Gina Frangello on “The Curious Alchemy of Writing”

Once he had answered “Why The Short Story?” Dennis McFadden asked us, his fellow writer-conversationalists, “How The Short Story?” (Sorry, Delp.) Gina Frangello, author of the collection Slut Lullabies, wasted no time in providing an answer.

Gina: How the short story? Dennis has posed this question to the group: Do you decide to write a story, or does a story decide to be written? This is, simply put, one of my favorite questions in the world. It’s the essential mystery of “being a writer,” isn’t it? After all, every human being alive has a story. From domestic to political, from day-in-the-life to epic, we all lead lives worthy of story, and meet other story-worthy individuals every day. Some writers craft stories almost precisely out of real experiences, whereas others are inspired (as Toni Morrison famously claimed of her novel, Beloved) by newspaper articles, or by stories told to them by friends, by a snippet of dialogue on the bus. Some writers run off to join revolutions and live grand adventures, while others toil away in the proverbial solitary attic —there is no special life one must live in order to write. There is no secret handshake involved when it comes to having “material” that could be turned into story.

Every writer has met somebody who tells him or her, “Wow, do I have a story for you—you should write this down!” or, “I’m going to write a novel someday, I’ve really had a crazy life.” And all but the most painfully introverted among us have orally told stories to our friends. In other words, again: we all have material, and we are all to some degree conscious of it, and we all employ “story” in our daily lives.

Why, then, do some people become writers, whereas the vast majority of the human race does not?

This question fascinates me. It is no more fascinating, of course, than why some young children compose music, or why some people are driven to drizzle paint on a canvas in a brand new way. The impulse to create art is profoundly human, even among those who are not “artists” per se. We knit sweaters, we tend gardens, we decorate our homes, we keep diaries, we sing in our showers. Yet most people engage in these pursuits within the perimeters of their larger lives without ever crossing that invisible threshold—that crazy, heady, at times masochistic threshold—of devoting their lives to their art.

Writing (most art, for that matter) pays poorly. It requires the ability to seriously delay gratification: some novels or stories take years to write; one could build a house from the ground up in less time. It is one of the few professions (again, along with other arts) for which you can go to graduate school and even obtain a PhD with little to no certainty that you will ever be able to earn a living or even get a job in your chosen field. One of the most commonly given piece of advice to so-called aspiring writers is this: If you can do anything else, do it. This is a shitty bet. If you can imagine your life without this in it, then be glad and go home.

Do we write the story or does the story write us?

As I see it, there is the practical answer to this question (Ah, yes, of course the writer writes the story!) and then there is the answer I have lived.

The writer’s stories are no different than anyone else’s stories, in terms of a life lived. But the writer is, quite simply, one obsessed. The story demands to be poured out, to get itself onto the page. It will not rest. Characters speak to us in our cars. We turn on the radio and songs remind us of them—of these people who do not even exist! We go into a store and see a saleswoman who looks like our protagonist’s estranged sister; we browse through a rack of dresses and see the exact dress our heroine was wearing to a party that never took place. We want to call our pretend people on the phone; sometimes we want to have sex with them. Lines recur in our brains, not letting us rest until we write them down. Images haunt us. Here is one: two tall, thin men who were at one time antagonists to one another, embrace in the dimly lit hospital corridor, as seen from the half-open door of one of the hospital rooms . . .

Who are these men? Why are they holding one another that way when they never liked each other before? Who is watching them? Why does the hospital not look like any hospital I’ve been inside, like it belongs in another country? The image keeps playing in my head until I begin to work it out. Perhaps I already “know” the characters involved, and simply didn’t know I knew them. Maybe one has already been in a novel of mine, and another is in a novel I mean to write but haven’t started yet, and the third is a mystery. Perhaps this scene takes place at the very end of a novel that will be 400 pages long, and the image will become the goal I am writing towards. At a certain point, it will become clear that the hospital is in Morocco, though my characters do not live there. And then—the curious alchemy of writing being what it is—when we all arrive together, my characters and I, surprise: one of the men will have changed. He will be another character entirely than the one I thought he would be. How has he gotten here? How did he become more important, more crucial to this scene, this ending, the woman in the hospital bed who watches the embrace, than the man I thought would be in his place?

Writers are not the only people who have ever been in a hospital. We are not the only people who have lost friends and family; we are not the only travelers. We are—in fact—not the only ones who make up invented scenarios in our heads. All children play make-believe; all adults spend sleepless nights ruminating on what they “should have said” and play scenarios out in their heads.

We are the ones who write things down. Why would we do such a thing? Well. We write them down because we must.

There is no story without its writer, hence to say a story “writes itself” would be a literal fallacy, even if it rings emotionally true to many of us. But likewise “to write” is, for the serious writer, often not a rational, practical or well-thought-out choice.

Ah, but I am supposed to be talking about the Short Story. I realize more and more as I move through these questions that the length of the piece is less looming for me than it is for some writers. I feel I am falling down on the task of defining “how the short story” as opposed to “how the novel.” If this is so, however, I think it is only because the hows are not radically different for me. Both begin with a similar kernel of obsession. Both must be able to sustain that obsession to be more than a fragment or a whim, but to become complete.

What, though, are the differences in the forms and how I write them?

Well, for starters, short fiction is a trickier paradox. The writing is even more “channeled” through the writer—even more intuitive, obsessive and raw because it remains fresh, is not stretched out over years but rather over a few days or weeks—and yet because of the length the writer is permitted fewer digressions, fewer missteps, wherein every word must be crucial and resonant. This would seem hard to swing when the story is writing you! But perhaps the reverse is true. All work—novels or stories—will be revised and edited by the writer once the first draft is complete, and I’ve often found that the stories that simply pour out in one or two sittings require surprisingly less editing than those that I really pondered meticulously over a long stretch of time.

Short stories write themselves far more than novels can. Many of my published stories (including “How to Marry a WASP,” which was mentioned in Vanessa’s earlier post, and which is more than 30 pages long) have been written in a single sitting. Often they begin with a single idea, image, character, line, and I simply write from there until they are “done.” By the end, I am absurdly, probably comically, wrecked. My short stories seldom involve any outline or pre-writing. My novels, on the other hand, are far more crafted. The ideas or characters that inspire them may take months to germinate, and often I write sample scenes before really sitting down to formally begin. By the end of a novel, I invariably have an “outline” I’m working from, based on ideas I’ve already have that I am now writing towards, and while the outline is flexible and often changes, I have never had an outline at play in crafting any short fiction.

And so if one were to make the case—as I seem to be doing—that stories are written because they demand to be, and that something in the writer’s psyche or brain (as opposed to in his/her life) is wired differently than that of non-writers, then this may be even more true of the short story than of novels. Short stories are even more intuitive, more subconscious or id-based in terms of the imaginative realm. This may be one reason they are so damn hard to write, in addition to the fact that they don’t allow for many missteps before the reader tosses them aside. Written short stories, one might say, require a certain type of brain as their conduit in order to emerge.

This may be why, even though they only take a week or so to write, most writers don’t write nearly as many of them as such a timeline would seem to imply. If I write 6 new stories in a year, that’s a productive year without question. Yet it seldom takes me more than a week to write one. Wouldn’t this indicate that I should be writing 30 or 40 annually? (Or at least that I should have done before I had kids and two editing jobs?) Yet the thought seems impossible! To be the conduit for a short story requires the writer to deeply enter a space highly specific to that story. Whereas in a novel, we may inhabit that space for four or five years—learn to live “around” it so as to go on with our real daily lives—with short fiction we inhabit it all at once, intensely, fully, before exiting confused and (often) a little bereft . . . already missing it before even having realized we were there.

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