Monday, February 2, 2009

If there's a book you really want to read, but it hasn't been written yet, then you must write it. --Toni Morrison

This post begins with no logical beginning, nor any logical ending in sight. 

I have been reading a lot about writing lately, and I have come up with this question: Who has succeeded by this? Why can't they print testimonials in the back of "Bird by Bird" or "The Lie That Tells the Truth" that offer us hope. That look! Shelby Donwright read this book and six months later she's three chapters into a fiery, dynamic work that plumbs the depths and breadths of human experience and frailty! Just think of what it would do to boost sales.

Of course, the answer must be because that is not how writing works. Much like a person can only learn so much by reading the pamphlet on driving rules or watching a more experienced surgeon stitch up a heart, one can only learn so much by observing others' experiences when it comes to writing. 

Now, I do like these books. Particularly Anne Lamott's "Bird by Bird." In fact, I would very much like to send her a letter explaining to her that I think she must be my long-lost aunt or something of the sort, for all the kinship I feel vibrating between us as she writes and I read. (Ah ha!)

But always, always there is that eager, solemn, sparkling voice that insists, "Put down the book and pick up your pen! Put down the book and pick up your pen!" And I should learn to listen to this voice more often, because that little Muse-- that delightful girl who lives at Starbucks and sneaks up on me at the most inconvenient of times, whispering stray thoughts, or joins me in the car as I speak dialogue to myself-- must know what she's talking about. If I can't trust her, then I can't trust anyone. 

I have learnt (and am learning) valuable things. Especially about character-- I want to learn to do what William Faulkner did when he saw Caddy up in the tree and then followed her around afterwards. 

But here is where I get stuck, because a character can't wander about making decisions in a dense gray fog (well, they could, of course, but that is not the story that I want to tell). They need land to walk upon, a place to live in, people to live with, a society to operate within.

Perhaps I invite this trouble upon myself. I love to write fantasy, I love to exist within a world of my own making. I like struggles to be big and stakes to be high and possibilities to be endless. This is where my imagination lives. But this also means that I am responsible for everything-- which any author is in any work, but at least those who write in the "real world" have the Constitution and television and airplanes to guide their reality. 

For instance, I know a 12-year-old girl named Lilias Belphoebe Vastin. And she is curious and honest, which I think must be the two most important qualities in a child's character. And I KNOW that her father is a famous and valuable inventor, and I KNOW that she lives in a society that stifles discovery and education and individuality. I know there are sharp and intractable class divisions, I know that dissenters are cast away, I know that there is a boy who lives in the library and has hidden there for his whole life, I know that there are pirates that sail across the deserts and giant dragons that swim through the sand dunes. I know that the Librarian's sister is the Most Beautiful Woman in the World and one look from her can kill a man. I know that there's a step-mother on the horizon and Lily revolts at the idea. 

And I know that her father is kidnapped and that is the Reason that Lily takes on the Story. 

But I haven't figured out yet, as Lamott puts it, how to seamlessly piece it all together, like the fluidity of a dream. We trust dreams, in the very deepest part of ourselves. We have to. Otherwise, what would we make of, in a much-loved example, babies turning into chocolate chip cookies and any attempts to revive them with milk? We understand that the subconscious is a dangerous, exciting, beautiful place and that any attempts to understand it further will result in failure-- therefore, in lieu of understanding it, we put our faith in it and we merely trust that the Dream is what it is. 

This frustrates me, my inability to see the forest for the trees. Or to see all of the trees in the forest. Or to figure out the best way to wind the path through the forest so that all of the gullies and streams, rock formations and majestic vistas are put on best display for those who will follow after me. 

I like this metaphor. Indeed, there is a whole forest in front of me. I cannot see all of the trees-- I can hardly, in fact, see any of them. And now I must find a path through them, discovering new things as I go, definitely needing to retrace my steps backwards to find a better way. 

The most important thing, though, is finding that path. I can't let it be whether anyone follows after me. 

I attend a monthly writers' group here in the Cleveland area. And I do enjoy it because I enjoy getting together and listening to others and letting people hear my work. But I do not like how so much of the emphasis is placed on "being published" as opposed to "telling the story." Last month, we did New Year's Resolutions-- I can't even think of how many people want to be published this year. (As a note, mine is to lock myself in a room with only TWO of the eight or so plots in my head and to not come out again until we've either made progress or one of us-- probably me-- is dead.) 

When artists paint or sculpt or roll around in jello, or musicians compose, or jugglers stand out on the street corner, is their main goal focused on someone paying them for their work? I'm not saying that this is a bad goal or that artists don't deserve to be paid for their work (because what is a culture without art?), but should this be the driving force behind our work? Because if the goal is to make money, or to be famous, then there are a lot of other careers that will probably get you there before being a writer.

Quick-- how many writers are on the Forbes lists? In People magazine? Retired from their day jobs as teachers, editors, professors, librarians, etc? 

(I will admit a secret desire to be the first author-celebrity, complete with red-carpets and people taking pictures of my clothes. I, however, am willing to keep this buried very deep on the inside for I'm sure my poor hopes will be dashed.)

I merely wish I could figure out how to write. How to do this thing that gnaws at my ear all day when I am at work or talking to a friend or folding laundry. And yes, I do want to write for myself-- how wonderful would it be to make a living doing what you love? I want to write because I like the validation of someone reading what I have written and calling it brilliant or so very good or asking for more (a Turkish Delight Syndrome, bwaha). 

But I also need to tell these stories in my head. I need to figure out where Lily's father has gone and how she's going to get him home again. I need to let Eleanor navigate a strange world and to figure out what she's exactly made of. I need to help Jane make sense of the changes in her world. I need to push Never to be the person that she is capable of being. I need to help Wil and Hazel escape from the Self-Made Emperor. And I need to figure out what happens to Peter, Calvin, and Cecelia Sage in their big white house on the top of the hill. 

I need to tell the stories that I want to read. 

And these are my nonsensical, ill-constructed thoughts on writing for the day. I have more-- especially regarding artistic snobbery and the editing process-- but I have work to do now. 

4 comments:

Tom said...

Don't miss the trees for florist.

I like inventing my own proverbs, and I think this one fits here. Sometimes the idea of writing can oppress the writer. It's something we all have to struggle with. I've written an entire story in the body of a Gmail to trick myself into thinking I'm not actually writing.

Enjoyed the post. Just keep listening to the voice that tells you to pick up the pen, the rest be damned.

Laini Taylor said...

This is a wonderful post (I just clicked over here from Cheryl Klein's blog). Your struggles to *see* the whole book beyond an assemblage of awesome ideas resonates with me MASSIVELY. I am currently in that mode on my fourth book, and I have learned the only way through the forest (I use this metaphor too! Only mine in a JUNGLE, and a machete is required) is: relentlessly. Eventually, if you keep working, you win. The only way to "lose" is to give up. The elements of your story sound scrumptious so I am rooting for you to win so I can read your book :-)

Mike said...

It sounds like the problem you're running into with writing your longer works is that you expect it to come out "seamlessly pieced together." Most of the people I know that want to write have been waiting for everything to be just right or all worked out in their head before they start, which they never seem to do.

The thing is writing something long isn't glass blowing. It doesn’t start smooth or end smooth or you only use what you first bring to the table. It's more like blacksmithing. You've got your lump of raw material that you've managed to pull for the earth and you got idea of what it should look like, so the best thing to do is stick it in the forge and get on with the hammering. You can always add, remove and smooth later once you’ve got its shape and form together. Hit the story hard enough and it'll start to form on it's own.

Who cares if the first draft is ridged, choppy, and falls apart somewhere in the third act? All of those problems are meant to happen and are meant to be fixed in revision and rewriting. And if you know it’s broken but can’t figure out where, have someone else read it that will be honest with you. Eventually, if you've put the time and effort in you'll end up with a story you like. If you’re lucky, it'll be better than the one you wanted to write in the first place.

Best of luck

lunggwai said...

Clicked over from Twitter. For what it's worth, I would absolutely read the story you're describing. It sounds wonderful already. Have you looked at the 2xcreative group on Livejournal? Kyle Cassidy set it up. It's a virtual collaborative cafe of artists, writers, illustrators etc.

Oh, and welcome to New York! I hope you're enjoying it!