Saturday, July 17, 2010

Letter to a Young, Middle-Aged, or Geezer Writer XIII

By now, you've reached the point in your commitment to writing where you take for granted the process by which you get the germ of an idea, then set forth to compose on it, get it down in some format.  It is a happy process, almost to the point of inducing giggles.  You get an idea from the association of something freshly seen, a contrast perhaps with something freshly seen and an earlier experience, and you are filled with the giddy energy of trying to capture enough of it to ride, otherwise play with, bend into usable shape.  It is not until you begin dealing with editors who want your work and want it to be if anything more clear and representative of you that you'd imagined.

You will begin to see where this is going; you will have come face to face with revision.  It will suddenly occur to you that a performer, say an actor or musician, has crafted out a performance and must do it again and again, at least more than once, perhaps for several weeks or, if fortunate, months.  How, you sympathize, can they do it?  How can they repeat the performance?  You cannot help feel a bit smug that you have chosen the craft you have, until you realize that it, too, is performance; you continue to experience it until you have got what you consider to be its essence and then along comes the editor, the conduit to the public eye, asking you to go back in once again and remove what they will variously refer to as soft spots or places that do not cohere.

And so you'd better get used to the idea of going back in, finding a way to reenter the world you dreamed and thought you'd left behind you, not unlike the world of Oz Dorothy Gale left behind her when she returned to Kansas.

Perhaps you have even been struck by the lightning of a new idea or concept and are impatient to return to it, avid for the giddy laughter and energy of new discovery.  But circumstances require you to return to the older work, perhaps to add something you'd missed earlier, perhaps to remove something you'd repeated, perhaps to excise something that didn't do you, your story, or any of its characters any good, in fact holding it down, adding lead weights to its ballet shoes.

The sad news is that there will be few times when you are able to keep your focus on one work from origin to completion.  The good news is that if you approach it properly, going back in can be energizing, can be fun, does not have to be dull, repetitious.  The answer is simple enough in the abstract:  you must look for the portal to your own entertainment.  You must be all those characters as they dance about one another, their agendas bouncing and caroming as though bumper cars at a carnival.  You must see what the work means and how it represented for you a discovery of epic awareness.  How can this be?  It can be if you will every performance to be an opportunity for discovery, asking yourself every time you believe you're in familiar ground what elements and feelings had you missed earlier.  Going in again, even if it is to read a favored chapter at a book signing for this very book, is a trip to your turf, rendered as your landscape, where a cigar may indeed be merely a cigar but where as well it can also be a phallic symbol or anything else you wish.

Learn to ask yourself, What does it mean to me?  Then you write it as though the meaning were absolute reality.  You neither have to explain it nor describe it; in fact, if you do explain it or describe it, you'll be doing the reader's work for them and you don't want to do that.  I started to say, trust me on that, but you should not trust me on that or on anything you do not absolutely take for reality in the first place.  You should, however, trust yourself and the vast panorama of chaos and swirling impressions in which your characters find themselves.  Those are the realities that inform story.  Without them, a story is a menu of dramatic events, set loose like so many laboratory animals.  You have seen enough menus in your life to know that these are merely lists; you want names and entries that evoke taste and sight, sensual issues that will cling to your readers like the crumbs from this morning's breakfast toast clinging to your sweater or shirt.

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