Monday, July 6, 2009

The writing paradox

So I finished up the residency and the semester and figured, okay, now I'm going to get to work on rewriting the novel. And I struggled, and felt really bad about how I was never getting to the page. "Writing means getting words on pages," I kept telling myself, focusing on the little problem that without putting words on pages, no one else can read what I've written or been thinking about. True enough, but...the writing paradox is that actually putting words on paper takes up a very, very small part of the entire writing process.

With the summer schedule rapidly spinning out of control with unforeseen fires suddenly springing into being (like finding out Kid 1 needed a tetanus shot and TB test done prior to attending a summer camp on a Tuesday evening, which meant that he needed to have it all done on Wednesday so there was time to get the TB test read on Friday so we could have the paper saying he'd had it done) and needing to be put out, I threw up my hands and said, okay, I give up, I'm not getting the novel done.

Then a curious thing started happening. With my conscious brain no longer hectoring at my writer brain about how much time wasn't being spent with butt in chair and pen in hand and words going onto paper, the novel started turning over in my writer brain, connection started happening, things started fermenting. I began reading someone else's novel (The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides) and parts of the novel are slowly developing.

The trick here is to let this process continue while it's productive, while I am engaged in the work (which is measurable by how many times something happens or I read something and immediately go running for my notebook because SOMETHING has just connected in my brain and I have to get it down NOW), and let connections develop fully, but move into the putting-words-on-paper phase before those connections cool down and become dull.

At the moment, what's developing is very interesting.

I had coffee with a friend this past week and it was wonderful for making things ferment even more. Both of us write from character first and I found myself saying that what that means for our first drafts is that the character is telling us what happened to them, things develop as we get to know the character, there's sometimes a lot of the character wandering around as we try to figure out what happens to him or her next. It makes for a somewhat flat first draft. But we have to let the character tell us the story first so we can then begin to tell the story as fiction. For instance, in the first draft of Choice, Rachel, the mom, pretty much disappears from the story after a certain point. I was thinking, this is a problem of character development, I need to get her out of the bedroom and interacting with Matt. But, then I realized, no, I don't. In telling the story, she can disappear from the story if it becomes a metaphor, if it becomes symbolically loaded, if Matt gives deeper meaning to her locking herself away in her bedroom or keeping herself from interacting with him (which it does have - because she feels so much guilt for Denny's death, she thinks that if she can keep away from Matt, if she can just keep her hands off him, he'll be okay. And she locks herself away from him after she hits him - she's actually trying to save him). In the first draft, because Matt is telling me the story of what happened after his brother died, it feels very flat because Rachel just disappears. But, my job, as the writer, is to make that disappearance carry weight, underscore the themes of the novel and become more than just me saying, "I can't figure out what to do with this character."

Anyway, this is the writer's paradox. Writing without writing and being able to say, "I've had a productive day," when all I've got to show for it are some notes scribbled on Post-Its next to my computer.

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