Tuesday, February 7, 2012

The Writing

I woke two or three mornings ago feeling something between despair and resignation. My novel project had been like a chimera during my first days here, bulging and shifting with its various shapes and dimensions. I’d arrived here with a concept I wanted to play with – that I’d had in the back of my mind for years, but had never figured how to do anything with. A few pages from my recent writing with Judith, and another few from years ago, seemed to offer me a way in. I played with all the different associations that arose from juxtaposing my concept with these fragments, and came up with several possibilities.

My downfall has always been plot – not good for someone who wants to be a story-teller. I get lots of creative bursts around themes – meanings, paradoxes, tensions and cross-purposes to explore. But when it comes to translating them into specific characters and situations, caught in predicaments and having to make choices, I’m often at a loss. It’s not so much that I can’t construct likely scenarios; it’s that I have trouble creating scenarios I believe in. My own plotting often feels artificial and forced to me. I can “see the wires” too clearly. The few fiction pieces I’ve actually completed and derive satisfaction from, represent times when a character embodied a concept or point of view I wanted to write about, and actions flowed naturally from that character. But sometimes I feel powerless trying to find or create a character who lives and breathes my abstract theme.

The question/theme that has gripped me has to do with “genuine versus false”. More specifically, I’m intrigued by the fact that, if presented with two identical objects, we will value them very differently if one is “real” and the other “fake”. Why? To me, this is a fascinating question that has much more to do with the assessor (we human beings) than with the object itself, be it a coin, a painting, a head of hair, a breast, a politician’s record, a degree, etc. There are obvious answers to this puzzle, but also not very obvious ones, and many, many aspects that I’m not even close to fathoming. Which I think presents a perfect scenario for writing.

The approach to writing that I love and value most is: writing to discover, to explore, to answer questions and discover new ones. So I’m very definitely in that camp of writers who start a project with no clear idea of where it’s going to end up. And that’s how I showed up at Millay a little over a week ago. And for days, there was no clarity, no handle. I kept finding openings, the beginnings of paths that vanished a few steps in, or splintered into a complex of side routes, or took me to the edge of a cliff. And...my resistance. Despite what I’m claiming about an ‘open’ approach, some pathways that present themselves aren’t attractive, or they’re scary, like that cliff’s edge. Or, after an initial section that seems to promise wonders and surprise ahead, they turn right back into an ordinary city street , populated with nothing but fast-food restaurants and dollar stores.

That’s what brought me to my recent morning, balanced between despair and resignation. The notion of a semi-solid possibility that I’d gone to bed with the night before, had proven in the morning light to be flimsy and full of gaps. I had all these pieces of something, but nothing to do with them. A protagonist had presented himself days before, but I’d had only false starts in trying to place him or understand his motivation. I thought I might have to abandon the entire thing, or risk wasting the entire two weeks. I feared that my lack of a “plotting bone” was going to prove fatal to my aspiration. I felt uninspired, almost empty.

And something shifted. Something coalesced between my theme and my character, and suddenly it was very clear what was happening to him and why it cracked his world open and sent him on his arc. And then, so many of the pieces I’d constructed earlier in the week began to fall in place. Not all of them. But the trial and error of facing the blank sheet of paper scrolled into the Beast several times a day had paid off. A couple of hours after waking with such an emptiness, I was full again. And the writing’s been coming pretty steadily since then. It’s still shifting, but now it’s doing so within a charged and flowing arc.

What’s  mattered?

Allowing the emptiness, the confusion, that uncomfortable space with no answers in it.

Pulling back from the abstractions now and then to see how they link to what I’ve lived, known and felt.

This amazing gift, this luxury of time, space and silence that Millay offers.


  1. I am reminded of a poem by Mary Oliver. It may pertain:


    It doesn't have to be
    the blue iris, it could be
    weds in a vacant lot, or a few
    small stones; just
    pay attention, then patch

    a few words together and don't try
    to make them elaborate, this isn't
    a contest but the doorway

    into thanks, and a silence in which
    another voice may speak.

  2. Beautiful poem, Rev.
    And yes, it pertains.

  3. Kirby,
    You already know I'm a fan of your writing... including this spot-on piece.
    Now, in my senescence, I teach screenwriting... and here's the thing -- you already know (from reading, above) EXACTLY how to and not to "work an idea" into a story.

    Here's what I teach:
    Why? I tell them that creative writing (in general) is an "emotional proof" of a deeply valued "life lesson" the writer wants to communicate to his/her audience.
    Even though we "know" this is simplistic from a reader/viewer's standpoint -- it keeps the writer's compass pointing to true North (the Theme, Point -whay-did-you-write-this-damn-hard-story?)
    That way, I'm tying a hand behind their backs -- no recourse to scenes that are "cool" "dramatic" or "intereting."
    The journey can be broken down into the main character's "Value #1" which is what he thinks he needs, and Value #2 (the growth opportunity to learn the writer's Life Lesson). The Act 2 break is always the point where the character realizes he/she CAN'T HAVE BOTH VALUES, AND MUST CHOOSE to drop Value #1 and take a leap of faith into Value #2, or not.... The refusal to take the challenge presented at the Act 2 break just makes the story a tragedy -- (think Macbeth, or Scarface).
    I find if you build your story from the middle --out -- you naturally set up the ethical choice the character must face "in a natural way." And that's what you say you're looking for -- writing out that Life Lesson "naturally and believably."
    That's why I say plot doesn't matter -- it's an emotional journey to learn a life lesson. Follow that path, and no extraneous Plot Point will ever rear its ugly head, and knock you off the thematic path.

    I hope this helps... if not, we can chat by phone at your convenience, any weekend.

    Keep on typing, and congrats on your determination to do this.

  4. Wow, Reed! Thank you for that! Some interesting, useful and thought-provoking ideas there. I'll be chewing on that for awhile.
    It's a nice affirmation to get your thoughts about the unimportance of plot. I agree with you so far as the substance of a piece goes. But I think of plot as the delivery mechanism, and in that regard, I think it is important. Without a good delivery mechanism a payload just won't go anywhere, and that's where the problem is with weak or insubstantial plots.
    Important or not, I like your approach for how to get there. You've given me a different way to think about the issue.
    Thanks so much for the support, my friend.