Tag Archives: repetition in a story

An Interview with Matthew Salesses

11 Jul
is the author of I’m Not Saying, I’m Just Saying (2013), The Last Repatriate, and two chapbooks, Our Island of Epidemics and We Will Take What We Can Get. He was adopted from Korea at age two, returned to Korea, married a Korean woman, and writes a column about his wife and baby for The Good Men Project. He also serves as the Project’s Fiction Editor. Photo Credit Stephanie Mitchell

Matthew Salesses is the author of I’m Not Saying, I’m Just Saying, The Last Repatriate, and two chapbooks. He was adopted from Korea at age two, returned to Korea, married a Korean woman, and writes a column about his wife and baby for The Good Men Project. He also serves as the Project’s Fiction Editor.
Photo Credit Stephanie Mitchell

When Flannery O’Connor wrote, “Anybody who has survived his childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days,” she could have been talking about the writer Matthew Salesses. He was adopted from Korea at age two and then, as an adult, returned to Korea, where he married a Korean woman with whom he now has a child. The questions of identity inherent in such a life are enormous, and, fittingly, Salesses has dug deeply into those mysteries in his work. He’s the author of I’m Not Saying, I’m Just SayingThe Last Repatriate, two chapbooks, plus numerous essays that have appeared in The New York Times Motherlode blog, NPR, Glimmer Train, The Rumpus, Hyphen, and American Short Fiction.

In this interview, Salesses discusses his revision process, avoiding distractions that keep him from writing, and where he draws the line between fiction and nonfiction.

(For an exercise based on his story, “In My War Novel,” which uses repetition to devastating effect, click here.)

Michael Noll

I once heard Robert Stone explain the difference between a story and a novel by saying that a novel was like a baseball game and a story was like a single pitch. This story seems to fit that description. It’s a single movement. To use another metaphor, it’s almost as if the narrator has an immense lung capacity, and this is the story that he can tell before he runs out of breath. Did you conceive of this story in a rush or is that sense of a single, seamless movement the result of a lot of revision?

Matthew Salesses

In a way, both. I wrote the first draft in a rush. Revision took years. Most of my fiction is written in this way–the rush of the first draft and the long work of shaping that draft into something that reads with that rush. For this story, that meant cutting it up several times and moving the pieces around on my floor, adding and deleting pieces, trying to get the length down and also have enough of an emotional arc.

Michael Noll

Even though the story uses a style of repetition and variation (the phrases “In my war novel” and “Before my wife left me” reoccur in various ways) it actually contains a story that’s been told many times: the demise of a marriage. The difference between all those past tellings and this one is, obviously, the telling. How do you typically approach the plot in a story? Do you outline the events/scenes? Or do you start with the voice and discover where it will take you?

Matthew Salesses

It’s a different process for me from story to story. I wish I plotted everything out beforehand every time–I think that would be easier–but I often start with much less. Here I did start with the voice, and let the anger and sadness and frustration in the voice carry the story where it wanted. Then I trimmed it down like a hedge and guided it closer to where I wanted it.

Michael Noll

Here's a cool book trailer video for I'm Not Saying, I'm Just Saying.

Here’s a cool book trailer video for I’m Not Saying, I’m Just Saying.

You’ve written quite a bit about your own experience as an orphan from Korea, and this story–and others–pick up on that idea. How do you determine what goes into a nonfiction piece and what gets used in a story? Where do you draw the line between the genres–or, how do you separate them?

Matthew Salesses

I don’t determine, other than to keep certain things out of nonfiction that might hurt people close to me. I draw the line at telling the truth about what happened, as it happened, versus telling the truth about what happened through changing what happened.

Michael Noll

You’re a prolific writer. In addition to a story collection, novella, and a chapbook plus numerous nonfiction pieces, you also an editor for The Good Men Project. And, you update your blog often. How do you a) keep up with it all and b) produce so much material. You’re also a father, which means that you’re producing all of this while caring for children. How do you do it? I recently asked Roxane Gay this same question, and she attributed her enormous output to living in the middle of nowhere and insomnia. What’s your method?

Matthew Salesses

Roxane produces far more quality work than I do. I do what I can by not watching TV (except for an occasional kdrama), limiting Facebook time, relying on my wife and Twitter for the news, cutting out most sports (I can’t seem to get rid of my love for football), and not going out much. I also have taken up drinking copious amounts of coffee and only sleeping 6-7 hours a night.

July 2013

Profile pic

Michael Noll is the editor of Read to Write.

How to Use Repetition in a Story

9 Jul
Matthew Salesses' story "In My War Novel" was a finalist at HTML Giant and appeared in Fictionaut, a journal that creates reading and writing communities using the tools of social media.

Matthew Salesses’ story “In My War Novel” was a finalist at HTMLGIANT and appeared in Fictionaut, a journal that creates reading and writing communities using the tools of social media.

One of the greatest novels you’ll ever read is The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien. Many of the stories/chapters use repetition (the title story, “How to Tell a True War Story,” and “The Man I Killed” are good examples). Because the book is so good, thousands of admiring writers have probably tried to imitate its style, and almost all of them have found it impossible. But here’s a story that uses repetition successfully: “In My War Novel” by Matthew Salesses.

“In My War Novel” was a finalist at HTMLGIANT and appeared in Fictionaut, where you can read it now.

How the Story Works

The story is built on two pieces of repetition. In the first, the narrator repeats the phrase, “In my war novel…” In the second, he keeps returning to an idea laid out early on: “These are the things I know about my wife” and “When my wife left me…” Both pieces cue the reader into the narrator’s obsessions—and in a story like this one, those obsessions are the story.

Here is an excerpt that states those obsessions clearly:

“The hell with those famous wars. I would write about the Korean War. I would write about the Korean War to show that I was Korean and also to rub it in people’s faces. Nobody knows anything about the Korean War except Koreans.

In the time before my wife left me she said I was 100% American. In fact I was 100% Korean, but then my mother didn’t want me anymore, so she left me at the orphanage. When I was 3 I was sent to America. So what does that make me?”

Many writers might avoid using repetition because it seems incompatible with plot. After all, how can a story move forward if it keeps repeating itself?

Matthew Salesses’ answer is to work within a loose plot structure. He lets us know from the opening two paragraphs that the narrator’s wife has left him but that they’re not divorced and that she’s kept his last name. The rest of the story essentially answers the questions any reader naturally asks: Why did she leave him? Why didn’t she divorce him? Why did she keep his name? These questions don’t have simple answers or answers. It’s difficult to look back at their marriage and point to a clean, linear progression of failure. Instead, there are bad periods and good periods, times when both parties are trying and times when they’ve become disconnected. As a result, the marriage plot of “In My War Novel” is ideal for a story using repetition. The pressure to trace a clear storyline isn’t as strong. And, when we reflect back on events, our thoughts tend to move in circles—and so a story about reflection lends itself to strategies of repetition.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s try using repetition, with “In My War Novel” serving as a model.

  1. Choose a basic plot to work within. Salesses uses the story of a failed marriage (in a way, it’s a version of the old star-crossed lovers plot). The key is to choose a plot that doesn’t require a step-by-step, chronological explanation. Possibilities include any story of failure or success (business, relationship, parenting) or any story that tries to explain a general circumstance in the present day by looking back over a vast time period (How I became rich, poor, sad, happy, imprisoned, outcast, exiled, embraced, or famous).
  2. Choose one or more obsessions for the narrator or character. Ideally, the obsession should tie in to the plotline. In Matthew Salesses’ story, the obsessions are central to that character: why did my wife leave me and why don’t I have a clear identity? In “The Man I Killed” by Tim O’Brien, the narrator keeps revisiting the wounds on the body of a man he killed. In “The Things They Carried,” also by Tim O’Brien, the story returns to the items carried by the soldiers and, ultimately, to those items’ emotional as well as physical meaning. In both those stories, the obsession is central to the characters’ situation. Their days are spent killing people and carrying stuff.
  3. Begin writing paragraphs that begin with some version of an obsession. Salesses tends to begin with variations on the phrases “When my wife left me…” and “In my war novel…” O’Brien, in “The Man I Killed,” often begins with the phrase “The man I killed…” Use the paragraphs to examine the obsession from as many different angles as possible. For instance, what would the character/narrator’s parents or wife or husband or kids or friends or coworkers or boss say about it? What does the obsession look like in private, in public, with particular people? What does the obsession look like during the morning/afternoon/evening/night?
  4. Write as many paragraphs as you can for each obsession.

It’s true that what you write will likely have no forward momentum. It won’t resemble a story. With a strategy like this one, revision becomes key (though, to be honest, it’s necessary for all stories). After you’ve exhausted your ideas (not just after a day but perhaps a few weeks or months of writing), you’ll need to go back and scramble the paragraphs into coherent sense. You’ll need to discover the story and, perhaps, add connecting tissue between the paragraphs. If you reread “In My War Story,” you’ll see those bits of tissue, paragraphs that don’t begin with either obsession.

Basically, you’re starting a story that may take a year or more to finish. That’s fine. It’s good. It means you’ll always have something to work on.

Have fun.

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