“Scaffolding” in fiction writing

I’ve had the post below saved as a draft for a while, and was inspired to go back to it after reflecting, today, on the conclusion of a really wonderful session of the fiction workshop that I’ve been teaching at the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts over the last two or so years. (Shameless plug: another session of the workshop is starting April 6.)

I like to open each class with some discussion of an open-ended question. I do it because writing is such a solitary art form that a little time to compare notes, commiserate, and try to talk a little about how we do what we do (or what we’re trying to do) can be really important and really encouraging for writers, myself included. Also it’s a great way to ease into class before the students have to hear me lecture on plot, point of view, character, etc.

Some questions are better than others, and last night I came up with a good one: where does meaning—“theme,” that quality in a story of its being “about” something—come from? Do you start out thinking, “This story is going to be about human avarice and greed,” or “I’m going to write a novel about fathers and sons”? Or do you just write, and do something like hope a meaning develops? Or look for meaning only later, when you’ve thrown a few thousand (or more) words on the page?

It was a great discussion, and if there was any consensus it’s that your work will usually surprise you: that fathers-and-sons novel you had planned out so nicely will prove to have little to do with either fathers or sons, and that story where you just thought it would be fun to write about rodeo clowns might prove to have unexpected depths beneath the surface.

In any event, it got me thinking about an experience I had last spring and summer with a pair of stories, about which I started to write a blog post that I never finished. I’ve completed the thought and wanted to throw it out there in case it’s of any use or interest to anyone else in thinking about where not only meaning comes from, but where anything in a story comes from: the act/art of composition and the mystery of it.

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