Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Facing it


No ideas but in things.
William Carlos Williams

I loved the writing of my first novel. I've never experienced that kind of flow--it seemed to be growing wider and more interesting from scene to scene. I felt immersed in the writing and the characters. I even made myself cry a few times. I was thrilled with it.

Until I read it.

It needed so much WORK. I realized I have a tendency to underwrite, to shorten scenes, hint when I should be showing the events. My little, beloved draft didn't have that wonderful thickness that a real novel has. On the contrary, it seemed, upon re-reading, to be a little shallow. It felt more like the rough outline for a novel than than the novel itself. And all of the problems that I had forced myself to ignore as I finished my draft...well, I still didn't know how to solve them. My story seemed a poor, plucked little sparrow. I was so disappointed, and put it away.

Now I am working on my second novel, and am trying very consciously to avoid the problems of the first. I have come up with a great deal more plot and elaborate background stories for all of the characters. I have what I think is a clever conceit—a road map which should help me through the sticky bog.

And I am unable to go on.

I wasn't really sure why, until tonight. I've spent the last few months castigating myself, “too lazy! Not a real writer! Lots of mothers write after their children are asleep...why can't you?” But every time I opened my document, or indeed, any document related to my novel, I just froze. I can take notes; in fact, I have laughed in glee at some of my fiendish plot twists. I just couldn't seem to turn any of those ideas into actual scenes.

I've spent the last two days reading through a writing book by Robert Olen Butler that has forced me to see things a different way. The author stresses writing from what he calls the “dreamspace”--writing from the “white-hot center.” Now, this kind of talk always makes me feel inadequate—because it seems to imply that unless you can go into a mystical trance, you aren't a real writer. And I disagree with several of his exhortations, i.e. don't ever write unless you are in the "zone"—for someone like me, sitting around waiting for the force of that perfect intuition is lethal. But, to his credit, he offers concrete suggestions for achieving this dream state. He also shows examples of what he calls”from the head” writing and contrasts them with more immediate, sensual work.

That's when it hit me. I've wanted to force myself to write a REAL NOVEL, full of complicated plots and reversals and deep meaning. I've tried to graft them all to the myths that offered the original inspiration. I've wanted to show off what I know, sound smart.Oh, I have a lot of ideas and psychological insight and theories--the problem is that they feel false, shoved onto my poor characters. And to that teetering tower, I've piled on a concern with the mechanics of skill.

You know those wedding dresses that seem to be drowning the bride in festoons of lace, net, taffeta, and billows? Yep, it's like that.
I've made my little tale so complicated, I can't approach it anymore.

Butler talks about trying not to force your material into a structure too soon. Some stories naturally lend themselves to novels, while others to short stories or even poems. See, this isn't even something I want to face—the possibility that I am really a nonfiction narrative writer, or at best a short story writer. Those are the forms that have brought me the greatest writerly pleasure. But, oh, my dream is to write a novel. That's all I have ever wanted

So I am scrapping the cosmic MEANINGS and artful plotting and getting back into the humble things of my core story—even if they're not so smart. Even if they result in yet another underwritten novelette.

Because at least then, I'll be writing from the white-hot center again. I'll be writing true.

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15 Comments:

Blogger Lisa said...

I can relate to your frustrations and am now on novel attempt #2 myself. I'm finding this time that if I lessen my expectations, go with the concept that I had to start, write scenes even when I'm not sure where and if they belong, that I can then go back and start to edit and shape. Since I'm in a novel writing workshop, I've been editing my first and second chapter -- a lot -- after writing about 12K words. What I'm finding is that by moving forward and then going back to trim a little, add a little, shape a little, bits of inspiration are coming to me unbidden, so they feel less contrived than some of my earlier efforts. I think I tried to force the whole thing to come at once before and I'm finding that it's very iterative for me. It comes in layers. I don't think I will ever be the kind of writer who can outline and write straight through. This new approach is more spontaneous and I've given myself permission to change my mind about what I thought would happen in the story and I'm beginning to understand what others mean when they say the characters reveal themselves over time. Don't be discouraged! There is no one way that this happens and you are very talented. You will find your rhythm. I am sure of it.

12:31 AM, September 13, 2007  
Blogger frida said...

I know nothing about the writing process, except that I love the final product of yours. I do know that in every major endeavour of my life I have had to find my own way, and that in the end it turned out there was no perfect way - just the way I finally got through it. You are a wonderful, a luminous writer and you are finding your way.

1:35 AM, September 13, 2007  
Blogger Jo said...

I want to get a copy of that book. I really enjoyed reading this -- thanks for sharing.

12:15 PM, September 13, 2007  
Blogger Patry Francis said...

Oh, it seems we truly are in the same place! (Overthinking? as my son Josh would say.)

Meanwhile, I agree with lisa. You will find it. In fact, you already have. It's here in this post.

9:31 PM, September 13, 2007  
Blogger Waspgoddess said...

This was a great post, I felt really drawn in by the struggle, the fear. And you made me laugh out loud several times (not so good when blogging secretly at work).

Thank you for your comments on my sunday scribbling, what you said is so true and I'm really trying to follow your advice. In attempt to do that (letting go) more completely I've decided to do the National Novel Writing Month at http://www.nanowrimo.org/ and attempt to write 50,000 words in 30 days.

11:04 AM, September 14, 2007  
Blogger Amber said...

I can't TELL you how happy I am that you share your writing journey here. I never feel alone, when I am reading your words here. Thank you. Thank you.

I have never really gotten so far with a novel, as I am right now. And I still feel like I am faking it. It is still only a baby. It has no legs. I doubt everything about it, excpet my wonderful plot! lol. What a great idea it is. But how to tell it? How to tell it? *sigh*

Hav eyou ever thought of doing an anthology of shorts. I love yoru stories. I would so read a collection, ANY day.

I wish we could speak on the phone some day...I would love that. ;)

:)

11:26 AM, September 14, 2007  
Blogger Mardougrrl said...

Lisa: I remember reading your post about that, and really admiring it, especially when you said that the manuscript didn't really reflect you after all. That's it for me, too, lately. Your process sounds interesting--I think I'll try it!

Frida: Thank you, dearest...from you that is a huge compliment and my sad little ego needed that tonight.

Jo: The book is challenging...I read parts of it over and over again to try and understand. And I don't agree with everything, but it makes me think.

Patry: Your post reminded me that I can start again, and start again. After all, one of the advantages of being unpublished is that no one cares what I write, so I might as well care on my own behalf. I am glad to read that you are happy with your latest take. Hurray!

Waspgoddess: Nano is AWESOME. Both of the novel(ettes) I've written exist today because of Nano. I couldn't recommend it MORE. Good luck!

Amber: Girl, we need to TALK. Why don't we schedule a phone date? And I know my process sounds horribly whiny lately, but...that's where I'm at. When things get better, I'll post about that. ;)

11:01 PM, September 14, 2007  
Blogger Ello said...

What a terrific post. I really felt inspired by what you said. It really is about staying true to yourself when writing otherwise what you write won't have any essence at all. I've started and stopped countless would be novels over the years that died because they had no meat on their bones. It took years to finally find a story that seemed to breathe and take a life of its own. I have finally finished that draft and have been editing it for months. It feels good, it feels substantial. Perhaps it will never get published, but I feel that I finally wrote a real book because I let the story come out from me, instead of forcing a story to come out. That's why this post was especially meaningful to me.

10:21 PM, September 15, 2007  
Blogger Lisa said...

Wow. The book was delivered from Amazon yesterday, so I've just started it, but it is VERY interesting. I have to say that I really do agree with a lot that Butler says. Now -- finding a predictable way to "get in the zone" will really be a challenge. It's happened, but it doesn't happen very often and it's really hard when writing time is not scheduled (maybe that's what I need to do -- not a morning person so I've been resisting the obvious). Thanks for pointing this book out!

9:46 AM, September 18, 2007  
Blogger Rach said...

I think that writing a book must be a terrifying thing to do. On one hand you want to write what you choose, but then you have to appeal to a certain audience, keep them interested and entertained too. I would not be able to do it so in awe of you for managing it.

12:59 PM, September 19, 2007  
Blogger bubandpie said...

I tried to write a novel lo these many years ago, and I went on well for the first three chapters - and then I planned out the rest of the novel, and never felt the urge to work on it again.

That trance thing, though? I'm pretty sure that's a myth invented by published writers to thin out the competition.

7:05 PM, September 19, 2007  
Blogger Mardougrrl said...

Ello: Wow...congrats! That comment really inspires me. :)

Lisa: Let me know if changing the time you write works for you. Lately, I write in small snatches of time, especially at night after my daughter is asleep, so I need to teach myself how to get in the "zone" then.

Rach: I am not sure I am managing it yet at all, but thanks. :)

Bubandpie: I think about that too...sometimes I think just having had my idea to play with is enough, thus, I don't need to develop it further. But then these characters keep coming back. And IA about the trance thing. I think a lot of writerly stuff is smoke and mirror-y.

12:23 AM, September 21, 2007  
Blogger paris parfait said...

Yes, writing true is the key. Nobody else can tell your stories in the same way. And you have real talent; what works for others doesn't necessarily work best for you. Sometimes I become overwhelmed by other people's expectations and have to try to shut all that "noise" off and reach deep within to retrieve what's there.

3:08 PM, September 24, 2007  
Blogger Mardougrrl said...

"Sometimes I become overwhelmed by other people's expectations and have to try to shut all that "noise" off and reach deep within to retrieve what's there."

Tara: I think I need to get this tattooed to my arm or something! Because I need to remind myself of this frequently.

4:32 PM, September 25, 2007  
Blogger deirdre said...

Too often I wait for inspiration, even when I know I have to sit and invite the story to speak. Then that dreamspace, when it happens, is a gift, not a necessity.

10:03 PM, October 10, 2007  

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