I’m in love with the idea of algorithms for creativity, even though I’m skeptical about them. I like to think that if you dissect a book or a poem enough, you can figure out how it does what it does. At the same time, I cringe when I read articles titled something like, “How to Write the Next Bestseller” or “How to Become an Overnight Sensation” (invariably, written by someone who hasn’t written a bestseller and hasn’t become an overnight sensation, but is trying to write a sensational headline).
My desire for a foolproof story-writing formula is stymied by the realization that when you write a short story, possibilities are infinite. I think that’s part of the magic of reading a really amazing story. Part of me wants to dedicate my free time figuring out a mathematical equation for a good story, and the other part of me wants to sit back and enjoy the illusion.
When I read Geraldine Brooks’ introduction to The 2011 Best American Short Stories, I was struck by her description of what she looked for in a great short story. Rather than trying to pin down an elusive formula, she talked about her personal preferences, and the way different short stories had impacted her in different ways. In her introduction, Brooks writes, “I’m not sure if there is any particular pattern to these selections” (xv).
Brooks’ experience as both an editor for this anthology and an author reminds me of double translation. Double translation was a school exercise children in 16th and 17th century England did in grammar school. First, they would translate a piece of Latin into English. Then, without the Latin, they would translate their English translation back into Latin. The final translation of Latin was supposed to match the original Latin as closely as possible.
As an author, Brooks translates experiences into writing. As an editor/reader, she translates other people’s writing into a personal experience. When I started to think about things this way, I realized how truly infinite the definition of a good story (or a bad story) might be. Since each person has a different set of experiences, each person has a unique way of translating stories they read back into personal experiences. When they compare the original experience with the double translation, sometimes it’s practically identical. Sometimes it’s a whole different story.