Saturday, November 22, 2014

It Takes a Busy Writer to Write a Story

You can learn to write story by at first being too busy to write story.  But you have to learn to listen to the business, then build it into the story.

The reason story is so difficult to capture to your satisfaction in early drafts has to do with the tempo and intensity of the artificial reality a story needs in order to appear plausible.  The great irony here begins with the time available for writing, measured against the activities related to working at jobs and coping with the routine necessities of living.

For about three years, your first job in publishing was something you could handle in the confines of the forty-hour work week, but as you began to rise in the company responsibility hierarchy, you began to feel about your time the way you felt about the large sack of cat chow you'd purchased for your then cat, Sam, after it became clear that rats or mice were getting at it.

In typical fashion, more responsibility at work brings you to the notice of more persons, one of whom you wished to be your mentor.  She was all too willing.  Her quid pro quo was bringing you into one of her pet causes, The Mystery Writers of America, where she was an officer.  

You were her "new blood" target.  Up to that point, you'd been more than fond of the mystery as a medium, but soon, you were hanging out with authors you'd read, all of whom had favorite writers they were only too willing to pass along to you.

Any semblance of spare time went to reading, soaking up things you'd never learned at the university or in any class room, excepting one English prof, your first mentor, and your mystery mentor.  To her, you turned in frustration, wondering aloud and with some vigor how you could produce pages when there was no time.  

Her answer was the same one you give to your students with the same question.  "One word,"  she said.  "Priority.  Tell yourself writing is your top priority, then listen to yourself."  You did.  The results made the point.

So there you were, now a senior editor at work, which meant you had a certain leeway in bypassing the committee, which included the publisher, another editor whose taste you openly criticized, and an editor in chief, who had a habit of running off to buy furniture for his new apartment.  You were also editing two magazines, reading suspense fiction with a growing hunger, writing a newsletter for your new organization, and trying to avoid saying yes to a moonlighting job editing a mystery magazine.

Somehow, you had prioritized your way into at least an hour of working on your own interests a day, marveling at your ability to produce anything, even relishing the fact that what you were producing was not bringing you to the sense of command over the material you were visualizing.  By day, you were editing some of the most prolific mystery and science fiction writers of the day.  By night, you were close reading others and writing your own hour's worth a day.  This did not stack up well.  You could see that.  So did your mentor.  "You are,"  she said, "building up your awareness and your focus.  If you keep it up, you will learn how to build simultaneous pressure."

You took some time getting the hang of "simultaneous pressure," and you must admit you got help from editing and from adding one more metaphorical rat to your metaphorical bag of cat kibble, which is to say you'd jumped right into it by agreeing to teach in a graduate-level writing program.

A conventional trope you find as ubiquitous as Salvation Army Santas at Christmas season informs us, "If you want something done properly and fast, assign the task to a busy person."  You may not get it done fast, but you do believe you get it done, at least to the point where you understand the ramifications of being a busy person.  

So what if twenty or so percent of your business is self-inflicted, which is to say, yes, you understand you could be more productive by the simple step of focusing more on your scheduling.  Fewer and shorter naps, say.  Shorter coffee breaks.  Less time with the crossword puzzle.  Say farewell to your book reviewing activities.

But listen to you, telling yourself, "No matter."  You have a full sense of what it is to have your moments filled.  Even your times of boredom have contracted to mere moments, and it is reasonable to say of these that they are more likely to happen when you are waiting for traffic signals to change.  Or you could say that you have developed a rigid intolerance for boredom, doing something to dismiss it the moment it comes upon you like street people in quest of your spare change.

You know filled moments, and now you are active in your pursuit of learning how to discern those in your ficton and the stories you edit.  Stories are busy environments.  They don't have time.  Something has to go.  Stories need to prioritize.  Which things come first?  The other things can catch the later train. 


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