I’m doing a fair amount of wrestling my inner writer, at the moment. I’m still writing a fair amount here and journalling, and thinking thinking thinking about writing.
Here are some insights I gleaned this weekend:
Some of my favorite podcasts have done episodes about storytelling, lately, and I’m pretty hungry for it. It made me listen again (and again and again) to one I first heard last summer: Elizabeth Gilbert’s podcast for the Greenlight Bookstore Radio Hour. In it, she talks about writing The Signature of All Things, and about how having written Eat Pray Love, and the crazy unanticipated success of that freed her to write this novel that she didn’t know if she could actually write/pull off. She talked about how she is positioned to do things as a writer that few women in history have been positioned to do, and she feels like she owes it to us to go big, because of that. She talks about how freeing it is once everyone has made up their mind about you, because then you just do what you want secure in the knowledge that there will be people who love that about you and people who hate that about you, and the limitations of your control over either of them. And she talks about her process as a writer. How the most important thing for her is figuring out who she’s writing for— not knowing her audience, but picking someone— one person that she knows in real life, and writing the book for them. How, in her 20s, she’d sit down with a blank piece of paper and just start to try to write, and how terrible and painful all that is, and how now, she does mountains of research, and builds cards on character and plot and detail, and how she organizes these cards in shoeboxes by character, etc. And as she researches, she finds her character and her plot, but she shows up to do the work.
This is the nicest thing another writer has ever done for me. Because the truth is that I’ve been sitting in front of that blank piece of paper feeling like a fraud for literally decades, now. And the other truth is that I love research, and I often find inspiration in doing research, I’m just too much of a purist to thinly disguise my life as fiction.
But I’m starting to find inspiration other places. I have some wild conspiracy theories about grey area guy and my most recent ex that I think are probably figments of my imagination, but I could follow them in writing to where-ever they would take me, and that could be the start of something. I was listening to another podcast on the way to work this morning, and thinking how the presenter, not naturally a gifted presenter, is developing a bit of a radio voice. And I started thinking about someone I know and his radio voice, and thinking I could write a character sketch of him and some other people I know who are walking paradoxes, and out of those sketches, I might find the germ of a trait that belongs to my future characters, but without writing it, how will I find them?
Which is to say, I think I’m starting to see where nonfiction becomes a jumping off place for fiction. How I can take my questions about why something happened a certain way and come up with an explanation that fits. And perhaps in the writing and revising, that initial bit of nonfiction will look different, or even end up on the cutting room floor, but as long as it was a launching point, who cares?
I’m also reading Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life. I’m coming to the conclusion that I might just need to own this one— I’ve been reading it for two months now, and am not quite to page 20— every third of a page or so, I come across an idea I want to savor. This weekend’s thoughts included “Out of a human population… perhaps twenty people can write a serious book in a year. Some people lift cars, too… Some people feel no pain in childbirth. Some people eat cars. There is no call to take human extremes as norms.” When I try to read it faster, I feel like I’m gulping down caviar or chowing down on truffles. It’s wasted, in too large a portion.
When I was looking for The Writing Life by Dillard (shout out to a post by Jen Hatmaker that sent me looking, because it was the one book on writing she listed that I’ve never read) I also found this anthology of writers talking about writing. I’ve only read one essay out of it—Jane Smiley on disavowing your own work— but it was incredible. The only book I’ve ever read of Smiley’s is A Thousand Acres, and I read it again and again in college, because it was an award winner set in Iowa, and I went to college shortly after it won the major awards it won, in Iowa. And frankly, although I admire its artistry, I hated it. I disagreed with its interpretation of “King Lear” (it’s an adaptation of Lear that follows my “make the antagonist the protagonist” obsession), I thought it plumbed the worst possible elements of what could have been at play. And so I was surprised to find her disavowing it (specifically) in this essay. She talked about hearing that Chaucer disavowed his work, especially the “Canterbury Tales,” on his deathbed, and how visceral a reaction that created in her as an artist. The idea that she’d be ashamed of what she had done really bothered her. But the longer she was an artist, she came to understand it in a new way, and her most prominent work is the one that she thought about the most. She talked about how she wrote it to explore the political themes in Lear, and then started thinking about the psychological themes, and found something different, something she was ashamed to have overlooked, in Lear. And then she started thinking about the philosophical themes in Lear, and now she acknowledges that A Thousand Acres was a moment in time for her. She would not have written it the same way 10 years later, or from a different place in her life. It wasn’t exactly Chaucer’s reaction, but she can better understand how he got there. And hearing from her as a writer, I had a better appreciation for who she is and what she does as a writer.
What does all this wrestling mean? Not to be trite, but I feel like I’m working my way out of a cocoon I’ve been in for probably much too long—being transformed for what comes next for me. And I don’t know what that is. All I know is that the way forward that I’ve been dithering about for all this time— the question of what to do with that blank piece of paper? I suddenly have some things I want to try. (Suddenly. Ha. After 20 or so years, two degrees, editing more than a dozen books, as well as magazine articles and helping hundreds of authors myself, 11 months and more than 200 posts on this blog [and this isn’t my first online attempt to start making myself do the work] and so much work on myself you wouldn’t even believe it. There’s a reason that there is only one of the books Jen Hatmaker mentioned about writing I hadn’t read and reread, and God knows I’ve read many more than those.) Which is starting to feel like I may win it in the end.