Friday, March 07, 2008

Revising vs Rewriting

How does one distinguish the two? Is one more appropo than the other? Under which circumstances?

That's my dilemma at the moment. I've written a rough draft of a short story, wrote a week ago to be precise, and tomorrow my "final" draft is due--I'm thinking it's just going to be a "second" draft. The problem is, I like how my story is now: a dry, objective, uninflected compare/contrast story on a usually emotionally messy and obscured situation: a dysfunctional relationship. My hope was to ask: "To what extent are we bound to repeat history?" In this case, in relationships. Are we pre-determined by the actions of our parents, siblings, friends, to treat our significant others as we have witnessed those around us treat theirs? How true is it to say we are products of our environments? Surely, there are those who can transcend, but what about the rest of us?

Those were the initial guiding questions for my story, and so I came up with a structure that essentially split the story in two: the first section for Kelli, our female character, the second for dane, our male character. The beginning, middle, and end serve as "omniscient" transitions for the narrative, looks at the relationship in question. The two sections are about each characters' points of reference regarding relationships: they're all dysfunctional. The question is whether or not these two who have problems but obviously care about each other, are bound to fall into the same traps that their surrounding relationships fell into.

Unfortunately, as well written as parts of it are, I don't think it makes for a very engaging story. It lacks a destination, as a matter of course, and it doesn't have much in the way of true conflict, only conflict as required by the story. I named the character Dane as a nod to Hamlet, the greatest procrastinator in literary history, but I don't externalize Dane's inner turmoil as Bill does Hamlet's. It's repressed, supressed. My professor told me that non-comedic short stories require emotion, either directly evoked or repressed in ways that evoke them anyways...And he's right.

But does finding a "plot" or a series of actions, make this necessarily a more touching story? I sort of wrote this as therapy to try and grapple with questions that have been plaguing me about Marie and I's relationship, so does moving away from that, casting judgement on the proceedings, crafting an end for a story that doesn't really have one--do these things betray my story? Or do they just keep me from being like any other self-indulgent junior artist?

Why write at all if you write for no one? That is the question. But on the flip side of the coin: why write for anyone if you don't first write for yourself? That is the OTHER question. Am I betraying myself by straying from my intent for the piece, just to draft something that is more dramatically satisfying?

Exacerbating this, is that I know the piece is flawed as is, especially my use of epic similes which are hugely lopsided toward the beginning of the story...and then...slowly...fade...away...
at...the...e...n...d as I run out of creative similes.

The primary example I've looked at is Stephen Crane's amazing short story "The Open Boat" about four survivors of a shipwreck as they struggle with exhaustion amid an indifferent sea. The majority of their struggle takes place as they drift about just outside the surf of a beach that would topple their boat if they tried to make a dash for shore...which is a problem because they're so exhausted, they would most definitely drown if they didn't get in close enough. Crane has four sharply defined characters, in a dire situation, with time and nature working against them, and then the brutal irony of contemplating death when they can see safety with their very own eyes. When they finally make a go for it, it is a very suspenseful sequence as there has been so much build up to it. And though three of them make it to shore, barely, one of them does not and even this 75% survival rate cannot stand up to the overpowering sense of loss at even just one of them drowning, literally, in water shallow enough to stand up in. Very, very powerful prose. And it's told in a very cool objective, deeply observational and unemotional voice. But the events are so powerful, that despite this distant voice, we can't help but be drawn in right into the open lifeboat with these men.

Obviously, I have a lot of admiration for this story. And I'm sure the weaknesses of my story stand in sharp contrast to this. My story is hardly a matter of life and death---even if one's relationship with their beloved (or lack thereof) is one of the most powerful emotional situations in human existence--I've still got content working against me. Relationship woes can heal, maybe, with time and the help of others, but death is irrevocable.

As a response to The Open Boat, I wrote a brief, but really, really engaging ending sentence that is sort of an extension of my short story, but the problem is that as is, the short story has almost nothing to do with this sort of ending. I'll put it below, just in case it never ends up in anything else I write:

"And years later, as he lay dying thousands of miles away from their old home, Dane could think of nothing else but why there were no stars in the sky."

A little context: the story opens comparing relationships to a binary star system, so bringing it back around to the stars is essential at the end, but the lack of stars is the lack of a relationship. Obviously, he would have to have ended their relationship for this ending to have any coherent meaning. The problem is integrating it in the piece. Ending with Dane's demise, not to mention setting it up, is a lot of reverse-engineering. And since the story is supposed to be objective, I would in fairness, need to include Kelli's status at the same time as Dane's death. And as I said, reworking this whole thing is a LOT of work...and I've got 11 hours and 49 minutes as of this writing...I've written more in less time, but still. I want to make the right decision. I want to craft a compelling piece, that still stays true to my artistic intent. Find that happy middle ground where the author and reader meet each other half-way. And I'm just not sure how far to go.

...I guess I could use one of John Cage's "Oblique Strategies" (yes, I am a dxarts major): "Take it all the way, then bring it make just a little."

I need to get to work.

Listening to: Arctic Monkeys