Well, it seems the kitten problem
has been eradicated. (Man, they were everywhere). If you are just joining us, the writer Thomas Israel Hopkins and I are discussing the merits of Writing Dares/Challenges/Whatnot. Mr. Hopkins, when asked for brief biography, provided this valuable information:
When Thomas Israel Hopkins first met Jessica Anthony, he was an unpublished, unwed, childless gentile. Now Tom is a married Jewish dad with lots of publication credits. Life is mysterious and wonderful!
JA: Yesterday we were talking about how a great writing dare can be a useful platform for beginning a story, and it can help a writer find a story's form. But there's more going on here with dares, I think. Even though you're being given a restriction, you have no idea where the story will take you.
TIH: Exactly. This means keeping in mind that at some point you might need to shed one or another of those source elements. You might start working on a story, in homage to Updike (as you were talking about in your Monday blog post), about a married woman falling in love with a teenage rabbit. But then the story, as you keep working on it, ends up being about something else entirely — until finally you realize that, as the opening chapter of your space opera, the whole suburban-rabbit-affair business just isn't working anymore.
Are we now contradicting ourselves? Saying that challenges can get you started, and keep you going, but that you might also have to get rid of them?
JA: This is really at the heart of it, I think. Allow me to divert for a second, since I am so good at diverting.
I've never particularly gained much from reading books that teach how to write fiction, though I know there are good ones out there, like Stephen King's On Writing. The John Gardner compendium. I've long believed that the best way to learn how to write fiction is to read and write as much of it as you possibly can. But there is this famous passage from Coleridge's Biographia Literaria where he separates the human imagination into two categories: the Primary and Secondary, a.k.a. the "unconscious" and the "deliberate," which I think is relevant here. A great writing challenge, whether defined by research or by a friend's goading, seems to help speed us along to the Secondary, where we can access Choice. You have to learn how to be a Selective Chooser writing fiction. You have to know when to stop, expand, reveal. And that's the hardest part, it seems. It's all in the timing.
But back to the dares themselves, I don't want to forget to mention in this post that I am still intrigued by that book you gave me, You and Your Retarded Child from 1951 — it uses the word "mongoloid" with complete sincerity.
TIH: I'd completely forgotten about You and Your Retarded Child!
JA: It is a gem. I also thought I'd share with everybody a list of abandoned story dares/kernels. Ideas that Never Went Anywhere. I keep a huge list of these in a folder on my laptop called "FAIL." Here we go:
Peons = half-people + half-neon.
There is a woman with bees for hair who loves getting her nails done.
Mr. Famous Person and Mrs. Famous Person like to attend funerals.
There is a musician who eats nothing but chicken. He falls in love with a bird and dreams about flying to California where he and the bird will be vegans and live like kings. It doesn't work out.
Ducks, too, can fall in love.
There are babies who smoke cigarillos and go around cheating at badminton. Avoid these kinds of babies.
TIH: I like your abandoned kernels. I've got a batch of my own — I keep them in my mother's old wooden recipe box on my desk. It's packed full of index cards with all kinds of random notes I've jotted down — something I started doing after reading Anne Lamott, who is, in a way, the mother of everything we've been talking about here. The matter of using a writing challenge to keep your focus on your bildungsroman about a dog that made it big on the professional pinochle circuit — that's Bird by Bird in a nutshell, isn't it?
Personally, if I were going to take on one of your abandoned story ideas as a writing challenge, I'd be most intrigued by the California-chicken-king kernel — perhaps because I just finished reading The Ant King by Benjamin Rosenbaum, which is a brilliant collection, and has a story in it, the title of which I can never remember, that demonstrates the difficulty of relationships between humans and birds (in this case, a thousand-year-old woodpecker). Anyway, here's a sampling from my kernel pile (which I've typed out ALL CAPS because for whatever reason that's how I jot down notes on index cards):
PEOPLE WHO DIDN'T READ, WHOSE INTERNAL MONOLOGUE WASN'T A CONTINUOUS THREAD OF WORDS & SENTENCES, BUT RATHER A CHOPPY SEQUENCE OF EXPLOSIONS, BUYING IMPULSES, & REVENGE IDEATIONS
A CITY THAT LEAKS AN INVISIBLE GAS OF SADNESS, COMING FROM DEEP UNDERGROUND; ALL ITS INHABITANTS SUFFER ENNUI; IS FACT DISMISSED AS PSYCHOSOMATIC? IS SUBSTANCE BOTTLED, MARKETABLE?
EAST COAST GHOST TOWN
THE GUIDE TO NONEXISTENT WRITING
JA: Your list of kernels reminds me immediately of Jack Kerouac's List of Essentials form "Belief and Technique for Modern Prose," like "You're a genius all the time" or "Be crazy dumbsaint of the mind" or "Work from pithy middle eye out, swimming in language sea"... I love that list.
TIH: Maybe one point that we're getting at here is that no matter where you are in your writing career, no matter what kind of work you want to create, you have to be willing to be a complete and utter goofball. And a good writing challenge can be, among other things, a goofiness engine. Does that make sense?
JA: It absolutely does, and thank you for bringing us back to earth. The point of all this, since we must have a point or suffer the wrath of the good and patient Powell's blog readers, is indeed the value of goofiness. Pointed, intentional, selected goofiness. Out of this kind of experimentation comes energy, vitality — the life of fiction. All stories, it seems to me, perhaps especially those reaching for gritty realism, should not dismiss the importance of play.
Jessica Anthony enjoys fun. She is deeply grateful to the marvelous Thomas Israel Hopkins for making a fun conversation even funner. She returns tomorrow for her final day of blog-posting. It won't be about The Convalescent, her terrible clothes, easy-to-assemble desserts or writing dares — it will be about the Novels and Stories That Taught Her How To Play.