I am of two minds about “craft.” On the one hand, I worry that stories are simply too complex and fragile for the conscious mind to sort through them, that to attempt to think one’s way through any story is to invite disaster. And it has certainly been the case that the stories where I have planned the most carefully ahead of time, where I thought my way through questions of character and plot and point of view, where I have revised and revised, have often collapsed under their own weight. Yet the stories I have felt the best about have often been the ones I wrote the most quickly, revised the least, and had little notion of where they were headed while I was writing, or why I was making my “writerly” decisions.
On the other hand, I think excessively about craft when I am not writing. Recently, for example, I have been wondering why some fictions feel from the very first lines like a story, while others seem to hem and haw and not arrive at that magical place where we feel as readers that something is up. The traditional answers, of course, would be to focus on “conflict” or what a character “wants,” but these seem to be matters of the long sprawl, and less why a sentence can draw us in as story. So what makes a story come immediately to life? Maybe it is when we see clearly what the character is feeling about the situation at hand, and this response is a little quirky. In other words, if a man is standing at a window and sees his dogs digging out from the under the fence, I might be a little drawn in if he thinks, “Oh no . . . my dogs!” But I am far more interested if he thinks, instead, “Thank God.”
So does the craft of storytelling, at least on the micro level, mean having characters respond strongly and in unexpected ways? Maybe. But do I want to be thinking about this while I am writing? Probably not. For me, at least, I would rather see my job as simply to listen to whatever my viewpoint character is telling me to place on the page, and then to comply.
And this describes accurately what I was thinking while writing “Doppelganger” and “Frost.” I wrote the stories very quickly, with few plans of where they might be headed, letting them go where they wanted. Both works are part of a larger collection of linked flash stories, and these are the few general notes I wrote to myself before I began composing the collection:
Write a series of poetic flash fiction stories all set in the same unnamed City by the Sea.
The stories will be in third person, told from the point of view of characters without names. The lovers. The old man. The watchmaker. The boy. The dying woman. The girl with a limp. Have these characters recur.
The key to the “voice” is to imagine it as “ghostly” (don’t ever say this literally), lost in some liminal state. The voice looks for clues, and the stories, then, are about uncertainty.
Sometimes the voice should be aware that a story is being told, but in other places the distortion should be greater, the poetic quality stronger.
The stories should all be “ghost stories” about the people in this city. The city, for them, is in a kind of fog.
The city is dreamlike. There are buildings and a sea and cars and trucks and sirens and pedestrians, but all is in a mist.
Of course, both “Doppelganger” and “Frost” violate my promise not to mention ghosts directly, though most of the stories in the collection comply. But even in the stories that have no explicit reference, I found it helpful to keep reminding myself as I wrote that the characters did not feel fully alive inside their bodies, not fully corporeal, and that this fact influenced how they saw the world and the stories they were telling. In other words, thinking this way served to help generate the idiosyncratic viewpoints I was seeking.
In any case, though, after I wrote my notes for the collection I never looked at them again, until now, and simply let the stories arrive of their own volition. And maybe that’s what I think about craft. It’s important to ponder such things except during the act of writing, when they should mind their own business and butt out.
DOUG RAMSPECK is the author of six books of poetry and one book of short stories. His most recent book of poems, Black Flowers (2018), is published by LSU Press. His first book of short stories, The Owl That Carries Us Away (2018), received the G. S. Sharat Chandra Prize for Short Fiction, and is published by BkMk Press (University of Missouri-Kansas City).