Shifting the Discussion

So, yes, there is a post missing from this blog. If you’ve been here recently, you know what I’m talking about: I read a story online that seemed very similar to one of my own, and expressed my feelings about the experience. I did not think (and still don’t) that I was out of line with what I wrote. I shared my impressions and feelings and I stand by those. But, as tends to happen on the interwebs, things got a little twisted around and I don’t think the original intention of my post was clear enough.

That said, I think this has sparked some wonderful conversation and I’d love for that to keep going. So let’s shift the discussion. As many people have said, we all “borrow” from writers we admire and I’d like to keep talking about that, regardless of whether something was borrowed from me. So, how does borrowing work? When does it not work? What’s okay to “borrow” and what isn’t?

When I was teaching myself how to write stories, I would look at a story I admired and make a list of its scenes. Scene 1: Husband and wife argue about something they’re going through. Scene 2: Husband at work. Scene 3: Husband and wife having dinner. And so on. Then I would write my own story with a different plot, different characters, different language, and a different “point”, but the same kinds of scenes. Of course, none of those stories saw the light of day, but that kind of direct imitation exercise was crucial in helping me learn the rhythm and pacing of a short story.

Now when I “borrow” from other writers it’s on a much more abstracted level. Maybe I’ll learn a different kind of metaphor, or realize something new about dialogue beats. I will take the thing apart in my head and put it back together again, figuring out how it works.

There are still lots of kinds of writing that I would like to learn to do well. I would love to figure out the lyric essay and what makes it tick. I’ve never really nailed the “250 words and under” arena of short-short story writing. What about you all? How do you learn a new genre of writing?

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5 Comments on “Shifting the Discussion

  1. How you trained yourself to look for structure within a piece, charting the different “movements” of stories, strikes me as very wise. I’ve heard people advise students to type out word-for-word stories that they particularly admire as being another good technique for learning how stories work. I wish I had the patience for that!

    Mostly though, just consciously working at areas we’re weak in helps. I’ve never been very good at flash fiction (which I’d define as anything less than 1,000 words). Last year, a friend invited me to join a flash fic writing group. That’s helped. Lately, I’ve been forcing myself to write “realistic” short stories. That, my friend, has been really hard for me. I’ve been reading tons of them, hoping to pick it via osmosis, but I don’t think it’s doing me much good.

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    • Never underestimate the power of osmosis! I actually think “realistic” stories are some of the hardest to write. You have to work harder to keep your reader from challenging, “What’s the point?” If one’s speculative pieces lack depth, at least the reader still got to be entertained for a while with all the weirdness, right?

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  2. So this is such a rich topic and one that I think needs to be discussed more often. I remember someone saying that ideas are like butterflies. They take to the air at the same time and are likely to land on more than one person. I was so happy to hear this because every time I came up with what I thought was a pretty original idea, I’d go to a movie or turn on the TV and boom, there is was. This occurrence almost caused me to give up more than once thinking I didn’t have an original idea in my head and never would. Then somehow–can’t remember all the evidence–but I figured out that originality is in the details.

    That’s why it’s so important to write a piece with specific details, details you’ve seen yourself or imagined for yourself. That’s why “first thoughts” should sometimes be rethought. It’s why you rewrite, hone, and focus around a specific scenario, specific unique characters, on the look out always for things that work opposite each other.

    But with that in mind, writers still need to look at other people’s work, study the structure, see the path someone else has taken. We have to read enough to know in our gut what is “common” and what is “extraordinary.” We all recognize extraordinary when we read it, and we don’t always see “common” in our own work. This is an awareness that comes with working at it.

    I like to deconstruct the work of others. One of the most influential pieces for me was Julie Orringer’s Pilgrims. Not only did I list the scenes (and there are a lot of them), but I tried to identify what each scene accomplished, what were the segments of each scene’s arc, and how did she use language to underline each scene. I did the same thing with “Harvest” by Amy Hempel (shorter thank goodness). I agree with you, Aubrey and Nick, that this is an excellent way to learn the craft. Artists sit in front of masterpieces all the time and try hard to copy them in an effort to recreate the original artists’ impulses at a cellular level. I totally love that.

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    • I like your butterfly analogy. It makes sense that if we’re all experiencing and responding to the same culture, many of us will be writing about similar things in similar but unique ways.

      “Pilgrims” is such an excellent story–definitely my favorite from Breathing Unde water. But it also reminds me (arc-wise) of a late Carver story, “Vandals.” Carver writes from the adults’ POV, whereas Orringer from the children’s POV. They are in no way alike in terms of plot, but they explore the same underlying situation (of a party where adults carry on indoors, oblivious to the tragedy that children are witnessing/experiencing outside)

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      • I like that, too, and I think you’re right. The list of stories that taught me how to write is long, very very long. That’s some of what I’m hoping to do with this space: talk about the things I’ve learned and how I’ve learned them and where I learned them from. Maybe it can act as a bit of a short cut for someone else. I also love hearing about how other writers overcame problems they saw happening in their own work. Thanks for sharing, Gay!

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