In honor of my sister Grace, I am imposing a set of weekly challenges on myself. For 12 weeks, I will attempt a different “challenge” each week–to do one thing every day for seven days, ranging from serious to silly. At the end of each week, I’ll let you know how it goes.
Week 6: Writing and Editing Stories
Deep down, every journalism and English major just wants to be the next great American novelist. Journalism is a particularly helpful disguise for this rosy ambition, because it at least carries with it some tinge of respectability (although perhaps not anymore). You get a job as some underpaid slave to the newspaper industry, staying up till ungodly hours just to finish that paragraph-long story about city council that won’t even have your byline on it, and for what? For fulfilling the dream of someday writing your masterpiece and making it big.
I walked away from my university with a degree in journalism and English, so I guess I’m guilty as charged. I’ve loved words since I was practically a baby; according to my mother, I apparently taught myself to read when I was 3 (although I might have just been memorizing those Lady and the Tramp books). I remember my grandmother asking me when I was 6 what I was going to be when I grew up. I stood at the top of the staircase and shouted, “A WRITER!”
Today, however, I don’t think I’d call myself a writer. I am a zealous reader and work currently as a copy editor/publications assistant, but I’m not really a writer. I don’t believe that I ever could be a novelist, much less a great one, and so I half-heartedly start dozens of these short stories and then abandon them after I get discouraged. I squirrel them away on my laptop and don’t show anyone, ever. (Especially not my brilliant husband, who IS a professional writer and a very gifted one at that.) These stories that litter my hard drive feel like my shameful indulgences.
However. Thanks to encouragement from a few blind, loving souls (Guion, Angela, and Emily), I decided that my challenge for this week would be to give those stories some much-needed attention. I have no starry expectations for them. I still don’t plan on sharing them with anyone. But, for me, a large part of the joy of writing is finishing. I haven’t finished a story in forever. So, I think it’s about time.
A Fake Writer’s Diary
DAY 1. As we were cleaning up dinner, I asked Guion what he did when he hit a wall. He shared some advice from his sage professor, short story writer and affirmed genius, Deborah Eisenberg. Eisenberg says that when she’s trying to get to know a character better, she will write little adjacent stories that describe something that happened to that character. The little story never makes it into the larger work, but it is an important effort in getting to know the people that live in her pages. Tonight, I tried to do this with my stubborn characters. It felt a little bit like cheating, but I think it helped.
DAY 2. Today my lesson to myself was to write focus on dialogue, even if I was producing terrible dialogue. I was thinking particularly of Franzen, who I most recently read, and his impeccable grasp of dialogue. His characters’ conversations seem effortless and believable and yet essential to the movement of the story. I don’t know how he does it. One of the realizations I’ve come to today is that fictional dialogue does not necessarily have to be a verbatim replica of how people actually talk. Characters are, after all, naturally hyperbolic and we need them to accomplish things with their speech that we may not otherwise accomplish in real life. Today I’ve decided that I am going to be OK with that.
DAY 3. I wonder if it’s a problem if my protagonist is totally unlikable. Do all protagonists need to be sympathetic?
DAY 4. It’s really dreary to hear writers talk about their writing. I don’t think I call myself a “writer,” though, so maybe this won’t count?
DAY 5. Today I taught myself the lesson that there is nothing sacred about the beginning of the story. Even though this was the first thing I wrote for this piece, it does not necessarily mean that it must stay. Especially if it’s bad. Beginnings can change. So can endings.
DAY 6. Writing by hand is difficult, but I like it. I think I write better on paper and edit better on a computer. I didn’t bring my laptop on our Triangle trip and so I am happily relegated to the good old-fashioned notebook and pen.
DAY 7. OK, so I didn’t write today. Too busy. I will forgive myself.
Despite my somewhat sporadic attention to this task, I made more progress with this shabby little story this week than I have in months. I will count that as a successful weekly challenge.
Next week, I will undergo what is by far the easiest challenge of them all: To wear the same necklace every day for a week. This is largely inspired by Catherine, who would wear an accent piece with everything for a month. Except that she always looked great and I might not.