Sunday, March 13, 2011

Writing on psychic paper

I've been thinking a lot about the way stories work. This sounds like it's maybe a new area of thought for me, but it isn't - I'm a writer, whose other professional training is in literary analysis. I think about the way stories work pretty much all the time. 

But this semester, I'm supervising an independent study that's a "Writers on Writing" sort of course, for a student who writes. So not only have I been thinking about the way stories work, but I've had to articulate all the man-behind-the-curtain bits. 

Then yesterday, a writer friend of mine was kind enough to drop me an email, saying some nice things about a couple of my stories. In doing so, he described them in a way I had never consciously thought about them, though once I saw the description, I knew it was true.

There are always going to be things we don't see in our own work. No story is complete until someone reads it. Every story is different for every reader, and perhaps every time it is read.

I mean, I know things about my work: Most of my short stories fall in the 1600-1900 word range. I'm fascinated with dreams and death, blood and bone, darkness and saints. I tend to write things that are heavily allusive, and full of women who are broken, and putting themselves back together. My first instinct is to name all of these women either Viola or Jehanne. I overuse the words roil, rife, and skittering to the point where I run a search for them at the end of each draft, and take most back out. If I have been watching Doctor Who, all of the awesome things are described as being "bigger on the inside." "Bored now" is my favorite line from Buffy, and if I used it as much as I wanted to, it would also be a description of how the person reading my story would feel about its dialogue.

Maybe that seems like a lot of things to know. But every time I get drafts back from beta readers, they tell me things I didn't know were there. I'm glad of that mystery, of that lack of knowledge. Because I think it's there - in the space between tale and teller, in the space between the reader and the story, that things happen. That space is where the magic of the story lives. 

And that's why I don't ever want to fully see the writer behind the curtain, or to pluck out the heart of my own mystery. Because as much as I understand stories, I still want them to be magic.


  1. I think this left me kind of speechless. Your blogs often do, honestly. I like the magic and the mystery, too. I like having a reader tell me something that I didn't recognize or see myself. Stories are a collaborative effort between writer and reader. The words that are there matter -- and what the reader finds, sees, and takes away? That is another layer, another meaning. It fascinates me.

    Also, whenever a song comes on Pandora, or my ipod, that I don't want to listen to -- I usually say, "Bored now," and switch the song. I caught myself doing that yesterday.

    Really great post.