Twin Peaks and Embracing Artistic Accidents
Some thoughts on mess during this messy Memorial weekend
Sitting inside during this rainy, messy Memorial weekend, I’m thinking about mess in fiction. Namely, how we could all use a little more of it in our stories.
When I was a young writer, I remember thinking that writing was about perfection. That the ideal story was honed and sharpened and revised over and over until it was some kind of gleaming, perfectly cut crystal. Symmetrical on all sides. No blemishes or cloudiness. Exactly the shape it was supposed to be.
(I remember hearing this, uh, crystalized in a certainly apocryphal anecdote that Ernest Hemingway knew a story was finished when he could take out all the commas and then revise and do nothing except put the commas back in the exact same place. Trying to Google this, it seems it was a distortion of some also maybe apocryphal joke by Oscar Wilde.)
Anyway, the more I write the more I realize there is no Platonic form of the story you are writing just waiting to be revealed in editing. Instead, there are near infinite version of any story. Each plot point opens up countless other plot possibilities. Each theme, countless ways to develop it. Many of these paths will end in failure, of course. But many artistic directions may be equally powerful, albeit in different ways. An old mentor of mine told me she had once accidentally mailed two copies of a story to Gordon Lish, an editor who famously would edit very heavily. Lish sent back two different edits of the story that were wildly different…yet both equally good. For me, the trick of writing fiction is not in finding perfection but in figuring out strategies for closing off the infinite ever-multiplying paths for a story so you can just finish the damn thing.
But now I need to close off the paths of this newsletter because what I really wanted to talk about was incorporating accidents in fiction.
One complaint you always hear about literary fiction is that it’s too polished and neat. That stories in MFA programs are workshopped to death, and writers tinker and revise until anything alive in the story is wiped away. I don’t know if that’s a uniquely literary fiction issue—lots of commercial fiction is polished to dullness too, especially in plotting—but I do think its common. One way to avoid this neatness might be to actively l embrace accidents.
Take Twin Peaks, which for me is still one of the greatest TV shows of all time. David Lynch has long been an artist who embraces the random and accidental. His general practice, as I understand it, involves incorporating the strange images that appear to him randomly during transcendental meditation. But Lynch also embraces less mystical and more banal accidents.
In the Twin Peaks pilot, one of the lightbulbs on set was malfunctioning during a key scene. Lynch thought the flickering enhanced the atmosphere and kept it in:
This is just a bit of creepiness added to a few seconds of film, but Twin Peaks’s entire plot was famously altered by another accident when a crewmember, Frank Silva, accidentally had his reflection caught in a mirror during the filming of a scene when Laura Palmer’s mother is supposed to have a horrifying vision. Instead of reshooting the scene, Lynch thought Silva was so haunting that he made Frank Silva into the main villain of the series, the demonic Bob.
BOLLEN: In your films, you usually start with a solid script, but I know you’re also a great believer in chance or surprise interventions that come up during shooting. Like the character of Bob in Twin Peaks, who was first just a technician accidentally caught in one of the frames. You ended up incorporating him into the story.
LYNCH: I follow a rigorous script until a happy accident takes it to a higher place. An accident that takes it to a lower place, you would not want to take.
BOLLEN: Have you ever incorporated an accident that took you to a lower place?
LYNCH: There are many, many things that can go bad for a while and then you rectify that and go forward. But the happy accidents are little gifts that happen along the way.
BOLLEN: So you don’t work in a linear way, where you know the ending of your films in advance?
LYNCH: Not necessarily. To make the script, you need ideas, and for me a lot of times, a final script is made up of many fragments of ideas that came at different times. Part seven of the puzzle came first, but part one didn’t come for a long time. You see what I mean?
While these exact types of accidents don’t happen in fiction, there are plenty of ways to incorporate your own errors, mishearings, typos, or other surprises. One example I gave from my own work in a recent newsletter was when I revised a story and realized I’d typed “rapid dogs” instead of “rabid dogs.” I thought the typo was funny enough to incorporate for my story “Dark Air”:
“We’ll sneak down that slope and make our way back to the road,” Iris said. “Then we’ll come back with police and guns and fucking rapid dogs.”
“Do you mean rabid dogs?”
“Sure,” I said. “Okay. That’s a plan.”
You can also embrace accidents that come before you write anything. A decade or so ago I interviewed the great Sam Lipsyte for the magazine I used to co-edit, Gigantic, and asked him about this:
GIGANTIC: Do you ever find yourself linguistically inspired by odd things such mishearing the lyrics of a pop song or reading writing on the bathroom wall?
LIPSYTE: Yeah, I’m OFTEN keeping my ears peeled for some kind of language incident. To hear something wrong, to hear it anew, to hear it in a different way than I ever had before. I have a recent example. I was in the supermarket just buying supermarket things and it was really crowded and there were a whole bunch of cashiers in a row and my cashier mistyped the item or something and anyway the whole thing need to be erased and we needed to start again. And she called out that phrase I’ve heard a million times in the supermarket—and there is always one guy there with a key who can help with this—but the phrase was, “I need a void!” At that moment I was receptive to other meanings of that phrase, not just the need to void the cash register but rather the idea of somebody saying, “I’m in need of a void in my life or my spiritual existence at this moment.”
GIGANTIC: In another interview I read with you by Michael Kimball in Avatar magazine, you said your stories often start as a “lingual event” that sort of knocks around in your heard.
LIPSYTE: […] it is what I was just talking about where you hear something walking down the street or you mishear the greeting, mishear the guy on the news, misread the thing in the paper. Something interesting occurs. But it is not that often you get to use it in the right way. I’ve found that the only time that it’s ever really worked, come back in an interesting way in fiction, is when I’ve forgotten. If I’m walking around thinking, “I’d really like to use I need a void, maybe I’ll write the scene in the supermarket, use the phrase somehow,” it will seem strained. But it is when I’ve really forgotten and it pops back in, it seems to work out.
There are plenty of other ways to incorporate mess and accidents in your work. The Surrealists’ “exquisite corpse” game is built around this, as is the Dadaist cut-up technique. You can try these methods or countless others. But whatever you do, I think it’s a good practice to be like Lynch and be open to accidents, slip-ups, or surprise ideas. You never know what might be the final piece of the puzzle if you don’t have a predetermined shape.
In my own writing news, I finally have galleys for my debut novel! It’s always a little wild and weird and scary to hold the finished things in your hand. Stealing this photo from my editor, Angeline Rodriquez, who takes better Instagram shots than me:
Holy cats, I don’t even know where to start with this amazing book! […] This is a wild, inventive sci-fi thriller with a lot of heart and a lot of humor, and it also addresses a lot of philosophical questions about cloning and body modification. Imagine if Mickey Spillane wrote Blade Runner—it’s a lot like that.
If that sounds up your alley, be on the lookout this fall!