Justin Taylor will teach “Vision and Revision,” starting Jan. 28. Register now!
There’s no other readerly disappointment quite like something that almost works. The writer clearly has talent, natural as well as honed, and has put substantial time and energy into the work in question, which in turn has nearly achieved something. It’s enough to break your heart a little—but only a little, because whether what I’m reading is an assignment, on submission, or for pleasure, there are ten or a hundred other things I could be reading instead, so one pang of pity’s all you get.
I don’t have a general theory of why stories fail, nor do I have a surefire formula for unfailing them. But after ten years as a writer, reader, teacher, and occasional editor of fiction, one thing I’ve come to believe is that when a story fails to realize its full potential, it’s often because the writer—and hence the writing—lost control of the essential animating energy that got it written in the first place.
Losing control of the energy is hardly the same as losing control of the plot (or whatever). In fact it’s often exactly the opposite—the writer’s dogged commitment to their original idea of what a story is “about” or “what happens” outlasts the usefulness of the idea itself, and what you’re left with is a boat that can’t weigh anchor, a butterfly that can’t spread its wings because some well-intentioned fool shellacked the chrysalis.
Great writing—whether we’re talking about sentences, characters, scenes, or plots; whether we’re talking short stories or poems or novels—surprises its reader precisely because at some point, in some way, it surprised its author. Great writing does not (or, at least, does not only) offer an answer to some question it poses for itself, like a rhetorical display. Rather, it embodies the struggle that went into forming and asking the question. We should write toward what Donald Barthelme called “not-knowing.”
This is perhaps getting a bit ethereal, so let’s bring it back to earth. Are there actual strategies, tactics, methods, etc. that a person can use to make this process—well, not easier, necessarily, but more productive? Yes. Attention, endurance, and strong reading and editing are skills, not spiritual dispositions, and even the kind of openness to self-surprise described above is at least as much a practice as an attitude.
Of course nobody can decide for you where your work is headed or perform on your behalf the labor it will take to get it there. But the small, dedicated community of readers who constitute the workshop can help a writer gain fresh perspectives on her work, foment and try out new ideas, as well as expose her to specific approaches to editing and craft employed by other writers who have successfully navigated the same straits she finds herself in today.