Tuesday, March 22, 2016

things I've learned lately about writing

hey kids.

let's have a quick chat about writing.  I'm sitting in my precious haven of blessed joy and company starbucks, procrastinating homework and waiting for an email that'll get me on the teaching schedule, fantasy-apartment-"hunting" in l.a., and hoping the cool kids club will show up.  

I have a lot of thoughts about writing.  they're a bit random, they're a bit repetitive maybe, and I may have even posted about some of them here before.  but yesterday I did some writing, and I've had a lot of discussions about writing in the recent past, and I figured I'd collect some of my most forceful thoughts.

1. first of all, let me share a couple quotes from this book by flannery o'connor (more on this book in a later post and also, thank you to the dear who mailed me this!)... 
"Technique in the minds of many is something rigid, something like a formula that you impose on the material; but in the best stories it is something organic, something that grows out of the material[....]"
this is something I've been realizing for years.  when you are young, in the "logic" stage of your education, if you were classically trained, you learn structure.  structure, structure, structure.  you need this, I agree!  but the disconcerting, tear-filled, anxiety-inducing harangue that is the evolution from teenage writer to adult writer seems to be all about this realization: that you don't need to follow a code.  that you can hone your ear and develop your taste - and your experiences as you grow through the world can inform you more about the innate nature of the story you want to tell.  the major distinction I see between the friends around me is whether they have learned to stop regurgitating the same four tips you'll read everywhere online about "how to write a good story the right way."
"People have a habit of saying, 'What is the theme of your story?' [...] Some people have the notion that you read the story and then climb out of it into the meaning, but for the fiction writer himself the whole story is the meaning, because it is an experience, not an abstraction."
 I am not trying to say that guidance/education/structure is bad!  I can tell you that taking a class on structure changed. my. life. with complete honesty.  but I agree with flannery here:
"The teacher can try to weed out what is positively bad, and this should be the aim of the whole college.  Any discipline can help your writing: logic, mathematics, theology, and of course and particularly drawing.  Anything that helps you to see, anything that makes you look."
I can back up those statements, as can most of you, I believe, with a little help from a wikipedia page about your favorite author...some of the best writers and storytellers out there are those abhorrent, disgustingly (sarcasm) talented individuals who seem to do all-of-the-arts.  this is a more extreme version of something I've said for years: that if you want to improve your prose, read poetry.  write poetry.  listen to songs; absorb the lyrical.  look at beautiful things.  embrace all the details you can.

here is the other thing, and it's going to sound like I'm ragging on critique groups, but I'm not, I just want you all to remember this: you. know. your. book.  

you know more about it than anyone else.  you love it more than anyone else.  you feel it more than anyone else.  you can get help of all sorts - maybe you need someone to catch awkward sentences, or to bounce ideas around, or to nip cliches in the bud, sure.  but that process is all about what helps and what hinders.  if someone is helping you become a better writer - and you will know this when you see it - then keep them (on your editing team, not like, in your life or whatever, haha, you can be friends with them!).  if someone is not, whether because they're just not your audience, or they want all books to be exactly the kind of book they like, or because they're hyperactively creative and grab onto ideas but they just don't have the same vision that you do?   don't be afraid to cut that voice loose.  you're never going to please everyone.  the important thing is that you know what you're going for, and you can trust your judgment to distinguish between you-failing-to-communicate and them-failing-to-listen.  if you have to let your idea ferment in the back of your mind for eight years in order to really immerse yourself in that vibe and let it grow naturally?  do that. 

my final note is the one that is so belabored into the ground but because it is worth it.  


practice, practice, practice.  butcher it.  it doesn't matter.  but be writing, if you really care about it, every single day.  for me, this meant that for the spring semester of my senior year, I wrote a hundred words a day, even if they sucked.  even at the end of the day, exhausted, sad, what-have-you...you can write a paragraph.  it's just one paragraph.  and yes, it sucked! and yes, in the rewrite, I'm reworking nearly all of it!  but I can tell you right now, I wouldn't be here, in the rewrite, if I hadn't done that.  in the course of writing that semester, and the summer after that, my work improved so much.  whether it's good or not, time will tell when the beta readers get their hands on it, but at least it is a hundred lightyears better than it was, in my opinion.  a hundred words, friends.  that's it.

"but lydia, if I write a hundred words a day, it'll take me approximately four billion years to finish my book!"

well, sure, okay.  protip: if you want to do more than a hundred words in one day, let yourself [insert wink here].  some days, especially after practice, you'll write a lot more.  for example: when I started, the first month I wrote about 100-200 words a day.  after a bit, it turned out to usually be more like 400 in a day.  by the time it was the summer through to when I started grad school?  it was a 900-2000 words situation.  now you know my secret.  

back at the beginning, I said "quick chat about writing," which is hilarious because this is paragraphs later.  but.  I hope this makes sense.  I hope it might be helpful to some people.  maybe I just need to remind myself of it.  at any rate, that's what I think these days.