ABC’s of Fiction Writing: E is for Experiment

Posted by on Mar 6, 2015 in Uncategorized | 0 comments

Profile PhotoWhenever I’m asked who my favorite writer is, I always answer Thomas Pynchon.  Having a relationship with Pynchon’s work can be difficult and frustrating and I never recommend him to other readers because so many people don’t connect with him or outright dislike him.  But for me, nothing can replace or downgrade the sensation I felt after reading Gravity’s Rainbow for the first time in my early twenties.  Page after page astonished me.  I kept asking myself, “You can do this? They will let you get away with that?”  Encountering that book gave me permission to try whatever came to mind with my own writing.  It let me know that changes in structure, narration, point-of-view, linguistic style, and even form could all be contained within a single work.  It also impressed on me the need to experiment in my own writing.

It seems obvious that we experiment with different storylines, plot structures, devices, points-of-view, and tone when we begin a new work.  Those are all small-scale experiments that help us zero in on the correct expression for a particular story or novel.  There are also large-scale experiments, the type of work we all recognize and classify as “experimental” because they attempt something radically different from the traditional.  But if you try to define experimental fiction you’ll find as many definitions as you care to search for.  A broad and generous explanation might be that experimental fiction emphasizes innovation or refuses to stay within boundaries laid out by genre or traditional elements.  That is something that should appeal to most writers because, by the nature of our creativity and way of viewing the world, we do not see ourselves as traditional or bound by traditional limits.  To me, this suggests that experimental writing is as much about the internal process of the writer as the final product.  As writers, we are all trying new approaches and techniques.  Sometimes these are techniques others have shown us, but sometimes they are our own, developed out of and particularly adapted to our own needs of expression.

But why should we think of writing as an experiment, or more specifically attempt to incorporate experimental elements in our work?  Because experiments help us learn what we can and can’t do successfully, what our own style is, what language can and can’t do, and what works for us and our particular themes.  If we push ourselves to experiment we find new layers in our work, new ideas inspired by form, new connections and new themes.  In short, we begin to learn how to write as ourselves and how to speak in new ways about the subjects that push us to write in the first place.  And we start seeing stories in places that were previously hidden: in our grocery list, the particular marketing emails we receive as a result of our shopping habits, the comments on a Facebook status (this last one actually did inspire me to write a story that later appeared in The Austin Review).

We should also not underestimate the power of experimentation to shape and push language.  David Shields and Matthew Vollmer, editors of the anthology Fakes, point out in their introduction that linguistic forms structure information, including the forms of stories.  This structuring of information creates and carries expectations of behavior and even content.  If you doubt this, ask yourself what you expect a newspaper article to look like, what kind of information you expect a diary to contain, or how characters in a genre novel will act in certain circumstances.  These are conventions that we absorb and perpetuate often without considering the limitations they place on us.  Forms and language can restrict as well as liberate, and it is up to us as writers to seek the latter.

In today’s world, language and particularly text are not the same as years gone by.  We incorporate symbols, images, abbreviations like idk or lol into our everyday usage.  Language and forms are evolving around us through usage and technology. It doesn’t seem to me that writers can afford to ignore this.  If we are not pushing at the boundaries through experimentation, we are calcifying our positions and methods, we become rigid and limited.  If we are not experimenting with language and forms of discourse in our stories in the same manner as we encounter them in real life, we can legitimately ask the question whether our fiction is reflecting our world realistically.  We can ask whether we are perpetuating an artificial form, restricting it to what it was instead of what it is or could be today and tomorrow.  If we are not seeking new forms of expression for our ideas, we should be asking ourselves why not and whether we are exploring our full creative range.

Naturally, the experiment can’t be everything.  There has to be the human element, a facet of the story we are curious about or character that we want to connect with in order for an author’s experiment to work.  Consider the famous PowerPoint chapter in Jennifer Egan’s novel A Visit from the Goon Squad.  Her experimental approach worked because of the content and Egan’s skill, without which the chapter would have been a simple gimmick.  But because the form melded so well with the content it altered our perception of the character and the character’s world, and thus challenged views of our own world. 

All of this is to say that experimentation of all types is a must for writers. Without it, we are not fully exploring the possibilities of fiction or of our own ideas.  We are limiting ourselves creatively in a way that no writer can afford to do.  Remember that experimentation is as much internal as anything, it is about the how of our stories, about how we best communicate and express our ideas.  Ultimately, that has to be a good thing for a writer.

Jason Hill studied creative writing in the MFA program at Spalding University.  He holds a BA in English from the University of Kentucky and an MA in Philosophy from the University of Connecticut.  He has lived in Providence, Boston, Jersey City and Louisville.  His current whereabouts are unknown but you can follow him @aguycalledjason.

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