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

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.


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