Complete a process of change

Not all stories and novels do those things, and not all stories and novels are classically constructed. Do they have to be? Absolutely not. Think of the symphony, which is in sonata form. Which musical forms do not adhere to the sonata? The impromptu, the nocturne, the bagatelle, the polonaise, the prelude, the fugue, the lyric, the ecossaise, the gnossienne, the pavane. You can make up your own forms. And you probably should. In the end, you'll probably find yourself working close to classical structure anyway (again, the round wheel rolls). But when might you disregard classically plotted fiction? The best advice I have to offer here is: once you've written the draft. Consider Tim O'Brien's story collection, The Things They Carried, which is a sort of novel-in-stories. Here is a book that contains several classically plotted stories (the title story and a few others), and a whole bunch of impromptus, nocturnes, preludes, bagatelles, and maybe a fugue or two. There are journal entries, letters, lists. There is meta-fiction. O'Brien appears as a character in some; in others, the narrators are never identified. My guess is that this collection covered when someone — and that someone might be Tim O'Brien — said, Oh no, all the rules are broken here, but so what? It's still a beautiful read and a powerful experience. Some pieces of fiction satisfy their own internal orders. Chekhov and Hemingway, two “classical” writers who established the norms of the contemporary short story, gave themselves the liberty to do anything. While many of their stories are classically constructed (“The Lady With the Pet Dog,” “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber”), many are not. Browse a collection and see what these two giants allowed themselves; you are allowed the same range. Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer is loose, so loose it threatens to fall apart in many places.

The organization, such as it is, is thematic and associative rather than narrative. The novel's loosely constructed four sections are crammed (unequally) with rant, vision, and narrative. Its first section is the least narrative. Here, crablike, the Miller narrator scuttles back and forth across Paris, time, and characters. Still, an act one of sorts is achieved, since this opening section (some sixty or so pages) introduces all the major characters, themes, and conflicts. The opening rants create the liberty for Miller, later on, to interrupt the pacing of narrative moments for long speculations of a philosophical sort. The ideas are as important to Miller as the stories within the larger narrative. Compare Miller's novel to James Welch's The Death of Jim Loney, a masterpiece of compact, three-act-structure storytelling. It comprises many short chapters with alternating points of view (all in third-person), each chapter advancing an inevitable story outcome that might be the example par excellence of the transcendent ending. Each voice and each section works close to character and event, and any commentary on action, setting, history, or context derives from a particular point of view. Sandra Cisneros's The House on Mango Street uses a similar approach — the short-chapter mosaic — with a somewhat different intent. Welch's novel, a tragedy, joins the narrative in the same way taut short stories do: as close as possible to the point of climax. Cisneros's fragmented novel builds like pieces of a puzzle to form an impression of a family epic through the coming-of-age of a principal character. It's time frame is wider, more comprehensive. You might say that her trajectory is horizontal — across time and events — whereas Welch's is vertical — going deeply into fewer events.

Of course, Cisneros goes vertical in each of the short sections, mining each for whatever ore is in them. nThe question: What is the novel? may have been best answered by novelist Don DeLillo, who said, “The novel is whatever novelists are doing at a given time.” That is, each novelist invents the form every time out, and every invention is legitimate. His message: Don't worry about what anyone says the form is, just write. You can do whatever you can get away with, and worrying about conforming to established conventions is tail-chasing. The amateur's crisis of confidence as she begins her first short story is the writer's crisis of confidence at the outset of every new project. This is unique to writing. Once an architect knows how to design buildings, she designs buildings. On her next assignment, she doesn't wonder, How do I design buildings? Maybe I'm not really an architect. … Once an orchestra conductor knows how to conduct orchestras, she conducts. Faced with a new score, she doesn't think, Oh my god, how do I conduct symphonies? Maybe I'm not really a conductor. But the writer faces that first vast empty page (or screen) of the new project and thinks, I wonder if the mail's in. Jeesh, my pants are tight — should I go the gym? Who's on Oprah? I can do some sit-ups and watch Oprah. Maybe it's Maya Angelou. Or maybe there's something inspirational at the cineplex. And how the hell do I write this damn thing anyway? Who cares what I write? Why should they? Maybe I'm not really a novelist. Maybe I'm not really a writer. (Maybe I should have tried something easier, like designing buildings, or conducting symphonies.) That's the good news and the bad news. The bad news, because it means that confronting terror and humiliation is part of the job description. Good news, because it happens to everybody, it comes with the turf, and each time out will be like the first time. First love only happens once, but first-fiction terror and euphoria can happen again and again. So haul out your Moleskine or boot up the iBook, and go scare the hell out of yourself. Then fall in love. Repeat when necessary.

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