My most satisfying piece of writing (or writing experience) was 40+ pages of fiction that I eventually trashed. Not literally. It’s collecting digital dust in my digital archive somewhere.
So why did I write 40+ pages of fiction, you ask. Mostly because I like to add plus signs to numbers to casually indicate approximate quantities, but I was also working on my undergraduate senior writing project. It was a two-semester writing requirement to complete my B.A. in Creative Writing. What made it (a little more) daunting was that I was mostly a poet at that point and had only written fiction for the two or three classes/workshops that required it. But I am a narrative poet, so storytelling came quite naturally. What did not come naturally was sustaining a narrative for more than a few stanzas. It was like going from being a sprinter to a marathoner. And all sorts of things need to be managed on that same longitudinal scale when writing 40+ pages. Plot, setting, character development, pacing. Even finding enough language was rough. I was used to every word counting in a poem. Sustaining that kind of “charged” language in a short story would not only be tedious, it would be ridiculous.
But there I was, cranking out 40+ pages of fiction. I had an epigraph, an idea and a character, and I ran with it. The result, based on the feedback from my workshop group, was something that was sometimes artful, sometimes beautiful, but mostly it was a lot of description of a guy riding his horse through the woods with some occasional flashbacks to his past. At the time, it was monumental (in a good way). But when I had to try to move that story forward and maintain that descriptive mode, it was monumental (in a bad way). I started to panic, I felt that I had made a mistake, I remembered to breathe.
I thought about the stories that had inspired me or given me the courage to write my story. The two essential pieces of literature for me at that time were “Michael Kohlhaas” by Heinrich von Kleist and “The Passion” by Jeanette Winterson. They are very different tales, but the strange, dreaminess in Winterson and the righteous violence in von Kleist helped me reformulate my approach to the tale I wanted to tell. My first move was to let go of those 40+ pages and start fresh. I ended up with 9 pages that weren’t very descriptive, but they were telling a good story.
The satisfaction in this experience was twofold. I learned to be able to let go of a substantial piece of writing that wasn’t accomplishing what I knew I wanted to do, and I took a few steps towards being able to manage all the parts of a good story. That new (to me) mode of writing, that reassessing of style and content, allowed me to produce four mini-stories, each with its own protagonist but each connected chronologically and geographically to the previous tale. I enjoyed the challenge and the process and the outcome. One day I’ll revisit those pages and maybe even be inspired to tell that tale again.
NOTE: As per usual, it wouldn’t be a CWE grad assistant blogpost (head nod to Meg DeJong) without a music reference. My folktale was partially inspired by the English folksong “John Barleycorn.” As with any folksong, there are many variations. My first encounter with it was the version performed by Traffic (“John Barley Corn Must Die”). The song is about John Barleycorn, a personification of the cereal crop, barley. He suffers at the hands of all the people involved in the processing of the grain, from the farmer to the miller to the consumer. It’s full of themes such as revenge, violence, sacrifice, resurrection, alcoholism and scapegoating. All of that influenced my story, and some of the scenes of violence in the Traffic song reappear pretty blatantly in my tale as well. It was difficult to deal with violence in my story. I didn’t want it to become a purely shock-value element, but I didn’t want to “turn the lights off” during those moments either. It was also difficult from a realism standpoint, just finding the words to portray the scenes believably.