Friday, February 28, 2014

Get Yourself a Sherpa with Tenure

On Friday last I wrote about 3,500 words, and on Monday I wrote another 3,000 and typed the whole thing. The result, the journalist story, has been nagging me at varying levels of urgency to get written for a few months now, and I'm glad it's on paper. But in looking over it after I was done typing, I saw (already) that it would need significant work. Certain scaffolds are tenuous; certain characters kind of fall out of the story in the middle; something near the end is so obviously lacking that I feel like there should be a title card that says SCENE MISSING; there's a few paragraphs of preaching and a big paragraph of blatant telling. I hoped to work on it this week to try and fix these problems, but life interfered. Maybe over the weekend. I think I'm going to alter my usual pattern of draft --> wait two weeks --> revise --> fiddle for another week --> give to readers, because it needs a lot more work at the pre-two-weeks stage than normal, and that means I'll need to give it more time to ferment.

I have high hopes for this story. Themewise, it wound up being a sort of rehearsal for the wikibook (which was helpful), and I threw in numerous life observations ("glimmers" for those of you in the know) that I've been saving in my notebook for the right moment. It also melded a methodical sort of writing that I've been developing in my exercises and in the hot springs story with the disturbing, sex-and-violence-focused work that produced the stories I love that keep getting rejected. Hopefully this cocktail will be more pleasing.

Monday was really a full day of work, because in the morning I revised the story I wrote for my experimental fiction class a few weeks ago. I think it turned out pretty great. I'm worried about its style, and about whether its various conceits work, but overall I'm much more pleased with it than I have been with a new story in ages. My small group in class on Wednesday liked it, and Matt really liked it. It's being workshopped with the whole class in just under two weeks, and I don't really know what to expect.

The professor has explained that the workshops will focus on what the story is doing rather than how to fix it, which to me is a little like describing in detail the funny noise your car makes without figuring out whether the car's driveable. Her point is that if the workshop merely helps you fix that specific story, then you don't walk away with any new skill. Like giving a man a fish rather than teaching him how to fish. Which is a fair point that I agree with in the abstract. But I have little faith that merely talking about what a story is doing will help us to write better stories without really well-directed discussion, which is not a quality this class, much as I'm enjoying it, has been bursting with thus far.

Y'know, this is part of a more general problem: I wish that workshop-oriented classes taught writers how to revise in a much more nuts-and-bolts way. My UCLA workshop class last semester, problematic as it was, had a great workshopper at its helm, and his comments on our stories combined with his class instruction helped illuminate how modern fiction (of a certain very narrow type - more on that in another post sometime) gets assembled. For example, one of the pieces of advice from that class that has served me really well over the last few stories is "make a scene out of it" - rather than defaulting to narration, put it in dialogue; make it happen in a diner or on a street corner, not in the character's head. That's the kind of concrete instruction that workshop classes need like oxygen, and it's the kind of writing habit that oh my CHRIST I wish someone had helped me get into when I was 22 rather than spending ten damn years writing without knowing about it.

But then, that doesn't seem to be what writing education is about at the college level. It's apparently much more free-form, with big gestures about Saussure and Jung, writing on instinct rather than weighing each word, etc. It makes me kind of mad. Writing requires right-braining and left-braining, not one to the exclusion of the other, unless you're Marguerite Duras.*

Anyway. I appreciate that this classroom is a safe place for ideas and exploration, rather than a box inside which your writing is good and outside of which it is not. But explorers need reliable Sherpas, lest they become lost and mired and poisoned by bad berries.

Related: this interview with Anaïs Nin. She is an early, large, important influence on me, in ways it would take a whole nother post to explain. Part of this influence, though, is that I do not admire her unequivocally; for example, her anti-revision opinions in this very interview feel pretty stupid to me -
My attitude about revision has never been enthusiastic, probably because I dislike obsessive perfectionism. I would always prefer to start another book than to concentrate on revising something I'd already done; I think when you go on to something new, you learn new things and you tend to become better. I just think that you benefit more by going forward than by backtracking.
Sure, I believe writing stuff and setting it aside and writing more is useful, to keep your work from feeling too precious. But never revising previous work means to me that it'll take a hell of a lot longer to learn the ins and outs of your own writing, discover what's working and what isn't. Possibly Nin was less subject to this because of the voluminousness of her diary, but it's the diary that makes her a pretty singular writer, so the point remains: not revising is overwhelmingly likely to lead to bad writing. And how are we supposed to revise if we don't learn strategies for doing so, if we only talk about what the story does?

I guess I'll find out in two weeks.

*Funnily enough, when I looked up Duras to be sure I was spelling her name correctly, I found that she set out to study mathematics as a college student. I picked her because her late novels are poetic and amorphous, but hey, turns out even she has a left brain. 

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