On the Dangers of Craft
I recently wrote a short story that failed. To write those words down on the page is clearly not an easy thing to do. No one likes to fail, especially a woman like me, who believes the work I do defines who and what I am, my place in the flotsam of life. And in contemporary America where success is defined by how famous you are, how much money you earn, by the number of books you have published, the awards won, even the name of your publisher or agent, it's hard to admit failure at all.
The story shouldn't have failed, which is just one of the many reasons why writing is so hard. The theme, which focuses on the hypocrisy of religion in America, is significantly complex. The protagonist, a precocious nine-year-old black girl from Boston who is taken under the wing of four white born-again Christians, is smart and likeable. And her four foils, each of whom I tried to develop as individuals instead of as one collective antagonist, infuse the story with both humor and simmering resentment. I worked on the story on and off again for more than eighteen months, going over each line, honing each word with precision like a dentist drilling away at decay, applied apt metaphors and employed fresh language, used repetition and rhythm in spare, appropriate ways. I relied, that is, on craft.
Part of the problem began when I realized that I had grown bored of writing the same characters whom I had success with in the past. White women in their 20s or 30s, well-educated, middle-class, perhaps with just a trace of ethnicity, women not unlike myself, struggling with feeling isolated or cut off, working to make sense of themselves in this post-feminist world where choice abounds, yet where so many of us still remain desperately unhappy, longing for some unnamed fulfillment. I liked these women, knew them very well, worked hard to protect them, nurtured their neuroses and eccentricities, celebrated when at the end of each story, they made some small step towards self-awareness, or happiness, or freedom. These were characters that helped me publish my first two-dozen short stories, who dogged and followed me into my recently issued memoir. But I felt it was time to let them go, to create a character completely different from myself, to write that breakout story, the one that would herald me as a fresh, new talent, a latter day Flannery O'Connor who could write of prejudiced old ladies in purple and green hats and murderer misfits with equal enmity and compassion.
But you say, that is ridiculous--time or critics or readers decide whether or not you are good or new or fresh. It's not up to you, and such thoughts therefore are taboo, something you have no right to be messing with. Instead, you should applaud yourself for taking a risk, for trying to take yourself to the next level. But you say, that is foolish, to place so much pressure on one short story, one idea.
Yes, it is. Yet for those of us who are plagued by self-doubt, who subsist on bravado rather than true courage, who still care too much about what others might think or say, such pressure bubbles and boils within us, until without warning, it rises up like a flood, casting us adrift in swift waters, drowning the more creative self, and leaving only judgment and silence in its wake.
For as I read the story over and over again, fine-tuning a particular sentence, niggling over each individual word, adding yet one more joke, clutching to craft as the shipwrecked sailor clutches for a jagged rock or stray branch as she is swept down the rushing river, the focus suddenly became about my survival as a writer rather than writing itself. The story was told by someone numbed by cold and fear who had been capsized out on that river for a long time, someone who was going through the motions of creation in the hopes that creation itself would take over. Abandoned on the cold bare riverbank, I kept trying to start a fire to warm me. But even burnished with color a few stray leaves will never ignite if the wood beneath them is wet through.
"Now hold on, hold on," a low buzz hums in my ear. "You can't just leave it at that comparing the craft of writing to a sailing ship. It's facile, trite, and just too damn obvious. You haven't yet earned it you need to dig deeper than that search for something richer, truer. You need a metaphor that's not been overused, comparing writing to coconuts perhaps or maybe brown mushrooms. Yes, you are a pig, a greedy pig down on the ground sniffing for truffles, your pink noisy stout roots about in the dirt, tossing aside words like dried up weeds, searching out the few choice treats, those sweet fragile morsels that dissolve in your mouth almost before you can grasp them.
And while I am wallowing down here in the mud, my pink pig ears alert in case some other pig enters my territory, threatening to gather up truffles more effectively than me, I must admit something else as well. It's not that I wrote a single story that failed. In point of fact, since my memoir was first accepted for publication more than two years ago, I have yet to complete anything new. I have dozens of half-started stories, essays written three-quarters through, a novel that came to an abrupt halt in chapter three.
Even before the memoir had been copy-edited, or I saw its two-tone cover, before the reviews came in, or the book tour began, the damage was done. I was now going to be a published author, something I had labored for these past fifteen years, and now that it was happening at last, I was terrified. Because now I knew just enough about craft, knew just enough about what makes narrative work, to doubt my own abilities. Because now I had to deliver. Now whatever I wrote had to be "worthy" of a published author. Now every word had to shimmer like glass, shine like fine silver, or the world would know at once that I was a fraud.
And I think that is exactly the challenge writers at mid-career face. Why perhaps eighty percent of all first-time novelists never publish a second book. We have learned just enough to realize how much further we need to go. We know just enough to respect and marvel at other writers work and wonder why we ever thought we could write as well as they, or even as well as we did last year. So we cover it up, try to bury our doubt in craft.
"It has to be right. It must be right. I will make it right," the litany in my head goes and with it goes spontaneity, freshness, challenge, all those reasons why I wanted to attempt such a story in the first place.
For months, I carried around the ending of the story, how I thought it must end, was slated to end, forcing the characters to go there even when they fought me, clamored for me to let them breathe. But I believed in the power of structure, in the power of linear narrative and was determined to put them in their place. Thus craft took me away from the organic in favor of form, in lieu of my determination that this story would be about a particular thing which I had set out to express.
Perhaps the topic of religious hypocrisy was too big for me to handle in a short story Hawthorne needed an entire novel to explore the meaning of that Scarlet A. Perhaps deep down, I really didn't know what I felt about the dangers of fundamentalism, had a visceral response, yes, but never really thought through what it meant. Certainly I put too much emphasis on my need to write something TIMELY, something IMPORTANT, a desire which in itself is deadly. All I know is that week after week as I worked on the story, moving paragraphs around, rewriting line after line, my passion for the piece, and thus the piece itself, slowly died. A sort of creeping paralysis set in. I wrote and rewrote each word, but the result was never any different, the piece never really grew legs. Yet I couldn't abandon it. This was to be my breakout story. If I couldn't do this, then of course I was an abject failure. Of course, I wouldn't be able write anything else, let alone publish anything else.
When I first began to write, I never thought about publication. Partly it was because publication was for other people, those anointed few with talent, with last names that spoke of greatness such as James or Fitzgerald, Didion or Atwood. Mostly it was because writing itself was so exciting, a chance to explore myself and other worlds at the same time that it never dawned on me that anyone but I could possibly find it of value. My head was crammed full with words, ideas, snippets of dialogue, with why one character would betray another, with how I was going to show that betrayal. I would type away in my college dormitory on my old Smith Corona typewriter, the clacking keys echoing against the white walled austerity of my room (the student next door, a pre-Med, complained to the RA how my working kept her up at night until the RA instituted a rule that I couldn't type past midnight). Then I would lay awake in bed letting the words come at me, hungering until I could break free and give it another go first thing the next morning, eschewing my 8:35 a.m. philosophy class so that I could keep writing. I never had writer's block back then, never had doubts, never seemed to be out of things to write about, to explore. I didn't know enough about the writing process, about craft, to question what I was doing. I didn't know that I was supposed to build a character over time, or that titles should reflect theme, to establish setting early on or that repetition helped hold paragraphs or ideas together.
An actress friend of mine once told me to successfully create a character we must begin as though we know nothing about the world, about acting, about craft. Yet too often we cling to craft because we have worked so very hard to learn it in the first place. We cling to craft because it is what we have been taught in our writing workshops and panel discussions and in pompous self-help books for writers. We cling to craft because in the end it will allow us -- okay, yes, I will return to that stale, apt metaphor -- to right that listing sailboat. But in my determination to make sure that my story stayed on course, I somehow forgot why I put to sea in the first place.
Here is the lesson then, the small, glorious victory I achieved by at long last completing a new work, this essay I share with you now. The key for the writer who has started realizing publication is to trick yourself into being a beginner again, to relegate craft to the background, to revision three or four, to sent it to the time-out chair, or to the locker room for a long, hot shower, so it won't corrupt that delicate, sweet moment of excitement, that first adventurous journey that must inevitably begin, "Once upon a time."
Sandi Sonnenfeld is the author of more than 30 short stories, essays and journalism pieces. Her memoir THIS IS HOW I SPEAK: THE DIARY OF A YOUNG WOMAN, which recounts her first year in the MFA program in fiction writing at the University of Washington, was published by Impassio Press in June 2002.