Writer’s Log, July 15th: Plot Pitfalls

I firmly believe that anyone who claims to have mastered plot is either misguided or misanthropic, fond of watching perfectly nice new writers squirm and agonize over generating plots, assuming that the difficulties they have represent a deficit in talent. But nothing could be further from the truth. Plot should take everything out of you, at least if you’re committed to giving your work your all. And to suggest or even imply that great writers dream up fantastic plots overnight, casually turning over in the morning to jot them down while the children wait silently for their breakfasts, setting the pen down only when coffee arrives on a silver tray, is not just unhelpful; it’s downright demoralizing.

The truth is that great plots, by their very nature, resist reduction. If one could capture the story behind a work of fiction in twenty-five words or less, why bother to write the fiction in the first place?  Fiction requires patience and acres of wiggle room for development, and crafting a decent plot is not unlike weaving a web. It might resemble every other web you’ve seen, but when you get up close, you’ll see that each one is as unique as its author’s voice and vision. There might be superficial similarities worth noting among many successful plots, but when it comes to you and that 80,000 word snarling beast of a novel you’re trying to tame, knowing this is about as helpful as knowing Sit, Stay, and Down when throw into a ring with a lion.  

So why am I telling you this? For two reasons. One, I think it helps writers to know that everyone struggles with plot, and most of our plots develop in drips and drabs, not unlike stalactites that only grow strong after eons of dripping water (okay, that’s a bit hyperbolic, but that’s at least what it feels like). The point is that a fully mature plot rarely emerges before a fully mature story, so if you’re doing your job as a creative writer, it stands to reason that your plot might go through just as many iterations and tweaks as the story itself.

Two, as you’d probably guess from that opening paragraph, I think oversimplifying plot can actually be miseducative for new writers. Many, for instance, assume that plot is merely a series of exciting events strung together, ideally with some semblance of cause and effect interwoven throughout. But while it might seem like you’d be all set if aliens landed in the first chapter and gave birth to messianic firefighters in the next who were on hand by the third to put out the fires that the twisted factory owners created when they manufactured blight-inducing, combustive Shiny New Objects while twisting their waxed mustaches, simply stringing those events together would make for a woefully flat novel. Great plots do often involve dramatic and heart-stopping events, but just as often they don’t, and what actually takes place over the course of your novel pales in comparison to the significance of how it all unfolds. (Side note: A fun party trick is to reduce the plot of your favorite novels to one or two sentences.) A novel’s depth, in other words, is infinitely more important than its breadth.

This is where the web building comes in. After you figure out where your characters will be and where they’ll go and what they want, it’s time for the real writing to begin. This is when you add all those layers that make their experiences feel credible, memorable, and, somehow, inevitable. This is done through plot, yes, but also sublot, and relationship building, and dialogue, and subtext, and scene, and all those other juicy fictional tools that make us want to curl up with a novel and drink in its pages instead of flipping on the TV for 90 minutes of derivative action. There’s no formula for it. That’s part of what makes it so incredibly magical. And so frustrating, in practice!

But not unlike the experience of reading fiction, writing great fiction should not be something we expect to bash out in an afternoon. It’s not a one-night stand; it’s a rich, long-term commitment, and it often takes the same level of self-awareness, humility, humor, and love that long-term relationships do. So expect your plot to drive you crazy every now and then. Get into it, be tenacious, and buckle up for a rid that might take a thousand times longer than you want it to. But also know that such time will be a thousand times more enriching and gratifying than anything you might conjure up in an afternoon. The true rewards of writing are long and indefinite, and that’s exactly why you’ve come to it.

Art: Spider Web and Dew Drops, photographer unknown

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Writer’s Log, July 1: Growing Pains

When I was still trying to fit into the academic mold and working toward developing a doctoral thesis in education, I was privately baffled that my interest in adult education met with so many blank stares. Adult education, if it was addressed at all, was largely considered to be a remedial concern, an arena in which those who’d missed out somehow on receiving their educational due as children might return to make up for lost time. As such, it was not of interest to most professors who were spearheading research at my university.  

In the past, of course, arriving at adulthood was an accomplishment, and was celebrated with enforcing the stability it represented. If they made it to their mid-twenties, our forefathers were expected to be chained to a career and our foremothers to a houseful of children. But somehow, this idea has persisted well into the modern age, when many of are just starting to wake up and look around when our 21st birthday celebrations make us sick enough to wonder if there’s more to life than self-indulgence and “it seemed like a good idea at the time” kinds of choices.

But God forbid we spend more than a few years exploring possibilities. No one wants to arrive at their thirties and still not know what they want to do with their lives, and if you’re audacious enough to want to shake things up in your forties, chances are a good friend or spouse will start bandying around the dreaded mid-life crisis label. Again, ideas like figuring out what do with your life and mid-life crises might once have made sense, since any failure to fully subscribe to that hard-won stability required breaking a vital social code, and individuals who did so probably had to act out in the process, oftentimes engaging in ironically self-destructive and unfulfilling behaviors.

But the perception of adulthood as a period of stasis has persisted long past the time when our narrow views of human expression and fulfillment ruled the day. Unfortunately, most of us have taken these socially established ideas of adulthood and assumed they have a literal meaning, that perhaps when our bodies and minds are fully established, our spirits and personal development must be, too. But I think what’s much closer to the truth is that the maturity of the body and mind is not a sign that development has come to a close; it’s a sign that the next phase of development is ready to emerge. This is when the growth of self can begin, when you’re no longer so preoccupied with hormones and gangly limbs that you can actually focus on something more meaningful. The idea being, of course, that you don’t stop growing when your body and frontal lobe are fully cooked; it’s that you’ve graduated to the next level of life, when passions and purpose are cultivated and tended to, with all the requisite fertilizing and weeding that comes along.

So, what does this have to do with writing? Well, as per my earlier fascination with adult growth, all of the writers I work with today are well into their fourth or fifth (or sixth or seventh or eighth or ninth) decades when they begin writing, and I encounter two very self-limiting and entirely avoidable behaviors. The first is the insistence that they are too old to write, which couldn’t be further from the truth. Writing requires heaps of experience and a ton of perspective, both of which tend to be advantages of age. The second is the tendency to assume that any creative bump in the road is a sign that the writing is not meant to be, or that one is not meant to be a writer, when such bumps are exactly what you want to encounter if you’re doing things right. If you’re actually investing in yourself as an ongoing work in progress, one that might just evolve in any number of directions, you’ll encounter some growth spurts, with all the accompanying growing pains. And just as you would never tell a teenager with leg cramps to lay off the food, rest, and exercise, telling yourself that obstacles in your writing path should be met with defeat and discouragement couldn’t be a more counterintuitive way to approach them.

If you don’t believe me (or are inordinately fond of your own self-flagellating tendencies), just give a different perspective a try for a few weeks. Whenever you start telling yourself horrible stories about your writing or yourself as a writer, take a step back and nourish yourself. Take a walk somewhere beautiful. Take a deep breath. Make yourself tea with honey and wait for it to cool off before you gulp it down. It’s even ok to make sympathetic sounds in the presence of your poor, tenderly bruised ego, just don’t mistake nourishment with destructive self-indulgence, which is the skanky cousin of defeat and discouragement. You might need to take a few wrong turns down the path of Netflix binges and boxed wine before you learn to tell the difference, but if you listen to that still, small voice that inspired you to write in the first place, you’ll find your way back.

For now, I invite you to play around with the idea that personal growth isn’t just natural, it’s as necessary and vital to your health as anything your parents did to help you develop strong bones and keep all your own teeth. And when the obstacles arise, welcome them in. Let yourself trip and wobble and scrape a knee or two. It’s the only way to keep learning.

Art: Laburnum Tree Trunk Growth Rings, Dr. Keith Wheeler

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Writer’s Log, June 2: Bring Your B Game!

For the first thirty years of my life, I didn’t really write. Even though I knew I was a writer from the time I learned how to read, my ideas about being a writer were so woefully misguided that I never really got anything off the ground. Sure, I was turning out tortured, plotless pages about people being lost at sea in elementary school, and tortured, abstract poetry about trees in high school (I wish I were joking), but these pages only  emerged when the urge to write became so desperate that even my worst inhibitions couldn’t get in the way.

Fortunately, life handed me my ass several times over when I was in my early thirties, and my need to write became so acute I had to figure out a way to do it more regularly. The problem was, I had two small children on my hands and was finishing up a doctorate, and even five minutes to myself felt like a miracle. Or at least that’s what I thought the problem was. I also thought the problem was that I might not be as talented as I hoped I was, or that I didn’t have as many fantastic ideas as I thought I did, and, were I to ever actually find some time to write, I’d be bitterly disappointed by what emerged. And then, just as I was finishing up my postdoc and working up the courage to quite the academic rat race, I got pregnant again. At the time, I didn’t think I could have clinically engineered a more perfectly placed nail in the coffin of my creative aspirations. But nothing could be further from the truth. In actuality, life had finally gotten through to me with the message I so desperately needed to hear and was so desperately resisting: Surrender, Dorothy!

I had been so good at following the conventional wisdom. In life and in work, I had always fought the good fight, reached for the stars, brought my A game. Yet I couldn’t understand why I had such high goals for my writing and so little to show for it. What I’d failed to realize is that conventional wisdom and creativity do not flourish in the same fields, nor do they thrive on the same nourishment. But when the possibility of bringing my A game decreased at the same rate my need to write increased, I finally managed to stumble, defeated, into the magic of the B game.  

When most people hear that I’m a mother of three as well as a novelist and manuscript editor, they assume I’m crackers or have a drug problem. The truth is, though, that all three of these endeavors blossom when you lead with your humanity, your humility, and your willingness to constantly go to bat for what matters to you, even if you rarely hit it out of the park and sometimes have to walk between bases. They respond, in other words, to knowing that if you can’t bring your A game, bringing your B game for all you’re worth is just as powerful, if not more so.

And as far as my writing is concerned, this doesn’t look like what you might expect. It certainly doesn’t look like what most people think the B game is: resigning yourself to a lack of regular inspiration and forcing your butt into a chair to meet word count goals on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis. I’ve decided that for those of us who are raising children and/or working outside jobs, this “practical advice” is both impossible and unreasonable, and has become yet another subtle way to disempower 99.9% of writers. What’s more, the true, irregular nature of the writing practice most humans can achieve might just be the best thing for our writing. Creativity thrives when you don’t beat it into a false rhythm, when you pay attention to its ebbs and flows, most of which are likely to be in lockstep with what you’re allowing to ebb and flow in your life.

What my writing practice does look like, then, is regularly checking in to see what my mental, emotional, and logistical realities are telling me about what I have to offer that month, week, or hour, and softening into working with whatever they tell me, even if it’s not what I want to hear. So, for example, instead of getting mad and frustrated because I have only five minutes on a particular Tuesday when I feel like I need 500, I do something with those five minutes. And doing something with those 5 minutes wakes up my wiser self, who oftentimes points out that just because I can’t wake up at 5:00 AM every morning and summon the muse on schedule doesn’t mean that I can’t sit in the car while waiting to pick someone up and jot down some notes, or read by the nightlight, or redirect the time I might have devoted to buying stuff we don’t really need at Target to taking a walk outside to see what a new perspective might bring. And because this B game is so much more liveable, it’s also become that much more fruitful, which means I’ve developed a depth of relationship to my writing that I never even approached when I was letting my Hungry Hungry Hippo brain do most of the talking.

So if you’re frustrated by the disconnect between what you want to do with your writing and what you are doing with your writing, it might help to redefine the former. Instead of focusing so much on what and how much you want to produce, focus instead on what you can produce, and let that production be as free from judgement as possible (you can save all your judgement for the editing that comes later). After all, we’re never less productive than when we’re laboring under our own high standards or bitter disappointments. So let yourself be surprised by what your writing wants to be, by how OK it actually is, and by how letting it become a regular, far less glamourous part of your life enables it to actually become as weirdly fantastic as you’ve always suspected it is.

Art: Pablo Picasso, La Reve

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Writer’s Log, May 16: Why Metaphor?

Or, as my long-suffering, fact-loving, sixteen-year-old sophomore likes to say: Why, metaphor?! As in, Why are the adults in my life trying to shove poetry down my throat when they know I couldn’t care less, and what’s more, enjoy wearing my self-righteous disdain like a badge of honor? Actually, that’s mostly the subtext for what he actually says, which is, “Poetry sucks, Mom. No offense.”

None taken, love. There’s no need to point out to him that his prefrontal lobe is still developing, and his ability to draw connections between feeling and cognition is a work in progress. But it’s a cruel twist of fate that when most people are first introduced to the kind of literature that really showcases all that literary devices have to offer, they’re in high school and, quite literally, unable to fully appreciate what they’re encountering. Even when I was a sophomore and fell head over heels in love with Anna Akhmatova and Elizabeth Bishop, I felt more like I was seized by poetry than that I really understood it. It was as if some hidden, hibernating thing within me uncoiled itself and came to life. Not unlike first love, I was left attempting to connect to in maudlin, ineffectual strokes that left me more frustrated than before.

Yet what’s important about both my son’s and my experiences is that we didn’t necessarily have the wisdom to stick with it, to know that more, indeed, would be revealed. Nor do most teenagers. And because so many turn away after these first, flummoxing experiences, many of us arrive at adulthood insecure around or unwilling to use literary devices in our work. It’s impossible to fully address the neglect of all these devices in one post, but to take metaphor as an example, the failure to push beyond this stunted exposure shoots just about every writer in the foot. Even those who’ve evolved enough as readers to appreciate metaphor in someone else’s work will still shy away from experimenting with it on the page, as if they don’t trust it in their own hands.

Which is a damn shame, because if we look at metaphor closely, its powers are extraordinary. Whereas literal descriptions offer a standardized, baseline understanding, metaphor weaves in sensory and experiential connections, allowing our understanding – and, not incidentally, our empathy — to expand and deepen. Metaphor, in other words, is the great connector. When used well, it offers us the chance to consider that the deepest understanding is not that which is divorced from the senses and experience; it’s that which incorporates the fact that sensory and experiential understanding – qualities of understanding humans are infused with for a reason – are not weaknesses to avoid, but vital and indispensable elements that must be brought along when striving towards the keenest possible insights.

And it’s certainly not just a way to make your writing seem prettier, the way we might decorate the margins of our high school notebooks with derivative flowers. When we choose our metaphors, we are choosing these deeper comparisons, and the context of what we are communicating is everything. Comparing the green of someone’s eyes to grass, for instance, as innocuous and simple as that metaphor might be, is vastly different than comparing that green to the color on a freshly minted dollar bill. The trouble for most, though, is knowing that you need to trust your experiential and sensory understanding to create effective metaphors; you can’t muscle through them, in other words, with the rabbitty, logical, organizational aspects of the mind you’re used to using exclusively. Doing so is ineffective and, quite frankly, lazy. You’ve got to open yourself up to what nudges at you when a description comes to mind, what calls or winks in from the edges, asking to be seen.

Art: Pablo Picasso, Violin and Guitar

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Writer’s Log, May 1: Showing Up

              Show, don’t tell. Show, don’t tell. Show, don’t tell. Writers hear this advice so often, it can feel like it’s being generated by the Muse of Nagging, who smells like old soup and/or middle school lunchroom realities. She is the bologna of the muses, the one you always find between the pages of your most hopeful manuscript when you were hoping to discover filet mignon. So why do writing teachers persist in calling on her, when so many writing students seem to be tuning her out?

              I’m going to go out on a writing teacher limb here and acknowledge that while there are several excellent ideas buried within the advice to show instead of tell, as with most cutely reductionist sayings, “show, don’t tell” is neither particularly descriptive nor particularly helpful. It might be relatively easy to recognize when you’ve been showing instead of telling — or to at least recognize it when someone points it out to you — but telling is a hard habit to break, and showing is far more difficult to master than this particularly pithy chestnut would suggest.

              For most of our writing lives, we tell. In fact, every school-aged child in America gets showing pretty much drilled out of them from the time they learn to write until their last year of schooling (and for those who enter the business world, the drilling continues unabated). Dickens’ Gradgrind would be so proud of the way we insist our children stick to the facts. I’d wager that in 95% of their writing assignments from first grade through high school/college/graduate school, the personal pronoun is off limits, descriptive writing is discouraged, metaphor is looked at askance, and, poetic turns of phrase rarely make it past a smile in the teachers’ lounge. Sure, a good school will teach kids to learn about literary devices and analyze them in texts, but they’re very rarely encouraged to take them out for a test drive of their own. Why would they be? Creative writing won’t get them higher paying jobs, or earn them corporate promotions, or even publication in an academic journal.   

              The problem is that living in the 21st century requires a heck of a lot more than a solid background in number crunching and formulaic writing. It requires being creative and courageous and willing to deal with unprecedented innovation. It demands new levels of emotional fluency and the ability to communicate across massive social and political divides. It asks for us to show up, in other words, whole-heartedly. And it’s not just kids who need to embrace these qualities. We all do.

So it’s no surprise that people are seeking new ways to express themselves in a meaningful way. It’s also not surprising that many turn to fiction, which can capture and express truths that prosaic language cannot stretch to grasp. Which means that writing teachers also need to up their game, and stop delivering the same, tired advice that makes sense in theory but can be baffling in practice.  

So what is this showing that so many speak of, why is it so important, and how the heck do you go about doing it?

Showing is the act of using fictional tools to enhance a reader’s experiential sense of the story. And it’s important because showing, unlike telling, allows a reader to experience the meaning of a story on a much more intimate, personal level, which represents an opportunity to form connections, develop empathy, and deepen our understanding of the human experience. You know. Little stuff.

And while showing can take a lifetime to master, boy, oh boy is it fun to learn. I have a million-and-one prompts I like to give to help new fiction writers learn to show, but you can get surprisingly far just by trying to write as much of your work in scene, by thoughtfully incorporating as many details that involve the senses (sight, touch, sound, taste, hearing) into your work and letting them take the lead on the page, and by dissecting the best dialogue you can get your hands on and using it as a primer for your own attempts.

I could go on, but I’m not your writing teacher. So go out and find one who’s willing to unpack this for you, and dive unabashedly into as many books as you can get your hands on, setting aside a carefully cultivated selection of those that really speak to you to use as touchstones throughout your writing career. And please, for heaven’s sake, stop nodding and smiling when someone gives you the kind of guidance that doesn’t make any sense. Narrative is a human right, as is voice, and we need to show up for its potential and purpose. Even if we need to all fumble around for a while to figure out how to teach each other better, our work will pay us back a millionfold in kind.  

Art: Jasper Johns, 0 Through 9, 1961

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