Wednesday, July 28, 2010

The Quest

Recently I have been watching a lot of videos on the internet of dances that have been performed for judging of some kind. I enjoy watching these videos on a superficial level (they are pleasing to the eye) but they also inspire me, and I am very intrigued by the connection between different arts.

Sometimes it seems as though they aren’t related at all! Dance may inspire me, but translating into the writing space in my mind is like trying to translate another language that you’ve never heard before. Ideas are tricky things, and I thought I would speak to that in this post.

Where do you get your ideas? I think there are two types of ideas. Spontaneous ideas and crafted ideas. Of course, the goal is that the first can become the second, but that is not always the case. Spontaneous ideas are fits of fancy that come over you. “What about a story where an elephant is trying to put on a sock but it won’t fit?” To become a crafted idea, the writer must determine how much connection and commitment they have to the idea. “Do I really like elephants enough for this? Do I relate to the poor guy’s problem?”

If the answer is “Well, I don’t really like elephants, but I can work with this idea,” the writer should be very careful in going to craft the idea, because generally it will become clichéd and trite (the elephant has a mommy and a daddy who watch with amusement, etc).

Another path an idea can take is “inspiration.” Inspiration is a very interesting topic, even if one does not believe in it. Personally, I think the concept that you have to be inspired in order to write something comes from reading. What is inspiration? Feelings, essentially. An emotional drive interpreted as the need to create. When we read, we experience feelings and we have an emotional drive--what’s going to happen to the character? So when we sit down to write, we expect the same thing to happen. The trouble is, we’re supposed to be creating. By definition, the two experiences are extremely different.

So connection to an idea is important, but inspiration is not always the same as connection. I have an example, there was this idea I had recently that I felt a connection to and was able to write without becoming too contrived and without being “inspired.” It was a piece I wrote for Flash Fiction Month (July) called Amphibians about a boy who essentially thought he was a frog.

This is an excellent example because the ways it could have become cliché were many. We could’ve seen him hopping around the yard, his mother amused, then have a girl dressed up as a princess appear and “turn” him back into a boy. It’s very clear how cliché that would have been, right?

Instead I went through a checklist: Unique Relationship? (I gave him a friend instead of a princess, a friend who believed him and followed him around). Unique Inner Landscape? (I gave him a fascination with muscles, a fascination that led him to decide he was a frog). Unique setting/language? (I didn’t do much with this one in the piece, but it’s good to have on the checklist). Unique personal-relations conflict? (By this I mean a unique conflict in the relationship. In this case, the friend went along with everything until frog-boy wanted to jump in the river). As a side note, closure is also important. It can be unique, but it’s okay if it’s not, just that it’s present.

So the quest is to find ideas that you as the writer can transform into interesting, unique pieces. I find that having tools to get me there is very important--tools like the checklist above. Practice is the other thing. The only way I got out of the indulgent, poetic-fluff days was by writing myself out of them and by trying everything. Maybe checklists don’t work for you when you’re doing your first draft--try going through the checklist at the end. There are as many methods of writing as there are writers, but there are still universal things. Look for them.

See you over on the weekend. I’ll actually be in New York, maybe I’ll do something about how landscape can inspire. No promises though :P

Sunday, July 25, 2010

The Novel and the Short Story Compared

Something that has always interested me is my proclivity for writing short stories. It began because I would write failed fantasy novels about young heroes who could do anything (and therefore a whole lot of nothing), and this fact would depress me, so I switched to short stories.

Though, perhaps that’s not entirely accurate, because I also began to write poetic fluff descriptions for awhile (the name of this blog refers back to that, in some ways), and those were always short because of what they were--insubstantial, lacking any character or real point of reference, existing only for my unskilled hands to put words together in ways I thought, at the time, were pleasing.

There came a time when I decided that understanding my characters was important. But I’m getting a tad ahead of myself. I wanted to say that I think different people experience their characters differently. My sister, for example, made up a large cast of characters/friends she would interact with and talk to, literally out loud. They weren't imaginary friends, because she didn’t pretend they were real, but that didn’t stop her from interacting with them.

I never did that. I never had an imaginary friend. I did have a friend who had an imaginary bird, but that was as close as I got. So when I approached writing, the characters always came to me as an extension of self. I created “the fantasy hero flawed with perfection” because I craved that perfection, I think. I wanted to live through them.

I don’t know how my “poetic fluff description” phase enters into this. Maybe it has something to do with reaching outside of myself (finding the perfect interior world flawed) and yet trying to create a perfect external world. Neither way works, of course. I still can’t separate myself from having characters who are an extension of self, but what I can do is give them real flaws--flaws that I further identify with. It’s a strategy that has worked.

But, on the topic of story length, I think this aspect of having a whole cast of characters around you (as my sister did) relates very easily into the realm of novel, whereas my intense identification with fictional characters, (so intense as to make them extensions of me), led to shorter works by necessity. I’ve realized that in some of my longer work, the secondary characters did not deserve to be called that, for they were merely cardboard cutouts propped there for my lead to talk to.

In a short story, of course, this is excusable, because you don’t have time to introduce secondary characters. But in a novel, it is a vital skill to learn (one that I am still learning myself).

Next blog update will be Wednesday, I think I’ll try updating on Wednesdays and the Weekend.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Deceptively Simple: The Writing Game

This thing we do called writing is deceptively simple. Not only does it require copious amounts of time, but the reward and satisfaction can take months, years even, to come full circle. It’s a curious thing how any artist creates their art--not just the actual process involving paint or instruments or dance, but the compulsion. What compels art? Specifically, what compels writing?

Often when I’m online I see profiles on various websites where people say, for example, that they love horses, have a nickel collection, and like to write. Sometimes it seems to me as if the whole world is full of writers. I think this is true, to the extent that everyone has stories, and because we live in an mostly educated world, everyone has the skills needed to put those stories on paper.

Verbal story tellers have their own place, of course, and that’s an interesting talent because it’s very immediate, both the telling and the hearing happen simultaneously. For introverted writers, that would be a quite frightening proposition, and yet the reception of the work is very live and vibrant. Many people have written about the sound of spoken words (often relating back to poetry), and it really is a different way of thinking about story.

So even in trying to introduce what I want to talk about already we’ve encountered several fairly complicated ideas, and we haven’t even been discussing the mechanics of a novel or a short story or a poem.

My mother always says my dad is a story teller. He is great at telling jokes at Thanksgiving and stories of things that happened when he and his siblings were kids. When I was younger, he used to tell me and my younger sister stories--that is, until we started to “interfere” too much by telling him what we wanted the story to be about. Why did we need him if we were going to dictate the entire thing?

Maybe the fact that my dad said we might as well tell our own stories started something in me and is part of my compulsion to write. I found that his stories, and our involvement in his stories (“you should make the character shoot lightening bolts from his hands!”) were often wish-fulfillment oriented. I think this is something many writers start with, turning to the page as a way of fulfilling things they can’t in their lives, and so begins the complications. Intentions led to words.

Another reason writing can be deceptively simple is that it does not involve muscle-memory the way learning an instrument does (unless you count learning to type). It is not immediate (you cannot demonstrate your skill instantly as you can with an instrument), and even if you want to show someone what you’ve done, it takes them awhile to read. A series of paintings or photographs can be viewed much more quickly, even when the viewer lingers.

Drawing to the conclusion of this post, I find I am more interested in what makes writers tick than by the original question. If you have any thoughts, they would be welcome here.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

inaugural post

"It would be wonderfully efficient and clever of us writers to have to learn our lessons only once." -Judith Guest