New Editing Eyes, Old Writing Sins

here’s a quick list of my writing sins (likely incomplete):

  • I say all cool things I think of twice, or more.
  • My narrative pacing requires tuning–I either rush or linger too long
  • My plots (do they exist?)
  • I underwrite certain key points, or bury them
  • I leave awkward phrasing lying around
  • I like ideas and have too many extraneous bits

and here’s a quick list of my fixes (still under development):

  • I have to pick my favorite image (sometimes, I just toss a coin)
  • I’m cutting down that which does not move the story forward
  • I focus on introducing conflict, or at least suspense, and unforeseen developments into the story
  • I try to make evident the central point(s) of the story
  • I read and reread and make others read out loud, each iteration, so I can figure out what language is confusing or awkward
  • By having a storyline, and focusing on momentum in the beginning and end, I can kill the extras

I’ve massively revised three stories in ten days. It’s been a luxurious stretch — I’ve been indulging in a slight, but growing feeling of mastery over my words and storytelling. Ladies and gentlemen, this is as exciting as writing gets.

Here’s a bonsai metaphor–as a writer, you keep trimming and guiding the growing thing and you hope you don’t end up with a horrifying shapeless garbled web of a bush, and you try not to trim down until you have a stick, but both are tempting avenues. The big trick is to somehow visualize the emerging shape before it’s actually there and then encourage its emergence — on paper. [You have to imagine a ghost of a story into being.] (You have to terrify the page into surrender.) I’ll stop my metaphors here, but you get the picture: Gardener, warrior, Voodoo priest, these are the components of authorship. Let’s throw in monastic novice as well, because although this post is lofty, my writing experience is one of extreme humility and short lived aha moments.

The turning point was watching a brilliant editor, in my case Ellen Parker of FRiGG Magazine, edit down my sleeping beauty story–she helped me increase the narrative speed, cleared the brush of unnecessary ideas, and unburied the ending. It was great observing someone else at work on my text. It liberated me to rework my other texts. Her approach to polishing my story gave me insight into my writing sins and how to move beyond them. I’ve been frantically practicing these skills, and now school starts again.

 

Plot for the Plotless (like me)

Sometimes I look in the mirror of craft and this is what I see: Too many notions, concepts and fancies oozing out of my brain and too few finished stories. There’s good reason that I started my writing career as a poet–I’m full of atmospheric images, but I’m not so good on the plot thing. The plot thing I’m told is largely the point of storytelling. This makes me feel a little bit sad, but it’s also something to strive for.

I tend to get lost in the weeds of images or moods, or possibilities. I hate to define too closely, I want lots of room for my reader to embellish what’s on the page. Or maybe this is laziness. My limitations explain my tendency to re-write fairy tales. Fairy tales give me something to imagine against. Even when I end up writing something wildly different, at least I had a starting point, an arc to reference. This also explains my creative non-fiction habits. I like to re-purpose what exists.

But I do like to write new things, stories that have never existed before (in as much as that’s possible for me, someone who loves stories and has spent her life absorbing other story tellers’ narratives). When I write original fiction, I have to write it in layers. I have to re-write and redirect, edit after edit, isolating each particular strand of the narrative I want to explore. It takes me some time to refresh my ideas. So after each edit, I need to leave my story alone for a while. A few months later, I can revisit, identify a new strand of story to explore, and layer that in, and re-balance what’s already on the page to accommodate this new idea of mine.

As you can imagine, this is a lengthy exploratory process–why did I write what I wrote in the first place, what was I trying to say, which of the many narrative doors I’ve opened do I really want to wander into? But the process does eventually get me to some kind of movement in the story. My characters do change over time, as I do while writing them.

The bad news is that it takes me years to write my way through just one of my stories. Oh well, on with writing.

Reality Smackdown

It’s getting to be that time when I get antsy at not writing anything more creative than student papers–student papers, as far as I can tell, require sourcing good information and then organizing and explaining that information coherently. It’s a skill set for sure, but it doesn’t give me a buzz. Okay, it does give me a buzz, but it’s not a creative buzz, it’s a “look at how well I can follow guidelines” buzz. Reasonable Girl thrives in the academic setting, she’s so reasonable it’s amazing. But Reasonable Girl secretly craves the ultra-rare big sexy rush of creative writing.

Meanwhile, I hear some gurgling in the background, and it’s not my tummy digesting cake (at least not today)–my creative wellspring is gurgling. It’s not an angry gurgle yet, but it could be, soon! The spring is telling me I have a whole backlog of weird half lived fantasies and notions that need some kind of funneling, or my dreams are going to keep getting weirder, and I’m not even taking anti malaria drugs anymore.

I’m doing the multi-identity juggling again. The worker, student, girlfriend, wannabe author smack down is in full force, plus there’s the added pressure of the holidays: I have to be a good family member in a variety of settings as well. In the next 30 days, I’ll hang out with a 5 month old. I’ll also hang out with a 91 and 90 year old. I will be flexible; I will be kind; I will be tired.

The good news is that I only have two more school papers to go. I’ve got pretty much all the pieces I need to complete my generative, academic oeuvres. And then, one blessed month from now, I will have one blessed month to goof off. That month of will be chock full of a ridiculous lack of things to do at night. I will unveil my other superhero identity yet again, the one with the small cape, the writer person who right now has been closet-ted and ignored for a bit too long. Yay small cape. I see you hanging. You’ll be dusted off in no time.

Prayers Answered

Life is very exciting in these parts. I just tackled my second memoir chapter rewrite, and it felt downright successful. That’s two pleasurable chapter rewrites in a row. Inconceivable. (“Are you sure that word means what you think it means?”). Miraculous.

The experience is good because I can read feedback on particular chapters that tell me I’m currently failing and take the critique in stride, and when I re-read the chapters, my X-ray editor/writer vision is in full force. I can see when this empress has no clothes. And I have the gumption to make my own cloak and fix the problem. This is a very empowering process. I can be pointed to a problem, and I can tackle it. Oh sweet rewrite siren, how sweetly you sing.

Tonight, I also rewrote my intro to my book using language that I first plunked here. It’s been tweaked, but it’s still good and evocative (thanks Blog!). I also started re-organizing the order of the memoir chapters. The memoir order is not exactly chronological, but it’s now more thematic. Kind of.

I have to do homework, so i have to leave well enough alone for now, but I may have found a new technique: I get an hour (on nights when I have five hour homework stretches in front of me) to work on my memoir (timer and everything) and then I have to attend to homework. This creates a positive kind of force. I am compelled to face my fears, write, and be efficient, because my precious minutes are tick-tocking away. Oh the precious!

And with that. Good night.

One Hour of Reading Explains Two Years of Writing

Tonight, I’ve been reading about (big words coming, so don’t freak out and abandon me here) Applied Symbolic Interactionism. It’s a social work theory formulated from 1890 to 1910 (stay with me…) and it freaking answers every question that drove the writing of my memoir. Okay, I’m exaggerating. It only answers or speaks to half the chapters. The chapter where I write in the second person, and my story about Frenchness and Identity–this theory can handle these questions. This theoretical framework specifically deals with multiple identities–internal and external, past and future, and across multiple clubs (e.g., France/America). Holy shit. That’s what my memoir is about: The imaginary, and the differences between the labels you inherit or are given and those you select for yourself. It’s deeply weird to have my narrative, story-based pieces explained in a structured theoretical framework. In one hour of reading what took me two years to write was explained. Can you guess how weird I feel right now?

Maybe I should be relieved that practitioners have been refining the theory for 120+ years. Does the existence of an explanatory theory nuke the need for a storytelling work? I don’t think so. But it’s a little bit like living in colonial Philadelphia with some back pain and being handed an x-ray of my spine. Several social work theorists can explain in elegant symbolic grammar what my brain has been toying with. I’m not sure how I feel about this.

It does confirm my decision to undertake these studies–I’m studying the right field which asks exactly the kinds of questions my brain likes to toy with. That’s a terrifyingly sexy turn of events. I have been enjoying the intellectual, moral and emotional stimulation of my schooling. But tonight I feel a little bit like Moses reading up on Exodus in the King James Bible.

I’m not sure what to with all this, or how it will impact my revision process, but I’m pretty freaking psyched and amazed, and with that, I’ll go read some more.

Imagined Universes and the Christmas Letter

You know how families send around those Christmas letters detailing the year’s accomplishments and memories for the family as a whole and for its members? I got jealous. Single girls don’t send these letters. So I tried to write one (but maybe that’s already been done and it’s called Bridget Jones’ Diary) and it’s harder than it looks. I determined that in order to qualify for Christmas letter writing, I needed to have a family. So I concocted the only kind of family I could–an imaginary baby. Once I went through the process of imagining my family, it occurred to me that my life was full of imaginary things, or at least my mind was in constant dialogue running amok between my dreams, my perceptions, my past, my imagined future, my desires, and my realities. This was rich terrain. I wanted to write about identity, my identity, but I wanted to capture the influence of my multiple internal dialogues, including the very strong relationship I had with the imagined future.

Where did that realization come from? I knew about the imagined future because I had realized that the one aspect of breaking up (many times, over several decades) I found most difficult to deal with cognitively was the loss of my imagined future. It was an imagined possession that I truly missed having stolen.

So that’s where I got started. Also, I’ve had a small, but potent relationship with the idea of multiple universes, in a very self-serving way. Whenever I feel constrained by my lived life and current choice sets, I like to imagine multiple other universes where I made radically different choices at critical junctures. There’s the me that spent a year abroad with the Rotary Club, the me that went to Bryn Mawr, the me that never left New York City, the me that got an MFA, the me that married young and disastrously, the me that is a junkie, the me that is a professor. They comfort me. And they remind me of my possibilities.
So those are the seeds of the memoir. The imagined. The possible. My identity. And my history (though I am more interested in the future than in the past, as a life philosophy).

Buzzing Mind

I’ve been waking up and realizing that I’m mulling over the findings in my readings and how they are altering my world view–for example, the best predictors of decreasing poverty rates for African-Americans? Lifting out of poverty correlates to having more AA’s being employed by the government and their having greater political representation.(That’s tonight’s homework–email me if you want the reference.)

Or I wake up feeling deep guilt about not having written anything other than this blog, and ruminate over all the chapters I need to revisit and improve when I start the memoir revision process in a couple of weeks. Here’s My Big Problem: I don’t have a quick snappy way of explaining how/why I ended up writing my memoir, or what the memoir is about. I guess that’s Two Big Problems.

And with my new schedule I’m constantly negotiating my priorities. Right now, for example. I really wanted to nap between work and my evening lecture. But I decided I couldn’t nap until I finished the class reading, and then I decided that if I finished the reading I was allowed to blog (still no nap in sight.)

I realize these are trivial problems–it’s like complaining about being covered in whipped cream–so messy, so sticky, and so delicious. That’s really what’s happening. My life is overfull with wonderful developments, but I’m not used to all this stimulation and activity. It’s great, but it’s definitely an adjustment.

Myriad theories

While contemplating the Wye Oak, Yo La Tengo, The National show last night at the majestic Academy of Music, I occasionally had good ideas about writing.

(Yes, I need an excuse to blog, and lucky me, I have one tonight!)

I was thinking about how to manage my writing process, keeping the one month manuscript resting phase rule (which I’m enjoying). It occurred to me that the solution was to have a rotating list of manuscripts. I would need to log my scripts in and out of the cycle, but this system could work. It would force me to systematically work on one story, then let it rest, and pick up another story to push forward. Work, rest, work. Until I felt pieces had reached completion, and then they could move into a submission rotation list.  I could be so organized!

Right now the concept remains conceptual. I’m enjoying my writing hiatus. I think I’m anxious about the work/school/life/writing balancing act. I’m trying to add in activities slowly, one at a time, keeping things manageable. My approach resembles trying to add new foods into a diet when you’re trying to rule out allergies.

I’m waiting for the inevitable freak out. The moment when I grab my PC and shut myself in for a weekend and just write, write, write. At least, I hope it’s inevitable. The moment might never come and I might need to do what I usually need to do, which is schedule official writing time on a weekly basis, so writing doesn’t slip into my ever lengthening to do project pile. My optimistic side hopes that the new class subject matter will lead to new writing ideas. Tonight’s class related writing idea: the aging of the prison population means that jails will become expensive state-run nursing homes. So I can imagine desperate senior citizens (myself included) whose lack of retirement funds pushes them to a life of crime. And then devious granny prison gangs will rule the jail world. See, I’m full of ideas.