Mary Carroll Moore is an award-winning author, novelist, artist and teacher whose work has appeared over 200 publications. Her latest novel is Qualities of Light. Mary has a particular gift for helping writers find the emotional truth in their work to make it the best it can be. This week, she shares insights on transitions and the writing life.
AMA: What aspects of writing do you find most exciting, especially going from one genre to another?
MCM: An exciting aspect of the writing life, to me, is the option of skating into a new genre. I used to think my twelve years as a newspaper columnist, my twelve nonfiction books, would create a smooth transition to fiction. Was I ever wrong.
AMA: How did you transition from nonfiction to fiction?
MCM: I started writing short stories 10 years ago. Not so distant in form from a compact and focused newspaper column, the short story also has a beginning, middle, and end. But that's where the similarities stop. Not knowing this, I outlined a couple of story ideas, turned on the creative imagination, and waited for miracles. But my characters were flat as if they'd emerged from badly written sitcoms. They moved, they faced conflict, but essentially the story had no meaning. There was more to learning this new genre than I expected.
AMA: Since going from nonfiction to fiction wasn't as easy it seems, how did you address the learning process?
MCM: I took a deep breath and made myself a humble beginner again, signing up for Fiction 101 at a local writing school. I studied there for five years, reading voraciously between classes, talking with other fiction writers. I learned that very few of them used outlines. Maybe as a first step, to plot action. But they all talked about the story taking over, the characters beginning to speak to them. Never in the newspaper world did I encounter this.
AMA: Interesting point. What would you recommend for those of us like you who have a journalism background but want to become better fiction writers?
MCM: One fellow nonfiction writer, also making the transition, recommended Vivian Gornick's The Situation and the Story. Gornick analyzes meaning and how it emerges in essays and memoirs. As I read her examples, I finally had a name for the elusive element that makes literature last in our hearts and minds. For want of a better term, I began to call it "the inner story."
AMA: Can you explain the concept of "outer story"?
MCM: If you imagine "outer story" as what happens, where it happens, who it happens to-the great newspaper reporter's questions-"inner story" explores why and what it means. In newspaper writing, we left that up to the reader, many times. We just reported the facts. Now, I was learning to weave meaning (the story behind the situation) into my writing. As soon as I began incorporating "inner story," a few of my short stories were published, even won awards. It took five more years of learning about "inner story" and listening carefully to three of my most interesting characters before I could evolve into long-form fiction. My novel, Qualities of Light, was published last year and has been nominated for a PEN/Faulkner award.
AMA: What about "inner story"?
MCM: The element of "inner story" is what I love most in my writing; it's what lingers long after all action subsides. My journey into a new genre taught me that meaning-in life and in writing-can't be outlined or plotted. Meaning seeps in when we're not looking or planning anything. All we can do is listen for it and be ready to pay attention.