Monday, September 19, 2011

Where Am I Going, Where Have I Been?

I'm sure I'm not the first person to swipe the title from Oates' iconic short story featuring uber villain Arnold Friend.  Great story, great question, no answer when it comes to my writing.  I've blogged before about my struggle between the young adult and mainstream adult literary worlds.  I'm attending a fab conference at Rutgers next month for children's writers (scholarship to boot!) which is gently nudging me back into the young adult world.  But that's actually not what this blog is about.  Instead I'm facing an organizational issue of sorts.  I wonder if it's permissible to start at my destination and walk backwards through my story.

Am I wrapping a straight jacket around my narrative by sussing out the outcome first?  This certainly wasn't my original intention.

Normally I don't work this way at all.  I begin with a vague at best understanding of where I'm headed.  The protagonist is ironed out for sure, maybe with a few other characters sketched in.  To be honest many, many times I start with a first line and go charging off into the darkness with a foolish optimism that things will just, for lack of a better word, happen.  The story grows and thrives or dissolves on the paper.  The strong stories survive.  It's a Darwinism fiction thing, I'm fairly certain.

In the past when I've tried outlining or doping out the entire piece before plunging into the execution of it, the story feels more like drudgery than fun.  And yes, I demand that writing feel fun.  Perhaps I should treat it more like a profession, and I do work exceedingly hard when I write.  But the best and most successful stories never feel like work.  They write themselves (start to finish in a neat chronological order), which is why I'm at a loss.  This story, this idea that started out as a strange little drawing of crooked houses on a piece of scrapbooking cardboard already has an ending, and I'm racing like a madwoman to keep up.

When it first reared its ugly head, I tried to put the ending out of my mind.  For days.  And days.  My husband's been traveling (back recently, and I am tickled pink.  It may be horribly cliched, but he is indeed my other half and his presence is sorely missed) but while he was gone I often woke up and wrote in the middle of the night.  Two a.m.   Four a.m.  Once our psychotic dog's barking woke me.  Another night had an odd dream.  The next a creak in the basement unsettled me.  Regardless, I couldn't help myself and wrote the ending in the pitch black of night.  The last chapter, more accurately, wrote itself.  Vaguely fantasy, vaguely a throwback to the 80's teen movies that always satisfied me with their honest, sincere closing scenes, the ending emerged raring to go in all its unusual glory.

This should be great news, right?  I have the beginning and the end.  Isn't the middle simple, like pouring a filling into a pie and packing it in to ready it for the oven?  Not really.  I fret, now, that the story is a maze and every phrase or motion needs to definitively move the reader towards that ending.  I worry that those light moments, those quirky sidebars, aren't happening so much anymore.  Instead the narrative is a machine with a mechanically clear purpose, an assembly line chugging right along without me.

Even worse, I'm afraid the final pieces won't fit.  What if I hit the end and it doesn't make sense and suddenly the ending, which I love, won't work.  I know I could change it, but I don't want to.  (Please imagine me stomping my feet and sticking out my tongue.)  I'm a fickle writer, and I frequently ignore the advice I give my creative writing students and dig in my heels when I shouldn't.  But I love my ending.  The heroine's life is made better.  Bottom line it makes me feel good, too.  Sometimes I think we've become a ghoulish society dining on the ashes rather than building anew from them.  Without getting too deep or existential (as Cher from Clueless might say, twirling her hair and eating chips), I'd like to think whatever I write, whatever genre, will be a positive contribution to the world.  Full of sarcasm and such, but positive at the end.

I guess I ought to stop worrying and start filling in those missing pieces.  As I've said before, if my worst worries are how and what to write, I'm pretty darn lucky.    

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