In the last few years, I've gained a readiness to write major new drafts as a matter of course. First-born words can arrive as immutable as twelve-foot marble angels in the local park–instantly nostalgic, moveable only with difficulty. Images concretize. The blue veined hand, imagined
is. A man flicking a syringe near the hem of an angel's robe
does. A woman's cold ears
are. Because these visions come from the nether world, not quite daydream, not quite subconscious, they are at first untellable in any other way. Memories are similarly sacrosanct. But I find that as a story spins itself out from this place, unless I'm lucky, the result needs shape.
There is plenty of advice available on how to structure narrative. Begin with the end in mind. Don't begin with the end in mind. Travel blindly and surprise yourself. Make an outline. I love W. Somerset Maugham's statement that there are three rules to writing a novel; unfortunately no one knows what they are. The same could be said for short stories and poems. Sometimes I wish this were less true. Specific checklists exist in how-to books, with questions that can force a further draft. Do you need a compelling beginning? Are your characters true? Does your pacing work? Etc, etc. There are formulas to apply, the most basic being to write a desire that leads to a conflict, which leads to action, then resolution. But each story has its own questions and each answers to its own world.
Lately looking for those questions has been leading me to five or more drafts. Maybe this exposes how I struggle, but at least the drafts prove I've been tenacious and curious. One version is often a switch in point of view. It's amazing to me how both troublesome and enlightening that basic element can be. I gravitate towards omniscient narration partly because I want permission to be in multiple minds. Switching to first person makes the story more invested, better focused, and I can always pull back the lens once I've gotten what I need.
I've added characters that have illuminated crevices I didn't know were there, and while I'm not thinking of Kurt Vonnegut when I do, I remember a lecture he gave at Smith College where he asked how many people in the full house of two thousand were writing a story at the time. An astonishing number. And how many of you are stuck, he asked. Slightly less, but still remarkable. Add a character, he said.
He was right, but of course it's rarely that simple. All I know is that there's the nether world from which comes a prim smile, spilled coffee and orchids. Or a twelve-foot marble angel in a park where lovers have left each other for the first or last time. But then every story has its artifice as well as its apparition. The hard part is allowing new elements to enter a pre-existing story, and then weaving imagination with structure. A recent gift is the courage to let the marble angel come down off his pedestal in a later draft, and toodle about the man-made pond in a paddleboat for a while, then ask why he's there in the grand scheme of things. If he puts his size thirty stone foot through the bottom of the boat, I can always scurry back to his first incarnation. Or maybe not. If he's left standing in the middle of the pond, holding his lyre above water, little shards of fiberglass floating around him, there's always the next draft. And the last draft? That's another matter.