Writing Process

My view from Jentel

I have arrived at the Jentel Artist Residency for my May 15-June 13 writer’s residency, and all I can say is: Holy smokes.

I’m attaching some photos to give a sense of the place; I will try to post more in the next month although it might not be until I’m home because I’m going to keep my head down and write as much as I can on this book thing I’m trying to make. Right now, I’m about doubled over with gratitude for the chance to be here. Thanks again to the Poets & Writers Maureen Egen Writers Exchange Award for this tremendous opportunity.

Here’s a look at where I am:

My beautiful writer’s studio:

Jentel writer's studios

Jentel writer’s studios

The writer's studio where I'll be for four weeks

The writer’s studio where I’ll be for four weeks

The view from my writing studio

The view from my writing studio

The living quarters, a gorgeous space that houses six residents:

Jentel living quarters

Jentel living quarters

IMG_0005

Jentel shared living room, with views–and a telescope!

 

Jentel kitchen

Jentel kitchen

Jentel residents' shared living space. Stairs go up to a loft library and sitting room.

Jentel residents’ shared living space. Stairs go up to a loft library and sitting room.

View from the bath

View from the bath

The Somerset Maugham room, with a view of Lower Piney Creek.

The Somerset Maugham room, with a view of Lower Piney Creek.

 

Interview with Prairie Schooner

I spoke with the good, good folks over at Prairie Schooner about the Book Prize for my collection, When Are You Coming Home?, which will be released this fall. Among other things, I talk about a visit to the optometrist. Because, sure.

Here is the interview if you’re so inclined. And submit to the prize by March 15! Because boy howdy, you never know.

And here is a link to the giddy ol’ blog post after I first found out about the prize.

Dispatches from my window, or, adjusting the blinds

Early in the new year, I got up too early (after duking it out with my old pal Insomnia) and watched the sun rise. Squinting in the dawn light, I started writing in my notebook, a crucial activity that I had let slide in the past few months as I tumbled down the hole of work and living. Both my fingers and mind were stiff as I scratched at the page. I wrote, M Jan. 5, 2015, 6:30 a.m. Watching the sun rise through the bare oaks. The sky gray as a dog’s belly, bare trees falling out of silhouette and into being. This is not my land but it is my view now. Just a little description, no big deal, but for some reason it clicked for me, and I decided then that I would do this every morning. Every single day, I would start the day here, looking out the same window, the same exact view, before I am fully awake, before anything else (except coffee, natch). I would do it first, no matter how much the day’s demands pounded at my door.

And so I have. For the past 41 days, I have gotten my coffee, opened the blinds (even when it is still dark), sat down, opened my notebook, picked up a pen, and started writing. I often begin just by staring out the window, trying to note what’s out there and get down a few details. I mentally termed this Dispatches from my Window. Among the scintillating things I’ve noted on various days: Lopsided moon still hanging over sky to west. Hoof prints in neighbor’s grass. Sky whitens, tinged with orange low behind trees. Trash bins hunkered on side of road, ripe with neighbors’ lives.  Clear husk of a spider, hanging from old web, trapped in storm window. Rawness of winter trees, so exposed and still. Sky pale blue, clean as a plate. Cats running loose, investigating drainage holes, crouching for mice.

Now, who the heck knows if I will ever use these details. Maybe I can cherry pick or pluck them out whole; we’ll see. Or maybe they’ll spark something else. Actually, they already have. Though I begin by detailing what’s outside, I have found that the act of writing and describing leads me inside, including to the novel that I’m working on. At one point I wrote, Rain-soaked free newspapers lay in driveways like dead fish. Makes me think of butcher shop at [parents’] store, waxy white paper, slabs of meat. Speaking of stores: maybe get into some of those shops more [in new novel]. More than half of the entries so far include notes and questions about characters, brief scenes and possibilities. I’ve actually done some good outlining and the ever-amorphous “figuring out” in those notes, which I hope to bring into the writing later.

Of course, not every morning is particularly productive. I’m mostly comatose during the first cup of coffee, doing all I can not to drool. Some days, my stressed brain is in overdrive, thoughts jumping and spinning until I fall into a kind of paralyzed nausea, my pen frozen above the page. When that happens, I’ve started getting out of my chair and adjusting the blinds for a new angle. The first time I did this, the metaphor practically boxed me on the ears, and I started laughing. Adjust your blinds,  you worried ol’ nincompoop. Take a deep breath and refocus. Get out of your pesky head and look around. Look outward. Tweak the light and get a new perspective.

Such note-taking doesn’t supplant the writing-writing, for which I am struggling to find time right now. But it helps clear the path to it, whacking away at the weeds of inactivity and doubt and fear. At the very least, I open the blinds and sit down to the page first, and that reminds me of what it means to put writing first. Then, I peer through the slats to see what in the world might be out there.

The dog will always bark

God damn dog is barking now and it is time to get to work anyways. … the amazing thing is that the work goes on. And one day it will be through. — John Steinbeck, from Working Days: The Journals of the Grapes of Wrath

I first read Steinbeck’s Working Days, the diary he kept as he wrote The Grapes of Wrath, many moons ago, when I first stumbled into this writing life in my late 20s. In rereading excerpts, I again found myself both fascinated and comforted by the mundane irritations and stunning insecurities that plagued Steinbeck as he, you know, WROTE A GREAT AMERICAN NOVEL. Of course he didn’t know he was writing A GREAT AMERICAN NOVEL, and that’s the beauty of it. He was just writing — puzzling out characters and timing, figuring out which scenes he’d tackle next. The notes about his doubts and insecurities, as well as the complaints about visitors and interferences and the neighbors’ g-d dog, are among the most reassuring things I have read as a writer. Not because the book turned out to be A GREAT AMERICAN NOVEL but because of his persistence. Must go on, he writes after getting down what plagues him. Must work now. Might as well get to work. To work now.

That passage about the dog has stuck with me all these long years. In part this is because certain noises (barking dogs, leaf blowers, chainsaws, roaring trucks, clattering keyboards) drive me totally barking bananas, hitting my nerves in a weirdly primal way, making me want to screech and shake the trees of my habitat, hiss and chase and claw at the offending sound. I have since learned the wonders of high-speed tornado fans, earplugs, and headphones, but reading that a well-known writer struggled with noise made me feel less alone and crazy — a feeling I fight much of the time, as some (a lot) of us writers do.

Over time, I have come to think of Steinbeck’s dog more metaphorically. The dog is the day job, whining for you to take it out for a walk again. The dog is the rejection slip, pooping on your rug. The dog is your Inner Critic, snarling behind the fence. The dog is email and social media, yip yip yipping and biting your ankles. The dog is the blank page, wounded and yelping with a burr in its paw. The dog is envy. The dog is pettiness. The dog is white-hot fear. The dog is time, loping fast into the long distance. The dog, always barking, always keeping you from your day’s — your life’s — work.

Blocking this psychic barking is harder. There are no headphones (Sony, get on this, please). No fans on high will do the trick.

Some days will be bark-free; some days, the dog sleeps in the corner, sighing softly, chasing rabbits in its dreams. And there you are, bounding off into your imagination, unleashed.

Other days, well.

BARKBARKBARKBARKBARKBARKBARKBARK.

I wish I had tried-and-true tips, a handy-dandy checklist of how to quiet the noise. As with so much in writing, we have to figure out works individually. For me — and this is so bloomin’ obvious that of course I always forget it — it helps to write about it. Like, duh. Steinbeck’s journals are a model of this; they not only depict the struggle but also show how he worked through it. Write down the fears, the irritations, the questions. Get them out of your mind, onto the page. Let them go. Feel the tension dissolve as the dog slinks off into his corner.

Music’s good, too, something to distract the part of your brain that has zeroed in on the barking. Reading helps sometimes, going back over your own words, lulling yourself into a quieter state.

This doesn’t mean that we ever will have perfect quiet, the perfect setting or circumstances. To demand that is its own kind of dog, one who will go hungry.

We just need to find the point at which we can say: it is time to get to work anyways. Must go on. To work now.

Wishing everyone a creative, joyous 2015. To quote Bill S. Preston, Esq. and Ted “Theodore” Logan: Be excellent to each other. And party on, dudes.

BC

I’m delighted at you

That title is the latest amusing pronouncement from my friend’s adorable two-year-old, whom I got to see yesterday via the wonders of Facetime. I found myself laughing even after we hung up, until my stomach seized up, until it had nothing at all to do with a child’s charming phrasing. I haven’t been laughing a lot of late, given the state of the news (see yesterday’s post), and a much-needed moment of levity unleashed something else: hard, uncontrolled laughter, a strange kind of catharsis.

This got me thinking about how much humor is bound up with tragedy, both in life and in writing. I know that isn’t a new or particularly profound observation, yet I still find it arresting. For example, just this morning, I was on another long-distance call with a dear friend whose family is grieving the sudden loss of a close friend. She told me that after the funeral, family and friends converged on a local bar, where they told funny remembrances about their beloved girl and found themselves laughing hysterically, ducking aside to cry for a moment, and then coming back to laugh some more. Similarly, nineteen years ago, my father died suddenly after a three-day illness; hours after I walked out of the hospital into the glaring light of a world that kept moving without him, my family and I proceeded to watch Tommy Boy (starring David Spade and Chris Farley), possibly one of the stupidest movies every made. For 97 minutes, we laughed ourselves sick, keeled over onto our knees, gasping for air. In a newsroom, in the wee hours when editors are trying to get the paper to bed, you will hear some of the worst jokes known to humanity (as editors work on the worst news, perpetrated by humanity). In all of those circumstances, no one is forgetting about grief; the laughing is part of the grief. Humor, dark and light, is one of our ways through tragedy, even if it feels disruptive or transgressive or inappropriate. Especially then. After all, physiologically, laughing isn’t much different from crying– just a quick hitch from one to the other. Unhinged laughter wondrously combines both.

And so it is in storytelling. After all, theater’s tragedy and comedy masks, seeming opposites, are depictions of the same face. This isn’t to say that all stories must blend the two, but good stories often work in more than just one mode. Something offsets the comedic or dramatic; I think of this as the “counterweight.” Dramatic stories can find balance with humor but also in other moments of lightness– “breathing spaces,” along the lines of how Aristotle envisioned tragedy’s choral rests. The counterweight in comedic writing needn’t be tragedy or heavy sadness, but again, something makes us stop laughing, suck in our breaths, pause. On both sides of the tragedy-comedy writing face, we want complexity, a fuzzier line between those so-called disparate emotions.

Of course, if it fits with a story, humor can be one of the greatest tools a writer has. This includes satire and absurdity, but also humor that intertwines with the serious. I’m a fan of George Saunders for his ability to make us laugh and weep in the same story. Here’s what he says in a recent excerpt of an interview in The New Yorker:

What I’ve come to realize is that, for me, the serious and the comic are one and the same. I don’t see humor as some sort of shrunken or deficient cousin of “real” writing. Being funny is about as deep and truthful as I can be. When I am really feeling life and being truthful, the resulting prose is comic. The world is comic. It’s not always funny but it is always comic.

In The Poetics, Aristotle says that tragedy includes a purgation of emotion for the audience — catharsis — through the effects of pity and fear. In modern writing terms, I think of pity as sympathy or understanding, and fear as terror/horror but also worry. Nowhere does Aristotle mention humor in this mix, but I believe that humor can be a crucial means of access to deeper emotions. Just as with crying, laughing opens us up, makes us vulnerable for emotion to sneak in. While we recognize crying as a way to release emotions, laughing is a surprise, the old cross-double cross, a sucker punch in the gut. Humor is both the way in and the way out.

Speaking of exits (which we weren’t): I wish I had a kicky way to end this or could have been kickier all the way through — practice what I’m a-preaching in the ol’ humor department. Alas, I’m still tonally off, my voice flat with sadness and stiff with lack of practice.

Tonight: I have some delightfully stupid movies to watch. Tomorrow: try again.

The light at the window

As a longtime wake-in-the-night insomniac, I have become obsessed these past few hectic months with the edge of my bedroom window. Not the whole window, just the right vertical strip that I can see from behind the blackout curtains when I’m lying in bed. This slip of window has become my gauge. No light: too early, go back to sleep or woe to you the rest of the day. Soft blue-gray glow: almost daybreak; if no more sleep, day sucky but survivable. Brighter gray glow: sun mostly up, okay to get up. Bright yellow glow: A sleep-in! Must be a holiday. From that light, I know almost to the minute what time it is without clicking on my bedside clock.

I have been ruminating about this strip of light for two months, as I wave the white flag at the to-do list, as I scratch random notes and read through what I wrote back in late August/early September to try to keep it close. I wanted a neat and tidy controlling metaphor here: The light at the window is writing! Look, a story comes into focus just like the dawn! Or the light at the window stands in for the surprising goodness in a cracked world (see Leonard Cohen’s “Anthem”). Or it’s knowledge, it’s awareness, it’s dawning, it’s seeing anew, etcetera, etcetera. I’m wading deep in the territory of cliche and oversimplification, fumbling about for meaning, reaching for something to hold onto.

That fumbling seems the truest now, both in the sense of writing process and also importantly for negotiating the space of American culture. Because even as I have been watching this tiny strip of light in my own tiny writing world, I also have been watching large, terrible stories unfold about the shooting of unarmed teenager Mike Brown and the fallout in Ferguson, and even more recently twelve-year-old Tamir Rice– stories that bring forth past stories of Trayvon Martin, and Eric Garner, and Amadou Diallo, and countless Black and Brown men and women whose lives have been brutally stolen from them without repercussion because of systemic inequality in our legal and justice system, in all of our American systems, built right in from the ground up. I have watched and read stories about rape and sexual violence and trolling threats and plain old misogyny. I have watched health crises and plundering politicians. On my own quiet and lovely Thanksgiving, shared with the loveliest of human beings, I wept into my green bean casserole as I thought about the empty places at other people’s tables, of people with no tables to go to at all.

So I here I sit at my dusty old blog, floundering with what to write about that g-d light at the window, about the darkness of the world. Light and dark, black and white. Too much freaking symbolism, and too much literal division. I desperately want to make meaning. I desperately need to make sense of it all, to fix it, to make it okay. Write a g-d happy post for Thanksgiving, for pete’s sake! How hard can it be?

Hard. Which is how it goes sometimes, in writing, in the world. Even if we wish it weren’t so.

Writing is about telling the truth; who knows who said that first? Not me, but it’s worth repeating, mostly to myself. Because the truth is, too often I fear the truth. I fear that I will get it wrong, that I won’t do justice to what needs to be said, that someone else has said it better, that someone will rip me to shreds, that I will be banal and unwise and downright idiotic. I fear that I don’t even know what’s true anymore.

But not writing is worse. Silence is worse.

I wrote last year on Thanksgiving about my gratitude for reading, and this year that still holds. Even more, I am grateful these days for other writers’ writing, when I can’t seem to get my own down. I have been pouring over poems, essays, diatribes, tweets, articles, images. Some of it is complex and well-researched, some sputtering and imperfect and hot with rage, but all of it is a bright glaring spotlight on injustice, refusing to let it fester in the shadows. And there it is again: the light, the dark, not binary but fluid: both, all at once.

I have set myself up for failure in this post: how to resolve my controlling idea, the light at the window, when there can be no true resolve. To force meaning would make it untrue, when the truth is that I cannot wrangle it into cohesion yet because I’m all tangled up on the inside. And so I fumble my way through instead, with no perfect answers, but waking up to something, peering at the edge of the blinds, trying like hell to see.

The good of your writing

“The world did not say to her as it said to them, Write if you choose; it makes no difference to me. The world said with a guffaw, Write? What’s the good of your writing?” – Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own

We writers sure like quotes, eh? Tacked up on our bulletin boards, scrawled and underlined in our notebooks, lodged up there in the old noodle like a stray bullet. I’ve got that well-known Woolf passage on an index card among all of the other desk detritus: brown-edge postcards, Jane Austen action figure (with writing quill!), a beer stein stuffed with old nickels. Don’t you love the intricacy of that question: What’s the good of your writing? It’s one I ask myself every day in one way or another. I ask it on a micro level as I work on a story — What’s good in here? What’s working? What can go? — and on a larger level during contemplative long walks, during weepy moments alone in the shower (or, hell, at the grocery store, usually in the cereal aisle), in the deep dark moments of uncertainty: What’s good? What’s at all good about this?

The answer matters. Because writing matters — to you, if to no one else. Understanding that is crucial in pursuing this writing life, because let’s be clear: in most cases, no one is asking you for a g-d thing. No one’s waiting on tiptoes for that lovely little story you’re penning in the wee hours, in snatches at work, in long hours at the desk. Bret Lott’s personal essay, “Why Write, Anyway?,” touches on this idea. About one of his novels in progress, he writes, “Who cares, I had to ask, about an RC Cola salesman whose wife had just left him and how he would then live? … And the answer that came to me, while writing a book no one had asked me to write … was that I cared.” So care. After the people in your life, care about this the most. Breathe it into your serpentine clumps of cells, feel the thrum of it in your veins.

More good news about the good: the process itself. The world’s guffaw that Woolf mentions is real, and it takes on different tinges and tones for all of us, no matter our genders (although, her point remains valid and can be expanded to include the intersections of race, class, and sexuality). Perhaps it is the scoff of your father, a worried frown from a partner. Maybe it’s bafflement or apathy from co-workers. Or maybe it’s sharp, pin-dropping silence from everyone. Maybe it begins externally but creeps inward, becoming the astringent voice of your Inner Critic. But: the very act of writing can be a response, a defiance, to the skepticism in the question. The good? I’ll show you good.

But don’t forget: the process is joyous, too. Think of it: on those best days, hours pass, CDs loop, housework goes undone, plants photosynthesize, the sun slides right off the edge of the sky, and there you are, lost in the bright fire of your imagination, with what Elizabeth Bishop called a “self-forgetful, perfectly useless concentration.” Finally blinking up at the clock or at the dark window is the most stunning kind of joy, isn’t it? Plus, every time you write, you’ll discover something new, whether it’s about technical craft or about a character or about what you don’t know. Every single time.

In Fires, Raymond Carver says, “If the writing can’t be made as good as it is within us to make, then why do it? In the end, the satisfaction of having done your best, and the proof of that labor, is the one thing we can take into the grave.” That satisfaction: you can’t get it off the shelf, in the bottom of the bottle, from the bank. Trying to get a story right, trying to make it good: there’s nothing like it. Tell yourself, as I tell my students, C’mon, break my heart. Meaning: Keep working. Don’t hold back. Make it count. Not for publication credits, not for accolades or money or fame; you want to — must — get it right, for reasons that come only from your own internal pulse.

We can’t know the good of our writing out there in the wide, wide world, only of our hopes for it. Audience is inherent in storytelling, even if the creative impulse is purely personal. Though it’s first important that our stories matter to us, we also want them to matter to others. Something else Woolf mentions in A Room of One’s Own:

“All these infinitely obscure lives remain to be recorded … whether from the women at the street corners with their arms akimbo, and the rings embedded in their fat swollen fingers, talking with a gesticulation like the swing of Shakespeare’s words; or from the violet-sellers and match-sellers and old crones stationed under doorways; or from drifting girls whose faces, like waves in sun and cloud, signal the coming of men and women and the flickering lights of shop windows.”

Finding those stories is part of the good. Look in those corners and alleyways, the real ones and the shadowy ones in your mind. Look beyond the obvious. Look and then look again. No, look. Find, as Thomas Hardy suggests, “the sorriness underlying the grandest things, and the grandeur underlying the sorriest things.” Be that kind of writer. Be good. Do your best. Find some aspect of the fragile, shining human condition, and then give it to the world with the faith that someone, somewhere, will find it to be true.

The thunder of the ground sea, or what’s under the boat

One of my favorite things about rereading/reteaching stories is that no matter how well I think I know a work, I always unearth new intriguing bits. This past spring when I taught Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, I zeroed in on how Shelley describes the breaking up of the frozen northern ocean where Walton and Victor become trapped: the “ground sea.” What strange, evocative phrasing. It comes up three times, first early, in Walton’s fourth letter, and then twice near the end when Victor recounts his chase of the creature. The third usage is at a crucial moment, when Victor is closing in on the creature:

“A ground sea was heard; the thunder of its progress, as the waters rolled and swelled beneath me, became every moment more ominous and terrific. I pressed on, but in vain. The wind arose; the sea roared; and, as with the mighty shock of an earthquake, it split, and cracked with a tremendous and overwhelming sound. The work was soon finished: in a few minutes a tumultuous sea rolled between me and my enemy, and I was left drifting on a scattered piece of ice, that was continually lessening, and thus preparing for me a hideous death.”

Since I’m not — spoiler! — a 19th century sailor, I first had to look it up. From the OED: “ground-sea, n: A heavy sea in which large waves rise and dash upon the coast without apparent cause,” with an early 1757 example: A rumbling noise was heard, like that which usually precedes what the sailors call a ground-sea. It also could be a synonym for ground-swell, whose definition is similar and fits with Shelley’s context.

Beyond the shiver-inducing loveliness of the phrase and Shelley’s imagery, and a more general awe at the ocean’s countless mysteries, I’m also interested in the ground-sea as a way of talking about creative writing.

Every semester in workshop, I (repeatedly) ask students a question: What’s under the boat? Oh, The Boat. It has become how I talk about the complexity of a story’s tension/conflict beyond plot (surface), particularly for a character, adapted from one of my professors. I sketched a — ahem — beautiful drawing (aka demented stick people with cauliflower fronds for hands) that transformed into the beautiful clip art here in my Beautiful Boat Analogy:

beautiful boat copy 2

The “picture” is meant to convey the range of elements that make up a story. Not that all stories include or emphasize each element; each story makes its own rules. The key for me is that these elements are intertwined. There isn’t a set hierarchy. All of them work together and feed off of each other. But yes, notice the size of the word conflict, aka tension/the trouble, there under the boat.

In his wonderful little book Making Shapely Fiction, Jerome Stern calls tension the mother of fiction. Tension is something the reader should feel right away, even if it’s not clear exactly what the problem is. Lit classes often define conflict in terms of versus: character vs. self, vs. person, nature, fate, society (or some combo: as Stern says, characters don’t only face their enemies, they face themselves facing their enemies). Writers often like to think of conflict as the trouble, or the stakes. This is what’s “under the boat,” lurking, threatening to tip that boat over as it makes its way across the water. I’ve heard the writer Tony Earley talk about it as The Thing on the surface and The Other Thing below, and eventually the two Things converge (you’ll have to ask him to elaborate, but I love that baffling analogy because it captures the weirdness and difficulty of trying to talk about making fiction).

This is where the ground-sea comes as an unexpected, delightful elaboration on my analogy: tension is the ground-sea! It’s the rumble below, haunting, lurking, complicating our characters and plot. It may rise and force a character to act/react, or it will complicate or change how a character acts/reacts.

As with a character’s interior landscape, figuring this out may take time. You may be figuring it out as you go, or it may change on you as you discover more about your character and her world. Ask yourself, What’s the trouble? What’s the problem here?  What’s at stake, and for whom? In my new terms: what is the ground-sea, and when will it thunder?

It’s not easy, but you already know that, right? You’re not writing because it’s easy. This is what we writers push for; this is what makes stories so hard for us but so rewarding for readers. We make our seas roar.

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Unspooling, and the story of now

Of late, I have the word unspooling unspooling in my head. It occurs to me as I type that perhaps this longtime obsessive habit of hearing words, bits of sentences, and lines from stories in my inner ear, is, um, not normal. Is this one of the dangers of reading that “they” warn about? Is this what happens after years of mainlining coffee and diet cola? Should I be worried about my fondness for the smell of pennies? Par example, the other day, as I frowned at the back of a woman who raced to cut me off in a return line at a dread suburban WorstPurchase, a line from Tobias Wolff’s “Bullet in the Brain” popped in: “Anders had conceived his own towering hatred of the teller, but he immediately turned it on the presumptive crybaby in front of him.” Then parts of that looped in my head for awhile — conceived his own towering hatred, presumptive crybaby— even though I didn’t by any means hate this woman (although maybe I wished that she had tripped over a display of coaxial cables, but then I noticed her cheap jeans and the acne scars on her chin, and I thought, What if she’s in a hurry because she’s got a sick kid at home?, and I got so depressed at my pettiness that I promptly purchased an overpriced HDMI cable).

Anyhoo! Unspool. I’ve actually been thinking of it in terms of storytelling, its connection to film: as a reel unspools, the images are projected to the screen, et voila: a story comes to life. On the page, I suppose, this would be unfold. (For digital formats, no spooling, so: uploads? plays? or just projects?) The words seem to suggest an unhurried pace, and for a reader or viewer, that is how it works, even in a fast-paced, action-filled story: the story arrives frame by frame, scene by scene, page by page. We absorb the story in small pieces, splice it together in our minds. In a film, of course, the movie time controls the viewer’s experience; in a book, the reader is in charge of the time-frame.

From the writer’s perspective, creating that sense of pacing, time and movement is work, a essential part of the art of storytelling. To recount literal chronological time, including biographies and histories, settings, actions, changes, decisions — all of the facts and details involved in the story’s past and present — would not only take lots of page space (time), it also likely would be overwhelming, exhausting, and, ultimately, snooze-inducing. In fact, a writer has very little time, both in the sense of space (page/film length) and in keeping readers/viewers’ attention, to convey a story.

Instead, great movement in a story depends on selection and a balance of expansion and compression (scenes and summary). The trick — ah, the tricky trick — is knowing what to select and what to expand and compress to create what I like to the think of as the story of now.

To reach that point of decision, the writer’s first work is — ta da! — to discover as much about the characters and worlds and events as possible. But not all of that information, or even much of it, makes it to the page. That’s Hemingway’s famed “iceberg theory” from his interview with George Plimpton in The Paris Review: “If it is any use to know it, I always try to write on the principle of the iceberg. There is seven-eighths of it underwater for every part that shows. Anything you know you can eliminate and it only strengthens your iceberg. It is the part that doesn’t show. If a writer omits something because he does not know it then there is a hole in the story.”

Here’s a great example of selection and balance, from the Alfonso Cuaron film Children of Men (adapted from the P.D. James novel):

That opening scene is doing tremendous work: With those newscasters’ voices against the black screen, viewers immediately hush and listen. When the image arises, showing us a crowd of viewers, all riveted and anguished, we are thrust into tension/crisis, as we learn along with those in the story that the youngest person on planet has died. Simultaneously (simultaneity: one of the writer’s greatest tools), we learn the basic facts about the time, place, and strangeness of the world. Then in walks Clive Owen’s character, pushing through crowd (who the heck is this, and why is he unphased?) We follow him out the door as we listen, puzzling: where are we? Outside, it’s London – recognizable but in the future (we are given, perhaps unnecessarily, a non-diegetic date to affirm what we already know). We see and hear the noise of streets, the grittiness: We follow Owen’s character, who takes out a flask to doctor his coffee, an immensely characterizing action. And then: boom. Conflict/tension, action, characterization, setting, exposition, immediacy, suspense, tone/atmosphere: and all in 2 minutes and 27 seconds.

Imagine if this film had started with everything that had happened to get us to a time when there were no young people on the planet: a narrative “info dump” (aka lots of exposition), the actual “beginning” that led us to the present. That is a choice, but probably a sluggish one, even though the writer certainly knows every in and out of how we got here. Instead, we are dropped into a day of crisis spawned by those other many events. We start with the story of now.

A major question, always, for the writer is where to begin. Another question, which I believe I originally encountered from Margot Livesey, can be useful in solving that conundrum: What is the occasion for the story? Or, Why now? Why today? In this story’s case, the occasion is that the youngest person on the planet has died. BUT: that isn’t what the story is about. Not exactly. We don’t know yet what will come, but since we are plunged into an immediate world of tension and suspense, we are willing to find out.

(A side note: the book from which the film is adapted is told as a diary. The first entry starts with the same event, along with many other details about the diary writer/narrator: http://www.amazon.com/The-Children-Men-P-D-James/dp/0307275434#reader_0307275434. That form — a written form — would be nearly impossible to translate to the screen, but choices for adaptation are another post, I suppose. Still, James knew where to start her story. Not a diary from childhood, but one whose genesis is tied to the occasion. After that, though, the story on the page unfolds with a lot of exposition. Technically, James’ premise of the diary allows for this sort of reflection, but as a reader I’m always leery/overwhelmed/worn out when I’m asked to take in so much exposition at once. Others may have different responses.)

Okay, I believe I have unspooled my rambly thoughts enough for one day. I’ll stop before I latch onto another phrase looping in my brain: Now is the winter of our discontent. (But, seriously, Winter: Can you give it a rest now?)

 

The heart, ‘that bloody motor’

I’ve been wanting to sit down here in Blogsville and compose a new entry to keep my writing engine warm in what has so far been the frozen tundra of 2014, but I’ve been doing the proverbial spinning in my chair. Yesterday I started an entry about time and compression in fiction, which I’m wrestling with in a new story. But early on, I got bored with myself and my ruminations. The process of figuring out what would be “good” to write about felt cold, sterile, stupefyingly dull.

It got me thinking about why I set up this so-called blog in the first place: to give myself a defined space that, because of its weirdly public-private status, makes me work a little harder than my personal notebook. But I realized that I’ve lapsed into thinking too much about what to write, forcing myself to come up with a subject even when nothing comes to mind. Partly this can be a good thing; I need to push myself to keep working even when I don’t have the urge, or when I’m stuck or listless. But my recent pattern feels different. To narrow it to its most reductive, cliched state: I’m writing from my head instead of my heart.

Oh, the heart. I couldn’t help but think of that lovely passage from Salinger’s “Seymour: An Introduction”:

Do you know what I was smiling at? You wrote down that you were a writer by profession. It sounded to me like the loveliest euphemism I had ever heard. When was writing ever your profession? It’s never been anything but your religion. Never. I’m a little over-excited now. Since it is your religion, do you know what you will be asked when you die? … I’m so sure you’ll get asked only two questions.’ Were most of your stars out? Were you busy writing your heart out? If only you knew how easy it would be for you to say yes to both questions.

As much as I love this passage — it’s tacked to my bulletin board next to an Onion calendar headline — the older I get, the more I quibble with the “how easy” part. Were my stars out? Good heavens. Some days I’m not even sure the sun has risen. Writing my heart out? As if it’s breaking out of my chest, exposed to the world? Or until it’s squeezed empty like an old toothpaste tube? Yes, to both. But sometimes, before I can get the old girl back inside, to get back to regular old cardiovascular business, a bird swoops in, tears off a chunk in its beak, and flies away. Sometimes I can’t catch my breath as it tries to fill back up.

A more honest perspective: you will be able to say yes to these questions, but some days it will be unimaginably hard to do so. Some days you will write with boundless joy, your stars like chips of mica at the edge of your sky, your crimson heart as naked as Eve. But some days you will write in the dark, from the pit of your liver — because your heart? she can’t take it right now — and you will do it only to stay alive.

Funny, we don’t say, “I was writing my head out,” even though the head is the metaphoric place of imagination, presumably where our stories begin and flourish. But it is the heart — “that bloody motor,” as Grace Paley so wonderfully calls it in “A Conversation with My Father” — where we lodge desire, courage and fear, love and longing; and those are the parts that make a story live.

And so I must remember to return to my heart, dear reader, even when — especially when — I am terrified to haul it out, afraid that it will be tedious, frivolous, sentimental, bumbling.

Because what if it isn’t?