The Beginning of the End

With every day it seems there are only more ideas and philosophies and pieces of advice to incorporate into our thoughts about the One Story Workshop and writing as a whole. As usual, yesterday morning editors Marie-Helene Bertino and Will Alison led their individual classes, and after lunch,  we all gathered to hear a craft lecturer share their own insight on how to better make a story. Yesterday, Jenny Offill, finalist for the LA Times First Book Award and author of the New York Times Notable Book Last Things, joined us to focus on one of the finer compounds of writing: the sentence.

“Writing,” she explained, “is like being alive. It’s about paying attention, being awake in a larger sense.” By focusing on the concrete unit of the sentence, and even single words, Offill talked about treating language “as a door that opens us up into a world we’ve glimpsed or perceived in some way but haven’t entered.” Perhaps Ezra Pound’s definition of poetry as “the best words in the best order” can be extended to all good writing. Good writing is something we’ve been hearing about all week. Often it’s been in a vague way just exact enough to sound daunting; we may all usually recognize it, and aspire to it, but reaching for it can make it seem intangible. The question of how exactly to make “good writing” seems another thing entirely. Offill, harkening back to her own days as an anxious middle schooler, explained it as a combination lock. We all remember being that kid, fumbling with the locker that won’t open, until finally you get the numbers right and it works. Writing, she said, is also an act of lining up elements: mystery, beauty, and surprise. Align the three, and you’ll make something that “captures the warp of your mind, but in a way that’s accessible to others.”

This was the perfect advice to prepare us for the afternoon, when we had the incredible opportunity to visit Manhattan’s Center for Fiction to hear from Simon Van Booy, winner of the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award and author of many books, including The Secret Lives of People in Love and Love Begins in Winter. As he read to us from his new novel, Everything Beautiful Began After, I couldn’t help but feel the sway of the language he used, how the sentences rolled over each other with their lush details and layers. They not only captured an experience, but became one themselves, taking the kinds of risks Offill had urged us all towards earlier. It seemed fitting then that Mr. Van Booy seemed not to shy from experiences in his own life. His talk covered a wide ground, from Einstein, the consciousness of the universe, psychological transference, Joseph Campbell and the Paris catacombs, to Fred Astaire, Greek sexual attitudes, the ugliest shoes he’s bought, and why suits are more useful than underwear. If that seems random, that’s because randomness is at the core of how things work.

As we listened to the winding series of chance meetings and lucky turns that brought him to where he is now, it became clear that his story was perhaps an embodiment of all the advice we’d been given so far at the One Story Writer’s Workshop: there is no magic formula for making it as a writer. Really, all you can do is find something, wonderful or terrible, and tell about it as honestly and passionately as you can. Finding your voice, and using it to conjure life for your characters, is the crucial step. “When you find your voice,” Van Booy said, “you’ll find you’ll write about the same thing for the rest of your life, just in different contexts.” That’s another thing everyone seems to agree on—there is no stopping the trials, or thrills, of writing. “When [a book] is all done, I just want to keep working on it. You don’t ever finish it, you abandon it at the point its ready to live on its own.”

Perhaps the same could be said about students. No one’s done learning how to write, and maybe it’s something you never really do all on your own. Van Booy began his reading with the prologue to his novel, the bit he wrote last. “What we call the beginning is often the end,” he said, quoting T. S. Eliot. “And to make an end is to make a beginning. The end is where we start from.”

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