As Toni Morrison once said, I write stories I want to read. And since I have always been comfortable living on the margins, I tend to write marginal characters. Like all writers, I think that literature helps us to make sense of the world and our place in it. And, the short story with its "single effect" enables characters to interrogate the human condition. I am particularly interested in the social constructions of gender, race, and class and how these constructs shape our lives. My characters often find themselves entangled in one or more of these matrices trying to figure it all out. And of course, they end with more questions than resolutions, because, after all, no one really figures it all out.
The following is Vonnegut's 8 Rules for Writing Fiction, first published in his Bamboo Snuff: Uncollected Short Fiction (1999). I thought I would share them here because I think Vonnegut was brilliant. Sometimes we writers lose sight of this simplicity.
- Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
- Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
- Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
- Every sentence must do one of two things — reveal character or advance the action.
- Start as close to the end as possible.
- Be a sadist. Now matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them — in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
- Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.
- Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.
In Julia Alvarez's Something to Declare, she outlines what she calls "Ten Commandments for Writing." I read this text about six years ago, but Alvarez and her words never left me. She quotes Saint Thomas from the Gnostic Gospels saying,
Every writer knows this all too well. When a writer has a story to tell or a testimony to give, she must write it or tell it, or else it will grow and burst from the seams, demanding to be written, demanding to be told. It will gnaw and seep out into normal conversation. It will spill onto post-it notes and paper napkins until the writer brings it forth. And, eventually, if the story doesn't get told, the nondisclosure of it will destroy the writer. Writing is purgation. One way or the other, the story must be released.If you bring forth what is inside you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is inside you, what is inside you will destroy you.
Alvarez also said something else, which remains contentious. She believes that literature is not just a moral force but a seed for moral action. Many disagree that literature should be revolutionary or promote social reconstruction. However, Alvarez wholeheartedly supports this notion. Her novels, In the Time of the Butterflies, How the García Girls Lost their Accents, and In the Name of Salomé, to name a few, are extraordinary tales about protagonists who challenge imperialism, gender oppression, and racism. Her work has definitely changed my world view and shaped my perspective.
Thank you Julia Alvarez for your gifts and your guidance...
Another writer who has left an indelible impression on me is Octavia Butler. She once said,
Wow! All writers have had that mortifying, sickening feeling after having read something they wrote years ago (or last week), and thought it was really good stuff at the time. Only to discover, after some elapsed time, new eyes, and new knowledge, they had written crap! The horror!You don't start out writing good stuff. You start out writing crap and thinking it's good stuff, and then gradually you get better at it. That's why I say one of the most valuable traits is persistence.
Toni Morrison is indeed a literary genius and perhaps the best writer of the twentieth century. Her work is the focus of an entire chapter of my Master's Thesis. She said this once about writing,
Well, I try to write when I'm not teaching,
which means fall and most of the summer. I
do get up very early, embarrassingly early,
before there is light, and I write with pencil,
yellow pads, words, scratchings out, but, you
know, long before that, I've spent a couple of
years, probably eighteen months, just
thinking about these people, the
circumstances, the whole architecture of the
book, and I sort of feel so intimately
connected with the place and the people and
the events that when language does arrive,
Writers are well aware of this phenomenon. The voices of the characters, their shapes, their minds, and hearts just kind of dance around in your head until you must set them free and put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard. Then, the words and the voices screech out onto the page, sometimes for hours, sometimes for days, if you're lucky.I'm pretty much ready.