From Where I Stand

“Every act of creation is first an act of destruction.”
~Pablo Picasso

What do you see when you close your eyes at night? When the world, gravely still in its slumber, no longer lingers on your doorstep, where is it that you go? The writing life has charming aspects, horrific aspects, poverty-striken aspects and that’s all well and good; writers are as unique as pieces of art or musical compositions and we all experience certain aspects more than others. However, what I am asking for, aside from your vulnerability, is for you to tell me the truth about what kind of writer you really are. When we aren’t looking, when you have only the watch dog of your own mind to keep you company, where is your heart?

I spoke, via email, with a dear friend who gave me the highest compliment I can imagine when he told me that (in direct relation to my fiction) my heart was good. He could give you more details as to exactly what he meant by this, but after pondering on it for the better part of a day, I think I have an idea.

From as early as I can remember, I’ve been governed by a fine line between what is and what might have been. When I was younger (and had less freedom to practice my night-owl tendencies) I spent hours awake in the dark, and there I would listen to music and tread through imaginary landscapes. The feeling you get from walking out of a movie in which you’ve been totally submersed, where it lingers with you for hours or days, is the same feeling I had every time I’d let go of the walls around me and succumb to my imagination. Yes, most children play make-believe and in a way this is sort of related. The relation, though, is as distant as a cousin twice removed. This is more than mere play or the transitional sort of imagining that even non-creative individuals experience as children. This is a conscious act of destruction on our part in order to see beyond the “if” and into the realm of reality.

For some authors, stories—while certainly imaginative—are purposely constructed. Every path is laid with intention, every character rendered deliberately, every plot twist is part of the author’s skillful manipulation or slight of hand. These mentoring authors write books on technique and style and voice. They teach classes, attend conferences, work as “staff writers” at one writing asylum or another. They are brilliant creators. Some authors believe that everything is centered around the rules taught by these mentors, either that they are gospel truth or that they are poison to the creative process. The “good” advice is to find middle ground. You may see yourself in one of these three groups, but what about the rest of us?

Those walls, were they ever there for me, were torn down so long ago that I can’t even detect the ruins. Those stones were worn away till nothing but sand remains, hot and fine as it slides through sweat-slicked fingers. Traces remain in the creases of my hand—small, irritating bits that get into my eyes at times, but little else. Does that mean I’m pathless? Directionless? Doomed to spend the rest of my life piddling with half-baked stories? Some of you are saying, perhaps aloud, that “yes” I will…that my fiction isn’t any good and that I should learn to pay attention or it will never get any better. You might be right. But, something else, something that rings deeper and truer, tells me otherwise. There is no option for me. As I craft fiction the very fact of being an outsider, who has intruded on some grand illusion, is inconsequential. I genuinely love to read about how some writers weave amazing things into their work, like embroidery thread—where each stitch is undetected by the viewer when the work is seen as a whole. I’m impressed by this, intrigued. I know, vaguely having heard something of the sort, that there are elements of fiction. I’ve read all about them…and continue to read about them. Yet, strangely, these things don’t come to mind when I am writing any more than the evening news does. I simply cannot see them from where I stand…

I don’t fall into the category of believing that rules are restrictive to the process, because I can’t visualize the process when I’m in the midst of it. I also can’t be considered in good company with those who have found that legendary middle, because the very act of ‘finding’ it indicates that a choice has been made, that effort has been exerted towards a goal. Don’t bother posting remarks about why I should get educated on the process and definitely don’t waste your time and mine by commenting on the technical aspects of writing (like grammar)—that will only tell me that you haven’t listened to a thing I’ve said. I’m not talking about editing. I’m talking about story-telling. I’m sharing this, because I know I’m not alone and I’ve yet to hear anyone else speak quite as candidly on the subject. It’s taboo to say that you write without conscious thought…perhaps because it invites others to remark that it shows. But, who convinced you that it would be such a horrible thing to hear? It depends on how you look at it. It warmed my soul to have it affirmed.

12 responses

  1. Interesting discourse JS and Im not sure how to answer you. I can only give you my understanding on how to write good fiction. I wont say great fiction because I dont think Ill ever be able to write great fiction. There are basically three parts to my writing. First Ill call it inspiration. I have to come up with something I want to write about and I believe I can create a novel out of it. Novel meaning 60000+ words. I like to take off with that inspiration, usually its a theme like lets say river boats on the Mississippi or whatever maybe an oil leak or a murder. I start with a place and then I come up with a character and just take off with her and see what happens. As Im flying blind so to say ideas and other characters come into my mind a plot forms and maybe an ending and then I work on filling in the middle. I like to write things that are outrageous, boy bites dog. This is the creative side of writing: characters, story, and plot. I rewrite rewrite rewrite. I never stop rewriting. In rewriting craft comes into it. Each scene has to be alive something happening. The old story, someone wants something and has trouble getting it. Inside these hapenings character and plot develops and tell turns into show. I could go on and on but thats basically how I do it. I write to entertain, to shock, to put my stamp on things.

  2. Where is my heart? Full of fear. I live in a certain dread of doing the Good Work. It demands. It judges. I find that I am not a very confident writer at the end of things, and that no amount of validation or recognition seems like it will change that. The only thing I’ve been able to do is find ways to carry on and overcome in spite of that self doubt.

    Once I get over that, which is part of my nightly routine, I find that the work is very Jekyll and Hyde. I tap into something I can barely control, it combines with imagination, and some time later, I regain my senses, look with some measure of horror and awe at what I’ve done, and busily napkin up the entrails and scrub out the blood before someone sees what thing I’ve wrought.

    This is, of course, a metaphor for writing furiously and without self-editing, and then going back and applying technical skill. The result is a tidy parlour that still resonates with a certain tension suggesting that something awful must have happened here, and recently.

    My process is ugly. And frightening. And the more I try to romanticize it, the more of a fraud I feel like.

    These are things that don’t make it into interviews. 😉

  3. Is there a middle? I’ve never found a middle. Maybe I overshoot it, veering forever from right to left? (The ditches on either side of the road are interesting, slippery places.) Maybe the middle is too thin a line to recognize in time, or maybe it’s elastic enough to bend the rules into and out of the unconscious. Lately, I time my writing. I set an alarm. I give myself short bursts, little writing sprints, because it guns my engine. That, and the wind in my hair, the sound of the clock ticking–sometimes it’s all loud enough to drown the critics and the editors out.

    But nothing stays the same. What drives me forward today kills my motor sometime next week. And yes to Jinx. I jump the curb, crash into the hydrant of metaphors I use to romance the process muse. Everything’s false except what’s true about right this minute, and then, sometime later, trying to make that minute stretch into infinity with little technical fixes, I act as if a stopwatch, a pacemaker, could affect the space-time continuum. And who am I to say it doesn’t?

    I’ll say this about writing without conscious thought, though: the best work–the sentences that need the least fixing, the passages that don’t go stale–I don’t remember writing.

  4. How many times have I gotten said advice. From both sides of the fence? Oh, yeah.

    “Follow the rules, they’ll guide you and make you stronger.”

    “Don’t follow the rules… who’s to say you can’t create something great without them? You’ll lose your voice if you try too hard and worry about what everyone else says.”

    People who follow the rules do so with the best intentions in thier writing and from what I’ve seen, tend to be the ones who do truly make it through into the lime light of publication. But I think this has to do with the fact that these people are easier to deal with from an agent/editors POV. They’re more likely to do what the publisher wants without complaint.

    Those who don’t follow the rules do so with such passion that they step on thier own feet and will eventually convince themselves that publishing is all about streamlining. But they too can do great things, without a doubt, but their works have to be expenentailly better in order for an agent/editor/publisher to work with them, because they’re not as likely to give in without a fight. So the work has to be worth the trouble.

    I’m not going to say I’m some kind of tight rope walker specialist who falls in the middle walking along the top rail of the fence holding boths hands. In fact, I can be pretty chaotic when it comes to my writing. But I do enjoy crossing over the fence. I can’t start out following the rules. My muse and I work together in remarkable ways to come up with the spark that will eventually become a piece of work. As I’m all over the board with my genres, doing poetry, short stories, horror, romance, fantasy, and even non-fiction, it doesn’t come down to the rules. It comes down to the spark my muse offers up for any given topic. I have stories that will sit on the counter and gather dust for a year, and suddenly my muse will tell me, “It’s time to work on that one again. Get it out, dust it off and go for it. Here’s what I was thinking.” Sometimes he’ll sing me a song, which is where my poetry usually comes from. Sometimes he’ll give me a dream, and those tend to come out as short stories or novels. And that’s just the beginning.

    Depending on where my muse directs me, I’ll decide what I need to make the story work. Sometimes I’m right. Sometimes I’m wrong. But I think I’m still learning a lot about my own templates and rules. It doesn’t matter that I’ve been told not to completely rely on my muse. I want to, he’s the better side of my writing. He gives it a touch that I can’t muster up on my own. He is my creative side. The side that can look at any given item with eyes removed from contemperary ideas and views. Sometimes the work needs rules to get me through it. Funny, but my fantasy has proven to me, that sometimes the rules do help to make the work better. Sometimes you need those outlines, notes, and protocols in order to make the work understandable not just to you, but others as well. Without setting up my own boundries on that piece, it would have sunk. Yet, there are works out there where when I tried to follow those same rules, the piece fell apart. So I’ve come to realize that each of my works needs “their own rules”. What works for me one day won’t work the next. What works for one scene doesn’t work for another. Each piece needs to be viewed apart from the others. I’ll do what is best for each one and I’ll decide what direction I’m going in only at the moment that I actually start writing.

    For me, there’s a time to follow and a time to lead. I can’t tell you what that will be until I’m in the thick of it. And if you spring the question on me, a lot of times I won’t even be able to answer, because by the time I’m in the middle of the jungle, I’m just doing. It’s not even a concious effort on my behalf anymore. I’ll find myself starting on one side of the fence and the next thing I know, I look up and ended up in the left field far removed from it. Sometimes I am a tight rope walker making my way along the top of the fence. Sometimes I’m not even walking. I’m under the fence searching for something. The only thing I can tell you is that my mind likes chaos, and it likes rules, and I bounce between them given the need for the project I’m working on.

    Perhaps this is the artist in me who can see that if I want to make a detailed picture, there are certain techniques used to do certain things, but sometimes, it’s more fun to throw the techniques to the wind and experiment with something new. Something other artists would blanch at. The “what is it?” in art can be just as moving as the detailed drawing that you can see in the exactly same way every time you look at it. It all depends on what you expect from the finished piece. I don’t like mine art to all look the same, but I can’t stand the idea that they don’t, at the same time, look like my own style. I want you to look at my stuff and know that it’s mine, yet I don’t. If that makes sense at all.

    For me, sometimes rules will save the day, sometimes they cut off the creative necessity and are tossed to the wind. Either way, I know it will be an adventure and one I look forward to every day.

  5. I do a little of both. I work out a plot to some level but then let the moment take me as I work through it during the writing process. To my surprise, I almost always come up with something I didn’t think of and that makes sense and causes downstream adjustments.

    Sometimes but adjustments sometimes not. It is the closest thing I’ve found to organized chaos.

    Buy what I find interesting is that you don’t really describe your process for writing other than it is free form. And I would be very interested to read such a description.

    I suspect you may not be able to describe it or you may not even be conscious of the process. It may also follow certain uncertainly principle, such as the moment you know how it works it changes.

  6. “ In truth, every novelist must begin by creating for himself a world, great or little, in which he can honestly believe.” ~Joseph Conrad

  7. Dear Beanne,

    I not only enjoy your writings but also love the quotations you put here. Since English is not either my mother language or second language, i find it difficult to comprehend your piece of writings. Honestly, i not fully understand what you have conveyed on these writings but i keep reading them. They appear magical to me :-)!

  8. I can’t quite seem to find the words to describe this post, Breanne. All I can tell you is the action I took after. I opened a blank document and began to write. This may not seem significant. Many things may entice or inspire us to write. The importance of my action lies in the fact that I have not written for a very long time.

    I cannot recall exactly what it was that blew out the flame and drenched the embers of my muse. It maybe was depression or a feeling of inadequacy or that nebulous thing called writer’s block. I don’t know.

    I do know one thing though. Your bravery to speak candidly on the subject of writing without conscious thought was the spark I needed to rekindle my muse. She now burns with an intensity that I had barely remembered. Thank you.

  9. You and me both, Breanne! I enjoy reading what others have to say on this subject. Some recommend one thing, some another. The “middle ground” is all fine and well. I’m not very good at it. I tend to wander off into the forest beside the road and end up getting lost in the mountains or down by the sea. I think, for me, the best advice comes from those who admit that they forget where they are; they struggle through uncharted territories until they reach the end. The endeavor is extremely difficult but the labor is beyond rewarding.

    I just finished reading Terry Brook’s book to writers, SOMETIMES THE MAGIC WORKS. In it, he discusses his “here, but not here” philosophy and the trials, triumphs and road rashes received from failures that he’s experienced along the way. He is enlightening and says many of the same things you have here. If you feel like it, you might read him one day. Or not. It does not matter. I believe that a writer who wants to write feels it down to his bones, his very essence. To quote Brooks: “What is interesting to me now, more than forty years after that first story, is how deeply enmeshed I am in what I do. It is beyond reasonable. If I don’t write, I become restless and ill-tempered. I become dissatisfied. My reaction to not writing is both physical and emotional. I am incomplete without my work. I am so closely bound to it, so much identified by it, that without it I think I would crumble into dust and drift away.”

    As you say, sand.

    I’m really appreciative of the time you take to fill your readers in about your experiences. I find them enlightening. Your challenges encourage me. If I am ever so fortunate as to be published, I know I will face the same things you do. All writers do. Keep writing, keep dreaming, keep up those night owl tendencies. I know I did the same thing as you in middle and high school–I stayed up listening to music late into the night thinking of places far away.

    And to answer your question as to what sort of writer am I…see what I become on days I don’t get to sit down for even 5 minutes and think about my writing. I can be a real…you get the idea. Writing, for me, is breathing. I do it because I love it, because it’s me.

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