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Saturday, May 15, 2010

How to Lose Your Way and Find Your Story

by Marissa Silver

I’m just publishing a new collection of short stories called ALONE WITH YOU. I love writing short stories. The challenge of compressing so much information into so little space feels like a high wire act to me. When I have successfully described a world, an emotional state of being, and a complex set of relationships in twenty pages, I feel like I have gotten to the heart of what feels essential about writing fiction: that it gives me an opportunity to distill my sense of what it means to be living.

But that word “means” is a big one. Often, in the middle of writing these stories, friends would ask me what I was writing about. The minute I heard the question, my mind went absolutely blank. About? I found it impossible to answer. Sure, I could run down the nominal and unrelated plots of the various stories, but that’s not what they wanted to know. They wanted to know what was my big idea.

So, here’s the secret. When I write, I have absolutely no notion of what I’m writing about. I never think about theme. I never think about meaning. Early on in my writing life, I recognized that if I wrote towards an idea of theme, or if I worried about what anything added up to, my stories would become flat. They would cease to surprise me, and therefore would cease to surprise a reader. Writing with an eye towards thematic unity makes the images too weighty, the words too obviously pregnant with intention. The work then feels bloated with its own importance, and paradoxically, becomes weightless and banal.

When I write, I have no idea what I’m doing. I start with something – an image maybe, a character, a voice - and then I leave it up to my associative brain to lead me forward. I write in a kind of semi-conscious state – well, that makes it all sound sort of weirder than it is – but what I mean to say is that when I write, I leave my analytical intellect at the door. I let it into the room only on the third or fourth drafts of a piece, when I don’t think it will do much harm.

When I write anything new, I feel like I have never written a thing before in my life. I am as perplexed and befuddled as I was the first time I sat down to write a story many years ago. And I am always, always lost.. It’s a disconcerting feeling and it runs hugely at odds with the part of me that likes to have a certain amount of control in my life. But I have come to understand that being lost is absolutely essential to finding a true and captivating story, a story that doesn’t tell us what we know, but tells us what we don’t know and then reminds us that we knew it all along.

Marisa Silver made her fiction debut in The New Yorker when she was featured in that magazine's first “Debut Fiction” issue. Her collection of short stories, Babe in Paradise was published by W.W. Norton in 2001. That collection was named a New York Times Notable Book of the Year and was a Los Angeles Times Best Book of the Year. In 2005, W.W. Norton published her novel, No Direction Home. Her latest novel, The God of War, was published in 2008 by Simon and Schuster and is a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for fiction. Winner of the O. Henry Prize, her fiction has been included in The Best American Short Stories, The O. Henry Prize Stories, as well as other anthologies. Her new collection of stories, Alone With You, was published by Simon and Schuster April, 13th, 2010.


  1. Marissa, you're a fantastic writer. Great to have you with us on Novel Journey.

    As far as the way you never ceases to amuse me how many different ways there are to go about it. We recently had a very talented writer talk about the importance of writing with a theme in mind. The only time we're wrong I suppose is insisting the way anyone else does it isn't the right way. Writing is such a magical toil. Love hearing about your process. Thanks for sharing with us.

  2. Enjoyed the interview with Marissa and learning how she writes. I love short stories especially those that are compiled in The Best American Short Stories. Wishing Marissa all the best with continued success in publication.

  3. Of all the descriptions and "how to" tips I have ever read by and for writers, this is the first that has tapped the the very essence of how it is with me. I need to frame this as a reminder when I start to flounder. If I could type "blogger cartwheels" I certainly would :)


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