What Fiction Writers Taught Me About Darkness

A Guest post
By Kathleen Tarr

January in Anchorage. No sun for days. Ice everywhere. Main roads impassable without a Hummer. I am forced to stay home from my day job at UAA.

Bless the universe. Savor, not gulp, the coffee. More time for new year reflections, and to think about where I’ve been as a writer, and where I might be going.

I work in an MFA program and have earned one myself which is why it’s a bit strange and embarrassing to admit I’ve had to banish some of my grad school attitudes toward writing.

Like how I used to approach certain pieces of creative writing with a vow to be literary, to appeal to the upper-most echelon of the reading public.

I look back now and wish I would have done a few things differently, or at least learned them a lot faster than I have.

For one, as a nonfictioneer, I wish I had taken more fiction classes because I suffered from what I can only call, abstraction-itis.

In creative or literary nonfiction we admit we’re stealing or borrowing fiction techniques to create more vivid pictures in the readers’ minds. We talk about using scene, dialogue, and integrating those intimate and telling details. We discuss pacing, the central driving questions, where the conflicts and tensions are.

I was grateful to be learning something about the fundamentals of narrative (it was also good to drink Rolling Rocks with budding Faulkners and Updikes). It’s just that even after finishing a three year, full-time program, I hadn’t yet learned how to tell a story, and it was my fault.

As a writer, it was as if I had discovered a literary mold—an elegant, literary bundt pan—constructed from the precious content of my intellect. To fill up the bundt pan (the manuscript I was working on), my recipe called for matching up all the incidences and personal anecdotes and well-crafted research to my Main Idea. I worked in this forced, stilted, and backwards way because I didn’t have, or I didn’t know what my real story was.

I could have continued beating myself up, questioning my own audaciousness: What gives me the right to think I can move from an essay to a full-length book?

It was far healthier, though, to admit an emerging writer needed to emerge from somewhere, right? I was in love with my Main Idea. And from there I could move to the next phase of groveling in the depths of my tormented artistic soul.

Long winters passed. I had to endure the process of writing and rewriting without ever knowing where any of it would lead. In the end, I finally shelved the elegant, literary bundt pan and approached the material in a completely new way. I wandered around in it, got lost, and eventually smiled when the writing was no longer allowing me to impose my pre-ordained structure and so-called story outline.

When the great short story writer Ron Carlson spoke at UAA last summer about how to begin a story, he said the word meaning scared him. Carlson said he never begins a story by thinking about the meaning he wanted to convey. Frankly, he hadn’t a clue about such erudition. He might begin with a single word, one recalled moment about a pick-up truck on a dusty highway, or a piece of overheard dialogue.

“Constant attention to inquiry, not certainty is the key,” Carlson said. “I will do anything to survive the draft. A writer with no net and nowhere to go must stay in the room. Doubt up, belief down. Attention is more important than talent.”

I’ve come to see that this holds true in good nonfiction, too, whether you’re writing narrative nonfiction, essays, or memoir.

Richard Chiappone, fiction writer and UAA associate faculty member, says if he gets even one whiff of a lesson or lecture in a piece, whether in fiction or nonfiction, he is soooooo out of there.

On 49 Writers two weeks ago, guest blogger, Melissa DeVaughan, talked about her meeting with Willie Hensley which led her to think about her own work and the whole daunting process of writing books. How do you really get started? she asked on her blog.

If we are anguished over the first sentence because we falsely believe that first sentence is going to be THE FIRST SENTENCE, and therefore we are unduly pressuring ourselves that it must be exactly right, we may never go past the first page to write a story.

The dictum holds true: stay in the mess. Go into the vortex, the zone, the place of mystery and uncertainty, and don’t surface expecting answers and outlines and “just-the-right-opening-sentence.” This may be especially difficult for nonfiction writers because many of us have magazine or journalism backgrounds and we are accustomed to beginning our work with something resembling a structure already at-hand. We assume things must proceed logically and in a unified way, for our draft has to cohere and hang together. We may have it all figured out ahead of time what it is we want to say. Words cannot be wasted. We want to be clear, precise, and present the story with a beginning, middle, and end.

In nonfiction, we are often satisfied if we have devised a serviceable structure for our ideas. And as long as we find one that’s adequate, which gives us some narrative juice, we may stick with it for the duration of the book.

But to be more “fiction-like” perhaps what we ought to do is stay in the material long enough until the more perfect, more organic, more inevitable structure is found. We might have to run through hundreds of first sentences, shift the narrative voice many times. We might have to live in the muck and uncertainty until we find the real story that’s been lurking out-of-sight for so long, underneath all the piles of precious research we have gathered.

How to start a book? Melissa wondered.

Start right in the middle of that chaos. And don’t let go.

You could also pray for more black ice, Chinook winds, erupting volcanoes—anything Mother Nature can do to help keep you inside and stuck to your chair on “free” winter days.

3 thoughts on “What Fiction Writers Taught Me About Darkness”

  1. Thanks for posting, Kathleen. Among the joys and frustrations of writing is this continual discovery, and rediscovery, of processes and attitudes. Sometimes I long for an MFA in a wistful way that’s counterproductive to creative work. So it’s good to be reminded that along with the many benefits, there are entrenchments that must be unlearned.

    When I teach emerging writers, I find myself mostly working to undo habits, attitudes, and misconceptions long ingrained by not only by well-meaning teachers but also by the writers’ own longings and expectations. The true fact is just as you say it here. Writing is a messy adventure.

  2. Good timing. As I begin my own foray into book-length fiction after receiving the MFA in nonfiction, I can hardly believe I went 3 years and never once took a fiction class. I’ve heard the same regret from some of my former nonfiction classmates.

    On the other side of the coin, it was nice to hear a fiction writer wonder about how to integrate reflection somehow into a short story (without having it come off as the dreaded “whiff of lesson or lecture,” of course), and asking nonfiction buddies for input.

    On a bit of a tangential note on the differences in writing fiction and nonfiction, I just saw where Ann Patchett said, “Writing nonfiction is so much easier than writing fiction, for me, that it really is akin to saying, ‘I did my shopping list and then I went back to my novel.'” So much for no writing hierarchies.

  3. Hold that thought from Ann Patchett for when you read our interview with Seth Kantner, posting prior to our online discussion of Ordinary Wolves March 7 & 8. Two authors I hugely admire, radically different takes on the question.

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