Friday, December 21, 2012

Write what you know (emotionally)

Like many others, I've always been suspicious of that old writing-workshop saw, "write what you know." Unexamined, it tends to lead to lots of stories about undergraduates at keg parties (if you are an undergraduate writing major), or about writers with writers' block (the rest of us). It discourages us from ever leaving our comfort zones and, god forbid, learning about other kinds of people or experiences. And if fiction writers aren't willing to explore, then what is the world coming to? Well, it becomes a vast blank space in which tiny, disconnected voices cry out for attention--without doing very much to earn it.

On the other hand, it has lately dawned on me that the stories I've written that seem most successful--both in terms of others' responses and my own feelings about them--*are* about what I know most intimately. True, and somewhat contrary to the rant above, they tend to have some external autobiographical elements. But what those elements have actually achieved, without my conscious intention, is to draw emotional authenticity into the story. I set up these trappings of self, I thought, out of laziness: why do research on, say, men who work on oil rigs, when I already know what it's like to be an underemployed, nearly ex-academic? Knowing the external context, though, is what allowed me to depict the emotional experience that became the heart of the story. I know not only how ex-academics looking for meaningful work spend their days, I know what it feels like to be in that position, and what kinds of awkward, bizarre emotional adventures can--or might--ensue when one is in such a state. Those experiences made readers (and me) care.

This doesn't at all mean that one can't or shouldn't branch out from one's own literal experiences. Quite the opposite. But I do think it helps to have some kind of authentic, *emotional* anchor--even if it's only visible to you--in your story. Maybe include a character based on your passive-aggressive father, only with a completely different job, or an interlude that reminds you of the time you thought your dog had run away for good. Even if the rest of the story is invented out of whole cloth, that anchor can be a wellspring of emotional authenticity for the whole enterprise. It helps ensure that you are writing what you know emotionally, and that, I think, is what we really want from stories.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Ask a question and delay the answer

I've been thinking about Lee Child's column in last Sunday's New York Times. For writers who want to learn how to create suspense, he provides a simple answer: ask a question, then make the reader wait to find out the answer. Because human beings, he says, are hard-wired to seek out answers, this set-up is all but foolproof. You can't put the book down until you know.

Obviously for the thriller genre--to the extent that such a thing exists in a pure form--that's a no-brainer. Who killed X? Will the spy get out of the country or be caught? Same with romance: here, perhaps the question is not whether the lovers will get together, but how.

But does this formula work for literary fiction? Child seems to imply that it does: writers are "told they should create attractive, sympathetic characters, so that readers will care about them deeply, and then to plunge those characters into situations of continuing peril, the descent into which is the mixing and stirring, and the duration and horrors of which are the timing and temperature." The focus on character is the standard definition for what constitutes literary fiction, although genre fiction surely benefits when its characters are believable and compelling. Yet Child says the matter is much simpler: ask, delay. That's all.

I've said before that I have trouble with the idea of character as the central feature of literary fiction. More to the point, I have a lot of trouble with the advice to "start your story with character." I know that many people do this--come up with one or more vivid character first, and then see what they start doing. But I can't do this without knowing what circumstances the character exists within. What situation, what milieu? In other words, what questions are they going to respond to? How have such questions already shaped who they are? That's one reason I feel comfortable with Child's formula. I write to try to understand something--a belief system, a moral dilemma, a relationship between people or between people and place. Yet I know that I will never really understand it. Conversely, if I believe I can fully grasp the matter, I know I shouldn't write about it. Otherwise the piece will be didactic, self-righteous, and boring.

There's no doubt that literary fiction does ask questions; in fact, you might argue that this is all it does. Unlike a whodunnit, literary fiction opens out at the end, rather than closing down. You set down a work of literature feeling satisfied, but also wondering, ruminating, generating more questions of your own. This is not necessarily a more enjoyable experience, though it may be a more edifying one. (Not that we always want to be edified.)

In other words: yes, the formula does work for literary fiction, I believe. But somehow the answer you provide also has to also be a non-answer--a believable, satisfying, and fair non-answer. Not a trick. Not a deflection, and not a refusal to grapple with the issues you've laid out. The answer should not just be unexpected in content (as it should be in any kind of suspense fiction), but also, perhaps, in form. It might call the original question into question. It might raise the question, what is an answer, anyway?

Tuesday, December 04, 2012

Writing and being still

I was very glad to see this piece in last Sunday's NYT, on writing when you're not actually writing. I've said something similar, but I didn't realize it was, you know, a thing. The author, Silas House, calls these various imaginative practices "being still." He also emphasizes that this isn't just an artistic method but a way of being in the world.

The piece lined up, perhaps coincidentally, with that Sunday's Modern Love column. The writer, Teresa Link, describes her former husband's inability to comprehend that she was actually doing something (writing) when she was sitting in a riverbank, outwardly doing nothing.

I do wonder how many creative people are shamed out of the very work they hope or need to do by these kinds of misunderstandings. Often--at least in my case--we ourselves don't realize that we're working. We ourselves think we are being lazy, just daydreaming or brooding, when we're actually doing preliminary work to writing or painting or dancing or whatever. Both authors convincingly remind us of the extent to which first-world cultures, the US in particular, celebrate visible, physical, even frenetic activity. If you're a writer, that means you at least should be throwing down actual words on some actual document (digital or otherwise).

Which is probably why novice writers are usually advised to write every day, write x number of words every day, and don't get up until you've done it. You are lazy! You need discipline! Famous Author got up every morning at 3 to write, before preparing her children's breakfasts and then heading off to her job as CEO of Everything! And you can't even cough out a thousand words? Why, you forty-seven-percenter / slug!

Yes, I've used the thousand-word axiom myself, and found it quite helpful, especially at overcoming the dreaded Internal Editor. But I don't think we need the guilt that comes with "not producing," especially when there are other ways to be a productive writer. You just need to get the thing into words at some point. If the daily routine is not possible or functional for you--or not always--that could very well be just fine.