Creative Writing Strategies

Think Small

Some writers have discovered that the way to enter the realm of imagination is through the hidden door of a small event.

Ethan Canin is a case in point. In a chapter entitled “Smallness and Invention” included in The Eleventh Draft, a book edited by Frank Conroy, Canin shares some of his secrets he learned on the road to becoming a published writer.

Canin explains the process: “In my creative writing class I decided that I would write like John Cheever, that I would seek those elongated phrases, those elided leaps into the world of ardor and transcendence and unearthed human longing that shone in his stories like gems beneath a stream. How far superior this raw emotion seemed to me. How much more profound and complex a truth.

In Cheever I found rejuvenation, found his unbridled emotion electrifying. I began typing out some of Cheever’s great paragraphs.

I suppose this was as important an exercise as I have ever performed.

I discovered two things: first, that Cheever’s great, epiphanic leaps were almost invariably preceded (and followed, it turned out) by paragraphs that accumulated small, accurate detail. Initially, this seemed like a profoundly important discovery to me. I could absolutely engage the fever pitch of emotion that had seduced me into writing in the first place, so long as I balanced it with large amounts of pedestrian observation. I went back to the stories I had written and added detail, surrounded my epiphanies with line after line of small-scale particulars.

But this alone did not make what I’d written much better, and it was here that I made my second, although admittedly in Cheever’s case, unproved discovery: that the progression from detail to epiphany is not a technique used merely for its effect on the reader, but that this method is in fact how a writer discovers his own material.

This changed my writing forever. To put it another way: I had chanced upon the discovery that for the writer it is not moral pondering or grand emotion that are the entrance to a story, but detail and small event. The next story I wrote I started not with the feeling of grandeur that had been my inspiration before, but with a narrowed concentration. I began by imagining a single act: a man going for a swim in San Francisco Bay. I didn’t start with any message in mind; I didn’t start with any climactic emotions swirling around me; I just started with the swim. What I discovered was that as I wrote these details, as I imagined myself striding down to the dirty shore, as I imagined myself plunging into the chilly water, stroking against the hard current, the story itself came to me. And it was not the story I intended. It seemed to be a story that came not from me but from this character, a salty old guy who swam in cold water. The amazing thing was, by the end I had actually pitched myself up to the same feverish swirl that had been my old inspiration. The difference was that this time the fever was the result of the story and not the cause.

I remember that the story was actually easy to write. Redbook published it. And I bought myself a used ’67 Mustang hardtop that was gradually becoming a convertible.”

Source: Excerpts from The Eleventh Draft, HarperCollins Publishers, edited by Frank Conroy, c 1999. ISBN 0-06-273639-6

Show, Don’t Tell

In The Elements of Style, William Strunk wrote: “Prefer the specific to the general, the definite to the vague, the concrete to the abstract.”

Countless editors put it this way: Show, don’t tell.

In The Complete Guide to Magazine Article Writing, John Wilson wrote: “Don’t tell us Michael Jordan is tall. Tell us how many feet and inches. Mention that he ducks when walking under awnings, looks down on Joe Montana, bumps his head in small cars. Don’t tell us someone is nervous; tell us how many packs of cigarettes she smokes, if she paces, fidgets, has ulcers. Don’t tell us California has a serious earthquake problem. Tell us how many earthquakes the state has had in the last ten years, how many to expect in the next ten. Tell us how many lives, buildings and dollars have been lost, how wide and deep the fissures were. Don’t tell us that people suffered, show us—with an anecdote, figure, quote, or vivid description.”

Some other examples:

Telling: He makes a fortune singing. Showing: In 1991, his gross income from concerts and albums was $16 million, placing him on Forbes magazine’s Top Forty list of highest-paid entertainers.

Telling: He loves his guitar. Showing: He got shot trying to save his guitar from robbers.

Telling: He was inconsiderate and rude. Showing: He sauntered in an hour late, sneering, and spent the next hour blowing smoke in my face as he chain-smoked. The ashes fell on an unpressed shirt already stained with God-knows-what, and his chin stubble and sour breath suggested he’d been up all night. “Screw you,” he snapped, when I asked if I might have a follow-up interview when he was more rested.

See the difference?  Which versions do you find more interesting?

Source: Excerpts from The Complete Guide to Magazine Article Writing, by John M. Wilson, 1993, Writer’s Digest Books. ISBN 0-89879-547-8.