Workshopping Reality, Imagined and Otherwise

Robin Black

Feb 05, 2015

Last week I read an article about reality, a physics theory I cannot even pretend to understand.  The degree to which I don’t understand it is itself kind of enjoyable, an intellectual free fall without a net. Not that being baffled is a rare experience for me – math, anyone? – but taking a few minutes to be actively baffled about the nature of existence, to try to wrap one’s head around a specific bizarre hypothesis, is inherently different, trippy, requiring a letting-go that isn’t just about giving up on “doing sums” or accepting never being able to spell restaurant without auto-correct. There’s an enjoyment in the inability to comprehend – right up until it all makes me flip out. . .

And now, having admitted that I don’t understand the theory AT ALL, I will proceed to sum it up. Basically, the idea is that bunches of realities exist all at once and sometimes intersect. Not only are we not alone in the universe – old news – but we are not even close to the only version of our own reality. (Whoa!...and um, sure. . . I guess?) For example, one of two scenarios given by a physicist for a potential alternate reality was that it was the Portuguese who colonized Australia, not the British. 

Mind-blowing! The Portuguese? In Australia??

Really? That’s all you’ve got? The notion of European colonization remains intact, just the politics play out a little differently? What about the story where humans onlyexist in Australia? What about the one where we all just get along???

It’s not a physicist’s job, I guess, to come up with compelling storylines, but it’s still striking to me how little liberty that physicist took with the storyline we already know. Striking, and also familiar - so typical of the kind of tinkering many of us do with our first drafts. Certain aspects are deemed immutable. Certain premises are left untouched. And I guess it doesn’t really matter in physics, where plotlines aren’t really the point – as far as I can tell – but in fiction . . . In fiction this kind of attachment to the initial version of a story can be one of the biggest impediments to helping that work grow and improve from draft to draft.

Anyone who has spent much time around fiction writers has probably encountered the difficulty people run into with fact-based fiction, the allegiance the author can feel to the “truth” of what happened, even when that “truth” is chaining the story down. “But it happened that way!” the beleaguered author insists. And that’s understandable enough. You start writing a story because something happened in real life that interested you or that just seemed like a good yarn. Of course you don’t want to change it – even when you kind of know that the story might benefit from a change. Fair enough. It’s a problem, but it’s a logical problem.

I have also noticed, though, that throughout the revision process, a writer – let’s call her Robin -  can become equally attached to the “truth” of a previous draft, made up from the whole cloth though it is. There may be no declaration of, “But that’s what really happened,” yet there is an adherence to made-up events every bit as dogged. It’s an odd kind of loyalty, in which imagination and memory do something like overlap.

They have a funny relationship, imagination and memory, because they aren’t the same thing but then they aren’t exactly not the same thing either – or anyway, not all the time. I grew up hearing stories about my parents’ childhoods, and while hearing those stories I developed images of the homes in which those stories took place. By now, at 52, I have been holding those images in my head for well over four decades, and when I conjure them, though wholly imagined, they feel like a memory. “Remembering” my mother’s childhood home which I never saw, doesn’t feel very different from remembering my own.

So, the boundaries between memory and imagination can be porous ones, their “reality tones” take a similar kind of hold, so both remembered and imagined events can equally limit what more, what else we writers might imagine.

During the first workshop I ever taught, I brought up the possibility of a change in a participant’s story, and the general class response was that the change itself was a good idea except “then the two women can’t be cousins anymore, so it won’t work.” 

“Where is it written that they have to be cousins?” I asked. “What would change in the story if they weren’t? How do we already know that those changes would be bad?” I wasn’t really arguing for the author taking my suggestion. I was arguing against the notion that any element of a story are off-limits when it comes to revision.

“Nothing about this draft is off-limits,” I said. “Nothing. You could make them Martians in the next draft,” I said – showing off my own sophisticated celestial smarts.

And as a companion anecdote, one of the most rewarding teaching moments I have had was when, after reading a students first draft of a story, I asked my student, of the central character, who was remembering an incident from her youth, why, as an adult, the character had cancer. “I’m not saying she shouldn’t have cancer,” I said, “I’m just asking you what function her cancer plays in the work.”

There was a pause, and then my student shook her head, shrugged, and said, “I don’t know. I just thought I should give her cancer.”  We discussed whether since the story really seemed to “want” to be about the events that the character recalled, the spark and the gravitas all gathered there, maybe the cancer was a distraction. Next draft, the cancer was gone. Draft after that, the entire frame of “twenty years later” was gone. I was filled with admiration for my student’s ability to jettison her own preconceptions of her work, which grew, even as it shrank, into a beautiful, moving piece.

Maybe all this sounds obvious. Revision should be radical. Yeah, yeah. A story can change in any way from draft to draft. Well, duh. The possibilities of a given work of fiction are infinite – until they are not, which happens only the moment at which the author calls it, pronounces it done. Of course. Obvious – yet this is something with which I struggle, constantly. I have dozens if not hundreds of unfinished stories on my hard drive, and  in most cases what has stopped the story in its track is exactly this kind of unconscious allegiance I feel to something – some element getting in the way just as a memory gets in the way for an author of fiction based on fact. Just as that story-telling physicist, able to comprehend notions that boggle and tangle my mind, could not think very far past the past as we know it, adding only a few tweaks.

But perhaps I am being unfair. There was another alternate course of history the physicist also offered up, one in which the dinosaurs were never all killed off. And I suppose that’s a more radical revision of life as we know it on this earth. Obviously it is. Though. . . I hate to be picky, but, it’s not exactly a different story from the one we already know, not exactly thinking out of the box. It’s just the opposite, the inverse, the other of only two possible forks in the road. . .

An infinite number of alternate realities. That’s what they say.

And the phrase may have to join a few others I have taped up on my wall. It’s surely a reminder I could use from time to time. Impossible to comprehend when existential theories are in play, well worth the effort if crafting stories is your pursuit.

This post is part of Robin's February Blogger-in-Residence Series for
Gulf Coast. Read her first post here.