Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Dissection and Deep Hurting

Last week I managed to set down one of the stories I wanted to write in August, as well as a detailed outline for the other. The outline felt good, but the first pages of the story did not feel good at all. Things went better as the days went on, and ultimately I finished a first draft on Sunday, but I think the don't wanna instinct that keeps me from writing for long swaths of time is the muscle memory of those first few pages and how lousy they feel.

I did something with this story that I don't remember doing before: opening it, word by word; flaying it, like a coroner performing an autopsy. (This is kind of a gross metaphor, but honestly, it's so apt that I don't want to find another.) I wrote pages and pages and pages - the first draft is nearly 9,000 words - of excruciating detail about the observations and sensations of my main character, rather than saying only as much as I needed to and moving on. The latter method is the way the final draft is supposed to be, omitting needless words, but I suspect that peeling back the skin so gradually, and picking up and describing every last organ, is going to help me finish with a better product. I'll have more good stuff from which to pound out the final (hopefully far shorter) version.

It was a fascinating process, too. To expand on the gross metaphor (sorry), exploratory laporoscopy is the way I usually do it: make a quick incision, poke into these characters' world, take a few notes, and leave. But with the patient on the dissection table and all the time in the world, I can discover so much more. Subcutaneous layers. Pores and capillaries. Getting the writing done as fast as possible jibes nicely with my habits, but this story didn't go that way, and it was much more rewarding for that.

One of the good things about drafting in longhand is that I have no real idea how much I've written, so I don't start getting nervous about how long (or short) it's going. One longhand page is often about 250 words, but that varies so much in reality that I can't do a real estimate until I transcribe. The pressure's off that way. I don't really get anxious about going over 10,000 or whatever until the longhand part is over.

I'm experimenting with another way of writing that's pretty much exactly the opposite of the advice I got at Esalen. Pam told us that metaphors are generally wiser than we are, and that grouping seemingly unrelated ideas together often results in thematic coherence that we can't see until the work is finished. She and other writers (Faulkner? can't remember) say that if you set out to write about An Idea, what you'll come up with is the most boring, forced, creatively devoid work possible.

Yet all the work I've produced that I like best (and that readers have considered most coherent and finished) has started with me knowing exactly what I'm up to before I begin. An essay I wrote that connected the societal value of women's safety with a personal anecdote about my apartment complex, an essay I think is really quite good -- I didn't start drafting that until I had both ideas in my notebook, until I had connected them and taken some notes about them. Even while drafting, I kept my mind on that connection with every last word I wrote and tossed out the stuff that, while good, didn't fit.

When I focus hard on the Idea behind whatever it is I'm writing, I come up with coherent work, whereas if I just try to set shit down that seems okay, I come up with multiply threaded work that, when followed to its logical conclusions, just collapses. Writers I admire say to trust inspiration, to write on through to the other side and find coherence in the process of revising. I'm working on a story right now where I did that, and I've had to pitch the draft entirely and start over with an outline (perhaps as I should have done at the outset, eh?) rather than do something that resembles revising. It's made me miserable.

The trite conclusion here is that every writer works differently, and what makes your creation process go smooth might make somebody else's halt completely. Another possible conclusion is that next year I'll be in this space talking about how outlines don't work at all for me anymore and freewriting is the only way to go. Ah well. I just want to draw attention to the idea that no writing advice is perfect for everyone. Not even mine.

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