Shape-shifting

Always the question: what to do next? After finishing the story, essay, poem, fill-in-the-blank, where do you go from here? Back to something you started and abandoned? To a single image or line of dialogue logged in a journal? To an anecdote too good to be true and therefore confounding as to how to make it into a story (or essay)?

The in-between time, as in “I’m between novels,” always does sound like an apology for not having any idea what “job” you’re going to get next. This becomes even more complicated when you’re trying to decide what form you want to work in: A story? A novel? A personal essay? A literary essay? A—horrors!—screenplay? And then there are those true switch hitters who write poetry as well as fiction. One often spends an inordinate amount of time trying to determine what literary mode calls out and how to decide. By mood alone? By looking through old journals and trying to assess if the material will dictate the form? By just “knowing” such and such has to be fiction or told as putative fact in an essay?

I can more easily talk about the benefits of moving among modes than how to pick one on any given day. I’d never considered writing personal essays until a journal solicited a piece for a special issue on Jewish writing. Once I got past the hang-up of being pigeonholed or my writing being as such, I found having “an assignment” just the motivation to do something I wouldn’t have tried on my own. That solicitation, which by the way didn’t appear in the original journal (a long story) but somewhere else, started a run of such essays that helped me out of rut in writing fiction. I’d been stuck or maybe tired of my own voice in fiction or perhaps just weary of having to make up a world rather than investigate one I already knew well. Eventually I went back to writing fiction but with a renewed sense of purpose about it. And this was mainly a result of having been able to exercise my voice in a way I’d never allowed myself in fiction. I’d permitted myself to analyze more directly, indulge in introspection and in turn bring that to characters in my fiction. In short, I could have them think. This may seem like non-problem for most writers, but I had grown up during a time when minimalism reigned and telling was verboten and in general the more your characters thought, that is, had ideas, the more archaic your work was considered.

But still the problem persists: what form best suits the subject? The biggest surprise for me when I started writing nonfiction was that I could use the same material that I thought I’d exhausted in fiction. In my mind, there was a prohibition about writing, say, about my father’s troubled relationship with his two brothers in the furniture store they ran together for 40 years. Done that, been there, etc. And why repeat myself? Hadn’t fiction done the subject more justice than I could by directly apprehending the experience in an essay? And furthermore, there was always the possibility that because I hadn’t written about the subject directly I could still mine it for further projects. If I wanted to keep the material alive and fruitful I’d best not tell its secrets nakedly.

So it surprised me to find out that one can indeed reuse material not only in the same form but in other modes as well, and that the result actually can add to the overall sum of work without being seen as the definitive word on the matter. What might, for instance, be the focus of a fictional work—in my example here, stealing money from the store by my uncle—received only a passing mention in a personal essay that instead dealt with issues of money problems passed down by the generations to my brother and me. In fiction, my narrative needed a central dramatic event with the opportunity for elaboration; in nonfiction, I could take a much broader and retrospective view and assess a family history without being as bound by the demands of all the narrative requirements in fiction.

Importantly, I think switching between forms allows the gears to unlock that may have seized up from trying to over think a particular project. Just changing the “company,” that is the implied audience and the writer’s attitude in relation to the form, often creates a shifting and fresh perspective: stale imagery in one mode becomes reworked to advantage in another; narrative dribbling becomes undammed and gathers force in a new context; characters who refuse to pop out dimensionally take on an inherent presence when inventing an identity from scratch isn’t the challenge.

I know several writers, highly successful at prose, who have lately taken up poetry, renewed by working within its general parameters. But I don’t think you can just arbitrarily decide, oh, I’m going to write a poem today. Or a play. I think there has to be something within the material, in combination with the writer’s ambitions, unconscious as they may be, that dictates the form. One has to start with some intuitive understanding of how the imagination will interact with one’s previous knowledge of the subject. It’s true, as has been said, that material is often neutral and waiting to be shaped by the writer. But that doesn’t mean that on any given day—factoring in the writer’s curiosity, past work, rustiness or flexibility, current reading and impressions, and expectations for one’s voice—that you won’t find a subject almost whispering its intentions for a suitable form.