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

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

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

Writer’s Log, April 11th: Wait for It

Once upon a time, before there was every form of immediate gratification available to us in the entertainment realm, we used to have to bring much more to the table in order to make something interesting. My kids have approximately eight gazillion computer games available at the click of a button; I played with wooden blocks. They can log onto devices at home, school, and the library and be instantly connected to a world of information and other minds; I had a pen pal I wrote to by hand. And when my blocks got boring and my pen pal stopped writing and I was tired of making up new games or tormenting my little brother or sneaking into my sisters’ closets, I laid down on the floor and stared up at the ceiling, so irritable with boredom I thought I’d spontaneously combust.

My kids are definitely happier than I was. There’s no denying the sweet satisfaction of having so many lovely, shiny objects to dangle in front of the mind. And many of the things that entertain them educate them as well – they’re just as likely to play math games as Plants vs. Zombies, they know how to code, and they’re incredibly facile when it comes to processing new information. And in all honesty, I do think they’re better off than I was, at least in part. Also, I couldn’t be less interested in enforcing the “us vs. them” dichotomy that we are usually so eager to place between generations.

But there’s a wonderful quality to the “wait for it” versions of entertainment that I was forced to notice and appreciate during my childhood – and that the billions of humans that came before me perfected and built upon. There’s still no greater artistic gift, in my mind, than a book that doesn’t hand feed you, that challenges you, that has the muscle to stand up to many interpretations – that asks you to bring something to the table. Same with theater, and music, and art, and film, and dance. Because artistic creations do not have to be something we receive only; they can be a two-way street, and might even be at their best when they are. There is really no replacement or substitute, no matter how bright or shiny it might be, for the spark of connection and recognition that can take place when an artist offers work that their audience must open their hands to receive.

So the next time you’re near a kid who might be halfway willing to be unplugged, drag them to the theater. Take them camping and read to them from a novel that would be diminished if it were made into a movie. Give them the space to walk through their own minds on their own steam. They’re hungry for it. Maybe even hungrier than we realize.

 

Art: Georgia O’Keefe, Abstraction, White Rose, 1927

Writer’s Log, April 4th: The Art of the Breakup

You know you have to do it. It’s just not working anymore, and you’re in need of a clean break. Maybe it’s that novel you’ve toiled over for the past seven(teen) years, or that short story no one but you understands, or that poem an English professor once told you had promise. You’ve held onto it and lingered over it and made excuses for it, but you just can’t bring yourself to walk away.

I know. I’ve been there. You’re afraid this is a diamond in the rough that will certainly fall between the cracks without your devotion. Or you fear that you only have one decent novel/short story/poem in you, and you need to figure out a way to be happy with what you’ve got. Or you’ve just spent so much of your creative time on it, it’s hard to walk away now.

Recently, I gently set aside a novel I’ve been working on for the better part of three years. I’m not sure I could have done that earlier in my career, but now that I’ve trained myself to know the difference between a project that will respond to all my efforts and one that will bleed me dry, it’s getting easier to know when to walk away – and to appreciate the importance of doing just that. When I was still getting my creative sea legs under me, I might have just walked away in frustration, or stayed too long out of desperation. But now that I have a few solid failures under my belt, I understand that the art of the break up has so much more to do with what’s right for me as an artist than the relative merits of the piece I’m leaving behind.

In other words, instead of walking away from a project simply because it’s driving me crazy or I’m getting nowhere with it or it’s stubbornly refusing to evolve at the pace I prefer, I know to walk away only if the challenges it presents me with deplete me more than they help me to grow. Similarly, I won’t stay with a project that moves merrily along with no blips in sight because I know it’s not offering me the opportunity to make the most of my talents. The relationship you have to your work, in other words, should set you up to step into your best possible artistic self – not your most comfortable self, or your most tortured self – but the self that allows for all your complexity, that both celebrates and challenges everything odd and wonderful about you.

The value of this goes far beyond the obvious reasons. Because whenever you can remember to make a judgment call that prioritizes your growth as a writer over the growth of any particular piece – as opposed to the judgment calls we might be sorely tempted to make in the opposite direction – it helps you to bring the full bore of your talents into the next project and the wisdom to know how they are best engaged. Over the years, this behavior has a cumulative effect, so that you find yourself better able to zero in on those projects and ideas that will be the most fruitful.

Does that mean breakups ever get any easier? Well, yes and no. The months leading up to the breakup will always be filled with a certain amount of anguish and angst, but knowing you can ultimately trust yourself to make the best decisions on your own behalf does soften the blow — and infuses even the most difficult of separations with a steady, indefatigable hope.

 

Art: John LeGatta, Ballroom Dancing