The Mark Blog

The Finish Line

Above is a picture I took of the cabin in Big Bear where I am now sitting, writing this blog entry. I’ve come here to be away from distractions while I finish my book, due tomorrow at noon. Or, at least, this particular draft of it. I’ve made a lot of changes since the Mid-project Review, even written a few brand new stories that were birthed from the ashes of previous ones. I’ll get as far as I can by the deadline, and then send it off as is. Done? Not quite. As close as I can get over six months and three marathon writing sessions alone in the woods? You bet.

The cabin belongs to a friend, a fellow teacher and artist, and it’s crammed full of old things: paintings, collectibles, trinkets, vintage furniture and furnishings, records, and books. It’s tough to resist dusting off one of the hardcover classics on the bookshelves, many of which I’ve still never read, sitting back by a roaring fire, and flipping through the weathered pages. That pleasure will have to wait. I’m here to work, dammit.

I have allowed myself a couple short reading breaks to get me inspired. I read two now-classic short stories, Joyce Carol Oates’ “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” and Raymond Carver’s “Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?” (What great, and similar, titles.) Both are amazing, near-perfect examples of what’s possible within the scope of twenty pages.

Though both writers kicked off the so-called “modern era” of the short story, these stories are written in a more classic style. They both start with long character summaries and then shift to the heart of the story, the scene where their lives become unraveled. In a way, this goes against the maxim, “start in the middle and go from there.” But who knows what their process was? They may have started in the middle, and realized that the story would be built better if they pulled back and gave more context. Certainly, their continued popularity shows they must have been doing something right.

This is heartening in a way, because lately I’ve been worried that my stories were too traditionally plotted in this post-postmodern age. I’d been reading Gary Lutz and Amy Hempel and admiring their more episodic, pastiche approach. Their approach relies not so much on plotting, moving logically from A to B to C, as on small bursts of scenes, building momentum, and focusing less on the what and more on the how. They’re essentially minimalists, avoiding anything extraneous or cliché, and their impact, in particular Hempel’s, is all the stronger for it. Lutz, relies a bit too heavily on the restructuring of language for my taste. He is so consumed with finding new ways to communicate that I find the stories themselves less gripping, and have a harder time connecting with the characters. I guess you’d say it’s more experimental, a form of writing I admire in theory more than practice.

Reading them made me feel about as much a postmodernist as Flannery O’Conner. I am, however, telling very contemporary stories, set from the ‘80s to present day, modern in content, and writing rather explicitly about things that would go unmentioned in most eras of literature. I’m hopeful that this combination might prove alluring: classic story structuring for contemporary stories.

Then again, over time, I may gradually shed convention, strip away the formalities, forget about the what and zero in on the how. But right now, with just one day left, it’s a little late to reinvent any wheels. Instead, I’ve got just enough time to make sure there’s enough air in them, that the gas tank isn’t empty, and that the car remains on the road, driving on.