Writing Groove

I’ve finally found a groove of writing that fits me.  It’s taken years to settle into it.  I feel silly posting it here, except it seems that so many people who write are obsessed with knowing how other people write.  Me too.  It’s as if, by knowing the steps Writers take, the magic will dust its sparkles across my body and I’ll produce sentences that are equally sublime.  Turns out that’s a fairy tale. I’ve always loved fairy tales; I won’t easily let them go, but the stark truth is that each writer must find what works best for them…and it takes a lot of trial and error.  Well, continual trial and error.  Like, forever.  That’s part of it. 

The steps that work for me, and why.  Part 1.  

It’s essential I wake early in the morning and write for an hour and half. Sometimes I can squeeze two hours in, seldom three, before my job-job demands begin for the day.  I can’t manage the 5 am wake up seven days a week because I need to catch up on sleep one or two mornings, but I do manage it five days a week. I think this is pretty good.  

There are two reasons (am I so obsessed with numbers?  It appears I am.) the early waking helps me write.  The obvious first is that I write knowing no one in my family will interrupt me.  I write undisturbed and focused for the brief time allotted.  This may seem trivial, but for a mother and wife, the waking hours that fill the rest of the day are always “on call”.  I am able to defend my morning space if someone wakes early and ventures to start a conversation…they will retreat and let me alone most of the time. But any other time, my defense of writing time is ignored, even if—ha ha, when—I become a spitting bitch  With an iron will and gritted teeth (and it appears, a heady list of clichés) I tell myself I chose these paths in my life too: wife, mother.  I do want it all.  And a lonely cabin in the woods, by a lake, with decent wifi, where “someone” delivers breakfast in a basket and a gin and tonic at 4 in the afternoon. In fairy tales one can dream.  

This segues nicely into my second, more important, reason for rising before dawn to begin writing.  My brain remains asleep, closer to a dream state than a waking one.  It is easier for me to access my subconscious this way…the place where imagery is strangest, and the juxtaposition of disparate words move to the page unquestioned.   My inner critic sleeps on while my inner dancer prances.  It is not unusual for me to re-read in the afternoon what I wrote in the morning and not recognise a word or thought that is there.  Often, it’s a discovery.  “Later day” writing always sees me tinkering a perfectionism that dulls the shine, completely rubs the magic away.  Stories rise out of our subconscious…our bodies are trying to communicate something to us.  There is a deeper knowledge there that requires patient practice to fish it out.  

I write by hand, in a notebook.  I used to write stories and prose directly on the computer and use my notebook for journaling by hand…but I discovered my thoughts are freer when I write by hand.  I also discovered that when I type on the keyboard and watch the text laid down on the page, I read and re-read and re-read the sentences and paragraphs and I can’t help myself correcting them and forcing patterns prematurely (I’ll return to this idea shortly). In contrast, when I write by hand, I never stop my progress on the page to read what I have written.  Instead, I keep my pen moving and the ideas and images in my brain rise out of the murk steadily and easily.  I think there is something to this, the fine motor skill associated with forming letters with one’s fingers, the drawing of squiggleys, and some association with cognition.  Steiner, the founder of Waldorf schools, used to have his students knit while learning lessons as he believed the small movement of fingers aided memory. I’m looking into it…subject for a different post. For me, the reading and correcting on the computer is a disruption to the creative writing process. It’s taken me a long time to understand this.   

I write with a pen instead of a pencil.  Unless it’s poetry. Poetry generation is always done with a pencil and never stays within the lines…it just doesn’t.  I allow myself the use of an eraser with poetry.  For prose and reflection, I write with a pen…a pen that feels good in my hand and doesn’t drag too much on the page…this helps relieve finger and hand fatigue…very real if you haven’t practiced handwriting.  And I have a rule that I’m not to cross things out, if I can help it. All words count.  And this permits a complete freedom in the generation of material. Handwriting speed seems to match my thinking speed.  Or, maybe it slows my thinking speed so that my attention is improved.  Most people prefer to type on a computer because it is fastest for getting their thoughts down.  But I need to slow my thoughts.  A pen helps. I’ll stop here for now.  I hadn’t realised writing about my writing would take up so much space.  I’ll post part 2 in the weeks to come. 

Exhuming Plot: Just Ask

I used to sit down and write a short story in an evening, tinker with it through the week, prepare it for submission and send it out to literary magazines.  Only one of the week-longs has been published; the rest are sticky with rejections. Some encouraging personal rejections from editors lets me know there’s possibility on the horizon. 

So, these last years (yes, years), I’ve dedicated myself to the study of creative writing craft and practice.  I’m better at the studying part. I continue to write every day, but the complexity of understanding and applying the layers of what goes into the making of a great story is daunting: word precision; grammatical sentence variation; paragraphing; elucidating the wonderful complexities of human beings through character development; the importance of setting as metaphor; tension and movement (that winding thread of impossible-not-to-follow suspense we writers gift our readers in its many guises of plot).  

So far, I suck at writing plot. Funny thing: I can tell a story verbally, stringing along my listeners through crescendos to a climactic punchline and raucous laughter, but I can’t do it on the page.  It’s not the same thing.  It reads like a limerick: I know an old man from Nantucket…

Another aspect of writing practice I’ve learned…no, I am learning: I should suspend working on craft aspects of my story until all the generative writing (read: stream of consciousness, letting it all flow out, write to explore, write to open up) is complete.  I make the mistake of thinking I am done my “first story draft”—my “generative writing”—over and over and over and over and over again.  An absence of plot is a good indication more generative writing is to be done.  Even I get bored by my characters not doing much of anything, you know, looking out the window and sighing deeply.  

Two fantastic resources (shining guiding lights) for how to exhume plot from the heavy toil soil of drafts:Alexander Chee and Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew’s book, Living Revision: A Writer’s Craft as Spiritual Practice.  

I’ve been working through Andrew’s Living Revision exercises on a short story I rewrote [again] in July. I was actually sailing through the exercises, exhuming some pretty interesting discoveries (like, my own memories and emotions—yes, I cried several times through these exercises—that are driving this story). Kudos to Andrew’s methods for helping me get that far. But I got stuck, petrified (in the stone sense), on page 101 (of 288) when tasked to write an “expansion draft”.  

I found myself rewriting the same paragraphs of the story, and I did this without any copy and paste…it seemed I couldn’t expand anything, couldn’t go any deeper.  I wondered whether I should just quit the project for a while and try something new (which feels like admitting defeat).

Then, last week, I listened to a podcast, Between The Covers and a craft talk with Alexander Chee and Tin House called, “From First Draft to Plot”.  Chee explained his own experiences, through twenty years of teaching creative writing, how emerging writers (yes, after 6 years, more?, of part-time-squeeze-writing-into-my-busy-life I am only just deserving of the title, “emerging writer”) have not developed the skills (yet) to query the scenes they have written.  

Chee explains there are many implications in student’s draft scenes that have not been dealt with…unmet implications the writer is ignoring.  His advice: ask questions of your scenes, such as, how did the character end up there? Why? Where is this character from?  What was their schooling like?  Chee says, “to build a story and a plot is the process of interrogating the scene, again and again with questions and each time you get answers, push back further and further into the story as far as you can go.”

Of course, most of this additional writing never makes it into the story, but instead becomes the skeleton, the subtext, the backstory the writer must know, know on instinct, know on a sub-conscious level, in order to puppet master their story to life.  

So….I’m writing questions.  I’m writing answers.  I’m going deeper.  Write On. 

A Shaky Devotion

Sometimes, the right words of encouragement arrive at the point when you most need them. 

In writing workshops, when pressed to write (without thinking too much) in response to creative writing prompts, my writing reveals some beautiful phrases that retain spontaneous energy and emotional authenticity, the magic every writer wishes for. I believe in these small beauties…they embody a promise: I can produce good work.  

I’ve been trying to cultivate the same playfulness, the letting go, in my regular writing practice.  For the first few years, it seemed easy (easier?). But, the more I study the craft, the more I practice and revise, the more I read and read to understand the deeper aspects of literary technique…well, the harder it is, it seems for me, to echo the spirited performance on the page.   

I’ve contracted, what Philip Pullman so accurately diagnoses in his essay, Heinrich von Kleist: “On the Marionette Theatre”, subtitled, Grace Lost and Regained, a “self-consciousness” in my writing.  Through knowledge, I’ve lost the “wonderful freedom and expressiveness—the natural grace—[children] bring to such things as painting [writing]”.  I’m verklempt.

And I’ve been lamenting and grieving the loss…mourning I will never regain my original (and beautiful and spontaneous) innocence. 

I’m stuck in the gap perfectly articulated by Ira Glass

“What nobody tells people who are beginners — and I really wish someone had told this to me . . . is that all of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste.

But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, and it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase. They quit.

Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know it’s normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story.

Ira Glass

It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.”

Philip Pullman’s essay intensifies Glass’s gap to illuminate my short-sighted grief over the loss of childish creative abandon: “if we want the wisdom that comes with experience, we have to leave the innocence behind.”  

What is most encouraging though, and has lifted a weight from my shoulders I hadn’t realised I was carrying, Pullman explains, “ …eventually, after great study and toil…[there] will be better, deeper, truer, more aware, in every way richer than…[what one] could achieve [as] a child.”

And then this in my email inbox (there’s no mistaking serendipity), Robert McKee’s latest update about the reality of writing story:

“No matter your chosen medium, remember this: it will take you ten years to master your art…It takes many years of work, but the disciplined writer knows that given determination and study, the puzzle of story yields.” 

Robert McKee

Prescription: keep working. 

Looking, Seeing

I know that if I’m to make any sort of progress with any of my creativity projects, I have to push myself to get uncomfortable.  Last week, I went to a life drawing class.  It was terrifying.  The last time I tried to draw a figure from a live model was in high school, thirty years ago.  

There was a piece in Narrative Magazine recently, written by Kirsten Valdez Quade, reflecting about the best way to approach drawing from still life or model: “Draw what you see, not what you think you see.”  

This is much harder than I had thought it would be.  Throughout the three-hour class I kept reminding myself to look at the nude model not as “a person”, but a series of connected shapes, a composite of lights and shadows, lines and angles stringing together, a build-up of spaces between limbs and body. But I kept having to remind myself to lift my chin, consciously, intentionally, to look at the shapes and spaces of the figure in front of me and try to transcribe them to paper.  Often, I found I was relying on my own internal representation of what I was seeing, on memory that was miserably inaccurate.  And also, idealised.  My mind kept thinking about the person, wondering about personality, character, wondering at the courage of a person who will remove all clothing and strike a pose while fifteen pairs of eyes rove along their curves.  Slowly, slowly, by really “looking”, I began to see muscles and the angles bones make at the knees, the elbows. I began to see the beautiful wing-shapes at the base of the neck, the stunning ridged curve of the spine. 

The instructor used several fantastic exercises to get the class to “draw what we see, not what we think we see”:  we drew with a stick (a participant was sent outside to retrieve them!) and black ink; we drew with our non-dominant hands; we drew with both hands at once; we drew the figure in under a minute; we built our own drawings on top of what other participants had already sketched out; we used a variety of different drawing materials; we dusted our faces and hands with charcoal.  It was fun.  

And I thought about how these lessons transfer to writing. Too often I’m thinking about the whole of “a story” or “a poem”.  So, just like refraining from looking at “the figure”, I can practice slowing down and honing the pieces of a story or poem—the words, the sentences, the actions in a scene, the emotions in a character, how the story moves, the arc and shape of that movement from beginning to end—these things will come together to make a whole. And there are plenty of exercises to practice each of these.  Part of the practice is just letting go.  Letting the pieces of a story or poem speak for themselves instead of trying to control them.  

“To see—and to see properly, without interference of preconceived ideas…is the writer’s central responsibility.”

Kirsten Valdez Quade

Kirsten Valdez Quade explains the value of this drawing lesson to writing: “To see—and to see properly, without interference of preconceived ideas…is the writer’s central responsibility.” And perfection is not to be strived for, because there is so much beauty in the roughly sketched (both drawing and writing). How much gesture can be summed up in a minimal line? How much “personality” captured in the angle of the head? How much weight of the body is conveyed through a juxtaposition of shadows and highlights?

Writing is another form of still life, one that moves from internal to external, through time, through imagination, through space…as writers we have to question ourselves all the time: how am I seeing? how am I looking? Let the mind’s eye loose…and see, really look, at what materializes out of the dark spaces of not knowing.

Idea Catcher

Sometimes I imagine ideas are the energy of the universe, that ideas float around, ready to be harvested and processed.  Songwriters often speak about “catching a song” and writers describe the experience of a poem or phrase as “falling onto the page”. What if “inspiration” truly is as easy as breathing in, sucking in all those ideas hovering around like dusty moths [1]? 

But ideas are only the starting point.  For ideas to become something more, they cycle through ideation, then innovation, through development to actualization…and the process, even though it’s cyclical, isn’t linear…ideas move and shift through multiple iterations before they become “something” [2]. But I’m getting ahead of myself. 

First, it’s important to manage ideas.  Running around, filling my butterfly net of a brain with too many ideas, my mind chatters and hums.  It’s noisy. And I’m an idea hoarder; I collect them like little museum pieces.  Where? Well, a number of places…scraps of paper, a tiny notebook in my handbag, but mostly digitally, using Evernote.  I’m pretty disciplined about moving ideas into this digital space.  And there they sit.  Trapped. They aren’t moving from the idea stage at all because I’m not working to build on them.  

I often wonder if the digital space, one that keeps much of our process invisible, might hinder our creative progress [3]?  In the digital space, i.e., my computer, ideas can be tagged and searched and filed, but I’m the one performing these actions, controlling the associations as I enter information in.  The digital space with its linear and algorithmic filing system makes it difficult (impossible?) to pull back and notice patterns, WITNESS how thoughts or interests change over time, mirror the curvy shape-shifting necessary to discover surprises or explore tangents.

I tried a method for tracking ideas, proposed by Vancouver writer Elliot Chan in this great 8.5 minute video. He suggests keeping ideas in a notebook, a new idea for each page. The hardest part of this exercise for me was buying a notebook I felt comfortable enough to leave blank (wasted?!) pages in [4]. Following Elliot’s method, I went through my extensive “ideas” files on my computer and transcribed them into a notebook, one fresh idea per page.

Working through this process I learned some interesting things that, for me personally, are quite amazing: 

  1. I don’t have “just ideas”. The files revealed I’ve been doing quite a lot of thinking.  I was able to write MANY related thoughts as I transcribed into my new “ideas” notebook, quite literally filling the pages beneath my initial ideas.  Hmmmm.
  2. Relatedly, I discovered I have a lot of ideas repeating…over time. I have been entering similar thoughts about the same subjects…a lot…a pattern started to reveal itself!
  3. Instead of feeling like I have too many ideas, once they got transcribed into a notebook—a physical object I can hold and flip through—the list of ideas coalesced into just 11 or so!  Amazing!  And not so daunting, from a working perspective…maybe.
  4. Most importantly, I could start to freehand and draw connecting lines that curved up and around the page…connecting associations that became visible because they were located in the same physical space….not locked under different file names or digital tags.     

And just as important as managing ideas…it’s important to let some go. I freed those jellyfish moths; they float away for the taking.  Or not.  

[1] inner critic notes: What? Like a vacuum cleaner?

[2] for some reason, when I picture what an idea might look like, I think they must be light and nebulous, with glass-like transparency, not unlike the way jellyfish float through the oceans, ephemeral, solid and not solid at the same time.  Visible and not visible…and then only for someone who might be looking in the right way, at the right time, slant-wise, out of the corner their eye, to receive them. They are gifts, aren’t they?

[3] I don’t know the answer to this. It would make a good debate topic (another idea!)

[4] I bought one on sale for 9 bucks that looks physically different from all my other notebooks but still has great paper that’s a pleasure to write on. 

Attending to Attention

I’m not very good at noticing things. Paying attention.  Observing [1].  Too much in my own head. Many writing books suggest journaling to capture observations [2]. I’ve practiced using a technique proposed by Lynda Barry: the 6-minute diary. It’s fast and illuminating.

Take a piece of paper (or page of a notebook), draw a vertical line to divide it in half, then, a second, horizontal line across the page, about a third or a quarter of the way from the bottom (see the picture below).  In the top left quadrant, list 7 things that “happened” today. In the top right quadrant, list 7 things you “saw”.  In the lower left quadrant, list one thing you “overheard”, and in the lower right quadrant, list one “question” you came up with.  So, 2 minutes for each list in the “happened” and “saw” quadrants, and a minute each for the bottom “hear” and “question” quadrants.  Boom.  Done. 

Practicing this I confirmed my attention is heavily loaded towards what I “see”.  In fact, when it comes to filling in just one teensy tiny sentence I overheard, my mind draws a complete blank.  This, despite the highly entertaining daily trip(s) to the water cooler in a buzzing workplace with upwards of two hundred employees!  For the question section? Well…I have so many. They require more than a minute of concentration to remember them.   

I kind of fell off the wagon practicing this diary technique these last few weeks… and it shows: drawing this morning (see picture above), I captured a meeting I had with a director, a person I have worked with for…shit, 9 years, and I couldn’t remember what type of hair he has?! Is he bald? Does a band of hair ring his ears?  In the picture I’ve left him bald.  The drawing also reveals a power dynamic I felt powerfully in the meeting but couldn’t articulate…but the drawing answers why: I’m sitting and he is standing and gesticulating at me with an open palm (pushing me away).  Interesting. 

But I have to practice…just like playing a musical instrument or running, the skills deteriorate quickly if one doesn’t exercise them. It’s a dual exercise: first, noticing things, second, translating what I see into words on a page. 

There’s a beautiful excerpt from Lydia Davis’s newest book, Essays One, on Literary Hub this week about practicing observing.  Following Davis’s recording of a variety of types of observations, I’m thinking of adapting Barry’s 6-minute method to this:

If I get my shit together and actually practice this, I’ll write about it…no promises though, keep’n it light. 

[1] annoying analyst notes: Actually, it’s that you notice too much.  You rely a lot on interpreting emotions through body language and tone, taking a barometer reading of the dynamics and interactions between people.  It’s a survival technique honed from quite a young age. 

[ancillary] inner critic notes: It’s very simple stupid, you need to practice remembering what you observe.  Slow down.  And write it down. 

[2] I keep a notebook.  Actually, I keep several notebooks…worthy of a post in itself, so will write about this next week.  But when I have “journaled”, the writing seems only to capture my whining…abstract emotional thoughts and ideas and reflections…archeologists of the future unearthing my notebooks will be relieved to know they’ve found a reliable source of fuel for a fire. It would burn for days…

[ancillary] annoying analyst notes: That’s a bit harsh; you sell yourself short.  Archeologists of the future may be very interested in your complaints about marriage and raising kids and the hamster wheel of a 9 to 5 job.  Heck, even your angst and self-loathing may be a crucial clue for…something…I’m sure…

[ancillary] inner critic notes: They’ll fucking burn it.