Monday, October 28, 2013

An Exercise in Empathy

“I do not ask the wounded person how he feels, I myself become the wounded person.”  -Walt Whitman, Song of Myself
I don't know much about Jim Shepard's writing, just like I still don't know much about Elmore Leonard's, but the man seems to have a good notion of what writing is about. He gives a fair enough introduction of himself in the video, so I'll leave the substance of that task to him, save to highlight that he is a creative writing professor at Williams College in Massachusetts, and writes largely historical novels and stories that focus closely on an eclectic group of subjects and people, such as the executioner in charge of the Reign of Terror. This requires him to do a hell of a lot of research, and then leap from the high ledge of raw facts and recorded testimony to make the story his own. Essentially he deals in taking artistic liberties.

“The first worry writers have,” Shepard says, “when they consider working with something like 'real material', or historical material, has to do with the issue of authority. As in, 'Where do I get off writing writing about that?'”

Shepard's response? “Where do you get off writing about anything?”

Everything we write about is a stretch of some kind or another. The same can be said when we read, because we are necessarily dealing with experiences outside of our own. This gets to the heart of what writers do and what readers look for. It's all an exercise in empathy. The best writers, the really best writers, make this exercise a delight for themselves and their readers.


Shepard's recommendation for fiction that makes an exhilarating use of history: Memoirs of Hadrian, by Marguerite Youcenar

Monday, October 21, 2013

Leave it at the Foot of the Mountain

“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself”
            -Franklin D. Roosevelt
Writing is a silly thing to be afraid of, but there it is. Sometimes I hate it. I hate feeling this weight that is “the project” hanging over my head, blocking the sun and threatening to crush me some time soon. When I first sit down to write, the weight lands on my shoulders, daring me to move, daring me to be good.

And so I put it off. I wait. “No, not just yet,” I say. “I don't quite feel it yet. Another half an hour or so, then maybe I'll start.” I fumble around for something else to do with my free time, some other way to be productive and get myself to feel like I'm making progress, to put myself in a positive frame of mind. A lot of the time I am unsuccessful and just end up fumbling, not finding anything to settle on. Then I feel a little panicked. My mind spreads out like a patient etherized upon a table. Everything clogs up. I think about writing again, but, “No, how could I write in this state? My mind isn't focused.” Then maybe I watch something to try and calm down. Reading might actually be a better antidote, and sometimes I do read, but at the end of an episode, or chapter, or worse, a string of youtube videos, after all that I am, at best, back where I started. Except now it's at least two hours later, and what have I really done with my time? I wasn't productive, I felt emotionally sick, and because of this, didn't actually enjoy what I read or watched. Now I feel personally like a waste of time. Great.

It's stupid. I'm stupid. Why do this to myself? Why go through the same cycle again?

Right now I'm writing this instead of working on my novel. I picked up my laptop to write, and this happened. I felt like I needed to examine the state while I was in it, to share it, because maybe this sounds familiar to you. What do you do to fix this problem?

You write.

Full stop.

You shut up, you open the doc, and you just write. What are you afraid of? Hmm? Let's examine that. Bad writing, right? Yeah, but it's not just that. What's going on is slightly more nuanced. I'm afraid of not good writing. Of lack-luster, dull drudgery. He went here and he did this then he did this . . . I'm afraid of sitting there feeling worthless as I plunk down one uninspired line after the other. In the years I've spent learning how to write, this has been a very real experience. But every time I sit down and just write, once I get started I always feel better, because I'm making progress—some kind of progress. Why won't that sink in?

If you ever feel like I do, recognize when you fall into this pattern. Step back. Make some space, and say to yourself, “There I go again. There's that stupid pattern.” Now decide to change. Don't run away. Whatever it is, deal with the problem directly. Realize, “I'm avoiding writing right now. Writing is what I want to be doing,” and then do it.  Don't think so god damn much.  Drop the weight.  Fuck fear.

Write. You'll feel better.  

Monday, October 14, 2013


“I had to dream awake”
         -The Frames
Writing is a mental game. Whether you pile up a lot of interesting words and let that guide parts of your story, or you construct a moment and hunt for the words to do it justice, in the end we're still just talking about a lot of words. And yet anybody who has ever started a serious writing project knows the pain of staring empty-headed at an equally empty page. It doesn't matter if you're on page 600 or page 1, this is a very real and daunting challenge that can slow the whole process down to a soul crushing crawl. So what the hell do you do to get yourself out of it?

Try this. Stop, relax, and think, but go somewhere else to do it.

'Prewriting' is an absolute misnomer. Most people seem to think you prewrite before you begin a project, and then you sit down without ever looking back and fritter away until the thing is done. I don't even think of it as prewriting, I think of it as sketching. Dry on ideas before, during, or after a draft? Sit down, let your mind breathe, and sketch a bit.

Here's what I do. I turn my computer off and I go sit down somewhere else. This is a really basic mental trick. The goal is to break the unfocused, no ideasy, falling feeling I get sitting in my writing chair without writing for too long. I have a pad and a pen with me. I have a pen because I'm not going to be erasing anything. If I write something dumb (often I insist on it), I can just scratch it out. I want to work dirty here. This is me kicking around in my workshop. Anyway, writing is actually the last thing on my mind. I'm sitting down to think. We all start writing because we tire of only day dreaming, or having thoughts pop through our head like sparks form a downed power line. Well, this little process is a return to form. Its just a bit of directed day dreaming.

Thomas Edison used to do this same sort of exercise to work his way through problems and come up with new inventions. He used to sit with two tin pans on the floor and ball bearing in his hands. He would relax, clear his head out, quiet down. Then he would start turning over whatever he had laying around in his brain. If he started to drift off, the ball bearings would drop into the pans and wake him up. So there he would be, hopefully with a clear head and maybe a new idea. I think Edison's routine was a little more meditative than I'm suggesting, but it is equally as apt, and probably worth practicing.

Start asking yourself some questions and feel your way around a few answers. There's no stakes here, you're just sketching, so anything is fair game. Sound it out. Short term, long term, it doesn't matter. Make a few choices, follow the line of thought, and if you don't like where it leads, cross that one off and start in on another, stealing any of your own ideas and mixing them up any which way you like. Don't be afraid to change your mind. Write a bunch of words down about how a scene should feel, or a setting, or a character. Which words stick? If you get some lines that feel right as you build a particular scene in your mind, jot those down and keep thinking. Stay focused. The point is to let your mind range, but not wander.

Now that you've got a few ideas you like, and a better sense of where you're going, at least for the moment, you should feel more confident sitting down at the keyboard. Now just write it out, and know if it doesn't land quite right, you can just revise it later. Tune up the sketch, yeah? Better by degrees.  

Try it.

In reference to today's quote, if you haven't already, you should really get to know Glen. Seriously.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Honesty is the Only Policy

“He wanted to dream a man. He wanted to dream him in minute entirety and impose him on reality.” –Jorge Luis Borges, The Circular Ruins
I want to talk a little more about characters, if that’s alright.  I've been thinking a fair bit about them lately, especially since I've been reading this great comic K.P. turned me on to.  Maybe I can get her to write a review about it sometime when she isn't being crushed by a T.S. Elliot paper and 100 pages of T.E. Hulme reading.  As it stands, she is T.H.E. busy.  Anyway . . .

Characters are the vehicles of your story.  They aren't just our point of entry into what’s going on, they are what’s going on.  People want things, and do things, and say things, and feel things, and we come along for the ride.  There are plenty of short stories in which this is not the case.  Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” Bradbury’s “August 2026: There Will Come Soft Rains,” and that other one what I can’t remember the name of.  Sure.  Short stories, like poetry, are their own animal.  There are also books – plenty of fantasy and sci/fi come to mind – that are much more concerned with the place, or time period, tech, or magic system, etc . . .   If you read either of these genres you can probably come up with about half a dozen examples off the cuff.  But these stories work better, in every instance, when they have a cast of interesting characters to support them, or at least competent characters who don’t muddle up our enjoyment of all those cool protocannons and silicon-nanoid symbiot-suits. 

How do you write compelling characters?  That’s a pretty high level question, and I’m probably never going to be able to explain it satisfactorily.  Let’s save a painful, technical struggle and just say they have to be dynamic and seem like they actually inhabit the world you’re writing in.  This place you've put them?  They live there.  And their lives spill over onto the page whenever you’re looking at them, and continue whenever you’re not. 

Do not write plot device characters whose purpose is to move the story along and make things easier on you.  Need a little tension?  Have that crazy character do something stupidly bad.  Want this character to be endearing?  Make that character terribly obnoxious, and have this character put up with her, or tell her off, depending.  No.  Bad writing 101.  No.  Your characters need to have their own purpose, irrespective of what you think you want them to do.  They should make things difficult for you, not easy, because you’ll discover they want things you hadn't planned on. 

First set in stone, no negotiable rule of write club: No one is an expert at this.  No one knows all, or even most of what should happen when they sit down to a new project, or even when they sit down each subsequent writing day.  Plan all you want, the name of the game is discovery and revision.  You try something, it doesn't seem quite right, it doesn't seem true to the characters, too cheap, too on the nose, or just uninteresting, what do you do?  You go back and go in a different direction.  But hey, don’t feel bad.  Now you know where not to go.  Now maybe you recognize the next time you start to veer in that direction.  This is the hardest part, the admitting to yourself “I think I've gone the wrong way.  I have to go back.  I don’t think this is it.”  But it’s easier if you can say it now instead of waiting for someone else to say it later.  Don’t fret.  You’re a writer.  Writers write.  This is what you do.  And it’s hard, but it’s also damn fun.

Remember, when it comes to writing, you’re only wasting time if you’re not . . . or if you’re not being honest with yourself.