Stranger than fiction

In college and the early years proceeding it, Isabel Allende was one of my favorite writers. Her words had a lilting rhythm and the stories were caught somewhere between folktale, historical fiction, and fantasy. I remember reading Zorro while traveling through Spain during the spring break of my semester abroad. Allende’s style had the magical realism I’d studied in Latin American writers like Jorge Luis Borges and Julio Cortazar, but hers was more accessible and little more grounded in reality. I was enchanted.

kw878611Since then, I’ve gravitated toward contemporary fiction with a dash of the extraordinary rather than straight-up science fiction or fantasy. Both of Karen Russell’s short story collections—and even her Pulitzer-nominated novel Swamplandia! to an extent—were dynamite. To this day, I’m not sure whether it was the adept writing or the crazy plot details (an adults-only indoor blizzard; presidents reincarnated as horses) that left me agape. Also, it probably goes without saying that George Saunders’ Tenth of December with its own forays into the impossible breaks the mold.

Until two months ago, I continued to describe these wonkily wonderful stories as “like magical realism” or “amazing, really bizarre literature.” Then I came across this Wall Street Journal article on Kelly Link’s latest work and the burgeoning category of “slipstream fiction.” According to the piece, the term was first coined in the ’80s to describe stories that slip in and out of reality while being more grounded than a true fantasy.

Are you familiar with slipstream fiction, a.k.a the “New Weird?” Genre bending could offer writers more creative latitude, and I personally prefer realism (and reality) to be a little bizarre, at least every now and then.

Unfinished stories

When it’s a bright, new year, you can’t help but think of fresh starts and the road yet untraveled. But what about the old projects and the chronic hangups?

Since finishing my last creative writing class as an undergrad seven years ago, I’ve had a number of false starts: Stories that are started with such zest and anticipation but are ultimately abandoned. I’ve got about a dozen of them.

Some like writer/blogger Deborah Ross maintain that unfinished stories can serve as a useful tool in challenging a writer to improve. However most contend that to grow, writers must conclude their stories.

And here is the perfect (albeit paradoxical) New Year’s project: Bring a fresh perspective and swift conclusion to these orphan stories—one week and one story at a time. Many will make me grit my teeth at their premise, prose, and presumption, but perhaps others will turn out okay. At the very least I will be finished what I started.

I went for years not finishing anything. Because, of course, when you finish something you can be judged.
– Erica Jong

Work on one thing at a time until finished.
– Henry Miller

You will never be the writer you want if you cannot complete what you begin.
Chuck Wendig

You have to finish things — that’s what you learn from, you learn by finishing things.
– Neil Gaiman

Great is the art of beginning, but greater is the art of ending.
– Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

What do you think of unfinished stories? Do you have any and do you revisit them later?

Write on

“Watch your thoughts; they become words. Watch your words; they become actions. Watch your actions; they become habit. Watch your habits; they become character. Watch your character; it becomes your destiny.”Lately, I’ve been thinking about habits.” — Lao Tzu (or Margaret Thatcher)

I had a habit epiphany. [Clarification: I had a realization about habits; I am not now in the habit of having epiphanies on a regular basis. Admittedly that could be cool.] Quotes like the one above and articles and books about making good habits and breaking bad ones have an inspired me to think smaller.

Habits are those tiny building blocks that can build to something bigger. Sometimes you’re looking at a skyscraper of a goal and its gargantuan-size and shiny, polished windows freeze you with fear. How could I ever build something like that? My building would collapse on itself.

I’m glad architects and civil engineers practice that kind of precision, and I hope they do worry frequently about things collapsing. But rather than let the pressure of a building be overwhelming, they piecemeal the process with blueprints, models, and, yes, building blocks.

As Meghan Trainor sagely says, “I’m all about the base.” Start from the most basic foundation and keep going.

I’m officially challenging myself: Write something creative (i.e. not grocery lists or news stories) every day. Even if it’s three sentences. Even if it’s a really corny couplet. Every. Day.