Passing the Litmus Test – Connection with the “external” reader

[Before I begin my discussion this week I wanted to mention that I will be teaching a summer online fiction writing workshop for the Truckee Meadows Community College – http://www.tmcc.edu – in case any of you are interested.  You can apply, register, and pay fees on-line.  Best of all, there are no residency requirements for summer classes.  Look for ENG 221, second summer session.  Class begins in July.]

There is an axiom that warns creatives not to talk too much about their upcoming/current projects.  The fear is two-fold: 1) there is the fear of having an idea stolen, and;  2) many artists believe that discussing a project in too much detail will disperse the creative energy of the idea, leaving them vacant when it comes time to produce.

I certainly guard against both in my own creative life.

But there is an opposite side of the proverbial coin here, that discussing the overarching project with a few trusted associates – be they friends, family, or lovers – can actually feed the creative buzz and keep one motivated even when the internal muse up and leaves.

Much has been said about writing groups recently, and most creatives have a circle of some kind where they go to share their work with like-minded folk who understand the artist’s struggle.  This is one of the great advantages of a creative community, that one has a place to share one’s work in hopes of getting proper (i.e. technical) feedback on the many facets of the project.  But there is something equally important in sharing our ideas outside of the fold.  With our artist’s groups we are often “preaching to the choir,” pitching our process to folks who already assume certain things because they, too, are experiencing what we are.

Consider the value, however, of the non-artist critic – intelligent and trustworthy people who don’t know the first thing about the internal struggles of the artist – or if they know the first, even the second thing, they still and nonetheless aren’t deeply involved in the daily struggle of, say for the sake of argument, the creative writer.  These people may have written a little in their time, and certainly they should be readers, but they do not consider themselves artists . . . let me give you a personal example.

My significant other was an active writer and painter in her youth.  She has written poems, short stories, journals, and more recently, blogs.  These days she is a dedicated scientist and administrator.  She does not have a lot of time to write and paint, does not have the daemonic drive to do those things the way I do.  She is busy in science and her artistic past is a home where her talented and capable artistic self once resided.  Because of this background she is a trustworthy audience for testing my ideas.  In her I do not, however, have the full sense of choir I do with my writing group and fellow writers.  She knows a bit about what it takes to write creatively, she knows what she likes, but otherwise she is busy in another realm.  And there is one more caveat which ultimately qualifies her as a test subject for my work:

She doesn’t like everything I write.

This may seem harsh, but consider the lessons couched in this reality.  First, the serious artist benefits nothing from being over-sensitive to criticism.  Whether we believe it or not, not everything we create is outstanding, and even if it is, not everyone is going to like it.  But there is something beyond personal taste going on in my case: her dislike of some of my work is not always personal preference.  Sometimes I simply don’t do my job.  And without the filter of a practicing artist interfering with her response to my work she is free to react as a consumer of the product.  She reads like a reader.  Her reaction is genuine as a reader’s and I, as the writer, have the opportunity to review what I have done to see where my work is lacking.

2013 has been a very good year for me in terms of creativity.  I have been inundated with ideas for poems, short stories, novels, and now, a play.  My partner, external to my circle of artist friends, has been with me over the entire journey and has seen things unfold as I go.  And now the pay off.  I am seeing and hearing sincere enthusiasm for my ideas and end product more and more consistently from her.  This is not because I write to cater to her tastes, but because through the external critique of a demanding audience (and she will admit to being demanding) I am forced to grow.  I can trust the response because it comes from “outside the know.”  She has pushed me to reach a larger audience, and to create more satisfying results.  I have been inspired to reach deep and get at the core of who I am as a writer.

Most writers have a community surrounding them by which their work is evaluated.  Assuming this reality, it is incumbent for every writer to evaluate their community to assure that “external” readers are present.  Our external readers represent an unknown audience.  They are a precursor to our harshest critics and our most challenging barriers to readership.  They are part muse and part critic in the most raw sense, for when they connect with our work we are afforded a sense of the accomplishment, and of the satisfaction, awaiting us in the greater realm of publication.

Let’s Talk a Blue Streak (What the &*^% do I know about REVISION?)

This where the rubber meets the road

Once there was a writer who had something to say

If there is one thing I know about writing, it’s the fact that nothing I put down the first time is usually good enough to share.  If there is a second thing I know about writing, it’s that beyond the basics of character, plot, and setting, there is a thing called revision – and it is the most important part of writing, next to writing, that there is.

But what do I know about revision?

I have been teaching college students how to write since 1999.  That’s (1,2,3,4 . . .) a lot of years looking at materials and using tools to help student writers learn the craft of writing.  From essays and research papers to poems and short stories, I can talk a blue streak about inspiration, ideas, character, and plot.  I can point to dozens of writers and writing books to help with the process – the whole deal – all of it, until, that is, it comes to revision.

What do I know about revision?

One of the better treatments of revision I have ever read was in Jerome Stern’s excellent book Making Shapely Fiction where he distills the process down to a few simple steps:

“You must look at it closely, ponder it, and ask yourself certain questions: What am I trying to do? What is the heart of the matter?  Why are all these characters here?  Why are all these scenes here?  Why did I start the story where I did?  Why did I devote all that space to that scene? . . .” (213).

And so on.  But what does this really tell us about revising?

I think the answer lies in the effort of trying to find the answer.  In other words, when it comes time to revise we must change our thought process from the way it was when we wrote the first draft and begin reading between the lines of what is now written.  After a first draft is finished there are many possibilities for the story.  Our job in revision is to choose one possibility for the story and then make it sing.

Great – but how?

Let’s go back to reading between the lines.  It turns out that Stern really says all that needs to be said about the way revision happens: think about the story, ask yourself questions about everythingmove beyond the obvious – the obvious plot, the obvious action, the obvious character behaviors, and find the next level of the story – the real purpose of it.  In a word (Stern’s word) ponder.  Then make changes according to your conclusions.  I think this is why revision is such a challenge.  In my experience I find it so easy to sit down and blarf all over the page until I suddenly have a few hundred pages (600, in one case) of a story that more or less resembles a novel.  Lots of freedom there, lots of side alleys and casual thoughts and silliness.  But, aha!  This is nearly the exact opposite of revision!  First writing and revision are yin and yang, light and dark, sweet and bitter.  When it comes time to revise there is no more free-wheeling going on.  We must get real.

There is a lot of energy required for revision.  Beginning with the beginning we must look at what is being said as if we did not say it, to hear it as though someone else said it and is asking us to invest in the story.  Does the opening catch and keep us?  Do we care, from the start, about these characters?  About what happens next, and next?  Is the language alive or is it simple, boring, tired?

And we do this once, twice, three times . . . four, five, six.  We do it enough that we cannot do it anymore, and then we finally send it off and later, after wading through rejections and self-deprecating agony, the desire to give up, we go through it again.  Eventually we come to one of two conclusions – either the story is worth saving and we continue to work it, or the story is unsuccessful and we need to abandon it or rewrite it.

The bottom line is that revision takes a lot of work, work I honestly did not do on my first novel.  Artists cannot be lazy when it comes to art if the art is to succeed.  Revision requires the hard work of questioning, of hearing and thinking about the story, of fitting in all of the right pieces and taking out the wrong ones.  Revision is removing layers of a mask, of carving into the virtual clay of the words, of revealing, yes that’s it, revealing the story we mean to tell, or that should be told, and sloughing off the dead skin of what does not belong.

This process could go on forever, and we must realize that there does come a point when enough is enough.  Three revisions is not too many, however, and afterward time and experience and the existing product will inform us of our arrival.  Until then we must not look up too soon, must not expect our work to mature until we have exhausted its full potential.

The Artist at Play – (Why so serious?)

I’m going to admit to something that will categorically and forever define me as a nerd: I was a Dungeons and Dragons player.  And not just a player, I was the Dungeon Master!

For those unfamiliar with D&D, the game requires an orchestrator, called a Dungeon Master (or DM), who prepares the materials and story line which the other player-characters follow.  Sometimes the DM writes their own material (and, yes, I was that kind of DM).  The rest of the game consists of endless lists of equipment, monsters, magic, mayhem, and a heavy dose of rules that govern the world.  Players use dice to determine outcomes of action, and the whole thing is flavored with role playing – or acting – according to the traits and personality of the player’s character.  The DM, naturally, plays many parts.  It has been several years since I played a real “paper and dice” game and I kind of miss it.

I mention this little secret of mine to highlight the fact that role playing is storytelling, and storytelling is really little more than play.  If you watch children (or perhaps remember your own childhood) you will note that youngsters have an unabashed, fluid way of creating a world in which horses talk, dolls have wants, and inanimate objects perform amazing feats beyond the laws of reality.  Children do not sit for hours and ponder the events of their play.  In fact, the most time a child spends pondering anything is when selecting the toy (or toys) used to populate their world.  After that, it’s all ad hoc, ad lib, ad infinitum . . .

Natalie Goldberg speaks of this free flow approach to creativity when she states, as her number one rule, that when writing one must never stop the hand from moving across the page (or over the keyboard).  By participating in unfiltered writing the writer engages the intuitive, “first” mind, the one which is uninhibited and most creative.  As with children there is a natural process in the imagination which creates a proper order to things, and even if the order and details must be altered later this freedom in first expression allows room for the changes to come during a later editing process.  But to stop in the middle of the creative process to “think” is to risk derailment and the rush of negative voices eager to say that what you are doing is trivial and amateur.  To spend much time thinking at all is molasses and tar in the river of creativity.

In considering children, creativity, and the whole writing process I find myself asking (yet again) why do we write (or paint, act, sing)?  To say that we create for fame or recognition or money is to accuse the symptom of being the illness.  No, I believe the real reason we create is for play.  This may well be the reason we feel guilty when we take time away from “responsible” things to write.  What intelligent and well-adjusted adult, after all, would lock themselves in a room to play with paint or make up stories that have no real value anyway?  And our children pine and our spouses moan and our families fret because we are dilly-dallying around instead of being serious!  Well, yes, we admit it!  We are playing!  We are making up stories and creating worlds and putting colors in the wrong places and making animals talk and causing nakedness and telling truths that are supposed to be secret and on on on . . . and if others don’t like it perhaps it is time they who should ask themselves why they do what they do?  Do they like their work?  Does their sports addiction solve any problems? (I love sports, mind you, I’m just saying).

The point to be understood here is that the life of the artist is essentially one of play.  Artists spend their time creating and then they spend their time discussing the creation, the creative process, and they dress funny and have long hair or hair too short and have bad habits and are generally odd.  In short they are like children.  We are like children.  The heaviness of law and politics and death are just subjects for us to explore creatively.  We try to bring levity even if we do it through heavy works.  The saddest story in the world would not elicit one iota of emotion of the storyteller could not weave the tale of it artfully, with color and energy and specificity.  No matter how heavy the story, the artist approaches their work with a playful mind — a generous, wild mind.  Even children tell sad and serious stories, but they don’t often think “I should not tell this.”  They make their world and they stand by it.

In the end children are simply unrefined artists.  Adult artists are refined by experience, but they reject the shackles of adulthood and the guilt over spending time creating.  Adult artists keep at play with the goal of perfecting their art.  Long after their peers have grown tired of life and give in to routine, conformity, and status quo, the artist is still playing, still coloring, still imagining a place where ten foot tall horses talk to four inch tall people and it makes sense.  In play the artist discovers the purpose of their creation.  The adult part serves only for efficient editing later, and this is where grown up experience comes into the mix.  But until that time we are children at play, and when we are finished with the project at hand, with all of the work of editing and revision is done, we will go back to being children again.

In our time of creativity there are no adults allowed, and no adult responsibilities.  We are playing, and we should celebrate the fact that we still know how to do this, long after childhood has passed us by, because we have not given up in life.  We know how important magic and fancy are, and we’ll be damned if we’ll ever let that go.

Do You Listen Enough?

Part one:

There is much to be said about being quiet.  In the quiet there are things to be heard, soft, little voices of things that need to be observed and processed but which will be lost in the mayhem of an average day’s activity if allowed to be consumed by distraction.  I suppose for the average human being – the one who has a job which pays for all of the trappings required for a typical life (namely a place to live, food, and probably more than enough “stuff”) – doesn’t really have much use for the quieter side of living.  Those small voices are just the mutterings of impending lunacy after all, and what is your average desk jockey going to do with a meadow full of original ideas anyway?

But listen up, dear artist!  You are not excused from listening to little voice.  Little voice is something you are required to pay heed to.  Little voice differs from other voices because little voice holds all of the details that make up the proper story.  But it takes real effort to listen to little voice.  Sitting idly by and thinking about other things such as unfinished chores, money worries, the status of one’s love life, etc. is not listening.  Until all of that other stuff is cleared away and you-the-artist, the craftsman, have grown quiet the little voice will continue to struggle to be heard.

Little voice is something special.  Call it inspiration, the muse, creative genius or whatever name you want to give it, but what we are talking about in the end is the internal narrative which exists in all people, but for which the artist must eventually be accountable.  Joseph Campbell, the great twentieth century intellectual mythologist, referred to this calling in a different way when he talked about the life of the hero’s journey.  The hero’s journey, in fact, is precisely what our characters experience in the course of our stories.  It is the details of their lives which make our stories unique and interesting.  These details manifest themselves in our psyche where they develop over the course of our own life experiences.  After we have assimilated these details and processed them fully into  our subconscious, little voice begins to retell them, weaving a history, perhaps many histories, which we can capture and reconstruct as “fictional” tales the same way a painter gathers pigments and shapes and shadows to compose a picture.  In this way we become a conduit for new stories based on these experiences, refashioned by little voice, which we then tell in a myriad of new ways.  And so the act of writing becomes as much a translation of the details of our subconscious as it is an act of imagination.  Certainly we can struggle to create stories out of nothing more than what we are able to make up as we go, but to be really believable we must ultimately listen, deeply and sincerely, to little voice, in effect getting out of our way so the “truth” can be told.

Part two:

I am all about listening to little voice, but I have to admit to being hard-headed about something that I believe all writers should engage in: writing practice.  To be completely honest I had a minor revelation about this very topic just last night.  I was reading more Natalie Goldberg, having read Wild Mind this winter, and in her first great work, Writing Down the Bones, she emphasizes heavily the need for writers to spend ten to thirty minutes per day in writing practice.  This is simply the act of clearing our minds for writing by getting all of the junk out of our heads ahead of time.  By writing non-stop, and with no filter, we clear the webs of distraction from our minds prior to getting to the serious work of the project at hand.  Goldberg swears by it, and now that I have finally really heard what she is saying about writing practice I admit that it makes perfect sense.  Every other practitioner of craft practices at least as much as they perform.

Writing practice does something else for we creatives besides clearing our minds of distraction.  Writing practice puts us in touch with  little voice.  As we sort through the chaff of our thoughts and distractions we unearth the hard riches of little voice.  As we sit at our writing desk and the morning light turns warm in the early afternoon we find ourselves engaged in the cottony haze of the creative conscience so much that the smallest interruption of a loved one at the door is a cold snap in the rhythm of our reverie.  But by investing in the process of arriving at this moment through practice and consistency we find it much easier to get back to that place, and so we are in control of our creative life and can allow the current of creativity to continue almost at will.  This is especially important for young (by which I mean new) writers who very often feel that the effort of getting started is so great most of the time, and the interruption so easy, that little work gets done over years of trying, and sometimes they believe it is easier to surrender than to struggle on one more week.  To them I say, grow quiet, listen, practice.

Another note about daily practice: Julia Cameron says as much in her landmark work The Artist’s Way where she advises a daily regimen of three pages first thing in the morning.  Believe me, that feels like a lot of work, but the result is that the slough of a busy mind is more easily discarded so that the real work can be done without the weight of a cluttered mind.

As for the question at hand – do you listen enough? – I venture to guess probably not.  This is not to suggest you, or I, or anyone is especially rude.  Most people simply are not in the habit of quieting their minds long enough to really see what’s there.  Through writing practice and attentiveness to the little voices of our creative subconscious, we stand to reap the benefits of a free investment.  The real beauty then is that progress becomes easier, command of our creative process is more robust, and ultimately, as I recently saw quoted elsewhere – years from now you will still fret and worry as a creative, but you will worry about the writing, and no longer about being a writer.

Proper Procrastination (Making the most of doing “nothing”)

There is a habit among creative people to spend time “navel-gazing” which to the casual observer is serious cause of consternation.  Naturally when one is doing nothing more than taking walks, staring at a wall, lying on the couch, or pursuing any other activity commonly recognized as a luxury to the average indentured worker, there are bound to be some questions regarding a person’s ethics.

I have struggled myself with the guilt of taking time to meditate on the thoughts and ideas coursing through my mind.  I have been accused of being a hermit, detached, or disinterested.  In order to avoid the scorn of others I have striven to be constantly at work, prolific as they say, with multiple projects in the air so as not to appear too casual in my approach to life.

I moved this weekend and in the process of unpacking I came across several writing guides, books of wisdom that have helped me navigate the course of my writing career with sage advice I have largely forgotten (or transformed in my head so as to hold only to the kernel of the idea and not so much to the precise words).  One such tome in my library, and to which I now return, is Brenda Ueland’s classic If You Want to Write.  Though dated in its narrative tone this old guide is full of practical wisdom and is one more good read for any aspiring writer.  As for the topic at hand, I came across the following passage and thought I would share it with you in hopes of alleviating any guilt you may feel about the need to take time to reflect while marching along the artist’s path:

“If you write, good ideas must come welling up into you so that you have something to write.  If good ideas do not come up at once, or for a long time, do not be troubled at all.  Wait for them . . . But do not feel, anymore, guilty about idleness and solitude” (32-33).

We’ve all heard the axiom about idle hands and the devil’s playground, and that, coupled with our puritanical drive for physical labor, makes the act of freedom in idleness tantamount to blasphemy in most cultures.  But there is value, and a warning, in recognizing the usefulness of quiet, idle time, as Ueland addresses further:

“If your idleness is a complete slump [characterized by] indecision, fretting, worry . . . that is bad, terrible and utterly sterile . . . But if it is the dreamy idleness that children have, an idleness when you walk alone for a long, long time . . . or dig in a garden . . . or play the piano or paint ALONE . . . that is creative idleness.  With all my heart I tell you and reassure you: at such times you are being slowly filled and re-charged with warm imagination, with wonderful, living thoughts” (33-34).

Creativity requires incubation.  Not so much that one is waiting for pure inspiration, though inspiration does come at these times, but that an overburdened life, filled with distractions and quick, short thoughts is not conducive for the creative mind to fill with the expanse of big ideas.  It takes a quiet mind and alone time to allow the slow development of what we want to write (or paint or sing).  By resting and maintaining a meditative rhythm in our lives, artists experience the manifestation of new material in an effortless way.  This is the life of a writer, independent and spirit-filled.

This is not to say that creatives never have time for loved ones, their partners or their children, but that each must coexist within the rhythm of the artist’s life so that the creative spirit can flourish.  This is what Virginia Woolf talked about in her famous treatise A Room of One’s Own.  Ueland would no doubt carry the concept beyond to a field, a road, a path of one’s own – any place that the artist can get to to be alone and allow the mind the embrace bigger thoughts.

It is true, the creative life is demanding.  It requires solitude, courage, patience, and hard work.  What is most often neglected, however, is quiet reflection.  Without it the work can still be done.  Witness the life of Raymond Carver, perhaps the greatest American short story writer of his generation, who sat in his vehicle at the end of the day and scribbled out his stories to the ticking of his cooling engine before going into the house where his wife and young children demanded attention.  But this is not the preferred life for the creative, and regardless of what form the meditative environment takes, we are all encouraged to take it.  This truth is one more aspect of the creative life that some people call selfish, but if one is to create work which is honorable to the craft there is bound to be some selfishness involved.  Writing, perhaps above all forms, demands an unfettered mind.  The voices, both internal and external, which harp on us to give up our pursuit and return to the cage of common living must be cast off so that we can be free to create.  In solitude and idleness will the artist most often find such necessary progress.