Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Fully Fused

Part of last weekend was spent like this:

click to embiggen

Oooh, panorama feature. This time really do click to embiggen,
the size of this is just silly and the carpet looks weird. 

I was at work on the scary story. Which turned out to be like 20% fiction. Everything else was personal essay, film criticism, and Southern wives' tales. Oops?

Something amazing happened in this story that I didn't know was happening until I cut it up. I had to cut it up because the sections weren't flowing into each other smoothly and I couldn't figure out what needed to go where until I could look at all the pieces together, instead of looking at them on the computer screen in the order I'd written them. So I cut them up and then I grouped them together by...category, I guess? I put the parts about Django Unchained together, and the parts about Gone with the Wind together, and the parts about my youth together, and the adult anecdotes together, and the fiction together, and the wives' tales together. When these sections were grouped, something became visually clear: I had written three sections of each category, and there were six categories.

That's the amazing part. I didn't know that I'd done that. I didn't do it on purpose, didn't think "oh, I need one more anecdote to make three" or "oh, I need one more category to make six" - no. I wrote it in a messy, disorganized fashion and it just came out in multiples of three.

As Matt said to me once, and as my brain has been saying back to me at appropriate moments ever since, humans like threes. And I know that I tend to arrange my writing in threes, on a variety of levels. But I had no idea that I'd be capable of doing it unconsciously.

It's kind of like that time I put a ticking clock in act three of a novel I was writing without even realizing it. But there's a crucial difference: that ticking clock thing was derived from a lifetime of movie training, and this threes thing is not. It derives not from external stimuli, from other storytellers explaining to my subconscious how stories are told, but instead from me, from the writing brain that tells stories the way I see fit to tell them.

I find this exciting. I find it humbling. I want to jump up and shout in jubilation and then lie down on the floor and cry with relief. Because - in case I haven't said this in a specific enough way, and if you haven't gotten the impression from this blog, if you've been reading it for a while - I think I've learned that artistic prowess grows in cycles rather than in a straight line.

At first, you create per instinct, and unless you're some kind of preternatural talent, your instincts are good and your toolbox sucks. Then you pick up some of what's in the toolbox, and you create per a mixture of your instincts and your tools. That's even worse, because the raw power of your instincts is blunted by the tools and the tools are employed awkwardly because you are new at using them. There's this long apprenticeship where the quality of those two elements twiddles up and down, and it's awkward, for you and for the people who read your work, because this is sincerely the best you can do but it's not terribly good.

You have breakthroughs, small and large ("suddenly", conflict, recursive sentences, organicness, scenes, the truth and trial and absolution of "omit needless words"), but you don't feel like you're moving forward. You feel like you're moving in circles. Because just when you think you've learned something, it's pointed out to you that you don't know that thing at all. You think you know how to write a sentence and then you read Edna O'Brien. You think you know from postmodernism and then you read Moby-Dick. You think you know how to do a fragmented, multi-perspective narrative on a single event and then you read Mary Gaitskill and you really, really want to crawl under the floor and die.

Repeat. For years.

And then you come out the other side of something, some cave-cum-tunnel where you've learned that you do not care about the rules of writing, or the toolbox you need to write, or the way Freytag insists that short stories always are. You begin to do the thing from muscle memory, and it feels as terrible and wonderful as it always did, and it feels about the same when it's finished  (="Yeah, I guess so") as it did somewhere in the middle when you learned to stop loving every word you put on the page. But people tell you it's different. People tell you it's good. They stop kindly being quiet and they start effusing, and their ideas to make it better seem good instead of irrelevant.

At this point, instinct and toolbox are fully fused, and they're a creature of their own. They constitute muscle memory. They're the hamster on a wheel that spins the engine of your work. You do the dreaming on one end and the transcribing on the other end, and you dialogue with the draft until it's what you meant it to be. But the instinct, the power of your voice and no one else's, plus the toolbox - that dual entity is the strongman that's going to lift your work out of mediocrity.

It goes around and around, still. The strongman needs constant training to lift heavier and heavier concepts. The hamster is not actually going anywhere, even if she runs long enough and fast enough to power the world. There's no Freytag in the actual process of writing, I don't think. You just keep finding the same problems and fixing them, finding problems and fixing them; this applies to everything from editing your sentences to coming up with something to write about in the first place. Circular, not linear.

The point of that whole tangent is to say that when I found those threes in the scary story after cutting it up, I realized that my instinct and my toolbox had formed a viable life form at last. I wrote the piece somewhat artlessly, without worrying about how it would be received or whether it was Freytagian or any of that. And yet the toolbox gave the piece rhythm and quality, while instinct gave it symmetry and imbued it with my particular voice and style.

The author, in Downward-Facing Line Edit 

It was very, very hard. Not the hardest thing I've written in terms of labor, but certainly the hardest emotionally. I kept having to stop writing and shake out my trembling hands. I ate less than usual. It was like being really hung over: that feeling of wanting to die just so it'll end, and knowing you have to wait it out, but having full awareness that the current sensation could not possibly be worse.

I don't know what happens now to this piece, because I'm hearing from readers that it's extraordinary but I am not comfortable sending it out. My professor's going to read it (as well as something I've been considering writing for three years, it's the final project for a class), and maybe he can give me some direction.

It feels good to have it out - empowering, both personally and professionally - but I'm also slightly at loose ends for what comes next. As I said last week, I have a few little projects on my plate, but nothing that's as intense, or as important to me, as this was.

There are always more cycles to come. More circular, asymptotic movement toward mastery.

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