Monday, December 12, 2011

Embracing the Chain Links: Finding Writing Freedom in Linked Stories

Linked stories are nothing new to me. I first encountered the concept straight out of high school with films like Pulp Fiction and Kevin Smith’s New Jersey movies. While my writing at the time was highly influenced by David Lynch, I’d always sneak some character or reference to a situation from a previous story into the muddled weirdness I was currently working on.


Linking fiction is something I’ve continued to play with. In 2010, inspired by Amelia Gray’s stellar collection of linked flash fiction, AM/PM, I tried to imitate her writing strategies in my own flash fiction, tried to find connections in my work where a character or a plot point might pop up in multiple pieces.


So while the linked story collection is nothing new to me, the idea they could be used as a method of building a novel changed my writing life.


For the past few years I’ve stuck to journalism and nonfiction. It was easier to write a story that had already been acted out, that could be examined for beginning and end points and a meaning. Fiction, on the other hand, meant creating all that stuff from thin air. The thought of writing a ten-page fictional story had become daunting to me and to push that to several hundred pages for a novel was surely impossible.


But linked stories acted as building blocks. I no longer cowered at the thought of getting from scene to the next. I just focused on the moment I was writing. Each piece was its own special moment in time with no pressure to push the story further. If I wanted to stop I could stop and be satisfied with my work. But as I wrote more links in my project the more I grew to care about my characters, to want to see their world fleshed out. I could see how their problems began and how they would eventually come to a close. I realized I was no longer working on a series of linked stories but a potential novel.


As I shift gears and think about my project as a book, I still approach each segment as if I were writing linked stories. It makes things more manageable. If I have a tough day of writing I can end knowing I finished a section instead of thinking “my novel isn’t finished and I have to write more tomorrow.” The linked story has taught me writing is just one step, one moment, one story at a time.

Family Ties: What I Learned from Writing Linked Essays

Since starting grad school in 2010 in Creative Writing at Ball State, I've been carving out a niche for myself in the program. I've had a flash fiction class with Sean Lovelace, creative nonfiction with Jill Christman, and just completed two courses this Fall 2011: 610 Writing Across the Genres and Cathy Day's 612 Fiction Writing Workshop.

On the first day of class, with all Prof. Day's talk of diptychs and triptychs and linked stories, I wondered just how I'd ever be able to write a short story cycle. Most of my essays and fiction have been limited to one premise and 20 pages. How could it be possible to expand beyond this, with multiple characters, multiple issues, but still a common thread (or threads) woven throughout? I dreaded it, and as each week went by without much of an idea, I started to panic.


I knew, at the very least, that I wanted my project to be nonfiction. I've been wanting to write about my family and their West Virginia and immigrant history ever since I started the grad program at BSU. But the question still remained: If the task is to write, at the very least, a diptych, how could I possibly tie together different relatives from different sides of the family, people with such radically different backgrounds and upbringings?

My first point of attack was to sit down and type out a series of questions for my parents to answer and record on tape. After a couple days of deliberation about the core familial issues I wanted to address, I handed my mom and dad a print-out of questions about three family members: my dad's dad, Calvin; my mom's half-brother, Steve; and my mom's half-sister, Jeanie. I asked questions ranging from the inane - "When was your father born?", "How would you describe your brother?", and "What is your earliest memory of your sister?" - to those with multiple deep levels - "When was your father diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia?", "Why did your mother sign away custody of your brother, Steve?", and "Why didn't you ever visit your sister in prison?" Even though I found that most of these questions led to other questions later - things I thought of later while hunched over my computer, listening to my parents' recorded answers - as I transcribed their interviews I started noticing patterns. Each of these family members I'd highlighted in my questions had, at some point, been largely absent from my life. Each of them struggled with some form of emotional deficiency. And, as it turns out, I felt I hardly knew any of them.

After the transcriptions were finished, I printed them out and began cutting them up into
sections. I wanted to take both of my parents' accounts of each of these relatives and group together common memories, recollections, and feelings. I stapled both parents' accounts of these three relatives together and put them into their own separate piles, according to person. And while I still felt disconnected from these three relatives of mine, I started noticing just how much there was in common among them, and not only that, but just how much in common I had with each of them, in terms of feeling, emotion, and understanding. When talking about my Aunt Jeanie, both my parents said they felt a disconnect in her, a sense of not belonging, and an overwhelming desire for the love and respect of her mother. Both my mom and dad saw my Uncle Steve as a bit of a misfit and a thug who got his life straightened out with the help of the military. My grandfather, Calvin, was a bit more difficult to sort out. My dad was able to recall fond memories of his father in spite of the emotional illness my grandfather suffered (and that the family also suffered because of it), but ultimately be rational about it in terms of how it changed the family dynamic and what my dad's understanding of the situation was. My mom, on the other hand, was much harsher and much more critical of father-in-law in her interview answers. That also led me to a connection between my mom and me, that we share the same lack of empathy and understanding for my dad's dad, which is something I've been trying to write about for years that this project has finally helped me begin to understand and articulate.

Writing linked essays has helped me form connections I never would have realized existed. For example, while reading through the interview transcriptions with my parents and moving around my little stapled piles, I hit upon a common thread among my grandfather, uncle, and aunt that I'd never even considered before: Calvin being confrontational and getting into heated arguments with neighbors and friends, Steve getting into a fight at school and breaking some kid's jaw, Jeanie being arrested and taken to jail. It was amazing to me that this whole possibility emerged from three very different people. Linking has helped me see the commonality where I never imagined there could or would be any and this triptych project has allowed me to bring my writing to a deeper, more meaningful level. It is certainly overwhelming, and no one promised writing would be easy, but linking has been so personally rewarding for me and I plan to see this project through as my creative project/thesis for the Fall of 2012.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Linking on a Micro-Level

by Aubrie Cox


When I found there was such a form as linking stories, I felt right at home. Working with forms such as haiku, tanka, and renku, I am expected to link from one image to the next, from one poem to the next. For example:

empty house
ghost stories seeping
into the walls

shadows shift
on yesterday’s paper

(from "Ghost Stories" by Aubrie Cox, Notes From the Gean 3.3, December 2011)

These two links of the renku are separate images that are easy to imagine separately, but when put together, they create a new thing--a new experience and a bigger picture that would not have existed otherwise. While the second link expands the feelings of emptiness, loneliness, it also shifts to a slightly different, but related, thought (old stories). This is basically how I view linked stories.

For my project this semester, I came in with material that I had been trying to shape to meet these expectations, while also blending haiku aesthetics (nature-oriented, objectivity, capturing a moment and little things, and room for interpretation) with the conventions of fiction (story, plot, character). These stories had a reoccurring character with a reoccurring structure (lines of a single haiku integrated throughout the story, and then the full poem at the end of the story). The mistake was that I was using a very traditional, manuscript format for a very experimental writing.

It was kind of like trying to paint a Ralph Steadman piece using Michelangelo's brush.


First Day of Creation by Michelangelo from Web Gallery of Art



DR Gonzo Mono by Ralph Steadman from signatureillustration.org


By the time I got to workshop, there was a lot of discussion among the group about how the extension description worked, and how it didn't (mostly didn't). I remember our professor reading through one section and suddenly saying, "Wait! Something's happening here, but I almost missed it among all this description." That was the first little "ah ha" moment—okay, so I need to make sure I'm not burying the action. And she went on to say that I should consider reparagraphing and examining the space on the page. The little "ah ha" suddenly became "AH HA!"

As writers, we often discuss how to write so that the reader keeps turning the pages; what I needed to do was figure out how to keep the reader reading from sentence to sentence. I had to link moment to moment.

I started with this:




And ended with this:




Of course, I'm sure the burning question is... how? Well, for starters, as recommended by Cathy, I read Sean Lovelace's Fog Gorgeous Stag to see how words could be rearranged on the page, and how white space played just as much a part in the composition as the words. To realize that, yes, I am allowed to start moving around the text to create a different visual experience (and therefore reading experience) was absolutely liberating.


Step 1: Rip Apart the Paragraphs

Before I could gut my work, I had to take a good hard look at it. I had to read each individual sentence to examine how it functioned with the whole, and then determine how much space it deserved on the page. The questions I asked myself usually included:

What does this sentence do?
How important is the information in the sentence?
Does it deserve to be alone or does it work better with several sentences?

Most paragraphs were broken down into three sections at the very least.


Step 2: Exodus from the Word Processor

Microsoft Word and I don't necessarily get along. No matter how many auto functions I turn off, I still find myself fighting with the program to make it do what I want to do. So one of the first things I asked was, "Can I do it in InDesign?"

Adobe InDesign, which is a program designed to create page layouts for print and digital publications, gave me more flexibility to move and shape type in pieces at a time in ways that would have probably given Word an aneurism.


Eat your heart out, Word.

If I wanted to move a couple sentences of from one side of the page to the other, or make one section a block while the sentence after stretched across the page, I could do so without worrying about the rest of the page changing on me.


Step 3: Like Information Does Like Things

It took a while before I figured out what I wanted my system to be—I knew I couldn't just randomly throw words into the file and arrange them to where I thought, "That looks pretty!"

The first thing that clicked for me was dialogue. To further distinguish who was talking, I put one character's dialogue to the left side of the page, and the other to the right (I always had only two characters talking at a time). It was quite revealing to see which characters dominated conversations, and in some cases, I think will also be revealing to the reader.

Throughout the stories, the patterns vary, but on each individual page (or spread), sections of text have been laid out to reflect similarities in the content or how much attention that passage deserves.


Step 4: Movement Across the Page (Linking of Ideas)

When I write scenes, I usually have a sense of movement in my mind. The eternal camera sweeps across the scenery in a particular direction, and I was able to mimic that movement in the layout of the pages. In a photograph, you want to direct the viewer's eye from one side of the picture to the other, to direct him or her to a focal point. On the page, I wanted to direct the reader from one passage to the next.

This is where the linking becomes most apparent, both in layout and the text. If the next passage is closely related (such as, a cause and effect moment), it is probably a closer proximity than a passage that shifts the direction of the story (action to dialogue). In considering what the consequence the next moment or even next sentence has on the previous text determined where I placed it on the page. Meanwhile, I tried to keep in mind that the reader's eye would have to be directed to the next sentence/passage.


Overall, I feel as though I came out of this project with a new way to compose my fiction. By breaking it down into small portions, I could focus on the individual words and create manageable portions for my reader to keep him or her from getting bogged down in the details while also pausing to appreciate the little things.

The Benefits of Teaching a Linked Story Workshop

John Bahler

The workshop model of the fiction writing class is beginning to meet with (appropriately enough) critiques. Of course most teachers find the workshop model far too valuable to discard, but some may suspect that there is a kink somewhere in the system. Rather than the format, however, I suggest that the problem may be the form. Rather than the workshop model, perhaps what teachers need to reconsider is what lies at the center of every traditional fiction writing workshop: the short story.