Monday, July 16, 2012

Strangers in the Write


You’ve heard about this phenomenon from other writers and in fact seen it relative to your own work:

Going through old notebooks or manuscripts, the writer is caught in the net of a sentence, struggles to get free of it but becomes further tangled in a paragraph.  Soon, the writer is reading an entire page, wondering from which grand source this material had been copied in order to be preserved, savored, read again and again.  As the writer continues reading, the suspicion arises that someone else had to have written this material because it is so compelling.

When you are the one experiencing the circumstances, you go so far as to think some friend, as a prank, has inserted this material.  Soon the friend will confront you with some bet that you cannot name the source from which the material originated.

Of course it is all a joke on the writing self.  Early in your career and, you suspect, the career of others you know, the exact opposite happened; you found a sentence or, worse yet, an entire page, so dreadful in composition, so mannered or show-off in rhetoric and voice that you cringed at the ownership of it.  True enough, Anne Lamott gave it a name and gave us permission to write shitty first drafts from which we would begin to build some greater sense of story and convincing narrative voice.  Yet that was by no means enough; we have to live as well with the awful pages as well as the occasional good ones.

When you give it deeper thought, there is the real awareness of one or more strangers having access to your material.  These strangers are responsible for the dreadful pages as well as the splendid ones.  And as you well know from long experience now, there are plenty of each.  Even though you’ve in large part moved to composition on a computer, whereby you can edit, dump, combine, or delete material, you do favor taking one or more of your fountain pens and a note pad to a coffee shop where, from time to time, handwritten dreadful and splendid pages and paragraphs emerge to be factored into the roiling, hungry calculus that is your writing output. 

You’ve come some distance from your typewriter days and the discovery of yourself in a sea of crumpled pages, but the process and the percentages still obtain.  There is no realistic way for you to decide upon an accurate figure for your burn rate, the number of drafts to get an acceptable page.  Nor is there a realistic way to estimate how many additional pages you’ll find necessary to get better pages after an editor’s notes.  There is an incredible number of drafts, let’s leave it at that, because that is not only a given, a basic fact of operation, but because, exasperating as it may be at times, it is still fun.

The problem is not with the drafts, it is with the strangers who have access to your notes and projects, those individuals who sneak in when you are not looking, pranking you with dreadful pages and pages far beyond your ability.

You began this blog on March 1, 2007.  You had a purpose in mind, which was in effect writing the paragraphs and pages in between the dreadful ones and the better ones you write as a writer.  These vagrant notes and comments are the in-between pages, they are the pages you think and feel to write in order to give you access to the truly awful pages and the occasional pages that impress you with some measure of story or idea or argument.

The you who writes the dreadful pages and the occasional good pages is not the person who writes these blog posts.  The person who writes these is too nice, too optimistic, too jazzed with the sense that writing will cure your problems with sight and sound and feeling and empathy that will allow you to become the stranger who writes the bad pages and the good ones.

Those strangers take more risks, are not at all nice, considerate persons.  You can and have been interrupted by any number of individuals as you write these blog-related notes, whether they are composed directly to your blog site or handwritten on a note pad to be copied later.  You on occasion have left your writing to answer a phone call, have a conversation, prepare a meal for your great friend, Sally, perhaps even indulge a sandwich that must be eaten over the sink, and on any number of occasions, to make a pot of coffee.

The person who writes these blog posts also has teaching and editing reasons to be polite or considerate although in recent months, where clients have been concerned, you’ve reached an occasional boundary and not been nice or considerate.

The writer who is free to write the bad pages and the occasional good pages is not so much a stranger as a kind of troubled relative you speak about in euphemisms.  Imagine a combination of Asperger’s syndrome and autism, imagine an atmosphere of focus, amused power of a choreographed drama going well, a semblance of a sound track, and a voice speaking the words of the narrative as well as additional voices speaking for the characters.  This is not a nice person, not the person you try to be when you are in public or away from your writing.  This is the person you have trained yourself to be, seemingly against considerable odds.

You’ve been able to discuss this with few persons but fortunately for you, you could and did discuss it with the two individuals you consider your significant mentors.

One of them went so far as to tell you that you had a natural affinity for this kind of thing at one point in your life and had to learn how to get it back before you forgot about it.

The elephant in your study—for you would not invite him into such living room as you now have—is the one who writes the things that make you cringe and the things that on occasion make you feel comfortable with the choices you’ve made, the consequences you’ve endured, and the opportunities you see down the line for you.  He is not the you who has written this.  You did have one phone call while you were writing it and although you were not as polite as you might have been, you were pretty good—just the right degree of pretty good to have written this.

And we all know how far one can get with pretty good.

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