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Finding the Story in the Story

June 7th, 2010

This morning, I threw myself upon the mercy of Twitter, begging for topics to write about this month. And Twitter, in the form of my friend Victoria Janssen, answered; quoth Victoria: figuring out the real story of the story. This is a great topic. This is a topic I would actually love to see other people write about so that I can read their answers. Because I don’t know that mine is the best way to think about it. But as of right now, it’s the way I’ve got.

Long long ago, in a galaxy far far away, I taught Creative Writing. This meant, among other things, that I spent a lot of time there for a year or two reading books about creative writing. Some of them were helpful, some not so much. Some of them infuriated me. And one of them taught me something I’ve been using ever since.

The book was The Triggering Town, by the poet Richard Hugo (available at Powells). I bought it for five dollars in a used bookstore. It’s a skinny book; it doesn’t take long to read. And in it, Hugo deploys a pair of concepts that I have found incredibly useful: the triggering subject (hence the title of his book) and the real subject. I’m going to go ahead and quote him here, since I’ve found the passage, and if I didn’t quote it, I’d just be paraphrasing it all over the place anyway:

A poem can be said to have two subjects, the initiating or triggering subject, which starts the poem or “causes” the poem to be written, and the real or generated subject, which the poem comes to say or mean, and which is generated or discovered in the poem during the writing.
(Hugo 4)

For the word “poem,” you can substitute “story,” and it works just as well. At least, in my experience. Because you have the thing that you want to write the story about–dragons, for example–and then you have the thing that you discover in the course of writing that is the thing you need to say about dragons. To show you what I mean, here are four different stories about dragons, two written by Elizabeth Bear, and two written by me:

All four of these stories have the same triggering subject: dragons. And all four of them have quite different real subjects, which the reader (like the writer) discovers in the process of experiencing the story.

Triggering subjects are a dime a dozen. Seriously. I have a word processor full of them. The hard part is never coming up with something to write about. The hard part is making the leap from the triggering subject to the real subject.

Some stories, like some poems, never do. They’re all surface and WYSIWYG. Sometimes, reading those, you find the place where the real subject tried to emerge, like a soft, shy, velvet moth from a cocoon, and died because the writer was not attentive, not receptive. Hugo says, just after the passage I quoted, that the writer doesn’t always know the real subject, and that may be true. (I think it’s more accurate to say that the writer may not know all the real subjects; some of them may be pointed out to her by readers. But I do kind of think she should have at least an idea of the deep parts of her work.) But whether the writer can articulate the real subject of not, he has to be open to it. He has to be willing to let it spread its wings, and he has to be willing to listen to its inaudible wing-beats.

I don’t have any good advice for how you convince the real subject to come out. That’s the part over which I personally have the least conscious control. Forcing it doesn’t work for me; I know that much. That way lies didactic literature and propaganda. I’ve found that I have to be willing to listen to the weird ideas my brain throws off around the story; even though they frequently seem unrelated or just plain nuts, they’re often the places where the real story is tearing its way through. And I have to be willing to change the story, to let go of my preconceived ideas about what I’m doing and follow the moth into the darkness. It’s scary, but I always get better stories when I do.

And for me, it helps just to have a vocabulary, to be able to say, “This is my triggering subject.” It lets me clear a bunch of distracting stuff out of the way, and it reminds me that no matter how cool my triggering subject is, there’s still a real subject to generate, and that that’s the thing that will make my story worth reading. That’s the story I’m trying to tell.

Hugo, Richard. The Triggering Town: Lectures and Essays on Poetry and Writing. 1979. New York: W. W. Norton & Co, 1992.

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  1. June 7th, 2010 at 11:05 | #1

    I knew you’d make an awesome post out of that!!!

    Now I must read that Richard Hugo book.

  2. Tisha Turk
    June 7th, 2010 at 12:09 | #2

    Oooh, that is indeed a useful concept. Definitely adding Hugo’s book to the Powells wishlist…

  3. Sarah Monette
    June 7th, 2010 at 12:18 | #3

    I think it applies to most kinds of art, really. Certainly, I can see where you could use it with a Creative Nonfiction class.

  4. June 7th, 2010 at 18:13 | #4

    Wonderfully articulated. Thank you! I had been describing this concept to myself as the difference between the story’s body and its soul, which wasn’t really doing it for me. This is much better.

  5. June 9th, 2010 at 13:08 | #5

    Thank you for sharing this essay. It’s funny, but I was only thinking about something along these lines earlier today before I found this post, though at the time I hadn’t heard the terms “triggering subject” and “real subject”. It’s nice to have some clarity.

    This is also reassuring in many ways, and I’m much happier knowing I’m doing the right thing for my story. So, double thanks! :)

  6. June 13th, 2010 at 03:28 | #6

    Great post. It really gives us all something to think about.

    I have to admit that usually the story I think I’m writing isn’t the story I end up with and it is somewhere inbetween the first and third draft that I start to realise what I’m actually writing about. Thanks for sharing this.

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