My first year in a creative-writing intensive program came as a shock in many, many ways. Not least was the pure amount of writing we were instructed to complete, the way each piece came with specific mentions of goals, elements, techniques were were supposed to understand. I had been writing for as long as I could remember, but always sporadically, always on my own schedule. I liked the idea of novels, and I tried to expand and expand my characters, ideas, settings. I had no idea how to write towards an intent, and especially not how to apply craft, to revise my piece and actually improve it. Writing shifted from a hobby to a confusing obligation, and, finally, a boring chore. Craft still seemed like a total mystery to me. I couldn’t understand how characters, plot, syntax, or theme worked, so I hated tinkering around with my words. My love of writing had fizzled away.
And then came Raymond Carver. In particular, his short story Cathedral. In it, a rather
obnoxious narrator has an awakening with the help of a blind man, whom he had spent most of the story despising. There’s this uplifting, brightened final scene in which a moment of human connection moves from physical to nearly spiritual. While the story no doubt has many interpretations, to my fifteen year old self, the story got at the heart of what it means to be human. It showed where our lives gain meaning. The structure of Carver’s story opened up to me. The detail choice. The characters. The dialogue. I began to comprehend stylistic and artistic choices: why an author makes them, and how they can be executed. My role as a writer moved from abstract and diluted, to understandable, with tangible elements of craft. Revision began to make sense, as I could connect the choices in my writing to how they built up a reader’s understanding, how writing could really impact a reader and illuminate parts of their life.
In response, I set about crafting this narrator. She was meant to be the center of a story
portfolio in my sophomore year, one of my first where I sat down and outlined just what I might be trying to show the reader. My story had become a function of creating connection and intent, a fascinating puzzle. The narrator was a young child, and I had to pay close attention to every word she used. To convince the reader that they were, honestly, reading from a child’s point of view, everything she said or thought had to be believable. Her interactions with other children had to be realistic for children that age. Still, I had to show her story in such a way that meaning could be gained. To accomplish this, I not only worked hard on voice, but I also used symbolism for the first time, adding layers to objects or gestures in the world around her to communicate the experience she was having in a richer way.
I began to love writing again when I realized that the blocks in my hands weren’t just
piece of wood, but they could be arranged in specific ways to build other structures, and that those structures depended on careful placement of every piece. In my other classes, I have always loved math. In a way, I had to translate writing to more mathematical context. It doesn’t sound particularly exciting, or artsy, but writing only works for me if I see the work as a puzzle, a structure, a complex combination of separate elements. Then, I can set about solving the puzzle. Finding the best combinations. To love art, I had to take it apart, and learn to focus on the parts in my hand, rather than get distracted by the big picture.
–Ana Shaw, Senior Editor-in-Chief