"And moreover, to succeed, the artist must possess the courageous soul...the soul that dares and defies."
-Kate Chopin, The Awakening

19 March 2011

"You must want to enough. Enough to take all the rejections, enough to pay the price of disappointment and discouragement while you are learning. Like any other artist you must learn your craft—then you can add all the genius you like."

-Phyllis A. Whitney

As writers, it is easy to fall into the myth that inspiration is a necessity of the profession.  There is a misconception--and often, an expectation--that good writing simply flows from the writer's pen onto the page and is never again edited or trashed.  Writers are, in both stereotype and perceived tradition, inspired beings, men and women who see the world as a beautiful place when others cannot, who are so compelled towards writing that they are not able to function unless their stories are told.  Outsiders who subscribe to the stereotypical view of the writing world imagine scenes of candle-lit, fervid scribbling in leather-bound notebooks that contain all the emotion and urgency of Mozart's death scene(essentially) in Amadeus.  They believe writing to emerge, fully grown, from the writer's thoughts, perfect manuscripts spouted from the mouth of angels.  I know this because it is the exact mentality I once had, before I became a writer.

John Gardner says within The Art of Fiction, "...it comes about that books are taught (officially, at least) not because they give joy, the incomparably rich experience we ask and expect of all true art, but because, as a curriculum committee might put it, they 'illustrate major themes in American literature,' or 'present a clearly stated point of view...'."

We are conditioned, through the American education system, to believe in the perfectibility of the novel.  We are given the examples which have risen above, and, whether or not they apply to our lives as 21st century teenagers, they are the model works of literary history.  As a teacher myself, I can see the benefits of such a system.  Students learn the standard by which to uphold other work, and understand what a picture of a great novel looks like.

But, for the burgeoning writer, this system does a disservice.  It is my opinion that the debates which occur around fiction are the most beneficial literary lessons for a writer to be a part of.  By hearing both sides of an argument, the writer begins to see that fiction is wholly subjective, which is most of the beauty of it.  And there is little opportunity to critique a novel if it has been revered as an example of classic literature for hundreds of years.  Students are spoon-fed academic support for classic novels.  They are told to applaud its elements, and rarely focus on scenes or plot points which do not work.  They may not find the plot twists of Pip's mysterious benefactor to have much verisimilitude, but their opinion rarely has a place in their English classroom.

By focusing on the classics for the sake of their teachability (their ease of being deconstructed and re-built time and again), young writers do not see the process of writing, the possibility for failure and the struggles of an author.  Because they only critique the best and most academically acceptable works of fiction, students can easily believe novels to be easy to write.  As they become familiar with literature, they  are encouraged to hold authors up to a standard of excellence, lauding their genius.  They are taught that Twain and Shakespeare were exceptional human beings, chosen ones who were given a gift which high school students studying their work can only dream of (Can you tell that Heroes has been my go-to instant streaming chioce on Netflix lately?).

I am not urging teachers to swap out their ...Red Badge of Courage lesson plans for weeks devoted to Twilight or Harry Potter (Although there is of course an argument for both sides).  Nor am I blaming my teachers or education system for the fact that I walked away with the impression that writing was somehow a holy, inspired act.  I am simply realizing, in my own transition from reader to writer, that I had built up writing as something unattainable, a profession which I was not worthy of being a part of.  I knew that I didn't have the next Wuthering Heights roaming around inside my mind, and so found writing inaccessible.

What I did not realize throughout most of my high school career was the structure required to write great fiction.  Because I analyzed each book in my high school class not for its parts but for its success as a whole--the recurrance of its motifs, its affect on culture--I retained the misconception that writing is not hard work.  I did not see that, just like everything else, writing takes education and practice.  It is only now, while on the verge of being swallowed whole by the disorganization of my own manuscript, that I realize the process of writing a novel.  I realize that if I wait around for that myth of inspiration, the voice from above calling me to fufill my duty as the next nobel-prize winning author, the work will never be finished.

Some days, writing does feel like an inspired act.  We are eager to wake up and get to work on the manuscript, we feel encouraged by the world around us and ready to tackle our own vision on paper.  But those days are few and far between.  I have come to learn that, even on the days I dread working out the small kinks in my novel, on the days I run into a wall and become wholly discouraged, the work itself brings about inspiration.  If I start typing, the ideas will come (cue voiceover from Field of Dreams), and I will feel accomplished not because the chapter was a breeze to write, but because I was able to work through the issues until they became manageable; I was able to throw myself into the work with all the fervor of Mozart's brilliance.  Because, when you know the building blocks and are dedicated to their lessons, you can make it all look easy.     

     Photo Credit: Gregory Colbert

14 March 2011

"...My teeth and ambitions are bared/ be prepared."

I find it incredibly ironic that within a short time of posting a very scattered, self-conscious blog entry about being plagued by disorganization, I have come to start appreciating character plots, narrative summaries, and even scene spreadsheets! I've re-focused my attention on the structure and levels of this piece, and am, surprisingly, feeling as if I have been released from the self-loathing cave I was being held captive in.

If you've been following my blog, you probably realized that the sentiment behind my last blog post, and one of my first posts was roughly the same.  In each, I came to the conclusion that I was somehow above organization, or at least unable to draw inspiration from it.  Well, crack open your psychology books, because in the course of this past week--in which I've adamantly decided not to move forward with this novel until I understand its structure--I've come to realize that my previous posts were in some way just a self-conscious author attempting to degrade organization in order to feel better about the fact that I knew nothing about it.  I was at a horrible loss, and frustration metamorphosed into excuses and conceits aimed towards excusing my lack of focus.

The undergrad writing program at Emerson inspired me in many ways.  I worked with some wonderful professors who were very passionate about their students as well as their own work, and I was able to see examples of great writing (and, maybe even more importantly, poor or malfunctioning writing) from my peers.  But I do feel that there is a flaw in an undergraduate program that subsists almost entirely on seminar-style classes.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with a seminar class, here's the general conceit: students are assigned a particular week to pass a short story out to their professor and classmates (usually with an upper limit of around 20 pages), their peers read the story over the course of the week, making notations and in some cases writing critiques (depending on the professor), and the next week the author remains totally quiet while the entire class tears apart their story like Scar's hyenas in the Elephant Graveyard.

See them? They're hungry, waiting to tear your carefully constructed dialogue to shreds.  They want nothing more than to attack your characters and half-grown voice and leave you bleeding, lying in the dirt trying to keep your composure.  They'll degrade your stories into what they assume are your own pornographic fantasies or adamantly insist that you drew your inspiration from a novel which you've never heard of (but, of course, you nod your head and pretend you keep it on your bedside table for midnight reading when you're out of ideas, because this is a writing class, and you get points for being well-read). 

The one in the middle there? That one is too afraid of confrontation to say anything bad about your writing.  They'll be entirely unhelpful in their praise that "they wanted to know how it ended" and "they like your style."  They'll tell you they can't wait to read your next story.  The critique of your next story will say the same thing, re-worded.

The last type of critic, there on the right, is just plain idiotic.  They're the type of guy who will pass in stories about robotic sex-toys and undercover cops who are caught masturbating while on psychedelic drugs that literally keep their feet from touching the ground, and then critic your story for being too "literary" or "pretentious."  Oh, and their story will be the undeniable favorite if you're unfortunate enough to be paired with them for critique dates.  Not that I'm bitter or anything...

Ok, maybe I'm being over-dramatic.  But the truth of the matter is that undergrad writers are thrown into writing workshop classes without truly being taught the craft of fiction writing.  They are asked to give their opinions of their classmates' stories, and thus become the only authority on whether a story was successful or not.  The flaw in the system is that, in the ultra-competitive atmosphere of these classes, students are more apt to tear each other down in the hopes of elevating their own work than truthfully commenting on stories in a mature, selfless way.

I did transfer into Emerson's program, which may take away some of my credibility in critiquing the program itself, but I did not skip over any of the required writing classes.  Apart from a freshman expository writing class and a speech class mainly focused on non-fiction speeches and essays, the students in the writing program are introduced to fiction through a seminar class.  They take literature courses alongside their writing classes, but the emphasis is on literature's intent and affect, not on its style or construction.

In acting classes, students are taught that they are a team, a support system for each other.  Despite the competitive nature of acting, and the fact that everyone in the class is going up for the same roles you are, there is a camaraderie which forms in most of the acting classes I've had the privilege to be in.  Through the process of improv games, script analysis, and scene performance, you all become a family.  And, while actors use their bodies to express what writers use their words for, the basic principle is the same: young people tearing themselves open, bearing their darkest secrets and questions for others to critique.  So why are writing classes so cold and predatory?

I think it is a flaw in a program to assume that young writers have nothing left to learn by the time they reach an undergrad program.  These programs elevate young writers to the status of literary reviewers immediately, granting them a power which they have not yet learned how to use.  It's no wonder they take advantage of their perceived status of importance.

Now, To be fair, the professor of my first writing seminar did lead us through exercises which were helpful and instructive (if you remember, one of which lead to the first seeds of Discipleship), and in all of my courses we were each required to lead the class in the deconstruction of a published short story, but the general attitude seemed to be that, if I was going to be a successful writer, I better trust my instincts and take off running.  There was no time to go back and catch up on the basics.  The professor of my final, 400-level seminar told us in a very condescending manner that he didn't think he needed to worry about leading "this level of class" through writing exercises.  What? Four seminar classes and we've learned everything we need to know about the art of the short story?

I understand that writing is an internal process which varies from person to person, but there is something beneficial about learning the structure and elements of writing which I feel I missed out on in some ways.  In acting classes, you don't jump into the final performance before breaking the scene into beats and finding your motivation.  Many intensive acting programs won't even allow their freshmen to perform outside of the classroom setting until their second or third year.  Why were we as undergraduate writing students expected to produce high-class work without first learning the building blocks of fiction writing?

I'm not trying to blame my writing program for my inability to organize my novel at this stage (short stories are wholly different beasts than novels, and I do believe the undergrad program makes a good decision in focusing on the short story before a longer work), but I do blame them for granting me a false confidence.  My belief that I needn't focus on structure because my voice would shine through is a false belief, and I have come to realize that it is only hindering my writing.  I've been lying to myself, and that's something I'll need to change before I keep writing.  I regret that I don't have the advice on structure to look back on in the same way I have lessons about character or dialogue cataloged into my mind.

But, in terms of organization, I've already made progress this past weekend.  I ordered two books on writing, and have used some suggestions from info I've found on the web to re-structure and delve into the placement of plot points.  Before this weekend, when I sat down to write, I felt as if I were jumping into a mess of characters and ideas who had voices and passion, but no grounding.  Now, I am slowly gaining confidence in the fact that this story is legitimate, that, with help and study, I can piece together a narrative that makes sense.  Even within a few short, focused days, I feel relieved about the novel, and where it is heading.  I have a long way to go, but, before long, I'll have those hyenas singing and dancing, kick-line and all.

04 March 2011

Fighting Against the Excuse of Fear...

It’s been far too long since I’ve written anything.  The characters, events, and nuances that make up the world of Discipleship are in my mind everyday, and yet I haven’t allowed them a voice in almost a full week.  I’ve fallen back into the task of jotting down notes and ideas, and letting them become stale in a closed notebook on my nightstand, not allowed to breathe.  I’ve come up with changes or innovations right on the cusp of falling asleep, and jolted awake with the need to find a pen and write them down, and yet I’ve done nothing with these ideas beyond notating them.  Some may call this writer’s block.  I call it fear.

In truth, I’ve become far too talented at masking my fear of failure with excuses.  Many different excuses have at one time or another kept me from sitting down to write, and yet one is more haunting than the others.  The one that constantly nags at me, day after day, the one that forces me to attempt reorganization tactics for hours at a time, is this:

I can’t go on until I find the key to the entire novel.

My writer’s subconscious has somehow come to the conclusion that scenes and ideas filled with characterization and hints of plot are not good enough, and so I should henceforth cease all writing activity until I have a plot outline so solid that anyone could write this novel. 

When we learn about famous writers in school, we never learn of the hard aspects of writing.  We applaud their narrative innovations, we learn of the spouses who supported them, the discrimination they faced.  But somewhere along the way, we are ingrained with the idea that, for these authors, writing came incredibly easy.  We do not see the hours of work spent on perfecting a single line, the pages of a manuscript that were thrown out after years of work.  We only see the artists’ finished product, and success gives them the appearance of virtuosos.

Somewhere along the line, I deluded myself into thinking of writing as a science instead of an art.  I’ve allowed the lessons and teachings of famous writers to alter my vision of writing until it has become the product of one standard formula that works for everyone.  I’ve begun using horrible phrases like, “the key to the novel,” phrases which make the process of writing seem unrealistically romantic. 

I’ve had writing teachers who have drawn plot diagrams on the board and quizzed us on its elements.  I’ve been given advice as to how to structure a novel or a short story.  I’ve read articles by writers on writing expounding their great beliefs (and, essentially coming to the conclusion that writing isn’t something easily taught).  I’ve read hundreds of books, studying the characterization techniques and flashback scenarios employed in each one.  I’ve been taught so much about writing that I’ve forgotten personality is what makes writing great.

There are numerous files on my computer that are titled “Outline,” or “Plot Points,” all dated by different months and even years.  I have never been able to follow any of them.  I think wasting time on organization is my way of subconsciously keeping myself from writing.  It’s just another excuse: If I don’t have a specific outline, there’s no way I’ll be expected to succeed.

What I need to remind myself is that there is no "key" to great writing.  There is no one line or structural element that will suddenly make each element fit wonderfully together.  There is only the writer, and the words.  It's just that a good writer can make it all seem easy.  

Every writer’s process is different.  I need to remember that every single time I’ve been taught the plot diagram, the professor has had various alterations to it.  Even they have not accepted the science of writing, choosing to re-name the rising action or add another element before the climax.  Every writer has to find their own process, and I suspect it’s hardest the first time around.  I need to remember that the structure will come, and right now I shouldn’t box myself in (isn’t this the same sentiment I came to in my second blog entry?).  The frustration I feel right now will pass, but the time to write will not come again.

I think I need to have this article wallpapered to the wall above my desk, particularly this passage: "Now you may ask, what if my characters won't talk to me? What if they won't even visit? The only answer is to think and think some more, and then go out and read and look and listen some more. Do not sit and mope. Do not sigh. Do not throw up your hands and give up on the whole project. Do not go back to the drawing board. There is nothing more depressing than an empty drawing board. No, go back to the world, which is where all characters originally come from." -- ALLEGRA GOODMAN

Maybe I don’t know what I’m doing, and maybe I need to find a better way to organize my thoughts if I want to get this novel written.  But, then again, maybe this is all part of my process, and maybe the frustration is really encouragement in disguise, willing me to be better, to be my best.

Excerpt, from Thad’s perspective (unedited--I want to eventually slow this part down and layer a bit more):

            I stayed quiet during Ed’s funeral.  My father used to take me to cemeteries to do grave rubbings.  It seemed strange to think that the bodies in the ground had once been walking around; not long ago they were going to school or getting yelled at for spilling their milk or were shaking their neighbor’s hand at church. 
The cemetery seemed too big.  Maybe, someday, the entire world would be covered by cemeteries until there was no room left for houses.  It was a place that made you think strange thoughts.  But it also seemed the kind of place the demons would stay away from, a place too clean and organized to have the room for their bulk, and so I felt at peace.
            After they lowered Ed’s casket far into the cold dirt, when I was waiting to get back into the black limousine and go home, I saw something jumping.  There were woods lining the outside of the cemetery, and I saw something in the grass, moving towards the spindly trees.  I got close, and saw a small toad.  It was brown, with thin legs, and it was ugly.  Did God think even this toad was beautiful and perfect?
I wanted to hold it.  I thought maybe Ed would like it if I left the toad at the grave.  Because I didn’t want him to be all alone all night.  The toad might like the fresh dirt they would put on top of the box Ed was in, and it might stay to keep him company.  I wasn’t sure how long it took before Ed would separate from his body and float to heaven, but I figured it wouldn’t happen until dark.  Maybe if I asked nicely, my father would bring me back late at night to watch it happen.  The toad could stay and sit with Ed until we got back to watch him float into the clouds. 
            I moved too quickly, and the toad jumped away.  I followed, walking as slowly as I could without letting him out of my sight.  It led me a bit into the woods, where it hopped in front of a big rock.  Its neck bulged in and out, fast. 
I wasn’t sure if toads had lungs, but it seemed like he was trying to catch his breath.  He looked tired.  Maybe he had jumped from a long way away.  I waited until he wasn’t expecting me, and then lunged forward, reaching my hands out to scoop him up.
            But I took too big of a step.  I squashed the toad.  I stared down at the ground.  Everything was quiet.  No one had seen.  I kicked my shoe off, the toad’s skin and blood and innards squeezed into the sole’s ridges. 
I was shaking like I did after a nightmare.  But this was worse, because I knew where the guilt was coming from.  Maybe this is how Peter felt after his betrayal.  Or maybe it was more like Judas.  A guilt that made the world around you seem smaller; a guilt that reminded you of the power you had.  I couldn’t be near it.  I stepped back, and fell down, which only made things worse. 
“I’m so sorry,” I said to the toad.
I hadn’t cried all day, but now I couldn’t stop myself. 
“Dear God, please take this toad into heaven,” I prayed, the words coming slowly between sobs.  “Please let it be in a better place, like Ed.  I’ll do anything.  I’ll take its pain if you will just take it to heaven.  I’m sorry.  It’s not the toad’s fault he’s dead.  I’ll do anything.”
I unfolded my hands and forced myself to look.  The toad’s back legs were smashed. The back half of its body was flattened and misshaped.  There was dark liquid oozing from its body.  I looked closely, knowing I was responsible for its death. 
Then, I saw its neck bulge out.  It was still gasping for breath. He was alive.
I knew I was supposed to kill him; I was supposed to stop his pain.  It had been what my father had done when the neighbor’s dog caught a bird in its mouth.  It was the humane thing to do, he had said, but I couldn’t help but cry when he twisted the neck.
Thou shalt not kill.
I crawled back over to the toad, knowing that it needed me to be strong.  It was my turn to be humane; it was my responsibility to kill the toad.
“Tell Ed I say ‘goodbye.’”
I lifted a rock.  I closed my eyes, my fingers tight around the stone, and took a sharp breath.
…if he strikes him with a stone in the hand, by which one could die, and he does die, he is a murderer; the murderer shall surely be put to death.
It was a beautiful toad.  Maybe it would get better, I thought.  It looked strong, if you covered up the back of his body with a few crunchy leaves. 
I threw the stone into the forest as far as I could, and ran out of the cemetery, hobbling in one shoe.