In last Tuesday’s edition of The Habit Weekly, I discussed a “way into” the process of short-story-writing that I have found helpful in my writing and teaching. Novelist John L’Heureux says that one way of writing a story is to try to “capture a moment after which nothing can ever be the same again.” I like this approach because it shrinks the daunting task of storytelling down to something manageable. What moment do you want to capture? Once you’ve figured that out, you write toward that moment, distilling things down to the most distilled form that still achieves your desired effect.

That method has the advantage and also the disadvantage of beginning with the end in mind. In the paragraph above I suggested that “once you’ve figured out” the moment you want to capture, you can go from there. But, of course, that “moment after which nothing can ever be the same” may be the very thing you can’t figure out at the beginning of the process. What then?

George Saunders proposes a very different approach that you might find helpful if beginning with the end in mind isn’t working for you. This is from A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, Saunders’s magisterial book about fiction-writing:

We often discuss art this way: the artist had something he wanted to express, and then he just, you know, expressed it…the actual process, in my experience, is much more mysterious and beautiful and more of a pain…to discuss truthfully.

A guy (Stan) constructs a model railroad town in his basement. Stan acquires a small hobo, places him under a plastic railroad bridge, near that fake campfire, then notices that he’s arranged his hobo into a certain posture—the hobo seems to be gazing back at town. Why is he looking over there? At that little blue Victorian house? Stan notes a plastic woman in the window, then turns her a little, so she’s gazing out. Over at the railroad bridge, actually. Huh. Suddenly, Stan has made a love story. (Oh, why can’t they be together? If only “Little Jack” would just go home. To his wife. To “Linda.”)

What did Stan (the artist) just do? Well, first, surveying his little domain, he noticed which way his hobo was looking. Then he chose to change that little universe, by turning the plastic woman. Now, Stan didn’t exactly decide to turn her. It might be more accurate to say that it occurred to him to do so—in a split second, with no accompanying language, except maybe a very quiet internal ‘Yes.’

He just liked it better that way, for reasons he couldn’t articulate, and before he’d had the time or inclination to articulate them.

In my view, all art begins in that instance of intuitive preference.

Later in the same chapter, Saunders writes, “You don’t need an idea to start a story. You just need a sentence.” That’s a pretty remarkable thing to say. I’ve written often in The Habit Weekly about giving yourself the freedom to write bad first drafts. Saunders is giving you more freedom than that. You can grow a good piece of fiction out of a bad first sentence. You just need something that you can revise. Revise according to what principle? According to Saunders, you don’t need any principle more sophisticated than your own intuitive preference. You make a change or an addition to your bad first sentence to make it a little more interesting to you. (the way that “Stan” found it more interesting when he moved the woman in the window so she was facing toward the railroad bridge). Then you make another change, another addition. You repeat the process over and over again (ideally, over a lot of different days) until you have a story that pleases you.

We tested some of these ideas at the Habit Writers’ Retreat a few weeks ago. I gave everybody the same vague and only moderately interesting sentence with which to grow a story: “He saw her from the bottom of the stairs before she saw him.” Then I sent everybody away for twenty minutes to see what stories would start to emerge when people started tweaking that sentence to their liking. Who is “he”? Who is “she”? What is their relationship? Where are those stairs? Why did he see her before she saw him?  

In a mere twenty minutes, fifty or so people came back with the beginnings of fifty or so wildly different stories. There was a story of children playing hide-and-seek, a story of a husband and wife (possibly) making up after an argument. In one story “she” was Florence, Italy, and “he” was Dante, returning home from exile, looking out over a city that hadn’t yet noticed (or perhaps just didn’t care) that he was back.

So which is the better approach, L’Heureux’s “begin with the end in mind” approach, or Saunders’s “start anywhere and see what happens” approach? The better approach is whichever one is working for you at any given moment. There’s no need to adjudicate between the two. Which is the better tool, a hammer or a wrench? Whichever one does the job at any given moment. You’d do well to have both in your toolbox. 

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