A Little Unusual)
The world of paint has long had its artists who become very meta in their interests. They cease to consider the usual themes of the human figure, architecture, or landscape, and instead start examining the very process by which art itself is formed.
One of the most famous of these was Jackson Pollock, who developed the “drip method” for his splatter paintings. Pollock found he could create a unique, abstract painting which represented motion by placing his canvas on the floor and moving up and down it in a dance-like trance, leaving dribbles and splatters of paint somewhat intentionally and somewhat at random, molding the work like clay until he saw the shape and image that he wanted. His work wasn’t just about the final image created, it was the about the process by which it came into being.
Of course authors can also delve into the experimental as well. Every now and again I like to step apart from questions of plot and character and structure, and examine instead the very process of writing. I did this just last week, and it resulted in a chapter that probably felt a little unusual. The language and style shifted from beginning to end, the tone was different from most of my other stories, and the subject matter was highly original.
So what was the experimental process behind last week’s piece? Well, it was the first piece I’ve written with absolutely no prior conception of what I was going to do. I didn’t have an outline, or a central concept, or even a character. I just looked at the empty page and started writing what came to me.
The first things were single-sentence, lyrical statements.
Never thought and never found, in the bower without a sound. A prism cracked and liege forsworn, with cuppered fringes fall'd to ruin.
These are somewhat nonsensical, and also do not explicitly relate to any of the story that then followed. What they did do, though, was give me a certain tone. I felt these statements were describing something dreary, secret, and ruinous. This was my foundational concept.
And almost as soon as I identified that theme, I had come to mind the image of an entity growing in an attic by absorbing all the ill will from a house below. I started writing, and things proceeded in a natural and organic way.
As I mentioned, the style of my writing shifted as I continued. At the start I was writing in a way that was lyrical, like the two sentences that seeded the entire work, but the further I went the harder I found it to keep in such a loose, abstract form. I found myself needing to pin things down more explicitly, though I tried not to entirely lose the lyrical old-style vernacular.
Trickles Run to the Ocean)
An interesting discovery from this experiment was that the more I developed the entity and the setting, the more I felt the typical architecture of story raising up around it. I couldn’t help it. Just as how random trickles of water feel their way to streams, then rivers, and then the ocean, so too my random trickles of words naturally feel their way into plot and story.
And so, this test was a success. Could I create a story out of nothing? Could I conjure up a few random phrases, and from that develop a whole plot and theme? The answer is yes. It’s a bit of a strange story, one that would need to be refactored and revised for general consumption, but it is a story, nevertheless.
Truth be told, I wasn’t too surprised that this experiment worked out. Many times, when playing with my children, I will introduce some element of pretend, such as impersonating some new, colorful character or describing some fantastical device, and they will latch onto the idea and want to explore it further and further. The result is always a story. Sometimes a weird one, sometimes a lopsided one, but also sometimes a captivating one.
Experiments like these can be used to sharpen a specific skill in one’s craft, but that is not all, they can also be used to bring some novelty and fun to a practice. It has been said that Mozart began increasing the entertainment factor of his piano performances by laying on the seat and playing the piece upside down. It may not have improved the sound of the song, but it certainly would have given the whole thing a little extra spice!
I have come up with a couple more ideas for how I could write a story that would be a challenging and fun experiment. I hope to get around to these at some point, but in either case I thought I’d share them with you in case you wanted to give them a try.
- Write around the story. Come up with an entire narrative, with characters and plot and everything…but then don’t say a word of it. Instead spend the whole time talking around the action, describing bits and pieces of scenery or emotion, but without ever clearly addressing the subject at the center of the action. Thus, I could not write “Susan fainted to the floor,” but I could say “folds of satin collapsed upon themselves and the grass smoothed flat to receive it. A hope was broken and a dream rendered impossible.”
- Write the absolute minimal story. Strip away every adjective, every description, every bit of flavor from the text. Write the whole story in short, rapid sentences like, such as: “Sam said Max needed to come with him. Max refused. Sam pulled out his gun. They fought. Max was shot and started bleeding. Now Max was useless to Sam’s plan.” Then add the colorful details afterward.
- Write a story backwards. We always start writing a story with the first sentence, add another and another, progressively developing plot and themes until we reach the end. But how would the story look if you wrote the last sentence first? And then the second-to-last, and then the third-to-last, progressing from resolutions to instigating scenarios, and so continued all the way to the beginning of the tale?
I plan to give each of these a try at some point, both to sharpen my writing skills and for fun. In my experience I am a healthier and happier writer when I step outside of the box from time-to-time to try something completely different.