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Writing: What is action? What is drama? What's quiet?

Tuesday 10/24/23

I've been meaning to wrap this up: using my recently completed story, "You Can Have That," which will be in The Solution to the World's Problems: Surprising Tales of Relentless Joy, as part of what I guess one could call a series about writing. There were two other entries, and now this is the third and final one.

I know someone who is a big admirer of my stories, "Jute" and "Girls of the Nimbus," and earlier this year they remarked to me that they were "quiet" stories, which was a strange comment to me. There's often a huge gulf between what a person means--that is, what they think and/or feel on the inside--and what actually comes out as words, with the meaning those words have. That meaning might not be what the person themselves means. You have to puzzle out what they're getting at.

I've realized that when people say "quiet" in regards to a true work of art, what they usually mean is there isn't loudness. Bombs, guns, and the like. The way they position their remarks, it's as if they're talk about narrative volume--how much happens, what happens, the drama of that which happens.

"Jute" is a ghost story, of sorts. Word count-wise, it's short, and was really the story that jumpstarted what will be Longer on the Inside: Very Short Fictions of Infinitely Human Lives. For me personally, it was a breakthrough story, which opened up other roads for me to take. I've mentioned works in the past that have done that--"Terry from the Cape," "Fitty." In the last five years, I've had far more stories that fit this bill than at any other time, and perhaps more than any of the other times combined. When I say I'm always getting better, this is in part what I mean. Not so much with the quality of a given final product. But more possibilities are always opening up to me.

My ghost stories are not the ghost stories of anyone else, for they're stories of the living. A ghost story usually seeks to create a mood and that's the bulk of its concern. "Jute" is about a woman, and due to circumstances in her life, she takes a late night walk to the headlands in the town where she lives. She's thinking about life inside of life--a separate life inside of a separate body for a time being. Or a time no more. She bears witness to this strange, gutting--and gutting in its specificity--ceremony that plays out in the water below, with a rowboat, a man, a body. Jute itself is a kind of fabric on which one can paint. The material is an important part of the story.

But it's not every day you go down to the headlands and see ghostly forms doing gutting things, which also have bearing on your life. Dramatically, it's not quiet. But in terms of actual sounds? Yes, it's quiet that way. But think about what isn't? Jackhammers? Volley of gunfire? The explosions I mentioned. But those things are things--when they feature in a dramatic work, they're not the actual drama. The real explosions of life and consequence typically don't have some jarring volume. Action and drama is people. Stakes. Consequence. Choices to be made. Reactions. Decisions. What one does upon impact. How one avoids impact. What that does.

Outward plot is integral. One of the many reasons there are no good writers in the world right now is because no one can tell a story. Think about what I'm saying: the telling of a story. Tell me a story. Well, when someone asks us to tell them a story--like a child might at bedtime--they don't mean about our creative writing program or the Brooklyn writers one knows. A story has an arc, a plot, parts to the plot, a sweep. This happened because of this, and then as a result this followed, and this had to be done, etc. A story usually has to be made up. Invented. Even when one takes aspects from one's own experiences, you can't just slap them out there. You might keep a name, something someone once said, but the story as the work of art can't be the reportage of your life, your past, the people you know or knew. It's not enough.

Fiction can be and do anything. And because that's true, there's a greater responsibility for fiction to be everything possible, in service to that story and its larger truths, when fiction is truly art. There are no limitations with fiction. In theory. You can do anything with it. You can go as far with it as you can personally go. You will never outrun fiction. You won't outgrow it. But you do--or you can--outrun the experiences of your own life. You can't reheat and re-serve. You have to invent. Your life is limited and fiction is not. Anything that you've experienced--if it's to be used at all--has to be the start of something else. Because you're now moving from the finite to the infinite.

Plot is a big thing in a story. That sweep I'm talking about, and the external events. But plot is a way we get to the internal. That's really the bigger plot. People. Even in a story without people, people are the biggest thing. In a story where nothing has a heartbeat, it's still really about people, because it's for people, and something for people that exists for people is ultimately going to be about people. When we are on the train and someone in the seat in front of us starts telling a story to their traveling companion, we fight the temptation to listen in. A story is what we want, but stories are hard to come by. The person whose company you love to keep? I bet it's because they tell stories. They have something for you. They speak in narrative.

"Quiet" is one of those left-handed compliments (even when someone means well), because when people see that descriptor, they think there's an absence of action. That's just how we are, especially now. "Oh, damn, I'm going to have to pay attention and think. Not a lot is going to happen." "Subtlety" is another word that works along those lines. But here's the thing: if one is creating true fictional art, yes, there's subtlety. But there's everything. Do you know what I mean? There are big things, splashy things, things one might miss, things one does miss, things one realizes later, things one sees on a second read, a tenth read. It's all in there. Because that's how life is. And what have I said? The quality of a work of art is directly proportional to how much life it contains. Fictional art can't be all this or all that. In a way, it's all everything. But it's also being controlled. Random events happen, of course, in life. A lot of life is random. You can't have a story that's entirely random. Shape must be given, but without a hammer being seen as providing that shape by banging away here, banging away there. That's the trick. There is shaping, which would seem to be an exercise in artifice, but you can't be seen to shape, while also tending to that which is organic. The story has to be both. This is the paradox that must be pulled off, because life doesn't work that way in most ways, with grand design at the level of a single individual. Life shapes itself. We react. We make choices. We have some say in the shape, to varying degrees.

That's why it's so important that I listen to my characters. They tell me their stories. It's not the other way around. I don't think, "Okay, I need you to do this, because this person has to have this reaction and then get on that plane with you to go to Denver where this action can happen."

No. That's not up to me. What these characters do and what they live and have lived is up to them, within the overarching context of their lives. Their lives are not my lives. They have autonomy, every bit as much as I do. More. I am myself because I am in service to their stories. I don't know what they're going to have for me. It's not that they call the shots, so much as they are. There is a huge difference.

There is no drama like the drama of what we feel, how we hurt, how we rejoice, what we learn, what we thought we knew and what we're disabused of, what makes us laugh, what makes us cry, what pops our soul in the mouth, to mix a metaphor. Knocks our soul on its ass, to mix another one. Or--and this is best yet--pulls back the veil on everything. How it is. Why it is. Gives the answers to the questions, and questions we didn't have the words to formulate, but which still live inside of us. The answers to the meaning of it all. When you do that--when you give readers that experience, in that moment, they get the eyeful, they hear the music, they feel--however fleetingly--the solidity of the previously unknown and infinite inside of them, you have done something in creating something that is beyond everything else, potentially. Is that quiet? I wouldn't use that word.

"Girls of the Nimbus" has an actual explosion--a would-be explosion--at its heart. It's a war story, and it involves a mine and two girls standing on top of one. They are not the only girls of the title, and they are not even necessarily the principal girls of the title. This is the concluding work in There Is No Doubt: Story Girls.

The narrator is a female soldier, and we find out at the beginning of the story that she's made a decision that was against orders, and this entire story--which ranges into the narrator's past as a girl herself--and perhaps into the next world, or a world she may be going to, or has just come to--plays out either within that action itself, or after the result of that choice/action. It's intensely dramatic.

Choices are made for reasons, but we often don't recognize the reasons, even in our own lives. The root reasons. Root reasons guide us. They're just harder for people to recognize, which lends all of life a certain irony. We do what we do for these specific root reasons, and you'd think we'd know all about them, but rarely do we. As the reader, we may try to determine if this woman knows the particular root reasons for why she's decided to do what she's doing. But why else would she be telling us this story? What form does the story take? Externally, we see the words. The careful layout and presentation. That's external time. And, here, that's our time.

But external time isn't internal time. I can write an entire novelette in less than a second. Internally. Do you follow? It then follows that a person can tell an entire story in a fraction of a second--within their mind. This act is playing out the entire time we're reading the story, and yet it is taking place within the real time of the story. As this person moves, we move with her, in this combat situation. With these stakes. It's not just the stakes of these two little girls and life and death, though it is that. And it's not just the stakes of this woman and her life and death, though it's is that, too. The stakes are bigger still, based on what we learn from the story.

Now, I would never call that quiet, with the kind of baggage that word has when we describe a work of art or entertainment or both. But what do we come back to? What is the ultimate drama? People. On that inside. How that inside causes them to relate to each other, the world. But what we care about most will always be on the inside. Those are your real fireworks.

So this is a sequence from "You Can Have That." What is it, on the face of things? What we would say it "literally" is? It's a guy and a woman sitting in his kitchen at the table, playing a game with coins--spinning them and trying to stop them beneath a finger tip so that they're upright. That's it. No explosions. No sirens. No blood. It's not trumped up with grandiose symbolism. It's not on the nose metaphysics. It's not on the nose allegory. It's richer. It's more complex and also more accessible. And it's integrated within life. Aspects of the story are open to interpretation, but everything is. What isn't? This could be a story where one person traveled thousands of miles at great difficulty to get to this house. It could be a humdrum morning in suburbia between a couple that might be splitting up. Or a couple that had a tiff and is getting back together after stupid things were said two nights ago and she had stayed at her sister's. But note how they connect. This is how connection works. We get caught up in its sweep, when we're willing to allow ourselves to be connected. What does that require? Choice. Or not always choice. Or not total choice. Things happen that cause our defenses to come down. We may want them to recede--in theory--but can't manage to make them do so on our own. We might get lucky--something in life intercedes. Then we've started connecting and we realize that after the fact. We didn't have to take a plunge--we were lowered into water by life. And now that we're there, what we do next--given that we have this cognizance now--is up to us.

But they're just spinning a coin, and yet, we are pulled in, we are invested in the drama. Think about the times someone asks you a question. What do you do? You think about the ways you could answer it. Really what that means is how much truth you'll put forward, how much you'll hold back. You think about appearances. What what you say says about you, your day, your state of mind, whatever it may be. To simply answer, and put the answer out there without keeping parts back? That hardly ever happens, no matter how simple or benign the subject. If a question gives us pause to think about how we're going to answer, we'll rarely give the full thing. But she asks him questions--and that's important, too, because there's additional meaning in the very act in this context, and in the gesture, which is still sincere--and he gives that kind of answer I just mentioned. That says a lot.

You can show the infinite to people with three blocks, if you know how to use the blocks. And you're tapped into something bigger than yourself. That's a lot of what creating fictional art is.

But it's just a man, a woman, and some loose change. It's not very quiet, though, is it, as quiet tends to be meant in discussing these things? There's just too much life for that kind of quiet.


“What would you be doing right now?” she asked him, and he decided to be honest. That was the exact word he used in his head, as in “I’ll be honest.” On other days, he would have gone with “transparent” instead, which really meant less honest if you’re setting it up that way.

“Well, --“—and he used her name—“to be honest I was going to sit here for a little while and spin a coin on the table.”

That sounded whimsical to her, like a game, but also as if he wouldn’t have told just anyone, or perhaps even anyone else.

“You spin it and then what happens?” she asked.

“I spin the coin on the smooth surface, and then I try and put my finger on top of it so that it stops in place on its edge.”

Sometimes he’d imagine that the coin was life itself or the world, and there would be grave consequences for everyone if he didn’t come through and halt the spinning with just the right amount of pressure. No one would meet again. There’d be no love. Strength would vanish. All hope thwarted in its infancy or extinguished at long last. The clouds would mass as one and advance upon the earth for the formal annihilation, an absorption of all that had once been won, sought, desired, dreamed of, risked, let in, given. But really it was already all over, minus the screams, unless he came through and stopped the spinning coin on its edge—at least more often than not.

“Can we try it?”

“Yeah, okay,” he agreed, and got up from the table and walked over to the dishwasher where he crouched down to retrieve a quarter on the floor. “It’s from yesterday,” he clarified.

“Quarters are easier because they’re bigger. It’s mostly a size thing, but I’ve never tried a half dollar. Or a silver dollar, come to think of it. Pennies are harder than dimes, despite dimes being smaller, because pennies don’t have ridges on their edges and dimes do.”

He spun the quarter just to show her, not because he had this need to go first, and as he attempted to put his finger atop the shimmering blur of metal, the disc shot off the table back in the direction of the dishwasher, which had become a standard trajectory.

Rising to collect the coin, he said, “Oh yeah—I should have added that the faster you can make it stop in place, the better, because it’s harder the faster it’s spinning.”

“It was a good try,” she told him. “That would have been super fast.”


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