Writers on Writing: The Secret Life of Subtext

by John McNally

If I were to sit down and calculate how long it sometimes takes me to write a short story from conception to final draft, I would probably quit writing altogether. And yet I begin each project optimistically, naïvely thinking that I understand what the story is about, when in fact I know virtually nothing about the story and may not know anything about it for years.

It’s taken me a long time to realize what revision is all about (what it’s about for me, at least). It’s about discovering the story’s subtext. The story always has a surface story, the obvious thing that the story is about, but what does all of it mean? How do the disparate elements of a story add up to mean something that’s greater than its individual parts? What’s the story’s cumulative effect?

I tell my students that the story’s text is what the story’s about, but that the story’s subtext is what the story’s really about. Here’s what I believe: the conscious mind is what’s piecing together the obvious story; the unconscious mind, working much as it does with dreams, tries subverting the obvious story by dropping in the surprising detail, the jarring line of dialogue, the unexpected guest, the unsettling turn of events. Why does this shoe horn keep showing up in the story? Why did Mary mouth off? Who invited Jim to come over just then? And why did the next door neighbor park his car in his neighbor’s driveway instead of his own? You think you’re in control of your story, but the truth is, you’re not. It’s my belief that while the unconscious mind is wreaking havoc on your quiet, domestic story, it’s also feeding you the subtext. The subtext, as I suggested above, is the story’s dream-world, and since you rarely know why you’re dreaming about the things you dream about, the subtext also takes time and distance (in both your life and the story’s life) for its meaning to become clear.

If the story itself is a lake, then its subtext is the Loch Ness monster, dipping in and out, keeping mostly hidden, but sometimes rising up and scaring the bejesus out of you. Or sometimes the subtext is the main story’s doppelgänger: it looks like the main story, it has the same cast of characters, but it’s acting in peculiar ways, and (more frighteningly) it has its own agenda.

Revision is the act of teasing the Loch Ness monster out of the water or drawing the doppelgänger out from the shadows so that we can take a good look, see it more clearly, and perhaps understand why it’s doing what it’s doing. Once we finally understand its purpose, the subtext comes into focus and then the story as a whole (after more revision, of course) becomes spherical instead of merely round. The story becomes an experience for the reader rather than mere words on a page. As Flannery O’Connor said about successful short stories, two plus two is always greater than four. Why? The answer is subtext.

* * *
A revision will take me anywhere from one to six years. Fortunately, I work on several projects at once—a revolving stack of stories, novels, and screenplays—otherwise I’d be the least productive writer working today. I tend to write first drafts quickly, so I’m not a slow writer. I am, however, a slow learner, and every year I’ll come to some realization about fiction writing that would have made my life a hell of a lot easier if it had dawned on my twenty years ago.

Learning how to revise a story came to me slowly, and it wasn’t until I’d been writing seriously for nine years that it finally clicked. Until then, I’d thought revision was all about finding the right words, working on pacing, varying syntax, and so on—and it is about all of those things, but all of those things should be in the service of figuring out what the story is really about. This finally occurred to me while working on two disparate stories.  One was a loosely autobiographical story about a man who, after a brief marriage and a startlingly fast divorce, was starting to drink too much and, as a result, misinterpret the things happening around him. The other story was a purely fictional story about a man named Roger who was obsessed with Charles Manson and the Manson Family. Neither story was working. The first had no plot; the second had no character motivation. One was too real; the other was too outlandish. One day, I had the two stories side-by-side, trying to figure out which one to work on when I noticed similarities between them. The narrators were eerily similar; the general mood of each story was similar as well. There was one striking difference. One story (the autobiographical story) was primarily external; I rarely entered the narrator’s head. The other story was almost entirely internal. It was as if I had split one character in two, divvying up point-of-view strategies: this character sees the world while that character thinks about it. Side-by-side, I realized that the two stories were really talking to each other. One was succumbing to the darkness of his own life; the other was embracing the darkness. It wasn’t easy putting the two stories together: I had to cut a lot from each story, including some of my favorite passages, but it was necessary because these two stories were meant to be together. The realization that they belonged together was exciting—more exciting than any realization I’d had as a fiction writer up until that point. I felt like Dr. Frankenstein trying to patch together something living from something dead. And like Dr. Frankenstein, I had created something scarier than I had anticipated, something that took on a life separate from me, a story that began to tell me what it was all about rather than the other way around.

That particular story was a personal and artistic catharsis for me. I don’t write fiction for therapy, and I tend to believe that if you go into writing a story with the hope of healing yourself, the story will seem too obvious and the reader will likely be embarrassed for you.  But I also believe that every story that comes truly and fully alive is, in truth, a form of personal catharsis. The kicker is that you’re usually the last to realize it.

To some extant, our relationship to our own stories is that of an analyst to her patient. Our job is to meet regularly with our patient (the story) with the hope that each session will bring about a series of illuminations that lead, ultimately, to an epiphany. We may need to meet for only a month or two, but sometimes we meet for years. Occasionally, we never stop meeting. These are the stories that we haven’t given up hope on but that never seem to work. I tend to believe that such stories suffer from one of two problems: a subtext that’s so personal that we may never have enough distance to figure out what it means; or no subtext at all, in which case revising the story is like chasing a mirage. Without a subtext, the story will never materialize; it’ll never turn to flesh and blood. Sadly, these are the ones we probably cling to the longest when we should really just let them go.

* * *
After twenty-two years of writing, you’d think I’d have figured out a faster way to detect the story’s subtext, but I haven’t. I recently started writing what I thought would be a short-short. It was to be no longer than five pages. As of today, it’s eighteen pages with no end in sight. The story has gone in several unexpected directions, and characters I hadn’t fathomed when I began writing have barged into the story, disrupting what was supposed to be a straightforward narrative.

Do I know yet what the story is about? Not really. Not yet, at least.

Do I know yet how long the story will take to write? Not a clue.

Will I continue working on it? Absolutely. As writers, this is as close as we get to unlocking the secrets to our own odd and mysterious lives. How could I possibly turn my back on that?

John McNally is author of six books, most recently After the Workshop (a novel) and The Creative Writer’s Survival Guide (nonfiction). His story “Return Policy” was the lead story in his collection Ghosts of Chicago. A native of Chicago’s southwest side, he presently lives in North Carolina. His above essay will be included in the forthcoming Vivid and Continuous: Essays on the Craft of Writing by John McNally, to be published by University of Iowa Press in 2012.

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