Silence the Censor

Do you, at times, have your doubts? Do you look over your material and hear that nasty little interior voice saying no way, absolutely not, NO?

If you’re going to get any work done, you have to kick the nay-sayer to the curb. That’s just a fact of a writing life.

For an hour, a day, an entire writing week, give yourself a break, and make it an anything goes zone.

And when, some hard work later, you’ve penned as much as you can, take the day off. Go out, refresh, and embrace your world. Later, you can rework it.

Later, you can cut out the dead. The redundant. The confusing.

But now?  No limits. No expectations. No old biddy standing over your shoulder, ruler at the ready to rap your knuckles. Welcome to the yes zone. Let it fly. And have a good time.

Photo credit: Mel Lindstrom

Probabilities and the Written Word

I had occasion, one parents’ weekend, to attend a college math class.

The room was filled with rows of computer banks where bright-eyed students sat, in varying states of posture, but all paying attention. White boards were on opposite walls of the classroom, front to back. The professor—a lively young man—moved the discussion along at a serious clip. It was a statistics problem, a thorny thing, and he coaxed and challenged his students to come up with the answer.  Bouncing between white boards, his marker raised as if a sword, he dashed off formulas in a hasty, furious hand.

Soon, the white was slashed through with lots of black and touches of red, for emphasis, some things starred and boxed and underlined. It was so logical, so sequential. Beautiful, he insisted. His jubilance was infectious. Indeed, even I saw the beauty. As if modern art, the two white boards hung, lovely to behold and weighty with unspecific meaning.

At that moment, I envied the mathematician.

A writer doesn’t dwell a lot in percentages and probabilities. Standard deviation, sample size, mean, medium, mu . . .  ?

There just aren’t any reliable proofs that a writer can call upon in his search to arrive at a specific, beautiful truth. There is no crisp bouncing between white boards. Victory is far from assured. Ours is a chaotic, messy, insane, and reverential thing. There’s no mighty sword. Just a hand-clipper by which the writer must make his way through the South American jungle that stands between himself and his treasure.

Photo credits: math – codranknmath4, sxc; jungle – Andres Ojeda, sxc.

Trash and the Written Word

It’s probably good to have a moment when everything turns inside out on a project, when you have to start over.

I didn’t say fun—I said good.

Before I went nearly paperless, I trashed forests-full of material. One project in particular comes to mind: a novel. I had written lots of successful things before this—books, essays, short stories—but a full length fiction project was a different animal. Also, this story, so close to the bone, was hard to pin down. I was also working with an editor then, pages flying back and forth, and whose red slashing relegated even more volume to the trash bin.

Draft after draft, characters were eliminated, plot points erased, back story dumped, everything pared to its essence . . . So much paper hit my wastebasket that I undertook in a moment of conscience to plant a grove of trees in compensation for my consumption. As an extra amends, I had them planted them in Anatolia, where the story is set, and in my father’s name, which pleased him.

And still I wrote and rewrote—my children growing up, my parents growing older, and this story tried over and over again, each time a little closer, but still not there.

Once, in answer to the simple question “How was your day?” I fanned whole chapters-turned-red across the kitchen table, which shocked my school-aged sons. I wasn’t sentimental about it—it wasn’t blood spilled; just red ink; just business. I wanted to lend sympathy to their own writing struggles, but more to the point, I wanted to show them that there are no short cuts to a well crafted work, much as we might wish otherwise.

I finished that book, that story captured at last with every detail in place, and I no longer waste paper.

But I keep a postcard of those trees planted an ocean away as a reminder, as if I could forget, that good writing is a lot of work. And some things—whether as a metaphor or actual chain saw whining—might even take a forest.

Photo Credits: ashcan – Joel Dietle, sxc; logging – Paivi Tittanen, sxc

The Cutting Room Floor

I just finished a new essay, my eleventh, and though I say this about every essay or story, it was a devil from the beginning. This one concerned matters of faith, sticky moments, and my father’s death. Any one of these subjects is hell for an essay and I had tripled up my misery.

I worked on it for a few weeks, off and on. I let some time slide and came back again to look. I thought it was done and was feeling pretty good about it. But I was wrong. An editor cut it to pieces. Eight pages left from eighteen, or so.

I decided that I hated the essay and abandoned it for a couple of months. When I went back, it was so obvious. Everything that hit the floor deserved to go. The essay meandered, with side issues taken up and the main story lost in the clutter.  Eliminate the superfluous matter, and the story crystallized.

Shorter, faster, tighter, brighter—words to live by.

Also, blessings on all my editors’ heads.

UPDATE:  This essay, “For the Birds,” is forthcoming, early 2011, in  Lalitambra Mandiram.

Photo credit: Aurelia Werneck, stock.xchng

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