The Mace & Crown, Monday, October 10, 1983
'Unconscious Process' secret to Beatties's work
"Life withers when there are things we cannot share." - Virginia Woolf, The Waves
I Anne Beattie brushed her long brown hair from her brow and slung an armbag of books off her shoulder. The books jostled each other as they hit the floor. "I don't have to say anything if I bring the words of others," she said. Ann Beattie. Her fiction is published frequently in The New Yorker and she's written several collections of short stories, as well as two novels, one of which, "Chilly Scenes of Winter," was made into a movie. She was a featured guest of ODU's recent Literary Festival. Ann Beattie. When I first began to write I didn't think of writing as a career, but as more of a hobby. Luckily, it's still a hobby to me, it's still fun."
II Ann Beattie read a passage of Flannery O'Connor's essay "Writing Short Stories," then embarked upon a spontaneous, random, audience-prompted discussion of "Writing as an Unconscious Process." "I write without any preconceived idea. The things must be gestating in an unconscious way. If there is structure it is an unconscious structure," she said, indicating that structure in her stories is not a thing imposed by her conscious thought. "I don't have a philosophy of writing. I rarely introspect about my writing. It's hard to intellectualize what isn't a thought-out concept." "Structure determines itself. For years I wrote 15-page stories with the plot developing around page five; if the plot didn't develop by then, I'd throw the story out. I can't force a plot, a crisis, or a story. Structure develops subconsciously."
III Someone in the crowd of people who came to hear Ann Beattie's speech asked: "How do you get inspiration for your stories?" "Inspiration strikes when inspiration strikes," she replied. "It's not unusual for me to go for a long time without writing anything. But then one word or a sentence will form a story. I wrote "Dwarf House" with a beginning line and then built the story around it." -"Are you happy?" MacDonald says. "Because if you're happy I'll leave you alone." "Dwarf House," in Distortions.
IV Question: "In your fiction reading, your characteristics were in very complex situations. For instance, a woman faced with the possibility of cancer. Are you more interested in presenting characters struggling against difficult problems?" Answer. When I first began to write I was. Now I'm more interested in 'drawing room dramas.' Now I take unexceptional things and try to find the exceptional thing in the unexceptional. My language also has changed. For example, now I use colons where I once used dashes."
V The lover thinks that he is compared unfavorably to other lovers. In fact, he is no longer her lover but he remembers when he was and that depresses him because he never intended to become her lover and he never intended to stop being her lover. "Four Stories About Lovers" in Distortions "Why do I use the present tense?" Ann Beattie asked herself. "Well, when I first started writing I didn't realize that I was using the present tense. I didn't know that most fiction is written in past tense. Then a reporter pointed it out to me and I said: 'Oh! the present tense!' "I suppose I use the present tense because I compose very fast - fast not in terms of plot, but in visual images. I feel that I'm transcribing something. "In past tense," she said, "you can change the immediacy of the story," and, she implied, the pure "transcription" of the story. "Perhaps because I use the present tense people think I write autobiographically."
VI When asked if she bases her characters on people she knows, Beattie answered: "No. Ultimately, my characters come from inside me. It would be impossible for me not to see bits and pieces of myself in my stories." "If I did base a character on someone I know, I would completely change the person's traits, combine and juxtapose an aspect of the real person with the fiction character." "I don't keep a journal to record these things in--somebody might find it!"
VII Ann Beattie. She talked about writing her novels. "Its exhausting to work at a novel. It would take about 20 more years for me to be comfortable writing novels." "I think of all my work--my novels and short fiction--as 'stories': length makes no difference. My novel Falling in Place is only a longer story." Ann Beattie.