Within the span of weeks, society’s scaffolds have fallen away as nations kneel before the new coronavirus. No one wants to talk or read about Covid-19, but at the same time it’s all we can talk and read about. The sudden brokenness, for me, has cracked open a different way of thinking about my own creative writing.
Each morning I wake there is a moment, while still suspended by sleep, I forget the new realities: isolating at home; the essentialness—and shortage—of masks and gloves; the importance of physical distances between people. As the bliss of sleep-induced amnesia evaporates, the realisation crashes in: the world we moved in no longer exists.
As a public health professional, these last weeks commanded almost all my waking hours. Creative writing practice was impossible; there was neither time nor peace of mind to do it. Remarkably, the guilt that normally accompanies a break in practice (and eclipses better thoughts) didn’t happen. Instead, it has been a relaxed fall into inevitability; there is no controlling the uncontrollable. I feel resigned. I feel forgiven.
So, when I returned to my writings the other day, for solace, to begin with, I reviewed the writings of the last half year with openness and possibility. Only in this way, was I able to see how much of my writing practice circles round a central theme. What I had taken to be sperate, disparate ideas, are really pieces of something whole… something I haven’t quite figured out yet, but clearly, I’m moving toward (or through). It feels like an epiphany. It feels like I’m on the right path, even though I don’t know where it’s going.
It has also changed my world view. For the first time, I feel optimistic about how, when the virus crawling continents relaxes its grip on our communities, the world might put itself back together differently. Perhaps in a way that is healing to the earth. Perhaps in a way that is inclusive and fair. It is up to us to imagine it and build it. For the first time, in a long time, I feel it’s possible to do so.
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.
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.
Early morning writing—this last week or so—I’ve heard an owl hooting from somewhere close in the backyard. It’s wonderful listening to its song of wisdom calling out from the dark.
A common cultural impression of the writing life is that it’s a lonely, solitary endeavor. I guess the hours of actual writing can be like that (though, I like the solitary time…I don’t find it isolating in the least). But this is a myth. Really, there is too much encouragement and inspiration offered from fellow creators to be discounted.
In this same week of listening to the owl’s song, I’ve had wonderful email correspondences about creative process with a playwright, a poet, a concert pianist, and four other writers (four!). A songwriter shared one of his songs via digital file; a film maker one of his films via FB messenger (the wonders of social media). What gifts!! I walked and talked with an artist (painter), a weekly routine that has become essential, not just for discussing artistic pursuits, but for nourishing my soul and my heart and our friendship. I’ve sat and discussed process with another dear friend while she knit a rainbow-striped heel into a wool sock the colour of an ocean in a storm.
Flip to the acknowledgements section of any book and you will see there are paragraphs (pages!) of people to thank for their contribution to the pages one holds in one’s hands. The songs calling out from the dark.
One does not glide to glory without a supportive wind. The creators and makers (all of you – mechanics, gardeners, bread bakers, chefs etc.) I know, and continue to meet while pursuing my art, expand this glistening net[work] to enrich my life beyond the beyond. I know I’m blessed by your words and thoughts and I’m grateful your gifts help my own writing to swoop and soar on beating wings.
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.
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.”
Returned to work after a week and half off over the holidays. I had planned to paint and to draw and write and read with all that time. I didn’t paint. I didn’t draw (with the exception of the daily index card drawings). I did some writing, but it was “thoughts jotted down in my notebook with no particular purpose” kind of writing. Nothing serious. But I read. I always read.
Writers of books are readers first, last and always.
With the roll over into the new decade, I’ve reflected using the lens of a decade instead of my usual day or week-long filter that, too often, chalks up another failure to produce something. The ten year lens is far kinder. I’ve accomplished much in the last decade to be proud of.
I won’t list the books I have read in this time, but what is interesting is the type of reader I have become. I have become a reader who writes. A reader who writes reads differently. I read more slowly now, I savour words and sentences. I re-read paragraphs. I copy sentences out of books into my own notebooks. I admire. I read books on writing craft. I read literary magazines, discovering new ones all the time, and through that process, discover new writers. And yes, often the green eyed monster of envy enters my heart. But I am deeply inspired by writers. I want to be friends with the authors. I imagine the conversations we would share over a meal, the questions I would ask about their myriad composition choices. I read poetry, creative non-fiction and fiction, cartwheeling gleefully between genres. I read works that refuse categorization, that explode into a fireworks display of writing possibilities. I have to believe reading is making my own writing better.
I have always been a late bloomer. Slow. Methodical. Last week, a dear friend told me I’m being too hard on myself. I’m forced to hold the thought up to the light, explore its many facets. Maybe I should be measuring my progress in decades as opposed to days.
Here’s a pretty cool infographic depicting the length of time different authors took to write their books (please ignore the fact it’s an ink ad). It’s a comfort to know The Catcher in the Rye took 10 years to write; not so much comfort to learn The Lord of The Rings trilogy took 16 years to write….I would have thought longer. And of course, the shiny examples of books produced in hours or days. Shit. I will never be among their company. But it’s okay.
This week, I’ve hit another wall in my writing. It’s happened before in exactly the same way: I’m working at a good clip, revising a short story I’ve been working on, fiction, working through revision exercises, feeling like I’m finally making some progress. But then, the exercises require a complete re-draft of the story. Not a re-working of the existing writing, but a complete re-write, starting with a blank sheet of paper. And I stop. I feel like I can’t fit it in.
And then my brain enters a shitty spin cycle: my writing isn’t good enough, how can I start again? Won’t it be the same shit? Why can’t I just write it in chunks? I don’t have time! And when I make time, I sit paralysed in front of the computer and it takes a monumental effort to just try and walk around my inner critic and start typing.
The brick wall of course is that the task is too big to fit my regular practice of writing for an hour and a half each morning. The task demands an unbroken stretch of time, an unbroken stretch of thinking and writing. But I don’t have unbroken time. I have fragmented time. It’s all I have.
And the mind spin continues. Just write it! If you were a real writer, you would have written it already! No one is going to be interested in this. You’re trying too hard. Why bother?
Why bother indeed. And a small voice calls from somewhere deep in my mind’s recesses – bother because I’m interested whether I can write this story. Bother because I’m curious about where it’s going. Bother because art is a process, an unfolding. Bother just because…well, why not?