Meeting Ted Chiang and Slow Writing

Last week, I attended Futurescapes, a writing workshop in Park City, Utah. I wouldn’t normally go out of town for a weekend, since we have a fussy newborn that refuses to sleep. But this workshop was different: I had the privilege of getting critiqued by Ted Chiang, one of the world’s best short story writers.

Ted’s anthology, Stories of Your Life and Others, was what inspired me to write fiction. If you’re a fan of sci-fi and haven’t read his work, you’re in for a treat (the titular piece was adapted into the movie Arrival). His stories are intricate jewels, chock full of facets and patterns that are a delight for the intellect. He often spends years polishing each story—more than some writers would spend on entire novels.

I’ve read his work in depth, so it was surreal seeing him in person, sitting across from me in the large nondescript conference room under the ski resort. With me were six writers also eager to hear his feedback. The workshop critique was done in Milford-style—we went around in a circle giving our thoughts on each other’s stories one at a time. Ted sat behind his Thinkpad, occasionally making notes, but mostly, just listening.

When it came time for his feedback, he cut right to the heart by stating what the story was trying to achieve, followed by how it could be improved. Ted is a systems thinker. Every story was a puzzle, one whose solution would make the tale a satisfying read. It was obvious he’d taken considerable time to understand not only what we had written, but why. Ted is not eloquent orator: he stumbled over words, and often repeated himself. But soon, I realized he was simply updating what he had said to more precise, as though he were editing words on a page.

For my story, he revealed something about my main character that even I hadn’t considered. A skilled critiquer recognizes a story’s core truth and energizes the writer to amplify it. Ted is a truth seeker. Hearing him speak about the importance of the story—my story—in his gentle voice was humbling, and an experience I’ll never forget. If you’re curious to see the draft along with his critique, reply to this email and I’ll send it to you.

Then it was our turn to ask him questions, and naturally, we wanted to know how he develops his stories. Ted is an idea writer. He starts with a singular “what if” that would change our world. What if we could predict the future? What if we literally built the Tower of Babel? What if a man could understand his internal thought structures? He follows each idea to its logical conclusion, and, along the way, uncovers characters caught in the thread. Most likely, these people are on the margins, because “what ifs” will always benefit some cohort over others. Through their struggle, a story is born.

Ted freely admits that he is a slow writer. This brought on feelings of guilt, but over the years, he’s embraced his plodding pace. For example, the original premise of Story of Your Life (which became the movie Arrival) is about a mother who could see the future, revealing that her daughter would die early, thus, posing the question of whether it’s moral to birth a child that you know will suffer. (Note there are no mention of aliens. Many times, the essence of a story is not the shiny set pieces.)

How could a mother see the future? Well, languages change the way we see the world, so could a language allow humans to transcend time? What if that language came from aliens? So he started writing the story, but stopped when he realized he didn’t know enough about linguistics. So he put the story away and spent four years studying the foundations of linguistics.

Needless to say, Ted does not gloss over research. While he doesn’t recommend this strategy for all writers, perhaps it is this slow fermentation of ideas that deepens the impact of his stories. Perhaps we should start a Slow Writing movement akin to Slow Food.

At the end of our session, someone asked if we could send him stories to critique. He paused, and everyone looked at him expectantly.

Sorry, he said with a smile. He wouldn’t have the time.

None of us needed to question why.

For the next few months, I’ll be devoting most of my energy toward editing my backlog of stories rather than writing new ones. So, I won’t be sending new stories for a while. But expect more of my thoughts on fiction, writing, technology, and reading recommendations. And do let me know if there are other topics that resonate with you.

Recommended Reading

I recently enjoyed The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula Le Guin. A man discovers that his dreams alter reality, and naturally, people want to harness this power to control the world. It’s a story about hubris and the belief that an individual could know what’s best for everyone. It’s a pertinent allegory for the current times.

Ted's new anthology, Exhalation, will be released on May 7. It's sure to be mind blowing, and you can be sure I tapped that pre-order button so hard I'm surprised I didn't break the gorilla glass.