Monday, July 2, 2012

Background Effort

Friday night I wrote a few hundred words, and got stuck on the name of a fictional government program which I couldn't manage to invent. Matt and I went out to dinner* and I complained a lot, at first about not being able to find a rhythm when I'm still in the thick of inventing a world I don't yet know that much about. I hadn't even figured out which decade I wanted to set this in, for example, and although I don't think a lot of detail like that is going to be mentioned specifically by characters or narrator, I still need to know it. I didn't know whether I should try to outline beforehand and then write, or whether I should write with big gaps and then go back to rewrite later, or whether to write a few sentences, stop what I was doing to make world-building notes, and then try to get back in the feel of what I was writing.

None of these seemed like a very good idea to me. I loathe outlining. In the past, it's stifled and stymied me, and it always feels like wasted work. Stuff that's going to be thrown out later. But writing with gaps sounded like I'd wind up with an incoherent voice and muddled themes, and writing in herks and jerks sounded like a terrible experience likely resulting in poor work. Between them, outlining and note-taking first seemed like the best answer. But OH I did not want to.

Matt, who has a paying creative job, told me (in the kindest, gentlest terms) that I needed to be more realistic about the problem of doing work that was going to be thrown out. He said that in his job, probably 75% of what he comes up with - beyond spitballing; like stuff that he works on for days or weeks, and fully creates, and is usable - is thrown away and never used. Ow, I thought. He insisted that what was remade instead was better work, and the previous work being lost was something he got used to over time.

Other friends have tried to tell me that outlining, and previous drafts, and pages of notes that end up not fitting in to your work, are not wasted. My friend Dave, a visual artist, told me that it took him a long time to iron out how he felt about doing practice drawings. He said he had to "learn how to be OK with things that weren't great", a phrase that really resonated with me. Instead of seeing gesture drawings as earlier versions of something better and more complete, he began to see them as self-contained things.

I remember being in a writing course at a community college some years ago where we were assigned to write a little self-contained scene. There were instructions for the scene that I can't remember now, but I hazily suspect that the purpose of the exercise was partly for our practice, but mostly for the instructor to get an idea of our abilities. I wrote a scene about a woman in a convertible that was falling off a cliff. I still remember a detail I wrote about the song she had in her head. I did something between tossing off and doing my best on that scene, seeing it as an assignment for which I had to meet expectations, but not as something I'd ever integrate into other work. It didn't have to be a sonnet, but it did have to have some rhyme and meter, so I wrote appropriately.

It wouldn't harm me if that scene got snapped up by the black hole of the universe and I never saw it again, and it doesn't bother me that I spent an hour or so on it. It served its purpose.

I'll endeavor to see outlining and notes the same way. I just feel so inadequate and silly when I look back at notes that I made prior to the last finished project and see that I forgot the spirit of half of them and didn't use most of the rest to inform the project. It feels wasted. But it's not, it's just background effort that gets my head in the right place to set forward the best and most integrated effort I have.

My resistance reminds me a lot of my pack-rat instincts. Nothing can be lost! No creation can ever be discarded or forgotten. It all has worth and value. I think part of what Dave was trying to tell me was that the worth and value is in his sketches' very discardability, that he can practice with them and then throw them away, and the intangible benefit of having done the work (and also having been able to let the work GO) is what he gains, not the tangible benefit of the drawing's existence.

In any case, last night I did some outlining that led to some freewriting that led to some amazingly awesome ideas for this book. Ideas which I doubt I would have come up with if I'd kept floundering along in Chapter 1. So I have a little egg on my face there. Maybe I'll alternate nights with writing and note-taking. (The idea of actual outlining, with the high-school format of I. A. 1. a. etc., makes me shudder, so I'm planning to just kind of...freewrite a lot.)

By the way, Matt recommended that I look at Jim Butcher's blog for suggestions about how to put a book together. I've just skimmed it so far, but Matt's right - there's a wealth of information on that blog. It's here. Some of what Butcher talks about is stuff that I tend to feel my way through - either like a natural or like a moron, depending on your point of view - but if you feel helpless before the maw of Story Cthulhu, it sure looks like a life raft to me.

And Finally, I made a small pinboard over the weekend of inspiring images to put next to my computer, and it makes me very happy to look at the collage of it. I hope to make it a rotating series of pictures, rather than the same ones all the time the way my previous near-desk collages have been. If I leave them up forever, the pictures lose their power. I thought it might be fun to put one of those images into my blog every now and then and say a bit about it.

This is Marlene Dietrich, whom I think may have had the best legs in the history of legs. (She's photographed here by Milton Greene, who also took some of the most famous pictures of Marilyn Monroe.) The vague texture of the background next to the sharp texture of her hair, and the movement in her left hand as she pulls up her stocking, are only a few reasons why I love this picture: I also love the little wavepoint in her shoe, and the fact that you don't see her face but you know that this is a woman of world-changing charisma. And the unbelievable length and lines and curves of her gams. She's never been one of my favorite stars, but this is definitely one of my favorite pictures.

*In fact, we went to Black Angus. I'd never seen a Black Angus on the East Coast, and knew it only from a scene in The Simpsons wherein Bart mercilessly insults the joint, leading Matt and me both to a) hear that scene in our heads every time we drove by, and b) wonder what the food would be like there. I was a bit gleeful to have the opportunity, but disappointed to find it was neither particularly bad nor particularly good. Decent Sysco food. 


Sega said...

Yeah, at some point, I decided that perfectionism was something worth tackling directly, as it hindered my work tremendously. It's still there, but it's not as big of a monster as it once was. Nice post.

Katharine Coldiron said...

( ^ ^ This is Dave.)

Anonymous said...

Funny thing, just this morning Twinkly says to me she says what's with that saying about having egg on your face? Why egg? Why on your face? And now this.

A real plate of shrimp situation we got here.

Katharine Coldiron said...

You were the one who told me my ideas had resonance. Like, VIBRATIONS, man.