When Conflict Is a Killjoy

by guest blogger Marisa P.

Conflict is the first encountered and the fundamental element of fiction…. In life, “conflict” often carries negative connotations, yet in fiction, be it comic or tragic, dramatic conflict is fundamental because in literature only trouble is interesting.

Only trouble is interesting. This is not so in life. Life offers periods of comfortable communication, peaceful pleasure, and productive work, all of which are extremely interesting to those involved. But passages about such times by themselves make for dull reading…. They cannot be used as a whole plot.

        –Janet Burroway, Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft

Screw you, Burroway.

         –me, lately

So I’ve run into a conflict with my writing.

I’ve been working on the same novel for years – or not working on it, depending. I scribbled my first notes for it in 1993, began drafting it in earnest in October 1998, and put it through twelve drafts by the summer of 2003. It’s a good novel, good enough. An earlier draft was a finalist in a pretty big contest judged by Pat Conroy some years ago. Joyce Carol Oates read it, sent me some pointers on how to improve it, and invited me to resend it to Ontario Press. Her suggestions inspired my twelfth draft and stalled the thirteenth. Late last spring an essay of mine caught the attention of an agent who’s been in the business nearly 40 years and handles at least one Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist. He wrote asking if I had a novel. That got me plugging away on the thirteenth draft, except in mid-July I stopped about 10 to 15 pages before finishing the overhaul of the last chapter. I have to get back to it – I put it in my goals for Writer’s March: “look at the behemoth.”

Notice how I said “look at,” not “finish” or “continue revising it.”

The novel has two narrative arcs, one action-oriented, one psychological. In the first, a twelve-year-old girl has killed her thirteen-year-old neighbor (add a softball bat and white German shepherd to the equation), and months pass before her part in the crime/accident is discovered. She’s a sullen little thing, this girl, and never talks, ever, about what happened. In the second narrative, the overarching narrative, her mother has spent more than five years trying obsessively to reconstruct the events of that fateful fatal day and the events leading up to it. She’s an unreliable narrator who didn’t witness many of the events she’s piecing together, though she more or less has the story right, and her real goal is to justify her daughter’s actions, to find the “rightness” in it. By novel’s end she succeeds in her endeavor, at the expense of all the other characters. This woman, this mother, the first-person narrator of my novel, is a judgmental bitch.

Years ago, years and years ago, I grew tired of living in her head, of seeing my flawed fictional people through her cold, cruel eyes. So last summer when I couldn’t decide what happened on one small-seeming plot point in the last chapter, I put the whole thing aside again.

Then I pitied myself my self-sabotage. That’s what I did instead of writing.

Dear readers, some advice: Don’t be like me. It’s not necessary to stop writing altogether.

Suddenly it wasn’t summer any more, and I was working again, and late one Friday afternoon in October, I found myself sitting outside with some graduate students who were speaking excitedly about their research assignment in Dana Levin’s zeitgeist class. They were so happy generating ideas for it. I couldn’t help wondering what I would write about if I were in the class: “No doubt it would have something to do with Lady Gaga,“ I said.

Within the month, I had 8600 words of a half-draft of my Lady Gaga paper (think meat dress and metaphor and DADT, lots of online research and primary sources). I had a blast working on the thing. Energy! Freedom! But when I realized how very much I had to say on the subject(s)—I imagine its finished form running 15000 – 20000 words – I worried: Where would I send this essay? Who would want to publish something so long?

Such questions can be killjoys.

I’ve grown tired of allowing killjoys to stop my writing. The Gaga paper need never be published. It gives me pleasure to work on it. DADT has been repealed (!!!), and the meat dress has long since rotted, so part of my point might well be obsolete, but so what?!?—I’m happy investing my writing time in this project.

Last month I started a blog about my three birds, who bring happiness and peace to my life. I’ve grown tired of not writing about them just because there’s no major “conflict” to propel a narrative.

Earlier this week, I got out the two novels I wrote when I was a teenager. More than a thousand pages of words in my tiny, controlled handwriting—there’s plenty of “conflict” in these novels, but I didn’t suffer any conflict in writing them. I experienced only the pleasure of the practice of my imagination.

And so to my point, in my usual peripatetic way: Today allow yourself some conflict-free writing. HAVE FUN! Write about whatever makes you happy. Enjoy the gift of your imagination. Write because you love to write.

And if it works for you, try it again tomorrow.

BIO: I am a teacher of creative writing and thus by definition a teacher of dramatic conflict. I am sometimes a writer. I am an owner of three birds and one dog and a bevy of good friends. I like pretty sunsets, full moons, travel, good food, summertime, and idling on my front porch. I like hearing my first name pronounced properly (MaREEsa) and seeing it spelled correctly (one “s”). I prefer as much conflict-free living as possible.

2 thoughts on “When Conflict Is a Killjoy

  1. Marisa,

    Very well put. One of the exercise prompts for your class that I never got around to was “Why do you write?” The answer is quite simple: because I want to. I’ve often said that I am writing for an intended audience of one—me.

    As for the homework assignment (given on a Saturday and over spring break no less), I’ll do it, but only because I want to.

  2. Dear Mr. Burqueboy,

    First I will reply as a teacher. As long as you read widely and well, you’re a terrific “intended audience” for your own work. I should probably have said “one” rather than “you,” but in this case, I know that you–YES, YOU!–read widely and well and that your writing is worthy of a much more extensive readership than just yourself should you so please it.

    Second I will reply as a bird owner. Huge conflict in my world of birds today. Huge. Warfare on the homefront. Ruinous to a happy writing day. Ruinous to a conflict-free blog.

    Third, wow, I could use some break in my spring break. At least the spring part has been pretty good.

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