October 22, 2009

Alice Munro is da bomb

It was a good writing day today. I started a story early last spring as part of an online workshop (put on by American Short Fiction and the wonderful Jill Meyers) and then got stuck on it and put it aside. It began as an exercise in which we chose a paragraph from a published short story or novel and then played with it, making it our own ~ first word by word, and then sentence by sentence. I chose a paragraph from a story by Alice Munro (of course) and dove in with no preconceived notion of where I was going. This is unusual for me ~ usually I write a lot in my head before I write a line, have a title and/or a first line, and know where I’m going to end up. (People argue the merits of this approach, but whatever works, right?)

The story became, or was going to be, a story about a young man who dodged the Vietnam draft and spent the rest of his life trying to prove his bravery. I wrote a couple of pages but couldn’t get any further on it so put it aside. I went to a couple of conferences, talked to a wonderful man about conscription (Hey, Lauren), and conceived of the idea of a book of linked short stories. This story fit in that idea for a collection but not perfectly, so I played around with the initial premise until it evolved to a young man who doesn’t know he was adopted. He avoids the draft because he realizes that his military father, who he’s idolized but has never been able to please, is not really his father. It’s about his search to find out who he is.

So today’s progress was taking the three pages I had already written in the first storyline and converting it to the second storyline. Very interesting process.

On that initial paragraph, I once again went through and changed it word by word, sentence by sentence. This paragraph was not in my usual style of writing. I have a spare style, more Hemingway than Woolf, and this paragraph had lots of commas, lots of dependent and independent clauses, lots of looping structures. Mimicking this structure, putting my head into those sentences, makes me think differently and illuminates a character I don’t often inhabit. Someone who’s stuck in his own head, bound up tight and going in circles, tentative and tortured, searching, yet very articulate and nuanced. (Wait ~ some of that sounds a little like me… hehe ) It’s an amazing thing to have the very structure of the language pull you out of yourself involuntarily and shape the character you’re writing. Especially since I usually approach things top-down, from the head, and this process started deep within and worked outward. I don’t think I could work this way all the time, but every time I try something new, it furthers my grasp of craft.

And let me just say, if you’re going to attempt to mimic a master, Alice Munro is da bomb.

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