Friday, June 27, 2008

Wanted: to Have Written

If you are to spend any time at all with authors, engaging in conversations that aspire to seriousness of purpose, such as, Another round? or Shall we agree to keep this between ourselves? or When are you going to finish that thing? will bring you to some new variation on the theme of a beginning writer wanting to know how one acquires the services of a literary agent. Your story is funnier, no doubt because it is so markedly more absurd than the example given you by the author you are conversing with.

A beginning writer makes his way into the men's lounge of a crowded hotel, notices all the stalls and urinals are occupied, smiles to himself because he has a large audience, then asks, "Excuse me. Anyone in here know how to get a literary agent?"

Of a piece with that ghostly apparition of writerly humor is the trope of exercises and contests for writers. I don't mean legitimate short story or poetry contests in which a completed work is submitted, I mean--well, one of the more ridiculous was the one in which the writer is forbidden to use words with the letter e in them. There are lesser evils such as each person in a group picking one word and the exercise transmogrifying into the need to use each of these words at least once in a story. There are themes, such as Man's inhumanity, or radix valorem est cupidetas or even evil to him who evil thinks.

A mere hours into recovery from a week-long and energetic writers' conference, I still bristle at the remarkably dumb contests such as The Worst Opening Sentence, or a poem, essay, or story employing the theme "sideways." You start thinking about all the costs of enrollment, travel, lodging, and the price gouging at the Fess Parker Doubletree Inn at Santa Barbara, and you're willing to spend your time trying to write a humorously bad opening sentence. I have the Midas touch; everything I put my hands on turns into a muffler.

Or you spend your time in the workshops of two first-rate screenwriters, attempting to arrive at a one-scene parody of a forty-year-old movie.

Gimme, as they say, a break.

My critics admonish me to loosen up, relax, have fun, go with the games and exercises because, after all, we've got to have some fun or we'll go stark raving mad.

Forget the fact that writers already are stark raving mad, by degrees obsessive, compulsive, and control freaks. If it were not already on some level fun, what would prompt us to do it? This argument is of a piece with telling Van Gogh to have fun, and hey there, Herr Rembrandt, have fun, and Ole, El Greco, divert thyself.

What about this for a contest? Write a first draft of a poem or short story or character sketch or essay. Write it as fast as you can without thinking. Now you have an outline. Develop this into a second draft, experimenting with order, point of view, cadence, dramatic beats. Produce a third draft, emphasizing voice. Perhaps a fourth draft for relevance and repetition. Then maybe a fifth to check out the proper beginning and ending, and yet another for the middle. Now you just might have something that produces an intensity equivalent to two cats, getting it on out on the back porch. How's that for a exercise.


lettuce said...

fighting an instinct towards formulation of a contribution using only words without that particular basic sound-symbol...



z said...

I tried to leave a very witty comment about this twice yesterday and Blogger devoured it. Now I can't remember what I wanted to say, being in a less witty mood. I do love your exercise. I hate those stupid ones that pervade not only writing conferences, but evening writing classes and the blogosphere. A rebel at heart, I always do something "meta."