In a few weeks, I will finish my MFA at UNH, and I’ve decided to retire Nonfiction Pizza Party. To celebrate my time at Barnstorm, I asked Editor-in-Chief Erin Somers to email with me about my current writing fascinations. For those of you who don’t know, she is about to complete an MFA in fiction. Part One of our conversation covers trying new genres, the near impossibility of writing good fiction, an extended Rube Goldberg metaphor, and short shorts (as in flash fiction, sadly). Part Two will be posted next week as my final column.
This summer, check out my new twitter account, @DavidBersell, for updates on future projects.
Thank you, Barnstorm editors, for encouraging me to write this column. And anyone who has read it, I hope you had as much fun at the party as I did.
NPP: Now that I'm finishing school, one thing I'm interested in is getting back into writing short stories. I have an idea! I haven't written much fiction in years and am feeling intimidated. You're someone who I think moves successfully between genres. A favorite from your recent travel essay about Atlantic City: "The Strip, with its shabby faux-opulence and empty casinos populated only by ghost croupiers and the very desperate, feels like a cross between The Shining and a Tony Soprano fever dream. It is a plausible place to murder or be murdered, to happen across an elevator full of blood or snuff out a member of your extended family."
How different is your approach to fiction versus nonfiction? Do you have any advice for the timid short story writer? (I just pictured Drew Barrymore going back to high school or something.)
ES: Congrats on your idea and welcome back to the fiction pool. Come on in! The water is...Sisyphean and difficult.
I'm not sure I'm in any position to offer advice outside of "trust your instincts and try to have fun." (These people are though. I think about Franzen's #4 constantly, not to mention Ford's #10.)
Both fiction and nonfiction are so hard, but in different ways. For instance, when I work in nonfiction, the plot's already set. What happened is what happened. If I hew as close to the truth as possible, I've already got my story. I've even got my details. If my dad was drinking a Coke when he hit a bum with his car, he was drinking a Coke. I don't have to endlessly ask myself should it be a Pepsi, should it be a glass of milk, should it be a lukewarm Mountain Dew and why and what does it say about the character of the dad. How great is that? So I get to focus on other things—organization, structure, voice, making it more funny and specific and accurate, getting more non-corny emotion on the page.
But with fiction, every single element is a variable. Sometimes it feels like trying to construct a beautiful and perfectly operational Rube Goldberg. Each mechanism—image, plot, character, language, structure, and on and on—has to go off perfectly to make it work. You set all this stuff in motion in your draft, and then you run to the end and see if the balloon popped. And of course it didn't, because the Tonka Truck filled with sand was top-heavy and tipped right over, or the when the cage sprung open, all the field mice ran away willy-nilly instead of going up the ramp and eating the cheese. Even if it's the most entertaining Rube Goldberg in the world, it's a failure unless the balloon pops. It's so much trouble to just to say something simple like "the guy was super lonely" or "the divorced mom misses her kids." I'm making it sound near impossible. And it is! But, of course, this is what makes it worth doing.
Was that totally discouraging?
NPP: I would say I'm no more discouraged, so congrats on that. Most of the fear comes from trying something new. Also, you can put many hours into sketching out a story before realizing its flaws, sometimes requiring you to take it behind the shed and wave goodbye. With personal narrative, because I know the material, I usually have a certain level of confidence that I can make it work. Or else I'll stop in the pre-draft stage.
What you described with fiction reminded me of something our brilliant instructor Meredith Hall likes to quote. An interviewer said to this visual artist, something like, It must be great to wake up every day and create art. The artist replied, I don't think of it as creating art. I try to solve problems.
The problem solving idea, and I'm not a math, science person, is one reason why I like writing experimental forms and short shorts. Sometimes, knowing a piece will be hard to pull off, or that it's something most writers wouldn't do, motivates me to try. So I think fiction will combine that structural challenge with what I expect to be even more difficult, developing characters and that non-gooey secretly gooey beneath the surface meaning/emotion/relatability. And oh yeah, plot.
ES: I'm jamming on the short short form myself lately. For one thing, it frees you from over explaining. You don't have to concoct some clunky, implausible backstory about why the kid is sad. Sorry, no time! You don't have to describe any of the characters if you don't want to, which is a thing I often hate doing, but which graduate workshops are frustratingly hung up on. (Why should I describe someone for no reason? One day I want to write a story that starts like this: "Picture a man, any man you want. Doesn't matter what he looks like. You pictured your coworker Craig? Whatever, your call...")
Plus, short shorts are perfect for trying a technique. A collective voice or some kind of repetition or something lyrical. You just read Tenth of December, so you're familiar with "Sticks." That story is great! But would it wear thin at a length of 5,000 words or so? Probably. Another great one is this story "Peasley" from Sam Lipsyte's The Fun Parts, that didn't even have me until the last four words. And it only had me then because the final sentence is brilliantly constructed and punctuated. Not to be the biggest dork in the universe, but the power of punctuation! My favorite part of the process may be thinking about the super micro-level stuff like that. How to make every word work four ways. How to make a comma (it's two commas in "Peasley") knock someone out. Lately periodic sentences are my big thing. Saving your very best word for the last word of the sentence. You can only throw a couple of them in there per reg. length story, but man are those puppies fatal.
Come back next week for Part Two of the Nonfiction Pizza Party Retirement Pizza Party. It will include reading suggestions, post-MFA plans, and an Entourage joke!