11. One of our exercises was to write down the question at the core of our work. I had a very hard time with this at first, although eventually I came up with an answer. But more on that in the next post.This was in the context of the workshop I attended at Esalen. Along with the question at the core of our work, we had to set down the universal question in the work (the first question is what does the work mean to you; the second question is what does the work mean to the rest of the world), other experiences that collide with the story, something in culture/history/mythology that resonates with the story, how many layers there are in the story, and, finally, "who are you really?". Right. Simple stuff.
I haven't felt the same kind of urgency to write the novels I've written as Cheryl spoke about over and over. The name of the workshop was "Writing from the Urgent Place/The Story You Have to Tell" and part of the reason I was eager to sign up for it was the nagging feeling that I don't write from a particularly urgent place. Going through them one by one, I remember my motivations for everything I've written, back at least to my terrible superdramatic stories in high school about the cool best friend I never had, but I would scarcely call most of those motivations urgent.
I could point to stories I've written and tell you that this or that one felt urgent. The boy-on-garbage-scow story is the most recent example. That story felt necessary, felt like a part of me that had to be excised and put on the page. But the boy-and-mom-in-crisis story, and a fun noir story about zombies (the two that I've finished most recently - one literary, one genre), they didn't feel urgent. They felt good, like I was practicing my craft and pressing up the hill toward my goal, but they didn't feel like I was tearing something out of me with my fingernails and grinding it into the page. I do feel compelled to get the ideas out into the world that I put in my books and stories. But as I listened to my co-workshoppers' passion, cranked up to 11, about the work they want to complete, my feelings about the novels I've written seemed tepid.
Am I doing it wrong? Should I keep seeking that urgent place? If I didn't write, I would shrivel up on the inside and my sanity would be threatened. But I wouldn't die if I didn't complete a particular project - I'd just move on to another one - and that was the kind of urgency everyone else was talking about.
I would like very much to hear from other genre writers about this issue. Writing Highbinder felt necessary because I wanted so much to bring Berra to life, wanted everyone who read the book to love her as much as I love her. But I didn't feel like my life depended on being able to set her down. Pam said in the very first session that those were the stories she loved most: when it felt to her, while reading, as if the writer's life depended on writing it. No project I've tackled has felt so urgent as that. Am I not meant to be doing this? Or am I just doing a different thing than finding a story under my own skin?
As I looked back, I didn't see a single thread connecting all my work that could be called a core question that mattered to me, the person, rather than me the storyteller. I see themes that are similar: disappointing, manipulative, or absent parents is the most consistent one, but betrayal and sexual deviancy seem to be interesting to me too, and women or girls in severe peril appear over and over. (I have explanations for some of these themes but not others.) I thought long and hard about this core question thing, and finally I wrote down the issue at the heart of the wikibook, which also sits at the center of the other big literary project I've conceived, one I know I'm not ready to write yet.
Truth. The nature of it, the fallacy of it, the value of it, whether or not it matters in a life story.
Unsurprisingly, this is an issue at the heart of my life in the world, too, but I don't see it as having appeared in my other novels so much. The novels I've written have been about their stories and their characters, not about a literary question. Yet I just can't see this as being the wrong way to have written them. I wanted to write about Berra, about Elaine, about Rose and Eliza and Jackson, about poor prickly Fiona, even about Jessamyn. When putting their stories together, I didn't want to write about truth, or about what it meant to be alone, or about how to go on when it seems impossible to go on (a sampling of other core questions). I just wanted to write about what happened to them.
Am I doing it wrong?