Margaret Malone is teaching “Short Story Intensive” this fall at Literary Arts, where participants will craft a short story over four weeks, beginning September 28, 2017. Click here for full details and to register! Malone is the author of the story collection People Like You (Atelier26 Books), finalist for the 2016 PEN Hemingway Award and winner of the Balcones Fiction Prize. Her stories and essays can be found in The Missouri Review, Oregon Humanities, Swink, Propeller Quarterly, and elsewhere. She lives in Portland, Oregon where she is a co-host of the artist and literary gathering SHARE.
The following essay, “This is how a writer writes a story” originally appeared on The Masters Review.
- Something From Nothing
At twenty-seven, unsure what to do with my life and thinking I might like to write, I enroll in my first creative writing class through UCLA’s Extension program. That first evening we introduce ourselves and read a couple stories together as a group and talk about some simple elements of narrative like character and point of view and place, and then at the end, in the last few moments of class, the instructor says, “Your assignment for next week is to write a short story.” Five pages or so. And goodnight.
Wait, I thought. What? I’m here to learn how to write a short story. I can’t just go home and write one because I don’t know how to write one yet and that’s why I’m taking this class so you can teach me to do it.
I was pissed. And terrified. And I wanted my money back. And then I went home and wrote a short story.
The writing was bad, but once I was doing it I don’t remember caring about its badness because, look, now I had written my first short story. Holy shit, that teacher was a genius. That’s how you write a short story: you sit down and write a story.
That first year or two of writing, that’s exactly what I did. I was working in a bookstore in Los Angeles and I’d spend nearly every working day’s hour-long lunch break outside at the rusting patio table under a decades-old Bodhi tree writing stories in my journal. I used black and white speckled composition books, and I’d open to the next blank page and hope I had some sentence or idea bumping around in my head to start with, and whether I did or not, I’d write. I wasn’t phobic yet about it being good, or important, or having meaning. I simply thought, write. I’d put my plastic fountain pen on the white-lined paper, turn off my thinking brain, and put words where there had not been words before.
My rule was that I couldn’t stop writing until I’d come to a good ending point, or at least until my lunch break was over. I wasn’t allowed to stop and think. I’d let one sentence lead to the next and the next and the next and when I’d stand up and brush the pages free of the dust and dirt and the miniscule insects that had fallen from the dense canopy of the tree, I’d go back inside to finish my shift. I wrote pages and pages of stories this way, filling journals with my half-cursive scrawl.
The feeling of writing for me, and why I fell for it so hard, was one of total freedom. The mechanics of the whole thing, that a picture or idea could be transmitted from my brain down to my arm and out through my hand moving an instrument that made scratches on paper, was mind-bending: I could keep the pen moving and make anything happen.
At the time, I didn’t know enough to call these journal stories first drafts. It was the making of the thing I loved most, the nothing into something I was interested in, not yet concerned with making anything good or better. Okay, that’s a lie. I wanted it to be good, of course, but I also had an intuitive sense that if I was filling notebooks with stories, even bad ones, it’d be best to keep on going and figure the rest out later.
By the end of that first year I’d found a teacher who liked my work and encouraged me to join his weekly workshop, which meant I’d bring my stories in to read to the group for critical feedback, meaning it was time to put effort into the art of making them better.
Each week I’d pick one of the many story starts from my journal and enter it in the computer. As I typed, moving the words from paper page to screen, without thinking about it, I’d change some things—alter words, delete paragraphs, move sentences around. I’d try to find a way to say it that was better or clearer or closer at least to the story I saw happening in my head.
The more I did this, changed the thing I’d first written, refined it, made it a layer or two richer, the better I liked what I wrote. It seemed logical to assume if I went back in again, a third time, a fourth, I could make it even closer to what I intended. In revision, I had total control.
Ah! I thought. So this is how I write a short story.
Start with a first draft, the words’ only job to be still on the page. It’s okay if they’re not quite very good, because here they are, in the world now, and I can go back and move them, bend them, alter and delete them to make a better closer to perfect creation, something to go back over again and again as I ask myself, Does this make sense? Is that what I mean? Where are we? Who’s talking? What does she want? What has she ruined? Achieved? Completed? Abandoned? And where is she off to now?
A control-freak version of me came to life as a writer: a story was, after all, the only place I’d be allowed whatever time and authority I needed to make something as good as I could dream it.
And then I noticed this other thing start to happen.
- The Third Thing
Each time I went back in to revise, the story and its characters became a little bit less what I wanted them to be and a little bit more of . . . I wasn’t sure, something else. Something I didn’t have full control over. A character would say something I’d never heard said before. Or learn something I didn’t know. These characters, who’d been written by me, were now doing things I didn’t tell or intend for them to do.
What the hell was happening?
It was some new kind of alchemical synthesis where my effort plus my intention equaled some other magic thing, a thing unto itself, a thing more complicated and different than I could have imagined: the birth of a thing not me.
I’d long been attracted to this dynamic without fully knowing for myself what it was. In college my boyfriend (now my husband) would read passages to me of Arthur Koestler’s The Act of Creation, a monster of a book explaining his universal theory of artistic and scientific discovery where two unrelated or even opposing ideas lead to an unexpected eureka-moment of a third.
The something else I’d felt in revision, it was that. It was Koestler’s third thing.
The juxtaposition of control and chaos could create a new universe when they collided, and as the writer, I got to bear witness.
Here’s the thing about the third thing: you can’t teach it. Not really. There is only the happening of it, and the happening of it comes about through work and trust and failure. Days or weeks or months or years of work and trust and failure.
Sixteen years after that first instructor’s assignment, I’m often still unsure how a writer writes a story. The best I can offer is this: scatter words on a page; go back to them again and again, craft them as close to some kind of perfect; then let go of total ownership and allow for something else, some newer, better universe that cannot be explained. It is the thing that finally makes itself that is the finished project.