Friday, May 25, 2007

Frozen, Not Blocked

The New York Times featured an article recently about tiny dwellings that can be ordered online. They’re designed for use as low cost vacation homes, temporary shelter during construction of large houses, or to replace housing destroyed in natural or man made disasters. Most of the structures are modular and come with everything to complete them, including cabinetry, trim, flooring, bathroom fixtures, kitchen appliances, plumbing and wiring. Everything is packed, shipped and delivered to a building site where it can be assembled.

There is a recurring vision that won’t leave me. I’ve carefully selected the image of a finished house, ordered the best quality materials available and opted not to have the builder put it together. I’m standing on a vacant lot, piled high with framing timbers, flooring, copper pipes, electrical wiring, light fixtures, sinks, bathtubs, drywall, boxes of nails, screws, shingles and things I can’t even identify. I know exactly what the finished house looks like, I have all the components I need to assemble it and I have no idea how to put it together.

Words spill onto my vacant lot, rotting crates of plot elements sink into the earth in no particular order, spools of various gauge themes unravel and tangle and characters roam the property. Some attempt to take control of the chaos and others sit silently, looking pale and confused. Thorny weeds thrust upward, cracking barren soil and weave between the useless crates and spools. I search but can’t find instructions anywhere.

The more I learn, the more paralyzed I become. Edgar Degas said “Painting is easy when you don’t know how, but very difficult when you do”. I believe this to be true of all art forms.

It was exhilarating when I had good ideas about what my novel would be about, who my main character was, where she would go and how I would get her there. I tore into writing with more enthusiasm than I’d ever had for anything. The word count climbed and I was more excited with every thousand word milestone. The “click recount to view” button on Word was a treat I withheld until I felt I’d written long enough to see the reward.

When I began to study more closely the writing that I love and the work of authors I admire, I became more selective about what I read. The exercise helped me to shut out the overabundance of information and focus on the kind of help I need. I became discouraged, maybe even despondent. As I read John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction, I want to burn every word I’ve ever written. I have a lot of books on craft. Most of them are pretty straightforward and deal with the basic elements of writing in simple, upbeat fashion. John Gardner cuts to my heart from the grave when he talks about good writing and bad, clumsy, amateurish writing. He has no problem issuing praise and harsh criticism in equal measure and uses examples taken from modern fiction to illustrate each point. I read what he says, absorb it and wonder if I will ever be capable of writing a book that, if I were to read it for the first time, I could admire.

There is a footlocker among the weeds and rusting kitchen appliances on the vacant lot. I have the key and find it’s filled with great books. I understand that I can’t pound the first nail until I’ve read all of the instructions. I’m not blocked, I’m frozen.

What does it mean when a writer recognizes she’s reached the limitations of her education? I can go back to my manuscript and continue to hammer away, but my instincts tell me I need to read as much great fiction as I can and study what the great fiction writers have left behind before moving on. “Keep writing” is the mantra I hear from outside, but stop and study is the message I’m hearing from within. Can this be the right process to follow, or am I sending myself on a side trip that will only take me farther from my path?

14 comments:

reality said...

Hi Lisa,
Stalked you to your blog.
If your writing is as great as your posts; I do not understand why you are concerned.
Here is another outer voice urging you to write and write and write.
And take all advice that you get from the inner voice with a pinch of salt.
Take care.
Reality.

kristen said...

Hi Lisa,
I'm coming out from lurking to agree with Reality. Your posts draw me in, I have to assume your fiction is just as engaging. You are a writer. So, yes, read. Read tons. But write more. There will be plenty of time for editing.

Good luck and keep us posted.

The Writers' Group said...

Follow your instincts, Lisa. There were times when I knew my writing could be better, but, like you, recognized my own limitations. That's when I took a break from my manuscript and read 3 of my favorite books: one for its writing, another its plot, the third a novel I consider to encompass all aspects of storytelling perfectly. Once I did that, a matter of two weeks, I was able to come back to my own work revitalized and much more capable.

Amy

Lisa said...

Reality,

I appreciate and thank you for your kind words and will definitely keep writing, even if it's not on my manuscript for now. I am very glad you came by and I just read your very thoughtful comment to mine on your site and will be responding shortly. Thank you for the help!

Kristen,

So glad you did come by. Read tons, write more and there will be plenty of time for editing -- very wise words. I will have to post them on my desktop next to another piece of great insight I received many years ago. A note on a paper I'd written said simply, "Don't waste words". I still struggle a little with that one :)

Amy,

Somehow you manage to appear with just what I need to hear when I need to hear it. I'm beginning to think you are a guardian angel of some kind. Another member of the Writers' Group commented to both Reality and me the other day that this is a journey and not a race. I'm glad to know that you've been faced with a similar issue to mine and what my instinct is telling me to do worked for you. Thank you.

reality said...

Lisa,
Just saw the link to my site on your place here.
Thanks. This is a first for me. By the way, I had added you also last week. :)
And its because of your wonderful posts. Amy is definitely a wise one. I have to coerce her to read one of my short stories one of these days. :)
Reality.

Yellow said...

Last night I was talking to my hubby about my art, and came up with a phrase that rang true as soon as I uttered it. It then rang round my head, driving me crazy, for fear that I might loose that clarity. So I wrote it down in a note book, and my head cleared instantly. I worry that if you don't write, the words inside you will drive you crazy for fear they'll be forgotton and lost. I agree with the suggestion to keep writing & edit later.
I'm getting more forgiving in my reading of authors. I don't mind plunging into a fisrt book that sometimes stumbles or is slightly crass or naieve, when I can see the strength of the idea and the excitement in the writing. Don't let your aim for perfection make you cold & dry. Keep the drive, somehow. God, it was painful to read your post. Hubby asked me what was wrong when he saw my face when reading it.

Shauna Roberts said...

Your choices to break out of your freeze are not just (1) keep writing in a vaccum or (2) stop and study and hope to figure out how to apply what you learn to your own work.

A third option is to get some feedback—find some intelligent readers who can read what you've written and point out where you are weak and what you are doing well. To intrigue and please readers is essential; everything else is secondary.

Lisa said...

Reality,

You are very welcome!

Yellow,

Your kindness means a lot. Rest assured, the freeze is on with my novel manuscript only. I haven't, nor could I stop writing down thoughts and ideas as they come to me. There is a notebook within reach at all times. Yesterday I bought two sizable white boards that I have been jotting key concepts onto - things that need to be pervasive throughout a long story - because I want to be have them as constant reminders. I may have unintentionally painted too grim a picture of my outlook on my work. It's serious, but not hopeless. The fundamental piece of work that I now have to do (in my mind) is best described in this excerpt from John Gardner's The Art of Fiction. I'll paraphrase a little: "After plotting, MINE DEEPER - dig out the fundamental meaning of events by organizing the imitation of reality around some primary question or theme suggested by the story but evoked from within it...initially an intuitive but finally an intellectual act on the part of the writer...the writer muses on the story idea to determine what it is that has attracted him, why it seems worth telling. Having determined that...and what chiefly concerns the main character - he toys with various ways of telling his story, thinks about what has been said before about [the theme], broods on every image that occurs to him before he writes, while he writes and all throughout the revision process...what it is he really thinks...Only when he thinks out his story in this way does he achieve not just an alternative reality, or loosely, an imitation of nature, but true, firm art - fiction as serious thought." I am finding my way and although I don't have any illusions about what the end result will be, I do want to write something that is truthful. I, too can forgive flaws that I see in debut works, but the more of those that I can find in my own, that I can be aware of and attempt to fix, the happier I will be with it. As a painter, I suspect your process may be something like the one Scott goes through. He spends far more time thinking about what he's going to do and working it out in his head than he actually spends painting it. There are some similarities I think in writing too. I'm in the serious thinking part. I don't know if revision falls into thinking or writing. It's really a mix of both. During revision, I am taken out of the free flowing process of purely writing (the joy of the first draft) and have to become far more analytical. Thank you for your thoughtful insights. This has been very helpful to me. And...I love your new works and your recent posts.

Shauna,

I just visited your website and blog and I am honored that you've stopped by to comment. You have me on your recommendation to get some meaningful feedback. I recently joined the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers, but have not taken any further steps to join a critique group. To be honest, I have some fears. Because so many of the members appear to be romance, sci-fi and fantasy authors, I have some concern that what I'm attempting to write (literary fiction) may not be well received, regardless of its execution. I suspect it's very difficult to read and critique a genre that one doesn't enjoy reading. My hesitation is completely without any kind of basis at this point and I realize I ought to give it a chance. I'll even say, you've probably pushed me to start looking into what's available. Thank you for your sound advice.

Larramie said...

To begin, I do believe that Amy is an angel and you'd do well to take her advice. But please note, Lisa, that Amy limited her novel-writing hiatus to reading three specific types of books within a two week period.

No matter how many of the "greats" you read/study, there will always be more to learn and who's to say that this could be applied to your work?

Go follow your heart and you'll find its voice.

Shauna Roberts said...

Lisa, I'm glad I was able to give you a helpful idea.

When I first started as a science writer years ago, and again more recently when I started writing fiction, I found I quickly hit a brick wall--I knew my writing had problems, but I had done the best job I could on my own and didn't know what to do next to get better. Constructive criticism from other people helped me leap ahead.

Many people read outside the genre they write in. So it may not be as hard to find a critique group that is comfortable with literary fiction as you fear.

Good luck moving forward.

P.S. I've been enjoying reading your blog.

Lisa said...

Larramie,

You are another of my guardian angels. You have never failed to offer wise advice when I or anyone else seems to need it. Your point is well taken and I agree, if I'm to take some time away from my manuscript to study, I need to realistically limit my reading to those books that can help me the most today and move on.

Shauna,

I spent quite a while this afternoon and then again tonight reading through your website and blog. You are a very talented person with a very interesting background! I will be checking in regularly. Thank you again.

Melanie Rimmer said...

Hi Lisa,I'm Yellow's sister and I found your blog from a link on her site.

I teach guitar to young children, and one of the most important things I try to teach them is the importance of practice. If they wait until they are good before they start playing the guitar, of course they will never get good. I ask them "Are you ready to be rubbish? Because if you're not ready to be rubbish you'll never get to be good".

I once heard that for every good painting you see in an art gallery, the painter did at least one hundred rubbish ones that he or she threw away. For every good photograph, for every good page of writing, for every good performance of a piece of music, the creator did at least one hundred rubbish ones that you never got to see. But the more you practice, the quicker you get the one hundred rubbish ones out of the way so you can get to the good one that you're proud to show people.

I so admire my sister Steph (Yellow). She is painting prolifcally nowadays and showing all her work, good and not-so-good on her blog for advice, criticism and support. She is creating constantly and winnowing the wheat from the chaff. As a consequence her art is maturing and developing before our eyes. It requires courage to do it so publically, but the rewards are great.

You MUST keep writing. You have to be ready to be rubbish. How else will you ever get to be good?

Therese said...

Wow Lisa, there's a lot of thoughtful advice here; I'm not sure I can add much, if anything.

The most useful thing I did to improve my writing, not to just reach publishable quality but to reach my own ideals, was to take graduate level writing workshops.

Writers groups are terrific for some, less useful for others. It's clear that you already have many, if not most, of what you need to reach your stated goal, but need the higher-level assessment/encouragement/assurance/instruction such workshops are more likely to provide.

In your shoes, I'd investigate what's available in your area; most universities allow non-degree-seeking students into workshops (which are usually offered during the evening) on space-available bases.

BTW, John Gardner is one of my mentors, if you will. His advice resonates with me continually.

Lisa said...

Melanie,

You are, of course correct (on a side note, I took guitar lessons as an adult once for about six months and practiced 2-3 hours a day and learned I'd never advance to the level of rubbish -- some of us just don't have it!). All of these comments over the last couple of days have convinced me to pull the manuscript back out and start massaging again. Even if I end up deciding that it's all wrong, working to make the writing better may open me up to the revelation I'm searching for. Thank you Melanie for illustrating this problem with a great analogy. I would love it if you'd check back in occasionally. I find that discussing problems about writing with my painter husband frequently gives me new insights and having a musician's perspective obviously does the same!

Therese,

I hadn't even thought of that, but it appeals to me. I have found myself envious lately of people who've had the experience of going through an MFA program, primarily because I don't think there's anything that equals the structured exercises and feedback within that environment.

The books I've read by John Gardner so far have helped me more than any of the others I've read. I'm working on a post about Ernest Hebert and one of the essays on his website is phenomenal -- it's called How John Gardner Kicked My Ass and Saved My Soul. More on that soon...thank you Therese.

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Literary Quote

It is worth mentioning, for future reference, that the creative power which bubbles so pleasantly in beginning a new book quiets down after a time, and one goes on more steadily. Doubts creep in. Then one becomes resigned. Determination not to give in, and the sense of an impending shape keep one at it more than anything.


Virginia Woolf