On Obsession and Time and Imperative: A Lesson With Sara Lippmann
I forget who it was who first told me to own my shit, but it was one of the best bits of tough love I ever received. (That, and sit up straight, which my undergrad thesis advisor passed along in both a related and different moment of vulnerability.) What makes you you and me me is the nature and specificity of our individual and idiosyncratic preoccupations. What keeps you up at night, sends you daydreaming or disassociating in zoom meetings? Box, bury, and deny those things and they will surface regardless. They are Whack-A-Moles. It was Roth who said literature isn’t a moral beauty contest, which is another important reminder. Try to write toward some idea of what you think you’re supposed to write, and you are setting yourself up. All we have are obsessions and our internal meter to keep us honest. The sooner we embrace and trust these as our primary tools in the box, the more adept we’ll become at wielding them.
Like anything, you can come at obsession head on or at a slant. Either approach will yield resonant and startling results, but I love giving this prompt for a change of pace. It comes from Bernadette Mayer’s wonderful and extensive list (http://www.writing.upenn.edu/library/Mayer-Bernadette_Experiments.html) Make a list of obsessions. What’s haunting your dreams? Write out all your fears or desires, or whatever bubbles to mind. Ten things you try to hide, hate to admit, don’t want anyone to know about you, etc. Do this for 5 minutes without censoring. Then choose one thing from the list you want to write about. (Let’s, for the sake of it, steal from Jenny Offill’s Weather: “My #1 fear is the acceleration of days.” Then try to write a story that fiercely avoids any direct mention of or relationship to that topic. You don’t need to hold yourself to that rule (there are no rules, and all rules can be broken) but enter a story with that mindset and see where it takes you.
We are living in this seemingly unending purgatory where time feels both stagnant and heightened. Where has the time gone? What does it amount to? How much do we have left? Days are amorphous and endless, and yet there are never enough hours. We change the clocks and the window grows darker and narrower. I am able to track time through the barrenness of trees, or in the heft of the pup we rescued nine months ago. My son needs a haircut, but he always needs a haircut, and so on.
We all have our way to the page. And we all have our method once we arrive. I am someone who drafts in a rush and spends most of my time revising. For me, 90% of writing is editing. After the vomit, the real fun begins.
When I sit down to revise, I pose a series of questions to my narrative centering around imperative and takeaway. I want to look at how each scene is in service to these anchors, advances the WANT. I want to look at how all craft elements are serving the story. Later, I will break things down to the line level, and explore what work each word and detail is doing. I will mercilessly look for places to cut in order to fully excavate the “so-what?” as Miles Davis put it. Why do we care? Why should we worry? Why must we wait? The pulse drives these answers. Perhaps now more than ever my patience has grown brittle, and those “slice of life” stories and postcards and vignettes are not resonating with me in the same way, however lovely the writing. I need to feel the risk, the skin, I need to feel the heart and life on the page taking me somewhere even if I am going nowhere.
My narrative interrogation lends a nod to the Four Questions asked around the Passover Seder. Why now? How do we navigate the imperative when we’ve lost all sense of time, when night is day and day feels like every other day, when culture and circumstance and politics and a character’s own walls may serve as traps: Why this moment as opposed to every other night? Why these details? These people? These snips of dialogue? How does the story subvert expectation, to deliver a startling sense of urgency? How does it propel the reader inevitably forward even if there is no external propulsion? How can we push forth that quiet, pressing rebellion?
And then, after putting my draft through the ringer, I like to take a step back. Give it room to breathe. Walk away. When I return, I’m looking to introduce a final element of generosity, an opening gesture. How do we crack that door in our stories for that elusive, often intangible Elijah presence that may elevate it to a higher plain?
So I encourage you.
a) Play with time in the structure of a story. Interpret that however you like. Maybe write a claustrophobic flash. Or write a circular story. One that hinges around jump cuts and white space. One that expands and/or compresses time. Or one that unravels backward. Write it fast if you can. Keep it short. Then go back and see how you can edit along the fault line of time. What is the relationship between time and desire? How might it become the primary driver?
b) Pull out an existing draft of something you’ve written where maybe you like the sentences, but can tell they aren’t accruing or arcing how you’d like. Or start with something fresh. Then roll it through the Why now machine and see if you can isolate the imperative and distill out the emotional takeaway.
c) Finally, look for the door. How can you let the light in, if only a crack? We have Leonard Cohen to thank for the kabbalah: There’s a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.
Sara Lippmann is the author of the story collections Doll Palace and JERKS (forthcoming from Mason Jar Press.) She was awarded an artist’s fellowship in fiction from New York Foundation for the Arts, and her work has appeared in The Washington Post, The Millions, Fourth Genre, Diagram, Epiphany and elsewhere. She teaches in Brooklyn and co-hosts the Sunday Salon NYC and can be found on twitter @saralippmann