...in which I answer your questions, to the best of my ability.
On Sunday, behind the paywall, we’ll be starting our work on Tillie Olsen’s “I Stand Here Ironing.” Please join us for a deep dive into this essential and radical American story. (And let’s refrain from commenting on it today, please.)
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Today, we’re going to start a regular, office-hours type feature in which I answer some questions posed to me by our paid subscribers.
Thanks to all of you who have sent questions – I got around seventy so far and they were all wonderful, and I vow to try to answer all of them, in time.
Starting with this one
Are you working on several stories at the same time? And if so, do you have any rules for how often you change between them? I'm especially thinking in relation to staying focused on one story, one voice.
In a perfect world, I have three or four things started and sitting there on my desk. My approach is to reach for the one that feels like it will be the most fun. I mean, once I get going on something I try to stick with it, of course, and that’s not always pure “fun.” But sometimes, after too much focused work, a piece will go a bit dead on me, or I’ll find myself hitting my head against the same wall over and over, and some of the joy goes out of the process and gets replaced by (I revert to) method/intellect/logic. I start “reasoning.” And this is no good. I am trying to solve an ineffable problem with a mechanistic tool. Trying to “logic” my way out of a question that requires my full, engaged being to answer.
Over the years, I’ve gotten better at recognizing, and recoiling from, this feeling (this deadness). One way I do that is just go, “OK, difficult story on which I’ve been working, you win for now. I’m putting you back in the on-deck circle and pulling forth this other story, which feels fresher and has less claim on me, and so will be more fun to work on and I will therefore be less afraid and cautious and can jettison the dreaded method-intellect-logic trio in favor of some good old goofing around.”
Having said that – there usually comes a time in the life of a story when I feel that I know it’s pretty good and that it’s therefore time to put everything else aside and let that story have its day. It’s not like the story is perfect or even close to done at that time but, if I can say it this way, it’s raised itself in my regard. My subconscious is deeply invested in it. I feel that, if I honor it with my attention, it will honor me back. The two of us are now going to step into a more serious room, to take on the story’s problems together, until the bitter end. There’s a feeling that, after this moment, the more time I put into it, the better. Even if that time feels, sometimes, frustrating, and even similar to those “dead” periods described above. It’s hard to explain. It’s like: a battle to the finish. It’s as if the story has been revised enough that it has lifted itself into a higher zone of meaningfulness and is going to need my full attention.
Another feeling associated with this is: I am about to learn so much. I have, possibly grandiosely, compared this to what a mountain climber might feel like in those last hours, on the most difficult and technical part of a climb. All that work done down below has afforded the climber a chance to encounter some genuinely new challenges. And who, at that moment, wants to run back down to base camp and start a different climb?
So, the short answer is: I work on several things at once, trying to be attentive to which might be the most productive thing to work on at that moment, with “feels fun” being a significant factor.
This brings to mind something else we might want to put into play in future discussions: the dangers of believing too simply in rigor and efficiency – two qualities we’ve been discussing and praising a lot here in Story Club.
When I was working on my story “Pastoralia,” our family was experiencing some, uh, money pressure, and I just decided to cut the story way back and send it to The New Yorker. It was too long, as it was, to be published there and I wanted to just bring to bear all my severe, efficiency-minded precepts, and really have at it with a red pen, cutting out anything extraneous, thinking that the more severely cut back the story was, the harder it would be for the editors to reject it. Wrongo! My wife, Paula, read it and had just this one comment: “You cut all the fun out of it.” I instantly knew she was right. The story needed the goofiness to stay afloat. In its case, “efficiency” wasn’t only about meaning or action – it was, ultimately, “efficient” to restore the goofiness because otherwise the story was dry and preachy and sucked.
Which, since my goal is to get someone to finish and even enjoy the story, wasn’t “efficient” at all.
Finally, let me say that, as is the case with all questions about craft, there’s no particular value in my answer to this very valid question (“Are you working on several stories at the same time?”) or to any of the other valid and even thrilling questions that are pouring in. Rather, it’s good to know that we all worry about things. That is, the value of this sort of Q&A is the chance to come together and, at the very least, agree about which things routinely cause us writerly anxiety.
It’s good to remind ourselves that there really is no playbook, no right way. It’s just what works for us. For real. The truth is, “craft” is just the ritual exploration of different approaches. Finally, you stumble on something that works for you, and you go, “O.K., that’s it. That’s my way.” And then, on a higher level, we might even learn that even this feeling of stability and settledness is temporary - we can change our method at any time, no declarations needed. And we develop confidence in our ability to make these subtle shifts in method…
Sometimes, it’s just good to hear that someone else has worried about an issue. This can have the effect of validating our worry which, in turn, instantaneously converts that “neurosis” into, you know “worthwhile and necessary technical exploration.”
In closing, I wanted to share this trailer from the forthcoming (June 17) Netflix movie, “Spiderhead,” which is based on my story “Escape from Spiderhead.” It stars Chris Hemsworth, Jurnee Smolett, Miles Teller, and Mark Paguio, and was directed by Joseph Kosinksi, from a script written by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick.
Watch it here.