Saturday, January 28, 2012

Writing and forcing are like oil and water

One of my Christmas 2011 gifts was a book—yay!—called Writers Workshop in a Book: The Squaw Valley Community of Writers on the Art of Fiction. (edited by Alan Cheuse and Lisa Alvarez) As you might guess, it’s a compilation of essays; some nearly put me to sleep and others that had me saying “yes! I know exactly what you’re saying!”

I’m 90% of the way through the book and my favorite essay so far is by Lynn Freed called “On False Starts: How Not to Begin a Novel When You Don’t Have One to Write.” What an awesome title! It speaks directly to one of the things I sometimes mention when I give critiques. Namely, when you get seriously stuck while writing a sentence or a paragraph, you need to pay attention to the fact that nothing seems to complete the passage. For myself, I’ve found that if I force something to go where I think something needs to be, it’s usually a round peg stuffed into a square hole.

Lynn’s essay extends that thought logically. If getting stuck within a novel is your inner editor’s way of saying that nothing further needs to be added, what’s the lesson when you get stuck before you’ve written the first word?

I bet you can guess, but I’ll explain in case you have too many characters talking to you to think straight. (Even that’s a good problem to have.) When saying to yourself, “I want to write a novel” or maybe “I’m gonna sit down and crank out that short story”, you’ve got to be sure you have something to say.

Not all works of fiction need to be grand pieces of insightful and pensive material; there’s a place for stories that simply entertain us. Either way, you need some idea of what story to tell. Lynn describes two years of writing the beginning of a novel. She gifts us with this eloquent literary shoulder-shrug: “Several times, I threw the book out and decided that that was it, I would not willingly and knowingly play Sisyphus with fiction.”

I love her honesty. I think that’s the secondary message of her essay. As writers of fiction, we are driven to weave wonderful lies. It can be hard to know when to face the truth. It’s a cruel and inhuman thing to admit to ourselves that we just don’t know what to write about; or we don’t have any idea what this character wants or what their personality might make them do; or how the hell to wrap up that damn story at last.

When spinning cloth is the most important thing in the world, you’re upset and scared when you reach for more thread and the spool is empty. But being a writer is about having blind faith. When you stop frantically grasping empty spools, and learn to wait, you’ll find that one by one the spools become full again.

While you’re waiting, smell the roses. Practice writing metaphors J


  1. Yep, sometimes its best just to walk away from a project and let it simmer in the back of your head until you've figure out what you want to say. Trying to force it just makes for awkward reading.

  2. Hi Jean, nice to see you. I get a lot of use from my muse's Magickal Crockpot. If something's "half baked", it goes into the Crockpot till it's ready- J