These days I’m in “discovery draft” mode: banging out new material without letting myself think too much about plot arc, character coherence or development, structure, or style. I’m grasping at every trick I know for not stopping, not slowing down, not censoring. For getting Big Brain out of the way so that Little Brain can play.
Little Brain likes lists. She appreciates not having to remember what’s supposed to happen next in the scene or trying to reconstruct the brilliant train of thought she had on the bike ride to the cafe. She also likes check marks and is very fond of pink highlighter.
Oh, and math! Little Brain loves adding up how many words are already on the screen and how many more she needs to produce before she gets to have a croissant, or check Twitter, or doodle some more in the margins.
This is ridiculous. I mean, I don’t think I’ve ever had it this bad. I sulk around all day and snipe at my family all evening. I cannot physically restrain myself from leaping up seconds after I sit down. I suffer nightmares about forgetting my lines, choking up, gagging. I spend fortunes on notebooks, paper, pens. These lie in a pile on my desk while I binge on Etsy. I cancel social plans to punish myself. I am obsessed with planning meals and keeping up with laundry-folding.
In other words, the writing is not going well.
But while I’m not writing, I am making lists. To-do lists, groceries, lists of my goals and aspirations, ideas for fortieth-birthday bashes, titles for future books, gift ideas for everyone I know, research questions, favorite women’s-lib slogans, baby names (I know; what babies??). I have dozens of lists and nothing else.
So I turn to one of my favorite writing books ever: Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott. Some Instructions on Writing and Life, is its subtitle, and this hints at the secret of its best-selling staying power. Lamott stages an effective writer’s-block intervention by recognizing that writing is an activity deeply connected to a writer’s sense of self. She reassures us, right off the bat, that writing is a cruel and lonely process, and that most everyone goes a bit nutty when faced with a blinking cursor or a blank page.
But the manual is also replete with practical strategies. I review these with the sensation of being thrown a life preserver. The next day, I sit down determined to follow Lamott’s sage advice. Specifically, I give myself only a Short Assignment, and aim for only a Shitty First Draft (both Lamott’s terms). But it doesn’t work. Nothing comes to me, and within an hour I’m crawling with anxiety and shame at failing to meet even these most elementary standards.
The day after that I try again. This time, after ten desperate minutes, I tell myself not to write a Shitty First Draft. Instead I decide to write a list.
I decide to list, in full sentences and in order, everything I need to say in the scene I want to write. I pretend that my memory will be erased at the end of this writing session, and that I’ll need to refer to my list for any salvageable content. I don’t write actual sentences, you understand. Just a list of sentences. Each time I feel myself slowing down or becoming reluctant, I write “1-2-3” down the page and fill in the list.
In two hours I have more than six pages, single spaced. I’ve lost track of my numbering system, of course; arrows and crosses and half-sentences abound. It’s the shittiest first draft I can imagine. But. . .it’s a draft!
Lamott’s wisdom sounds simple, right?: get out of your own way, avoid perfectionism, give yourself permission to be messy and proceed with half-measures. But I need to hear it again and again–I need even to find my own, silly trick for enacting it–because for me, starting is always the scariest part of writing. The self-discipline it takes is an utter paradox to me, in that getting to work means giving up control.
The nice thing about duping oneself into coughing some words–any words–onto the page is that having those words feels just as good as having written something instantaneously brilliant. I feel like a million bucks tonight, prolific and generous and entitled to all sorts of treats. And best of all, I feel hopeful about tomorrow’s session.
Last weekend I was trying to plow through a whole pile of books on women’s pacifist writings from World War I (the folly of trying to meet a research deadline at the end of a teaching term). But I got distracted by Mark Heberle’s essay* on the way J. R. R. Tolkien’s WWI experience spurred and influenced his fantasy writing. The “shadow of war” Tolkien describes as having hijacked his youth is felt throughout Middle Earth in the form of Mordor’s shadow and the Eye of Sauron peering ominously at the hobbits’ doings.
More specifically, Heberle traces how Tolkien found early solace for dislocation and orphanhood in the dragon-slaying tales he invented as a child. The young writer then became fascinated with language. An obsession with one obscure, Anglo-Saxon word in particular, Earendel, prompted Tolkien to create a whole suite of fantasy stories to “house” it and other words he discovered or made up.
It’s a remarkable testament to the healing power of stories. Trauma studies has observed that the process of telling one’s story, and especially of finding a sympathetic audience for it, is integral to recovery. Instead of simply describing his losses to a therapist or family member, Tolkien went way further: he transmuted his pain into heroic fantasy, and in so doing created a story that resonates with readers of all ages and tastes.
I was surprised at Haberle’s revelation that Tolkein “later regretted the way in which the narrative voice [particularly in The Hobbit] is almost overly familiar and intimate.” This grandfatherly voice is my single favorite thing about his books, so I’m glad it slipped past Tolkien’s inner censor, even if it embarrassed him later on.
*Heberle, Mark. “Tolkien, Trauma, Childhood, Fantasy.” in Under Fire: Childhood in the Shadow of War. Ed. Elizabeth Goodenough and Andrea Immel. Detroit, MI: Wayne State UP, 2008. 129-42.
Anybody remember paper toile? Corking? Soap carving? Well, I do–my childhood was enriched by a number of these bizarre late-seventies crafts. In fact, I won a blue ribbon for my soap-carved eagle in Grade 5 (how I wish I had a picture!).
One of my favorites of these crafty pastimes was decoupage. I loved painting the surface of an ordinary object with watery glue and arranging my favorite magazine clippings or greeting-card cutouts all over it. The final layer of glue would go on milky and unappealing, but the whole thing would dry to a satisfying vinyl-like finish. Once I covered my suitcase with pictures of Prince (how I wish I had a picture!).
The decoupage metaphor as applied to writing is nothing new. Postmodern literature, in particular, is celebrated for its use of bricolage and pastiche as techniques for citing, juxtaposing, and commenting on ideas and tropes from the past. Irony, of course, plays a much bigger role in postmodern decoupage than in the glue-and-paper kind.
But I think decoupage is actually a basic activity of all creative writing. You select bits of real-life and imaginative stuff that have caught your fancy: a compelling character trait, a resonant phrase, a standout landscape. You arrange them in ways that look good to you. You fix them to the page with word-glue. You add more bits to fill gaps, peel off what doesn’t fit. Then you layer more word-glue overtop. Often when you’re done, the whole thing appears gooey and opaque to your eyes. But come back later–after you’ve opened a window, taken a walk, cleared your head of the fumes–you realize what a shiny and gorgeous thing you’ve really made.
Okay, so I still indulge every now and then. Recently I snipped images from Art News magazine to cover my daybook. Can’t do this with a Blackberry, canya?
Black Swanhas been following me around for days. It’s certainly not a case of subtle plot-craft or deft acting–I’m not even sure Natalie Portman deserves her Oscar. The movie is melodramatic, the emotions ridiculously overwrought. I completely understand why my dancer friends hated it for capitalizing on the cliches of pressure and corruption in the professional arts scene, the neurotic prima donna heading for her inevitable implosion.
Thanks to the visual and sound effects, though, I had the delighted impression I was watching a much older story coming to life. It’s the Greek tragedy components that transported me and that keep me flashing back to those images of goosefleshed shoulder-blades and webbed toes.
Metamorphosis is a staple in the old stories. Swans figure heavily, both in divine infliction (Zeus raping Leda) and divine deliverance (King Cyncnus transformed through grief). The phrase “swan song” comes from the myth (also Greek) wherein swans were said to emit at death the most beautiful birdsong in the world.
What Black Swan does, besides invoking the old stories in all their creepy relevance, is address the transformation of the artist in the process of creation. Nina (Portman) is told that technical brilliance won’t cut it; she must lose herself in the role, channel her darkest self as well as her innocence and good intentions to fully embody the Swan Queen.
This sounds right to me, as a writer. Even if you’re not writing melodrama, you need that murderous passion–you need to hurl yourself, body and soul, onto the page, if your writing is to be vivid and courageous.
I don’t believe artists have to self-destruct in order to achieve this passion, though. In fact, I’d like to think that Nina pulled herself together after her swan-song performance, that the discovery of her inner black bird allowed her to integrate the parts of her life that were scaring her silly.
I know, I know. That’s me arriving at a happy ending where none is indicated on the film’s road map. But I had another recent experience to leaven the Gothic stakes of Nina’s moment in the spotlight. Shortly before seeing Black Swan, I took a tour of the National Ballet and witnessed the massive, real-life, collective effort that goes into a single performance, including this gem from the costume department:
Tutu bits. That’s what it all comes down to, doesn’t it? And I’m not just talking about ballet.