For me, the older the better as far as reading tastes and research go. For my latest novel, I’ve nearly memorized parts of Herodotus’ Histories. (Book IV is fascinating – really!) I’ve regularly perused Pliny the Elder, Strabo and Tacitus. OK, maybe I’m just a little weird, but I love hanging with the ancients.
I recently returned to 2360-year-old roots for a clearer understanding of the elements of good fiction. Aristotle’s Poetics details six critical pieces: Plot, Character, Diction, Thought, Spectacle and Song.
In our many discussions about writing, particularly on Thursday nights, we have argued over terms like “character-driven” and “plot-driven”. Both are essential and inextricably intertwined.
Aristotle calls Plot “the first principle” and “the soul of a tragedy.” For him, character held second place, as he compares it with painting: “The most beautiful colors, laid on confusedly, will not give as much pleasure as the chalk outline of a portrait.” In other words, we need to know the structure surrounding our characters’ existence and what’s happening to move them forward. The most beautiful, poetic, well-observed characters must be propelled by a reason-to-be, something that answers the ever troubling questions, “What’s happening here?” and “Why should I care?”
Aristotle perceived Character as “objects of imitation… personal agents, who necessarily possess certain distinctive qualities both of character and thought…. These – thought and character – are the two natural causes from which actions spring.” (Part VI) So character causes action. And action, or plot, affects character. Some stories are propelled more by external forces (plot) than internal forces (character). But you absolutely need both. Otherwise, per Aristotle, you end up with a lot of beautiful colors but no form.
Of course, we live in the post-modern era. We’ve seen Jackson Pollack splatters and monochrome canvases. In literature also, we’ve grown to appreciate writing that intentionally veers from Aristotelian parameters. But at least when starting out, we are wise to attend these ancient guidelines. Before Picasso played with Cubism, he painted quite a few realistic works. The same should be true for new and developing writers.
Aristotle continues with Thought, essentially the story’s big ideas and thematic motivations. According to Poetics, Part XIX, “dramatic incidents should speak for themselves without verbal exposition; while effects aimed at in should be produced by the speaker, and as a result of the speech.” Thus the hackneyed literary adage, “Show, don’t tell.” Show the inherent themes and motivations, don’t explicitly tell them through long winded explanations. Easier said than done.
Next comes Diction, which he defines as “the mere metrical arrangement of the words”. In Part XXII of Poetics, Aristotle speaks about the perfection of style. He goes on at length about parts of speech (Part XX), the use of meter (Part XXIII) and metaphor (Part XXI). After more than 2000 years, the questions and tools remain the same. Well-crafted language is an vital overlay, bringing uniqueness and specificity to characters, and musicality to plot and exposition.
Aristotle also wrote that Song – literally music – “holds the chief place among the embellishments.” Of course, he was writing primarily about drama and stage craft, not prose; but it doesn’t hurt to imagine a soundtrack to your writing. I’ve been known to play certain music to bring the mood of a scene more strongly into my thoughts as I write. Song or music express emotion, excitement and energy that can subconsciously infuse your prose.
Finally, we come to what Aristotle calls Spectacle but that we’d describe as special effects. Lots of shooting, explosions and chase scenes are eye-catching and exhilarating, but they’re better when compelled by reasons inherent to the plot and characters. “The Spectacle has, indeed, an emotional attraction of its own, but, of all the parts, it is the least artistic, and connected least with the art of poetry…. Besides, the production of spectacular effects depends more on the art of the stage machinist than on that of the poet.” (Part VI)
The elements are all there – one through six. Simple, right? Not! As we each struggle to cultivate a voice, we should think of Aristotle’s “Diction”, striving for the sense of music in our words, even if they are never meant to be read aloud. We should validate the use of spectacle, without getting carried away. But we should lean most heavily on the dual elements of plot and character. One without the other cannot really exist. Both together, well wrought and intricately tied with language, music, spectacle and rich ideas, we can only hope and pray will result in a story that’s completely engaging, able to hold our readers’ attention for, say, a couple of thousand years.
Special thanks to The Internet Classics Archive for access to the S. H. Butcher translation.
My son pulled a book from the bookstore shelf the other day that he thought might be good for my writing students: The Writers Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers.
It is written for screenwriters (which I’m not – at least not so far), so I’d never noticed it before. But I was immediately drawn to the hedge labyrinth on the cover for its symmetry and symbolism, recalling my days at the Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine and my early search for my writer’s voice. It all began with the exploration of myth.
I hadn’t thought of it in a while. I had long ago learned how to create a story without a distinct, preordained template, but as I paged through the book, I saw that it turned on the theme of some of my earliest writings: The Hero’s Journey.
I’m probably showing my age here, but I remember distinctly when the freedom and daring to write a long, plotted novel came to me. It was while watching Bill Moyers’ fantastic conversations with Joseph Campbell, “The Power of Myth”, on PBS.
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In that series of insightful interviews, Campbell embellished on the classic structure of the heroic “monomyth“: the hero’s call to adventure that takes him out of the ordinary world; his descent into darkness, enduring terrible trials and ordeals; and his eventual return, usually older or almost certainly wiser.
It was such a strong and obvious journey – one I knew I could follow. And I did. My first novel was based on it; and in some ways perhaps all that has followed has fit some version of that mold.
It brought to mind a saying that there are only three basic plots, but infinite variations. I looked it up online and found infinite variations on the saying itself, and exponential granularity in the distinct central themes of those supposedly limited plots.
It made me think of a fractal, which is a geometrical structure that expresses itself with ever increasing complexity, creating endless and fascinating variations. They are everywhere in nature: in microscopic strands of DNA, in the unfurling of a fern, in the staggering structure of a giant redwood tree, in the jagged contours of the Himalayas.
Can it be that our play with words is part of that same unfolding magnificence? Are we simply following the natural path set out for us, but taking our own route? Each step and story leads us farther on our own writer’s journey, which can be heroic indeed.
I have no doubt that there’s much to be learned from Christopher Vogler’s “The Writers Journey”. Though I haven’t read it yet, it’s been added to my towering, ever more precarious pile.
The web of support that frames my life as a writer was first anchored in a writing workshop taught by Madeleine L’Engle, author of A Wrinkle in Time. Sitting at the feet of the author of one of the most influential books of my childhood, I gained not only a richer understanding of literary craft, but a spirit of generosity, nurturing and acceptance that has guided my work, my relationships with other writers, and my teaching.
Through that web, I recently connected with another writer, Lena Roy, whose ties to Madeleine are not only creative but familial.
I’m honored to welcome Lena, Madeleine’s granddaughter, to The Writers Circle. Her debut novel, Edges, was published last month by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Lena and I have become digital friends over the months leading up to her book’s publication. Finally I’ll have the chance to meet her in person, this Saturday at 2PM at Words Bookstore in Maplewood. Join me there as she shares her work and her own writer’s journey. She loves to meet new people, and I know she’d adore a crowd!
We are writers, hear us roar! For published and pre-published writers alike, the journey through this industry is an arduous one. (Unless of course, you are Snooki. However, I am assuming that Snooki and her wannabes are not reading The Writer’s Circle Blog.)
Do you have a compulsion to write? Does writing help you make sense of the world? Do you feel that you must write, even though sometimes you want to tear your hair out? Then you are one of us.
After seven years of hard work, I made my “debut” last month with my novel, Edges. It is a story of love and grief, addiction and redemption, set in both NYC’s Upper West Side and in the red rock desert of Moab, Utah.
Why loss and addiction? Why realistic fiction?
I had the image in my head of the first scene for years before I wrote it down on paper. Luke, a seventeen-year-old runaway, is setting up a home for himself in a trailer in Moab, Utah. What was his story?
In 2004, when my middle child was two and a half, before my daughter was born, I gave myself permission to find out.
When we write, we are delving into the soup of our sub-conscious. I wrote the first draft in three months, discovering with each word, what Edges was about. That first draft was a mystical, messy experience.
I had to fall in love with revision. I wrote and rewrote over the next three years, sending my manuscript out to agents and even a couple of publishers, having some experience with rejection before finding my agent. I made more revisions before he sent it out to an editor at FSG in late April of 2008. Then in July I got the call that they wanted to buy it.
But it has been far from the fairytale experience I thought it would be. Things took a really long time, to the tune of two and a half years. The two months up to my book launch in December were fraught with anxiety. I had to focus so much on marketing, and that fed my insecurities. Was I doing enough? What was everybody else doing? How can I be noticed? Nobody will know about or read my book. Wah! It felt a little like . . . well, high school! When Barnes and Noble and Borders only agreed to buy a small amount of books for the NYC area, my heart broke a little.
But then I had a moment, an hour before my book launch party, taking my kids to see Santa Claus at Macy’s. This could be as good as it gets, and you’re missing it. Enjoy it!
I ended up having a book party that exceeded expectation. My joy was boundless. I was able to revel in my accomplishment, knowing that I had worked hard for it. “Edges will be championed by librarians and independent book sellers,” my editor told me confidently. “The big chains are not a barometer of success anymore.”
Yes, getting published might not be a fairytale, but that doesn’t mean it’s not still really incredible!
I wake up every morning pinching myself that I am able to do what I love to do, having proof in Edges that the more I practice writing, the better my stories get. I can also say that I practice what I preach when I indulge in my other passion – teaching writing to kids age 8 – 18 in Northern Westchester.
I roar as a writer by reaching my hand out to other writers and creating community, finding compassion, strength and support with others on the journey.
So what do you say? Will you roar with me?
Lena Roy was raised in New York City, in the cloistered environs of a theological seminary, with extracurricular education provided by Manhattan’s club scene. She has worked as a bartender, an actor, and with at-risk adolescents in Utah, California and NYC. Lena now lives with her husband, two sons, daughter, cat and four African water frogs in Katonah, New York and teaches creative writing workshops for kids and teens from 8-18 with Writopia Lab in both NYC and Northern Westchester.
Plotting is a delicate balance of intention, intuition and flexibility, of knowing what path to follow without losing track of all the other forks in the road. We generally sense our story’s direction – its main thrust and the ultimate objective of our tale. But along the way, we trip and wander. Other events and characters step in with subplots, histories, and desires of their own. And themes appear that deepen our telling, even while they confuse and distract us.
In early drafts, meandering is good, at least to a point. If we stick too closely to an outline or plan, we lose opportunities for our subconscious to bring us offerings. A combination of knowing and not knowing is the perfect state from which to explore.
I view my own plots as a map with lots of dots for places. The landscape is sketched in lightly, but there are no details or connecting roads. I can see perfectly well where I want to travel, but I don’t really know which route will take me there. And like an explorer, I sometimes end up at cliffs, canyons and impassable rivers.
One writer-friend advises to “throw rocks at your characters” when you get stuck—to make something big and bold happen that throws your character into new chaos. High tension and hard choices make for excellent drama and action. But subtler approaches can also yield fascinating results. Try working from a character’s interior. Consider the conflicts and the desires that form their moment stuck in time. Dare to step into their skin and feel and see the world you’ve created for them. Whatever action, situation or choice your character has made, force them to ask themselves: “Why the heck did I do that?” and “What can I do next, now that this is what I’ve chosen?”
Of course, characters are not people and stories are not life. When you’ve made a wrong turn or a bad choice, you can always change it. Sometimes I make bullet-point lists of my character’s situation and emotional point of view, making sure the progression makes sense. I diagram plots and subplots to figure out what I’ve left out, or create outlines of each character’s journey until I discover something I haven’t dealt with fully. Taking a break or jumping to another scene or story can also loosen the clog. With time and examination, I can usually pick up my plot and start moving again, however haltingly.
But getting stuck is never a waste of time. We learn while we linger, muse and take tangents. Often these detours enrich our tale. Though more often, some of our best writing ends up tossed out with the recyclables.
Have I mentioned the “Cuts” section at the bottom of my chapters? It’s often several pages longer than my final draft, with beautiful writing that I’ve sweated over before realizing I’ve gone astray yet again.
Does anyone know a more efficient way to write? If you do, please comment and share!
I used to find writing prompts annoying. I mean, they didn’t add up to anything. They just sat there in a notebook. Magnificent or pointless, they were words that would never be published or publishable, that would probably never be read again.
But lately I’ve been giving prompts in most of my classes. I’m doing them myself and finding them oddly freeing. Sometimes they’re just a single word or simple concept: “Write about insects… a spatula…. your first memory…. Write about something worth stealing.”
In class, we generally free-write only for about ten minutes. Sharing is always optional. Since we’re really just spitting on the page, it’s stupid to expect much. Often enough, I’ve gone back to read my own responses to my exercises and discovered just a bunch of mismatched thoughts. Free association, irrelevancies. Other times, I’ve found kernels of brilliance.
These prompt-writing moments bring back a feeling that I’d forgotten – when I was 7 years old, discovering that I loved to dance. I had no dreams of tutus and sugarplum fairies when I first heard the music coming from that rundown rec-hall at my New Hampshire summer camp. It was a beautiful solo piano piece – Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, though I didn’t know it at the time. All I knew was that it called to me.
The dance counselor was working on some choreography when I quietly took a corner and started to move. After a moment she paused her own work to watch, and a few weeks later, I performed my improvisation before an audience of campers and counselors. In that moment of complete freedom, the marriage of movement and music, and the succeeding applause, my future plan to become a dancer was sealed.
Well, I can’t dance like that anymore, not only because I’m no longer so young or in shape for pirouettes and grand jetes. It’s because I spent years learning what was right and wrong through training. Technique embedded itself in my body until the initial inspiration and joy were nearly strangled. It took me years to undo the binds of that rigorous training until I found a shadow of the original joy that had moved me before I knew anything about anything.
The same danger lies in the process of writing. We can get caught up, even lost, as we work our way through a big project, or even a small one. We can write ourselves into corners, or edit until we’ve killed the very thing we were attempting to nurture. We can work so hard that we forget why we’re writing in the first place.
Herein lies the grace and benefit of prompts. They’re moments of total letting go. They have no greater purpose than to explore, to recall the freedom that comes at that first, naive moment of free-writing. We use them to stretch, to reach deep into muscles that perhaps we’ve forgotten to use in the midst of our struggles with an especially difficult story, memoir or novel. The only objective of a prompt is to let the words flow, just as I danced as a child.
Oddly, my youngest writing students often struggle with prompts. They can verbalize fantastic stories, but when they have to write them down, it’s as if the words get stuck somewhere between their minds, mouths and pencils. I’ve often asked kids to just tell me what they imagine, then simply say, “Great. Now write that down.” Over and over, moment by moment, “What’s next? What will your character do? How does your character feel about what just happened? OK. Write that down.” They often speak their thoughts in simple, beautiful words. So I say, “Now grab them! Just write them down on the paper before they fly away.”
Because words are difficult to master – their shape, their spelling, their syntax, are not natural to us the way they are in spoken form. Just the opposite of the primal act of dance, music, even storytelling, with writing, training must come before inspiration. To solidify our thoughts into lasting form is a sophisticated skill that requires education and practice.
So, with older students and adults, I take joy in the smoother flow of pen on paper. I revel in the scratchings as we all open the gates and let the words slip down. As I listen, sometimes I hear pauses, breathing spaces, or perhaps tighter curves in the flow of thought. I murmur, “Don’t worry. Just keep going,” recalling Natalie Goldberg’s advice to just keep your pen moving no matter what.
I assure my students that these ten minute spitting sessions won’t add up to brilliance. They shouldn’t. Just like stretching before a run or a dance, these fluid moments of non-judgment and free writing are just that – warm-ups. Improvisations.
So I give you the gift of a few prompts for the holidays. This week’s New York Times Magazine online featured a series of videos, Fourteen Actors Acting. Each short film is wordless, accompanied only by music. The actors’ emotions are vivid and clear. As the subtitle states, they are intentionally iconic character types from the silver screen, but each moment can be interpreted in infinite ways.
Click and watch a few. Absorb their feeling, their moment. Imagine their circumstances, their settings, their lives. Then write for ten minutes or as long as you like. And don’t judge what you write. If there’s a glittering kernel there, you’ll find it. Just enjoy the slip and flow of pen on paper, jamming, improvising, dancing as words form on the page.
Happy holidays. I wish you all good writing.
In his insightful essay, Found in Translation from last Sunday’s New York Times, author Michael Cunningham peels the many-layered onion of the authorial relationship.
His initial premise is translation, which one immediately assumes means language to language. And it does. Every book is re-formed into something completely new when it is translated, effected by the subtle shifts of meaning and even comprehension that come from refocusing through a different cultural lens.
But the layers of translation go deeper than that. Cunningham points to the truth that all of us are writing works in translation – that our conception can never be wrought in concrete form without undergoing a kind of transformation. It is never pure, never precisely what we’d original felt or witnessed in that perfect vision that lives in our minds. Writers learn to accept that we can never quite midwife our imagination into existence here on earth as it is in heaven.
And then there is the translation of our words by our reader. How many of us have discussed a character or scene we’ve enjoyed, only to discover that another reader envisioned the moment quite differently?
I was sharing the experience of a young adult novel, called Fish by L.S. Matthews, with my son. It’s a fascinating, simple story of a family’s escape from a nameless, war-torn village in Africa. What’s interesting is that the narrator is also nameless. About fifty pages into the book, I asked him how he imagined the character. “Oh, he’s a boy, about 7 or 8.”
“A boy?” I said. “I saw it as a girl!”
We both had shared the same words, the same journey. Yet our experience, our translation of the author’s intent (which was, no doubt, a translation of her own archetypal vision) was markedly different.
Our best hope in the struggle to achieve the purity of our vision, is to paint our tales with all the lushness, distinction and visceral truth that we can. Though we cannot create our perfect world here on earth, or in the minds of our readers, the vision they each experience as they read our words is the perfect merging of our imaginations and theirs.
I’m constantly captured by other writers’ stories – of course, their literary masterworks, but in this case I’m talking about their personal stories: how they struggled, how they anguished, how they sweated, persisted and survived (or sometimes not) until they managed to squeeze out something from their fingertips and hearts that moves us again and again.
I read these writers’ tales to find comfort in my own struggle, in the constant feeling that, despite my best efforts, yet again I’ve missed the mark. For writing, there is no formula, no rubric that explains for us unequivocally what we’ve done right or wrong. There’s only the subtle sense that, whatever it is, it’s just not quite there.
Ira Glass, host of “This American Life“, has as interesting explanation for this in this video:
It’s “because we have good taste”! As such, we know when what we’ve done is not up to snuff. If we couldn’t tell the difference, we probably wouldn’t sweat or drink or attend years of writers workshops or wake up to jot down notes in the middle of the night. We’d be happy with mediocrity and move on.
Instead we demand of ourselves months and years of revising. We subject ourselves to the opinions of others whom we hope – pray! – are wiser than ourselves. We tear up yet another stack of drastically edited pages and open up the file at Chapter One again. No one is asking us to do it. Very few of us have an anxious editor breathing down our necks. And yet obsession and the intractable vision of perfection spurs us to suffering. Or is it martyrdom? Or joy?
I came across two useful reservoirs of writerly angst, method and madness. First, from NPR.org, What’s The Story? Writers Reveal Why They Write, and second, an online treasure trove of literary greatness, The Paris Review’s entire archive of interviews with some of this century and last’s most influential writers.
Needless to say, I haven’t had a chance to do more than peek into this extraordinary repository. But what I’ve seen displays the wisdom of experience and the depth of thought that must inform all efforts to create something worthwhile. There is no author out there who hasn’t had their share of struggle, self-doubt, and failure, even after monumental success. It is all a journey and all of us are constantly learning and relearning our craft.
As Ray Bradbury succinctly put it, “You fail only if you stop writing.
None of us can deny that day jobs eat up valuable time for writing. We accept but resent them, knowing that bills do pile up and, unless we are fortunate recipients of the largess of a trust fund, inheritance or a well-padded spouse, most of us have little choice but to forfeit some portion of our soul’s calling to fulfill the need for shelter, clothing and food.
Many writers, especially those young or idealistic enough to believe we will one day “break out”, take on (intentionally or otherwise) dull jobs that eat our souls, but supposedly keep our minds clear for our literary vocation.
I spent years as one of those naive hopefuls, accepting underemployment as a logical consequence of a life dedicated to the pursuit of art. Besides, I was used to it. Having started as a professional dancer and then an actor, it wasn’t much of an adjustment to carry over the sacrifice-for-art theme into my underemployment as an aspiring novelist.
I had already worked as a waiter, a make-up artist, and one of those annoying people who squirt perfume in your face when you walk through Macy’s. I honestly found some comfort when I finally discovered that I could work as a temp, filling empty desk space to answer phones and type memos at corporate offices all over New York City.
In fact, I turned to writing in part because of those very dull days when there were no memos and all those stiff business suits were stuffed into a conference room down the hall. In those spare, odd hours when I was required to “look busy”, I turned to the voices whispering in my head. I started writing stories, poems, scenes from plays that would never be produced. Most of them were terrible. (Trust me, I still have a draft or two in boxes in my basement.) But they reminded me that I actually enjoyed playing with words and, in contrast to being the interpreter of someone else’s choreography or script, I enjoyed being the master of my own creation. When one of those stories grew too long and complicated to be stopped, I followed it down the path to becoming my first (and thankfully unpublished) novel.
Whether writing is our original passion or something that comes to us by accident, the way we spend our time deeply influences our work. “You are what you do,” says author Winston Groom (of Forrest Gump fame) in a recent NPR interview about a new collection of essays, Don’t Quit Your Day Job. “Experience in life is informed by all the things that you do, and work is most of it.”
The longest and worst of my day jobs was a soul-crushing stint as a legal secretary in a corporate law firm. That job inspired the theme of slavery at the core of The Thrall’s Tale. Why I accepted this torture for eight – yes EIGHT – long years is, at this point, completely beyond me.
But then I remember how it all began – how I used to write fiction between memos and briefs. I was an incredibly fast typist, motivated by my desire to get back to my own work; so they kept me on and paid me reasonably well. Yet I was plagued by paranoia that I’d be discovered and fired, and by certain co-workers who clearly resented that I wasn’t “one of the gals”. All this fed the drama that was growing in the password-protected document that was my manuscript. Read the first chapter of Thrall and you’ll see just a touch of how it all got intertwined.
So when I think back to those years of self-imposed torture, I feel a sense of gratitude equal to my relief that I’m no longer there. These days everything I do has something to do with writing. Yet I’ve learned more from my “real life” experiences than I ever could have learned locked up in a room all alone with those psychotic whispers.
In an excerpt from Don’t Quit Your Day Job published in The New York Times last week, John Grisham relates his sweaty trials with manual labor and the humiliation of selling men’s underwear at Sears. Somehow the path for him, as for so many of us, in the end led to writing success: “I had never worked so hard in my life, nor imagined that writing could be such an effort. …Writing’s still the most difficult job I’ve ever had — but it’s worth it.”
I foolishly started reading Anna Karenina this spring – twice, and then again this summer. Each time I was dissuaded by the time-swallowing responsibility of editing other people’s work. Beloved writer-friends and clients, you know I adore you. But every once in a while it is a relief just to hide in the bathroom between ream-length tomes and read something that requires neither a big red pen nor an editorial eye.
I usually pick up The Atlantic, The New Yorker, browse the photos in National Geographic, or slog through one of that large stack of articles I’ve printed from the Internet.
But the other day I stopped myself. No! Read a book – a real book with a bound cover and back-matter blurbing its praises. Stop worrying that it might get dripped on by childishly undried (but washed!) hands, or that the cats will jump up on the narrow shelf beside the toilet and send all your precious literature into the – Eew!
I couldn’t quite bring myself to allow Anna Karenina to sit there. (No, I’d prefer her sitting with stoic crossed arms on my nightstand where she’s been neglected – again.) Instead I chose Stephen King’s wonderful memoir of craft, “On Writing”. What makes On Writing perfect bathroom reading? First, much of it is presented in brief snippets. There are also longer sections that focus on the topics we all struggle with, including simple but absolute truths like, “If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There’s no way around these two things that I’m aware of, no shortcut.”
How succinct! How accurate! And yet here I sit. OK, I’m reading in the bathroom, I’m editing and I’m blogging. But does any of that count? What about the hard stuff – reading classics, analyzing story structure and character development? What about hours of uninterrupted, fingernail-biting writer’s block? Are these the realms of the blessedly unemployed or the very young?
King also mentions the rationale for our hard work – joy. How often have I found myself forgetting about that, in all my anxiety about getting my novel just right and anticipating its fate in the larger world? Why struggle if not for joy? Why bother to write except for the gift that it gives us, first to the writer, then to those who read. But even if the writing stays locked in a drawer, with it goes a fragment of a soul that needed cleansing.
King says in an old Salon interview that his mother “used to say, when we were scared, ‘Whatever you’re afraid of, say it three times fast and it will never happen.’ And that’s what I’ve done in my fiction. Basically, I’ve said out loud the things that really terrify me and I’ve turned them into fictions.” In this, he and I are exactly alike. Just think, why else would a woman who hates the cold ever dream of writing a novel about Viking Age Greenland?
To face fear on paper makes one bolder. It sets you free.
So spit on the page, as I’ve said many times. Just spit. Get it out. Don’t worry. Don’t edit. You can fix it later. Don’t analyze why you write while you’re doing it. That’s the surest route to an endlessly blank page. Feel that freedom, even if for only ten minutes at the beginning of a writing session. Isn’t that a brief moment of heaven?
Did I mention I also keep a notebook and pen beside the toilet?
Read an excerpt from On Writing and hear a great interview with Stephen King on NPR.org
I’m lucky because my boys, ages 6 and 9, still let me read to them each night before bed. They’ve graduated from children’s picture books to novels that develop psyches – Narnia, Harry Potter, the wild, wondrous world of Roald Dahl.
Recently I convinced them to let me read one of my own childhood favorites, From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, a mouthful of a title that has stuck with me since I read it when I was probably just a little older than my oldest son is now.
At first I wondered if the book would hold up. Would the story be as absolutely captivating as I remembered? Would it hold my boys’ wall-bouncing attention, more recently used to fast-action novels like Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson series?
But as I read the book aloud, I found myself quickly swept into my own memory. Almost at once I recognized myself in the main character, Claudia Kincaid, a perfectionist, a planner, intent in school, arrogant about grammar, with a determination and innate curiosity that only well-planned but ill-advised action could satisfy. Claudia sets her sights on New York City for a runaway escape from her invisible life. New York represents independence and adventure to her and promises to “change her” in some indelible way. It was this same expectation that I embraced many years ago, so long that I’d forgotten its origins until I reread these pages.
Claudia and her brother Jamie spend a week hiding out in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. To this day, I still look for the 16th century canopy bed where they slept and expect to find the sprite-laced bronze fountain where they bathed and gathered wishing pennies to fund their adventure, though both have been removed from the museum’s exhibit halls for at least a decade.
Somehow this novel informed my childhood and determined my trajectory, as did others I’ve since placed on my sons’ bookshelves: Island of the Blue Dolphins about an Indian girl who survives alone on a Pacific Island. Perhaps my passion for unfamiliar subsistence cultures stems from that book written 50 years ago.
Then there’s The Secret Garden, the very first book I ever stayed up all night to read. I can still feel the embrace of its Gothic setting, the constancy of mists drifting over the lonely moors. I see Mary Lennox arriving orphaned from India, abandoned and neglected, wandering the cold, echoing halls of a mansion haunted by disembodied moans. Then I feel the moist breath of perilous, unfolding friendship and freedom, and the mystery and joy of the rich soil of the secret garden.
How can I help but recognize in all this the first kernels of my own imaginative urgings – characters haunted by abandonment or longing for escape, mostly women who make of their lives what they can against odds and often alone? These themes are deeply seeded in my own stories, as are their atmospheres, cultures and climates filled with loneliness and uncertainty.
I am compiling a list of the books I’ve adored, whose reading burned impressions in my memory that surely I am following in my work and life even now. How will it feel to reread A Tree Grows In Brooklyn after living in that borough for those many years? Of that story, I particularly recall that the only books in Francie Nolan’s childhood home were the Bible and Shakespeare. I recall gobbling Shakespeare like a greedy beggar not long after reading her tale.
And what about A Wrinkle in Time – a novel so keenly influential on my young, impressionable mind that, sometime in my mid-20s, I found myself climbing the creaking stairs of an Upper West Side convent to absorb the sage guidance of its author, Madeleine L’Engle? She directly and indirectly influenced the path of my creative life. How will it feel to reopen those pages and understand the depths of an eleven-year-old girl’s wonder?
Make a list of your own. Go back and reread some that still flash in your memory. You might find a key to your own creative heart, tucked away in a dusty corner where it had almost been forgotten.