Craft: Not Because I Say So

Sometimes I start with a character. Sometimes I start with a situation. I like to write a first draft quickly, within two or three hours or two or three days. Pin that butterfly to the paper, as per Ann Patchett. When I am mired by the details (smudging the delicate wing) I quit the story for a week or fifty-two, or steamroll ahead for the sake of finishing a draft. But if I decide I want the story to be a story, not its first nebulous idea – beautiful and blurred from a distance – I begin my revision in note form.

First I reread the draft, or give the piece to a friend or editor to read. Now I am revising a story whose first thought was lifted from a few places. I want to write more about the places I’ve lived or traveled. I also explore questions in fiction, for the fun or empathy of knowing that life. So this story is about a Korean man marrying an American woman after meeting in college, somewhere in the midwest. At one point in the story, they visit Seoul with their son, and the father is out of place in this city so different from the one he knew as a boy and adolescent.

When I first drafted this story at the end of last summer I was frantic to make it work. There were claws at my shoulders. I am not a Korean man but I wrote myself into his character. He is initially afraid of fatherhood. He carries guilt about a wish. He goes home to Korea and knows he cannot be at home in Korea again. Yet he is also not at home in the States. He worries for how his son fits in a small white suburb. He is afraid his guilt is manifested in the disease his body suffers. I really thought I might write this story and be delivered from my own fear and shame, that my body might let go its injury too. So I wrote the draft quickly to make it end. And at the end I thought I made something worth revising.

Now I revise. I am glad for the help of an editor who asks good questions. After our conversation, I reread the draft and notes from our conversation. That afternoon and again today I sat with a coffee and my notebook and thought about who this Korean man is, who this American wife is. I should know the scene of their meeting, the weeks after, the attraction, marriage and sex, the optimism of meeting neighbors who later bring a card to wish a happy Chinese new year. I should know the work of this man and woman, their parsing of household chores and bills. I should know the son and his hobbies and his response to that trip to Seoul. Before Seoul, the son only heard his father speak Korean while on the phone with a grandmother the son did not know for the distance of geography and language.

Now I know my characters. I understand their motives. When I revise, “because I say so” is not a reason to the reader. “Because I say so” is not a reason for me, the writer, either. There is no satisfaction in because. But also there is no satisfaction in a deluge of detail. In one of my first college workshops the professor (a poet who loved Florida and wore cowboy boots in all weather) assigned a character exercise from the first edition of What If? We answered approximately thirty-four hundred questions about our character. Picking a favorite song or food or giving a character a superstition was supposed to help us write details into the story but I only ended up bored of my character. Since then I’ve been wary of dating my characters. There is so much I don’t care to know. Yet.

What a balance, to spend time shaping who this Korean man is, who this American woman is, who this son is, to then decide what a reader must also know, and how to show or tell them these details that will answer motive or emotion or dynamic. I have not yet returned to the draft to revise. I want to keep my notes another day or two. Before I begin adding whole scenes, sentences, or clauses, I will reread the piece again with my notes (new knowledge) in mind to see what I might need to cut or move to enmesh this better understanding of my characters, to tell a fuller story.

Just this afternoon, on the way home from a cafe, I saw an English teacher friend. She is glad for me to apply to MFA programs, and offered to read my work. I said it’s a little weird to tell people I’m working on a story. I write a story, but I also work on a story. Most people don’t know what that means but she understands. For a moment it was good to stand on a corner appreciating how unmagical writing is, and to know that sometime this week I’ll revise the draft, share it with my friend who will recognize the hours but still critique the gaps so that on the third or fourth revision, the story will stand. And not just because I say so.

Eighteen of thirty-nine. My baby can drink soju in Korea. 892 words.

CRAFT Essay: Kleines Cafe, Vienna

Read the first draft of the piece here and the finished essay here

I wrote the first draft of this essay in Kleines Cafe, on a three day trip to Vienna from Budapest. When I returned to Budapest I set my laptop on a dresser in the front bedroom of our apartment there and typed from the notebook, posted with a quick look for minor errors. I always miss something.

(One time when I was six or seven years old I drew a woman wearing a dress made of ruffles, a dress so long that I used two sheets of paper. I put the drawing on the fridge and a day or two later noticed that under her puffy sleeves, I’d forgotten her arms).

That summer we were in Budapest, preparing for our last year in Kuwait. We understood the school year ahead would be made of decisions that shaped our individual and family life. I was thinking about my history of passive decision making and how I now wanted certainty as we chose a new country. What I didn’t want was to just land somewhere. What I really wanted was to have a place in mind and go there. At that point I could not guess where I might be when I was writing notes in December 2017 of my new dayplanner. The thought was promise. The thought was fear.

I returned to the essay – thinking of the first thoughts as potential essay – last autumn when I reread the piece and found more to explore, particularly the faith element. I also asked an editor to read through the first draft, to help with verb tense and structure. A couple of years ago, I decided to practice expansion as revision. Paring down is great. Knowing when to open is also great and my editor helped me see what a reader might want answered.

I grew the essay from its first typed draft by writing around ideas (identity and faith) I wanted to expand. While I am less afraid to write about what I believe, I am more wary of getting something really wrong and misleading readers by not fully examining my faith – even the tricky bits  which necessitate faith. Always I find starting in my notebook best. I see my thoughts in my hand. I use the pages to pace. I jump around and repeat, cross out. During this process I questioned why I write about anything personal. There are two impulses when I write from my mind heart body spirit: tell all like I’m naked, or shut up. What I wanted from this revision is a piece that looks at my past to understand the present of that summer, to better explain why I wanted to make a good decision – perhaps less for the country we’d move to, and more for the process of trusting God to lead as I listen.