Sunday, December 8, 2013

Writing Toward The Magic

          This is how it usually works for me:

            I start out somewhere familiar, let’s say a room I know very well, or maybe with a person I know very well. Okay, so that person is usually me. Or the female version of me. Or the elderly-man version. Or whoever. And I don’t care what anybody says, there is a part of you in your characters. There has to be. The only way we know what it’s like to be human is through our own experiences of being human. So this me/not-me version of myself describes this room (or town, bar, field, whatever), but you can only explore the “room” for so long. Maybe a great writer could stay in this room for the length of an entire novel, but most of us need more toys for our characters to play with. Either somebody has to enter this room, or your character must find his/her way out. But the thing is, by the time your character’s hand reaches for that doorknob, they’ve already started to change. They are no longer you. They’re closer to becoming whoever they’re trying to be.

The book I’m working on now is like that. It starts out in a small Colorado town similar to one I lived in during my twenties. But soon there’s a twelve-year-old boy walking around in this town on a kind of bizarre scavenger hunt. And soon after I started writing, I realized that this boy’s older sister had committed suicide the year before. And then there’s this tree at the center of it all that was stolen and has something to do with the boy, the dead sister, and the town. The only similarity to the town of my past is the mountain looming in the background, but even that soon starts to unhinge itself from whatever picture I once had of it. It’s almost always like this when I start. Like I’m fighting something. Or uncertain of myself. Or afraid to leave the familiar. But once I’m out there, in new territory, meeting these new people, it’s like I can’t believe I ever resisted it in the first place.

And I think it's okay for the familiar to be a kind of starting off point. But make sure you let everything after you leave that safe place become less and less familiar. That’s when you’ve abandoned your known world: when your characters become separate from you, people you’re following rather than pushing. And this being led about by a character is what I think most mean when they talk about the magic of writing. But maybe ‘magic’ isn’t quite the right word because it implies something mystical, something us ordinary people just can’t access. But I don’t think that’s true.

Ezra Pound once referred to something he called the “golden thread in the pattern” weaving its way through poetry. It’s sort of like that. You begin to see clues in your own writing, hints, parts of this special thread slowly being unearthed. But those hints aren’t put there by some kind of magic. They’re put there by you. The only trick is knowing how to find them. It’s only once you leave the familiar and finally get lost, once you realize you’re standing alone in some strange desert with a thin wind blowing about your feet, that you're forced to look for these clues. And soon you realize there’s nothing to be afraid of; you’re fine out here in the desert. You're terrified maybe, but in a good way. Your heart is pounding. You look around and maybe a snippet of dialogue rises from the sand, a nothing bit of nothing talk that starts leading you toward something. Maybe it's just a mirage, but that's okay, everything in this desert is a mirage. So you start to follow this thread and the next thing you know an hour or two has passed, and, when you finally pull your head up from the page, the outlines of your everyday life begin to take shape again.

It happened. You left. You did it. And now that you’re out there, you know all you have to do is sit back down, be patient, and it’ll be waiting out there for you again.

 And you can’t wait to get back to it.

What a wondrous, glorious, magical thing that is.


Thursday, November 28, 2013

How To Stop Writing

            Write Every Day!

            Keep Writing Daily!

            Or so screams just about every MFA program out there and every other article in Writer’s Digest. But I can think of no better way of turning something you may possibly love into a dreaded chore. Not writing makes me miss writing. Not writing makes me crave writing. There are numerous sexual analogies one could make here, but I will refrain.

Let me just say that whenever I do take a break from writing and eventually get back to it, I take my time with it. I go slowly. I spend time. I try to taste every scene. I feel every word. I linger until the page starts to quiver and begs me to firmly plant a period down.

            Sure, I may long to pound the keyboard, but I hold back, drawing out the pleasure for as long as I can. I don’t want the writing to end. And then I slip in just the right adjective.


            But I’m not in my twenties anymore, so, afterward, I need time to recover.

I replenish. I get stronger. I lay back and process what’s just happened. I fantasize about what’s to come. I smoke a cigarette and thank my lucky stars. And no matter how badly I may want to keep writing, I wait until the page starts flirting again.

            And, later, if I find myself stuck in some dull routine, I’ll try writing in different places. Just the other day I sat in my car, parked outside of a church while it was raining and wrote a quickie. Or sometimes I’ll switch it up a little by busting out an old typewriter (MILF: Machine I’d Like to Fiction), all dolled up in vintage clothes. Or maybe I’ll get primitive and use a pen and paper. Sure, it’s a little dull (to spice it up try a colored or ribbed pen—or both!),  but we’re never too old to work on the basics again.

            So, in conclusion, yes you could write every day.

            But why would you?

            I say try abstaining for a day or two, a week if you have a strong enough constitution, and you’ll only heighten the pleasure of this ancient pastime we call making the love.

Or, um, writing.



How To Stop Reading

How To Stop Reading

            Disclaimer: The following is intended for those who read too much, who care too much about writing to that point that they are too intimidated to try it themselves. If you haven’t already read a ton of books, by all means stop reading this and pick up a copy of The Count of Monte Cristo or something.

            Some of the best advice I ever got about writing came from a musician. She told me, after listening to my whiskey-fueled lament about how I’d never be able to create something truly beautiful, that she stopped listening to music whenever she was working on a song. When I asked why, she said that hearing really good drummers did nothing but fill her with self-doubt. It paralyzed her, to the point where she didn’t even want to pick up her drum sticks. And she would inevitably convince herself that she had no right making music at all. She said that after listening to me talk about the writers I looked up to (Steinbeck, McCullers, Roddy Doyle, Cormac McCarthy), she thought the best thing I could do for myself would be to stop reading books for a while.

            And she was absolutely right.

            At the time, I was painting houses for a living. I hadn’t written anything in at least ten years because, well, I’d decided long ago that I didn’t have what it took. And I was mostly right about that: I wasn’t very good. I had nothing to say. I was “choked” as one not-so-subtle girlfriend told me at the time. So what did I do all that time I wasn’t writing?

            I read books. A glorious, wonderful f-load of books.

            And now here I was getting drunk with a friend, talking once again about a dream I had long ago murdered, talking about how I wished I could create something as perfect as, say, The Ballad of the Sad Cafe.

            “You ever listen to Rush’s YY2?”

            I lied and said I had.

            “You think after listening to Neil Peart play something as amazing as that that I could sit down to my crappy little kit and play? I’ll never be Neil Peart. Not even close. And I’ll never be Keith effing Moon. But what I can be is the best drummer in whatever crappy bar we happen to be playing in that night. You see what I’m saying? Put War and Peace away. Lower the damn bar. That’s where you start. Someplace where those giants aren’t staring over your shoulders.”

            I don’t remember much else from that night. Other than her telling me that she didn’t know if I was a good writer or not, but that she did know that I wasn’t just a housepainter. Not that there’s anything wrong with being just a housepainter, as long as that’s all you want to be.

But that’s not all I wanted to be.

I wanted to rock out.

And so I put the McCullers and Steinbeck away.

I stopped measuring myself up against the giants.

And now I’m finally playing.

And that’s what matters: figuring out what it is that’s stopping you from attempting your dream.  So what if the soundtrack to your dream features somebody banging away happily on an old suitcase rather than a twenty-piece drum kit.

It’s your dream after all.