Saturday, July 11, 2015

Writing Process Update

[Photos taken around Portland.  Some friends embarked on a collaborative photo project where we'd mail each other images of our daily lives.  It's been really cool getting their photos in the mail!  Thought I'd share some of my set.]

Hello hello!  Popping back in to put down some of my evolving thoughts on the book writing process.  In particular, I was thinking about the distance between what authors often start out intending a book to be about, and what it actually winds up being about, when everything is said and done.

Let me back up.  At the start of the year, I joined a writer's group comprised of 5 writers immersed in various stages of writing a book-length project.  We had memoir, we had mysteries, we had fiction.  Every other week we'd get together to chat about a 30K word submission from one person in the group.  That meant we'd read the 30K words, left notes on the manuscript itself, wrote out a summarizing set of comments to the writer, and then got together for 90 minutes to talk shop.  What we thought worked, what didn't, what questions we had, our overall feedback and suggestions.

So in writer's parlance, this is a "workshop" experience.  People read your work, they tell you what they think.  After spending hours on a story where it's just you and the page, your story in your head, it can be a revelation to hear other people's reactions to your story.  Both in terms of what they like and what resonates, but also and perhaps more tellingly, where they were confused or skeptical, what they thought was missing, the parts they identified as trouble points or weak spots.  Now, you never have to take everybody's feedback or even anybody's feedback.  Often, I've found that readers will disagree - somebody thinks it's too slow and somebody else thinks you need to slow things down even more, somebody wants more action and somebody wants more romance.  You just cannot please everybody.  Stephen King has a rule: If there's disagreement, the score goes to the author and they get to do whatever they want; it's only if all of your readers are in agreement that you, author, should listen carefully to what they're saying.

In my (off-and-on) years of workshopping, I've found it helpful to heed Mr. King's advice.  Otherwise you find your story stretched in all sorts of different directions, and things get thin fast.  Also, other people may be reading things into your story that you hadn't intended.  Which is fine, as everybody comes to a story with their own set of experiences, but that doesn't mean that you should bend the direction of your writing to accommodate what they're reading into it.

Which brings me to another lesson that I've found quite helpful, and one which comes from several writing instructors.  Write the story that you want to tell.  So what if I wrote a piece about my grandmother and everybody is commenting about the sibling rivalry?  If I wanted to explore the life of a woman who never had a childhood, then damnit, keep writing that story.  At the end of the day, you're the one writing the story.  And as my brother pointed out - they'd probably latch onto the sibling rivalry regardless; I don't have to change the focus of the piece, they're going to notice that anyways.

Which leads to a third lesson I learned from that group: be mindful of the source of the feedback.  Often, feedback is tainted by the type of reader and writer that we are.  One of the members of our group was a first-generation Indian-American who is really interested in culture, so he always wanted more history, more culture, etc.  Another woman loves medical memoirs - memoirs about disease and health - and she also hates non-linear storytelling, so she was always hating on flashbacks ("I'm so confused!  What are we doing here???") and always wanted people to play up the nitty gritty medical aspects of their stories.  So that's another grain of salt.  I knew Cathy was going to hate that I started my book in my 20's and then dipped back into my teens and my childhood, but that wasn't going to stop me from writing it my way --- it just meant I wouldn't put a lot of stock in her commentary about my flashback scenes.

But what was most interesting about this group was that every time we sat down to discuss, inevitably one member of the group would say, "I feel like we really have two books here."  A coming of age memoir set in South America set around a back-breaking (literally) fall from a bridge?  In the iteration we read, it was part medical memoir, part travelogue, part coming out/coming of age story.  A Hindu philosophy, love story with a murder and ... unbeknowest to us, a mystery surrounding that murder?  Oh heavens, was this about love, about philosophy, or a mystery?

Often, I think, writers will sit down with an idea in mind.  Some idea or relationship they want to explore, some story they want to tell.  And so they start.  A first-generation Indian-American is approached so many times by second-generation Indian-Americans who want to know about Hindu philosophy that he decides to write a book that will be his vessel for explaining the religion and philosophy.  Absolutely.  Except he loves reading and writing mysteries, so he decides to make it a mystery.  And part of the mystery involves a love story, which is tangled up in the reasons for the murder, which in turn is enmeshed in Hindi thinking around action/reaction, cause/effect, morality, etc.

As readers, we said, "OK, we think that it's working to use this book to explain Hindi philosophy, we like the love story, we see how all these events could culminate in a murder.  But the mystery?  That might be one element too much, especially if you don't introduce it until 30% into the book.  Because everybody who loves the philosophy is going to say WTF??  And everybody who wants the mystery is not going to wait 100 pages to get to it."

And there's the rub.  He wanted nothing more than to write a mystery centered around a murder.  Yet the story was evolving into an interesting work of fiction where a calamitous murder would set off a chain of philosophical re-examinations that complete the protagonist's journey through understanding Hinduism.  (This is where write the story you want to tell runs up against Stephen King's rule --- all of us told him we didn't think it was working, but he REALLY wanted to tell his story his way.)

Most writers I know face this quandary at some point.  I know I'm there at this very moment.  That thing you intended to write about - that most sacred piece - might just be the very thing that you need to discard.  Because what's evolved out of the writing process, what your subconscious has instead pulled to the surface, is vastly different and many times cooler.

So what do you do?  Do you let go of your original impulse?  Or do you turn away from this really cool thing that has instead emerged, and go back to your original idea ... the one that is flatter, less compelling, less magical ... and likely, less of a stretch for you to tell.

Of course, there's also this tricky business of recognizing the "Houston, we've got two stories here!" problem in the first place.  That can take ages.  It can take eons to figure out what your story is becoming, what it's actually about.  A couple weeks ago, at my writer's conference, our instructor told us it took him 3 full book drafts to come to this shifting point.  He started off wanting to write a series of essays about post-modern Japan, but his writing group kept saying, "More narrative, more YOU."  He kept saying, "I don't write memoir - I'm an essayist and a poet."  And of course, what he needed to do was to write a memoir.  And his career changed when he published that first memoir, it's what provided all of the artistic opportunities he's experienced since, and set his writing off in new, groundbreaking directions.  But he had to first let go of that initial impulse - and as you can see, it took him 3 full drafts to do that.

As for my book?  Augh.  Part of me gets that it's not working right now, in large part because two half-formed stories do not make for a compelling book, it's like a two-headed monster but neither head has all of it's eyeballs or bones or muscles, so it isn't the least bit scary, just ... uncompellingly blob-like.  And what it's evolving into is scaring me.  Stuff I don't want to write about. I'm so tempted to ostrich it, just keep churning out drafts that refine my original idea - except of course, that's not really going to get me anywhere.  I spent the week in Florida working with my instructor about what my story is actually about, and since returning, I haven't written a word since.  I don't know that I'm personally ready to make that shift yet.

So I'm actually going to step away from it for awhile.  My whole life, if there's one thing I've done very well it's been to work REALLY hard.  The thing is, some problems are not meant to be solved that way.  I mean, you can muscle through but boy, do you make life a heck of a lot harder for yourself.  I've never been good at listening for the right time to tackle the hard stuff - maybe I need to change or maybe the circumstances need to change before it's the right time - and for once, I'd like to try a new way of approaching life.  Maybe one that will be a little kinder to myself.

I'm fairly certain that this resistance is a very clever form of avoidance.  But knowing me, I'm also fairly certain that I won't let this project lie in the bottom of a locked desk drawer forever.  In truth, I'm rather sad about stepping away.  I've worked intensively on this project for two years now.  I think, in my mind, I could justify calling myself a writer and switching my career to the slow lane, if only I could say that a book would result from all of this.  And now?  That elusive pot of gold has to be buried indefinitely.  I'm also saying goodbye to my original ideals for the book - what it's about, what form it'll take, what it'll be like.  And that's sad.  All of it is sad.

And yet, in the midst of this vacuum, I'm guessing that the seeds of something else may slowly, slowly, begin to find sustenance ...

(By the way, before I forget - in case you missed it, I had an essay in the June issue of Seamwork.  It's about my grandmother.  She passed away one year, to the week, from the publication of the essay, and it seemed such a fitting tribute.  Love you grammy.)


Anonymous said...

Fascinating post - the workshops sound difficult but really useful. I absolutely loved your Seamwork article.

Macska said...

Wow what a fantastic post - I really enjoyed reading it and thinking about diverging and changing stories and how what we create so often turns into its own independent "thing", which we don't always recognise or understand even though it originated from us....

I'll be looking forward to hearing where it all goes next for you :)

Minnado said...

So fascinating to read your processes. I'm sure after 2 years of work you will return to your writing , when i was painting, leaving the work alone to sit led to a slow realisation or percolation of ideas, and I would be able to see clearly what i needed to do next. Loved your Seamwork article. Xx

Alessa said...

That sounds fascinating and a bit exciting. :) Like writing the story is almost as much of a story as the story itself. Does that make sense? I love reading your writing, you always manage to engage me and leave me thinking, and your turn of phrase, even though it seems simple, is very beautiful. Good luck with that huge project of your book! I'm sure the hardships will resolve themselves at some point. :)