Saturday, May 31, 2014

Cutting Out Fish—A Process

Intercut vignettes weave my texts into a whole. For me, it was a common device, long before my novel. I even wrote about it in my dissertation. I’m certain other writers must go through similar processes, and yet I’ve never read about it. So here’s a brief attempt to describe what I do.
I write story after story. Sometimes they are parts of a single monologue, sometimes parts of a novel, sometimes parts of an academic argument I am making. But I start with parts. I don’t plot or outline. I write. With fiction, from the writing emerges the characters. I get to know them, go for walks with them, take them to lunch. I discover what makes them tick.
At some point, I have the body of the work drafted, and I start figuring out what goes where. This is where we get to cutting out fish. I can do all kinds of editing on the computer screen–large and small order. I sometimes have several documents open at one time and cut and paste among them to revise.
But when a text is truly composed of independent pieces which I want to intercut–meaning cut each apart and then paste them back together with part of story A followed by the beginning of story B followed by the middle of story A and then the opening of C, etc.–then I have to print them out and physically cut them into chunks.
I start that process by reading each vignette and selecting possible cut locations. When I’m smart, I do this on the computer before printing so that I have space to cut stories apart or even so that I have to cut fewer individual lines from one sheet of paper to tape to another. Though I often have to do that because I can’t always focus on the computer at this stage. It becomes visceral and I need to hold the pieces, to lay them out across the counter, to scan across quickly rather than read closely.
Once I have the cuts identified and completed, then I number them in a way to keep track of which piece came from which story. So I might have story A pieces 1, 2 and 3 or A1, A2 and A3. Though typically I label them with a word or name that makes sense to me rather than A, like Hawaii or Cho and Hosuk (a story location and the characters from that story in my novel, Isolation). Hawaii 2 makes more sense in the middle of assembly than A2 does.
To assemble the pieces, I read the beginnings and endings of chunks of text (the numbered aspect) to look for connections. The connections are not direct. I’m not looking for one character to talk about eating E. Coli-laden spinach and the chunk next to it to also mention spinach, though that sometimes happens fortuitously. I look for a connection–content is possible but so is mood, language, or activity. This is more intuitive than conscious.
To be honest, while I call this connection, it creates a kind of dissonance for a reader. With the spinach example, a reader might anticipate that she is still reading about the same character and situation because spinach is mentioned, but in fact, it’s a different character and place. The combination of connection and disconnection builds readerly engagement.
I don’t want readers to struggle with this too much or they could get frustrated. So once I have all of the texts cut up and ordered, I read the beginnings and endings again and ensure that I signal where the reader is after each break. I usually do this by mentioning a character by name in the first sentence or two though rather than character, it could be setting or really anything that situates a reader clearly in the particular story and not the former one.
At several places in this process I read the entire section of text I’m working with–all of the combined stories being cut apart. To be more accurate, I read until I stumble upon something I don’t like. Then I either stop and revise a bit of text or reorder again. This might happen repeatedly, or I might put them all together in a readable order the first time. Though even then, if stories change, I might need to redo the entire process–which is why this happens late in the process.
For example, I’d been “done” with Isolation for nearly a year, giving readings, seeking a publisher, sending out shorts to contests and literary magazines. In the process of getting it ready for self-publishing, I received feedback which suggested a massive cutting was in order. In the first section of the novel nearly 50% was cut. Needless to say, I had to re-order the cut pieces which now often started and ended differently than they had in the earlier version.
As I hit the end of page two of this blog entry, I think, wow, this must be complicated. But it’s really not. And it’s lots of fun. As humans, much of the meaning we make in the world comes from juxtaposition. You know the saying: "It’s all context"? Well, that means that the juxtaposition of “things” whether they’re stories or the contents of your refrigerator or the objects on your desk create meaning. Well, the things' juxtapostions don’t really create the meaning, we do—as we look, contemplate, rearrange, reconsider. For me, it's the essence of writing, the essence of creativity.
Somehow, the print I made several years ago “Cutting Out Fish,” which accompanies this article, provides a visual for this writing practice. Rock, paper, scissors. With more than two choices, randomness enters the equation. From the way I see it, that means we all win! Play with cutting up and reordering text. See what happens. And let me know.

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