Letting Go

You learn, as a young writer, that when authoring a scene and the larger collective story, the hope is to transport the reader into the world that you are creating, to show the wet streets of Asheville, the squash soup on the kitchen vinyl floor, the raise of a chest when the person’s whose chest it is just received news about a car accident that his daughter may have been part of.  You want to plant the reader, you want to carry them, you want to shift the structure of the current place in their own present so they can leave for awhile, to go into what you’ve written.

And where do you carry them?  What do you bring them to see?  We can’t often say, because when we we set off down the river we don’t always know where the river ends.  In life, the living is in the movement–so, too, in writing.  Donald Barthelme said, “The not-knowing is crucial to art, is what permits art to be made.”  Our not-knowing is what allows us to be on the journey that our reader will eventually route on.  The discovery, as it unfolds while we write, keeps us honest and patient, keeps our breathing metered.

So how do we do this?  It isn’t so much of a technique as it is an approach.  We of course know something of our story, our characters.  We know something takes place in Moline, we know John is recently unemployed, we know he loses his wallet in a park.  We know the weather, the types of trees around, but we don’t know all of what’s going to happen.  That’s up to what occurs in the process of our writing, that’s why we write–to know.  The knowing comes during, the knowing comes then.  The knowing doesn’t come before because then the fish is already on the hook and you’ve already cast with it on the end of your line and you’re just waiting to reel it in. What’s important is for us to permit the attributes we do know, the elements, to do their work and for us to then observe that.  Write one good sentence ,and then another, always allowing ample room for development.  Cast with an empty hook.  Then there’s that chance for innovation, then there’s raw creativity, and that’s where the art blooms from.

Take fifteen slips of paper.  On five write jobs: elephant trainer for the circus, captain of a dive boat charter, mail room clerk, etc.  Fill them as you please.  On another five write down characters: a blind 19-year-old mother, a former body builder, and so forth.  And on the last five write motivations: wants to be rich, running from the law, blah, blah.  Blind draw one from each pile and write.  Put something together in short, complete form or start something longer.  And don’t decide where you’re going before you begin to type.  You have interesting elements. Let the story go where it needs to go. You, then, report it.

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The Importance of Eyes

A garden, full of sweet basil in the summer, now tall, lean stalks, stand rigid against the wind along the south end of the backyard fence.  The wind, cold, it’s March.  Fuzz in the corner where that south fence meets the edge of the back of the garage, a mixture of pet hair and cotton and insulation wound around grass, torn gum wrappers.  The backyard is part cement, part lawn, unattended to, lazy.  Pieces of concrete lay alongside the seams, irregular shapes balancing on wide faces don’t move with the wind, consistent, and would be frightening if it was fall and the trees were dropping leaves and neighborhoods were getting quiet earlier with the quicker sunset and this wind might howl and find its way through stitching.  The man thinks of this, leaning on the inside of his back door frame, the door open, swinging while it catches the wind, hinges whining.  He remembers Halloween winds, how they felt conjured, part of a enormous outside haunted house, created for effect, controlled and penetrating, encircling and encompassed while lonely all at the same time.

Or,

The man thinks of this, leaning on the inside of his back door frame, the door open, swinging while it catches the wind, hinges whining.  He remembers Long Island from his parents’  photo albums, the ones filled with images taken during the Junes and Julys, how it looked like what he thought vacation ought to look like and, then, feeling almost cheated by the cold tumbling off the water in early spring, his first time there, visiting his father a few years after first seeing those pictures, pictures taken when his parents were visiting that same beach together.

Or…

Well, your choices as a writer are endless.  The key is to not miss the opportunity the utilize your characters’ proximity to an event and how they run that event through their minds, through their own filters in order to help the reader realize how that character, those characters are feeling.  Take a simple situation: A woman sitting on a car hood watching a sunset.  You, as the writer, have a visual and feeling about that sunset.  A reader will, too.  What you have to do, though, to move the story properly, to flesh characters properly, to drive plot well, is to spend time amplifying the impression made on the character who is there.  So think of that sunset and describe it through the eyes of a character that just lost her husband but don’t mention the loss of the husband.  Think of that sunset and describe it through the eyes of a character that just got released from jail but don’t mention the jail release.  It’s tough to be disciplined enough to remove the “you” from the parts of the story where you don’t belong.  It again comes down to practice and then, trust.  As writers we are witnesses and have to bring the news to our readers.  We just have to be sure that we’re reporting the honesty of the moment as the character gives it to us.

Chocolate and the Metaphor

I was in a writing workshop five or so years ago and we were reviewing a short story or a portion of a longer piece of prose written by someone in the workshop.  The workshop setting, if you aren’t familiar, works like this: a story/poem/essay is distributed by the writer to each of his or her classmates during a meeting session.  The piece is taken home by each person, read, considered, marked with suggestions and reactions, and then brought back to the next meeting where everyone discusses aloud their impressions of the piece in hopes of enlightening the writer about their work.  I’ve seen this both work and fail.  Sometimes the counsel is beneficial and illuminating, will fuel, like coal from the hopper, will push the writer’s thoughts forward, which, in turn, pushes the story forward.  And then there are times the suggestions don’t offer ideas for polishing but take the form of an adolescent movie review–thumbs down, that was neat, I don’t like that character’s name.  At times the writer will get defensive and respond to a remark with a counter argument and the discussion moves away from within the borders of the story and starts to focus on whether the story can live in the real world—someone may comment on the palpability of an event and the writer will respond with, “I know it can happen because it happened to my aunt.”  The intention and hope for the discussion of the work has now been guttered.

So during this one meeting the writer described a character in her story as having fingers like Milky Way bars, which was supposed to inform that they were brown and thick, tempered, masculine. But the comparison was too far off. Many of us said that the association didn’t fit; the sensual evocation gave us smells that we’re wrong and visuals that were surely wrong. But the writer defended their metaphor and the rest of us shrugged and continued along.

The issue here wasn’t so much the association of fingers to chocolate bars (actually, it was, yes, but, first, and more, there was a comparative step that was missing). The path from hand to Milky Way was absent of important intervals of ribbon. It’s natural and common for us to use simile and metaphor in our writing; they are useful tools in our creative relaying. But many writers, often young writers, will over-rely on these elements so much that the focus, the thing will get lost in description and details will sort of just lay out there on their own instead of blending and harmonizing. It’s important to remember that the “thing” must first be the “thing,” by itself, before it can be something else, before it can be a simile or a metaphor. Chekhov talks about the writer getting worn out when reading too many modifiers. And writers so much want to transcend their subject —good, that’s what art should do—that they get crazed in describing everything in their story as something else. Eventually, the modifiers will not only be applied to things but, more dangerously, to moments and to what should be quietly shared between characters, to something naturally artful, to something real and heartbreaking.

As writers we need to consider the thing first and use the right words to deliver it, all the while recognizing that it’s easy to strew leaves and over-dirty our pathway, pushing the reader to focus on the crackle and brush and not the direction, the walk, the right way.

November: A Novel Month

To be bound by a designated entry point, a predetermined finish, and a trivial concern for quality—at least at the initial stage, for the first draft—doesn’t necessarily sound like the finest makings of substantial art (although I don’t know if during this yearly November event you’re asked to do that). Because during your involvement in National Novel Writing Month, ‘NaNoWriMo,’ you are required to achieve a quantity of words that translates to a novel-length manuscript.  The amount is the goal. You’re asked to write continuously, to reach daily checkpoints, and to work without pause and heavy reflection; being overly watchful of your prose may hinder your progress.  It’s daunting, especially because we surely want to write something good and to move on from a sentence, a paragraph, a page of something that we aren’t fully satisfied with requires trust.  And that isn’t always easy.

Although I don’t like the idea of writing a novel in a month’s time, I can see it’s value for others and, therefore, the effort deserves to be celebrated.  Just as January 1st marks the beginning of our newest weight-loss journey and Monday marks the beginning of, well, anything we hope prompts good change, November offers the writer a digestible meal in an otherwise overwhelming feast.  If anything, your involvement in NaNoWriMo will help teach you about your own process, that maybe you are the type of writer that needs to write daily, without self-editing, to just spill it all out.  Or maybe you thrive on a patient year focusing on one longer piece where a month’s time results in the satisfactory completion of ten damn good pages.  Either way, you learn, about you, and that’s a very good thing.

And November is just the start, really.  You will hopefully go back into your novel, repeatedly, to polish it.  Often, the best writing comes in the revision stage.  So if the month works for you, what a great springboard. You’ll have 50,000+ of your words to work with. It’s a commendable endeavor and talking with others that have endured NaNoWriMo before can offer some beneficial pearls. (Maybe even some folks here on this site.)

But it isn’t for me and may not be for others. Hemingway said, “I always worked until I had something done and I always stopped when I knew what was going to happen next. That way I could be sure of going on the next day.” Having to write a certain amount of words in a day may not allow that approach. And moving on too quickly when writing something I’m deeply engaged in just doesn’t work for me.

That, though, may not be you, which is good. Our craft process takes different forms and you need to be dedicated to yours. So dig your heels in and be kind to yourself daily, throughout. Take some time, perhaps before bed, to softly reflect on how the day’s writing went. What worked well for you? What will propel you the next day? What practice might you scrap?

Birth/Rebirth

I wrote a short essay more than two years ago about the birth of my first son and how he abruptly took up space in this world that was previously untaken, how he suddenly just was, there, in our lives, an extension of us: my wife, his mother, me, father. We all were new people then.  We waited intently without knowing how to wait. We couldn’t comprehend the coming augment, the duty, the trust in ourselves to be good at something we’ve never done—we were dashed with a below-surface fear that was a consistent murmur, soft but palatable, wondering if our self-assurance was deserved. There was a smog of feelings, tumbling over each other, each portion of seesaw confidence and skepticism lobbying for top position. We entered blind but with desire and conviction and concerned ourselves with “let’s do well today” in hopes that it would lead us properly into the next day and then the following.

Parenting is revealing itself to share much with the process of writing: feeling a little like you’re in water, floating away from land and trying to decide which direction to swim. (Fortunately with writing, you get a lot of do-overs.) Once something becomes part of your daily life, part of your being, you figure out how it fits, when, and where. For us writers, with all the other worldly tasks and responsibilities we have, figuring out the “when” becomes paramount.  William Carlos Williams, a doctor as well as a writer, would draft poems on a prescription pad in between seeing patients. You find the time. And then you have to be disciplined to use it, even if you’re given only five minutes. I’m not very good at this. Many may not be. Which is why we have to be forgiving of ourselves while we continue to be ambitious. There will be other short, favorable sections of time. Utilize those. Mostly, you have to be adaptable to the evolving change. To be a good writer you must be aware of the world you live in and learn consistently from it. A writer friend of mine, Michael Klein, once said to me, “I do not yet know how to live in the world. But I’m alive.” It’s all constantly morphing and will seemingly stay ever elusive, just out of grasp, though, at the same time, a great motivation for us, reaching, trying to figure it all out.

Parenting is causing me to be a better observer, a better witness. And as academics and intellectuals, as we writers are (or should be), the new, the fresh, the able-to-be-explored are gifts. A friend told me of a story she once heard about Eudora Welty, who called a friend that was, too, a writer–I can never remember who this friend was–and told him to come over. When he arrived, she said that she had a gift for him. They went behind her house where there were patients from the nearby mental institution crossing a shallow river with their belongings and mattresses, other contents of the building, to a new facility on the other shorefront. The gift was the event and it unnerved Welty that the other writer never used it. (Put this in your reservoir of writing prompts, by the way.) The story is anecdotal but shows how in order to write stories we always should be looking for stories. Our bestowal allows us to see these stories, to sweep away the dirt and see the contours to make them our stories. Being a parent has refreshed this for me. It’s made me pay attention more, always, to new things (and there are always new things.) The thing is, you don’t need to be a parent to glean the benefits of parental rewards that crossover to writerly elements.  It’s good to just know that our lives are continuously being supplemented, amplified, and this is widening the canvas, adding more blank lines to our notebook.

Commencement

sunrise

Image from personal collection

Morning, a thin textured blanket on my feet as winter air enters through the window screen to my neck, down between my shoulder blades and I press the back of my head into this old blue sweatshirt hood and bring my knees close together.  The quiet that’s outside, though there isn’t snow yet, is a quiet that waits for the snow, which will happen today.  The air is already veiled with wet.  I listen to the steady blow from the vents, different from the modulation of breeze through leafless branches outside.  I sit in this quiet and wait.  This day, this is my beginning.  This is one start.

*

This day, this is my beginning: I boil water for tea over a mostly blue flame, orange creeping up the kettle sides like old, desperate fingers seeking a grip on a mirror, sliding away, sinking back to blue, then to try again.  I look at the fire and consider its genesis: I can start it with the flick of a match, a thumb and spark from flint, add gas, fuel, and the fire burns.  Our days are occupied with variant beginnings, offered as they are offered most days, with indifference, like shelves of thick book spines, rows of vacant parking spaces and we can grasp at whichever we choose; if we choose, we can enter this corn maze through a number of the spaces between the stalks to find paths.

This is the life as a writer.  We anoint ourselves with sovereignty, rightfully so, and introduce our story to the world with a well-directed dart, call me Ishmael; Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins.  We own space and are as much a part of our stories as our characters; we are part of our stories because we are their tellers.

*

We’re in beginnings and potential beginnings, always.  Even more, we’re consistently in middles, like we’re in air.  The beginnings are as we ascribe them from where we make our first cut, where we choose to access them.  We watch, look back and relive and wait and then strike.  This will be our beginning, discovered right there in so much middle. The thing about our good stories is that they are always middles.  This is important, because we want what we’re telling to have stretch, extension.  We offer our readers a section of road and want them to recognize that that road came from far off and that it goes far off.  Our stories are glimpses into the expansive. They are snapshots.  When you are reading and realize this truth, you are humbled to know that the story isn’t page 1 to page 254 but is a life.  And lives are much longer than stories.  Thinking of this as we approach our work will naturally inject fullness into our characters and their beingness.  We are more interested as writers.  There is dimension, seemingly endless dimension, and that stimulates our writerly exploration.

When you start your story, independent from it being a shorter piece or a lengthy one, think about the life that you’re plucking your story from.  Think of what your characters were before the first page, what shaped them, what they were before the day started.  Try this: write about your morning; pick any point of that morning to start your story.  After that, write it again but move your start point an hour earlier.  Do it again if you have another hour more than that to go back to.  Then do the same thing with a fictional character.  What changes by moving your start point?  How does this shape your character?  Does the direction of your story differ?  Because it’s still the same life, the same maze.  You’ve just chosen where you want to enter it.

Alpha

As if they present like a basket full of clothespins, writers oftentimes want answers before they have to face the questions that will help establish order and arrangement, will help organize.  The writer will enter the aesthetic world with hopes of success and will search out a handbook with empty boxes along the left margin of a page for them to check off as they markedly address the elements that make up a story or an essay or a poem or a script.  And while there are many worthy books on the craft of writing creatively, they shouldn’t be used as strict instruction–we aren’t building a desk or making a quiche.  Writers, perhaps most importantly, have to trust themselves, their intuition, their budding clairvoyance.

As writers, as artists, we are haunted by trust.  If we don’t engage our work with conviction we risk hesitation and start self-editing stories that haven’t yet been written.  It’s natural, because our work is so personal, to approach it with some level of trepidation or pause because we so desperately don’t want to fail.  But it doesn’t have to be that way.  You’re a writer, start with that.  Tell yourself so, make sure your parents describe you as such to their friends, have business cards made that note this truth and tape them on your bathroom mirror and kitchen cabinets.  Whatever it will take.  And then write something you believe, something you like.  All the while, trust yourself.  Know your work, know what you want it to be and accept the advice that applies. Nod, smile, and trash the advice that does nothing for you.  Realize that you are a writer not just for a week but for the full stretch of your being, just as you are left handed, just as you have always had a strong affinity for peaches.  You are a writer and it is part of your weaving; know that your work is a process and trust that process, and your persuasion, that you will see this thing all the way through.

I look forward to sharing ideas and counsel and response and comfort through this forum.  We are part of a special family, us writers, and we ought to be honest and tender with one another, helping each other achieve all we want in the pages we fill, clearing away the clutter, inspiring the soul.