Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Trying Something New

Yesterday, I wrote a new story. It had no guns, no light-saber-wielding hobbits, not even a time traveler. It started with a girl in a coffee shop and went on from there. I've never written about an ordinary person in an ordinary world sitting in a coffee shop - I didn't know what to expect. But then, who is ever truly ordinary? Can any human being be considered reliably normal?

The impetus for this story came from my MFA thesis advisor. I met her for the first time yesterday during our department orientation. As we all sat around the table - eight fiction writers, two of them faculty - we talked about what it meant to be in an MFA program. And my thesis advisor recommended that as we work through the next two years, we should each try to generate new work. We should be experimenting with new ideas, developing stories which may not succeed. As she said, a spectacular failure is better than always turning in "perfect" work.

Last night, I started with a girl in a coffee shop. Then her parents appeared. Then friends of hers outside. Someone had a prosthetic arm, others were playing Scrabble. I didn't know where any of it was going, but there were no laser cannons. No solar flares, no end of the world, no entropic heat death of the universe. I left out the standard plot drivers of speculative fiction (which I'm good at) and went with writing about the kind of people you might find on the street (which I'm not so good at).

Honestly, I was surprised. I ended up writing a story about an anorexic who is oppressed by her well-intentioned parents. Did I know I would write about this? Nope. Never would have predicted it. If I had predicted it, the story would have fallen flat. It would have been a diatribe about college and repression and the injustice of living. Maybe it still is. But I didn't know I was writing about those things until they happened. I didn't try fitting the story to any of the molds I'm accustomed to, and yet I ended up touching on themes that I've always wanted to write about. It even has a modicum of racial tension, something I've never had the courage to write about directly.

So is it good? I think so. The story works. It has a beginning, a middle, and an end. The characted changes, somewhat, over time. We have conflict. It takes on a side of life I understand strangely well, but haven't really written about, this drive to see students perform academically at all costs. More importantly, though, the story is unique. It pushes my writing into uncharted territory. I've proven to myself that I can craft a plot without resorting to the deux ex machina of overwhelming speculation.

This, I think, is critical for good writing. The reason that many stories in speculative genres like fantasy and science fiction fall apart is the lack of character-driven plot. A story is nothing without character - as human beings, we want to read the stories of other human beings. We want to understand our fellow travelers on this blue Earth. But when that Earth is about to be devoured by hungry nanomachines from Andromeda, we all know what the protagonist will (must!) do - save the Earth. And many speculative writers, unfortunately, fail to create characters who are nuanced enough to save the Earth in a "human" manner. We humans never simply solve a problem - we try to make the problem work for us. We try to make our lives fulfilling and secure. But when that asteroid is coming in and the atmosphere is boiling away, it's easy to ignore this. Sure, astronaut dude is saving the planet, but what about his wife and his kids and his parents and that roommate he had in college who still hates him for making the astronaut corps? The Earth's about to be crushed, man. We don't have no time to think about no hateful roommates.

This is why I'm so happy with my story from last night. I want to write science fiction - good science fiction. Character-driven science fiction. But in writing stories with themes from out-there, you have to first learn how to write the people down here. And I don't mean write about them - I mean write them into your stories, write them as people, write their lives as if they could happen. And as we strip away the trappings of speculation, as we get down to the bare bones of what makes these protagonists as real as people, we discover the personal plots that make our lives and our stories truly come alive.

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Anonymous said...

I've experienced the same thing. Prior to taking a creative writing workshop focused on Contemporary American short stories, I'd mostly written speculative fiction.

It was a little disconcerting trying to write "normal" stuff, but once I started writing, I ended up with a very human piece, and it's one of my favorites so far.

There's something refreshing about writing outside your comfort zone.

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