Facts into Fiction

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.    

A poke in the wound

WordPress will not allow this image to be the right way up…perhaps it’s better posted this way …moving against gravity.

Making art when there is war. It feels wrong. Or useless. Selfish. I spiral into guilt and shame about my privilege, my luck. In the boundaries of my skin, my brain, the sorrow seeps. 

There are mountains of sorrow at the heart of all conflicts. The fired heat of hurts hoisted through generations, coded, we now know, in our DNA, and patterned far too comfortably in memory. 

Russia and the Ukraine, China and Taiwan, the continued killing in the Middle East, too many countries in Africa, we speak of warring geographies as if they are sentient beings themselves rather than the individual people, plants, animals, collected and hurting beneath? Behind? Within? the skins of borders. 

Bodies of power in the shape of countries, in the shape of cities, in lake shaped wounds, in fist shaped educations, in the curved shape of a parent’s spine twisting from a child’s longing for love. 

This is a habit of mine: to speak in abstractions, to hide behind the illusions of words, to climb my mountain of sorrow instead of burying deep within it to try and understand. 

What is it I’m trying to say? 

That I feel so very sad.  That I wish humans could be better. That I wish I would do better. That I could truly believe that making art, which is to say making love, creating love, holding love, sharing love, could save us.    

Even if it is so hard to believe when fire rains down from the skies, I must.

Sentence as Seed Pearl

Recently, I was asked to provide an example of one of my favourite sentences I have written (to date).  It was part of an exercise: use one of my own sentences as an anchor to return to when feeling desperate or lost in my writing projects. An anchor to remind myself of why I write and what I’m capable of writing by plucking pearls from a sea of words.  

This isn’t something I drop in casual conversations, but in the last wee while (I don’t know how long this is, half a year? A year?), I’ve started studying sentences.  I feel I ought to learn how to build sentences.  I’m not referring to grammatical construction though, I mean I want to learn how to craft a sentence (read: a sentiment…this is what I’m really talking about) that is so beautiful, so true, it stops a reader in their tracks.  

I’m lucky.  Twice I’ve witnessed this effect of my words on readers/listeners.  Once in a poem, once in a letter to a friend following his father’s death. This experience of connecting through a sentence is addictive….it’s what I chase in my writing. For a writer, it is rare one discovers whether a reader connects this way.  It is only confirmed through reader response, something no reader is obligated the provide, even if they are so moved. I have had readers quote my own sentences back to me and it is one of the more pleasurable experiences I can think of.  I am lucky.

Writing transforms thinking into something externally concrete, shapes what is felt, intuited, onto a page for better scrutiny. And sharing. 

But, two times in ten years of writing?  Slim odds and a lot of writing.  And dedication to the craft.

Let’s see if I can articulate what it is I’m chasing.  

Qualities of sentences that I love:

  • Reading, images burst forth in my mind’s eye like a waking dream.
  • The content moves …in time or space or, better, with the palpable energy of shifting emotions. 
  • There are layers of meaning, but the layers are connected, and the connection is meaningful, not random. 
  • The content deepens understanding, expands ways of knowing and being in the world.  
  • The words are playful.  Joyful.  Intellectual if the subject is horrific.  
  • The words are placed in an order to curate an experience for the reader. 

Learning how to do this is very very slow…it happens at the same speed (maybe slower?) as watching plants grow.  

And here’s the hardest part: I must write and write and write, pretending all these qualities don’t matter. Because it’s only when I’m not paying attention, letting my body take over the writing, free from my mind’s controlling, that the sentiments emerge just so, their lustre barely visible, easily missed beneath the tidal wave of word count.  Too often my impatience prevents me from discovering what it is my body and subconscious yearns to communicate.  

Learning to write beautiful sentences is about retracing my steps, peering into the crevices, picking out the tiny grains and questioning what it is that really lies in the palm of my hand.  Questioning what the ink of my fountain pen has pulled from my darker recesses. Slowing down.  Paying attention.  Listening.  Feeling. 

When I went searching for my favourite sentence I have written, one that would serve as an anchor, I couldn’t pick one out that satisfied. But instead of thinking of a favourite sentence as a completed thing, it is better if I think of it as a speck of sand that niggles and won’t be forgotten, a grain that irritates the mind to expansion and moves and grows through long formation/formulation to the pearl it promises to be.

Here is the sentence I chose as my anchor, for now anyway: We leave signatures of ourselves in flakes.

Some references I have found helpful: 

Several Short Sentences About Writing by Verlyn Klinkenborg 

Building Great Sentences by Brooks Landon

How to Write a Sentence and How to Read One by Stanley Fish 

Chapters on point of view from Ursula K LeGuin’s Steering The Craft and David Jauss’s On Writing Fiction.  

Essay: The Sentence is a Lonely Place by Garielle Lutz in Believer Magazine 

By Hand

I like to write by hand.  It took a while to build up the muscles in my fingers and my hand when I first started out because different muscles are being used compared to typing on a keyboard.  I was never very fast on keyboards anyway.  When I first started writing seriously, in a notebook, my hand cramped and the letters were large and loopy. Still, legible.

In high school, when my friends signed up for typing class (in those days it was on a typewriter), my father, who rarely weighed in on such matters, ordered: you will not take typing, you will take law. Turns out you can teach yourself to type fairly quickly…but it looks ugly…and I stare at the letter keys instead of the screen, dancing my hands backwards and forwards in what I’m sure is a most inefficient pattern. Ah well.  

Writing by hand is freeing in a way that typing on a keyboard isn’t.  A screen is a bordered two-dimensional space, whereas working with a physical page of paper, though still flat, I can draw arrows and pictures and write sideways or backwards or upside down, cramming words into a tiny shape in a margin, or expanding letters into a material emphasis. And there’s the advantage of seeing your progress: the pages slowly fill, front to back, and a page becomes a pile of pages and soon, a filled notebook.  It’s satisfying in a way that an icon of a file on your desktop could never be.  

But there’s another distinction I don’t quite understand, and it’s instinctual: writing by hand helps me to think differently as I create.  It’s as if my thinking is more three (even four?) dimensional.  On the computer, the sentences wind one after another linearly.  And the delete key gets more of a workout than my penned cross-outs.  I’m more forgiving of my “wrong direction thoughts” when I write by hand.  But that’s good, because often there’s something bubbling up from the subconscious when we write, and it might appear in the margins or beneath a cross-out line but can never recover the fatal depression of the delete key.  

Writing by hand is similar to drawing in many ways. 

Writing by hand matches the speed of my thoughts…I can transcribe my thinking more easily by hand. 

My husband’s uncle wrote a number of books, all by hand (transcription services were expensive, so one didn’t waste the money on a product that wasn’t quite finished).  He used a large room and placed his handwritten papers on tables around the room, physically shuffled them from corner to corner and often used scissors to cut and stick paragraphs into place with scotch tape.  I wonder if this physical immersion in one’s work enables you to know your work, your process and your progress differently.  Only one way to find out I guess…

William Faulkner disregarded his wife’s wishes and outlined his novel, A Fable (1954), on the walls of his study, handwriting directly on the paint!

Here’s a picture of Joseph Heller’s handwritten outline of his novel Catch 22