Friday, April 21, 2017

Writing during the apocalypse, part six

I have just started reading Dan Chaon's Ill Will. I am existentially obligated to read this, because it is a darkly humorous horror story set in CLEVELAND. (Yes, all stories set in Cleveland are darkly humorous horror stories.)

Then I read this very interesting interview with Chaon, which suggested a writing method I've used in the past and think I will try again. Chaon mentioned writing the book as a series of chapters, and trying to complete one every night. In the completed book, many of the chapters are quite short, and the narrative is somewhat fragmentary, jumping from one point of view to another, and from one time period to another. 

This was more or less how I wrote my first novel, although I didn't have that much intention about it. I simply wrote short pieces I was interested in, with the hope or faith that because I was interested in them, eventually they would all fit together. Writing the connective tissue (i.e., the plot) can come later, but it may not be completely necessary in all cases. Sometimes the theme is strong enough to connect otherwise disparate sections.

In the past I've made the case for working from a pre-existing plot and allowing it to evolve as you go. Now I'm arguing that the opposite can also be effective. Just writing scenes or chapters that seem somehow related to you--or don't seem related as yet, but still intrigue you--can help you build up a deeply resonant narrative over time.

This can also work well with the 20-minute plan, which helps prevent excessive rumination and lends itself to the compact but still potentially fertile fragment.

Monday, April 10, 2017

Writing during the apocalypse -- part five-ish

Obviously it's not easy. That my previous post was in late January speaks volumes. The last few months have felt like years, and doing any work voluntarily, as opposed to under strict instructions or deadlines, has seemed close to impossible.

Nevertheless, here I am.

In the last few weeks I've tweeted rather proudly that I've started writing for 20 minutes a day. Rather than focusing on word- or even page-counts, the only thing that matters here is the time spent. You can just open your file and stare at it for 20 minutes and close it again. But if you're like me, you'll at least start seeing sentences you'll want to change, and from there get a few ideas on how to proceed.

So far, my new--yes, dystopian--novel is eight pages long and has the meandering format of a mostly un-outlined freewriting exercise. But so what? At this point the process is as much about note-taking and idea-generating as actually writing a story. And I find I have ideas in the hours I'm not at the computer, which means there's a there there, and that's reassuring.

The closest thing I can relate the T___p era to is watching a close family member slowly, inexorably, painfully die. It's hard not to feel helpless and sad and frustrated and angry, and to suspect that one's little acts--political, artistic, social, professional--make no difference whatsoever. But my greater fear is of allowing myself to give up, and of looking back on myself in a few years--if we're all still alive--and realizing I rolled over. And wasted the time that still belonged to me.

Persist.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

On writing during the apocalypse--part three or four of many more

A few weeks or months ago (time in the T__p era is already a blur, events and hours run together as if in a dream), I lamented one of the many problems of writing in the beginning of the end times for America. The particular problem concerning me was the need--I felt--to give all stories and novels an explicit totalitarian context. Anything written before November 8, 2016--especially written *right* before--seemed newly non-credible. How could anyone write about, say, a family coming apart at the seams or vampires falling in love without acknowledging that it all takes place under a completely fascist regime? But then again, how to stay out in front of all that this regime can and will do, so that even your worst predictions don't end up seeming quaint by publication time?

This, as you might imagine, has proven a mostly paralyzing mindset. Trying to plan a new novel and a new story, I found myself adding layer upon layer of complexity, trying to inject government perfidy into every aspect of my character's lives. Too many threads competed with each other and the gears of narrative ground to a halt.

So now I'm thinking of starting very small. As Jonathan Franzen said in a Powells.com interview years ago, "The real pleasure in writing [The Corrections], for me, was discovering how little you need." I'll begin with one character, one story line and work outward, rather than first attempting to create a whole world system that will never be as strange or sinister as the one we now inhabit.

I have a feeling the larger totalitarian context will arise of its own accord.

Wednesday, January 04, 2017

Thoughts on grief and shopping

In an uncanny, almost freakish coincidence, our cat Bella, littermate to the late lamented Zee, has died of the same illness (lymphoma), almost exactly one year later, i.e., during the recent holidays, which are already horrible by nearly all measures, at least for me.

So, first off: Rest well, beloved Bella. We miss you.


I've just noticed that I am coping with my devastation in a way that replicates the premise of my first novel, Bigfoot and the Baby. That is: we shop because we grieve. I suspect I've bought more unneeded items for myself in the past 24 hours than I did all last year. And, sad to say, these purchases somehow make me feel better, if only temporarily.

Notions of "filling the void" come to mind, but seem inadequate, as an explanation. Perhaps there's an illusion of control--I find something I want, I buy it, I own it--that eludes us when a loved one is ill or dying. When we shop, we complete a concrete transaction with a gratifying result. There's no helpless guessing what might happen if we make one choice or the other; and if we don't like what we bought after all, we can usually return it (or the consequences of our mistake are usually minimal).

But the grief we feel may be more inchoate, which was an underlying theme of Bigfoot. Though I'm not religious, I believe Judaism and Christianity capture this feeling well with the story of the Fall. Our lives are rooted in a tremendous sense of loss, of reaching for that paradise we can never quite envision, let alone regain. Every actual loss resonates with that fundamental condition, making grief seem both bottomless and holy.

What evolutionary advantage this might give us, I can't really say. But it does give a real boost to consumer capitalism.