Tuesday, August 7, 2012

The Flexible Writer


Life is change. Growth is optional. Choose wisely.
~Karen Kaiser Clark

When I first began publishing, I coveted the qualities of a real writer: persistence, diligence, tenaciousness, enthusiasm, confidence, humility, patience, and of course a thick skin. But one was rarely mentioned, and I believe it’s among the most vital: flexibility.

By flexibility, I don’t only mean “kill your darlings,” though that’s great advice, and I'm not talking about managing as the revolving doors of publishing slap you with changes in staffing, distribution, and marketing. I’m talking about the kind of flexibility that allows you to rethink, rework, and even start over on a project, whether you’ve written 100 words or 100,000.

It may be that I appreciate flexibility because I’m not especially good at getting things right the first time. But recently I completed a series of revisions on a novel that is, save the title, unrecognizable from its earliest versions. I’m glad I stayed flexible. It made all the difference in the end result.

Commenting on his process in writing “Mrs. Kelly’s Monster,” a terrific essay anthologized in Literary Nonfiction, Jon Franklin affirms the value of flexibility. He began the project as one in a series of “practice pieces” in which he applied the Chekovian story form to journalism. In particular, he wanted to do something highly paced. Since he’d already earned a reputation as a science writer for the Baltimore Sun, he was able to follow Dr. Thomas Decker into brain surgery. But on this particular day, Dr. Decker wasn’t the hero Franklin was expecting to feature. His patient died.

“I had somehow assumed that the operation would work out okay and have a happy ending,” Franklin says. “Now I had this terrible feeling that I had lost my story. It was an awful day. Here a woman had died and I was feeling sorry for myself because I didn’t have a story and, yet, that’s how I felt. I went over it and over it, and it wasn’t until seven or eight that evening that I realized I did have a story. It was just different than I thought. It was, in fact, a better story, one in which Dr. Ducker, not Mrs. Kelly, was the protagonist. Of all the lessons I learned on that story, the most powerful was that stories change…and a good writer lets them…When a story changes on you, always let go of your hypotheses and follow the story. What you find will be much better than what you abandoned.”

Featured in a recent issue of Poets and Writers, fiction writer Ben Fountain learned a similar lesson about flexibility. Two years after the debut of his 2006 prizewinning story collection Brief Encounters with Che Guevera, Fountain’s editor turned down the novel he’d been working on for ten years. He didn’t suggest a revision – Fountain had already done several – he advised him to scrap it. As you might imagine, this came as a big blow to Fountain. Although six weeks earlier Malcolm Gladwell had called him “a genius-level literary autodidact with unlimited promise,” there was the small fact that he’d been writing for two decades and had only the one published story collection. Fountain says he went through all the stages of grief, from denial through depression, before he landed on acceptance. He decided he had other things to write. A few weeks later he started a short story that became the novel Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, released this year with a blurb from Madison Smartt Bell that says it’s “as close to the Great American Novel as anyone is likely to come these days.”

Here’s the thing about Fountain: he never gave up. He proved himself tenacious and persistent in the long haul. But with individual projects, he learned what to believe in and when to let go. In a word, he proved himself flexible.

Try This: Dust off something you wrote a long time ago but never published. Rewrite at least a paragraph so you can see how much you’ve grown as a writer. Then using the old writing as an example, do some process writing about how you’ve learned (and are still learning) flexibility.

Check This Out: For more examples of how flexible writers come out on top, read Literary Nonfiction: Learning by Example. In it, editor Patsy Sims gathers exemplary literary nonfiction, annotating each piece so you can see exactly how each writer achieves brilliance. It's a pricey collection, but especially valuable if you're writing nonfiction. (With thanks to Bill Streever, author of the bestselling Cold: Adventures in the World's Frozen Places and (forthcoming) Heat: Adventures in the World's Fiery Places, who directed me to the Sims book, saying it taught him to write.)

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