There is a certain inefficient, lengthy ritual that I perform every time I begin a new story or a major revision of one. Frustrating as it is, it will have to do until I come up with a better one or get to a point where I ditch rituals entirely. What the ritual involves is to look for a “model” in a story or other work whose voice or style or content resonates with my mood for my own story. Not that I’m trying to write like these other writers, though I do sometimes put down a sentence or two of theirs on my page – which is like trying on their clothes, I suppose – but reading them while I’m writing my story helps me write it better. This model is important. The sooner I find the right one the faster my story proceeds, sometimes with ethereal speed, to doneness which I judge for now by whether I still like it after a month. For instance there’s a story I worked on last year that I’m still happy with and I think this is in part because I found the right seed for it in the sad, mad, idiosyncratic rant, “Jealous Husband Returns in Form of Parrot” (by Robert Olen Butler – how I love this story).
More often, though, I shift frustratingly from model to model. I recently drove myself crazy with a revision I was working on, and I’m exaggerating only a little when I say this. I’d begun by looking at Kirstin Valdez Quade’s story “Nemecia:” what I like about this story is how much like a story it is, no tricks with form or style, proper beginning, middle, and end, lovely language and high emotion. Why don’t I just write a story? I thought. Then I looked at some Alice Munro and was struck again by the complexity of her fiction, so brilliant I don’t always get all the ins and outs of it. (I consider myself only a middling reader of other people’s stories – I know good stuff when I read it but I can’t always say precisely why it’s good.) Then I studied “The Disappearance of Luisa Porto,” a brooding story by Frances de Pontes Peebles set in Brazil. Perhaps I should emulate, I thought, how the author works in ethnic details with such ease and abundance that reading the story makes me feel as if I’m strolling down the ethnic aisle of a grocery story surrounded by exotic, beguiling words on highly colored packaging. From Luisa Porto I jumped unexpectedly to my old love, Thomas Bernhard’s Woodcutters. What a book, one that gives conventional narrative the royal boot. (I’ve always had a fight with conventional narrative but in the end I’ll probably succumb because I’m not Bernhard.) Along the way I looked at other favorites, Akhil Sharma (deadpan humor), Elisabeth Harrower’s story “Alice,” etc., etc.
So I went on for a month at the end of which a point came—it usually does—when I felt I could go on with my own story, having settled—tentatively—on an approach that didn’t look like any one thing I’d been reading but probably had a bit of all of them in it. My process is frustrating. But having done this a few times I see some advantages to it. It forces me to look again at the work of writers I love and think about what I love about them. It helps me get a better sense of where my approach lies in the spectra of style and content. It helps me feel less as if I’m writing in a vacuum and more as if I’m writing to fill a gap. I suspect and hope though that one day I’ll just sit down and write to my own model.
-Anu Kandikuppa, 2016 Gish Jen Fellow