Michael Cunningham on Treating Stories Like Living Things
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.
In this episode, Mitzi talks to Michael Cunningham about his new novel, Day.
Subscribe and download the episode, wherever you get your podcasts!
From the episode:
Mitzi Rapkin: As we’re talking about the challenges of the middle of novels, it might be instructive to talk about that. Maybe there’s something about making sure that the first third, although I hate rules, that you’re opening something up, and then in the middle, which can be the hardest, that you’re finding ways, not in a bad way to limit the possibilities so you can move towards an ending that isn’t necessarily prescriptive or final. You still want an ending that opens up the story, but maybe for the characters, you’re creating more limitations or something.
Michael Cunningham: I also hate rules. But I teach writing, and I always talk to my students at the beginning of the semester about how there aren’t any rules, but they’re kind of are. Or rather, let’s say there are storytelling principles that seem to have stood up more often than not, please take whatever I say along these lines only as something that has proven to be a reliable hypothesis. And we did this exercise just a couple of weeks ago, I have them do writing exercises before they start writing full stories. So, I had them write a page, an opening page that in some way or other makes it apparent to the reader that something important is going to happen. Whether the entire house is going to fall down, or we get the first intimations of a relationship about to go bad. But remember, students and writers everywhere, that no one really wants to read what you write, there’s too much out there already. And you really need to make it apparent early on that this is going to be worthy of your attention, you hope. So yeah, get to it and then keep it alive. I think part of the problem with middles is it’s too easy, if you are a new writer or an old writer, it’s too easy to sort of think of the middle as the part of the story that keeps the beginning from colliding with the end. And you want to remember that narrative, like life, is full of surprises, and you want to think about something needs to happen in the middle that turns things around. And this is where the professor kind of says, you know, I don’t know, I don’t know how you do that exactly. But do it. Remember that every section of any story is a living thing and treat it as such because if your attention starts to waver if you start to feel like you already know this, trust me, the reader will.
Michael Cunningham is a novelist, screenwriter, and educator. His novel The Hours received the PEN/Faulkner Award and the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1999. He has taught at Columbia University and Brooklyn College. He is currently a professor in the practice at Yale University. His new novel is called Day.