Nick Ripatrazone riffs on Andre Dubus’ essay on the craft of short story writing, “The Habit of Writing,” in which he reveals how and why he “changed his method while writing a story, ‘Anna,'” which is told from the perspective of its eponymous female character:
“At my desk next morning I held my pen and hunched my shoulders and leaned my head down, physically trying to look more deeply into the page of the notebook. I did this for only a moment before writing, as a batter takes practice swings while he waits in the on-deck circle. In that moment I began what I call vertical writing, rather than horizontal. I had never before thought in these terms. But for years I had been writing horizontally, trying to move forward (those five pages); now I would try to move down, as deeply as I could.”
Horizontal writing is focused on amassing pages and words.
When Dubus wrote horizontally, he wrote convinced that fiction was created through aggregation. Vertical writing, in contrast, values depth over breadth. Stories are written when they are ready to be written; they are not forced into existence by planning or excessive drafting. Horizontal writing seeks to move across the page; vertical writing seeks to dig into the page, to value the building of character and authenticity over the telegraphing of plot. The folly of horizontal writing is that it convinces writers that fiction writing operates on a production model. If they simply sit at the desk and pound out page after page, the story will come. That might be true, but Dubus argues that such forced work creates a lot of “false” fiction. Curiously enough, by seeking to undermine the stereotype that writing is the result of inspiration, writers have fallen for the other, no less romantic opposite: that writing is factory work, and daily devotion is rewarded with final drafts. Both approaches are magical thinking. Vertical writing is no less work, but it is better work, work at the right time. It requires patience in the willingness to wait for a story to feel ready to be written, as well as the attention and focus necessary to inhabit the story once gestated.