After a week of digging my feet in to finish a couple books to make room for Peter Straub’s new novel A Dark Matter (If you must know, they were Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves, Michelle Belanger’s Psychic Vampire Codex, and Ted Dekker’s Sinner), I finally got back to work in the writing world. I opened up my laptop at the campus library and considered working further on a short story that had only half manifested on paper but had enough in my mind to plow ahead, my recent novel in which I’m currently facing a block that I’ve been avoiding, or an older novel that turned me off in the third draft of revision that’s now raising its sleeping head and looking around like a dog after a long winter nap.
Digging Up Meaning
I went with the short story and pounded away at the last eight pages or so. The story came to me while laying in bed trying to fall asleep one night – it’s a brief tale, more or less about a college kid who’s very bothered by something very frightening while trying to fall asleep at night, and what this would look like after a one night stand.
What I’ve often learned from poetry and, more recently, short stories, is that you can find an abundance of meaning and humanity by carefully crafting and studying a single event. By watching the water drop fall from the leaf, what can we gain? Is there a beautiful image there? Can we gather something from it? Is this analogous? In describing this motion, is there a comparison made that adds an insight into something else? Something more personal or human? Something beyond us?
That’s what I do in much of my short story writing. I take a situation and I study it, I look at a moment or two (or three or four, depending on the situation and length of the story, how the situation continues to play out, if that adds more insight, depth, or meaning) and see in my description and treatment, if there isn’t something else there too.
In this way, I can write many short stories without knowing what they’re necessarily getting at, which is a very magical experience – perhaps more so even than reading – which allows me to truly listen and pay careful attention to the world in order to glean a careful drop of meaning. The discovery of which is very much a part of the writing and feels from somewhere beyond myself, making the artistic process an almost supernatural one, where I, the writer, act as a medium for something more.
In today’s instance, working my most recent short, in which a main part of the story is in its more graphic sexual nature and what immediately follows, I studied that in contrast with this deep rooted fear of this very deep, dark presence, and how the two counteracted and compared. What comfort the one night stand was able to provide, and where it failed. The similarities between symbols of comfort within sex and symbols of violence –
How did it turn out? I’m still not quite sure. It’s an even harder position to be in, to see how your story ends but are still unsure as to the meaning. How to craft the final few sentences to add a satisfying punch, one not too sweet or too forced, something with meaning but a hint of question, a thought-provoking finish that tries to show but not tell. I don’t mind that the story’s meaning isn’t clear to even me, it can mean that different readers will be able to interpret it very personally as often as it means that the true work of the piece has not yet been crafted as well as it could. Determining which is part of the revision process.
Did I find an elegant final phrasing today for the story? I believe I did. In tricky situations like this, I take the piece and I save it and I put it in a folder and I look at it a couple days or weeks later. Sometimes I’ll pass it along to a trusted friend or a critical eye and see what meaning we can dig up as readers, to see if the piece reflects the meaning to the best of its ability. Then I’ll make the necessary corrections and adjustments until I’m satisfied that it smoothly does its job, and call it done.