short stories

Contents Under Pressure

A relatively new e-reader, I am learning the advantages of  Tables of Contents. You want to know what's ahead  in the pages you can't see until you touch and touch and touch your screen and eventually get to them. But as a writer of short stories, novellas and novels, I have had different ideas about chapter divisions, and thus the necessity of including a Table of Contents at the beginning of my books. I loved writing short stories. I thought a short story had more potential to be perfect than a long sprawling novel. Then I read John Gardner, in fact I read and re-read John Gardner, and I remember his thoughts about the  novella, how it traced a single emotional line (or something to that effect). Then I wanted to write a perfect novella. In fact my first "novel" Centre/Center is really three linked novellas. It qualifies as a novel in terms of the breadth of material, number of characters, time covered, complexity of theme, etc, but I divided it into three sections that focussed on three different but related characters. The breaks between the novellas are equivalent to chapter breaks.

When a friend read my recently published novel You Again on her IPad, she felt lost without a detailed Table of Contents. She is a disciplined person and likes to read to the end of a chapter before she falls asleep at night, and she prefers to know what she is getting in for. Having been reading on my Kobo, first The Great Gatsby, and most recently, Confederates in the Attic, I now understand what she means (though I find guides such as Tables more useful in non-fiction, like Confederates). So I relented, and created a fairly thorough Table of Contents for You Again, still not chapters, however. Instead, as in Flashing Yellow, I have big chunks I call "Parts," and, in You Again, month divisions. Within each month, though, the narrative moves from one character's point of view to another's, and those are separated by simple lines. For me it's a matter of rhythm, breath. I wonder how it is for other authors?  My friend  quickly surveyed the novels she was reading and found different ways of handling contents that lead to Tables. She liked Kate Atkinson's very precise Table, but found less detailed Tables in Colum McCann and Achebe.
If necessity really is the mother of invention, perhaps my habits will change as I write texts that will be published electronically. I had to think about it again when I updated my Shinny's Girls Trilogy for epub, because I want the Trilogy to be available to libraries, where I find most of my readers. Epub seems to require only that divisions are clear within the text, then goes ahead and makes the Table of Contents automatically. Much easier than doing it myself, with Kindle, even though the instructional video I followed for Mac users featured an Englishwoman with a lovely, patient voice.
In this eworld of books, TOC's seem to be an aid for readers. That requirement is prompting me to consider how organize my contents and, more importantly, why I do so. Is it the instinctive rhythm, the stopping for breath I feel, and changes in narrative voice as points of view shift from character to character,  or a greater logic I have not yet considered?

("Contents Under Pressure" is the title of one of my friend David King's comedies for theatre.Thanks, Dave.)

The more things change.... (Surviving as a Writer, 1991)

Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose. (The more things change, the more they are the same.)

Here is a guest editorial I wrote for Event magazine in 1991.

Surviving as a Writer

When Dale (David Zieroth) invited me to write a guest editorial and suggested as a topic, Surviving as a Writer, and I had to think rather than just grouse about it, one of my first thoughts was of a student who complained about being assigned to describe the plight of a fictional character: "How can I know how she feels?" he asked. "You use your imagination," I said, tempted to add, do you know what I mean? Because the expression on his face suggested he didn't: that he was not in the habit of drawing each day from his human capacity for invention.

I bean writing short fiction not because my imagination was unexplored territory, but because I needed to make what I imagined real. I wanted to be a writer and I started with short stories because I thought it would be easier to write something short.  I confessed as much to another writer once, as a way of describing ow naive I had been, and she remarked that we must all have been a little naïve to get into it. The person I'm referring to is more experienced than I am, she has more books on her shelf; she's further down the road. Myself I'm only far enough along to be able to glance back and see that a distance exists between then and now.

Imagination is one essential survival tool. The ability to stay on the road is another.
 As for putting food on the table for myself and first one daughter, now another, and making sure we have somewhere to put the table, I quit my last full time job about fifteen years ago. I recall the urgency I felt to get on with what I really wanted to do, to be a writer. At the time I was editor of a small newspaper, and though I wrote many thousands of words each week - columns, editorials, news features, reports on oil pipeline inquiries, Indian land claim negotiations - I did not consider myself a real writer, just as we who worked there did not consider our newspaper a real newspaper, not in the sense the New York Times was a newspaper.

My plan was to support myself by working as a free-lance writer while learning to write fiction in my spare time. Though I wasn't sure what free-lance writers actually did, I forged ahead with characteristic impulsiveness and, of course, found out over time that as a free-lance writer you do whatever you can do. One thing you must do is learn to live with a deficit. Since it is bound to be microscopic compared to what Ottawa and Washington run up, you may even feel virtuous since you're doing it FOR LITERATURE.

My mother never understood. As each new move - geographical, personal, career - seemed to entrench me in rather than eliminate my precarious position in life, she worried she might end up having to take care of me and mine. Despite my promise to outlast her, if only for this reason, the fact that I was not covered for my own funeral expenses bothered her a lot.

Imagination. The determination to stay on the road. A thorough disregard for regular pay cheques, insurance benefits, pension plans.

In her book, The Writing Life, Annie Dillard describes the writer's job as follows: "Your work is to keep cranking the flywheel that turns the gears that spins the belt in the engine of belief that keeps you and your desk in midair." Faith. That's something else that is crucial to surviving as a writer, for as Dillard also writes, in the same book: "This writing that you do, that so thrills you, that so rocks and exhilarates you, as if you were dancing right next to the band, is barely audible to anyone else."

Which leads directly to my "host of readers" fantasy. While walking with a long time friend whose first book had just been published, we talked about the expectations we'd had when we wanted to be writers. As a kid who read while she was supposed to be doing most everything else, and who grew up to be the kind of person who opens newspapers and magazines to the book pages first, I had assumed, I told her, that a host of readers existed out there, people who were interested in, even eager for each season's new books. The profound indifference of the general population to books, to fiction in particular, was as hard to swallow as the lesson that short doesn't mean easier when it comes to writing stories. Still...

I'm working on a novel now and that's hard too. In the process of making the fiction real to myself I feel like an archaeologist gluing together the pieces of an object whose final shape she has only heard about. An act of utter faith, and, in my case, and act in slow motion.

A friend who travels the world from one meditation retreat to another called me the last time he passed through town. "How's it going?" he asked.

"Well, I'm doing it," I said. "But it's hard to see that it's getting done."

"Don't worry. My meditation teachers  say we must never check on our progress. And if we can't help ourselves, to limit the checking to once every ten years."

That too seemed a useful thing to remember about surviving as a writer.