The Millions

Chronicling Life’s White Machine

“I came to realize that far more important to me than any plot or conventional sense was the sheer directionality I felt while reading prose, the texture of time as it passed, life’s white machine.”
Ben Lerner, Leaving the Atocha Station

In the creative writing classes I teach, my students—most of them brand new at writing fiction—often go crazy writing plot. Their understanding of fiction, derived from a Stephenie Meyer/J.K. Rowling/Suzanne Collins-heavy reading background (not to mention 18 years of TV and movies), is that in fiction, stuff needs to happen.  These early stories are breakneck affairs, full of marriages and divorces and car chases and gunplay and fistfights and murders and suicides and murder-suicides—sometimes spinning several into the same piece.  They are B-movie scripts written as prose, mostly expository.

Slow down, I advise, boringly.  They listen, or pretend to listen, as I explain that literary fiction, the kind I am ostensibly being paid to instruct them how to write, is more character than plot.  This is axiomatic: in literature, character is primary, always.  Yes, things must happen, but they can be small things, incremental turns of the thousand gears that make up a

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