Stopped Before You Begin: The Role of Self-Critic In the Writing Process

Happy New Year – It’s time to get back to work!

I’ve been reading a lot of Natalie Goldberg lately, mostly because I received two of her books on writing for Christmas.  I have many books on writing, and being a writer, from E.B. White to John Gardner, Anne Lamott, Woolf.  What I like about Goldberg, as with Lamott, is her personality.  There’s whimsy and there’s honesty and there’s humor.  There’s also the Wild Mind (the title of one of her books) and the topic of this week’s blog.

What lives in the wild mind is our truer self – the self of first thoughts, subconscious reactions, and original ideas.  The other mind, what Goldberg calls the “monkey mind” or the little point of focus we put all of our energy into while the great universe of the wild mind flows all around us is the critic, the editor of our mind. You’ve heard about this persona, it’s the one that tells us we aren’t any good at writing (or painting or music), that our ideas are dumb and our writing is worse.

I like this concept of the wild mind, or more to the point, the aspect of our creative selves that has first thoughts.  First thoughts are unedited, honest, and usually pretty accurate.  There is a lot of shocking stuff in the wild mind.  There is a lot of interesting stuff in the wild mind.  What we tend to do with the contents of the wild mind, however, and this isn’t just according to Goldberg but according to my own observations, is that we edit it.  Like some state controlled media outlet, we take the raw truth of the wild mind and remove the offensive, controversial, and honest parts and replace them with second and third variations so that no one is likely to be offended or think less of us.  I think this is why we do it.  We don’t want to be judged.

But what happens when we allow the critic/editor to do its work?  Our writing comes out bland.  Am I right?

A few blogs ago I discussed writer’s block, and how writer’s block is nothing more than over thinking.  Once we have a rush of unedited thought we tend to think about what we just put down and we feel guilt.

I first experienced this as a child.  As a pre-teen I was fascinated by stories of World War II.  I loved the Americans versus the Germans especially.  I recall writing a scene for a story I was excited to tell.  In my story the American forces were crossing the African desert, literally crawling over the dunes to get to a vantage point where they could look down on the enemy and assess the next steps in their strategy.  As the scene built and the forces were about to reach their objective, a previously undetected threat was descending.  A Messerschmitt warplane was approaching fast.  As the scene concluded the American forces suddenly realized they were about to be compromised.  I concluded the scene with the words: “And then all hell broke loose.”

But I was so ashamed for having written the word “hell” that I destroyed the page and never went back to that story again even though for me, in that story, it was the correct sentiment. I still remember the rush I felt for having written it, not because it was a “swear word” but because it captured the feeling I had for the scene.  This is how writing should feel.  I think about my shame and embarrassment now and realize nothing bad would have come from my hell breaking loose, but in reflecting on that moment I realize that I am still crippled by the editors of my internal state.  I still struggle with freeing the wild mind.

There is another component to this wild, or free, mind versus the monkey, or controlled, mind – that of the positive voice.  Goldberg calls this the “sweetheart.”  Goldberg’s sweetheart tells us positive things: “good job writing your pages today,” or “I am excited by your story idea,” and “I know you will succeed.”  The sweetheart is a variation of positive thinking.  Like The Secret, we find our dreams of success coming true because we believe in ourselves.  When we put energy into doubt, into believing we will fail, and into being disappointed we get what we focus on.  We are not trained, for whatever reason, to thrust ourselves into the task at hand with the expectation that it will succeed.  I sincerely believe that the people who are successful doing things we wish we could do actually will themselves to succeed.  Sure they have doubts, but they put their energy into succeeding.  Film makers, artists, engineers, doctors, business owners.  As a species it feels easier to frown than smile, and it feels easier to lower our expectations than to demand success.  But the effort to succeed is no harder than the effort to fail.  This is where we need our positive voice to come forward.  It’s like an imaginary best friend and it works like this:

“Ty, I’m really glad you’re doing such an exciting project, I know you will be able to do those tough edits later, but right now just get it down, buddy.”

“Look at the progress you’re making.  You’ve written x pages in only a few weeks!”

“Keep honest, buddy!  Write “drunk” – we’ll edit sober later!”

“Hang in there.  You’re going to succeed at this thing and I’ll be right here to help you.”

Telling ourselves these things replaces what we might often be saying instead:

“It would be easier to get a regular job.”

“Writing is too hard.”

“Most successful writers were published by now.”

I’ve quit writing many times over my earlier years because I believed these things.  I got a big boy job and made big boy money and thought I solved what I needed.  But I didn’t solve what I needed because I need to write.  Goldberg says that those of us who are laden with the urge to write might be able to get away from it for a few months, but if we never come back to it we will end up drunk, insane, or suicidal.  She also has the wonderful insight that many people wish they could quit doing whatever career they’re doing now and be a writer, but writers never want to be anything else.  If this is the case, and I believe it is, we better get that inner cheerleader warmed up because we’re going to need it.

Remember that our minds are where we live as writers.  They hold the knowledge, experience and vocabulary that we, individually, know.  The best we can do is to add more knowledge and experience, read a lot, and train the critic to become the cheerleader.  Replace the negative voice with the positive even if you don’t believe it at first.  And keep going.  Be randy, be naughty, be disappointing for having said that.  You will be forgiven and your writing will be respected.  Most of all you will respect yourself, and writing really is about understanding our minds and sharing what we have to say about ourselves.

A final thought on freeing your mind.  Even if you are working on a serious piece – a short story, a novel, play or poem – do some writing exercises in addition where nothing is on the line.  By scribbling on a piece of paper or opening a separate page in your word processor and ranting and raving you will free yourself up to be more creative when it counts.  Five minutes may be all it takes to wake up your inner prankster.  And remember, when the editing time comes for the serious work you can make any adjustments you want to.  Just get the truth out, gnash your teeth a little, feel those feelings.  Get the hell out on the paper and don’t worry a thing about what someone else thinks.  There’s always someone more controversial, and for sure there are millions who are more conservative.  Which side do you want to be on?

Best wishes for the New Year.  I, for one, am excited for 2013.

See you soon, you wild-minded people.

Ty

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How Big Should the Great American Novel Be?

Greetings and Happy Holidays,

At the risk of PSS (Public Soul Searching) I wanted to share some recent discoveries I’ve made about what aspiring novelists might want to know when it comes to successfully writing that first book.

Before we get into the meat of the topic, however, realize two things: 1) There are an enormous number of books already out there, and more being published every day.  The field is saturated, and with a lot of stuff that is arguably not very good.  2) Once you’ve processed the preceding information and have had a sixty-second moment of despair, let it go; forget it.  Good writing, like love, finds a way in the end.  Just do your best.

That being said I want to reflect a little more on what I touched on last time pertaining to book lengths.  How long should your first book (or two) be?

When I wrote Mary my first draft was 560 pages long.  Think about that for a moment.  How many books have you read that were over 500 pages in length?  How many of your favorite books are that long?  I can name one: House of Leaves by Mark Danielewski.  BUT, about half of the pages in that tome only contain one sentence . . . or one word.  No, I don’t have many books in my entire history of reading that I finished at over 400 pages, let alone 5-600.

I knew this, of course, after writing my first draft, and I knocked that massive pile of pages down to half in the “final” version: 319 pages.

I felt really good about that.  319 pages was a real book.  A proper, healthy novel.  I think I overestimated nearly every reader’s interest on the planet in tackling those pages, however, and I have since come to accept that I overshot my page limit by about 100 pages.  How do I know?

To begin with I had someone read the first twenty pages, someone with a good, critical eye, and in twenty pages he had a volume’s worth of issues for me to address.  What I realized after hearing his critique is that I wrote a whole bunch of pages which didn’t get around to the main story – the story of who my character is (rather than what he was not as seen through the side stories of the other characters in the book).  Because I carried a naive notion of how long a book, any book, should be I ended up doing one of the very things I despise in writing.  I wrote volumes to explain what should have been detailed in a few dense pages.  I didn’t get to the point (of character) that would make whatever else happen have the meaning it should.

The next thing I did was listen to the voices of friends who, during the writing process, advised me to keep the book at just a few hundred pages.  I did not want to accept that a book should be what I considered “short.”  It couldn’t be effective if it was short (I told myself).  So I let rip with sub-plots, detailed secondary characters, parallel plot lines, and intimate portraits of  . . . er . . . EVERYONE. When I went back later and reviewed the books in my list of favorites, guess what I found?  Yep, most of them are thin, powerful novels full of interesting prose and original characters.  Even Danielewski’s massive text is really two shorter works written in parallel narrative.  And that book is a master work of inventiveness anyway.  Here is a list of my top five favorite books:

A Catcher in the Rye (214)

The Great Gatsby (182)

A Clockwork Orange (216 – including the “lost” last chapter)

The Unbearable Lightness of Being (311)

Of Mice and Men (92)

What was I thinking?  To tell the truth, I was trying to write my version of Kundera (Unbearable Lightness), but it isn’t there yet, and besides, Kundera played with story order in ways that I am really not yet prepared to do.  As you can see by the rest of the examples on my list, even the longer books barely go over 200 pages.  Of Mice and Men is arguably Steinbeck’s greatest novel, and it’s only half the size of the next smallest entry in Fitzgerald’s Gatsby.

If the majority of my favorite reads were barely 200 pages at best, what did I hope to achieve by adding another 30,000 words?  The truth is, I wasn’t thinking like that at all.

Still, statistics say that the average adult novel is around 100,000 words or about 300 pages.  So even at 319 pages I was, statistically, on target.  But something else occurred to me in considering the length of my manuscript and its potential non-marketability.  The length is not as important as the story, and in considering length I had to consider the editing process.

I have a habit of worrying about doing too much cutting of the prose.  For some reason I think it’s just far too easy to trim so much from the page that important details and information will be lost.  But while it certainly is possible to cut too much, it’s not as easy as it sounds.  Mindful, deliberate revision takes the bulk off of the frame of the story and leaves the best parts in.  As with sculpting the figure emerges in the trimming of the outer material.  In cooking, rendering out the fat leaves the lean succulent meat.  This is what revision is.

In  my rough drafts my characters tend to do too much with their eyes and not enough expressing their mental state in other non-verbal ways.  Being aware of this, when I revise, I am required to shave off the stares, glares, glances and looks, and replace them with more organic reactions.  In the book I am writing now I think I have a much tighter story line with a more compelling plot and better defined characters.  When I revise, I know, more or less, what to go after.  I know where the tension needs to be increased, the action made more riveting, and the emotion more sincere.  Later, when I rewriteMary, the experience I am gaining with this new book will have me prepared to take chances with my character that I did not the first time, and I will also be ready to write a leaner, more impacting story.  I think this will result in a smaller book, something that can be read and enjoyed for the tight prose and the engaging character portrayals.  Get in and get out.  That’s my new motto.

One day I hope to write a blog from the perspective of an accomplished novelist discussing how to write a bigger novel and still keep it interesting.  For now, for many of us, it seems best to keep it short.  Write for intensity rather than breadth.  Render the fat, chip away the garbage, or whatever metaphor you want to use.  And remember to write like a reader.  Give people a taste of what you can do in short works, and eventually they’ll come back for more.

That’s my theory and I’m going with it.

T

Writer’s Block is Just Over-Thinking

Cheerio,

I was reading recently that Anthony Burgess called his wonder-work A Clockwork Orange a “mere jeu d’esprit” written in three weeks for money, “too didactic to be artistic” and otherwise wishing he had never written it because of the misunderstanding of others.

Oh come now, Mr. Burgess, you must know how beloved your book is!

I take A Clockwork Orange as a model for my discussion today on something I am regularly a victim of: over thinking.  In considering Burgess’s work and the things he said about it, I think we are firstly informed of the level of this man’s talent for writing fiction.  To pen such an intense and original book, a true “novel,” in such a short period of time and to such great notoriety, makes obvious the ability some writers have for commanding language with virtually no effort (compared to the rest of us, no doubt).  And whether Burgess truly intended this book to be a “game of the spirit” when he sat down to write it, or whether he intended it to be a serious novel and was only later shocked by the power of the story and wanted to diminish some of the furor, it is arguable for the rest of us that this book is rare and unique among literary works and deserves all of the attention is has received.  For me it is one of my top five favorite novels.

For the sake of my argument today let’s consider that Burgess, a la Coleridge, wrote his novel under the haze of inspiration and without the intense, metal-on-metal grind that the rest of us tend to go through when composing our  manifestos.  Let us consider the process as if there had been little-to-no thinking involved.

Romantic as a notion, the ability to write fluidly and without interruption of thought or planning is something writers rarely experience, and those moments comprise a “sweet-spot” in the composition experience similar to what other performers experience when unburdened by the distracting awareness of what they are actually doing.  I imagine this is what film actors do when behaving in embarrassing ways in front of a camera.

This freedom to express is no doubt what Hemingway intended when he purportedly instructed that one should “write drunk, edit sober.”  Drunkenness, after all, is a condition absent of inhibition.  Absence of inhibition is freedom to be creative.

I certainly am not advocating drunkenness as a regular state of being, but the awareness that we can benefit from, oh, call it a lack of awareness, is a valuable condition for writing.  All we really need do, however, is simply not think so much.

For the better part of this fall I have been discussing pursuit of publication of a novel I finished last summer.  This 320 page literary story was supposed to launch my career in letters and fulfill an intention I’ve had since I was ten years old.  It has a message, it has twists and sub-plots, and sex and violence and even humor.  It also has, perhaps more than anything, a top layer of iron and a bottom layer of stone, both rigid with thought and pedantic intention, and between these two layers the life of the story has been ground to dust.  Gold dust, maybe, but dust only.  How did this happen?

I over-thought it through-and-through.

After some very helpful criticism of the manuscript by a respected colleague with a writing and editing background of his own, it become clear that I was too timid with my protagonist, and that the story is more interesting from the perspective of a side character than from the view of my protagonist.  Further, and more importantly, despite almost ten pages of character development and background, I used little to none of the interesting traits of my character.  His true nature never came through because I blocked it.  I stayed coldly conscious of what I was saying about him, and because he was a man in a position of high respect and public profile I refused to let him be human, refused to allow for his natural deviance.

When I look at the writers I have admired over all of these years: Burgess, Lawrence, Miller, Updike, Salinger, O’Connor (Flannery), I see wild freedom and a skillful ability to be engaging and even shocking without being distasteful.  And even if there were moments of distaste it only made things more interesting.  How did they do it?

I am willing to bet that more of the books I love were written as a jeu desprit than even the author realized at the time.  When these writers sat down I can only imagine that they wrote with abandon, without inhibition, or at a minimum with what Tobias Wolff once told me for him was writing “prayerfully.”  That is, in a dream.

To return to my own book, and in re-examining the character I had intended to write from the beginning, a new opening line came to me, and with a whole different story.  The story I had intended to write the first time.  I didn’t “think” about it so much as I just asked a question: who is this character and why should his story be written?  And then the story came to me the right way.  The drunken Hemingway.  I can edit sober later.

Ok, great, don’t think when I write.  How do I do that?  I hope you’re asking this question because I am about to explain what I think works.

Do you remember that moment of inspiration when the line of dialogue came to you?  When the last line, or the first line of the poem appeared in your head when you were in the shower, or doing dishes?  Remember the scene, the idea, the personality or dialect that turned you on?  That’s the starting point.  Yeah, obvious, I know, but this is why writing things down when they come to you is a must.  We have to keep a record of our inspirations because otherwise, I promise you, they will fade, and even if we remember the general spirit of the idea the core will be gone.  And beyond writing down the core ideas that come we must also write our character histories.  This is old advice, but the more we know about our characters going in the easier it is to “write what we know” because we don’t have to think about it.  It would be irresponsible for me to ignore the fact that thought does have a role on writing.  Of course it does.  But keeping the dream state as near to the surface as possible limits inhibition and allows the story to come through.  This is why we must write quickly, without edit, until the story is down.  Page one to page two hundred.  After that we can think, plod, edit, change, align.  The hard thinking comes after the “game” is played.  Makes sense?

Ultimately we all write according to our style and what, when and how it works for us.  But I believe that writer’s block is just over thinking.  Hopefully you never experience writer’s block.  If you do, maybe you, like me, are thinking too much.  If so draft something outrageous for your character and see if it fits.  At the least maybe it will break up the block, allow you and your character to share a laugh, and then get back to drafting the dream.  I hope so.

Now get to play!

I’ll visit with you again next week.

Pax,

Ty

Think Like a Reader – Write Better!

Good morning, friends,

This past week I did some soul-searching on my place along the road of being a writer.  It was at about metaphoric midnight and I found myself lost after receiving news that Glimmer Train would not be using my story.  I doubt there is a writer alive who would say they’ve never struggled with self-doubt, and let me tell you there are times when giving up seems like the best solution.  What makes this publishing most difficult is the lack of direction we suffer when our writing fails.  Unless we’re blessed with an amazing coach, trying to figure out what isn’t working in a given piece of writing can seem impossible.  In the months I’ve been pursuing publication I have not one time gotten a response beyond a kind but impersonal form letter.  Nothing to guide, nothing to explain, no way to tell if the story didn’t fit the editor’s needs or whether the writing was just horrible to begin with.

What does one do when the flood of words one has produced do nothing but result in a quicksand of self confusion and delusion?

In my case, I did the following:

Step back and determine whether you sincerely feel that your writing is as good as it can be, that you’ve done the work it takes to make something truly worth reading.  My bet is that an honest writer will admit they haven’t gone the distance.  In our effort for first, real publication we are willing to ignore the tiniest voices and proceed with submission with a half-hope of getting lucky.  But publication isn’t a lottery – not for the writer.  For the publisher everything is a gamble, and they take risks on everything they do accept.  Our job is to make the risk pay off with good writing consisting of a believable world, dynamic characters, challenging events, creative language, and something at stake.  These are the basic elements of a story and if all of them are solid then the story will be solid (and sold), too.

I had to admit that I am not putting enough sweat into the work I am doing.  Part of the reason is that, in writing fiction, I am self-taught.  In college I took several creative writing workshops and wrote many stories which garnered a decent amount of praise from my peers and instructors.  What I didn’t get out of all of this, however, was exposure to anyone who really knew what they were talking about when it came to fiction.  As a self-taught writer it hasn’t been so much that I don’t care to do the work that I must do.  I don’t necessarily know what work it is that needs to be done!  I have come to the conclusion at this point, however, that the self-taught writer can still do many things to give themselves a chance to succeed, and admitting a lack of honest follow-through is a great place to begin.

On my bookshelf I discovered another bit of insight into the complexity of writing and this is where I think some of you can benefit by way of the epiphany I had in the following discovery.  The book I picked up is called How to Read a Book by Adler and Van Doren, and though published originally in 1940 the 1972 edition is remarkably relevant to us today.  In this book the reader is instructed on the methods of approaching a text that is “above” his or her understanding.  The goal of reading such a work is, as with any reading, to understand (this as opposed to reading for information at a level the reader already understands).  In reading above our level, and by putting in the work to begin to understand this more complex writing, we can and eventually do understand better.  In time we may even understand completely.  This is sensible because, as Adler and Van Doren put it, we always learn from our betters, not from those who know and understand what we already know.

It occurred to me then that if there are degrees of reading that are more and less complex (something we already know going back to our earliest reading experiences) then naturally there are degrees of complexity in getting a story communicated properly from the writing end.  This may seem obvious, but as an instructor of writing I believe that the relationship between reader and writer is one of the least understood concepts in literary studies.  But if the writer has an obligation to give the reader all of the information necessary to understand a written piece, and if the reader must do the work to understand the information to the best of his or her ability, then in a way the writer and the reader are the exact same figure.  That is to say, the writer must see their work as a reader to assure that the information is presented completely and with the full potential to be understood.  The writer cannot take short cuts or make assumptions that the reader can guess what is meant, and certainly there can be no “red herring” symbols, plot lines, or characters if the writing is to be understood.  The writer must do all of the work necessary for it to be understood, and only then can the reader appreciate and even learn something in the process of reading.

All writers must make sure they are good readers.  This is what is meant by the axiom “in order to be a good writer you must be a good reader.”  A good reader is engaged, willing to do the work to understand what is written in terms of vocabulary, symbolism, and theme.  This is not passive reading, but fully engaged, interpretive reading in the effort to understand what is being communicated.  To that end I encourage everyone to read things that are a challenge, and read them until you understand, even if only a little more than you did before, what the piece is about.  In this way we grow and, hopefully, our writing grows with us.

I have done one other thing to help my growth as a writer, something I put off and even shunned over the years since college when class room workshops inevitably devolved into instructor-pleasing exercises in stilted writing of incomplete, typically unfinished stories. (Who can properly revise a story for a class that runs fifteen weeks and demands four to five stories with, at most, two class periods of peer review and only a week of “editing”?).  With the encouragement of my dear partner I have joined a writer’s group.  The time has come for me to admit my amateur status and to place myself in the company of accomplished writers who can give me a successful writer’s view on my own work.  From there the associated conferences, public readings, and exposure to publishers and agents will ultimately result in further growth and, you know, success.  The idea of joining this body of writers is admittedly intimidating, and that is ultimately why I know it is the right thing to do.  Until I can impress my peers in the field I should not expect to impress the experts who must gamble on my work in hopes of continuing their livelihood.

And so I continue newly armed with the attitude of a reader.  As I mentioned recently in another social outlet, to understand our world thoroughly we must read.  And, I will add here, to be understood thoroughly we must write well.

Updates:

As I mentioned above Glimmer Train did not use my story in their contest but I did send it off already to another publication.  Once that story comes back I have some ideas for revision on it and then it can go out again.

I am about to begin chapter 7 of the new book and I am enjoying this writing very much.  I am writing ten to twelve pages a day most days and at that pace I should be revising in a few short  months.

Tomorrow I make a return to the martial arts which is something I’ve practiced off and on for twenty some years.  The physical and mental exercise will do me a world of good and the distraction should help keep my mind focused when I’m working.

Enjoy the season and keep doing good work.

Best,

Ty