Taking a Chance on Imagination

The Others story image

I have spent a surprising amount of time over the past decade writing experimental fiction, some of which will be published in The Things She'll Be Leaving Behind. There are a lot of great things about writing in a genre that has only ever seen the mainstream from a distance. Money isn't one of them. Nor fame. Nor accolades. And the cool factor is rather minimal.

Okay, so it's not a great way to get recognition. My books aren't likely to land at the top of the New York TImes bestseller list. But if that had been my life's ambition, I would be writing books about celebrity scandals or amazing weight loss secrets or fluffy kittens. I don't write about any of those things and it's unlikely that I'm ever going to barring some sort of Invasion of the Body Snatchers-like incident.

No, I write experimental fiction and I do it because there is tremendous freedom in realizing that a story doesn't have to be one thing. It doesn't have to conform to preconceived ideas of what its form should be, not if conventional forms don't serve the story that's being told. There are many stories that conventional forms don't fit and many that would have been better if the writers generating them had taken a chance on their own imaginations.

Because imagination doesn't have to be limited to content. It can apply to form as well. I don't mean to shock you by saying that. I think that should be taught in school like algebra or French. Maybe it is. Maybe I just didn't take the right course. But I would think that if the malleability of form were being taught in any course not dedicated to poetry, then there would be a whole lot more of us tinkering out on the margins.

Not that the margins are always a great place to tinker. I don't mean to suggest that it's an undisturbed paradise over here. There are many challenges associated with writing experimental fiction and the biggest single one has to be the unbelievable number of hurdles you have to clear in an effort to find a journal or publisher willing to print it. And yes, I'm speaking from experience. I've been doing this a long time and although I can't remember what madness sent me down this road in the first place, I've learned a few things along the way.

One of the things I've learned is that the more closely one of my stories conforms to conventional structure, the greater the chances it will find its way into print. The farther away one ventures, the fewer the editors who see merit in it or, if they do see merit, don't know what to do with it.

I've also learned that stories with unconventional structures can cause an intriguing species of confusion. There have been more than a few occasions when I have sent a piece of experimental prose to a fiction editor only to have it come back rejected by the poetry editor. Of course it was. It wasn't poetry. I knew that. The poetry editor knew that. The fiction editor didn't know what it was and, as these things tend to go, pitched it on the poetry pile for that other editor to deal with.

I don't know if the intent of English programs is to teach that a story is just one thing. That's certainly the effect they seem to have and not just on other people. The first stories I ever wrote were alarmingly conventional. At least they were alarming to me. They didn't really match the way I think. They matched the way someone else thought. I don't know who that someone else is, but they are a) ridiculously influential and b) best avoided. Indeed, some of the stories I write now continue to be alarming both to myself and others. But the best of them aren't. And when they stray into weirdness, it's because traditional formats fit awkwardly with whatever I happen to be trying to say and I need to reach for something that doesn't drag the piece down into the conventional world where it doesn't belong.

"The Others", one of the stories that appears in The Things She'll Be Leaving Behind, is an excellent example of this. That story is written entirely in dialogue with no attribution and no narrative. And it works. But it wouldn't if I had written it any other way. It is an stellar example of why story structure needs to be malleable. It can take a few lines to get into the rhythm of it. But when you do, you're swept up in that strange world in a way you wouldn't be if I spoon fed you details that you really didn't need. Why? Because you have an imagination and, as a writer, I trust that you can use that imagination to fill in the details that I'm not giving you. Because you can. You just may not know it yet.