Writer’s Log, July 16: Le Setback

It’s a crime that so many of us persist in evaluating our creative success along linear lines. I struggle regularly to remind myself that progress is not restricted to moving in one direction, but even though I’m pretty good at remembering that, I still feel ever so vaguely demoralized when I discover I need to return to a place in my work I thought I’d left behind for good. This is better than how I used to be, but like most humans on earth, finding the time to write is always a challenge, so I’m constantly striving to rid my practice of unnecessary energy sucks. And much as knowing that writing isn’t linear has helped, it’s not quite enough to keep my sails from flagging when I find myself face to face with a block I’ve both generated and need to dismantle. So lately I’ve been wondering: Is it possible to learn to welcome setbacks? And not in that trying too hard, Pollyannaish, head-in-the-sand fashion that makes it feel like you’re one step away from joining a nudist colony or cult?

Last year, I accidentally gained twenty pounds. When I was younger, this would have been devastating, but now I kind of think I like that in a person. I grew up underfeeding myself on many levels, and the fact that I spent twelve months grossly overestimating the amount of food I need is a sort of accomplishment. Sure, I’d much rather continue to eat peanut butter recreationally than go on Weight Watchers, but there’s that small but sure sense of what this extra flesh represents that makes losing it not seem all that bad. Yet while I see the parallels between how I see this setback and how I might see my writing setbacks, the transfer of attitude is not a simple one. For one, I don’t really care anymore what the scale says, but it’s also true that falling behind in my writing is so discouraging in large part because I’m always anxious to leap ahead.

The irony, of course, is that the non-linearity goes both ways. Sometimes I’ll find myself punching out nearly whole chapters in quick succession with little warning that they’re on their way. And it’s unlikely that I’ll get to enjoy that aspect of the writing experience without also incorporating its opposite – those weeks when I can’t seem to pull together a single sentence I like, or, say, when I realize that the first 7/8 of my new novel needs to be entirely restructured.

As I write this, I wonder if part of my own trouble lies in a failure to completely trust this process. Engaging wholeheartedly in a linear process seems so logical and intellectual, while committing to a non-linear one feels like a shaky leap of faith I might regret later. But there must be a profound sensibility to non-linearity, too, given how often it appears – and flourishes – when allowed to run its course in creative work. So maybe the trick isn’t so much to learn to welcome these setbacks, but to see them as a fundamental part of a larger system, to understand that it’s the meaning I attribute to the process that often gets in my way, not the process itself.

 

Art: Wassily Kandinsky

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Writer’s Log, July 2: What Do You Have to Lose?

Editing is such a funny business, especially when it comes to parting ways with a line or paragraph or scene or book you once loved. I actually had to find an extremely low-tech, remedial way to manage this in my own life – I made a “Good Leftovers” file for what I wanted to lose but not so much that I couldn’t maybe call it back in the middle of the night if I was lonely. Did I ever make those booty calls? No, not really. I looked, but I didn’t touch. In the end, I never really needed to, but there was comfort in knowing they were still there.

Logically, this reluctance doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. In this day of digital everything, you sort of have to work at it to lose anything you’ve written. But there’s so much more to a deletion than simply a blank space where there wasn’t one before. Just because we’ve realized that something doesn’t work doesn’t mean that we know what will, and getting rid of it can feel a bit like stepping off a curb with a blindfold on. Or maybe we’re haunted by the sense that if we write something good, we must hold onto it for all its worth, because there’s a scarcity around our own ability to flourish creatively.

It takes a long time and a lot of deep breathing to recognize that the opposite is actually true. The more you release and the more you risk, the more willing your creativity will be to come out and play, and the more it comes out to play, the stronger it becomes. The nature of healthy creative work is to evolve, which means that you should expect a certain turnover when it comes to what is most vibrant in your work over time.

And yet, like any good advice, it’s all too easy to take the encouragement to let go too far, and sometimes we find ourselves slicing and dicing our way through our drafts like conquistadors in the jungle. (‘m not pointing any fingers, but this usually doesn’t happen when your life is otherwise buzzy along merrily. Just food for thought.) The key, as always, is to listen to yourself – something far easier said than done. The good news is the more you listen to yourself, the easier it gets to sift through all the voices in your head to figure out which one is speaking your truth. Until then, be patient. Wait until you can hear yourself think, and then wait until your creative voice speaks up. Eventually, after your ego gets done yammering on and the voice of whatever frenemy has pushed your insecurity buttons that day fades into the background, you’ll tune into what’s really true for you. And you’ll know, because the impulse will have the unmistakable hum of possibility behind it.

 

Art: Hokusai Katsushika, 1760-1849

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Writer’s Log, June 15th: Writing Progress

There’s a huge psychic oppression that comes with assuming that progress only goes in one direction. In my life and in my work, the most substantive progress I’ve ever made looks much less like steps taken along a line than it does a waltz, or a samba – and, in all honesty, there are times when it probably looked like the kind of interpretive dance no one else wants to see. But this only bothers me when I give in to the popular myth that moving forward never necessitates taking a step back. Or, if it does, that those steps we take backward represent a hitch in our progress, rather than a vital part of it.

Like all healthy, long-term relationships, writing progress is not something that flourishes with a particular goal in mind. We don’t, for instance, date until marriage and then consider ourselves done, ready to wash our hands of any struggles that we’ve weathered until that point. Similarly, although popular culture would have us believe that we should work toward the goal of securing a publishing contract/spot on a bestseller’s list/interview with Oprah, if we think signing on the dotted line and opening a bottle of champagne will represent, somehow, an end, I honestly don’t think many of us would bother to write in the first place. I mean, think about it. Who wants to create in order to have created?

I think, like most writers, I write because it scratches the undying itch to learn and understand — and rinse and repeat. In simpler terms, I love writing because it never fails to smack me upside the head and hand me my ass, epistemologically speaking. I went to school for approximately twenty years, and there is still nothing like the light bulb that goes off when I just pick up a book or a pencil and open my mind. And the fact that sometimes the light that gets sparked gives me a shock or makes something I once admired look dim is only something I’ve learned to incorporate as a sign of my dedication to the long haul; an indication that I’m not here to discover the ultimate illumination, but to delight in the fact that no matter how long I’m at this, new qualities of illumination will continue to reveal themselves.

So my wish for all writers out there is that we cease gnawing at the corners of linear progression, hoping that one day they’ll give us nourishment. Instead, I hope we can commit to raising our voices to introduce a new sense of what it means to be successful, one that speaks to the resounding depths of engagement, rather than continue to assume that the tinkling bell of yet another customer through the door is the only music we’re hoping to hear.

 

Art: “Roman Seafood Mosaic,” Sheila Terry

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Writer’s Log, June 1st: Shaping Emotion 

On a very basic level, shaping emotion is a fundamental aspect of anything an artist does. A dancer does this with her body, a painter with her paints, a singer with her voice. But as technically savvy as any artist must be to do this work, I think it presents unique challenges to the writer. It might seem easier, given that the writer’s medium, language, actually has existing words to describe emotions of all kinds, but the truth is that the words we have to describe the gamut of human emotion are grossly inadequate to the task, and can often cheapen our intentions because we are forced to rely on them anyway.

But there are techniques a writer can use that have less to do with a dependency on language, and more to do with infusing the work with emotional awareness. Two of these techniques can be understood of as attending to the emotional plot, and allowing for emotional blocking.

The emotional plot runs right alongside the actual plot, but the distinction is critical all the same. The actual plot refers to the consequential sequence of events that result in a narrative. You know, three pigs of questionable mental faculties set out to make their fortune, build a few sloppy houses, run into a wolf, and learn that you need more than a few pieces of straw to protect yourself in this life. The emotional plot, on the other hand, can be better understood as the sequence of emotional realizations that propel a character from one version of herself into another. So, were the above story to actually have an emotional plot, it might run something like this: A technically savvy but aloof pig in a village of idiots sets out to make his fortune with his two younger brothers in tow, looks the other way when they build their crappy houses, has a near heart attack when both of them almost get eaten by a wolf, finds he has room in his own shelter to shield the two of them, and realizes that his solitary habits of competence are not nearly as rewarding as being able to protect the ones you love.

So what does this mean to the writer? It means that if you’re interested in conveying emotional depth and impact in your work, it’s often not enough to simply come up with and execute a solid plot. Frequently, in order for a storyline to really have wings, it must be inhabited by relatable and memorable characters whose internal lives shift over time. In other words, it’s not enough to hatch memorable personalities; you must also give them a way to fly.

This is tough work, but it’s exciting, too. It can be a way of opening new doors and breathing new life into your work, especially work that seems to have everything in place but still refuses to sing. But if this emotional plotting seems too intimidating at first, you can start by trying on some emotional blocking.

If you’ve spent any time in the theater, you’ll be familiar with the concept of blocking. It’s the art and sometimes science of figuring out who and what needs to be where and when. To simplify, it can be understood as mapping out the placement of the players and their movements so that the play unfolds more fluidly. Lots of writers get this right. They know that Mr. Bean cannot be napping in the garden at the beginning of Chapter Three he is meant to be surprising Mrs. Abernathy in the boudoir as the chapter opens.

Similarly, emotional blocking is the art of being sure that your characters’ emotional reactions, or lack thereof, are being communicated in their movements and the pacing of the novel. If, for instance, Mrs. Abernathy reacts to being surprised in the boudoir by leaping to her feet, but in the next breath asks Mr. Bean if he remember to pick up milk at the grocery store, all the emotional air has gone out of the scene. Similarly, if Mr. Bean confesses his undying, unrequited love to Mrs. Abernathy and she slaps him across the face, there needs to be a moment in which Mr. Bean’s devastation/embarrassment/anger registers; if he simply holds his cheek and runs from the room, the reader misses a chance to really connect with his experience. On the other hand, if he gulps, tries to leave, falls over the ottoman, gets back up red-faced, turns back to say something to Mrs. Abernathy and stops, then turns again and rushes out the door, we get a far keener sense of his disappointment.

It might even be useful to consider both of these techniques as ways to leverage structure to add emotional depth when language alone won’t suffice. The emotional plot addresses the larger structure, and emotional blocking gets into the nitty gritty of how people’s inner lives and thoughts affect the small and big ways they move through their worlds.

I love these kinds of techniques because they show us some of the many ways in which writing can add up to so much more than the sum of its parts. And that, ultimately, is the holy grail for this writer (and reader) – the experience of seeing language escape its confines to magically convey the complexity of human experience. And after all, isn’t magic a human construct, too?

 

Art: Edgar Degas

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Writer’s Log, May 15: Writing Up vs. Writing Down

There’s an important distinction to be made between what we do when we write something down and what I like to think of writing up – so important, in fact, that I frequently find it frustrating that the same verb is used to describe both processes. My son reminded me of this yesterday, when he was attempting to select a previously written essay to revise and include in a portfolio. In the process of looking through his older work, he came across something he wrote in September of this year, which was, not coincidentally, also his first month in high school. Given that I am the go-to writing coach in our household, it makes a little sense that he read it through once, looked up at me, and said, “How could you have let this go?”

Ah, my darling boy, must I remind you of the conditions under which that particular essay was written? If my own memory serves, we achieved that draft close to midnight the night before it was due and just short of your head exploding. But, more importantly, it was really the best you had to offer, and even more importantly, it represented a vast improvement from where you started.

This is not to say that I have low expectations for my son’s writing skills. Quite the contrary. He has an extraordinary ability to learn and grow through his writing, an ability I might even go so far as to praise above all others. The bottom line is that he is learning what it means to write up – to take each new engagement with the written word as an opportunity to sharpen and refine, not to treat each new assignment as a chance to finally get everything right.

Still, given our insistence that all sorts of engagements with the printed word must be shoehorned into one paltry verb, I can understand his confusion. He’s still at the stage where he assumes that writing of all kinds can and should look like writing things down — and is naturally frustrated when all his best efforts don’t live up to his ideals. But when I think of writing things down, I think of recording, of taking notes, of making lists, of capturing information that’s out there and reserving it for later use. Writing things up, on the other hand, is a process that involves using language to reach for new insights and clarity, which evolves into an ever expanding ability to shape and gracefully encounter new ideas. In brief, writing up is a process of learning and discovery; writing down is a process of preserving what is already known.

And one is not necessarily better than the other, but writing down is eleven thousand times easier to master than writing up – and thank god for that. Because as frustrating as it might be to realize that writing up is not a process to be mastered, that’s where it’s very magic lies. It sustains my belief that we can always grow more insightful and more aware, which is another way of saying that writing up is a way to be sure that you never stop learning.

 

Art: Paul Ecke, Fractal 76

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