Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Buy Your Inner Writer a Decent Coffee Once in a While

There are times when, sifting through the notes and materials on your desk, you'll find something in your crabby handwriting that yanks your attention into it with an after effect reminiscent of a sonic boom.  Who, you wonder, could have taken such pains to imitate your handwriting, then gain access to your work area in order to leave such an intriguing paragraph or two?  If the material did indeed come from you, why don't you recall the act of its composition?

There is much about the writing process to add strength to your overall belief that most individuals are in actuality an ensemble cast of diverse characters, making do with a single wardrobe.  At various times, each of these aspects of the diversity that is you crave a starring role.  Weren't you, in fact, only a few days ago, visualizing how you would bring dimension to a portrayal of Lear as yet unseen?

The less positive aspect of these suppositions causes you a register of embarrassment if not downright agony when you discover things you've composed and know all to well you have written them.  There are times when such discoveries are not accidental, instead, they are a result of you being presented with editorial notes.  

These presentations are often the equivalent of being shown a wanted poster with a recent photo of you.  No mistaking the photo for a younger you, a less enlightened and educated you.  This is the equivalent of you being the Butch Cassidy of narrative.

Many of the writers you most admire for their combination of skills, attitudes toward the craft, and the overall stature of their narrative voice agree that storytelling cannot be taught.  They also seem to you to express their individual belief that the craft can be learned.  The major question is how this learning is to be accomplished.

Putting words down on paper or its word processing equivalent appears to be a logical place to begin; good writing can be thought about in the abstract, but it needs to be available for revisiting.  Only then can the act of composition be considered a part of a process; only when composition becomes an element in a larger chemistry can it be given serious consideration as writing.

To the end of putting words down in some retrievable form, you must somehow manage to secure the cooperation of the ensemble cast that is you or face the consequences of one of your selves wanting to do the literary equivalent of borrowing the family car.  This eager, rebellious, impatient sort wants--with apologies to Shakespeare--to strut and fret his moment on the stage.

Not a bad plan, if approached with motives extending beyond rebelliousness or an earnest desire to show off things already learned. Now that you think about it, some of those paragraphs you encounter from time to time that seem so foreign to you might have come from the lesser knowns of your ensemble construction, those aspects of you who have been content to carry spears or do walk-ons, just as the entire you were willing to do walk-ons back in the days of live television drama, in order to earn enough with your pay as an extra to counterbalance your tab at a saloon directly across from CBS Television City on Fairfax Avenue.

Writing can be taught.  If you believe otherwise, you've been doing for these many long years the equivalent of what you did when, as a temporary mailman, you steamed open envelopes you knew contained galley proofs of the forthcoming pulp magazine stories of Ray Bradbury.  You'd be breaking the law.

Your answer is the essence of simplicity.  You can teach yourself things by revising them, seeing where your word choices wander off into the dense jungles of inappropriateness.  You can experiment with the ways of making it seem there are enough of your component parts at home when writing nonfiction, and by learning how to delegate dramatic information and effect to your characters as opposed to you, remaining on stage in the manner of The Stage Manager in Thornton Wilder's play, Our Town.

You can learn the process of editing in order to remove any tendency in dealing with the work of another writer to cause the finished product to sound like you instead of the writer who wrote the text in the first place.

Sometimes when you look at your work in order to revise it, to focus it, inject it with movement and feeling, it seems to you that you've stumbled into a loud argument, a tad short of having reached the stage of throwing dishes.  The argument causes you to realize the ensemble that is you has joined you in taking up editing.  

The Sceptic, for instance, has become so fond of saying, "With all the books you've read and edited, with all the classes you've taught, with all the plays and movies you've watched, how can you call this a story?"

The Show-Off has his own approach.  "Why would you listen to him?  If anyone can pull off a sentence with so many words in it, who better than you?  After all, Faulkner hasn't been around since 1962."

And so the argument begins.  Sceptic says, "You'd compare yourself to Faulkner?  Bad enough for the rest of us when we have to see you posturing around in your Mark Twain mode."

You survive much of this by keeping up on your ability to duck, but also on your ability to listen, to watch, to remember sometimes when you've found yourself with a book for which you can see no hope nor future, you persist in order to learn from that as well.  The Everyday Writer, the guy who comes to work unshaven, sometimes without coffee or an idea to call his own, shows up and starts putting down the words, reaching for them, aware there is still the greater possibility he will learn more from the books he finds most impossible.  He's the guy who saves the Welty, the Cather, the Twain and Faulkner for rewards; he's the guy who got you into this game by reading these worthies and having that rare combination of hope and chutzpah that allowed him at one time to wish to compete with the giants.  "That's a fools's game,"  he tells you.  "These worthies got you in the game, and that, my friend, is all you can ask."

Least you could do is take him out once in a while for some decent coffee.


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