Thursday, March 27, 2014

The Writer's Journey

Look up how to write a story and you’ll find a million descriptions of the different components that make up most tales. The elements we use today can be found in folklore and myth. Joseph Campbell called it the “Monomyth” or “The Hero’s Journey” and described a host of elements employed by writers and storytellers down through history – all the way back to the nights when our pre-literate ancestors gathered around the fire to frighten and delight each other with their words.
  • A story has a beginning, an inciting incident, a hook.
  • It has a middle where any number of complications and reversals arise while the protagonist struggles to overcome all the obstacles aligned against him or her.
  • These complications lead to a thrilling or tragic or heartwarming climax, which in turn resolves to an emotionally satisfying conclusion, i.e. an ending.
For me, these are not only the elements that create a satisfying story; they also often describe the writing process itself. When I’m in the idea stage, an image, situation, character, or concept hooks me. It’s exciting! I do a little research, develop the idea in my journal for a few pages, then dive into the draft. Unfortunately, beginnings lead straight to middles, and middles are all about struggles, complications and obstacles.

As the writer in the middle, I have to manage the plot and the pacing, I have to insert exposition and make it engaging, I have to foreshadow elements of an ending that I may not have written yet. And, talk about reversals, if the story takes a different direction, and I come across an even better ending, then I have to double back and adjust everything.

For me beginnings are easy, and if I get the middles right, the ending will usually snap into place like the last piece of a puzzle. But the middles are hard. It's the territory in which I spend the most time when I’m writing. Often, it feels like sailing into the doldrums – that windless place in the middle of the ocean that trapped sailing ships for days.  Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote about it in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner: 
Day after day, day after day,
We stuck, nor breath nor motion;
As idle as a painted ship
Upon a painted ocean.

Water, water, every where,
And all the boards did shrink;
Water, water, every where,
Nor any drop to drink.

In the end it’s all about persistence. Any writer or artist who creates anything lasting has to persist over the long run by showing up day after day and doing the work, but you also have to persist when you find yourself in the doldrums of a particular project.

For example, the current story I’m working on started as a flash piece. It wasn’t quite working, so I rewrote it expanding it to four times its original length, then I did a quick revision for my critique group.  So draft, expansion, revision, that’s three solid passes. I knew going into the crit that, while this story is approaching its potential, it isn’t firing on all cylinders yet. I got some great advice and ideas, but because I’m writing to the limit of my abilities, most of what I need to do is going to be difficult. I’m looking at one more major revision and then a final pass for grammar and style.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m into this story, but I’m also sick and tired of it. Sick and tired! This last revision will be the hardest. I’ve already taken care of all the low hanging fruit, now I’m working toward things that are harder to define, like transcendence and resonance, and making the tone and style support this specific tale. 

This is the time when abandoning ship is most alluring, when new ideas become an immeasurably more attractive use of my time than trying to work a problem that I don’t really know how to solve. But, I believe that it’s in these revisions, where I try to fight above my weight class, that I become a better writer. So, I keep this taped above my workspace:
If there is no wind, row
                     ~ Latin proverb

As part of my process, I do step away from a story for a day or two between revisions. Sometimes a little distance lends perspective. But, I don’t let go, because writing each story is my own hero’s journey. As a writer, I know that it’s only by rowing through the doldrums that I’ll return with the prize I’ve earned from the journey of each story.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Enemy of the Good

Slave Market with Disappearing Bust of Voltaire by Salvador Dali

"Perfect is the enemy of the good."  
~ Voltaire

Thoughts about when something is finished are, at least for me, bound up in the idea of perfection.

I don't think Voltaire, or any artist whose work has achieved lasting influence, spent their time striving for "good." Still, at some point, you have to stop. You have to put down your pen or brush or chisel somewhere short of perfect.

While I’m writing, I’m striving for perfection, but even while I reach for this state, I recognize that it is unattainable. This means managing a certain level of cognitive dissonance while I work.

The Pursuit of Perfection
Voltaire is talking about escaping the snare of perfectionism that has trapped so many writers. Performing artists are forced to overcome this in a way that writers are not. A singer or an actor knows that all they can do is master their craft and put their best work out there. If they fall down, they do it in front of an audience. Most of them seem to live to try again another day. It’s their continued pursuit of perfection that opens the door to transcendent moments.

Like Don Quixote we must learn to thrive while pursuing the impossible. This is what allows us to grow and achieve the mastery to create work that transcends the mundane, work that may even stand the test of time.

The Internal Editor’s Place
That voice inside your head that assures you that this project isn’t going to amount to anything, is an indispensible tool, but one that can be difficult to control and crippling to production. I’ve never been able to “turn off” that voice –as so many writing columns advise. Rather, I put it off. While I’m working on a draft, I’ll keep my journal open, and when my editor’s voice intrudes, I quickly jot down the suggestion, then return to my work. This quiets the editor and keeps me in the flow. When I finish the draft and am ready to revise, I have a ready-made list of editorial musings to consider (many of which are no longer pertinent, BTW).

It’s in revision that my sense of taste, my idea of perfection combines with my internal editor to bring the story from a chaotic conglomeration of raw emotion, confusing timelines and misplaced exposition to a tale that hits all its beats and creates a deeply affecting, resonant experience. At least that’s the goal.

Evolution and Mastery: Learning to Let Go
I think Voltaire is talking about the ability to make a more personal assessment. To know yourself.

I must be able to look at my work after I’ve taken it through however many rounds of revision and recognize that this one is as good as I can make it. I must let it go. Go on to the next project knowing that each new piece will challenge me in a new way, and with each challenge I will inch closer to that impossible dream of perfection.

The frontispiece for Voltaire's Philosophy of Newton

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Spring Is Coming!

Spring Break is upon us, which means a much needed break from school for the girls, and a reduced work schedule for me. It means some quality family time, and also reduced writing time.

It's a write what you can when you can kind of week. I'm working on my story-in-progress in dribs and drabs, just a handful of paragraphs each day to keep it from getting stale. It's a little frustrating. 

Busy times with the family are often fallow times for my projects, but even when everything feels frozen in place it's good to remember that spring is on its way.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

How to Finish Things

Does anyone else think it's odd that in Michelangelo's version, David is the giant?
After chipping away at a block of marble for months, when exactly, did Michelangelo know that David was finished? We might see perfection, but did Michelangelo? Or, could he still see little rough spots, spurs of stone? Did he feel like he could have kept going? At some point Michelangelo had to decide to put his hammer and chisel down.

The more I write, the more I realize that completion isn’t so much point as a spectrum. And, it turns out, "finished" means different things to different people. Some writers are satisfied as soon as the tale is told, and nowadays there are plenty of avenues to put your work out there before the paint is dry. While this isn’t the path I walk, neither do I want to be trapped in a cycle of perpetually revising and polishing a story in a futile pursuit of ultimate perfection. Surely, if Michelangelo had pursued David to perfection the boy would have vanished into a cloud of marble dust.

So, how do you decide when something is finished?

Set some standards.
These are personal standards and can be hard to define, but it’s worth taking the time to articulate them. Spend a few journal pages thinking about what you want to achieve in your work. I want to write something saleable, and I want to write to the very best of my ability. More specifically, I want to create stories with great plots and three-dimensional characters. I want to tap into deep emotion. I want the prose to achieve a certain level of diction and style. These standards help me assess my stories through a writing process that can be varied. For example, some pieces may need only a couple tweaks while others aren’t working at all and will go through the revision wringer 10 or 12 times.

Hone the ability to honestly assess your work.
The ability to dispassionately assess your own writing is probably the most useful skill you can develop as an artist. The two best tools to do this are time; i.e. putting a piece away for a few days, and others. The important thing to remember is that anybody can show their work to a critique group or an alpha reader, but to benefit from this exercise, you have to be willing to see your work through their eyes. This is not the place to defend your writing. If you can understand how some else sees it, you will be in a position to make the most of their feedback.

You have to be able to let it go.
This is hard because you will always see flaws, little rough spots that could be reshaped. Once I’ve made a story as good as I can make it –for where my abilities are right now– it’s time to send it off and move on to something new. I believe you can only grow so much within any one given project. And I have to accept that I may look back on a piece of writing I did three years ago and cringe at my ham-handed attempt at some aspect of the craft. That’s part of letting it go.   

Mastering the ending is just another part of the process. Closing one door means that you’re free to step into the next adventure.

Michelangelo sketches an early draft