Thursday, January 24, 2013

The Forgetful Kimchi Hypothesis

Last week, I gathered up some hope from the rubble, and took to heart a suggestion from a magazine that I "send again" by embarking on the final edits of a short story I'd left unfinished for months. It only took me one evening of work to come to the hypothesis that good stories are kimchi.

Kimchi is a spicy Korean food which, while different from sauerkraut in taste, is not so different in production: at its heart, Kimchi is just fermented cabbage. I know, who doesn't see decaying cabbage and think, now there's a metaphor for fiction writing, right? But I hold to my hypothesis: stories are kimchi.

Making kimchi involves chopping and combining raw ingredients including the all important napa cabbage. You combine it with other stuff. Then you wait. You don't touch the kimchi. You don't poke at it or check in on it daily. Traditionally, you put the kimchi in an earthenware jar and bury it in the backyard for months, if not a year, depending on the recipe and the seasonal temperature. The burying is to help provide consistency in temperature, although such jars often are stored above ground in courtyards. Most recipes you'll find on the internet suggest that refrigeration is probably the way to go, yet in Korea "you will still see rows of kimchi jars on top of the flat roofs of apartment buildings in the big cities." [source]

Is my hypothesis that writing is nothing more than a slow fermentation process? That's too simplistic a comparison for what I have in mind.

The drafting of a piece fiction does not need to be slow. The current editing project is a short story I dashed off in an evening because of a looming 8:00 AM workshop deadline. But following that quick trot, gathering ingredients, preparing, chopping, mixing, I received thoughtful feedback, and then I stuck it all in an earthenware jar and buried it in the backyard for about eight months.

The story didn't need months to complete its drafting, but for me to go from the piece's writer to its editor I needed that time. It wasn't about the story, it was about me processing the feedback I'd been given and -- more importantly -- it was about me forgetting the process of writing it.

Forgetting is the most important part. When I take an idea from concept to plot to details to words on a page, I am wrapped up in all of it. I know what I meant to write even if it's not what I actually wrote. At the time of creation, I read what I've written and I anticipate my own next moves. I'm unsurprised. I'm unenthusiastic. I'm too in touch with the process of creation. So I have to take the time to forget everything save the vaguest sense of what the story was about.

Eight months after writing the short story, I hauled the jar back inside and revised. I got more feedback. I was much, much closer to being happy with the story. I'd resolved some of my own craft short comings. I'd figured out which parts of the story were too light, and which too weighty. Then I put it back in an earthenware jar and buried it in the backyard for eighteen months. Eighteen.

This is not to say that I did not write during that year and a half. I just wrote other things. I filled other earthenware jars until my folder of Word Docs looked like a Korean courtyard. And on the eighteenth month when I opened this particular jar, I'd forgotten everything about drafting the piece. Finally I could read it as a reader would, as an editor would. Things which the creator in me thought were "necessary" to describe the world were readily apparent as flotsam to be skimmed off. The story found a new opening place. The first five pages were cut and the information therein condensed into a paragraph. The dispersal of information regarding the character's motivation was restructured. The main speculative element was previously nebulous to the reader -- as the writer I'd understood how it worked just fine -- so its description was reworked, condensed. Would you like some kimchi? It's ready.

I understand writing quickly. I think that deadline driven writing is superb, but then again, deadlines are my main source of inspiration. My advice -- if we must boil this down to advice -- is to write fast and edit slow. Give yourself time to forget so that you can meet your story again as a stranger. Play that game TV couples like to engage in, the let's-put-the-past-behind-us-and-pretend-this-is-the-first-time-we-ever-met game. You know the one, where they smile bittersweet smiles at each other and attempt to pick each other up for the first time in spite of their insider information.

Of course, no advice should be treated as sacrosanct. All writers write differently. Yet I am always astounded by those who begin rewriting a piece almost as soon as they've drafted it, those who can go from workshop to second draft within a week, if not a day. Not astounded because they're "doing it wrong" but that they're able to do so all. My memory is by no means a steel trap, but it needs a stretch of time before it can forget a story well enough to allow me to read it afresh, read it like a reader and not like its creator.


More thoughts from other people: "Do You Practice Creative Contemplation?" an interesting essay on patience and listening, and while it poo-poos on NaNoWriMo, the mother of all deadlines, I believe that a NaNoWriMo draft, taken with a kimchi recipe approach, is potentially quite serviceable, so I'll cut the essayist a break.

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