Sometimes writing advice works just as well for living your everyday life. Twenty years ago a grad school friend and brilliant novelist named Eric Miles Williamson read a troubled short story of mine and made a suggestion. I remember the night well because it was the first time, despite plenty of workshops, that someone took a craftsman’s eye to my writing. I was used to hearing feedback on themes, vague theories about why stories did or didn’t work, but what my fellow students struggled to give were solutions. Not Eric. He could diagnose faults in a piece of fiction the way a carpenter judges the quality of a building’s construction. He knew how to fix things because he did the work very well himself.
The plot of my story doesn’t matter. Here’s all you need to know: it was a spare, blow-by-blow narrative of a traumatic experience, each scene linked to the next like carriages on a train. Only the train, though moving, wasn’t going anywhere. I couldn’t figure out what the problem was. Eric read the piece and said, “Here’s what you should do.” Into my tight chain of events, I needed a moment that stepped outside of the narrative. This went against everything I understood about the ‘single effect’ for which a short story should strive, but I did it anyway, inserting a short scene in which the protagonist found himself parked alone on a bridge, entranced by the night sky. That handful of paragraphs, despite not moving the plot forward, was so resonant, so full of the story’s themes, that it became my favorite passage.
Writing fiction, according to Walker Percy, has more in common with good carpentry than good journalism. Eric had once worked construction and, as a writer, I guess he still did. From that night on, I became fascinated not just with the art but the craft of fiction.
I recalled the episode last week when, during the course of running a list of tightly scheduled errands, I found myself unexpectedly in a place I hadn’t planned to go, and decided to linger. Like the protagonist of my old story, I was outside the narrative, no longer pushing the plot of my day forward. And like my hero, I found the moment resonant. Stepping away from my life’s plot put me back in touch with its theme.
Good advice probably has a universal component. There’s a way to apply it to more situations than originally intended. All you have to do is find out how, or at least be open to the way finding you.