Saturday, February 6, 2010

Running on empty as a virtue

Although it is a strain on your composure, the results of running on empty as applied to writing fiction are worth the strain. First this disclosure: running on empty means setting forth in a writing session without a clue relating to the work at hand. Nada. No sudden moves have been set aside for a time such as this. No shaggy dog stories, jokes, or shrewdly concocted deus ex machina devices parked outside waiting, engine purring and eager to whisk you away from your dramatic doldrums, for these doldrums are a particular symptom of a particular kind of day and your response to them is to recognize them for the opportunity they afford.


You probably have some design already in mind, some sense of whose story the story at hand belongs to, what the intent of the story is and if not a complete exit strategy then at least some notion of why a reader might care about your invention. In fact, you might even have a hint of why you care about it.

Running on empty is a sometime thing, a today thing, coming forth with no warning when you are in the midst of something you have been literally dreaming about. But not today. Ah, the things you have done today rather than jump into the work, eager to see where it might take you, bringing back that remarkable sense of discovery you first made sometime back in your early twenties, when a woman you cared for with incredibly long hair one evening after you'd come to take her out, removed a few pins and combs and the entire structure of plait and braid came tumbling down over her shoulders and that was all there was to previous plans, adventure and discovery were afoot.

There is something sensual and sensuous about being rendered momentarily outside the work in progress, wanting to get back in, not knowing where or when to apply the lever much less where the fulcrum is. There is that nagging suspicion that you may have said or written or felt the wrong thing and now, you've lost it, the whole thing is suddenly removed from you, lost, irretrievable.

Part of the truth is that you hadn't taken enough risk, were now beginning to think cautiously, which means perhaps you remove a few of the most recent paragraphs, then begin removing more until the entire project seems contrived, and now, fearful that it is back to the very square one, you wonder what you ever saw in the project. At about that moment, just as the entire progress you've made seems irretrievable, some flash of awareness comes in the form of a question: Why not have... or why not let... or the even more primal What if? It suddenly seems maddeningly delicious. You had never expected the story to turn in this direction, because, truth to tell, you were playing it too cautiously and no wonder you'd begun to think at a time when you should not be thinking but rather should be listening to what they, your characters, want to do.

You have on so many occasions been in both situations, the fearful despair of running out of tricks and devices and the even greater despair of reaching for anything at hand only to find it was just the tool you needed.

For you the answer always comes in the form of a character wanting to reverse the course you have set out, having another more anarchistic approach to the story, reminding you again, yet again that you, while respecting your parents and teacher's ideas and suggestions, were more likely than not to become impatient with them, particularly if they seemed at all sensible.

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