Writer as Sculptor

November 22, 2017 § 22 Comments

Jennifer Lang small head shotBy Jennifer Lang

After “So,” my 100-word story about a spontaneous moment when I hugged a stranger in a department store, appeared on Thread literary journal, I emailed the editor to thank her, explaining that I’d written it years ago, in a much longer version, but always found the story flat and uninspiring. For months, I’d worked on it with my writing group, seven CNF’ers who urged me to dig deeper, to reflect, to describe what had motivated me to open my arms to an inconnu. I edited, revised, tweaked: two pages turned into three then four and finally five. Initially, I titled it “Nothing to Lose,” reminiscent of my mother’s motto encouraging me to take chances. Eventually, I rewrote it in second person and called it “How to Hug a Stranger.” Regardless of how many times I described the scene or strengthened verbs, the heart of the story remained the same: lost.

Recently, a fellow writer shared her 100-word story, “Eighty,” on Thread. Her sparse prose sizzled with words like sweaty torso, toenails, lovemaking. I had a rare writerly epiphany, opened my stranger story, copied it into a new document, and went to work.

Like a stone carver, I began to chisel at my words using new and unfamiliar tools. With a point in hand, I removed the primary bulk material, the excess about my mother’s maxim, about the steamy summer weather, about another woman who had addressed the stranger and me during our embrace. I removed all the forced reflection, the blah blah blah behind my boldness. Next, I aimed the rake—a flat, straight chisel with slightly beveled teeth—at the setting to scrape away unnecessary words, leaving the basics: the base of a Macy’s denim display. I repeated the same raking movement with the stranger, describing her minimally: head bowed, sunglasses shielding her eyes, crouched, dark circles, disheveled hair, hospital visitor sticker, rumpled t-shirt. Then, I wielded the flat straight chisel, the finishing tool with a slight bevel, to rasp and sand the action: I open my arms. She steps into my embrace, and we are like awkward teenagers, slow dancing. I scraped and scraped at dialogue, deleting what I said as I approached her—that she looked like she needed a hug that I couldn’t leave the store without knowing if she was okay that she could squeeze me harder that I wouldn’t break. I scraped more, deleting what she said repeatedly: “You’re so sweet.” By the end, I was left with the six words the stranger said in my arms: “My mom’s dying. I’m so sad.”

After each phase, I counted words and watched them dwindle from 1236 to 484 to 255 to 139. I started anew—carve, chisel, scrape, finish, rasp, sand—until I reached my word-count goal. Each one depended on the next. Each one carried its own weight. Each one mattered. Together, they surprised me in a way most of my longer prose doesn’t.

This month, while aspiring novelists participate in NaNoWriMo, I’m participating in a unique flash forum: an exercise in accountability with a small group of English-speaking writers of all genres around Israel. I didn’t initiate it; I don’t even know the other writers. Every day, we email with the date and under 1000 words. There is no obligation to read or respond, simply to show up and share. For thirty days, I will put forth my best flash with no expectation except of myself: to sculpt my prose once, twice, probably a few more times until the heart story sparkles.

Jennifer Lang’s essays have appeared in Under the Sun, Assay, Ascent, The Coachella Review, Hippocampus Magazine, and Full Grown People. Honors include Pushcart Prize and Best American Essays nominations and finalist in 2017 Crab Orchard Review’s Literary Nonfiction Contest. Find her at http://israelwritersalon.com and follow her @JenLangWrites as she writes her first memoir.

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