FRAMING REALITY

Once when I was having a short story of mine work-shopped my lecturer stated that I had written an anecdote, not a story. This irked me at the time; I felt he was being pedantic and finding fault to complete his role as educator. This was perhaps a bit arrogant because after giving it some space, I looked back on this particular story and saw that he was absolutely correct. I had written an anecdote.

The difference between an anecdote and a short story is one of framing. An anecdote, as my lecturer explained, is a situation, an occurrence that lacks the correct framing of a story. This framing is a familiar one we’re all taught from primary school: beginning, middle, and end.

My anecdote had characterisation, dialogue, imagery. It had things happening. What it didn’t have was a point.

After realising the truth behind my lecturer’s advice, I gave the problem a lot of thought. I attempted to create a story that had correct framing. Unfortunately, being not yet twenty at the time and having spent a lot of my childhood in front of the television left me reaching for clich├ęs to structure my stories. I used episodic formats and overused ideas. In other words, my stories weren’t very good. I became frustrated.

After months of frustration I pinpointed the cause of my irritation; life is messy.

I wanted to capture reality in my writing. I wanted to take the chaos of my experiences and display them in my text as they had felt. Even if what I was writing was fantasy, I wanted in to feel real. And life is messy. It lacks format, and at times it even lacks a point. I was frustrated because I felt my anecdotes more accurately represented reality than a neatly framed story. Granted, they were basically a description of events, but then so is life.

I didn’t write for a while after that realisation. I decided I’d wait until I thought of a story that had the correct framing, but at the same time allowed me to express my version of reality. And for a long time I didn’t think I could do it. I thought that any attempt to reshape ideas and events into a neat package was sacrificing my representation of a messy reality.

It took me a while to realise that I was looking at it from the wrong side. I had a story line and was trying to squeeze reality into that shape. But that’s not a writer’s job. What I actually had was reality, and what I should have been doing was looking for the story within it. Because even though life is messy, it’s a writer’s job to take that mess and search for a meaning. To find the point.

A well written story has a beginning, a middle, and an end. It has motifs, and loaded dialogue. It has subtext. It has a point. It’s a writer’s job to scroll through the mess of reality and find these elements in life. By writing an anecdote I was simply being lazy. I was failing to cut away the excess to find the structure buried inside.

By writing a story you’re finding the point amongst the mess. You’re pulling out the meaning from the chaos of events and structuring it so that meaning is more evident for the reader. An anecdote may capture a messy reality, but then so too does a diary entry. Or, god forbid, a blog. And while these types of writing have their purpose, they aren’t a story.

A story isn’t simply about photocopying reality; it’s about finding the meaning in the mess.

Thanks to my lecturer for pointing this out to me by criticising my work. It was the best thing he could have done.

 

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KILL YOUR DARLINGS

I recently had the joy of having my short story edited before being published. I say joy because from it I was able to learn ways to improve my writing, structure my sentences for greater effect, and generally trim away the fat. In some incidences I re-read what I had originally written and wondered how I missed such a writing blunder. I was embarrassed the editor had read the clumsy clauses that now, with the clarity of hindsight, blazed from the page like a toddler’s scribblings.

Having someone edit your work is a funny thing. When someone asks to read my writing I offer it up immediately. I slip it into their hands with a greedy smile and await their feedback with a tapping foot. I love hearing someone’s perspective on what I’ve written; part of this is the stroking of my ego, but more accurately it’s because I love to talk about writing. Hearing what people took from it, what was intentional, and more fascinating, what wasn’t, is a source of endless joy.

It’s when they tilt their head to the side and say, ‘This bit, though. I don’t know. I would have…’, that my shoulders tense.

I want their suggestions, I really do, but it seems an involuntary reaction to get defensive. A small part of me hisses and huddles around my work like protective mother cat.

This attitude, of course, is ridiculous. Feedback, providing it’s not the moronic grunting you find at the bottom of a youtube clip, is always helpful. A suggestion allows you to look at your writing from another perspective. As long as you’re able to maintain your work as a fluid, changing thing, alterations should be easy. Quite often the change is necessary. It doesn’t matter how cleverly you think you’ve worded a piece of writing, if a reader can’t understand what you’ve written, it has to go.

Of course, you won’t always agree with certain edits, but even this is beneficial. It forces you to reevaluate your work, twist it around in your head and see what it looks like from a different angle. If you don’t like the way it looks then it at least leaves you more confident in the way you originally wrote it.

By the end of the editing process, when you’ve crammed away the defensive little voice and actually considered the changes, more often than not you have a better piece of writing at the end. And that’s a good thing.

I guess the moral of this post is to be open to changes, to be nice to your editors, and, when necessary, kill your darlings.

It feels wrong, but in the long run it’s the right thing to do.

I hear it gets easier with time.