Sunday, March 28, 2010

Guest Post by Tatjana Soli: Our Relationship to Our Stories

First, I’d like to introduce myself. I’m TatjanaSoli, and my debut novel, The Lotus Eaters, is coming out on March 30. It still feels kind of unreal, as well as nerve-wracking, going through the publication process, and I’ve found myself going back to fundamentals in my writing these last months to ground myself. I’d like to share some of these ideas with you this week. I’d also like to thank Aggie, who was so kind to invite me to post here.

A few weeks ago I had the strange, out-of-body experience of attending the performances of a number of my own short stories read by a group of professional actors. Being shy, I assumed this was going to be a tough week of self-consciousness, but once the actors began reading I felt transported from creator to spectator. I was totally caught up in the stories, and I didn’t feel responsible for them. I was listening for the “What comes next?” along with the audience. And I noticed things in my work that I had never been aware of before, such as that there is lots of food in my work. We got so hungry during rehearsal we ran out for a big dinner afterwards. My characters are looking for love and finding it in odd places. They mostly have a black sense of humor and worry inordinately about paying the bills.

Thing is, one of these stories was written over ten years ago. Others were newer, but none were within the last year. But they seemed eerily current with the me of today — oddly prophetic of my life, or at least my interior life now. They were like palm readings that I could compare to the future they described, while at the time of writing them, I felt I was totally using my imagination, writing nothing in the least autobiographical.

I have spoken to other writers who also recognize this sense of déjà vu with their earlier work, a clear pattern of themes and obsessions where none was intended. It is almost as though we were fated to write these stories, or similar ones, no matter what our outward intentions. When my writing students ask me about style — should they consciously pattern themselves on someone they admire? — I say yes, but only if they want their goal is to be a watered down, derivative version of someone else. If the admired work is good, it’s alive with a sense of that author; copied work, impersonated work, is by nature dead. I assure students that if they keep writing, with a sincere effort to tell their story — or stories, because this is a process that lasts over years — their own style, voice, will emerge as surely as a unique fingerprint.

Writers will recognize that this is very like the process of writing a story. One has a character perform actions, which move the story ahead. If one picks random actions, ones not rooted in who that character is, the story will start to move in a false direction. Sometimes this is a hundred page wrong way. This is one of the most frequent reasons a story runs into a dead end. Rewriting is largely a process of recalibrating two things: (1) Knowing your characters more and more thoroughly, and (2) having their actions be the only possible ones they could perform. In other words, you are creating that same sense of inevitability I felt when I saw that a random group of my stories were actually unified because they came from a single vision. Be true to your storytelling self, and ten years from now, you, too, might find out you are a kind of fortuneteller.

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