Saturday, October 10, 2009

Chasing Frankenstein's Lightning Bolt

Here is one of my biggest challenges with writing: not getting side-tracked while I'm trying to work through a particular area and figuring out what comes next.

Writing is an instinctual act - no one really knows what makes a piece work or not. Yes, there are tons of books out there telling you how to write and that if you do x,y, and z you will be able to write a marketable story. But I've read work written by people who follow all of those steps and still produce dreck. The animating spark that brings the whole thing to life isn't there. Really, Frankenstein's lightning bolt, as corny and cliched as that image has become, is an apt metaphor for what happens when the writer puts all the pieces together and the sum of them is vastly greater than the whole. And it happens by instinct.

So here I am, working on Altar (I've pretty much settled on Altar of Dead Pets as the "show" name for Choice) and I come to a spot where I don't know what's going to happen next. I need to have a particular type of information in this section, I kind of know what needs to go there, I know that this is a turning point in the story, I need to lay down a new thread, a subplot. I've got the major storyline going, have laid out, in broad strokes, the main plot - Matt's a 14 year old who's brother has just died, the story is exploring questions of remembering (as in re-membering), how we recreate or reconstruct a history when we remember it, and what the "truth" of someone's identity really is. Okay, check, broad strokes of the major relationships have been laid out. Check. Now, it's time to start a new ball rolling, a subplot that acts in harmony with the main plot.

And this is where I frustrate myself time and again as a writer. I find it difficult to just move forward, put a note in the margins, and keep going with what I know about the story. The energy of the story isn't right.

The challenge here is maintaining that storytelling space for myself while I'm not actually putting words on paper. Sometimes I write, try things out, mostly I end up thinking. And it's very difficult to keep the rest of my life from encroaching on my "writing" time during these stretches. Oh, I'm not actually writing, I can go to the grocery store now instead of later when it will be crowded. Or, oh, I'm not actually writing, so I can spend my entire day playing on the computer because I'm giving my brain space to muddle through the problem.

I did write a page or so that almost seemed right. I started describing Matt's houses - the house he grew up in and the house where he lives after his mother remarries. I've written this section before, but this time, the question of how new the house is came up. Previously, I'd had Rachelle and Alan buying an existing home and at some point in the story, Matt wonders what it would be like to live in a house that doesn't have a history. This time, the idea that Rachelle and Alan bought new construction came up and I decided that it worked better with the idea of Rachelle and Alan trying to make a clean start but the impossibility of that because you always bring along yourself and all your history - you can't stop being who you are no matter where you go or how far away you think you've moved.

So I wrote that last week, but the lightning bolt didn't strike. My intuition told me it's almost right, but it's not the right information at this point. One of the ways I can tell it's not right is that the following scenes refused to fall into place. Even though this is a second draft, and I know where the story's going, those next scenes refused to be put on paper. The energy's wrong. Some note hasn't been sounded that will call those scenes into being.

This morning I was reading in a collection of short stories by Alice Munro. Let me state, I'm a heretic. I don't like Alice Munro. And I think the reverence for her has made people lazy when they read. Oh, it's Alice Munro, it must be a good story. No matter what she writes, it's going to end up at least one of the yearly anthologies of the best stories published in the past year. Even if it's not a good story, people will make up reasons for it being a good story because Munro wrote it, so there has to be something else going with it that I'm not capable of seeing. Sorry, that pisses me off because there are so many other stories that could be published in those anthologies from writers without the lofty reputation. She doesn't need to be praised for writing something that really isn't her best work. Okay, sorry, end of rant. Back to me...

I'm reading AM because one of my professors suggested I read a couple of stories and pay attention to her use of time. She also said, just because I don't like AM doesn't mean I can't read her and learn from what she does. Fair enough. It got me out of my pissy, stubborn stance long enough for some of what AM does in terms of craft to sink through to my brain, and there was the answer to what comes next in Altar. The next ball that needs to roll into the story is the one that ties the personal history to the geographic history of Reno. Yeah. That's right. That finally feels right. I was on the correct path with the history of Matt's houses, but that didn't feel entirely correct because I needed to expand that history out further, make it more about questioning the history of the region and the tenuous nature of the roots inhabitants have put down in that soil. Now I can begin to move forward again.

This time, I was pretty good about keeping myself inside that storytelling bubble and not allowing the distractions of my non-writing life to knock me out of it. But it is a constant challenge.

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