There was a time in my life when a lot of grownups had a bottle of this unisex Holy Smoke! fragrance oil on a bathroom shelf. I don’t think Caswell-Massey makes this stuff any more, but the cursive print on the bottle read, “One drop lasts all day.”
Anyway, holy smoke! I sat down and wrote the entire first draft of a story in one go this morning. That’s something short of a miracle for me. I’ve probably only done it once or twice before in my life.
I think I’m beginning to understand why finishing a story draft is next to impossible for me. Besides all the stuff I’ve written about elsewhere, I’ve begun to see that my mind is a flood of images and memories. Just like I did in the opening paragraphs of this post, I can make connections, but a cohesive story usually eludes me. And forget writing a novel. If you can’t even run a mile, how in the hell are you going to run twenty-six of them? These images and memories mostly stay stuck in my head or in my notebooks where they play hide and seek when I try to coax them out.
I’ve begun to think there’s something magical about writing prose. Yes, it’s hard work, which is just day-to-day practice, but there’s something remarkable to me when someone who writes is able to envision a satisfying story that deepens our understanding about the human heart, who is able to shape it from beginning to end.
More fiction fails because the author has not had the discipline and ingenuity to provide and sustain a means of perception than for any other single reason. -William Sloane
Sloane’s observation is fairly sobering, at least to me.
I’ve tried to do those well-meaning exercises in writing books, but they all feel like cardboard when I’m finished. It’s not the fault of those who wrote the books; it’s a lack of sustained discipline and ingenuity on my part. I’ve done tons of free-writing, but each session turns into some intellectual rant. I have notebooks crammed with these rants that I’ll never, ever revisit. I just know I won’t. They’re shameless indulgences that frankly don’t get the job done.
Yesterday was one of those days when I told myself I was done with writing failed story drafts. Finished. I’m so over it. Like that day I told myself I was done with romantic relationships. I was going to just live my life out without them, chin in the air, heart of steel. I knew that both were hollow threats. I was back on the following day for each.
Every once in awhile you hear an anecdote that you just know begs to be fleshed out into story. Anecdotes are gifts because they come ready-made with plot and characters. They raise the heartbeat with promise. You can’t wait to get the bare bones down onto paper so you can shape the story. But they don’t come often. Like chocolate, you can’t live on them. The trick is to spot an opportunity in your own daily life: a person, a situation or event, a behavior, an image of some kind, and spin it into a magical web of connection. That’s the part that has always stopped me dead: How do you sort out story from the chaos of life? That’s the heart of fiction writing.
It means you gotta have the “discipline and ingenuity to provide and sustain a means of perception” that carries the story to its inevitable conclusion. The intrusive image for me is of a sperm and an egg. There’s no conception if the sperm is damaged or is too stupid to find the egg, right? That’s Darwin’s Law at its finest. But with a robust image meeting a robust writer, well, you got story, baby. You got story: “One drop lasts all day.”
I don’t mean to sound like I have the answers here. I’m just strafing the screen with my thoughts. I want to think that with each post I’m gaining a clearer understanding of what it means to write fiction.