Monday, December 22, 2008

A Guild Art

It may sound strange to think of writing more as a craft than a fine art, but for me that's what writing is, the sense of continual apprenticeship. It runs in my family.

My mother is a seamstress, and her family were tailors and stone masons. My father was a tailor and his father a cobbler. These were creative men and women of bygone eras, and they learned their craft and trade from others. As the years passed, and materials and techniques changed and, generally, progressed, these artisans and craftspeople adapted; they continued to learn. It's the same for me with writing.

It's been said that writers are forever at someone's feet. It's a humbling concept, but accurate. There is always more to learn, always improvements to be made, and sometimes this is a source of frustration. There's a sense of never arriving, at least not in this life. But the sense of more to learn is a source of inspiration, too, a creative impetus to soldier on in this often difficult field.

What can be hardest in this constant apprenticeship is the continual opening of one's self to the prospect of learning, continual vulnerability. Being vulnerable is hard when so much that is personal is at stake. Despite what people say, those rejections are, in one sense, very personal. After all, it's one individual's work that's being rejected, not someone else's, and let's face it, part of every writer, to one degree or another, goes into the work. That's personal.

But the continual learning is a kind of continual renewal, a constant spring in the dead of winter, when on the shortest days of the year, there is the need for renewal. When something is learned, it's as if a light has gone on somewhere in the soul, a bit more knowledge has been gained, and, hopefully, a bit more wisdom.

It's also wonderful to feel a sense of connectedness to all those who have gone before in this craft, pioneers who forged ahead and continue to do so. I still have craftspeople in my family, an architect, seamstresses and tailors. Some are quite well-known; others aspire to be. Still others aspire to remain in the background but to have their work shine forth. There's a sense of family in a guild, a sharing of thoughts and ideas, new concepts. It brings a promise of spring, even if gestation is taking place under the deep snow.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Let it Snow — Setting a Mood

All the lights are turned off, except one, the electronics are powered down, except the PC, and the snow is falling, mostly silent, as the day draws to a close. I had hoped to get to writing this morning, but the time was taken up by much needed physical exercise and a paying job. Now the house is quiet, the snow is blanketing the row of hemlock and there is a mood, created by the setting, the scene.

In most popular fiction, weather is passé, but it certainly does set a mood. So does quiet. Amid the comparative silence, words flow largely unhindered as the wind swirls the snow into clouds that whisk by and are gone. It's a snow globe world out there. Can't you see it in your mind's eye from the written page?

Setting a scene, providing a sense of place, isn't filler, or shouldn’t be. It sets a tone, a mood, an emotion that can match the action, if harmony is what you're looking to create, or provide contrast, if you're looking to heighten tension. Haven't we all had those days where the weather matched our mood, for example, snow falling and contemplation. And days where we weren't in synch with the atmosphere, setting or place all, and the result was an agitated state, discomfort, anxiety.

Weather is still a great tool, when used properly and in the right amount. It can foreshadow an event or obscure a motive, reveal what would otherwise be hidden, as the sun across the surface of a bay, or confuse. Whatever the use, weather is a wonderful worker of mood, story and tone. Its elemental quality can ground a piece or even just a moment in time.

See the writing tip below.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Torn Between Two Lovers

It would be great if this meant I'm being fought over, but that's not the case, at least not today. The tearing is on the inside, between the practical and the aesthetic, the necessary and the transcendent. For some reason, it seems writing can't be both, isn't allowed to be — it's too hard to market work that doesn't fit neatly into a category, like commercial fiction and literary, suspense and, well, literary. You see the dilemma. So you're probably asking, "Why can't writing be both?" I agree, but as I face rewriting a novel, it somehow seems like this combination is a bridge to nowhere, an outcome that no one will no what to do with, not agents or editors or publishers.

We just had a discussion about something like this in my writers' group. The answer was, in essence, "Don't worry about it. Just write." Of course, they're right in one sense. But with all the planning that goes into a novel, there has to be some direction, some framework that makes sense, is well-written and is — salable? Maybe, but maybe not. I think that last criterion is the clincher, and in wrestling, a clinch hold is used to control the opponent. That may be great in sports, but it cuts off circulation in writing, doesn't let the work breathe or allow the writer to grow.

I'm still not sure exactly how I'll approach this rewrite, but I want to do some exploring before I start, let my imagination run free. We went through a bunch of exercises at a recent writers' workshop that were meant to open the imagination, let it expand. The danger is that when the workshop is over, so is the ability to imagine. So, too, breathing, and we need that to live, don't we?

Monday, December 15, 2008

Gatsby's Music

I'm glad I never read "The Great Gatsby" in school. It would have become another homework assignment instead of a love affair. In high school and college I focused on world literature and somehow managed to avoid a lot of American and British writers. It's wonderful to discover some of these authors later in life, and even more wonderful to fall in love with the writing now that I have more appreciation for the work. Gatsby has done that for me.

I might not have read it recently had it not been required for a writing workshop, and although the assignment started out as homework, it instantly went beyond that. The voice in that work, the poetry, the lyricism, the imagery are music that struck some chord not only within me, but out in the distance somewhere beyond writing and, strangely, somewhere beyond words — the true quality of the language to get beyond itself. It's being transported, not in the sense of being taken to another world, but to a place beyond worlds to a sense of the infinite.

In a way, it wasn't the story of Gatsby that impressed me, tragic and indicative of those times and our times as it might be. It was the sense of something more than the tragedy unfolding on the page that was compelling, that kept me reading and made me sad when the book ended, despite a certain sense of relief that the sorrow that was coming all along had finally arrived. In the life of Gatsby and the Buchanans was humanity in all its brokenness, but in the language that told their story, there was everything beyond that, a strange sense of hope because the music of the language elevated the work beyond the melodrama it might have been otherwise. It makes me want to read the story again, just for the sheer enjoyment of it, to hear that music one more time.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Writing With Blinders On

One of best things that happened to me as a writer was having to commute an hour and half to a new job. At first it seemed more like a curse than a writing boon. How would I write now that I had to be on a train with all those distractions? The way I did it was that I learned to do it. Admittedly, the first week of commuting was more about survival than anything else, writing included. One evening in particular I recall coming home at seven-thirty after having been up since quarter of five and thinking that life as I had known it was over. In a way it was.

By the second and third week, there was a kind of rhythm in getting up early, getting coffee at the Whistle Stop café, downing it before the 6:20 arrived and getting settled in the cramped seat at the back of the row on the left so that only really cheeky individuals had the nerve to ask if they could sit down. I began writing every day I took the train, morning and evening. I learned to block out the noise, which isn't so much on a morning train whose destination is New York. It isn't all that much most evenings either, once you get used to it as white noise, something to be ignored so that you can write with better concentration and more intensity. I kept up the habit and found that the time flew by as fast as the scenery, and several times almost missed my stop. After ten months, I had the first draft of a novel. The time had flown, and I arrived at work in the mornings and home in the evenings feeling more energized than drained on most days, and when I was tired, it was more out of a sense of accomplishment than exhaustion.

It took a while to get into the rhythm and the habit of writing with blinders on, of blocking out whatever else was going on. That's not to say that the conductor with the plastic chicken and the other conductor whom we were all certain led a double life somewhere we didn't want to know about weren't distractions, but they were momentary, welcome distractions, good for a laugh or side observation, a small break before returning to the work. With the habit and discipline of the day (and the night), I learned to write a thousand words in a sitting, usually an hour, since the other half was getting to and from the stations. It wasn't easy, at first, to write with blinders on, but it was good discipline, helpful for writing around the house and its myriad distractions, or Starbucks on the rare times out for coffee.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

When Inspiration Isn't

The day is closed and gray. Rain splatters the earth, and the branches of the scarecrow trees scratch the sky. There's nothing in this day that hasn't been seen before, nothing that hasn't been felt before, nothing new under the sun. Futility infuses all effort. Writing without apparent inspiration is, well, work. There's the business of writing, the promoting of it. There's the art of writing, the windswept moments when you're swept away. Then there is the sheer labor of it that happens on days like this, days as closed to inspiration as a changed lock. Yet it's the work of the writer to labor, if not by the sweat of the outward brow, then by internal effort, which seems infinitely harder, the continual giving birth. If you know nothing of this and writing seems easy, wait. The days of apparent futility will come, days that separate writers from dabblers and make writers who they are. Like the caterpillar struggling to break the chrysalis, this is how butterflies are formed, how glory is put into the thing and into the work, and inspiration comes by doing.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Whatever Is Lovely: On Contemplation

It could be that moment, fleeting, in morning when winter clouds enfold the sunrise, or the sound of turtle doves flushed warm from the underbrush. It could be the bark of squirrels at play, the signal cry of Canada geese in chevron flight somewhere that seems always north of here—those moments of loveliness, which, if not captured in thought, are swallowed the day or the night, moments when stars shine stubborn even above city lights, or of the silence of the house when all wireless things momentarily rest, the smoke of city stacks from a train window, these moments of loveliness that invite contemplation and refill the soul. The scenes of life are moments to feed off in memory, moments whose vitality dissipates as soon as they become words. Still, the moments offer themselves as refreshment, not always to write about, but to write from, a momentary replenishment of the well from which the writing water comes.

Friday, December 5, 2008

The Romance of the Written Word

Never being sure exactly what will happen when I sit down to write can be scary, but it's exciting, too, and an encouragement that the romance isn't completely gone from this business, art and calling of writing. That blank page, whether it's on paper or the computer screen, is a perpetual fresh start, a chance to reinvent "story" over and over again, that mystery of creating, like a baby being born each time, filled with its own unique life yet taking after someone else, or maybe more than one person. What will this day, this writing exercise, bring? What will the novel I'm working on become? At what point will it take its own path and lead me, instead of the other way around? In a kind of "writing to learn" way, that's the give and take, the yin and yang of writing, where it's as much about the writer being shaped by the words as the words being shaped by the writer.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Using Anger (Passion) as Ballast

You would think the holidays wouldn’t be a time when people feel anger, but emotions can run high around this time of year. Despite a number of changes in the U.S., there is a lot of uncertainty, which means a lot of fear and, often, no small amount of anger. It could be over another rejection letter, or any of the other thousand frustrations that arise in a day. One safe place for anger, channeled correctly, is in writing. A writing colleague I recently spoke with said that one of the main ingredients lacking in writing these days, and an underlying reason for agent rejections (aside from an abysmal market), is the lack of passion. If we don't feel passionate about our work and if that passion isn't reflected there, how can we expect our readers to respond, to feel strongly about the book or the story? Think about the response elicited by Philip Roth's writing — not for the fainthearted, but it certainly strikes the soul, making the work unforgettable. Anger, emotion, passion can become a spark that ignites weak characters, a bland setting and flat dialogue. Of course, it's important to channel that passion in a productive way — but that's what editing is for. So use your anger and your passion, and fan your work into flame!

Monday, December 1, 2008

A Cricket in Her Hair

It's tempting to cut the things in a story that don't fit, a character's idiosyncrasy, an unusual setting detail, an unexpected plot twist. Of course, sometimes these things distract without any redeeming value—but sometimes, when handled well, they enhance and deepen the story. I noticed this recently while reading My Ántonia, by Willa Cather. Cather didn't shy away from describing the sunflowers that grew along a rural Nebraska roadway, even though they seem to belong more in someone's garden or California. But the unexpected sunflowers were like the Bohemian and other immigrant families that settled in the area in the nineteenth century, out of place and enigmatic. It was a good move, as was the description of Ántonia's rescuing a cricket from certain death by hiding it in her hair under a scarf. The visual is unusual, but for Ántonia the cricket was a reminder of home, specifically of an old woman in the town whom the children flocked to and called grandmother. By way of Cather's skilled description and expert weaving of Ántonia's choice to save the cricket by putting it in her hair, an oddity became a memory not only for Antonia but also for the reader, a warm moment in the otherwise bleak Nebraska landscape. Both the sunflower and the cricket showed the humanity of the German and Bohemian immigrants of the time and their strangeness among the original settlers, but also the immigrants' indispensable contribution, just by being there. So, I'm thinking that although not every weird detail in my writing should be kept just because I wrote it, I'm less likely to be afraid of the strangeness and instead try to figure out how it might advance the story.