Write through the Back Door

Any path to a writing life is a fine one.

Some people come to it along the mentored path of education, which leads the student from class to class, critique to critique, right to the front door of a party raging, the guests within all satin and heels, all turn of a shirt collar. It’s one way to enter, credentials at the ready, and it has its virtues.

But it is not the only way into the room.

Some find their writing life through another door, the alley entrance. There, amid drain holes and garbage bins, the writer makes his way, naked stories laid out for the taking, things more raw and uncensored than along more refined pathways. The streets become the classrooms, and the critiques that are essential for feedback will come in the mail as responses to his submitted pieces.

Some pieces will be published, some won’t, and in the meantime the self-taught writer continues to read his betters, analyze, and apply what he’s learned to his own humble sentences—and lo and behold, he improves.

This writer hasn’t spent time in the proverbial box, and so he is, by definition, already thinking outside of it. And his ardor—the chief tool of his working day—is what will drive his first-efforts ragged talent.

Trial and error is a very good teacher.

The dedicated writer writes a lot, and through his diligence may well create something terrific, even explosive, to show for his troubles. That his material is capable of evoking such emotion should surprise no one in light of how he came by it, a path highly idiosyncratic, and yet available to anyone willing to work, learn, and work some more.

There are no barriers to entry to a writing life. Front door? Back door? Take your pick, and pick up your pen.

Photo credit: red back door, Simon Cataudo; alley, Tamlyn Rhodes

The Measure of a Man

I always read the obituaries—especially those that start on the front page. It’s the one place that I can absorb, in a single smooth gulp, the entire arc of a person’s life as seen from the perspective of a dispassionate observer.

There, in columnar inches, I trace where he began, and where it took him. His education. His loves, his losses, his lucky breaks. A dry wit noted, perhaps. A penchant for bulldogs. I read about his friends, his habits and quirks, his desires, and the surprises—the moments of happenstance or folly—that seemed to have twisted his fate into wholly unanticipated directions.

Once again, I see that here we are, now we’re gone, and the middle years are never as we might have imagined at the start.

And then I put the newspaper down and go back to work.

Can we writers pen as clean a character study? Do we know the intimate details of a figure we have created, the fury and fragility of who he or she is, and why?

If we have done our job well, each time our character appears, some aspect of him deepens.  If we can be clear about these complexities and possess, as well, a firm grasp of the arc of his life, then we’re probably well on our way to penning an authentic and memorable creation.

Photo credit: Claude Jean

Questioning Assumptions

Popular lore holds that cats hate water, but it isn’t necessarily true. I’ve had three, and they have all imbibed from the tap, supervised the bath, and showed up when the garden hose was running. One routinely came home soaked from her forays, whether from roaming wetland, marsh or lakeshore, I’m not sure. She lived on the edge, that one, and she didn’t live long, but her days were surely filled with water.

If life hadn’t delivered up cats in my household, I might never have known that some cats actually enjoy water and find is fascinating in their own fashion. I might have subscribed more or less forever to the popular, but incorrect, view. I might have even repeated it, which seems like littering.

Another person might not care. What harm, after all, in misjudging a cat’s possible nature?

But writers question assumptions, look deeper, even those of us who will, before we are done, distort what we learn into something entirely different. Barely recognizable, it will still ring true.

Some cats love water; that’s a fact. I can use it, distort it, or ignore it, but at least I know what’s accurate, and this affords me, an accidental fact-holder on this matter, but a fact-holder nonetheless, a certain kind of power.

Now, as for the nine lives . . .

. . . the jury’s out.

Photo credit: lead cat – si.smugmug.com; nine cats – Aussie Gold

Be Doing

It isn’t true, as some maintain, that the Chinese language has no tenses. I could, if I wanted, and especially if I studied harder, convey my sentiments of past events or future expectations.

But the tense I particularly admire, and an easy one to use, relies on uses the word zai, said like you mean it: zai!, forefinger raised in emphasis.  Loosely translated, it means be doing. I am zai typing this, for example, or zai walking the dog.

As I learn about the Chinese culture, there is a lot of zai going on. Be doing, and get going if you’re not.

The other night, in a roundtable conversation about the creative process, with an emphasis on my favorite subject—writing—I passed on the zai observation. It’s fine to gather information, to mull it over, go have a beer or a coffee as it suits you and try to size things up, but then comes the doing. Try something, anything.  Be doing and see where it takes you. Even if all you generate is trash, it gives you something to sift through in the morning, a place to begin while you zai your coffee.

As this can be a painful process, it bears mention that it works a lot better if you’re nice to yourself. After all, yesterday, you were at it, you were be doing, which is the reason  work sits before you at this moment, whatever your reactions to it now. Being uncomfortable—even disappointed—is necessary for change.

Photo Credit: studioroosegarde.net

Story Clothed

The novelist, film director, and screenwriter John Sayles once told me that he went about town trying out his story ideas on people. This was Newark in the late 1980s, and the ideas were embryonic—inklings from the daily news that sparked his interest and that he thought had narrative possibilities.  This was the best time to test things out, he said, before there was much investment. And so up and down the streets he went, chatting with whomever would give him the time.

Newspaper sellers and waitresses, sanitation workers and subway token sellers—once he got them talking, everyone had something to say. He traded opinion, discussed motive, debated, posed questions and theories, and then went off to develop his material.

The contours of it came into focus first, the basic shape.  And after that, it was just a matter of clothing the tale.

Whether from a sense of vulnerability to a fiercely protective stance on something we regard as proprietary, some writers don’t try anything out on an audience before it’s done. But in the early stages of a work, as Sayles’ example shows, we might save ourselves a lot of effort and end up with a better product if we spend less time at our desks and more time on the street corner.

Photo Credits: figure and dressmaker dummy, Hannah Webster; dressmaker studio, Sarah-Isua-Amber