In the fall, I was writing personal essays. Well…they were less essays and more fragments of thought, ideas, fits and starts recorded on paper. But I strung them together. Discordantly. I forced the paragraphs to conform. To what? I wasn’t sure. Never a good sign.
The deep questioning I was trying to work through (thought I was working through?)…the essaying…wasn’t working. The process was deeply frustrating. I forced myself to the writing and it resisted by clenching up. I couldn’t figure out what lay at the heart of my exploration. Again, I’d fallen into my habit of going at the writing with my head instead of my heart. I thought…instead of felt.
Then the holidays and the requisite relaxing of routine, reinforced with another public health lockdown as Omicron rapidly spread. And New Year’s Eve I became symptomatic. It was two days before my scheduled booster (which I cancelled) and 6 months post vaccine number two when immunity wanes. It hit me hard. Not dire, but unpleasant and uncomfortable. I released the writing routine to reading. And healing. And then, after stumbling across Douglas Glover’s (DG) essays (I write about that here), I worked through some intense studying of the craft of writing mirroring his methods. This was healing too.
DG posted an exercise on writing emotions, and I challenged myself to write a fictional scene following his prompt. It flowed easily and felt fun. And here’s the weird part…when I studied what I had written in those 1-2 paragraphs, I recognised the seeds of exploration I had wrestled with in the fall. I still didn’t understand them…but I could see the concepts there.
I flipped back to writing fiction.
The writing progresses differently compared with how I have written in the past. Instead of sitting down to a timed write (30 minutes is my usual go to), and writing scenes from beginning to end, I’m writing in fragments untethered from a narrative timeline.
I’ll try to explain how these arise. I seem to be toggling through two different approaches. And they complement one another.
First, as inspiration, I read other writers – stories, novels, poems or essays – I choose a book from my shelf almost randomly and thumb through the pages letting my eyes rest where they get caught. I pay close attention to how the words pile up there on the page and then I work to copy the syntax or concept or the work a line or paragraph is doing (techniques) for myself, using my own words for my own emerging story. This gets the engine of writing going.
Second, I let myself sit and relax and try to let my mind go blank…and the images that move with the story appear. I write them down. Sometimes it’s a phrase or a word, often it is a picture. Sometimes it is a mood or feeling…these are harder to write down. Sometimes I write most of a scene and what I think I’m going to write about I never get to. Instead, it’s something related but tangential.
I toggle back and forth between these methods (I stop to wonder here…perhaps this is how other writers write and I’m only discovering this now because I’m so dogmatic and literal I’ve never relaxed enough to do this? Maybe. Probably. Ugh. But the ability to do this relies on gaining an understanding of how to read for specific craft techniques instead of reading for meaning (symbolism) and I have DG to thank for pointing this path in way I can finally understand).
There is a lot less knowing about how it will unfold (gasp! I have to release control!)…and I flip back and forth between liking what I have written and extreme anxiety about whether it’s working. Sigh. But fragments and phrases float to me throughout the day and I jot them down in my notebook, feeling them, receiving them as the precious gifts they are.
And here’s the thing, writing through fiction this way I have come to understand what I was exploring through essay in the fall—but didn’t quite get there—coming at it slant has illuminated meaning and a story line to tell it. For the first time I feel how it ought to come together to share the experience with a reader. This is a huge step forward for me.
Once the material and the order of it is fully drafted, I’ll shift into a similar but third approach, which is to study what I have written, try to understand the work each paragraph/section is doing for a reader ( in service of the story), then turn back to my bookshelf to study techniques again for how to do it better. Feels good to follow a path.