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Several unexpected and delightful offerings of praise over the past few days. Food for a famished writer. Especially right now.
I strive to deserve them. I am not sure that I do.
I’ve been feeding my life with writing and art. Not desperation food, not nearly. Joy food. But still the path to the clear writing has not blown clear.
I find myself still outside the story. Still too talky-talky. Still uncertain. Half a writer’s challenge, I think, is not merely solving a problem—it’s identifying it.
I recognize the symptom, but not necessarily the disease. I poke at the apparent issues, but the source keeps aching. For a writer who’s made such an all-consuming investment of time thinking about the damned thing, one would think—hope—that the answers would be clearer easier. They aren’t.
This is the baby-with-the-bathwater temptation. The rip-it-out-and-start-again paradigm. When the forward momentum of the work all-too-closely resembles a reason to live, this is a terrifying prospect. The temporary wiping of the mental slate, the cleansing walk in the woods—neither is possible.
Is this the right step for the plot? What is my character thinking? What was I thinking, writing this passage? Help me, somebody. Speak to me, universe.
These are the torture days. The pecked-to-death-by-a-duck days. Shopping won’t fix what’s ailin’ us. Buying more art won’t. Eating our feelings won’t.
What’s left, then?
Surrender, I think. Worrying the thing to death until the brain coughs up the answer as a pure act of survival. Giving the thing due diligence, yet letting it work itself out on its own.
And here’s the thing: Letting-be is the toughest ask of all.
Okay, the offending passage was a Facebook post, I’ll give you that. But the content had the writer grinding her teeth.
“…with their daddy’s” the poster wrote. This was a college-educated professional who posted. A person who should have known better. As should we all.
Carelessness is a bear trap, waiting to snap the ankle of the inattentive. Sometimes it’s a simple failure to go back and read what we’ve laid to the page. Sometimes it’s ignorance. I’m not sure which is worse.
Do I make those mistakes? Of course I do. Does it make me any more tolerant of them. Hell no. I’ve known way too many colleagues in the profession of communication who cannot spell, cannot write. Face it, this is like being a chef who cannot cook. I have known writers whose work has been redeemed only by the intervention of great editors and proofreaders. I’ve known overly-eager editors who’ve nitpicked work within an inch of its life, yet who, in their zeal, have missed major errors.
Insert the sound of teeth-grinding here.
These are the capital crimes of fiction….The main character describing him/herself by looking into a mirror. Exhaustive descriptions of a character’s appearance packed into a single paragraph. Adverb saturation. The habit of noting a character’s every move.
Here’s the truth of me: I am not a formalist. Far from it. I believe that unconventional uses of language bring color and tempo and challenge to the reader. I’ll admit that I, too, have self-indulgencies and errors. I make up words. I stray into cliché territory from time to time, thinking that a change-up of the trite phrase will redeem it. I over-use certain punctuation, calling it personal style. Could I do without these crutches? Probably. Do I want to? I refer you back to the above Hell no.
In my earlier days as a writer-Fascist, mine was the habit of reverse graffiti. I would carry a bottle of Wite-Out in my purse, mercilessly painting out errant apostrophes on public signs. Sometimes I asked the sign owner; most of the time I didn’t. I asked then the questions that I continue to ask today:
Is it too much to ask that we strive for a rudimentary command of our native language? If we cannot all be Shakespeare (and let’s face it, who among us can?), might we not, at least, make an effort to make right the written us that we share with the world?
Where we are today would be amusing. If it weren’t so damned sad.
My dad was a storyteller. Campfires were his pages, and he filled them with tales of pursuing grizzlies and threatening moose and marauding porcupines, all of them real. From my earliest years, he was, I realize, training me to use my eyes. And my heart. And my willingness to believe with a wide-open mind.
He was also teaching me something else.
This is a lightning-bolt moment for me, this realization. In what my father did without knowing it—at the campfire and away from it—was to teach me the dance of emotion, that frank manipulation of structure that is Plot.
The “wait for it” moment. The “no, that isn’t happening” gift which suddenly materializes. The “Santa is coming” suspense. The hiding. And finding. The revealing. These are the things that parents do. I always found them a little cruel.
Now I understand.
My father did these things to reassure himself of his place in the heads and hearts of those around him. My father was never confident of his impact on people; he looked for the approval that did not come to him in his growing-up. He brought that need (and the answering of it) to his parenthood, and he cloaked it in love.
My dad loved being a dad. He was better at it than he had any right to be, as the son of hard-living parents. He gave of himself—and instilled in us—the goodness of heart that he’d hoped to be recipient of in his own young life, yet which was never quite received. The need materialized in ways that became moments of suspense and tension and relief. And these were the things I translated, as a writer, into the mechanics of plot and character.
I am his carbon copy—genetically, emotionally, psychologically…and apparently, too, in a way I never understood until now.
The writer as Need. My dad, who was inclined to it, but never knew the reality of it. And his daughter. Who lives it. Every day.
Real world vs. Created one. The sticky press of human interaction vs. the cool, orderly chaos in my head. Physical-reality people vs. made-up ones. It’s a struggle to choose. Especially when the real world presses too hard.
I am an idealist. Which means that, very often, things fall apart. Friendships, inexplicably, come undone. Fairness does not triumph. Thorniness flourishes. Prejudices and wickednesses really do stride with long steps across the landscape. People simply refuse to understand.
Come here, Created World. Here people are flawed, just as in that parallel world where I constantly trip over myself. Here they are evil. And stubborn. And plotting. And dishonest. And loving. And seeking. And generous. But here, I own the real estate. Things are safe here. I may not like the direction of events—especially when a plot runs away with itself, and I’m forced to chase it, yelling “Wait, wait, it’s me, remember?”—but I have indomitable faith that all will turn out for the best in the end.
Yet. People. Hmmmmm.
I create my characters out of physical models. Not all of them, but often the principals, and especially the male lead…my version of teenage stalker- fandom, I guess.
I make a concerted study of these folks. I watch for nuances of speech; for physical mannerisms; for clues to psychology. I am fully aware that these views are outward manifestations only…iceberg-tops, with the greater part of the person hidden from view. But these observations give me a place for imagination to begin taking hold.
But here’s the thing… what happens when a character-model does something irredeemably stupid in real life? Like falling in love with someone half his/her age. Or trying to scale a lamppost in an orgy of drunk driving. Or turning out to be a kitty-molester. Or a Republican. Then my life gets more difficult.
Sorry, but in this case, as much as I hate it, that other life becomes all-about-me. If the revelation of kitty-molestation comes after the book is finished, not so bad. I can retreat to the eidolon, the Created Construct. If it happens mid-work, then I’m in a not-good place—like finding a half a worm halfway through your salad. And if it happens in real-real living life? The not-written world I’m obliged to wake up to every day? Yikes.
I don’t want to be grudge-holding. I don’t like the judgmental me (the other half of the person who, often unfortunately, can see multiple sides to everything.) But I am those things. sometimes. On paper, those qualities work. In life, not so well.
I read a report, once, about a woman who was wakened from a coma who asked to be returned to it. The world outside her head just didn’t manage to live up to her hopes; the inside world was much more beautiful. Damn me, but I know how that feels. The idealist runs rampant through the streets of my head. Somebody stop me. Before I think again.
And, once again, for your Friday viewing…The Spiritkeeper trailer…
As I face the end of the current book—as I look down the barrel of the last five or six chapters—I find myself looking with a kind of quizzical, unafraid awareness of what’s ahead…and what it will ask of me.
A complicated tangle of plot lay ahead…that will be neither tangled nor complicated if I handle it right. Five chapters, each loaded to the gills with drama and denouement; journeys to the inner realms of the heart and the ends of the universe (no kidding—not too ambitious, huh?)
I am entering tour de force country. The jeopardy here is tremendous. This is the downhill slope with lots of twists and turns. No guardrails, here—and no brakes. No place to turn things around if these chapters don’t work.
Every word has added meaning from here on in. Every mote of punctuation. Every rhythm, every stroke, every nuance. I will need to make sense of the impossible. I will need to make each thing that has been leading to this place undeniably compelling.
That I don’t yet know what the ending is? Not worried about it. That the finale for one of the characters suddenly has just thrown a monkeywrench into itself by doing something I never intended it to do. That will work itself out. That the next few places I will go will be among the most creatively challenging of my life. For now, I can deal. I live in the patience of the moment, in a place filled with possibility.
Can’t say that the feeling will last. It may not last the day. It may not have the conviction to fuel the drive to the end. But I will take the day. And make it mine.
A writer sees with writer-eyes. Eyes that make snapshots of everything. Sometimes those shots are full of joy; sometimes, full of tragedy.
I had both kinds of kept-images this weekend. Life and death in 48 hours.
On Saturday evening, an unfamiliar whistle called me out into the approaching dusk. A rising birdcall, over and over. I looked up to the side of my little Arkansas stone-clad ranch house. Something was clinging to the stone. Something that flew to the ground five feet from where I stood.
A baby owl.
The thing was adorable. Wonderful. A little greyish thing, streaked with brown, maybe eight inches tall. Still full of baby fuzz and just-fledged clumsiness. He sat on the ground for several minutes, seemingly uncertain about what to do next. Then he lifted on owl-silent wings and flew to my one remaining peach tree. Started calling again. Called all night. Called all the next night. An explanation of why I’ve seen the female out at unusual hours: baby-owl mouths to feed.
Yesterday morning, then, the downside of natural wonder.
The rancher across my little go-nowhere road has been haying the field. Doing it in sections, one swath, then another, one day then the next. A cattle pasture is left to grow tall when the cows are moved to another field. Perhaps that was the reason for the tragedy.
Two uncommon things, there. Both were telling. A massive flock of vultures. A gathering that only appears when something is newly-born. Or dead. The little bones, the tawny bits torn between the scavengers, the tiny rib cage suggested the sad thing that dinner was.
Beside the buzzards a doe, standing. Watching. Mourning. If I had ever doubted that an animal could mourn, I will doubt no longer. This strong brown doe looked stunned. Her mouth was open, an approximation of human grief. Her tail lay low, not its characteristic white flag. She didn’t seem to know what to do with herself. As a person might not.
A few times, as I watched, she would come back to herself. Charge the gathered birds. Challenge them. Try to run them off. As if she held on to the hopeless hope that she might save the little thing that was, even at a distance, so clearly beyond saving. Deer, like people, can find the acceptance of death impossible.
No way to know whether the fawn was lost to the hay mower or to the birds that wait for newborns; that have been known to kill fresh calves. But this…I couldn’t watch any longer. I couldn’t make the image go away.
That’s why this post is about nature, not writing. It’s a writerly tribute to a sadness and a joy. The things that happen in the turning of a day.
One of the most joyous things I have ever seen–and one of the saddest. And both within 48 hours. See you tomorrow….
What a person doesn’t know can be the most difficult part of life. The total, necessary abdication of control to someone else—is the definition of awfulness.
For someone who has spent her existence as a (mostly) self-determining being, and as a long-time New Yorker, waiting is the impossible thing. I am used to doing things when I need them done. Now is a concept very comfortable to me.
I am not a person to go to parties with others (or mostly ever at all)…not when I’ve got to wait on a comrade’s willingness to leave. That I can do all on my own. I have bowed out of company outings that involved party boats…simply because leaving when I wanted to would mean swimming to shore. When friends have come to the house for the weekend, I’m the one who begs off the conversation to go to bed.
NYC was largely tailor-made for that finickiness: If one wants now, NY is mostly ready to oblige. One is willing to stand in line, if need be, to get now accomplished. Subways are transportation now (more or less.) Food and drink are now, always. Doctors, very often, now.
Springfield is now, but on a different scale. At least when it comes to jumping into a car and getting somewhere. Restaurants and shops, not so much (but then I’m not much in shopping mode here, anyway.) Doctors, no.
When someone receives an alarming call, shouldn’t the caller remain phoneside to deliver the explanation the recipient wants? Now? And how does one deal with the fidgets of being—unhappily, uncharacteristically—out of control?
What we don’t know can hurt us.
It’s Thursday. Of a long week. If I didn’t know, I could tell what day it is.
The Muzzies are here.
It’s that state of mind, of energy, that no night of good sleep can repair. The what-is-that-ache? state. The condition of I-know-there’s-a-good-idea-in-there-somewhere. The Land of Meh, of numb, of covering one’s head with a pillow.
The last two evenings at the page have been proof of its approach. The stalking mood has stayed perched on my shoulder, tapping my head, distracting me at every opportunity. It hasn’t wanted me to offer my attention to anything, much less letting me track from one sentence to the next.
Where do they come from, these Muzzies? Why do they exist at all?
It may be the heart’s listening to the anguish that echoes in the air, the collective pain from that tornado-raked town 60 miles away. It may be the hangover of worry about the water rising behind the house on the river. It may be that my confidence is low, right now. It may be bio-rhythms. It may be that I’ve been at these chapters so long that I can recite them by heart. It may be that I’m just chompin’ to get to some meaty and challenging stuff ahead. It may be the tough awareness that this book is chapters away from being finished. Hell, it may just be Thursday—and no more reason than that.
Coffee can’t fix it. Kind words from friends can’t. This is the eye of the mind staring at the blank walls on the inside of the head. The endless game of mental computer solitaire. Dishrags, if they had emotions, must feel like this.
The Muzzies. The place of not-so-good. Not much of anything. I’ll choose to think of it as a Recovery Room for the spirit. It’s all I can do.