May 18, 2010

Two Threads in a Story

I’ve been reminded recently of stories that have two threads running through them that seem mutually exclusive, or at least not at all related to each other. The panel at AWP for the long short story talked about it, and I read Julian Barnes’s short story “Complicity” this morning. It may be two stories running side by side (e.g., Alice Munro’s “The Albanian Virgin”) or a story and an idea (Barnes’s “Complicity”) or two characters (the story I just finished about an old man and a girl).

Setting out to try to balance two strong elements in a story is a challenge, but a very fruitful one, I think. It automatically complicates things and challenges the writer to stretch him- or herself. Often, I’ll have in the back of my mind a character in a situation but then as I’m writing a motif or theme or extended metaphor will present itself without me consciously thinking about it. I always try to work with this, especially if it arose unbidden from my subconscious because what’s buried in there is a lot smarter than I am. In fact, I have to say that this is usually how I work – I’ve got a character or a story in mind but then a theme or extended metaphor pops up.

It feels messy sometimes, though, and I have to contend with not knowing where things are going. I feel much better having things mapped out in my mind, but sometimes the best stories come when I just go with it, treading in the dark. The terror of the blank page is much greater when I do it this way. I guess I am getting better at just trusting the process, though, because it doesn’t cause me quite as much angst as it used to.

Another way to exercise this writing muscle is by opening the dictionary randomly and pointing to a word and then doing it again. I once did this and ended up with the word for a type of flowering plant and the world “adultery.” It was great fun to figure out how I could get a plant to commit adultery and to write my main character as a scientist studying these flowers.

What I’m Reading Today: More wonderful Best of Kittredge.

No comments: