A writing teacher once told me that you know a piece is done when you can’t stand to look at it anymore. For a long time, I thought that was about the best writing advice I’d ever heard; it distilled a lot of my own beliefs about revision to a luscious sound byte. Though, as I’ve progressed in my own work, I’ve become less and less confident that it’s fully true. I do still feel that the diligent and dedicated writer’s gut is a useful measure of a story’s relative “doneness,” but I’ve also started to see a broader, longer, and more methodical approach to revision creeping into my work.
Enter Alan Heathcock.
I met short story writer Alan Heathcock at this past summer’s Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference in Ripton, Vermont. Full confession that I’d never heard of Alan before the conference, but after his reading in The Little Theater the second night “on the mountain,” as they say, Heathcock, constantly wearing a fedora, become one of many writers I made a mental note to learn more about. Alan gave a craft class on Revision at Bread Loaf, much of which he covers in a great interview he gave to fullstop.net. Some of the ideas may be unappealing, mostly because they imply that you’re probably sending in your stories too green, but there’s a great deal of wisdom coming out of this guy’s mouth. And you can tell he believes it. Like, really believes it.
Check it out here: http://www.full-stop.net/2011/04/27/interviews/alex/alan-heathcock/
Also recommended is Alan’s story collection Volt, which is garnering praise and earning well deserved rewards. The collection took him 12 years to perfect and he talks about why in the interview; his approach to revision is a big part of it. A sobering reminder here that we all work hard, but to get something truly “right” means you may just have to kill your clock.
As a novelist (mostly), I come to short stories a bit cautious, a bit weary. After a few years of attempts, I’m warming up to them. Which means that I come to flash fiction somewhere between mildly perplexed and scared shitless. The form, though, is a good counterweight to my own tendency toward verbosity (see?), not to mention a healthy taste of my own medicine for a guy who won’t let even his best students write essays over 700 words long (usually 500 words) because he thinks they can’t be trusted with that many.
All this is to say I’ve been trying my hand at flash fiction, and mostly, failing miserably. I always try to squeeze in too much. Have trouble finding the telling gesture that can replace my paragraph with a few well chosen words. I’ve decided flash fiction is the golf of the writing world–the form that has the biggest discrepancy between how hard it looks and how hard it actually is.
It’s like this.
You read a piece like Amy Hempel’s “San Francisco,” which is marvelous, but over so quickly you sort of don’t know what just happened to you. You wonder if it was as massive as it seemed. So you read it again. Nope, you think, still not sure. Then you read it a third time. And that’s when the story really starts to go to work on you. And yet, it’s so short! It can’t be that good and be so short too. Can it?
So you sit down and try to write a piece like Amy Hempel’s “San Francisco,” capping your story at a page and a half, and that’s when the full weight of her abilities sucker punches you in the gut.
This just in: writing is really hard.
The umbrella topic to start the year in my classes has been “What Does it Mean to be Educated?” but after re-reading and playing the audio to my honors seminar, I’m wondering now if the entire theme and the subsequent class periods spent discussing and writing about it wasn’t subconsciously chosen so that I could spend more time with David Foster Wallace’s 2005 commencement speech from Kenyon College.
Posthumously published as This is Water, the speech is a marvel. And not a little unsettling, due to the onslaught of suicide references within it. In it, Wallace urges us to live more aware lives, believing that the essence of being educated lies not in having information, but in being able to choose what information, and what emotions, you’ll give your time to. He talks about the challenges of being alive and enjoying life in a world as fractured and busy as ours. As usual, it sounds trite when I talk about the same idea, but in Wallace’s hands, cliches become nuanced and remarkably interesting things. They become birds. It’s especially powerful to listen to Wallace give the speech, which can be done here:
I won’t re-hash the sadness of Wallace’s suicide and the giant crater it left in American letters. Suffice to say, it’s massive. But I will take a small stand here and say that, though I’ve read quite a bit of Wallace’s fiction, it’s his non-fiction that I go back to, that I would choose if pressed to grab only a handful of books from my shelf while the house burnt around me.