Doubts

It’s been a long couple of weeks in my writing world. On the one hand, I’ve worked more actively on specific writing projects than I have in years, especially on fiction. Last week alone, I generated thousands of words on a novel I’ve had in mind for years; this week, I’ve embarked on a new project in a genre I never even considered attempting before, and I’m excited about what lies ahead of me.

At the same time—and maybe as a consequence of the new energy—I’ve also become more aware of the writing time I’ve lost over the years. It gives me at times a sense of urgency, which I think is good. But in the past couple of days, it has also given rise to doubt. In particular, I have begun to yearn for voices of encouragement.

I’ve been fortunate to receive praise for past writing, managed to publish a couple of stories years ago, and been complimented about my ability. I know, because I’ve been told, that some people believe I’m a good writer, or at least that I could be. But for some reason, I want to hear, from someone who knows what I’m attempting—someone I trust—that they believe and expect I will do it.

Now, I have mixed feelings about this desire. Increasingly I’ve seen that, if it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a culture to create a writer, especially a productive one. But I also can’t let go of the image of the solitary writer, sitting in a prison cell if need be, isolated, all the world against her, grinding out a masterpiece with only her own voice for company. Sometimes I can’t help thinking that my “need” for encouragement means I don’t have what it takes to succeed as a writer.

I once had an email exchange with a published writer who had written in her blog that anyone who really want to write can. I took issue with her, talking about the constraints no my time and energy, especially dealing with small children, and she replied that maybe now isn’t the time for me to be writing, and that’s okay. But it’s not okay with me. When I’m not writing, I feel a hole in my life. And that, I tell myself, should be enough, that personal need and urgency should be sufficient to sustain a writing life.

Then I make my way through the day and all the choices I’ve made—choices I would make again without hesitation—but that complicate my life and make a regular writing time, not to mention time for the sleep and the self-care I need to create, difficult. The thing is, I don’t want an “out.” I don’t want a different life. I just want to hear from someone I trust, someone who loves writing and language as I do, and someone who knows me, that they believe in this foolhardy enterprise in which I literally find myself.

To be clear, I’m not expecting or requesting a chorus of generic pep talks, however well-intentioned the people providing them may be. I’m yearning for a community of even as small as one. At a few key moments in my writing life, I’ve had that: a colleague or mentor who knew me and my writing, who actively and regularly inquired about what I was working on, how much I’d gotten done—and for whom I did the same. I’ve even reached out to a few acquaintances during the past couple of years who agreed to that kind of exchange, but in each case, the dialogue has fizzled at their end.

I’m not writing this in the hope that someone who reads it will step forward or that someone will suggest a workshop or studio or class where I can network. I think I’m only writing it because it’s what I’m living at this moment, and I think it’s a real part of the struggle to write well—at least it’s a real part of my struggle. And if nothing else, I hope that others facing the same struggle will see that they have company.

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Reconsidering Writing Production

Filmmaking fascinates me in part because all creative processes do, but also because film’s collaboration forces its makers to explain their decisions to others. This can be a handicap because to succeed the various participants have to get on the same page. But it can also be an advantage because there are others present to at least theoretically contribute to creativity and question errors in judgment.

I’ve wondered, as a writer who performs alone the tasks that many people perform in a film production, what insights the dialogue of making films could teach. For example, what does the back-and-forth between film actor and director suggest about how specifically I should make my characters in early drafts?

Today, for no other reason desperation, I started experimenting with drafting my novel in somewhat the way a film production operates. Routinely, I never draft chronologically, but I have generated the setting of my scenes as I’ve written them. Same, again for the most part, with the way my characters look in terms of physical stature, dress, hairstyle, mannerisms, etc. In other words, I came up with the setting and costumes at the same time that I put the character in them.

This morning, I flipped that. In film production, the construction of the world the characters will inhabit and in which the story will take place precedes the filming of the story. The locations, the set design and decoration, the props, the costumes, even the hair designs, are planned and in place before the actors show up. Partly because I tend to struggle with plot and I didn’t know which events to take up next in my drafting, I began to design and draft the settings for my story. I made a preliminary list of some of those settings: places where the main characters live, bars and restaurants they frequent, an important music club, workplaces of some of the main characters, and landscapes in which some key scenes occur.

Two things happened:

First, I realized that I don’t need to know exactly what’s going to happen in the setting in order to create it, any more than I need to know exactly what’s going to happen at the restaurant or grocery story I decide to visit on my way home. All I have to do is show up—or provide a character—with an intention. A scene happens when some obstacle to achieving the intention emerges, either from the setting itself or from another character with a contrary goal. Of course, in the conflict that ensues, I may discover that a few different details will make the scene work better. But for the purposes of drafting, I only need the place and the people. They make the plot happen.

Second, almost immediately I feel more confident about generating the plot and subplots. The cast of supporting characters has begun to expand as the specifics of each setting emerge, and the qualities of each place—which ones which characters will find familiar and which ones certain characters will find alien or threatening—are already suggesting the shape and even outcome of what might happen. Of course, it helps that I have a good sense of the main characters, and a general sense of the overall shape of the story. But as I worked today, I became much more comfortable with not having more than that.

But most importantly, I feel very differently about the entire process. The idea of creating the world of the story ahead of having the story spelled out in detail, which I have always liked but which really hit home when I listened to this podcast a few weeks ago, has suddenly burst on me with an unexpected energy. I’ve never written stories “from the outside in” because for me the “outside” was plot and I preferred to start with the characters. But now I find the “outside” to be much richer than I had ever imagined. I’m excited about working on the costume design for the characters—what they would wear in different season, situations, in formal or casual settings—and I’m learning about what these characters value and even how they move and occupy space.

This has implications not only for fiction but for something like memoir, biography, history, or even social science writing. How would it help me clarify what I want to say if I spent time early in my process delving into the settings? What would the landscape and clothes signal to me and to the reader about what’s most significant? How can this enrich the way I see what I’m after in a piece?

I don’t yet know, but I’m eager to find out.

Why Good Writing Begins and Ends in Poetry

About 15 years ago, as I worked on the final stages of my dissertation, I often got stuck (as people working on dissertations tend to). Sometimes days would pass without my producing anything. But eventually, I would remember my foolproof method for getting unstuck: reading and writing poetry.

Let me note for clarification that poetry had nothing to do with my dissertation subject. I wrote a very social-sciency study of students in a freshman composition class. From a semester of observing, reading papers, and interviewing students, I crafted a set of case studies trying to explain why some of the students gained more than others. My final product reads way more like anthropology than it does like Nikki Giovanni.

Nevertheless, I turned to poetry while I wrote, as I have turned to it many times before and since. And wherever I see brilliance in writing, I find elements of the poetic. From the Preamble to the Constitution to Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, from Dashiell Hammett to Lorraine Hansberry, from Sister Wendy’s Story of Painting to a Chris Rock monologue, where language engages and moves, entertains and enlightens, poetry is at work.

These days, we ghettoize poetry as the realm of emotional expression; poets, according to that thinking, are rarified “artists” who create through inspiration or some inscrutable gift. Poetry is a dense and tangled garden in which the creative hide “themes” and “symbols.” Or we denigrate poetry as “flowery,” forgetting that without flowering plants, much of the food we eat would not exist.

But ultimately poetry turns on precise language. And using language precisely means employing all of the facets of words, not only their literal or denotative meaning but also a word’s history, its connotations, its sound, and all the other associations it evokes. Whenever a writer concerns herself with how the reader will respond to the words themselves—that is, with aesthetics—she has entered the realm of the poetic.

For much of history and around the world, poetry served as the dominant genre, and not just in texts we would now call “literary.” Historians, politicians, educators, theologians, and cultural critics of every stripe and in every culture have used poems to argue, to advocate, to persuade, to philosophize, to rouse people to action. Even today, much of the multi-billion dollar industry of advertising used poetic strategies and techniques, if not outright poetic forms.

In fact, I believe that the false (and common) separation of the practical and the aesthetic (rhetoric from poetry, art from science, art from technology) constitutes one of the greatest disasters in human history. It has meant that we devise “things” (a machine, a policy, a law, a building, a system) to do something without considering how we (people, living things, our environment) will experience what’s being created or devised.

This was, ultimately, the brilliance of someone like Steve Jobs—like him or not. He relentlessly, obsessively considered how the users of his technological products would experience them, not just in terms of ease but in terms of engagement. He didn’t simply ask, “Does it work?” He also asked, “What kind of relationship with the user will it foster?” He thought poetically. The writing that I admire most does the same thing. It creates an engaging experience with the reader. It creates a relationship between the reader and the text that generates attention and trust.

For that reason, to this day, when my writing well runs dry, I turn to poetry. As in the days of my dissertation, I find that when I struggle to bring a stubborn concept to the surface, casting it in poetry and letting in sound and rhythm helps me clarify what I really mean. Or I open a book by one of my favorite poets (Dickinson, Shakespeare, Gwendolyn Brooks, William Stafford, C.P. Kavafy) and remember that language is much more flexible and expansive than I’m allowing myself to be.

I’m not trying to create great poems; I’m simply returning to the poetic heart of all good writing.

On Breaking the Rule About Breaking the Rules

I recently saw trotted out again that old maxim: “You have to learn the rules to break them.” Here’s why I think that’s wrong: First, we don’t learn language that way. Children learn language rules by breaking them, repeatedly, and *not* being corrected, at least not overtly. They try things out, mimicking and attempting to match what they hear around them; they get encouragement when they succeed, not criticism for failing; they play with sounds and language (small children are the most unconscious poets and metaphor-makers you will ever encounter). In short, they learn oral language through immersion, listening, experiment, failure, support, and self-correction. They do this because they are highly *internally motivated* to express and interact.

Then, of course, they go to school, which emphasizes the rule-first method. They are increasingly discouraged from experimenting and failing so that, by the time they got to my college writing courses, they only cared about the rules and avoiding negative evaluation. Their interest in expression and interacting was mostly gone, and *external* motivation in the form of grades dominated. They knew lots of rules, but rules unmoored from purpose or function. To this day, I would rather read boatloads of shit writing by someone genuinely engaged, disciplined, and trying to improve, than endure a page of highly polished, formulaic prose. And I say that as someone who spent years having to read both. Sometimes I wonder how much more we all would make our own art and appreciate the art of others if we hadn’t been taught to focus at the outset on “doing it right” or “following the rules.”

Of course I don’t mean that order doesn’t matter. Language can’t function without it, and art, to have meaning, requires structure and context. Nor do I suggest that those who want to begin with rules and handbooks and proscriptions are wrong. But I do object to laying down maxims that writers can only legitimately develop by learning rules first. I believe that just as drawing and carving preceded art theory, and spirituality and wonder preceded religion, so stories and poetry came before writing theory. We have built our rules on the successes and failures of what’s come before. Each artist is entitled to go through that same process and deal with its consequences.

Art develops through transgression, by someone stepping outside the current rules of usage or structure or language. But how do you teach people to risk and break rules when we begin with the premise that rules come first? Those with the discipline and desire to do serious creative work can find the guidelines they need in the process of honing their work. So I wish upon anyone who wants to create the chance to experience some kind of fall-flat-on-your-ass failure, as often as she can possibly stand it.The question becomes how a writer should learn what rules will work for her. My approach to that is simple:

  • Read voraciously and closely everything you can—immersion.
  • Write what you want in the way you want, experimenting and trying anything and everything that comes to mind: switch genres and point of view and tenses midstream, leave plot holes (hell forget about plot if you want)—experimentation.
  • Find someone whose judgment you respect who will read your writing and tell you what they see that works; hone in on those things and do more of them—feedback.
  • Repeat the above endlessly: read; write; experiment; get feedback; digest it; apply it.

Vehicle

“I’m your vehicle, baby, I’ll take you anywhere you want to go…”
“Vehicle”
The Ides of March

Chaos surrounds me these days.

Within my head, this is a more or less constant state of affairs. My thoughts and emotions regularly pursue one another in no clear pattern. But during the past month, they have found a counterpart in the material world: I have moved from a city in one state to another city in a neighboring state. Weeks of packing, arrangements with moving companies and loading companies and storage companies, financial arrangements, home purchasing arrangements, school arrangements. Each step depends on the ones preceding it, but we haven’t the time to wait for the outcome of the previous steps before we plot the next ones. Events fly forward. I not only face the unknown; I feel propelled headlong into it.

About a week ago–though it feels both more distant and more recent in time–boxes sat on the counters, on the floor, cardboard mouths gaping open, partially packed, crumpled newspaper and bubble wrap trailing from them like slobber from a slack-jawed fool. I felt myself from time to time on the verge of panic. Would I ever be finished before the movers arrived? What if I wasn’t? What would happen? I knew intellectually that in a month or two at most, the move would be over, and we would be settled in our new place, in a different home, in a new daily routine. But between the present and that imagined future, an impossible indeterminate fog–blank and all-enveloping–drew closer and closer to me.

Naturally, it reminded me of writing, specifically of the writing process.

Because I had packed the same way I write. I avoided it, thinking hopefully that everything would come together. And in the packing, as with my writing, a fear of chaos drove my avoidance. I looked at the boxes and the articles to be packed and knew that I should have pulled everything from the cabinets, made everything visible, much earlier. That would have told me how many boxes I needed, how much packing material, what needed to go where. But it would have meant plunging myself into the chaos whole hog. Instead, I had tried to nickle and dime my way into it hoping that I could keep from being overwhelmed. Sooner or later, though, everything has to come out, even if it’s going to go to Goodwill or into the trash. Sooner or later, all the drawers and cabinets and closets have to be laid bare.

The only way I’ve found to face that chaos is a robust writing process. Because chaos is the energy that powers my writing. However much its power frightens me, nothing happens without it. That chaos might manifest itself as an urge or impulse, as a vague idea about a character or a line of dialogue or an object or a moment in a story; it might appear as a persistent question or a seemingly irrelevant but nagging detail. But however it reveals itself, I have to allow this chaos in.

I also know, though, the power of that energy to consume me, to draw me into the morass of obsessive thinking, or rumination about my life, my identity, my mistakes. My process is the vehicle that directs that energy and transforms it into creative motion. It gives me courage to face what my chaos might tell me about myself, what truths it might reveal. And it gives me the means to find the transcendent writing and reading experience in that truth.

The Panama Canal

Romance is the Panama Canal, an exotic place swathed in green, full of palm trees and coconut trees and ferns and rain forest. Perpetually hot and humid, squeezed between the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean. It is a marvel, a wonder of the world, an imaginative triumph. Yet it is also concrete and massive machinery and huge pumps, locks deep enough to accommodate ocean liners and Navy craft. It is waterways dug by monstrous backhoes and steam shovels, blasted by tons of dynamite, a vessel of earth lined with the bones of the men who died building it. The Panama Canal is real; the Panama Canal is romance.

I haven’t found romance outside the realm of reality. Romance has only worked for me when I’ve grounded it in reality. When I fail to understand, it’s because I forget the truth about imagination, which, of course, deals with the realm of the “might be.” It projects what doesn’t yet exist, at least not in its imagined form. In this sense, I always write in imagination’s playground; all writing—until it is finished—believes in what hasn’t yet been brought into being. Imagination requires faith.

But it also requires more. With all due respect to Dr. Einstein, my imagination is not more important that my knowledge; in fact, my imagination has no use without my knowledge—by which I mean my acceptance of reality–just as Might be has no use without is. Is constitutes the ground for might be. When I ignore or reject is, I at best postpone and at worst prevent might be from coming into existence.

When I’ve ignored the writer I am now, I haven’t done the work or created the conditions necessary for me to become the writer I want to be. When I’ve dealt dishonestly with my strengths as a writer, I’ve ignored my gifts and become discouraged. When I’ve failed to recognize my weaknesses, I’ve become arrogant and stagnant.

Imagination at its most powerful somehow sees into the nature of things at this moment of existence; it achieves insight into the possibilities that the current reality presents. The imaginative person sees the possibilities present in certain aspects of the current reality that others ignore. This imaginative insight only feels magical or fantastic to the rest of us because we cannot or will not accept elements of reality (or implications of those elements) that the creative person does accept.

We make the same mistake about imagination that we do about romance. Neither state of being or thinking revolves around some misty hokum, though both often feed on a sense of wonder at the nature of existence. The fullest love isn’t blind; it’s accepting of the strengths and the weaknesses and the possibilities of who or what is loved.

No writer can develop by turning her attention to only the “beautiful” or “good” in language or focusing only on the “ugly” or “bad” in language. The writer must recognize as much as she can all the aspect of language, accept them all, and keep her eyes and skill and intellect and imagination open to them all; the writer must learn to love language for what it is, not what she would like it to be, and she must not resent that it is not as she would make it. This is how I have to look at writing in general and at each piece of writing I work on in particular.