I’ve begun reading Beckett’s Malone Dies and borrowed a copy of Bukowski’s collection, The Continual Condition from the library. I also keep re-reading Denis Johnson’s “Emergency,” arguably one of the best short stories I’ve read in a long time. All of the Jesus’ Son stories are amazing, but I keep returning to that one, trying hard to figure out how he did it, how he captivated me with mystery.
A few weeks ago I found a collection of Dostoevsky’s letters and a collection of Dorothy Parker stories at Goodwill, but have left off reading them to work on revisions of a story, which is presently a mess of characters and unborn possibilities. Up until now I haven’t felt like a real writer because I haven’t made a habit of writing, and I haven’t known what I was doing. I’ve finally begun to figure out what revision really means. Reading the masters is definitely helpful, but only if you know how to scrutinize them, to read them as a writer rather than as a reader. Not everyone has the patience to teach herself to do this. It’s not something I learned in school. I lost count of how many times I read “Emergency” as a reader before I realized it was time to read it as a writer. To figure out how Johnson performed his magic with language. Johnson, Beckett and Bukowski are teaching me what it means to be human and how to strip things down to the essential, to the spiritual.
Janet Burroway’s list of revision questions is also helpful:
- What is the story about?
- Is there unnecessary summary?
- Why should the reader turn from the first page to the second?
- Is it original?
- Is it clear?
- Is it self-conscious?
- Where is it too long?
- Where is it undeveloped in character, action, imagery, theme?
- Where is it too general?
And so on. But the problem with craft books is that they are limited to mechanics and technical discussion. They can’t show you how to burn through the layers of isolation that have accumulated in our lives with insights and revelations that only fiction (both reading it and writing it) can offer. They can’t show how to get at the truths that shake the crust off the heart. Only the difficult alchemical process of shaping close observation into vivid character, action, and image can achieve that. I know that now. And I know it takes a lifetime of devotion to art as well as to craft. And it’s true. Writing fiction is one of the most difficult (and rewarding) jobs there is.