Shifting Sands

Before I started writing fiction I worked as an economics consultant, and before that, I was an electronics engineer.  In none of my former occupations have I been on uncertain ground as often as I am now.  What is true is pretty much true in those fields, or at least, you can put reasonable bounds around things.  There’s a finite number of ways in which you can measure stock returns, and most people will agree on how to define these ways and what to call them.  When you learn a method of pricing an option, you can be confident that you won’t read something only weeks later that will completely overturn its authenticity.

Not so in writing.  In the last few years, I’ve had multiple blinding insights about endings, pace, and other elements of fiction – when I read an essay, for example, or study someone’s story – but my insights soon blur and disappear and are replaced by something else.  I wasn’t anticipating this. Of course I knew I was going to learn vastly different things but I was expecting to eventually nail down how to write a story: develop a theory, design a model.  I was used to pinning down concepts, harder ones, or, at least, that’s what I thought.

So how do I deal with the ambiguity in my new field? Answer: as if I’m immortal or, at least, have a hundred years to figure it out. I’m quite in awe of my own resilience, which is the word I’ll use, though I can think of more unkind ones.  At bottom is the conviction that however long it takes me to write a great story it will still be worth it.

Plot (story/structure) has always been difficult for me.  I know why.  I came to writing late, equipped with ideas for stories that I’d been carrying around, often based on my own life.  But the thing with basing stories on life, even loosely, is that one’s life is not usually inherently gripping. That’s why nice people who read my stories, including editors, often say they like this or that but it’s “slow moving.” I’m beginning to see that it’s not ignoble for a writer to structure a story to elicit certain effects.  Stories don’t have to be quite so real. I took heart from Aristotle’s opinion as stated in his “Poetics:” that “novice [writers] can master style and moral character before they can compose plot…” and, recently, began studying plot again, as if it’s an option-pricing problem.

Some writers will tell you to think of a story as a joke:  there’s got to be a punch line, they’ll say. What if you think of every story as a thriller?  You can’t miss it when the crime happens in a good thriller.  It’s dramatic.  It’s the turning point and the focus.  It’s what the story leads up to and what it jumps off from.  It’s automatic momentum.  However, someone loses something in all stories, even ones that aren’t thrillers.  Someone is acting and someone else is being acted upon.  What if I think of the loss in my stories as a “crime,” write towards it and from it?  Would that be a good way to think of structure?  I think there’s something in this – I’m only half-joking – but I’m afraid my wonderful epiphany will probably evaporate soon.

Anu Kandikuppa, 2016 Gish Jen Fellow

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