Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Genre Urgency (?)

Last time on The Fictator:
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?


Matt said...

I think the only difference between the story you want to write and the story you MUST write is how likely you are to finish it.

I would bet that it's also a useful way for people who want to write memoir-y type stories to figure out the specific story they want to tell. To drill down to the most affective moment from their life story.

Often this story is fraught with emotion and personal energy such that it can't help but feel IMPORTANT that you WRITE IT. And so they do. This can lead to strong feelings coming through the writing, which is often a good thing. People tend to like passion when it comes to art.

That said, writers write stories. Good stories can be written to excise demons and good stories can be written to pay the landlord.

You desire to write. It is important that you write. The urgency is there, just broader than one story. So, write.

Katharine Coldiron said...

Thank you, very greatly.

I think you're right, but you being right benefits me, so I hope to hear it if anybody disagrees with you.

Chad said...

I know you'll be stunned when I refuse to disagree with Matt.

I think emotional connection to the work - the sense of urgency - can bring a charge to writing that is exciting for the reader. But I don't think that's the only way to write, or necessarily always the best way to write. I'm pretty skeptical of anything that says "X is the best/only way" to do any sort of creative exercise, because different people seem to make beautiful art via wildly different methods/motivations/techniques/backgrounds/what have you.

Methinks that Gaiman, Rowling, and DFW are not at the same place on the urgency spectrum, yet each are staggeringly brilliant writers in their own way. On the other hand, I bet Ayn Rand had some pretty serious urgency...

Anonymous said...

Matt's got it right. Lord there is so much hooey sold as conventional wisdom in the writing/artist community, and this issue of "passion" is right there at the heart of it all. You know who was driven like this? Kurt Cobain. Rimbaud. Plath. Give me instead someone like Alice Munro, who just plugs away for decades at the top of her game.

So so so much terrible writing is written under this belief, the belief that passion alone is enough to create. Passion has its place, for sure, but only to the extent that it leads to discipline and dedication. I believe artists should be taught to be . . . what's the word? . . . less passionate, to separate what they create from what they ARE, because that is ultimately a dangerous connection (i.e., when one realizes that the art's success has not excised the demons that drove to its creation).

The other problem is that when one operates from this belief (passion, driving passion above all), then how many stories do you really have in you? Only one, told over and over.

And finally, never forget that many many artists and teachers of creative writing courses mistake plain old substance abuse and its myriad cousins for the Artistic Temperment.

Anonymous said...

Writers write about their experiences. Mostly the experiences that perplex and vex them. They are trying to figure themselves out through their work either unconsciously (most of the time) or consciously (where shit work originates). If you've never had a story that you MUST write, then I'd say you've had very few life changing/affirming experiences to share with the world. Drop some LSD. Have an affair. Steal something. Desecrate a church. Whatever thing it is that you want to do but society tells you not to. That's where a real story will form. Not some fake parcour steampunk commercial stuff. Or a weird wiki book that no one will ever read or get thru. Or even a garbage boat whe the main characters talks in pig Latin. Something real. Something meaningful. That's why this profession is so difficult. The writer must have had truly unique and dare I say it, agonizingly suffering experiences to share and explore with the world. If not, you can always teach.

Katharine Coldiron said...

@Chad: Any teacher worth his or her salt will tell you there is no one way to write, that there are few hard and fast rules. These teachers did do that on several occasions. In fact, much of what they said didn't apply at all to the genre writing I do, so for most of the workshop I listened and kept my head where I was instead of mentally pointing out that this or that lesson wasn't quite on point for every circumstance. I think this passion thing might be a good example; after all, the workshop was intended to stimulate Writing from the Urgent Place. Passion has a (central) place in a workshop like that. It probably wasn't the most directly relevant workshop for my work that I've ever taken, in truth, but of course I'm glad I went.

@hvn: Great examples, Cobain vs. Munro. Made me feel loads better. I can't think of a story of Munro's I've read that felt passionate, although they have felt like bedrock, like work that has always been and will always be. Does that come from an urgent place, or just an expert one?

To be fair, I don't think the workshop endorsed that passion is the only thing needed to create. I think the workshop was more or less a starting place for people who were not necessarily experts to come and get their juices flowing, to stop trying to write and put actual words on actual pages. (That old saw about "you don't write to get published" was trotted out a couple of times.) Discipline and dedication were not really watchwords for this workshop, unfortunately, but hey, it was a week at Esalen, not a month at West Point.