Casting Call for My Narrator Plus a Kick in the Bum to My Statistician

It’s been a slow dawning, learning that my narrator—even when I’m writing my own memories, writing about my self, my thoughts, my feelings—needs to be someone playing a role, a dramatic one. Who my narrator will be (because, yes, this is very future, I haven’t figured it out yet) is distinct from point of view (how the memories are relayed to a reader using perspective, what the narrator’s relation to the story is) and distinct from the tenses of verbs (when, in time, the person of the verb is “doing” “verbing?”). Confusingly, the narrator may be what is referred to as “voice”. Perhaps the terms are interchangeable, I don’t know. Maybe something to unpack in a later post. But thinking of the narrator as the person who tells the story, helps frame many writing decisions within a larger composition, from the sentence level to the whole.   

An attempt to explain what I mean and where I want to go with this:

I’m five months into challenging myself to a “just get it down on paper!” exercise. For the first time, I tracked my progress, in number of words, and the time devoted to the task, in minutes.  I had wanted to get to 70, 000 words (book length). Surprise! I haven’t hit that target. These last few weeks, I’ve laboured emotionally to make peace with this and move on. See the graphical display of progress here:

Some observations from tracking:

  • Most important: quantity in number of words does not equal quality. Not even close. More on this shortly (and yes, a link back to who the narrator is for this work…I’ll get there).
  • The shape of the line for the time put in, for this specific progress snapshot, follows the same shape of progress for the number of words. This could lead one to conclude (repeating the religious mantra): time put in = productivity out (measured in number of words). This is a misleading conclusion for creative writing because again, it ignores the quality of the writing (and all the measures of quality we can come up with, things like comprehension, emotional resonance with a reader, use of imagery, compositional techniques, sentence variability, word choice, structural approach, etc. The list is endless. Endless!).
  • There were stretches of time (weeks) showing zero output for both measures. Practically (qualitatively) this was because there were weeks I was away on vacation and didn’t work on the project and one week managing my grief after making the very difficult decision to have one of our pets put down. Gutted. But other weeks I did work on writing, just not this specific project. Instead, I wrote a short story and two flash pieces, plus a few posts to this blog. The chart doesn’t capture this. I recorded this separtely with notes and making myself reflect about the progress I made each week (with an intention to start fresh the following week).
  • Can’t ignore the downward trend depicted in the chart. I started off “well” in December – lots of time and words to begin with, then the lines gradually slide, tilting towards the x-axis to confirm my progress has slowed and stalled.
  • Another bit of context not captured in the chart: I started tracking for this project after writing just over 20, 000 words already. So, my actual word output for this project is just over 50, 000 words. Not bad. In quantity. At least the pages confirm I can create a book-length work (well, novella maybe).
  • If I focused on only these outcome measures, measures that confirm it takes me 5 months of creative writing time to reach an equivalent work week I put into my day job, I’d plunge into a depression too deep to climb out from. Instead, I learn what I can from this exercise and pivot.

What I’ve alluded to already with the differences between quantitative and qualitative measures, is that quality matters far more than quantity. I’ve also discovered the draft I’ve completed, chasing after the number of words down on paper, was written for myself. All 50, 000 plus words! I know I shouldn’t, but I can’t help calling it my Vomit Draft. I’ve got the memories and (some) feelings and the cultural references I wanted to fold into the piece named and listed, but I haven’t packaged my writing in any shape or form a reader would be engaged with.  “I” am not my audience. I need to carve a narrator to reshape how the stories are told, a narrator who will engage an audience, a narrator who performs that work. In making this choice, I will change the quality of my writing.  My hope is to transform the raw emotions and memories into something funny, something entertaining. So, the work shifts now, with intention, towards understanding which part of my self I can call on to become that narrator. I want a narrator with the following qualities:

  • Someone who is funny
  • Someone who is humble
  • Someone with compassion
  • Someone who works to understand other people’s perspectives
  • Someone who isn’t whiney
  • Someone without a chip on their shoulder (ha, ha, better get my surgical tools)
  • Someone who forgives
  • Someone kind of cool (?) (I can see my kids cringing)
  • Someone with charisma
  • Someone with audacity (this is the hardest)

Note: all qualities impossible to measure with numbers.

I’m back to the beginning with this project…and will take the time needed to create this role, this persona. I foresee a lot more time sitting at the writing desk, puzzling to reveal this narrator in the rendering of every sentence. Kick in the bum to tracking words, I’m done with that.

Dog tired dogmatic

Part of my art problem is that, too often, I approach creativity in a kind of hacking-through-the-weeds-in-a-straight-line-will-get-you-through-the-field attitude instead of cultivating a flow state which is natural and organic, allowing work to emerge in its own time, with its own associations.  And it shows in my work [1]. So, I read craft books and literary magazines and mine twitter for nuggets of inspiration and follow rabbit holes of promise that lead me, if not to some sort of satisfying solution, then surely to a chunk of time wasted not writing [2].  

Listening to podcasts about writing is a satisfying way for me to get two things done at the same time: learning, but also stacking logs in the wood shed or getting the dishes done or folding laundry.  Lat week, Lit Mag Love’s podcast[3] and an interview with Doretta Lau[4].  She said, (and I’m paraphrasing), that a writer needs to ask oneself: did I do the hard work on this story? Did I take this to the farthest point of where I can go to make it emotionally satisfying, to really look deep into it and ask, did I do that craft work? 

Asking this of my current short story, the answer is a definitive NO.  Not even close.  

So… I keep working.  

[1] inner critic notes: it’s shit. There’s no emotion in it.  No movement either.  There’s a lack of tension, a lack of questioning, because you’re just barreling through to “finished”.  The work bores me!

[ancillary] That’s a hard one to swallow.  Maybe I’m not cut out for this.  Maybe writing fiction is something I just can’t do.  Like physics. Or skydiving.   

[2] annoying analyst notes: Reading about how to do something is not practicing.  It’s not writing.  

[ancillary] I have to believe I’m learning, that the lessons move into me somehow.

[3] Lit Mag Love is a podcast hosted by Rachel Thompson, author and literary magazine editor, Lit Mag Love grew out of the course by the same name. Rachel’s conversations with literary magazine editors reveal what different editors like to see in submissions and how much they may work with writers to build a piece to a finished product.  

[4] Doretta Lau (also writes about writing process on her blog) and M. Paramita Lin (here too, on her beautiful blog!). Together they create The Unpublishables “a platform for all kinds of rice eaters everywhere to get together and make shit happen through our words, music, and artwork.” Check these smart—FUNNY—creative writers out!