The following is the first piece of advice I was given in my MFA program: "The story is a machine, and the parts are the cogs. You have written some beautiful cogs, but they do not work together. You must make the cogs work together." My professor was a political exile from Hungary, and his accent made his words loom larger (in fact I think I am quoting him verbatim, 20 years later). I'd never seen a political exile up-close before. His mere presence made me feel I hadn't suffered enough in life, and I came away from that workshop feeling I hadn't suffered enough for that story. I scolded myself. Why make a bunch of beautiful cogs, I thought, if you're just going to sit around and admire them? I felt lazy, coddled, childish. I decided I needed to work harder, that writing that story had been too much fun and I'd spoiled it as you spoil a child. My story was supposed to be a machine. Instead it was a toddler that I'd allowed to eat too much candy. The sugar high had been short-lived.
I ordered the story to be still, and revised it, fiercely, for the rest of the semester. I did my level best to fit the cogs together and get it to buck up and make itself useful, but when I showed it to a visiting writer he said the same thing, sans analogy and in a nondescript Western Massachusetts accent. The following semester, in my second workshop, the adjective "weird" was introduced into the mix. "These are the weirdest characters I have ever seen," drawled a fellow writer in a Southern accent. He had just been published in the New Yorker and was a genuinely nice guy, a combination that made him an object of general awe and congratulations and conscientiously concealed resentment. When I asked him outside of class how he managed plot in a story, he replied "You have to hold a gun to its head." "Hold a gun to its head," I repeated, stricken and reverent.
I was virtually punch-drunk when my new workshop professor informed us that "the story is a tree, and you can't criticize a tree." "It's a weird little story," she said later in a private conference. Then she giggled, stood up, and opened her office door. "Goodbye," she said. This wasn't rude, I decided. It was weird. And weird is good. The pithy analogies began to lose their sway. I finally had an epiphany after reading a short story by Nathaniel Hawthorne in which a watchmaker spends years crafting a mechanical butterfly. When he finally decides it's finished and releases it into the room, his little boy plucks it out of the air and crushes it. The End. Around that same time my computer broke down, plucked my story out of the air, and crushed it. I was heartbroken. I cried, fell asleep, got up, and rewrote it from memory. Not word for word, I'm sure, but it was the same story. It had survived. I decided I had to stop revising it and move on. I would not let this story be my mechanical butterfly. I would not hold a gun to its head. I would not scold it and give it a time out. I would just let it be a weird little story.
I stopped worrying about what the story is. I spent less time revising and more time away from my computer, paying close attention to what I saw and heard, trusting myself to later recall what I found startling and memorable—out-of-the-blue happenings, ephemeral encounters, disarming non sequiturs. I developed the habit of listening closely to the words of people who are at the end of their rope, or have been to the end of their rope and climbed back up, or have let go of the rope and walked away. After over twenty years writing fiction, I have come to trust that whatever the story needs will eventually offer itself up and give the story weight. Then it holds still so I can get a good look at it and figure out what it should be doing.
I'm working on a story now that I started several months ago, and it seems particularly recalcitrant, though it is in fact probably no more so than any other story. There's an old woman, a yellow scarf, a garage fire, a tornado. Sometimes I just sit and glare at it. I walk away from it and come back and walk away again. Even if the story and I aren't getting along, I always return to it once I've begun. Whatever it is, it exists now, and I indulge it unapologetically. It's helpless and half-shaped and struggling to stay alive, but it knows better than I do exactly what it wants to be.