Friday, January 22, 2010

Scruting the Inscrutable

Yesterday, I got interviewed and filmed for a short documentary about the Brisbane Art Sharing Evening. I got to talk about my work and get filmed typing at my computer, but it started me thinking about writing and the creative process because, let's face it, watching a writer actually write is...well...boring. (Unless you happen to love the person very much and everything they do is fascinating to you.) It is infinitely more exciting to watch a painter paint or a sculptor sculpt or a musician make music. Writing can be boring even for those of us who do it and love it. Half the time, when I "sit" down to write, I am pacing around the room, making tea, looking out the window, making notes to myself about other parts of the story, remembering that I have to make an appointment or an errand to run and writing that down, or doing other physical acts. But, the actual sitting in the chair with a pen or typing into a computer is only a portion of the creative act of writing. Which is part of what I talked about for the film.

While it's true that there is no story if the words don't make it onto the page (a regrettable fact, I am waiting for the invention of a brain to text interface that will free me from having to physically make the words appear so I'll just have to think them and wa la! there they'll be), the moment of sitting at the desk is preceded by a lot of other stuff and followed by even more.

I spend a lot of time thinking about my novel - making notes about the characters, the plot, the imagery that I want to use, the themes I think I'm going to be working on, getting to know as much about the story I'm telling as I possibly can. I fill notebooks with this stuff.

One of the questions I got asked was about inspiration and where my ideas come from. My answer was that it's about being out in the world. I know I'm engaged with the story I'm telling because everything hits, everything tells me something about the story. For example, when I was at the cabin last week, one of the neighbors was fascinating to me. He owns a big equipment construction company and has lots of BIG toys. He was constantly doing things on his property, in his bulldozer, moving trees and earth around. It rained while I was there and he went out to regrade the road. As this was kind of distracting for me, I went out and sat on a boulder and watched him. While I was watching him, it hit me that the step-father in my novel is like this, always fixing things, trying to remake the world so it's no longer broken. He's an Iraqi war vet who lost a leg in Basra in 2004. Now he's back in Reno, married to his high school sweetheart (my narrator's mother) and trying to have the life he lost when racial pressures broke him and Rachelle apart.

The idea about him fixing things triggered me thinking about Alan's backstory in more depth, and I decided that he works as a supervisor for a call center (which I knew), but he's also getting his degree in psychology at UNR so he can help people (which I didn't until that moment on the boulder, but it fit perfectly). Thinking about this led to a line I'll use at the end of the novel where Matt says, "You tried to fix us because you thought we were broken, but we were never broken." Which is the moment I need where Alan allows Matt to head out to the desert where the climactic scene of the novel takes place. But that moment where Alan turns was really weak in my first draft, very flat.

If writing was only about sitting at my desk, I never would have had that moment on the boulder and never had the inspiration about Alan wanting to become a psychiatrist.

The actual act of writing is sometimes really difficult. I realized that writing differs from other art forms because each day, when I sit down to write, I'm writing into a void. The shape of the thing I'm creating doesn't exist yet. Yes, a painter starts with a blank canvas, a sculptor with a piece of marble. The difference is that when a painter makes a brush stroke or the sculptor makes the first cut, something exists that can be built on, shaped, refined. That something doesn't exist for me until the draft is finished. Each day, I'm creating the world of my story, the scene, new. Like these words I'm writing now. They don't exist until I think them and then type them. Staring at the blank screen or sheet of paper can be very intimidating because it's a void in which nothing exists until I put it there.

After the physical act of writing, comes rewriting, revising and editing. The second draft I'm working on right now, although it's the same story, has mostly different words. I'm estimating that, out of the 80,000+ words in the first draft, only 25,000 will remain when I'm done with the second. Some of the scenes will be the same, but the way they're written isn't. Periodically, as I write, I print out and edit what I've done, which is where shading happens, where I make my choices at the word level, finding those words that do more than just tell you what happened, they tell you about the person who did the action, the story, are specific to this particular world.

It's the difference between writing that someone signs papers and writing that she holds the pen so tightly, the bones and veins stand out on the back of her hand while she signs the papers that give her uncle control of her father's farm.

Those moments of shading are where the theme of the novel becomes clearest. Those are the details that carry the greatest weight because they are so specific to the story and paint the most vivid images in the reader's mind.

The writing process is so amazing to me. And it's also so amazing to me how much I am learning about it as I write this novel. In some ways, this exploration of process is as compelling to me as the story I'm telling and is part of what keeps me coming back to the page.

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