll admit. That's a lesson for my students as well there, some of whom might be as fretful as I often am about my chosen craft.

Queneau's Exercises also remind me of something else too, an idea inherent in all of this: Style is constructed out of a series of choices.

Yes, we hear folks talk about a writer's style as if it's a natural part of their being, or about a writer needing to find his or her own style, as if it's waiting there for each of us if we'll just look hard enough. And maybe after a while, each of us does have a set of approaches and mannerisms, etc. that become like second nature—a part of who we are as writers and instantly recognizable to readers too. But at the same time, I think it's worth recognizing and remembering that the development of that style reflects a series of preferences and opinions and decisions; and an awareness of those preferences, opinions, and decisions—of the impact of those choices—enhances our skills as writers.

At least I hope.

Maybe.

In any case, I'm enjoying the new book, and I'm curious if others have read it—and curious too about a number of other questions. How would you define your own style? Is style something that you have self-consciously cultivated? Do you shift styles depending on the project at hand? Would love to hear, of course, about others experiences!

10 comments:

Paul D. Marks said...

Good stuff, Art. And yes, I switch styles according to the piece or genre/sub genre. Sometimes more clipped, other times more description.

And like you allude to, it seems that our work is never done, even after it's published. If I look back on something there's always things I want to change or different ways of seeing things. Not often wishing I'd chosen a different ending, but sometimes. I recently did a story that I totally changed the ending, which changed the meaning of the story. Luckily I did this before I sent it out. And it was picked up. And I like the current ending much better. But we're always seeing our stuff in a different light every time we look at it. Which reminds me, when I walk the dogs, if I walk at different times of day or different times of year I will see things I never saw before or see them in a different way because the light is different. But at some point we have to stop and put the story out in the world.

janice law said...

The Queneau book sounds very interesting!
Good luck with the big snow.

Art Taylor said...

Thanks, Paul and Janice, for chiming in early! I'm just getting to this myself.

Paul, I've often thought that your approach and mine are similar in many ways, having followed your own postings about craft issues and other stuff. Good point about going out different times of day or year, seeing the world in fresh ways.

And yes, Janice, though I'm only partway into it, I'm loving the Queneau and recommend it highly!

Hope anyone in the snow zone stays warm! I think we're ready—hope at least!
Art

Melodie Campbell said...

Yes, I would say my style is something that I unconsciously developed. After trying for years to be a serious fiction writer, I fell back on my standup style. It sold. Broke my heart in ways. I just wasn't meant to be a serious fiction writer, or writer of serious fiction, if you prefer. The fast, funny delivery method of comedy is the style I also do best in fiction. Interesting post, Art.

R.T. Lawton said...

Art, I've often said that my style is that of a guy telling stories to his friends in a bar over drinks, but I think I only realized that after re-reading several of my past stories. And, if I go back far enough, I can see it gradually evolve into that easy style of writing. Like Melodie, I also enjoy writing some of my series characters into humorous situations, but then after 25 years of working the streets, I often ran into the weird side of life, which is fun to put into short stories.

Enjoyed your article.

John Floyd said...

Great column, Art. Like R.T. and Melodie, my style leans toward the humorous, and I too like to (at least try to) write as though I'm sitting there telling the story rather than writing it down. An informal style has always worked better for me.

Love the Giacometti connection. Wish I could take your classes.

Robert Lopresti said...

Very interesting. A couple of years ago Brendan Dubois made my best stories of the year list with two stories each of which could be summarized with the same sentence. But they were entirely different in tone and content. Go figure.

And I have had two stories published that involved a hit and run and end with the main character having a confrontation with his boss. In one he demands a promotion and in the other he quits.

One of my favorite songwriters, Bob Snider, has three songs on one of his albums with the same subject: If you are no longer in love with me, let me know. One is a blues, one country, and one folk.

Many ways to reshape the clay.

Art Taylor said...

Hi, Melodie, RT, John, and Rob — Thanks for the perspectives! I do think most of us, to some degree, might fall back on our conversational style, and hopefully something natural about that serves us well. (Thinking particularly of RT talking about sharing stories at the bar.)

And interesting comments, Rob, about stories that would be summarized the same to some degree but which are vastly different from one another on the page.

Finally beginning to snow here. And we now have Legos, so we're ready! :-)
Art

Eve Fisher said...

My style is someone sitting in a bar, in a park, on a front porch, or a back yard and telling a story. Whether it's first or third person depends on who's telling it - can I hear a voice telling me the story, or am I telling the story to someone else? (I know, voices in the head, let's not go there...)

Leigh Lundin said...

I’m not sure I exercise any one style, per se, but I suspect I lean upon certain word patterns. One of my friends says I tend toward a terse, abbreviated way of writing, which occasionally surprised me when she brings it up.

As for voice, a professor noted I’m equally comfortable writing from a woman’s or man’s perspective, although a woman’s may take me longer… I have to picture her actions and hear her in my head… or get in her head.

As for person, I write about half and half first person and third. I like to use whichever works best for a story. Presently, the romance genre has declared 1st person unfashionable (although I’m told that’s changing), but I was shocked recently that a mainstream magazine editor said she won’t accept first person stories.

I think that makes my style (if any) unstylish.