Over the summer, let’s call it 18 weeks, I produced something like 50k words. This may be a slight over estimate, with another 22K earlier words in the same document. Also this amounts to about 500 words/day for 5-6 days a week, below the minimum of a 1,000 I set myself every day. But here’s what that 50K consists of:
- The first chapter of a potential book & another 3K words laying out ideas and trying to write more chapters.
- 20 experiments of about 250 words each. Essentially the first few paragraphs of stories that will probably never go anywhere.
- 9 experiments of about 1000 words each that have promise and may become first drafts.
- 4 drafts that are nearly complete first drafts, with beginnings, middles but usually lacking endings.
- 1 story that is probably somewhere in 4th or 5th draft stage but still needs work.
- & 1 story I’m happy with and feel ready to share with others
Cynically, that’s a summer of work for 1 short story. More optimistically that’s a summer of work for 1 story, 5 drafts that will become stories I take to workshop, a few other things that may become stories and the beginning of a book.
What these numbers don’t say is my principal concerns:
– First, that out of all that, only the 1 story I’ve completed is or will be good. My best stories, while not easy, flowed smoothy and coherently from inception to completion. And then there are the other stories I work on and work on and work on, and think about (which is always the wrong thing, as stories should stem from the unconscious and an organic place of fun/emotion). These stories don’t read the same, they’re like dead things I try to breathe life into. They lack a certain vitality. Sometimes they lack a coherence. So, as I enter workshopping stories in the MFA, I’m concerned that I’ll bring some of these mostly dead stories to class, only to be discarded later. As Aimee Bender said:
How the work they [writers] did without thinking is usually 10x more interesting than the work they slaved over with too much thinking for weeks.
– Second, if that work only produces 1 story, then I’m concerned at the effort it takes to produce minimal output. It’s inefficient.
– Third, those experiments and drafts that are not yet ruined, the ones that still retain their promise, I can’t approach them unless I can fulfill the promise. It’s easy to ruin a story: to start with a good idea, keep it flowing nicely, then feel pressured to resolve it and produce something less-than. The only solution I’ve found to this is time. Work on a story until I hit a wall or feel the writing deteriorate, and then set it aside for a week, month, or more. This too, is a slow process. And not necessarily destined to succeed. But it’s consistent with
That said, I can feel that the half-dead stories are less dead than they once were. Limbs of them have not lost all blood flow yet. And, some of the drafts/experiments with promise may actually go somewhere. I may salvage another 1 or 2 stories out of this.
And I wonder if this just isn’t the process for some things?
Enact a repetitive, obsessive, iterative application of preference: watch the needle, adjust the prose, watch the needle, adjust the prose (rinse, lather, repeat), through (sometimes) hundreds of drafts. Like a cruise ship slowly turning, the story will start to alter course via those thousands of incremental adjustments.
Or is it the case that good writers still publish stories they’re less than happy with? Sometimes a sufficiently made-up carcass can be mistaken for fresh meat. Zadie Smith’s Essay “Fail Better” suggests a bit of this:Zadie Smith’s Essay “Fail Better”
That is why the most common feeling, upon re-reading one’s own work, is Prufrock’s: “That is not it at all … that is not what I meant, at all …” Writing feels like self-betrayal, like failure.
At this point, deadlines are coming up, so I have little choice. I’ll either have to polish a story or complete one of the incomplete stories with the vitality I’m looking for. We’ll see.