Tuesday, January 31, 2012

The Big Picture

A dozen years had passed since my first novel came out, and for the benefit of a group of students I was launching into my spiel of how the book came to be, a preemptive response to the inevitable question of where writers get their ideas.  A nice little narrative: how a bush pilot dropped me on a tundra airstrip, how at the school there was a boy who was angry, how I created a fictional angry boy for a story and then wrote the book around the story, to tell what happened before and after the boy falls through the ice.  In describing the real-life boy, I recalled for my audience a time when he and one of the teachers had chased each other around a table in the classroom. 

Then I read as I often do from the part where the boy nearly dies, where he breaks through a frozen lake and barely gets out and then gets lost. I read the words I’d written, revised, and proofed who knows how many times, and I did a double-take.  He found himself back where he had started, at the gaping hole in the lake ice, an angry circle that mirrored the angry circle he’d trod in the snow.  

Running circles around a classroom table. The angry circle in the ice.  How had I missed that connection all these years?

A handy example, now that the “duh” moment finally presented itself, of how the subconscious works, how a real-life image wiggles its way into a narrative.  But also an opportunity lost, because had I been paying better attention, I might have done more with the circle motif.  It might have shown me new ways of thinking about my novel. It might have led to more depth, to a richer and fuller big picture.

Letimotiv, or theme, is one of six areas of macro-editing noted by author Susan Bell in The Artful Edit.  Micro-editing, at the word and sentence level, is where we typically gravitate when it’s time to revise.  Micro-editing is tidy.  You look at small chunks. There are rules. Macro-editing – concern with the “big picture” - is tougher.  The big picture is hard to see, and it’s messy.

Of the six macro-editing concerns Bell identifies, leitmotiv or theme is by definition one of the toughest to nail down.  “A theme is not a message,” she says. “It is an idea written in invisible ink on the backside of your text…A leitmotiv should not speak so much as resonate.” 

At its best, the big picture is discovered, not imposed.  When I began expanding that tundra adventure story into a novel, I soon saw that it would be about cultural conflict and forgiveness.  Had I paid more attention, had I more consciously macro-edited before whisking it off to my editor, I might have noticed the circle motif, and I more deliberately explored its implications – the spiraling effect of cultural misunderstandings, for instance, or the way blame circles back on the victim. 

The novel works, and it was well-received.  But it could have been more. These days I’m paying better attention.  Hey you. Staring at the screen. This word you keep repeating.  That’s me, your subconscious, trying to get you to see the big picture.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Start and Stuck

Lynn Freed had a problem most writers would die for: upon publication of her second book, her editor and agent were clamoring for the next one.  Not a sequel, her agent insisted, but something new, something fresh.

Freed had nothing.  Well, not exactly nothing.  She had a place, a bungalow she had visited as a schoolgirl in South Africa, overlooking the Indian Ocean.  The place still felt real to her, after all the years that had passed, real in the magical way that writers love.  And she had an idea, that in this bungalow a character would find herself truly at home.

So she began, as she describes in her essay “False Starts” (Writers Workshop in a Book: Squaw Valley Community of Writers on the Art of Fiction). She set a woman named Anita on the bungalow’s veranda and wrote a few lovely paragraphs describing how she looked out at the sky and the ocean.  Then she came to a dead stop.  She began again, this time after imagining Anita’s mad sister had been banished to the bungalow.  The mad woman proved a distraction - this Freed discovered when her project again stalled.

As Freed aptly puts it, “Fiction has an odd way of both failing the tentative and resisting hot pursuit.” But she had begun, so she pushed on. She ditched the mad woman and returned to Anita on the veranda, wrote a couple of chapters, grew bold enough even to read them at author events. “Dying to know what happens,” kind readers would say to her afterwards.  “So was I,” Freed admits.

No matter how she began, the story stalled. Two years, and she’d written forty pages.  Four years, and the agent and editor stopped asking. 

Forced to write, students spend a lot of time staring at a blank screen or page, complaining they don’t know how to begin.  But real writers know how to begin.  We set out eagerly, finger to keyboard, pen to page. Then all too often, like Freed, we stall.

We stare at the place we got stuck.  What next? What next? What next? We tweak what we’ve written, twist options around in our brains, and still we get nowhere.  Frustration mounts, circling vulture-like with the pressure to produce something, anything, to get past the stuck point.  The project gets canned, shelved, stuck in a drawer unless like Freed we’re too compulsive or stubborn to let go.

But here’s the thing about stuck points: they’re invariably useful when we work through them, or more precisely, when they force us back to the beginning, not to tweak it but to pull up and out of the stall by forcing the issue of why we started the blasted thing in the first place, because what prompts us to start a story or poem can with irksome fickleness lead us astray. Yet if we dig through and under and around our starting point, be it a place or a voice or a character or an idea, if we allow for the messy mushing together of experience and imagination – composting, Ursula LeGuin calls its – we will find our way through, sometimes at the place we got stuck but more often back at the beginning.

Freed eventually landed at the Bellagio Study Centre in Italy.  Five weeks to write, to work on “a book of fiction,” which was all she could at that point say confidently about her project.  A little mix-up: her computer wouldn’t be available for two weeks.  So she started all over. Completely. She got out her notebook and wrote “Untitled” at the top of the page.  Then, she says, “I had to lie down and sleep for the rest of the day.”

Whether it was the paper and pen or the time that had passed or the easing of external pressure to produce this particular book, the story broke loose.  It turned out to be a sequel after all, Ruth Frank from Freed’s previous book, with a lost cause of a lover and a father she thought had died but hadn’t, a story about place and displacement. The Bungalow ended up a New York Times Notable Book of the Year, beginning not with a woman or a verandah but a victim of murder.

My students hear this often: Writing is a recursive process of discovery.  Stuck points shove us back to where we began. They force us outside the circle to consider how we got there and why. They push us up and out, to try something new.  Posing as failure, stuck points offer hope.

And may we all be as candid as Lynn Freed in sharing our failures, which when we’re writing invariably accumulate faster than our successes.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Rabbit Trails

We’ve been dumped on this winter, record-breaking snows that challenge plow crews, threaten roofs, and evoke an all-around readiness to be done with winter even though it’s only half-spent.  I hate driving on icy roads but love to walk in fresh snow. My dog trots in my tracks, hemmed in by snow berms, the model of obedience, though in truth if she gets into doggy heaven it will definitely not be on good behavior.

Away from town, our tromping makes tracks alongside those left by scampering voles and plodding moose and hopping chickadees. My favorites are the loop-de-loops of snowshoe hares, never a straight line from point A to point B, the proverbial rabbit trails. But what appears aimless wandering is actually purposeful. Lacking much in the way of defenses, these big-footed bunnies meander to throw off the coyotes, the wolves, and the owls that are looking to have them for lunch.
Pay attention, we writers are told.  Be the ones on whom nothing is lost.  But it’s the rabbit trails that often yield the most interesting writing. More often the trouble is not that we daydream or drift but rather that we trot too intently along a straight path that leads away from the creative potential of our project.  We beat a plot thread into submission, manipulate a character to act as we need her to act, steer a poem in the direction we think it should go. 
Strategic meandering actually enhances our work. As Jonah Lehrer reports in  “The Importance of Mind Wandering,” people who daydream purposefully score significantly higher on measures of creativity. To stimulate daydreaming, researchers had subjects read a slow section of War and Peace, then timed how long it took before they start thinking about something else.  All the subjects wandered eventually. Those who experienced an uptick in creativity as a result of their drifting were those who were aware of their daydreaming. Those who simply drifted off but didn’t recognize it got no creative benefit. 
“Letting the mind drift off is the easy part,” Lehrer explains. “What’s much more difficult (and more important) is maintaining a touch of meta-awareness, so that if you happen to come up with a useful new idea while in the shower or sitting in traffic you’re able to take note; the breakthrough isn’t squandered.”
In The Half-Known World, Robert Boswell suggests that writers do their best work when they’re only partially cognizant of the worlds they create.  “A fully known world is devoid of mystery,” he writes. "The writing process often begins with instability, not necessarily the dramatic act but the shifting ground."
Rabbit trails aren’t procrastination, which is nothing more than pure and unproductive avoidance.  The idea isn’t to stumble around aimlessly, but to meander with purpose, to open ourselves fully and completely to possiblities, to imagine “what if” not only at the beginning of a project but all the way through.  Though it appears chaotic, we remain acutely aware in our bounding. 
It would be safer to stay in our nests, not venturing into fresh places where we’re likely to run circles, chased by scary possibilities.  But if we hope for a story or poem operating at another level of experience the way Flannery O’Conner suggests it should, we must expose ourselves, meandering with purpose, making notes along the way. 
Deb's "Self-Made Writer" posts are also at www.49writers.blogspot.com.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Rhythm and Solitude

Christmas Eve, one hundred miles from Anchorage, silent and still, a crisp, clear night pillowed with two feet of fresh snow, lit by a small string of lights hung on a small spruce tree.  Blissful, radiant quiet broken only by hooting of horned owls, calling one to the other.  We are the only ones here.  The only people around for miles.

Out of the darkness my friend hears a human voice, sharp and close and clear.  A little girl, calling “Mommy.”  Later we’re told an unmarked grave lies on a neighboring lot.  A little girl, five years old.

I don’t know about ghosts.  But I know about solitude.  A spirit, a child, alone on a wintery holiday eve, calling for her mother - this doesn’t seem so far-fetched, knowing we’re hard-wired for companionship, perhaps even from beyond the grave.

In her essay “Telling is Listening,” Ursula LeGuin points out that in preliterate societies, stories are communal, a way of connecting.  Audience is central.  Rhythm, in particular, is relied on not only to help the tellers recount long narratives, but also to bind the audience with the storyteller.  She applies a concept of physics, entrainment, which she calls a “beautiful, economical laziness” to explain how things that are physically close tend to lock in and pulse at the same intervals, as the audience and the teller will do through a story.

Perhaps that explains our ghost, pulsing on a crisp, cold evening.  It also explains how writers connect with their readers, through beats of language, through rhythm and repetition and silence.

I am not a café writer.  I do my best work in solitude.  I expect those who write best in cafes and other lively places enjoy a strong ability to resist entrainment, or perhaps even better, the ability to riff off it.  I cannot, I confess, even write with classical music in the background, despite research that points to the Mozart effect , the idea that certain classical beats stimulate activity in the creative parts of the brain.  The rhythms in the music butt up against the rhythms in my head, and I get nowhere.

Other research suggests that rhythmic activities like walking and ironing have a similar positive effect on creativity, which is why on a long walk, a fresh approach to a scene or a character will often reveal itself even when I’m not consciously puzzling over my work.  The reason, scientists say, is that repetitive motion occupies a dominant left brain so the more creative right half can push insights forward.   I like this, since walking and ironing can be done alone. 

No matter how you work best, it’s useful to consider how rhythm connects us with readers.  As scenes find their place on the page, I become a slave to sound, arranging and rearranging for maximum effect.  I used to believe this was a problem, slowing me down and turning my focus from larger, more important considerations like character and plot.  But I can’t help it.  For me, rhythm is the pulse of the story.  LeGuin would say it’s how I connect to an audience I can’t see.

Here’s how Virginia Woolf explains it in a letter to Vita Sackville-West (1926):

“As for the mot juste, you are quite wrong.  Style is a very simple matter: it is all rhythm.  Once you get that, you can’t use the wrong words.  But on the other hand here am I sitting after half the morning, crammed with ideas, and visions, and so on, and can’t dislodge them, for lack of the right rhythm.  Now this is very profound, what rhythm is, and goes far deeper than words.  A sigh, an emotion, creates this wave in the mind, long before it makes words to fit it; and in writing (such is my present belief) one has to recapture this, and set this working (which has nothing apparently to do with words) and then, as it breaks and tumbles in the mind, it makes words to fit it.”

What could be more personal, more mysterious, more profound than this wave in the mind?  No wonder some of us require solitude to recapture it. 

Though if that all seems too weighty, you should know Woolf also added, “No doubt I shall think differently next year.” 

Mysterious, indeed.

Deb's "Self-Made Writer" posts are also at www.49writers.blogspot.com.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

The Self-Made Writer

I’m a teacher by training, and a writer by – well, that’s what I mean to find out, the proper way to complete that little prepositional phrase. By fortitude? By delusion? By luck?

Self-madeness (perhaps also self-madness) is embedded in our culture. Emerson comes to mind, his lovely aphorisms fitting and useful for an adolescent nation struggling to find its legs. Rugged individualism, striking out on one’s own, up by the bootstraps, that sort of thing. Emerson extols these virtues as if with a large broom, broad sweeps, stirring dust. To thine ownself be true! Foolish consistency, hobgoblin of little minds! Imitation is suicide!

As it turns out, Emerson never used the term “self-made man,” at least not that I’ve found. Still he managed to make a decent living on the lecture circuit promoting the concept, even as he admitted, “all my best thoughts were stolen by the ancients."

Originality, yes. But to what extent is a writer self-made? What of the writer as apprentice, at the feet of the masters, watching and learning? What of the community of writers, struggling together?

In a series of posts, one for each week of 2012, I’ll explore the idea of the self-made writer - to what extent it is myth, to what extent it’s not only possible but necessary. I’ll take up Emerson’s challenge to “study with hope and love the precise thing to be done,” which is, in our case, to write. Habits, attitudes, community, discovery, craft, even promotion – these we’ll ponder in this series of instructional musings.

You might recall that around this time last year I posted on a related topic, my DIYMFA (Do It Yourself MFA) program. I explained that while circumstances have kept me from pursuing a formal degree, I wanted to fashion as best I could for myself a program that included as many MFA-type opportunities as I could: meaningful critiques of my work, voracious and systematic reading to enhance the quality of my work, a dynamic community of writers who share my goals. 

The ultimate goal of my self-fashioned program is to produce writing that is better, richer, and truer than any I’ve done before. In eschewing a formal degree program, I of course mean no disrespect to the formal process of schooling. I’m a teacher by training, remember, and I also think a fair number of Emerson’s sweeping admonitions about striking out on one’s own are hogwash.

My DIYMFA program is now entering year three. It’s looking like this may be one of those long-term programs. Five years, six, maybe ten. A lifetime, even. The self-made do tend to self-wander. Of the 45 books on my DIYMFA reading list, I only got through 21 (which means you can still join me in reading if you like). I finished the novel I began, and it does feel stronger than any of my previous efforts. I also spent a good chunk of 2011 researching a narrative nonfiction project that should go out in proposal later this year – a project that had no place in my DIYMFA plan. And while I wrote another children’s book, happily accepted for publication in 2013, I stand with Alfred Kazin when he says, “The writer writes in order to teach himself, to understand himself, to satisfy himself; the publishing of his ideas, though it brings gratification, is a curious anticlimax.”

Try This: List at least three of your aspirational writers, writers whose work feels so perfect and true that you can’t imagine ever writing as well as they do. Then choose from reviews of their work three or four phrases that you would love to have someone use to describe your writing someday – “achingly wise,” “sensitive and deeply insightful,” that sort of thing. Keep this as your watch list for the year. As you read new books from each of these writers, search actively for how they earn their praise – the exquisite sentence, the character pushed past her limits, the detail lovingly rendered.

Check This Out: The Portable MFA in Creative Writing from The New York Writers Workshop. “The education I received for over $30,000 can be condensed to eight easy-to-forget points, and I offer them all for the price of this book,” writes Tim Tomlinson in the introduction to this pithy and practical handbook. In sections devoted to fiction, personal essay and memoir, magazine writing, poetry, and playwriting, instructors from the NYW Workshop offer succinct thoughts on craft supplemented by exercises and further reading. The fiction section of my copy is heavily dog-eared and marked – my sign of an outstanding resource.