Monday, March 17, 2014

The Process

“Get it down. Take chances. It may be bad, but it’s the only way you can do anything good.”—William Faulkner

I'm sure you've heard this already and heard it a hundred times until it doesn't mean anything anymore. Maybe that's a bad way to start an article, but you can't just know this advice, it has to be part of what you do. It's probably the single most fundamental element of doing anything creative, writing especially. It's this: writing is process.

So much depends upon . . .

You're going to—and you should—agonize over a first draft. I'm not telling you differently. You want it to make sense, you want it to be exciting, interesting, fun, all that and more. You want it to be like real writing, and you're not wrong in the least to strive for that. But know for a fact that you are not going to get there the first time. Every first time. Become at home with that fact. Own it. Writing is process. It can suck now if it has to. You'll make it better later.

Fear of writing the wrong words will paralyze you. That's what writer's block is, and that's all writer's block is. When you sit down to write for an hour and barely manage to drag out three or four sentences, each of which you have no faith in, it's awful. Don't be afraid to write the wrong words. Make mistakes. Write the wrong word because it's the only one you can think of now. If you get a silly idea that seems interesting but isn't what you intended and you're not sure if it will actually play out, write it anyway.

You cannot judge the merit of your writing until it is actually written. Get it down.

There is no one process. You write a thing, and then read it, and then either refine it, change it, or throw it away. Outline, first draft, second draft, final—whatever. That's a matter of preference. Experiment. Find whatever works for you, but embrace the principle of process. You cannot get away from it, and you shouldn't want to. Take comfort in it. It's your safety net. You don't have to get it right the first time, or the second. You just have to get it right eventually, and even then only once.

I know by the time you write to the end of a project, big or small, you'll be exhausted and you'll want so badly to be done. You won't want to write another word because you'll feel there aren't any other words. Know that isn't true. Put the stack of pages in a drawer and don't think about it for several months. Rest up. When you're ready, pick it up again, read it, and think. You wrote something from absolutely nothing. Now you actually have something to work with. It should be to your advantage.

The process isn't just about making writing better, it's also about making a better writer. Don't avoid it. Don't feel tied to your outline. Don't be trapped in a draft. There is no such thing as wasted effort. You didn't carve the words in stone, you wrote them to be changed. Don't be too quick to give rough work to a friend. Do your own thinking. As much of it as you can stand, anyway.

That's how you get better at this. That's the process.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

The Strength of Common Words

“Poor Faulkner. Does he really think big emotions come from big words?”—Ernest Hemingway.

The thesaurus is bad for your writing. The only acceptable use for the thesaurus for a writer is to recall that word that you know is exactly what you want, but can't quite remember. Even in these cases, you should only draw on the thesaurus in matters of extreme importance, otherwise if you can't quite remember the word that means the same thing as “energetic,” for instance, just put down “energetic” and move on. When you read back over your work you'll find it didn't really matter anyway; “energetic” plays just fine.

I'm disappointed every time I see a vocabulary post on all the different and better ways to say “happy” or “angry or “sad.” I understand being excited by language—I feel it myself and encourage it in others—but nothing says happy quite like the word itself, or perhaps better yet, a smile or a laugh or an arm thrown around someone's shoulders.

Context communicates a great deal. One of the remarkable aspects of writing is that the total effect of a story, a scene, or even a thought, is greater than the collection of words that make it up. Big, ten-dollar words tend to keep me at arm's length from a story. Sure, I may enjoy the language for its own sake, but I won't feel close to any of the characters because the language draws too much attention to itself and distracts from the story.  Maybe you've felt that some.

I had a poetry workshop with a girl who adored words—obscure, archaic, flowery words. She wrote gems like “coquettish clouds” and “cast a pall.” I can't remember much of it because none of the poems made me feel a damn thing. They didn't even paint vivid images. If they were about much beyond the language (and I think she wanted them to be), I couldn't tell. She hid too much behind her fancy words. Her poems were uninteresting series of interesting words.

I am not arguing for anyone to dumb down their language. Write the way you want to write, that's style. I'm only advising you not to try so damn hard to punch above your weight. If you really feel your vocabulary is weak, read some more good books. Your writing is never going to sound natural if you always have to stop to look up shinier words. As long as your writing is sensible, that's what is important. It's enough work to maintain a consistent tone and focus and pacing through a story without also worrying about sowing linguistic pearls into your sentences every twenty to thirty words.

Be clear and write what you mean. That doesn't mean be stupid and flat footed. You can still turn word somersaults if you like, but it's important to know where and when in a story you can get away with such showy arrangements. If you want a moment to matter to a reader, trust in a light touch. The common, compact words that we all know so well are always the ones that knock us out. We all have so much invested in such words—they're familiar, so we never see the punch coming. 

I have never in my life been jubilant. Not once. But now and again, for a little while at least, I have been happy.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Writing Warm-up: Tenderize Your Buttons

 “It shows that dirt is clean when there is a volume.”—Gertrude Stein, Tender Buttons

When you sit down to write, sometimes you may find it difficult to get into a writing headspace. Sometimes a warm up is in order to break from the rest of your day and say to your mind, “Alright, now we're going to do the thing.”

Try this to limber up your language and creativity: tenderize your buttons.

Alright-alright, I'll explain. Gertrude Stein wrote this little book called Tender Buttons (read here), which was a kind of urtext for Modernist writing. Her writing emphasized sounds and rhythms rather than meaning. Tender Buttons is her experiment with automatic writing. She would sit down and just let her mind spool out a ribbon of words, one after the other forming, if not sentences, at least kinds of sentences.

The thought at the time was that your subconscious would push forward and take control, spilling out your deeper self in semi-coherent patches. As it turns out, that's mostly stupid, like most Freudian thinking, but it does make for a really fun and freeing writing exercise.

What Gertie discovered was that she could never really achieve automatic writing, in which one word randomly popped up after the next. She could never totally stop thinking, I guess because she was of literary mind and, you know, awake. Certain words she associated with other words, which had definitions and connotations that led her mind down familiar paths. Basically, you end up in this wind tunnel of free association.

So here's what you do. Your writing feels constipated, or you don't want to sit down because the task seems too arduous, the work ahead of you too serious. Relax. Just have a little fun with language for a few minutes to stretch out your brain. Open up a blank doc, and without any hesitation, start typing. Nope, don't question a single word. If thoughts form, write those thoughts. Don't be afraid of any of it. Never mind syntax. Never mind sense. Follow the sounds of words. Chant, rave, just keep typing. Jump from one thought to the next. Drum up an obscure word, then follow it, and fast. Don't wait. It feels good. It feels good to keep typing, to keep moving, to watch the blank space fill up. All out in a burst. Here's mine:

Flipper melon wilting in the sun. Sunbird picked away the rind but never mind the sweet. Can't swim full up anyway. Marching hares, debonair, james dean metal sling fired the ever wary off into the world. So long my shining diamond.

It's just that easy. Now you.