Keeping On Keeping On

On December 28, 2009 the Tenth Muse posted this comment:  When I write, I have two issues with finishing. My first is that I almost write the story up in my head, and when I attempt to put it to paper, it feels tedious and I usually leave it unwritten. My next is most likely born from the first. 🙂 It’s that, after I’ve written the whole thing down or put it together inside my head, I realize I also want to do something else with the story. Then the new idea begins to take over, and I start second guessing my original ideas. And then I feel extremely lost!

Some authors (not I) won’t talk about their works in progress because talking saps their urge to write.  They believe that they use the same process to talk and to write.  When they return to the writing, they feel they’ve already done it, and they’re not interested in repeating themselves, so then they’re stuck.  Tenth Muse, it sounds as if you may run into the same difficulty just by thinking about your story.  Fascinating.

Of course you have to think.  I believe detail may be the problem, not thought.  I can talk about the books I’m in the middle of because I never achieve the level of detail in a conversation that I need when I’m bringing a scene to life on a page.  Tenth Muse, I’m working only from your question, so I may be miles off base, but I wonder if, when you get to the writing, you’re telling a story rather than showing it to a reader.

Here is a true tale from my family history, which, alas, doesn’t show my relatives in an exemplary light:  My great aunt, whom I no longer remember and whose name I don’t know, was plump plus, and so was my grandmother.  Both were relatively poor, very economical, and not very ethical.  They lived in New York City, where I grew up.  In those long-ago days a subway ride cost a nickel, and they didn’t want to pay two nickels when one would do.  So they put a single nickel in the slot and squeezed into the turnstile together.  And got stuck, and a policeman had to come to get them out.

This anecdote caused hilarity at family gatherings whenever it was trotted out.  It’s a good story, but how much better it would be if it were fleshed out by a fiction writer.  For example, what if the sisters were in the middle of an argument when they got stuck, or one blamed the other for their predicament.  Was it winter or summer?  Were they working their way out of winter coats when the cop arrived?  Did one of them need to go to the bathroom?  Suppose they had purchases that they’d slid under the turnstile ahead of them, which someone now could steal – or did steal, costing a whole dollar, rather than a nickel.  The story can become funnier or more serious.  Suppose this were the 1930s, the Depression, and the purchases were a week’s food.

A story in the writer’s head or transcribed from the writer’s head isn’t likely to be fully realized.  We haven’t grappled with what’s happening inside the story.  In the family yarn above, as I thought of possibilities, new possibilities suggested themselves.  If I wrote it as a real story, I’d start by thinking about what each character was like, their relationship, circumstances, where they were coming from and going to.  As soon as I had them talking to each other, the narrative would start to go down a certain path.  More ideas would come, but some ideas would become impossible because of what went before.  I might turn into a dead end and have to delete back to the beginning of the dead end.

Tenth Muse (and everyone else), coming up with new and divergent ideas sounds positive.  Suppose I thought the story would end up in my aunt’s fifth floor walk-up apartment, but then it seemed better to end with my aunt on a date with the arresting officer.  We can explore those ideas.  The key is to explore them through detail, using narrative and dialogue.  If you slow your story down for detail the tedium may go away or at least diminish.  Oddly enough, slowing down is likely to pick up the pace for the reader, who will get involved with the characters you are revealing.

As for feeling lost, that may be the sensation I hate most when I’m writing and the one I experience the most often.  You and I need to develop a tolerance for it.  For me, finding a story is like picking my way through a jungle.  I know that on the other side of the vegetation is a parking lot and a van with The End painted on the side, but the only trail markers are occasional notches in the stems of a species of meat-eating plant.

To continue through the jungle – rather than standing still and howling, or jumping on the first helicopter out – is hard.  It may help if you get interested in the details:  the fauna and flora around you, the bird whose cry sounds amazingly like popcorn popping, or the flower with petals the color of a sunset.  You’re still lost, but you’re entertaining yourself as you inch along.

This week’s prompt: Take a family story, or take my family story (please!), and retell it with details, probably invented details.  Don’t think that you have to stick to the real events.  Use the ones that appeal to you and toss the rest.  You can rewrite history and send the anecdote in a new direction.  You can be funny or serious.  Teach the reader about your Uncle Matthew and Cousin Isabel.  Let him see the old-fashioned kitchen with the iron sink and the water that comes out in spurts, smell the bread baking or the cabbage boiling, hear the loud voices or the whispers.  Have fun, and save what you wrote!