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Where did your story come from?

 

 

Readers often want to know: Did the story happen to you? And, if it didn’t, where did the story come from?

Writers often make fun of these  questions, mistaking them for prurient curiosity about the writer’s life. I don’t think it’s curiosity—at least not most of the time., I think it’s a complex question about the relationship between experience, memory, and imagination. Readers want to know how that relationship worked in the process of writing a particular story and this is why, when a writer says , “Well, yes, this happened to me, and this is where I  got the idea,” nobody is quite satisfied. It’s like going to the back of a puppet show and watching the strings. This is because the answer doesn’t address the way experience transforms in the realm of the imagination. It doesn’t address the mystery of that exchange.

Like a lot of writers, I dodge the question, because in one sense I really don’t know. At the same time, I do know where some of the parts of the story came from. And if I could wind time in the story backwards and let the characters could walk across the transom, they’d also find any number of elements that made up their story.

At the same time I really don’t want to know where the story came from. When an image, an event, an object, crosses over the transom into a  potential I don’t want to disturb it too much.  The image, the object, even a name, has been obliging enough to enter a realm where imagination explores and confers reality. Whatever I take from one side of the border I ,can return back to the other side.  But I don’t want to mess with this exchange too often—certainly not with gossip about its origin. The “real” thing did me a favor..

Four About My Mother

I. My Mother’s Face

When I was three, old enough to understand, my mother tried to strangle me. It was late afternoon, the time of raw nerves, hard for her in the middle of Kansas. I was in my crib, crying. From the ceiling of my bedroom, I saw a confusion of her face and my face, her eyes and my eyes. Her hand twisted my head, pressed her thumb against my throat and pushed my chin into my neck. My doll caved against my ribs, an ally of sorts, with hard, plastic fingers.

Bits of air, meant for me, fanned around my mother’s face. Her eyes in slanted glasses were dark and fierce and electric. Maybe I made a deep appeal, asking her to let me live. Or maybe we met in a  mysterious harmony. In any case, her hands loosened.

Later my father walked me around the living room. He wanted to see if I could move my neck. I could.

As a child, I often felt I’d swallowed a bubble of air that kept me from breathing. I felt it at the movies, or on long walks through Kansas fields. I also remembered my mother’s face, the way I’d seen it above my crib. For an instant her face became my face, her eyes my eyes. And then she had separated out, become miraculously herself.  In a world without air, she was vital and alive.  I’ve never seen another person more clearly.

II. My Face

Winters were bleak in the Midwest. There were days when the furniture lost its edges in late afternoon, and the world was dark by five. Then, until the lamps could do their work, everything was blurred, and my mother sat often sat in the living room staring into space. She said she didn’t like winter because it was confining.

“What is confining?” I asked.

“Too small. The kind of small that makes you nervous.”

Since I was small and made her nervous, I decided that I was confining, too. I sat on the far side of the dark room watching her vacant, darting eyes. She seemed to look forward to places she’d never reach, and back to places she’d never seen.
Outside, the old French peasant who kept chickens in the heart of suburban Illinois came out to gather five o’clock eggs. Her kerchiefed head bobbing up and down, while her chickens flocked around her. I was never sure whether she found any  eggs, or was performing some act of obeisance, as she bent down. With something, or maybe nothing, in her basket, she hobbled back to the house.

The alley looked beyond the peasant’s house and other houses to a long avenue where  I saw men coming back from work– a promenade of hats and newspapers. I watched them, hoping to one of them was my father. But my mother looked somewhere beyond the window–to an opera house, where women in tiered gowns fanned themselves, or a London street where Pears soap was in shop windows. I knew nothing about history yet understood her favorite century wasn’t this one: She wore rhinestone earrings that looked like chandeliers and hand mirrors that she said were Victorian.
Sometimes my mother slipped into evening without a trace. Then the walls and faded green couch gathered her up.  When my father came home, he always seemed bewildered. And though she was just about to come back—or hadn’t left at all–padded around the kitchen opening cans of soup, ferreting out boxes of stale crackers.
“Would you like some soup, Marlie dear?”
“No.”
“A little bouillon?”
“Maybe later.”
My father’s voice was tense and cheerful–an affront to my mother’s grief. If we’d had a fireplace, he would have sat the two of us in front of it with soup and looked at the flames and pretended she was happy. Instead the two of us sat in the small kitchen, painfully aware of my mother on the couch.
Sometimes it seemed to me that the present night, where the moon rose over the chicken coop and my father and I ate our soup, was only a convenience–something to create the illusion that my mother actually existed. But the real night was somewhere else, and my mother–on the couch under the wedding scene by Breughel–was an imperious ward of the night with unusual powers. Once I saw her staring at the chicken coop across the alley, and it seemed that the pattern of the moonlight changed directions on the rug.
But there were other times when the couch didn’t cover her like a cloak and the walls didn’t let her fade. As if the night wanted to expel her, her hawk nose became sharper, her eyes became brighter, and her thick hands became unbearably distinct. Having lost control over the night, she turned to the apartment. She said  it was a slum and being there at all there was my father’s fault because he hadn’t found us a better house.
She wrung her hands and looked at the ceiling as if invoking a family of bats. Her voice rose, the furniture seemed to stiffen and  the ashtrays looked polite. In the hall neighbors paused–discreetly, because the boards creaked.
Eventually my mother’s voice would blow in my direction, like a monsoon remembering its season. In spite of her cluttered closets, my mother’s memory was neat. Nothing I’d ever done, or not done, eluded her:
“I begged you to leave the house, but you insisted on trying on those gloves. Those crummy dime-store gloves. Pieces of cheap felt! I begged you and begged you but you tried them on. Hours while I waited in the hall. Hours! We missed the bus! We missed the bus! You tried on those gloves and we missed the bus!”
Sometimes in the heat of her tirade she would decide I wasn’t clean. Then she would fly at me, undress me, and put me in the tub, invading me with soap and language. But these scenes were reserved for the greatest miseries, the nameless, wrenching kind that could only be relieved by an assault on another body. More often, she dismissed me, and turned her attention to the smaller objects in the house, who witnessed her like frightened rabbits.
“Look at this!’ she’d say, picking up a clock and throwing it against the wall. “Everything cluttered in this tiny room! Everything in a heap!”
The clock would fall to the floor–still itself, only with a hairline of glass across its face. Obediently, it kept on ticking.
“Books!” she would say. “Books and magazines everywhere!” From the bookcase, the embossed titles of the books  looked at her like eyes. She glared back at them, picked up a magazine and rattled it: “This thing! This goddamned thing!” she said, holding it in front of her and shaking the pages.

Usually I found myself in the same position as the objects: motionless, mute, enduring with a sense of apology. But one afternoon, as my mother hovered between absorption and exile, I went to her room and sat in front of her dressing table where her make-up was laid out in front of me: her mascaras, her eyeliners, her powder. There was also a small cut-glass pot of rouge from drama school–a rouge so red, so dark, so fragrant, it promised unholy forms of transformation. Without ceremony I opened it and rubbed it on my face. The effect was fascinating. Like an etching becoming visible, I became all radiant and red and strange, flying under the flag of another country.
When I came back to the living room, my mother had just assaulted one of her black, high-heeled shoes (those shoes that embarrassed me whenever I saw them), and was about to attack another one.
“This life!” she cried. “How I loathe and despise this life!”
She didn’t see me. I stood as still as the shoe waiting to be thrown. Red radiated from my face to my feet, riveting me to the ground. My mother turned to pick up the shoe and saw me.
“Get that red off your face!” she cried. “Go inside and wash that red off!”
I didn’t move. Inhabited by a power I didn’t understand, I stayed still, compressed and hard as stone. I felt small, yet billions of years old, like an alien and stubborn star. My mother stood poised, holding the shoe.  I stood in front of her, radiating.
Suddenly my mother started to laugh. It was an amazing laugh, as though her skin were about to crack open and lay bare her bones, as though something deep inside of her had burst. I stared at her, and she laughed and laughed and laughed, as though night were pouring out of her, from her bones to mine.

III. The Antique Writing Chest

The  chest came from England and was the sort of chest gentlemen of means took on journeys in the 19th Century. It had drawers, boxes for pen, ink, paper, sealing wax, and a sloped surface that one could write on. My mother bought the chest after she, my father and I drove up a winding road to the Bronte’s house and saw the impossibly small buttons on Charlotte’s wedding dress,  books the children had written in code–and the graveyard beyond the house. The antique store was at the bottom of the hill, and my mother saw the chest and wanted me to buy it.  But I was seventeen, unhappily wrested from my boyfriend, and on the verge of a nomadic life..   Periodically she’d ask me if I wanted it and periodically I’d say no.  The conversation became a kind of ritual between us.
But after my mother died–savagely, unhappily– I felt obligated to take the chest. I lugged it to the plane and lugged it up the stairs to the living room. When  I opened it idly, expecting to find nothing, I found letters she  had started to me and never finished, telling me she was going to kill herself.

There were also birthday candles from my birthdays long before she bought the chest, a rattle from my childhood, a picture of my mother when she was thirteen, and a braided candle that startled me because my mother had clung to my father’s Presbyterian roots, and had never celebrated the Jewish Sabbath.   There was also a single sentence, written on yellow note paper and it looked quite recent: When Eurydice knew she was to be chosen she suddenly became afraid even though it was really a very elaborate sojourn that was being prepared for her….There was nothing to go by, not even a map…

I looked at everything. The plastic candleholders in the shape of birds. A two-inch doll from Guatemala.. And as I looked I realized that the chest had become a haphazard postal system between a mother and a daughter. Again and again she had asked me if I wanted it. Again and again I’d said no. And all this time, she was filling it with things for me to find. There was also writing, startling with its imagination:

The dreamer sleeps and nothing can stop her  because sleep is a consuming possession, a lust that no one can observe.. At the same time sleep, the domain of the sleeper, is not comforting. It is cold, solid, burdensome. The eyelid repairs the night. It is morning and the typical day is commenced. Only the seasons change.

The chest smelled like my mother. Of pink face powder and cologne and cold cream. I put the chest in the living room . It stays there like a heartbeat.

 

IV Mildred

After my mother died, I was no longer able to write because I realized it had been her, after all, that I’d been writing to all along and she was no longer there. My mother had not liked my writing, and was disappointed that I didn’t write like H. H. Munro or Henry James or any one of a number of people who wrote in what she called good simple ways. “Why don’t you write what you know about?” she often asked.

What she meant was why couldn’t I write what she knew about. I never could. But after she died I realized I had always been writing to her and for her. My mother had wanted to be a writer but couldn’t cope with the occupational hazards of the trade nor did she have an audacious belief in the powers of her imagination. Her favorite line was from the Cherry Orchard in which a character said: “I could have been a Dostoyevsky.” The emptiness she felt wasn’t the emptiness mystics talk about, but an illusory emptiness that comes when one can’t use one’s powers. She didn’t want a child who bushwhacked into alien territory and when I did, she jealously imagined a  life of constant exhilaration I didn’t have. But I wasn’t as unhappy as she had been and, if I hadn’t known this already, it was made obvious by what she had written in the antique chest.

My mother had always been fascinated by ancient Asia and had bought an ancient map, which I put near the antique writing chest. She’d especially liked the myth from Nineveh that women made children from their own bones.   I knew there was a storyin the map, the way–at night, looking up from my desk– I imagined there was a cosmic lining in the sky, and if only I could open it, stories would tumble down. And I thought that I would break the silence by writing about Nineveh. But after a few days I took the map down. Nineveh was my mother’s story –if only she’d been able to write it.

After her death I kept looking for for signs that the silence would end. I read about a self-help book that had made thousands of people express themselves and bought the book, sure it would unleash me. A phrase would occur to me and I’d pummeled it until its letters shredded.

During that time, though, a curious kind of help came, and this was in the form of a pale wraith-like woman, who looked almost exactly the way my mother would have looked if she’d been happy. She was a small woman in her seventies with tiny, fluttering arms and a hooked nose. She wasn’t enrolled in the writing program where I taught  and asked  if she could audit a workshop. I said of course she could and she sat in back of the room, a grateful wraithlike radiance.

Her name was Mildred. Now and then she sat close to me, in the front row, off to my right.  She had a mole at the end of her nose, and unless I looked closely, I could never tell whether this mole was skin or moisture. This added to the impression that Mildred was melting. She always wore a green sweater covered with small woolen balls and dark brown pants. She had glasses like my mother’s, but her eyes emanated light. As I fielded competitive remarks from other students, I looked at Mildred and thought: I have been blessed, like a character in a story about Chassidim. My mother has returned to talk to me and let me talk to her.

I was embarrassed by my belief that Mildred had been sent to me. Embarrassed, too, that I wrote paeans about her that I never showed to anybody. I wrote them in long hand in a kind of hieroglyph that I couldn’t decipher later. But even though I never read them, these were the first things I wrote after my mother died. When a mean-spirited student asked why I was letting a seventy-year-old woman who wasn’t in the writing program audit a class that qualified graduate students hadn’t been able to get into, I looked at these very notes and said Mildred had once been an accomplished teacher and I wanted her to critique me. The student didn’t believe me, but when she complained, the head of the department looked the other way. Perhaps Mildred had been his lover once. Or maybe he knew I was reeling from my mother’s death. The idea of the two of them in bed amused me. She was so frail, he could break her bones.

Mildred gave me just one story. It was about an older woman who took a younger woman in as a boarder in her cavernous apartment. The younger woman was a cellist who spent hours playing Bach Inventions while the older woman served her tea. She met an archaeologist and left to get married.

The story was well-written and generous about another life—generous in a way  my mother would have been if she’d been happy. After I read the story, I waited for Mildred to come back so I could tell her how much I liked it. But she’d vanished. Later someone told me that she’d gone to many classes in the writing program and always submitted the same story. “No doubt she wrote it herself, but a long time ago,” a colleague said, laughing in a mean-spirited way. I asked her what the story was about. The colleague said it was about buying a rug in a peasant town in Italy. This convinced me that Mildred wrote about the cellist for me—a veiled and allegorical letter, giving me permission to be happy. After a while, the belief that she was sent faded, the way dreams fade.. Even so, it surfaces, this fierce belief that my mother broke through death to be with me, broke through to wish me well.

 

Becoming Lucky: The Freedom of Writing Nonsense

 

Copyright Thaisa Frank

 

Grammatical Nonsense:
Writers generally write to discover what they mean, not to record what they already know. The cool idea that triggers a story doesn’t generate a story. Improvisation does.   If there is no surprise for the writer, there will be no surprise for the reader. Flannery O’Conner, said that when she wrote Country People she didn’t know the Bible salesman was going to steal the woman’s wooden leg until a few sentences before it happened.

 

Writing is a complicated, subliminal conversation every writer develops in a unique way, and a conversation that no writer is that aware of.

 

In other words: It isn’t the same as thinking.

 

But before any of us write creatively, we have learned to associate writing and reading with thinking, starting with learning to write and culminating with reading and discussing books . The books themselves have the authority of publication (anything looks better in print), and look as though they emerged that way. Then we are assigned essays and told that we must outline—essentially thinking everything in advance.   So it’s natural that writing of any kind is associated with thinking and that even when writers know it doesn’t work that way all kinds of thoughts intrude. “I should write the opening scene first because you have to write in sequential order.”   Or: “Wait! I can’t mention the grandmother’s scar because I haven’t gone into detail about the accident when she was twelve, fifty years ago.”

Another alternative is to imitate writers we admire. After all, they have been published.

 

When I think about how not to think and how not to imitate, I remember Lucky, who made an outrageously nonsensical speech in Waiting for Godot, freeing language from the burden of meaning. He spoke strings of nonsense, some of it grammatical, and writing grammatical nonsense is a great way to lose self-consciousness and stop premature editing.

 

The rules are simple. 1. the sentences must be grammatical. 2. The words mustn’t link together in any consciously associative way. The brain automatically makes sense of grammatical language. Don’t worry if the words carry metaphoric weight or make sense after you’ve written them.

 

Here’s an example:

 

Although spoons create kymographic leaves, the undulating verve of the bracken riveted rice, and when the fuliginous failed, luminous clack vied looms with a sandwich, but the miracle mill raced on and a liver starch imported gibbour grommets. So the onerous futhark of climes unfurled. After the bombastic fungi filibustered the switchyard, imperilment dined. Ladder! Units! The potash massacre is electrolyzed.

 

There are many ways to write nonsense. You can look around the room and start with objects. (Be careful, though, that you don’t choose objects that are normally linked together—for instance, if you see a fork and a spoon on the table choose one.   You are creating a random universe. You can also look up words in the dictionary. And if you look up words in different parts of the newspaper, you will begin to mix up words from completely different worlds. Calibration from a science article will join poach from the cooking section. Crepuscular from an article on cats will join bookrunner from the stock section.

 

There are various benefits to this exercise, especially if you do it for a couple of minutes a day. This is an easy exercise to do at the spur of the moment. For instance, the next time you’re talking to an interminably slow customer service person about an online banking problem and are placed on hold you can scribble some nonsense on a scrap of paper instead of looking at your phone. People experience several benefits to this exercise, among them discovering dialects they once spoke and finding images to use in writing that rise out of the nonsense.   The most pervasive benefit, however, is that the inner critic, the inner editor, the inner thinker, the inner commenter, the inner imitator and the inner anticipator begin to fade out of the writing process. All these inner-personae are backseat drivers concerned with getting to the end of a piece of writing using a logical, pre-planned route. But when you give them the job of not making sense, they begin to work very hard to do this and when you sit down to write sense, they learn to stop talking.

 

This is an exercise you can’t fail at. The very worst that can happen is that you will make sense.

Characters

 

 

Chekov’s characters] do not exactly forget to be themselves. they forget to act as purposeful fictional characters; they mislay their scripts; they stop being actors–James Wood, The Broken Estate

Writers are hopelessly dependent on characters. Besides being the chief elements readers can identify with,  they’re the only elements besides the writer that can change what happens. It’s what characters want or don’t want that changes things, and narrative arcs (and plots)  that don’t flow from their desires are rarely believable. (We all know about stories that end with lottery wins, people dying or another act of God.)

Characters are the victims or the heroes of the story. They are effected by events and push back against them–or don’t.  In fact, fiction depends on characters so much there’s a myth that you have to start with a clear idea of a character or characters. But characterization is a notion invented long after people began to tell stories. Some writers start their stories with an image, a plot, a title, a or scene and meet their characters later. And writers who start with characters may seem luckier, but often these characters resist a narrative arc. What is true is the eventually, the plot must flow from the motivation of the characters.  Characters either transform or don’t.  And transformation or resistance to transformation is a key element in creating the  illusion of time in fiction.

****

In the beginning of almost every good story, whether it is intentional or not, almost all writers consistently reveal the following information about the character. If you read any number of beginning pages, you’ll discover that this is true:

age

sex

level of education

***

Except for one dramatic event (and sometimes not even one) the plot should flow from the motivations of the characters

You don’t have to start a story because of an interest in a character;; but ultimately the characters must begin to guide the story.

The writer is always separatefrom the characters.

Characters usually change stories by acting out of character in convincing ways orby having an opportunity to act out of character and thus change their lives and not taking the opportunity.

Most dialogue between characters reflects a relationshipbetween two people, rather than a monologue.

Although almost every good story identifies characters quickly, neverinclude something about a character that doesn’t interest you.

***

A Short Lexicon

Narrative persona— The narrative persona is the cloak–or personality–that the writer assumes in order to tell a story. One might think of it as the narrator behind the scenes—so even in first person narrations, there is an invisible puppet master guiding the unfolding of the story.

The narrative persona defines the writer’s relationship to the characters—whether the narrator feels distant from them, close to them. It also includes the writer’s sense about the truth of the story. Characters may believe things that the narrative persona isn’t convinced of, and may not believe things that the narrative persona is convinced of. Narrative persona is conveyed by tone, pacing, use of language, distance from characters, and concentration on (or lack of concentration on) description.  The persona in Felicity’s Journeyis a different persona from the one who wrote William’s Trevor’s short fiction.

Narrative personais different from point of view, which defines the various perspectives from which a story is told. Pont of view intersects with the work of the narrative persona because writers often feel a tension between the narrator, who in some sense is inthe story and  the omniscient writer (who is in some sense outsidethe story). One might say that the writer, who knows the story, is always banished from the story precisely because the knowledge prevents the unfolding and discovery of the story.

Embodiment—is the literal sense of a character’s body, moving through space and taking up room as a physical presence. A kinesthetic sense of a character lets you have  transmit a character instinctively.  Sometimes, it can create a character without a lot of description.  If you’re character is embodied, it’s often easier to convey how characters relate to the space around them—how they walk down the street, what objects are important to them.

 

 

Suggested Text:THE BROKEN ESTATE-by James Wood, Essays on Literature and Belief

Writing About Writing: A Cautionary Tale

 

searching for origins

On Amazon there are over 8,000 books about writing. There are how-to-write-a-bestseller-books, how-to-survive-as-a-writer books, how-to-write-detective-story books, how-to-write-bodice-ripper books. Write-a-novel-in-five-days-books. No wait! Write-a-novel-in four-days.
For every book about writing there are a thousand online sites with tips about how to write & essays from writers about their process and their lives. There are point- of-view books, character books, plot books, subtext books, plot-arc books, character-arc books, voice books and tone books. Many are written by writers.(I wrote one : ) )
Books & online publications form a strong invisible community for a profession that works in silence. Intentional or not, they comfort loneliness and low morale–both occupational hazards of the writing profession. They all have concepts that ring* interior bells for a writer.

But they can mess things up if their advice about craft and their admonitions about ideal work hours, interfere with first drafts where the writer needs to discover the story haphazardly, on her own, discarding characters, disregarding plot, trying different tenses, perhaps at three in the morning. The books are talking about strands of something organic and parts never add up to the whole.
Ironically, When the writing happens, the writer has disappeared into the work and can’t really tell you how it got done. Nor can she ever see her work for the first time. Even so, she might write a book about what happened–a remarkable fishing story, where the most crucial events happened below the surface.

*had written “wring interior bells”–actually, both are true…

Worlds in Fiction: Balancing Figure & Ground

Worlds in Fiction- A key to subtext

When you read a good writer the world, for that moment, can seem no other way. Crime and Punishment is imbued with Dostoyevsky’s sense of the world. If Tolstoy written Crime and Punishment, we would have visited a different Russia. One might argue that Tolstoy couldn’t have written Crime and Punishment; but Crime and Punishment is so imbued with Dostoyevsky’s sense of the world it’s almost impossible to imagine the book written by anybody else.

To write, then, is not just to tell a story, but also to create a world in which your characters live. These worlds can be ordinary like the world of Ferrante, fantastic, like the world of Calvino,  or somewhere in between, like Remainder by McCarthy. Worlds are shaped as much as by what is left out as by what is left in.

All readers are aware of them subliminally This is why some mystery readers choose English cozies and others choose techno-thrillers. These worlds include qualities of weather cityscapes, landscapes, and sensate objects, ranging from fruit to velvet. They also include the singular vision of the writers.  (The Age of Wire and String by Ben Marcus is an example—a book so good that many voice-driven writers say it made them want to give up writing.)

On might say that a world is ground and narrative is figure. Interesting fiction is a balance of world and narrative.  But unseasoned writers often focus on narrative so characters hanging in empty space. If you have trouble creating a world, spy on the way you pay attention.

Here are a few ways to spy

 

The Inner World

 

Make the journal dangerous:  Discover what you don’t know about your day instead of what you already know: We all have a running story about our day, based on what we know we did.  (Had to teach a class. Couldn’t find my keys. Almost late and couldn’t find a place on the UC Campus. Etc.)  But If I allow myself to remember my day quickly, I’ll see a few images, or hear a few bits of dialogue that have made an impression.  (The green rim on the white plate. “Those McNuggets are real good,” he said.)

This quick log, has a lot of benefits: You’ll begin to have a lexicon of what interests you. You’ll remember the day more vividly than you’d remember a blow-by-blow account of your day.  You’ll begin to have a lexicon of what interests you.  It will take a few minutes at any time of day.

Discover what you don’t know about your dreams.  Freud, Jung and a lot of other people have told us how to understand dreams and you may rush to understand the symbolism or decide how it relates to your life. But if you review your dream quickly and write down a few images, you’ll begin to have another lexicon.

You may never use any of these things in your fiction—but you’ll start to focus different.  These exercises bring you closer  to the way you pay attention, to the concrete sensory things that interest you and your imagination.

The Outer World

Eavesdrop: You’ll be forgiven if you write good dialogue as a result.  People often speak elliptically and poetically.   Their voices are the chorus of the worldMedia

Media. Do you ever look at the Enquirer at the supermarket–the most surreal literary fiction in this country? Or race to see what the NY Times is reporting about fashion?  Have you read posts like “Twenty Movie Stars Who Now Work in Offices”? The easiest way to do this is to look at Show All History on your computer. (Be honest!)

Research. Create a list of questions about your outer world, with particular attention to a sense of place. For example: What houses have I lived in?  What streets have I walked on?  What do I remember about the last room I saw?

As must be clear, a world often depends on a sense of place, or places.  You can play with this by changing your perspective on a place. For instance, imagine what it’s like to walk down a familiar street as if you were from the future or the past, a spy on a mission from another country.

Most people don’t think that what they notice is interesting because it’s what they’ve always noticed.   The more you pay attention to what you notice, the more you’ll understand that no one else has your perspective.  Appreciating what you notice (and not longer thinking it’s a boring, obvious perspective) is the key to creating an interesting fictional world.

 

To Speak or Not to Speak: Tricks for writing dialogue

Conversation is a journey and what gives it value is fear.  You come to understand travel because you have had conversations, not vice versa. Anne Carson, The Anthropology of Water.

Like polite guests at a party, writers rush to fill in the silence between characters. This usually results in predictable dialogue that bores the reader and the writer..(“Hi,” she said. “Hi,” he answered.)  But dialogue is rarely a direct exchange and is often most important because it reflects what characters don’t say rather than what they do say. To put it differently: Dialogue often bears the burden of the unsaid.

It also reflects the relationship between people. One might say that the relationship is a third character and this is what drives  conversation.

Think, for example, of throwing a ball against a fence. Before it comes back to you, you hear the sound of the ball against the fence. That sound is like the moment between one character’s speaking and another responding. It’s the most important beat.

Before going any further, it’s important to remember that most writing tips are helpful after you’ve been spontaneous, made mistakes, and written a hundred “Hi,” she saids.   If you clench yourself up and try to think too much your writing will be stalled and become a head trip with a new inner critic inside.

Unless you’re a writer to whom dialogue comes easily, getting characters to talk naturally takes time and mistakes. You have to learn to listen to the dialogue rather than think it.

Having said this, one trick is to learn to cross out beats.  In the process you will eventually discover that you have written something interesting in the midst of all the verbiage.

Here’s an example of crossing out beats:

‘”Hi,” he said.

“Hi ,” she answered.

“Did you go to the store?” he asked

“I went before I left for work,” she answered.

“Did you buy potatoes?”

“Yes. They’re in the pantry.”

“I don’t see them.”

“They’re in that bag.”

“In the bag?”

“Yes. It’s in the pantry,”

“How come you put them in the pantry?”

“It was the easiest place.”

“How come?”

“The path’s a mess. I set down the bag and when I picked it up the bottom had oil from when you worked on the car.”

There’s a long interchange between A and B that’s boring and predictable. But eventually the dialogue starts to illuminate the relationship. If you cross out all the beats that aren’t interesting, you’ll get:

“Did you go to the store?” he asked.

“The path is a mess,” she said. “I set down the bag and when I picked it up it was all full of oil from when you worked on the car.

More often than not, you will find that you have written interesting and illuminating dialogue.  It’s just gotten lost with unnecessary beats.

The more you become familiar with crossing out dialogue beats, the more you will learn to listen to your characters when you write. You also may begin to pick up what’s not being said when you listen to people talk.

copyright Thaisa Frank: Essays on Writing Fiction/please contact before reproducing; please reference this article and credit it.  Thanks!

 

 

 

 

 

Flash Fiction: What is it, anyway?

A cage went in search of a bird…. Franz Kafka

I like it except for the whole thing…Henry James

For sale: Baby shoes. Never worn …Ernest Hemingway.

The History of Flash Fiction and Its Predecessor: The Prose Poem.

With the abundance of online publications, flash fiction is making a dazzling re-entry into the literary scene. Because it’s short, flash is the essence of the “less is more” school of writing. Whether or not you choose to concentrate on flash fiction, learning to write flash will train your ear and allow you to make crisp transitions so the reader can take a leap of the imagination with you. Economy and compression are the essence of good flash. Until recently flash fiction only appeared in literary journals, escaping critics and enjoying marginalized obscurity. Perhaps for this reason many writers have felt that flash fiction was a backwater and a refuge from conventional narrative. It can bivouac vacant buildings, welcome unknown countries, talk to shadows—and express radical beliefs. Flash fiction is free and exalts in its protean nature.

Flash fiction combines the poet’s monologue with the fiction writer’s penchant for  working with characters. In a sense it’s an urgent letter, telegraphing secrets you might tell to strangers on a train. These once told, quickly-heard tales must capture a reader’s trust, imagination and attention.

It’s  helpful to remember that flash fiction morphed from the prose poem. And if you’re serious about writing flash, it’s helpful to study and write some prose poems.

The prose poem looks like prose, but has elliptical leaps in language characteristic of poetry. It also has startling twists of imagery and a spirit of radical imagination. The prose-poem is image driven and relies on transformation of the image.

Nobody knows who wrote the first prose poem.  Sei Shonogan, the author of The Pillow Book in the 990s and early 1000s in the Japanese court, certainly wrote prose poems–although she didn’t call them that. Bertrand and Mallarme, among others in France, began to use the prose poem to rebel against the strict Alexandrine form of poetry. It was used in Syria, too, in the 19th century.

Russell Edson and W. S. Merwin, both prose poem masters, are partly responsible for the blossoming of the prose poem in the late sixties, seventies and eighties. Edson in particular influenced Lydia Davis and several other writers.

The evolution of flash fiction from the prose poem.

As the prose poem began to  deal with characters  it morphed into flash fiction, which is character-driven, rather than the prose poem which is image driven.  In other words, the transformation (or interesting lack of transformation) occurs with the characters.

The distinction still remains, but sometimes blurs.  Some flash is called “micro-fiction” or “nano-fiction” and even “smoke-long fiction”which means that it’s long enough to finish a cigarette.   Flash is rarely more than 500 to 750 words and  often less.  Microfiction is often 300 words or less.

Some examples of prose poems

(Reprinted with permission from Finding Your Writers Voice, St. Martin’s Press, Frank/Wall)

Ana Hatherly  is a Portuguese prose poem writer. This is  from her series  Tisanas–an anagram of her name

Once upon a time there was a land where there weren’t any clouds.To make rain, it was necessary to wash the horizon with feathers. 

You can see the transformation of the image: There aren’t any clouds. There’s a hidden premise that there has to be rain.  The conclusion is that one must wash the sky with feathers.

Incidents—a prose poem from Danhil Kharms, is a Russian novel in a paragraph.

Once Orlov ate too many ground peas and died. Krylov found out about it and died too. Spirindov up and died all by himself. Spririndov’s wife fell off the cupboard and also died. Spirindov’s children drowned in the pond. Grandma Spirindov took to drink and hit the road. Mikhailov stopped combing his hair and caught a skin disease. Kruglove drew a picture of a lady with a whip in her hand and lost his mind. Perekhrestove was sent four hundred rubles and put on such airs that they fired him at his office. Good people but they don’t know how to take themselves in hand.

Like many prose poems of that era, this Russian novel in a few sentences is also a poem of political protest.  Kharms was eventually murdered. No one character transforms here. The image is one of utter chaos and the transformation occurs with an ironic comment. The prose poem is a vehicle for presenting tilted environments without the causal implications of science fiction or fantasy.  It is a natural vehicle for unself-conscious surrealism.

The prose poems I write usually don’t have a political slant, but here’s one:

It’s a only a memory, the gold and green, the yellow daisies, the emerald lawns. Since X became president we mostly live in our garages. There’s a chance to breathe there and sort through old postcards. On the day before I decided to burn everything my ex-husband knocked and carried me to the watering hole. He snorted and whinnied like a horse and when we got to the watering hole he put me on the ground. All animals lay down their arms before water, he said. For water, they forget their differences.

Here the transformation is the transformation of a landscape:  From cultivated images, to isolated, arid garages, to a collective watering hole. Like many prose poems, this transformation of an image was unconscious.  (I realized later that the fact that my ex-husband brought me there italicized the laying down of arms and the forgetting of differences.)

What’s in a Name?

“Flash fiction” got its name from James Thomas, an editor of a several seminal anthologies of flash. The name came to him one night in a New England farm house and has never left the literary scene.  This obviously happened after the prose poem began to slide into work with characters.    But by giving “Flash Fiction” a name, James Thomas defined a form . The definition of a new form allowed writers to say “This is something with parameters I recognize!” . The definition–and Thomas’s  eclectic collections (he also collaborated with Denise Thomas and Tom Hazuka)—encouraged writers to work with the form and push it to explosive possibilities.  Recently Thomas has created a new category called “MIcrofiction.”  It’s three hundred words or less and is  a form unto itself.

Key Attributes of Flash

Flash originally was defined as around 500 words or less—occasionally expanded to a little over 500 and sometimes 750. Over time, it has expanded to 1,000 words. However if you’re going to learn to write flash, you should stick to between 250 and 400 words, keeping it as short as possible. This is because flash isn’t defined by length alone. It’s defined by elliptical leaps in language, startling subtext, and a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. It involves key skills that are easier to learn  if your work is short.

As part of its debut, the online world has given birth to journals that publish flash-fiction almost exclusively. TwitterFiction, with a restriction of 140-character segments, is defining even shorter forms.   Books have also begun to utilize flash-like sections. And readers and writers alike are asking questions, signaling that flash has entered the conversation.

Perhaps the most common questions are: What is flash fiction, anyway? Isn’t it much easier to write than a novel? What are the key elements of flash?

What is flash fiction, anyway?

The short answer is that flash fiction is short.

The longer answer is that although flash is its own form, it overlaps both poetry and fiction and always convoys a sense of compression. Like poetry, flash is  characterized by a distinctive voice, with more reliance on subtext than plot and elliptical leaps of language. Like fiction, flash usually deals with at least one character and involves that character’s transformation—or interesting lack of it. The transformation can be slight, but is always surprising. Sometime flash omits characters in lieu of a fable, a parable, or a dystopian universe. Unlike the traditional novel or short story, flash has no pre-conceived templates. It can surrender to the imagination without announcing a genre.

When writing flash it’s helpful to understand how much flash has taken its inspiration from the short, language-driven form of the prose poem–its indisputable predecessor—and often a vehicle for political protest. (As was the case with Danhil Kharms.)

What are the Key Elements of Flash?

Compression: Making every word count. Leaving out everything that’s unnecessary–although what is necessary can involve lush lyric imagery.

Working skillfully with the three unities (time, place and action) and and using them sparingly or (to put it differently):

Using minimal transitions. Allowing the reader to take leaps of imagination with you–and not describing how something got from here to there or how it’s later the same day or using a flashback describe a character.

Voice—learning to use who you are, how you express that artistically and (in a final draft) understanding that you’re communicating with a stranger (i.e. the reader)*

Skillful use of imagery and lyricism—knowing when it works and when it’s excessive

Understanding both transformation of an image and transformation of a character.

Understanding the relation between individual lines of the story and the narrative arc. (I.e. The narrative arc is always greater than the sum of its parts.)

Understanding the difference between plot and narrative arc. (If plot were the same as narrative arc, the synopsis of Hamlet would be as good as the play.)

*Voice isn’t style. Rather, voice is the fire that gives rise to style.  A writer with a good ear can imitate another writer’s style, but can’t find the whole story.  Imitating style is like using a rope to go a certain distance out to sea.  But the rope is too taut for you to dive  below the surface.  The writer you’re imitating and make the dive and find a story. You can learn from imitating style. But the voice of the story is larger than the individual lines–and you’re stuck with finding your own story.  Flash will help you find the narrative arc, as well as not get tangled in in what’s not relevant.  This is partly because flash is so short you can see the whole story and the individual lines at the same time.

Is Flash Fiction Easier than Longer Fiction?

Many writers revise flash quickly or don’t need to revise at all. But all of these writers have developed their skills and honed their voice. Other writers say that flash requires revision. A piece that has been anthologized and won a Literary Death Match took me five years, pulling me by the sleeve when I worked on something longer. Flash looks easy because there are so few sentences. But sentences—no matter how clever or artful–won’t coalesce into a story. Understanding flash involves a deep understanding of a narrative arc–that elusive beast, whose whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

Although flash fiction can take time to write, after it’s finished, the reader has the sense of a story told in a single breath, a swift and urgent letter.  Writers of flash often express surprise that something so small has its own mysterious wholeness. Flash is brief, complete, and teems with protean forms.   I hope it remains renegade and continues to evolve and astound.

Because they’re longer, permissions to reprint are harder. For the time being, here’s one of my own—300 words.

The New Thieves

One night my lover said: You must be learn to be like the new thieves—they never steal, they add. They enter rooms without force and leave hairpins, envelopes, roses. Later they leave larger things like pianos: No one ever notices. You must be like that woman in the bar who dropped her glove so softly I put it on. Or that man who offered his wife so carefully, I thought we’d been married for seventeen years. You must fill me with riches, so quietly I’ll never notice.

            The next day I brought home a woman in camouflage. She looked just like me and talked just like me, and that night while I pretended to sleep she made love to my lover. I thought I’d accomplished my mission, but as soon as she left, he said: I knew she wasn’t you. I knew by the way she kissed.

           I tried new things but nothing eluded him: Shoes like his old ones, scuffed in the same places; keepsakes from his mother; books he’d already read. He recognized everything and threw it away.

            One rainy afternoon when I couldn’t think of anything else to give him, I went to an elegant bar, the kind with leather chairs and soft lights. I ordered chilled white wine, and suddenly, without guile, the bartender smiled at me. That night while my lover slept next to us, we made love, and the next morning he hung up his clothes in my lover’s closet. Soon he moved in, walking like a cat, filling the house with books. My lover never noticed, and now at night he lies next to us, thinking that he’s the bartender. He breathes his air, dreams his dreams, and in the morning when we all wake up, he tells me that he’s happy.

Whether or not you write flash fiction, learning the skills involved in flash improves skill in  longer pieces. Notice how many novels have passages that don’t drive the narrative arc and wake readers from the fictional dream with prosaic and predictable details. These passages usually involve an unnecessary break in unity of time, place, or action: A  reductionistic flashback explaining how someone’s mother used to lock the refrigerator and he has turned into a compulsive eater. Long descriptions of driving an old Prius to the other side of town. Explaining that someone had tea, vacuumed and took a nap before it was later the same day. Flash trains you to trust your voice, veer from conventional templates and get to the chase.   Its emphasis on voice allows writers to access a vibrational tone, a music, that conveys though the use of voice as an instrument–one that is visceral and  kinesthetic.. Fiction writers do a great deal of cerebral and analytic thinking–far more than people realize.  But flash reminds us again and again, that fiction is not the same as linear thinking.  And that voice is a kind of music.

 Here’s a Short Reading List–with apologies to flash writers I’ve omitted.

Flash Fiction edited by James Thomas  and numerous other anthologies by  James Thomas that you can find on Amazon or in your local bookstore. (Among them: Flash Fiction International and Flash Fiction Forward..)  Once more, James Thomas deserves special mention:  By giving “flash fiction” a name, he brought the form into literary consciousness.

Break it Down Lydia Davis

Parables and Paradoxes Franz Kafka

Wouldn’t You Like to Know? Pam Painter

Damn Sure Right by Meg Pokrass

Fissures: 100-word stories,  Grant Faulkner

We the Animals Justin Torres

Complete Works and Other Stories Augusto Monterroso

Selections from Finding Your Writer’s Voice, Frank, St. Martins Press

The House on Mango Street–Sandra Cisneros

The Meat and Spirit Plan: Selah Saterstrom

Palm of the Hand Stories Yasunari Kawabata

The Pillow Book Sei Shonogan

Comics by Lynda Barry. Although they combine art, they are wonderful examples of vernacular, short fiction, done with extraordinary economy.

American Born Chinese Gene Yang  (the first graphic novel to be nominated for an American Book Award. (Full disclosure: Gene was my student in an Honors English undergraduate class at UC Berkeley.  He just won a MacArthur, said almost not a word in class, and never went to an MFA program.)

Enchantment by Thaisa Frank  (selections–interspersed with short fiction)

Prose Poems by Frances Lefkowitz http://www.franceslefkowitz.net/fiction-essays

Platero and I Juan Ramon Jimenez

Silk Allesandro Baricco

Faces and Masks from Memory of Fire Trilogy (Galleano—particularly helpful for non-fictional flash)

The Sisters” from The Dubliners by James Joyce; although this isn’t flash fiction, it will give you a sense of how voice and subtext create the shape and unity of the story and are far more important than plot.

Velvet Flash

In addition to phone calls and letters, its time for writers to have a velvet revolution.  I’m creating a webpage called Velvet Flash where anyone can post flash fiction. Aside from a 500-word limit, the only requirements are use of the imagination– one the most radical of freedoms—which means a limit on hatespeakweaponized fear and gratuitous violence.  It can be fabulist, surreal, or realist. Nothing needs to be directly political.You can write 100-word stories about secret acts of defiance. Or a confession from one of DTs ties. It can be about imaginary meetings between you and the government. Confessions from imaginary government officials. Spies with secret powers. Strange protests.

 

200px-L.N.Tolstoy_Prokudin-GorskyWriting shapes our thoughts, our ability to see things freshly and  this fiction helps shapes our perceptions of the rest of the world.  Generally novels do the shaping.  Now and then flash or a short story (think of The Lottery) is powerful.  It also works for writers writing long pieces and feeling stymied during a troubled time. Flash can occur iduring a break, in a blank moment in front of the computer, washing dishes.  Writing it will remind you that you can indeed write! If you’re interested, please send your piece with a thumbnail photo to fictionsofresh@gmail.com.

​The website Velvet Flash will be up in about two weeks.
 
An important note:​This project isn’t meant to be a panacea to the horrifying  results of the election.

There are also so many other things to do For example, in addition to calling your congressmen, there is an ongoing list on Jezebel of organizations that need support.  I also read into the following article on Vox  about the best way to talk to racially biased or LGTB– biased people. It was quite enlightening for me.

 The Grotto, where I belong, is in the midst of having long discussions about writing to influence both people and the media. I

Above all:

in addition to activism now, it will be very important to keep 
constant pressure on the press.  No matter what people say about
who will run the government, there will be surprises and shocks and
justification for horrifying programs and actions.   The press
normalizes such things–as they did with G.W. Bush.   It would be great
to be on the alert, and write collective letters to all the major newspapers.
It would also be great to arrange to have some of them published, as
the Authors Guild did with Amazon.   It would involve raising money
in a Kickstarter program and being ready to spring into action with a
letter.
So there’s a lot of work to be done on  a concrete level  and Velvet Flash is just reminder that writing itself is a radical act.  And flash is just one way to remind writers of their power.

From Anecdote to Story: Turning Life into Literature

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Note:  Because so many first attempts at fiction start out with stories from the past and from family, I have made the conventions of family life a touchstone for discovering freedom as a writer.  But everything I’m saying here applies to all fiction—and to all vague ideas for stories that strive for a universal component that will reach people outside of the sensibility of the writer.

*********

I bring you some water lost in your memory

 follow me to the spring and find its secret.

Patrice de la Tour Du Pin

One fall day when I was about thirteen, a neighbor who belonged to the Ladies Christian Temperance Union appeared at the door of our apartment. She was dressed in a navy-blue suit, wore a pill-box hat, and carried a large white envelope that bore the slogan Better government through faith. My mother, in her perennial green housecoat, smoked a cigarette and finished the remains of a sandwich. She put her plate over a copy of _The Nation_ on the coffee table.

The neighbor walked inside, looked around our small apartment. “I have a favor to ask,” she said, waving the white manila envelope at my mother. “Could your husband possibly drop this off at his office? It’s for the community.” My mother was a rabid atheist as well as a Marxist. When I begged to go to Unitarian Sunday school, she always bellowed: “Religion is sheer crap! The opiate of the people!” Now she took the pamphlet, smiled at the neighbor, then looked at me menacingly and pulled her skin below her left eye. This was my mother’s idea of a secret family signal. Sometimes it meant this person is peculiar. This time it meant shut up.

Later that year, I was assigned an essay called “The Most Amazing Epiphany of My Life.” “Without a doubt,” I wrote, “the most amazing epiphany of my life occurred when my mother turned into a toady for the Ladies Christian Temperance Union.” The mother of Tobias and Geoffrey Wolff, once said, quite wisely: “If I’d known my kids were going to be writers, I would have given them a very different childhood.” My mother, who had less perspective, found my essay and tore it into shreds. “Don’t you evah,” she said, in her most theatrical voice “write anything about us again! We are your family!”

It’s not an accident that I learned about the dangers of truth-telling in a family setting. Families are tight survival units, and have explicit and implicit rules about what can be told—both inside the family and outside. The injunction not to break these taboos evokes tribal culture when families can be murdered for breaking norms. Not all taboos are there for the writer to break publicly. Some may need to be respected. But the writer’s workroom should be a place that’s safe where taboos are broken.

Without a doubt watching my mother tear up my essay terrified me. But there was also another reason I stopped writing from personal experience, and this was because what I wrote seemed too easy: Revealing my mother’s hypocrisy was a delicious form of revenge; but it stayed within the form of an anecdote.

What I sensed, but couldn’t put into words, was that there was a difference between an anecdote and a story. When you relate an anecdote, you’re a found character and this creates an automatic tension between the “I” who is telling the story and the “I” who is in the story. Furthermore, most things that happen to people become “just so” stories on paper. They don’t transform, twist, or bend. Nor do they seem universal but are particular to the people in the anecdote. This is why so many stories that are verbally entertaining or deeply moving fall flat through the paper. It’s also why people buy ghostwritten biographies of celebrities: We’re already curious about the character. The promise of revealing secrets has enough universal appeal to create the sense of a narrative arc because going from knowing less to (supposedly) knowing more can feel like a delicious journey.

No Surprise for the Writer, No Surprise for the Reader

 I began to learn about turning anecdotes into stories fifteen years later when my first collection was being published. Most of the stories had elements of surrealism. But there were two stories based on my family that the editor discovered and loved.

Although I can tell shocking things about my childhood and love being outrageous, I’ve always shied away from writing about my life. In addition, the voice and content of these two stories didn’t fit with the rest of the book. I wanted to take them out, my editor wanted to keep them, and we argued endlessly. I lost the argument—but with a compromise: I would write a novella about my childhood as a separate part of the book. This would create a sense of balance and distinguish between the two voices.

When I began the novella, I was always surprised because even though the stories were faithful to the facts there were always few elements that were a slight deviation from what I remembered. I didn’t know where they came from but I always knew they belonged. In every case, I discovered they contained a crucial truth. And after I had written the book, I felt that I’d lived a slightly different childhood precisely because of these surprises.  (In a sense, the failure of the intended story guaranteed the success of the final story.)  (See Yuri Zalkow’s innovative rendition of this idea, after he interviewed me for The Rumpus http://yuvizalkow.com/videos/scribble3/)

There was one story, however, that I couldn’t write and had to write because it was crucial to the sequence. It was a story I’d told to several people—in the way I told outrageous stories about my family. I knew the events, but couldn’t make it a story.

The anecdote is as follows: When my father got a job in another part of the country, we set off in our car at nine at night against the advice of friends, who offered places to stay. My mother believed we would stop at a luxury hotel and didn’t seem to notice when we drove right by it. Eventually it was one in the morning and all the motels were filled.

After we left a town with apocalyptic smoke from a steel mill, my mother realized we hadn’t stopped at the luxury hotel and began to scream at my father. At one point she opened the car door and threatened to jump out. Chaos ensued.

I knew the sequence of events. But I couldn’t feel any tension or universal resonance until one day I heard the following sentence: My mother shouted that she was really leaving and opened the door so wide I could see the whole Midwest—far too real for the likes of us.

As soon as I heard this, I knew I had my story. At the time this was an intuitive understanding. A few years later, I understood why: My feeling about the Midwest being too real for all of us transformed my mother’s actions from something that was purely violent into a collective sense of being trapped as a family.  We were trapped together and also trapped because we had a sense of not being able to function in the real world.

In order to turn an anecdote into a story one must find the hidden story that runs beneath events like an underground river and eventually gushes up.   It’s this collision that creates a story that has universal resonance. Not every one has a histrionic family or mothers who try to jump out of cars. But every one has seen someone we’re close to lose it, and our feelings are usually a mixture of resentment and compassion, although we may not be aware of the compassion at the time. It can also have an element of identification that we’re not aware of.

An anecdote doesn’t need a hidden story to create tension. Your telling it is the tension. But if something on paper doesn’t have a hidden story, it won’t find tension or an arc.

Triggering and Generative Elements

The poet, Richard Hugo, wrote about the difference between

Triggering and generative elements in writing. Triggering elements are catalysts for stories and poems, but unless they generate new material, the piece won’t get off the ground. One might say that the anecdote never needs to go beyond the triggering element of memory to find a generative element that can reach all readers. This is because it’s an oral narrative. But to leap from the personal to the universal–i.e. to get your story on the page– you must be willing to let the triggering material generate. This means being willing to improvise, invent, and even omit cherished scenes. If you’re willing to do this, your story will be a slightly different story from the story you thought you were going to write. And if the generative material goes far enough, you’ll leap from writing about what is meaningful only to you to something that reaches a stranger.  You will also discover something about your life that you didn’t know.

Learning to turn anecdotes into stories isn’t a sure-fire formula for dealing with writing about family secrets. Even if you write a good story, there are times when you decide not to publish for the sake of someone else’s feelings. These are personal decisions every writer must make.

But when you ‘re writing drafts based on real events, you must feel free to write whatever you want to write and experiment with invention as well as ruthlessness. Otherwise, your writing room will be full of locked closets.

Just as there’s no map for revealing family secrets, there’s no map for turning an anecdote into a story. This comes to writers through grace, serendipity, hard work, and a willingness to discover something new about themselves and people or events in our lives. It also requires a slight irreverence for facts, and a fierce belief in the regenerative powers of the imagination. As the French poet, Robert Ganzo has written:

 

 

Invent. There is no lost feast

           /At the bottom of memory.