Each year of my three years of graduate study in creative writing I wrote approximately 100,000 words of original fiction, a total of over 300,000 words.

None of those words were published because none of them were publishable.

Over the intervening 20-plus years I’ve tried to make sense of my rather slow learning. Failing to write something publishable was not for lack of effort nor taste nor even ability – as I would later go on to write publishable fiction.

I also don’t think it was merely a matter of time, putting in my 10,000 hours[1]until I broke through to a higher level of mastery. There was something fundamental about the nature of writing while in school that I now believe prevented me from realizing my potential.

I’ve been reflecting on this in the light of having read a recent essay by Lincoln Michel at Lit Hub in which he talks about different story “engines.” He interrogates a rather common bit of creative writing folklore that there are “two methods of storytelling: plot-driven and character-driven.”

In graduate school, I pursued the “character-driven” model as embodied in the so-called American minimalists (or K-Mart realists) such as Raymond Carver, Ann Beattie, Richard Ford, Bobbie Ann Mason, and the like. I revered the work of these writers[2]and thought that the goal of a short story writer is to achieve something like their work. I dutifully attempted this for three years. 

My work was not bad, necessarily. I had a level of proficiency that allowed me to create stories that seemed to have the necessary elements, but neither were they wholly successful, primarily because they were not alive. They were like Frankenstein’s monster without the jolt of lightning. My colleagues knew it. My advisor knew it.

I knew it, which is why following graduation I didn’t write anything for months, eager to shake off the affliction that put me at my computer, tapping away at proficient failures.

In the body of his essay, Michel argues and illustrates that there are in fact many different engines for creating a story, declaring “any element of fiction can be an engine.”

Michel’s belief comes from his particular perspective. He says, “My interest, as a writer and creative writing professor, is less in how we can analyze stories than in how writers can generate work. I’m interested in what devices—engines let’s call them, since surely the author is always the driver (even when they’re crashing their story into a ditch)—can supply power to the rest of story.”

The first “successful” – as in publishable – story I wrote came from an engine other than plot or character. 

Towards the end of my graduate studies I’d fallen into the thrall of Donald Barthelme, one of the avatars of the postmodern metafictionists who were a companion strain to the minimalists, known for their overtly playful, often comic , and often quite short, short stories. One of my favorite Barthelme stories is “The School” a short quasi-monologue from the perspective of a school teacher recounting some of the strange things that have been happening in his classroom. I found the story surprising and hilarious and following my failure to be Raymond Carver wondered if I could be Donald Barthelme instead.

But a typical Barthelme story does not work on plot or character or even logic and sense. His stories appear to travel via intuition towards an unknown destination, the final arrival seeming to surprise the author as much as the reader. Unlike Raymond Carver with this carefully, yet sparely drawn characters, Barthelme gave me no easy purchase from which to work.

Stymied in trying to do something character-based, I stole two small things from “The School” – its deadpan tone and escalating absurdity – and decided they would be my “engine” and allowed myself to go wherever that energy would take me. 

The result was a story called “On the Set.”[3]

Reading it now, 20 years after its inception, I cringe a little, knowing it as the juvenilia it is, but even now I can recognize it as successfuljuvenilia. It was the first step on the way towards whatever it is I’m continuing to become as a writer of fiction.[4]

Lincoln Michel’s essay revealed those illusive answers as to why I couldn’t write anything successful while in school. Some of it is the dynamic of a writing workshop, the natural desire to seek approval and please one’s colleagues and mentors. I was writing what I thought I should, rather than what I was deeply connected to.

But I believe a bigger part of the disconnect was simply in the tools and language we deployed in workshop to discuss each other’s stories. The language of analysis inevitably falls short of capturing the nature of “energy” that I believe must be present to create a successful work of fiction.

Check that, a successful work of just about any kind of writing. Without energy, I’m not sure anything else matters. I’m reminded of this every week as I write for this blog.

Inevitably, a blog post must start with a spark[5], literal energy that gives rise to enough of an idea for me to latch onto and follow where it wants to take me. 

Energy. This is what I think I want for students, to help them develop the parts of their writing practice that makes them sensitive and open to finding those sources of energy. With energy, anything is possible.


[1]Which we know is a myth, anyway.

[3]It became a finalist for the Esquire magazine new writer award, meriting a three point font acknowledgement in an edition of the magazine. It is told from a first person plural (We) point of view of the crew on a movie set helmed by a genius director who has apparently magical powers. It winds up in places I could never have imagined.

[4]The actual money making career prospects in fiction for me are slim because of the nature of my work and its relationship to the marketplace, but the work itself is better than ever. 

[5]I’ve been thinking about Lincoln Michel’s essay off and on for a couple of days. This blog post was drafted inside of 20 minutes.

Inside Higher Ed