05 February 2013
In my private reading, I tend towards fiction over non-fiction. The power of metaphor resonates within me, more so than does the recitation of events ~ though there are always exceptions. Further, I favor the possibilities for painting a larger canvas inherent in longer fiction forms (novels) over shorter forms (short stories).
Hence it was with some interest that I watched an interview on last night's PBS Newshour with short story writer George Saunders. He made a case for the writing of short stories which parallels the writing of poetry ~ the development of characters and the arc of the narrative must be distilled, compressed, pared down to its essence. I hadn't thought of it in quite those terms, but it makes sense.
Saunders said something with which I identify, in response to a question about whether he starts to write with an idea in mind ~ "Well, I do, but my approach is much more intuitive. What I find usually, if I have a subject and I do that, it tends to be a little dull. So, for me, the approach has become to go into a story not really sure of what I want to say, try to find some little seed, crystal of interest, a sentence or an image or an idea, and as much as possible divest myself of any deep ideas about it. And then by this process of revision, mysteriously, it starts to accrete meanings as you go.
"And those meanings tend to be a little more emotional, a little more intense than the ones that you plan in advance. So it's kind of an elaborate exercise in being comfortable with an element of mystery."
Which is exactly how my own writing has evolved, including posts for this forum. During my day, as I come across ideas or news of interest, I may bookmark them for later use, but there's no guarantee that a given idea will see the light of day. If it does, it is usually through a process quite similar to that which Saunders describes ~ finding some little seed, an image or an idea, and then allowing my imagination to flow with it. I may flesh out my own narrative with links to source material, or to references which explain a term in greater detail, all of which requires a bit of research on the fly. But rare is the day that I open the "new post" screen with a fully-formed entry already planned.
I'm comfortable with that. Like Saunders, I find that embracing ambiguity and spontaneity opens more paths for discovery. If you'd like to see or read more, here is the interview with Saunders, both in video and transcript form.
As a reader, I still prefer novels ~ they offer the creative scope of a symphony, compared to a short story's sonata or concerto. Thankfully, there is room in life for both.