Lidia Yuknavitch Wants You to Write a Triptych
In Conversation with Mitzi Rapkin on the First Draft Podcast
First Draft: A Dialogue of Writing is a weekly show featuring in-depth interviews with fiction, nonfiction, essay writers, and poets, highlighting the voices of writers as they discuss their work, their craft, and the literary arts. Hosted by Mitzi Rapkin, First Draft celebrates creative writing and the individuals who are dedicated to bringing their carefully chosen words to print as well as the impact writers have on the world we live in.
From the episode:
Mitzi Rapkin: You have so many stories in here, and part of the reason is because you are able to pack in a lot in some that are very few pages. Obviously, it’s just what that story needs. But I find that kind of compression really difficult. And I’m wondering if you do too, or have any strategies, or just your thoughts about that?
Lidia Yuknavitch: Well, over the years, I’ve become very obsessed with the literary fragment, or the short, short form—you used the word compressed, that’s a good word—as kind of a microcosm of the larger story. What if a single image could carry the weight of a 30-page story? That’s an interesting question to me. And the reason I like to explore it as a writer is, in my real life, in my lived experience, sometimes a tiny moment or a glimpse of something carries more weight for me than the big dramatic event that just happened. The little thing off to the side, or the breath before the big event, or the breath after it: those moments are as fascinating to me, as, like, my father died. Big event, right? But the before and after, and the in between, and the things just out of sight, the things in the periphery—I like to capture those little, little fragmented tiny stories, because sometimes I think the weight of experience lives more there than in the big dramatic events themselves.
And I’m still exploring this myself, but some structural things to try if anybody’s interested in the literary fragment would be to see how much storytelling you can get in a single image of an object or plant or animal or something. Can you find drama, the whole dramatic arc inside a single image? There’s a little story by Virginia Woolf about watching a moth die, a moth on the windowsill, and it’s this epic tale, a one-page story, but by the time you finish the story, you’ve experienced the same weight as if a big death has happened in a character’s life that took 30 pages to tell. And so, it’s just a really challenging and beautiful and amazing exploration to try it on the page.
A good way to try it is to try to write a triptych. In this way, write three 200-word fragments from three different times in your life in a single place, or a single kind of event or a single kind of feeling, so that you’re moving around it, whatever it is, with these tiny little micro-stories that all address it, but they come from different ages of you-ness. You could create a theme like “quiet” and write three 200-word fragments from three different times in your life, on just what quiet triggers in you. And so, they’re micro stories, and you won’t know what they’re about until you do them. I highly recommend it. It’s great to play around with; they’re really challenging. And then you have three of them. So, then you get to decide what to do about that.
Mitzi Rapkin: Did any of the stories in this collection begin that way or from a kind of exercise?
Lidia Yuknavitch: Well, sure. So you know, in this book there are these short little bursts of micro-stories, and they’re all about women on the verge of making some kind of choice in their lives, and they never resolve. And you don’t know if it’s one woman in a bunch of different times in her life, or if it’s a bunch of different women. And they’re just glimpses; they’re just like a frozen snapshot of a moment in one’s life where she’s about to do something. She’s on the verge. Get it? And those stories came out of an exploration I gave myself to write 30 of those as one story, just glimpses of women who are about to do something. And how they ended up in the book is just some of those are in there; there aren’t 30 of them. I think there’s five or something of them. But it was a hoot to write 30 of them because I didn’t have to worry about what the story was about. It’s about all these women on the edge of something, getting ready to do something weird or crazy or good or bad. And I just listed them all in a row and I wrote them in a frenzy, and it was really fun. I think everyone should try it.
Lidia Yuknavitch is the National Bestselling author of the novels The Book of Joan and The Small Backs of Children, winner of the 2016 Oregon Book Award’s Ken Kesey Award for Fiction as well as the Reader’s Choice Award, the novel Dora: A Headcase, and a critical book on war and narrative, Allegories of Violence. Her widely acclaimed memoir The Chronology of Water was a finalist for a PEN Center USA award for creative nonfiction and winner of a PNBA Award and the Oregon Book Award Reader’s Choice. The Misfit’s Manifesto, a book based on her recent TED Talk, was published by TED Books. Her new collection of short stories is called Verge.