Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Time, Risk, and Writing

The stately clock has been with us for years. When we moved, we transported it as carefully as we had when we first brought it home, even though it had never once while in our possession ticked off a single second. At the new house, we found a stashed key and finally delivered it to the local clock shop for repair.

Today we started it up precisely at 11:49, the moment at which it had long ago ceased tracking time. The pendulum now ticks and tocks, beating a rhythm all but forgotten in our digital age, a reminder of time passing, passing, passing.

Time is a tough foe. We race with it, beat ourselves up over it, lose ourselves in it. In the end, time always prevails. Writing, an inefficient pursuit at best, is especially at odds with time. As a New Year looms, full of promise, we can’t resist looking back at all we failed to accomplish – the unfinished manuscript, the imperfect poem, the unanswered queries.

But writing, as Doctorow points out, is no mere way of passing the time. It is an endeavor that entails large risks, risks that call your very sense of self into question.

“It is only when you open your veins and bleed onto the page a little that you establish contact with your reader,” said Paul Gallico back in 1946. “If you do not believe in the characters or the story you are doing at that moment with all your mind, strength, and will, if you don't feel joy and excitement while writing it, then you're wasting good white paper, even if it sells, because there are other ways in which a writer can bring in the rent money besides writing bad or phony stories.”

Real writing, the hazardous, vein-opening kind, is at odds with our schedule-happy, competitive, productivity-obsessed modern age. Revision is especially so. In her essay “Waiting and Silence,” Susan Snively notes that Franz Kafka kept a sign above his desk that said simply “Wait.” A writer’s completion of a first draft, Snively says, is “the most exhilarating, and therefore treacherous, moment,” because we are all too eager to show our unpolished work to the world.

The ticking of my clock is a gift, a reminder that as a writer, I’m privileged to step beyond time. In my stories, I can mold it as I choose. I can take immeasurable risks without leaving my chair. I can stop time, waiting until a piece rights itself, following the example of poet Elizabeth Bishop, who would leave gaps in her drafts where she lacked the right words, waiting patiently for them to reveal themselves. “Her refusal to hurry a poem was, among other things,” Snively says, “a way to say that the poem’s special life had to be honored above her own need for closure or publication.”

The swinging pendulum of our newly-refurbished clock says this: the passion for truth trumps the march of minutes and hours every time. As writers, may we be fierce with determination, unflinching with risks, and generous with ourselves.  

Tuesday, December 11, 2012


“In your writing, remember that the purpose of everything you’re doing is to bring about some kind of emotional reaction in your reader.” Christopher Vogler

What draws us to literature? What makes writing worthwhile? The holiday season has answers.

Yes, that holiday season, the one we love to hate. Whether you celebrate Channukah or Christmas or Kwaanzaa or St. Nicholas Day or St. Lucia’s Day, or whether you plug your ears and cover your eyes and roar humbug at it all, you need only a little fortitude and persistence to dig beyond the advertising inserts and glitter and cheesy carols to discover truths for your writing.

A recent caller to Rick Steve’s travel show described his favorite holiday ever: nestled with his family under a blanket on a balcony in a Swiss village that bans motor vehicles, listening to the clatter of horses drawing sleighs through the streets, enjoying a snowy scene happily lacking in bustle. As Christopher Vogler points out in The Writer’s Journey, that sort of simple, reflective interlude was the original point of the solstice holidays, presenting a sacred opportunity, a turning point in which we collectively removed ourselves from the rhythms of daily life.

But in the modern age, we’ve subverted the ritual cycle which birthed literature, and we’ve lost touch with genuine rest. As a byproduct, we’ve also lost touch with catharsis, the sudden release of emotions evoked by story, which is why much modern writing, including our own work, can leave us largely unsatisfied.

A few years ago, I had my first cave experience, thanks to the kind owners of Alaska’s Boardwalk Lodge on Prince of Wales Island. (I also nearly blinded their fly-fishing guide, but that’s a story for another day). We hiked up the side of a mountain to El Capitan, the largest known cave in Alaska and home to the deepest limestone pit in the country. After belly-crawling deep into the caverns, we extinguished the lights. The total darkness we shared is what Vogler calls “the perfect stage to initiate young people into the mysteries of the tribe, its deepest beliefs, the essence of its compact with nature.”

Originating in festivals that ritualized the cave experience in a cycle of mythological death and rebirth that includes mortification, purgation, invigoration, and jubilation, story plunges us into a place of darkness from which we emerge transformed “The absence of things that were normally taken for granted created a renewed appreciation for them,” says Vogler of ancient rituals born from the disorienting effect of the dark. “It also focused the minds of the people and reminded them of the possibility of death that was always near.”

These days, mortification and purgation are out of vogue. Heaven forbid we deprive ourselves, which ritually speaking explains why the jubilation we’re supposed to experience at this time of year feels so feeble.

In Aristotle’s era, catharsis was a medical term for the elimination of poisons.  In story, the hero stands in for the sacrificial god-king (or queen). As her fate unfolds, we feel sorry for her, and we fear her fate. We are purged. The poisons are gone. We leave the story relieved that though we, like the hero, are flawed, we haven’t had to endure what she has.

That’s classic tragedy. We associate it with the Greeks, but the concept is universal. Consider what Mark John says about story-songs in Yupitt Yuraryarait (Yup’ik Ways of Dancing): “Even a song, our ancestors sang it to take out bad feelings inside, and they considered such songs powerful. And though one feels tired before the dance, when one goes home, it seems like one’s being has been expanded.”

Comedy, too, is cathartic. The jolly old elf of our current season is no accident. Neither are the celebrations of light, joy at emerging from the cave.

In your holiday greetings to writers, you need but one word: catharsis. It’s a reminder of purpose.  As Vogler says, “You are always raising and lowering the tension, pumping energy into your story and characters until some kind of emotional release is inevitable, in the form of laughter, tears, shudders, or a warm glow of understanding.”

Try This:  In a favorite piece of poetry or prose, identify the cathartic effect. Then do the same for your own work in progress.

Check This Out: The back matter describes Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey as “one of the most influential writing books in the world.” Though they must resist the urge to find formula in Vogler’s analysis of mythic structure, writers will benefit from understanding the primal function of myth in story.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Butting Heads, and Other Pursuits of a Writer

The youngest writers have no problem with conflict. Ask six-year-old Billy to tell you a story, and he’ll dizzy you with an unflappable hero who prevails against bad guys at every turn. But then Billy’s idea of conflict resolution is to whack Bobby over the head with the Tonka truck he wants. Grown-ups will spend lots of time and energy training Billy out of this impulse. For the sake of the greater good, he’ll eventually do a full 180 and spend a good part of his adult energy avoiding conflict. If he’s not careful, the characters in his stories will do the same.

To make sure your stories have enough conflict, you don’t have to re-inhabit your six-year-old self (though let’s face it – you know a person or two on whom you’d like to execute that Tonka truck maneuver). But you do need to acknowledge the importance of conflict and understand how to unleash it in your prose.

Conflict matters in story precisely because of how we train Billy and all of our children. To play well together as grown-ups, conflicts are channeled and rerouted and boxed in to sanctioned activities. They acquire protocol. The outing of conflict in literature allows us to validate that Tonka truck. As Sol Stein says in How to Grow a Novel, “Readers enjoy conflict because it is in fiction and not in their real lives.

“Successful writing is permeated with an adversarial spirit demonstrate in suspicion, opposition, confrontation, and refusal,” Stein says. “A writer has to look only to his own humanity to find the material for conflict.” Those seven deadly sins? Wrath, greed, sloth, pride, lust, envy, and gluttony are all about conflict of one type or another.

Speaking of types, we all know these three: person versus person, person versus nature, person versus self. We also know that for conflict to matter, there must be something at stake, and that the obstacles need to stack up – in other words, the conflict gets complicated. What’s trickier, perhaps because of those suppressed Tonka truck impulses, is probing the emotional tension that accompanies conflict. Even as we love our characters, we have to prod them through hell and back.

In an article in the The Writer (“Get the Emotion into Your Fiction,” September, 2007), Eric Witchey suggests making at least three agendas for each of your characters: an overall agenda, as in her broad goals and hopes; a scene agenda; and a compulsive agenda fueled by deep needs known to others but not acknowledged by the character herself (pane 3 of the Johari Window). Conflict tests a character’s need to succeed, Witchey says, and it forces her to play out her own deep psychology.

“Conflict is not merely obstacle,” Witchey points out. “Conflicted characters can’t win. The best they can do is choose well. That makes them real to the reader and much more compelling.”

Conflicts unfold in many ways – that’s part of what makes them so interesting. Where do your readers first discover the conflicts your characters will grapple with? If it’s not early on, why are you holding out? Are the conflicts obvious? Why hide them?

From page one of One Mississippi (by Mark Childress), here’s the first indication of one of the conflicts young Daniel Musgrove is up against (overall agenda): “My father was a good man – I can say that now, after all these years and everything that happened – but on a day-to-day basis, he was about as fun as Hitler.”

Two pages later, after the father announces the family will be moving, Daniel’s oldest brother bluntly objects (scene agenda), and we learn the conflict runs deeper (compulsive agenda – the reader sees complications that Daniel appears not to realize): “Bud took my breath away saying things like that, things that would have got me backhanded and sent to my room. Dad darkened and loomed in his corner, but stayed silent. Bud looked like Dad, and Dad respected him for that.”

Chapter One seeds additional conflicts within Daniel’s family, complicated when along the highway they come upon the moving van loaded with all their belongings, wrecked and on fire. After refusing to admit he’s driven past their destination, Daniel’s father turns abruptly into a motel parking lot and comes back with a key. The chapter ends like this:

I don’t know why I felt moved to speak. It was like when I was little, playing hide-and-seek – I could find a good place to hide, but I couldn’t stay hidden. I always gave myself away.

I got up on my knees in the backseat to peer out the window. “Dad,” I said, “are you crazy? We can’t stay here. The pool doesn’t even have a slide.”

It’s a good thing there are laws against killing your kids. What I will never know is how he managed to hit me all the way from the car to the room without making a sound of his own.

A literary version of the Tonka truck? Maybe. Conflict doesn’t require such overt acts of violence, and you may favor a more lyrical style than Childress opens with. Regardless, the conflicts should be clear, to propel the reader forward.