What Can We Steal From Adam Wilson’s “What’s Important Is Feeling”?

Title of Work and its Form:  “What’s Important Is Feeling,” short story
Author: Adam Wilson (on Twitter: @bubblesdepot)
Date of Work: 2011
Where the Work Can Be Found:  The story made its debut in the Winter 2011 issue of The Paris Review.  (Yes, THE The Paris Review.)  The story was subsequently chosen by Tom Perrotta for the 2012 edition of Best American Short StoriesHere‘s an excerpt from the story.

Bonuses: Check out this Electric Literature interview with Mr. Wilson about the author’s book Flatscreen.  Wow!  Mr. Wilson appeared on The Bat Segundo Show and you can hear the program here.

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Structure and Setting

Discussion:
The first-person narrator is working on the set of a movie.  There’s a lot of down time, a lot of petty squabbling between people and a lot of chiggers.  Before long, Felix arrives.  He wrote the film and is a producer on the project.  Unlike the narrator and his friend Nathaniel, Felix has made a pretty big mark on the film world.  Felix starts annoying the director with his many comments and Felix even has a conflict with the animal wrangler.  (These annoyances are why the narrator is sent off to get Felix some marijuana in hopes of calming him down.)  Production ends and they found a cat that could do as it is told.  The story ends as the narrator and his friends hold an impromptu apartment showing of the film after its DVD release.  Even though he worked on the film, the narrator finds himself more interested in one of the women at the party.  So it goes.

During the first few pages of the story, I was wondering when Mr. Wilson would start to tighten up the central conflict of the story.  Would Nathaniel try to bed the female lead and get into big trouble?  Would the animal wrangler sabotage Felix’s dreams of finding a compliant animal?  Before too long, I realized that I was simply looking for the wrong kind of central conflict.  Although I’ve never been on one, a film set is not usually an exciting place.  There’s a ton of down time; you work with a lot of people, most of them crazy and naturally self-centered.  Mr. Wilson shapes his story in a manner that makes perfect sense.  Gil Broome, the animal wrangler, is a perfect guy to have on a movie set because he has a million cool stories that he can share between setups.  “What’s Important” is structured in somewhat a same way; Mr. Wilson is relating several cool stories that occurred during the making of a film.

What did the story mean to me?  Well, I will tell you.  The narrator and everyone else on the shoot truly cared about storytelling.  Most of them believed in the script and were doing the best they could within their limitations.  Should the reader be disappointed that Mr. Wilson didn’t really tell us too much about the movie they were making?  Nope.  Here’s why.  The point of the story is that the creation of a work of art can be as rewarding as the final product.  Sure, we all want lots of folks to read our plays and short stories, but in a way, we already received a great deal of pleasure just by sitting down and putting pen to paper. (Or fingers to keyboard.)  Don’t you get a thrill when you come up with a particularly powerful phrase or when you’re walking down the street and an appealing conflict pops into your head?

And let’s talk about that Gil Broome.  The animal wrangler stands out in the story because he’s the only character who is willing to tell the bosses that they are crazy.  When Felix instructs him to make sure the cat that will appear in the ending will follow orders to the letter, good ole’ Gil points out that cats can’t read the script and don’t understand English.  The contrast of the Gil character adds a lot of life and humor to the very well-written story.

What Should We Steal?

  • Allow your conflict to emerge naturally from the work’s situation.  A film set is a hurry-up-and-wait environment.  It probably wouldn’t make sense to write a slam-bang narrative with a million story beats about such a place.  (Think of it this way.  Would Michael Bay ever direct: DMV OFFICE: THE MOVIE?)
  • The creation of art is its own reward.  Writing certainly can be a struggle at times.  Never allow yourself to get to the point at which you dislike it too much.  Writing is, fundamentally, creative play.
  • Employ a wild card character to deconstruct your story.  Nearly everyone on a movie set is terrified of offending the director or writer or producer.  Bring in a character who doesn’t care who he offends.

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One Comment

  • Seeing the act of writing as a reward can be so hard sometimes, but it’s such a smart piece of advice to take from this short story. I think it’s really important to enjoy yourself and your own work the majority of the time. You can’t like it all the time. Sometimes your wording will suck or you’ll get bored with your own protagonist or you’ll realize you’d rather lick sandpaper than write one more chapter. But the good should outweigh the bad; otherwise, what’s the friggin’ point?

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