Experiments in Longhand

The writing is going pretty well this year, I think. By actively tracking my wordcounts for the new year in a spreadsheet, which I can use to do all sorts of fun statistical shenanigans, I've built in some more accountability to my writing than I had in the past. Already in January, I've written about 10,000 new words which roundly beats my output for quite a few of the full years I've had in the past (and puts me on pace to beat last year's amazing 60,000-ish number by July).

Being accountable like this has had some interesting consequences. In the effort to find more time to get writing done, so that days which used to be zero word days can now be 50 or 100 or 600 word days, I've started using my commute time, riding on BART trains, to write longhand.

In the past, I've been uncomfortable writing prose in longhand, and saved it for my poetry (which I rarely wrote, so it was obviously a perfect plan). The form feels more strongly poetic to me, though I don't have an explanation about why that doesn't make me sound like a proseform asshole. Because it's such a shift, and because the writing will necessarily be in small chunks while I travel, I decided not to use my longhand writing to work on projects like My Many Bodies, or some of my ongoing short stories, but to do something new, to experiment, to let my longform stories be their own things.

So I fell back to one of my favorite writing exercises, which takes the idea of copying another writer's style to discover new elements in your own and pushes it into somewhat more obscure territory. The idea is to take whatever it is that you're currently reading, whether you enjoy it or not, whether it's in your genre or not, and to write a new story that replicates not the style but the feel. Creating a story in your own style that need only be evocative of another, rather than being similar (and evocative to you, as the writer, more than to anyone else).

This is a challenge.

This is a challenge for me right now because I'm reading Everything That Rises Must Converge, which sort of set the bar really high really early. "Dear self: try to evoke Flanner O'Connor. It's okay. She's only a consensus grand master of the short story form."

So I had to decide, what elements most signify a Flannery O'Connor story to me? There is the moment of grace, and though I can't replicate that moment with the religious significance it had for O'Connor -- in fact, wouldn't want to -- I can bring my character to a moment of intense, even violent, possibility. There's an inflexibility in the worldview of her characters that I don't typically have in mine, so I'm trying that out. There's a generational divide in her stories between an often kind but despicable traditionalism and a cruel and deeply flawed sort of progressivism. I needed to change the frame that divides the generations to work in my style, but I could keep the impasse. There are smaller things, too, but I won't drag them out.

Also as important are the decisions about where I have to diverge. The religious crisis is out because I don't share O'Connor's preoccupation, but I still have the crisis. The setting, often the American south, is out for the same reason, and some of the associated baggage there, as well. I'm also a fantasy writer, so I'm writing a fantasy story.

The result right now is a story that feels as foreign as it does familiar. There are things I am doing that I never would have done otherwise, and things that O'Connor does that I can't do while remaining honest to my own style. I hope you get to see it one day.