Wed 29 Sep 2010
A while back, a friend asked if I write with a specific purpose in mind, “purpose” as in “What is my aim, my point, my theme?”
I wanted to say “no.” A first draft is about exploration and discovery and I have no idea what the purpose of anything is at that point. My purpose at the beginning is to get words into the keyboard, up on the screen. Once they’re up there, I can figure “stuff” out.
I realized this answer was misleading and making that statement, especially to anyone new to the craft, might lead him or her to think that “meaning” magically seeps into the writing without effort on the part of the writer. Or that the writer sits down to write a story in which “Love is Blind” or “War is Hell” and creates situations with characters to prove his theme.
Most of us aim for middle ground. We know that to hammer away at theme will lead to a story that is obvious and preachy, but we also know that often stories offered up by writers as puzzles rarely work either. Readers want to feel they are in good hands, that the writer knows what he’s doing, that if the reader lets the story unfold, she will learn something, have an aha moment, an emotional response. It’s difficult for readers to count on writers as guides when the writers don’t know where they’re going.
But the choice isn’t about whether the story has purpose, but rather when the writer discovers that purpose. Purpose becomes apparent in the act of writing. More often than not, what happens is a story comes from an image, a character trait, a pet peeve and it is in the act of sitting down at the keyboard and wrestling that image or character into certain circumstances that theme emerges.
There’s no pinpointing when this happens. On a first draft, a sentence might appear on the screen and the writer thinks, “Oh so this is what this is about!” Or when reading over the third draft wondering why the story doesn’t quite work, the writer asks, “What the heck does this shit mean?” Or maybe a possible theme pops out with the last line of the piece. “Ah, now I know why I wrote this.”
Purpose can be tiny, tiny, especially in flash. It can explore IMPORTANT IDEAS, but in a moment, briefly caught for examination, freezing the climax of a story and revealing only the immediate emotional impact, hinting at what came before. Flash is that upclose moment the reader is allowed to share.
For longer stories, the need for purpose–not just the stringing of pretty words together–becomes essential. It gives the writer something to explore, think about how he feels about it, and then conveys it to the reader in an effective way.
However, the theme or epiphany that emerges in the first draft is usually not enough. It must be tended to. Once the writer understands what the theme is, another edit through is necessary to find opportunities to underline and enhance that theme. This is especially important in the writing of flash where every word counts. The character’s name, his job, the nature of his problem, the setting, the title, all the details can be used to support the theme as well as tone, voice, and structure. These elements need not be too overt or too subtle in their connections, but just knowing and thinking about meaning can help a writer to deepen his work.
What we write comes from who we are and what we want to say to the world. Sometimes that purpose goes outward toward the big events, the societal worries, but just as often it goes inward to personal insecurities, failings, and successes. The author aims to give his work universal meaning by creating a world that is engrossing, surprising, and possesses some form of truth. By questioning her own text, the writer can come to better understand her view of the world and share that view with her readers.
Gay Degani has published in journals and anthologies including The Best of Every Day Fiction 2008 and TWO (2009). Nominated for a 2008 Pushcart, her online stories can be read atSmokelong Quarterly, Short Story America, Metazen, Night Train, Paradigm, andEmprise Review, as well as other publications. Her chapbook of short fiction, Pomegranate, came out in December of 2009. She’s a staff editor at SmokeLong Quarterly, edits EDF’s Flash Fiction Chronicles, and blogs at Words in Place.