Sunday, October 20, 2013

on semi-abandoned projects

Every writer I know has a project that's been "sort of" abandoned. One that lingers in the secret closets of a hard drive, perennially discovered, ripe for dragging into the virtual recycle bin, only to be granted a last minute stay of execution in hopes that it'll reform itself, and worm its way back into the writer's favor.

I've been wrestling with such a project for two decades. Not years. Decades.

As I linger in the publication green room, queuing up book launch ideas faster than I can rip through a bag of semisweet chocolate chips, I've once again unearthed my drawer novel. (Or in my case, my Rubbermaid bin novel). To be fair, the novel does have a pretty little arc. Compelling (in my opinion) characters. It has some successful scenes and every time I venture back to it, I find myself lost in the poetry of a few of the sentences.

That said, there's a secret sauce that's just not there yet with this project. Something is missing aesthetically. It still feels like parts instead of the-sum-of-its-parts. I know, I know, that's what revision is for. Finishing touches. Grace and beauty. Turning a mess into art.

The red flag here is the length of time I've been fucking around with this thing. My writing style has shifted. My interests are different. What I wanted to say in the mid-nineties, I don't care as much about. And yet there's still this lure with this thing. The web of it trapping me for hours at a time.

What was the last thing you held onto longer than you should have? And what happened?

Sunday, October 13, 2013


I just finished teaching one of my quick-and-dirty LitReactorclasses, and I'm always energized after an intense 10 days with the community of writers over there.

The class was on dialogue, but we took a little spin on a related path during the session to discuss the energy behind what comes out of characters' mouths. What that energy is all in service to. Voice, tone, blocking - how much action a section of dialogue should or shouldn't have. Tags, quotation marks, talking heads versus embedded action - all of these considerations are in service to one thing, in my not-so-humble opinion, and that one thing is authority. Confidence on the page. That intangible element that draws the reader in and keeps the pages turning.

One of the students asked me to unpack authority a bit more and that led me to the hallowed mindfuck of Gordon Lish - that difficult, charismatic writer-slash-Knopf-editor that so many hate to love or love to hate. 

The weekend workshop I took with Lish back in (gulp) the mid-nineties, still festers in my psyche. Like many teachers and mentors that have staying power, he was a bit brutal with his students, brilliant, but brutal. And on the subject of authority, he was unwavering. The phrase he bandied about more than any other that weekend was "line of flight." The line of flight for a given work was the kernel, the essence, of the piece, distilled to a sentence. And from this sentence, the whole piece would take off.

Now, a sentence is in no way a whole piece, so how the story took flight - what elements of the sentence were worthy of opening up and soaring - were where the genius of authority lived. Elements, to Lish, were almost always concrete things. Objects. Here's a quote from Lish that's bandied about the interweb:

Examine your objects for the tension inherent in them, the polarity, the natural conflict, the innate conflict, what is already there, and in the unpacking of this tension, you will reveal…the whole of your story, and how each unpacked object relates in [the] story to every other object.

So, for instance, let's say you have a character drinking from a mug of coffee. The mug is one of those photo mugs. There's a date on the mug, a picture of the main character and her husband celebrating an anniversary. The mug is stained and well-used. But, for the sake of conflict, let's make the main character divorced from the husband. She doesn't want to throw out the mug because it's one of those perfectly shaped mugs (everyone has their idiosyncrasies regarding the receptacle in which they sip their morning drug, yes?). Okay, more conflict. Let's say the main character is now dating someone new. Let's say the mug shows up again, the first time the new boyfriend spends the night. He reaches into the cabinet and blindly pulls out the anniversary mug. Our heroine sees that he doesn't yet see what's on the mug and her job in the scene is wrestle the mug away from the new bf before the awkward moment. So - there's conflict, tension, the possible organic weaving in of backstory. All because of a mug.

So what does this have to do with authority?  With line of flight?

I think it has to do with psychic cohesion. The way our minds will unconsciously hold onto a concrete image, and make it available for context.  There’s this magical, intimate moment between the story and its reader when this dance happens.  It’s like a tap on the shoulder followed by the sweetest whisper in the ear. The reader then brings his own specific set of experiences and heartbreak or irony to the page, and becomes invested – moving beyond the language into the heart of the story.

When was the last time you read something that absolutely ripped you open?

Thursday, October 03, 2013

my inner ward

The furnace is kicking on and already, in early October, I'm feeling dusty. It seems too early in the season to be schlumping about in my indoor jacket (which is really my outdoor jacket that I wear 24/7 when chill arrives).

Typically, spring and fall are my most creative seasons. I'm thinking that it might be a response to the pace of change around me. You know, leaves doing their time-lapse photography thing? Hail and sun breaks and wind? All the schlepping to and fro: school, soccer games, various health-related appointments. Inspiration wakes me up at 2:00 AM. New ideas surface as though immaculately conceived. Thoughts fragment into glassy shards, sprinkle like so much fairy dust and then disappear.

But this fall, something different. Leaden weight is pulling me to earth like a 1960's sit-com dad. Ward Cleaver in my brain, talking me out of my seasonal onslaught of half-baked ideas:

"Now, Suzy, you really haven't thought through your impulse to write a (insert screenplay, graphic novel, essay on the roller coaster of perimenopause), have you?"

"No, Dad, I haven't. I suppose I should revise the novel I've been working on for twenty years instead."

"Atta girl. You know, inspiration only gets you so far. Perspiration and tenacity are what will get you ahead in life."

"Gee, Dad, you really know how to rain on my parade."

So, mug of tea in hand, frumpishly shuffling along in my slippers, I survey the bulk of notes and papers relating to my aging work-in-progress. The furnace moves another layer dust around. This is the glamorous life of a writer.

What half-baked ideas are you talking yourself out of?