Writer’s Log, September 5th: The Paris Effect

One of the biggest challenges of writing fiction is how liberating it can be. At the outset, it can feel exhilarating to spin an entirely fabricated world of your own design, but most writers don’t get very far before they begin to feel overwhelmed by the sheer number of unsupervised choices they have to make. And no matter how much you felt like you were in charge at the outset, it’s all too easy to get a few chapters in and feel the reins slipping from your hands. And that’s never a comfortable feeling. No one wants to grasp the tail of a dream only to feel it slipping from their fingers. That said, there are both helpful and not-so-helpful ways of handling this inevitability.

It is helpful to understand that whether you run a Fortune 500 or can organize a laundry room to within an inch of its life, your writing will not respond to your usual project management methods. In fact, the more severely you impose your timelines and goals and outlines on your fiction, the faster it will turn its back on you and dig in its heels. You are drawing on your subconscious and your imagination to harness your unique way of seeing the world. Trust me when I say these things to not respond well to seat belts and leashes.

Unfortunately, many people don’t recognize the warning signs before their inner control freaks snatch the wheel with their bony, white-knuckled hands. Yet I’ve seen a particular kind of collateral damage time and time again in the pages of a newly hatched book, or one that is apparently refusing to evolve. I like to the think of it as The Paris Effect. At some point, probably when the author realized she was navigating an ocean of consciousness in a homemade dinghy, she unwittingly reached for a commercial barge. Faced with the thin, early sketches of characters and scenes and settings that need her heart, soul, and acres of patience to grow into fruition, the nascent novelist suddenly has a brilliant idea. She’ll set everything in Paris! Or Rome! Or both!

And for a while, she’ll feel enormous relief. There’s sanctuary in the known, after all. And I’m not saying we should deny ourselves that sanctuary; but I do think we need to take care to keep it out of our novels. Because unless your version of Paris has your main character chatting up a red, bearded, billy goat, it isn’t yours. Paris has saturated the collective unconscious, as have so many other cultural icons and commercial heavy hitters. And while such cultural rock stars might deliver delicious and true pleasures, they don’t belong in your novel, because the minute they appear, they eclipse everything around them, sort of like dropping Godzilla into your friendly neighborhood paleontology exhibit. Another way to think about it is that everything that’s ever been said about Paris comes along with it when you use it. It’s like saying I love you in the opening page; you’ve landed a linguistic atom bomb in the novel long before the small, sure voice that is only yours had a chance to even call for help.

So if you’re looking for some something familiar and undeniable, take a trip to Target and marvel over how the Cheerios box doesn’t look a bit different than it did when it stood on your circa 1968 breakfast table. Or call your mother and tell her you have the sniffles and lip sync her admonishments and advice. Just don’t infect your novel with your desire to find shelter under existing cultural superstars because ultimately, this will just reflect someone else’s light. If, on the other hand, you’re willing to wait until the clouds of your own, peculiar uncertainties clear, the view you’ll get to witness afterward is unparalleled. And it will be so much more meaningful than Paris.

Art: Marc Chagall, View of Paris

Writer’s Log, August 15th: Revision as Revelation

Here’s one of the things they don’t tell you in writing class: It’s next-to-impossible to engage in any kind of substantive revision without experience more than your share of existential despair. I don’t care how well the work is coming along. If it will stand up to a heavy revision, it probably represents your best efforts to date; by the same token, it probably also isn’t ready for its close-up. So you get the lovely job of rolling up your sleeves and getting into the nitty gritty with what you hope might be the love of your life but will probably end up not looking so great once you’ve pulled back all that makeup and hair.

I wish someone had told me this before I set out to see a novel from start to finish, because I was sure I was crazy/not fit to write/doing something terribly wrong. In fact, I think I spent the first ten years of my writing career dreading revision, which makes perfect sense, given my pattern of thinking my latest draft was the bee’s knees just after I finished writing it, only to wring my hands in despair once I came back to revise it, shocked and embarrassed at how much I seemed to have beer-goggled my writing.

Fortunately, other, far wiser writers have come before me. One of them was Stanley Kunitz, who was filmed at the 92nd Street Y giving a lecture to a bunch of teenagers sometime during the mid-90s, which means he was in his mid-90s. But despite liver spots on one side of the conversation and acne on the other, the age gap seemed non-existent. One girl asked him if he ever got frustrated, and wanted to give up. “Always,” he says. “It happened yesterday. It happened last week.” A second astute teen pipes in. “Are you ever satisfied?” she asks. “The only moment of satisfaction,” Kunitz answers, “is the moment when I finish on the typewriter and I pull out that page, and I read it, and it’s four o’clock in the morning, and I say, ‘How wonderful this is!’ And I go to bed happy. Then I read it in the morning, and I want to tear it up, and I start over.” Sure, when he goes on to wax poetic about the perpetual discontent of the artist it may seem like this isn’t a happy ending, but if you look at his face while he’s talking about this discontent, it’s infused with this quiet joy and wonder.

Ten years ago, I wouldn’t have seen that quiet joy and wonder. I would have just rolled my eyes in solidarity. But now I know that the very discontent he speaks of is at the very heart of why we return, again and again, to writing. Why we fight so hard for it. And it’s not because we’re gluttons for punishment. It’s because that discontent is a huge part of the reward.

The way we generally speak about writing make it easy to forget that writing, at its best, is an act of discovery, both for the writer and the reader. The reader’s discovery begins the moment the book is finished, but the finished book represents the final stages of the writer’s discovery, which only can happen as the result of months, weeks, and days considering what has already been unearthed not just for what it is, but for what it might represent about what else is out there. Much as an archaeologist doesn’t consider a single coin out of context (even if it’s one of ten thousand, and looks like it was the chew toy of a particularly mangy ancient mongrel), we writers can’t get very far if we values our drafts as distinct entities. What’s more, if we do see them in this isolated way, our abbreviated journeys will feel as flat and demoralizing as our approach.

If, however, we understand that creative work is often a process of digging deeper and deeper into thought and insight, it makes sense that the first things unearthed, as shiny and sparkling and charming as they might have seemed initially, suddenly seem dull and uninspired. And, what’s more, if we see each revision as rife with clues as to where we’re going and how far we’ve come, we can see that not meeting our expectations can actually be incredibly exciting.

So as demoralizing as it will always be to come face to face with where we’ve been in an effort to find out where we can go, remember that this jarring awakening is no different than coming into new light, unpleasantly blinding though it may seem. Know that you will adjust, and in adjusting, will make yourself ready for the next level of your brilliance. And even if you never see what you expected to on the page, where’s the failure in that? Who wants to write what’s expected? Isn’t what’s to come far more inspiring?

Art: Winslow Homer, The Fog Warning

Writer’s Log, August 1: Prompts!

It’s far too easy to dismiss prompts as throwaway exercises used only in writing classes for novices, but the truth is that prompts are the perfect antitoxin for short- and long-term writing ailments, most of which are symptoms of the larger disease of taking yourself and your writing too seriously. This may sound flippant, and it is, a little, because so much of the time we spend agonizing over our writing does not have to do with the magnificent stories we weave about how we’re just not talented or deserving enough, or about how the demands on our time are just too tragically significant, or because it is our fate to be woefully misunderstood. In reality, we just need to take a deep breath, remove our heads from whatever dark hole we’ve inserted them into, and put one foot in front of the other. Get the ball rolling. See that moving forward is often just a matter of refusing to stagnate.

And yes, it’s just another layer of easy excuse to say you would use a prompt if you had one, but you don’t have any. Any kid next door can direct you to any number of prompts online, and no, they’re not too simple for you. Simplicity, in this case, is just what the doctor ordered. The point is to stop taking things so seriously and to have some fun. So often we forget that the source of our richest creativity is tapped not when we bear down, but when we loosen the reins on our self-conscious, self-limiting, self-flagellating tendencies. And that goes both ways: if we find ourselves judging other artists as being too simple, or not doing serious enough work, guess what happens when we close the door and look at the blank page? The point, of course, is not to aim low; it’s to release the chokehold most of us have on aiming altogether, so that the generative, unformed parts of our minds that need to stretch and soar in order for us to realize our best work can stretch their wings. It’s a little counterintuitive, but trust me, it works.

That said, if you must insist on a little advice to get you going, I find it helpful to consider prompts categorically. I hope you’ll identify more, but I can think of at least three different types of prompts that help me move forward, depending on how I’m stuck. The first is the basic prompt, the kind you’ll get in-class at a writing workshop. The second is the targeted prompt, one you use to address a particular issue you’re struggling with in your work. And the third is the self-reflective prompt, the kind you use when you suspect that maybe, just maybe, it’s not so much that the work is stuck, but that some small, panicky voice within you has been leaving jumbo-sized orange cones at the head of every new path you think of following.

The basic prompt is the easiest to invent and track down. These are the lowest hanging fruit, and make glorious eating, unless your own pretentious tendencies are making you clench up tighter than a clam on Hyannis in July. If you could sit down with any famous person in history, who would it be? (And what would you eat? And what questions would you ask him or her? Would you get hit on? Would he/she remember your name after five minutes? How might they disappoint you? How might they surprise you?) If you had a million dollars to spend in one day, how would that go down? (OK, I added a little flavor to that old chestnut, because how it would go down is much more fun to imagine than where the money would end up.) These don’t even need to take the form of questions. Write a paragraph using only three adjectives. Write twelve poems in a week. Rewrite the opening to one scene three different ways.

The targeted prompt is particularly helpful when you’re in the midst of a project that suddenly short circuits. First, take a deep breath. Second, remember that the greatest pieces get written when we allow ourselves to learn from the writing, and surprise, confusion, and/or disillusionment are signs of something really interesting going down. Now for the prompts. I usually go in the direction of focusing on a character or a scene: something small, but not too small that the prompt won’t have legs. My absolute favorite prompt of all time is to fill out a character chart (probably because it reminds me of my carefree theater days, when improv was king and the height of my hair reflected the height of my dreams). These can begin simply: birth date, birthplace, parents, siblings, etc., and can grow in infinite directions. What does your character eat for breakfast? Is it the same thing every day? Is it what she/he wants to eat? Does he/she eat alone? Does he/she remember his/her dreams, and if so, does he/she share them with anyone? Clearly, I could go on, but I think you get the idea. And if you’d rather go after a scene, I strongly suggest trying to write it as poorly as you possible can. Make it really, really terrible, and put in all the things you’d usually never dare to include, either because they’re just so bad, or because they’re just so out there. Alternatively, ask yourself how the setting of the scene is a character of its own, coloring things accordingly. You can even get more micro on it: if there’s a dialogue, try rewriting it in such a way that one of the characters wants desperately to ask another a question, but never gets around to doing it. Or one character is sure the other is on to his greatest secret, while the other is just interested in making a grocery list. Have fun. Loosen up. Let the juices flow, even if you don’t like the taste of them at first.

Finally, the self-directed prompt. I’m very proud to say that I once gave a student an instant headache by offering one of these in class. In fact, if they make your stomach turn or your knees quiver, you’ve probably hit the nail on the head. These usually take the form of giving yourself fifteen minutes or less to answer a question you’d rather not answer. What are you unable to write about? What do you not have permission to write about? What would happen if you jettisoned that chapter/character/plot development that you’re sure is the key to your novel but refuses to behave? What would happen if you jettisoned the novel as it stands, and started over with a new POV, or main character, or time period? The good news with these prompts is that if you sit quietly with your own thoughts for just a few minutes, they’ll usually come to you. (It might feel like bad news, at first, but at the end of the day, it never is.)

Above all, the worst thing a writer can do is talk herself out of her writing, so know that any writing that gets you back in the game is exactly the kind of writing you need to do right now. I’d wish you good luck, but we both know it’s not about that. You’re a writer with a way to write. That’s all the luck you need.

Art: Henri Matisse, Open Window, Collioure

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

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