I often read stories that seem very grown-up. A story may seem grown-up to me for any of a number of reasons. (A) It sounds very authentic even if the period or location is off-track such as the North Pole or the nineteenth century. It’s clear that the author has done a good deal of research and knows his or her subject very well. This author is sensitive to dress and demeanor, climate and atmosphere, and the particular effect of sunlight on trees, and is therefore able to infuse his or her writing with authenticity. (B) The story is structured brilliantly. For example, the author deftly weaves together episodes and bits of plot among which I would not normally see a connection. The author is clearly very intelligent, and isn’t content with making simple, childlike connections, such as character A falls down the stairs therefore character A is hurt, or with going from A to Z in a straight line. These authors take up the challenge to make their stories cast a longer shadow by being oblique. (C) The story has a well-conceived plot, intricate or simple. The author displays a masterful grasp of human nature, of readers and characters alike, and what needs to happen to elicit emotion. The author is able to imagine events in the extreme that are still credible and translate these into lovely language. (D) Which brings me to a fourth reason a story may seem grown-up to me– via language that is awesome one way or another. Some authors intuit dazzling metaphors and strings of words while others make you skip a beat with the plainest of sentences.
These are some, though by no means all, the ways in which stories seem grown-up to me. As I have often noted in this blog, I began writing later in life. I love my work but, like I see flaws in my kids, I see that my work could grow up a bit. For instance my characters are often born in “a town in the south of India.” Authors of variety A above would not settle for this broad of a brushstroke. I like to think, though, that there’s a hierarchy of writer’s needs according to which writing grows over time. At first the writer writes to satisfy a basic need for expression. This was true of me at least: things were obviously brewing inside me all the years I was toying with financial models. Once the basic need for expression is satisfied and the writer has cleared her system of all or most of her obsessions, cultural, childhood, or familial, the real writing can begin and her writing can grow in different directions. The writer feels able to become deeply interested in the psychology of the individual, in place, or in history. The writer does research and takes notes. The writer is less content with being direct and writes complicated, intelligent stories. Or so I like to think.
–Anu Kandikuppa, 2016 Gish Jen Fellow