Monday, July 4, 2011

Write-a-thon, One Week and Many Thoughts

So, what has seven days of writing raw, unformed prose given me?

1) Confidence. Yeah, this zero-draft stuff is not much to read, but doing this on my blog, regardless of responses, is good. I am writing every day, I am writing without fear, which sounds grandiose but is not meant to be. I started this solo workshop with a very general sense of what I wanted to write, and I am finding that as I write a lot of elements of the future story are becoming clearer. Writing this protean stuff in public is helping me break down some internal barriers, and as a result I am writing more overall with less hesitation.

2) Discernment: When I write an early draft, I do a couple of strange things: first, I write actions and interactions in excruciating detail. which I parse in later drafts. When I compare what I am writing here to a few other pieces, this problem stands out mightily. Feedback on previous stories has pointed this out, and this excessive detail was also a problem in essay-writing in grad school. This is linked to confidence, in part, this to a need to map out everything. I hate missing something, so in early drafts there is too much. I prefer to whittle rather than add on.

One of the things I learned in my creative writing education and in graduate school was to not be wedded to what is on the page. One of my writing teachers in college was Taylor Stoehr, who saw this tendency of mine to overwrite immediately and spent a very patient year pointing out its effects on my work. He even gave me a collection of Arthur Waley's translations of Chinese poetry to inspire me to do more with less. I took the lesson a bit differently than he wanted, I think.

In academic graduate school, you are encouraged to overwrite, and then chided for it. I tried to follow what I found to be the conventions of authorship, and had some of those whose writing I studied tell me what I was doing it wrong. I soon learned that "do I say, not as I do" was the motto to follow. But their advice was theoretically precise, yet technically vague. Again, one person gave me some excellent advice early on; Thomas Kirsch spent most of my first semester giving me pointers on how to approach not just academic writing, but the process of practice of writing itself. He was fascinated with the tension between anthropologists "getting it right" and their often larger-than-life self-images and aspirations. This often resulted in writing that was very detailed but had little behind it, or dense academic discussions that were far removed from the ethnographic material. What he counseled was simple: write clearly, always keeping not just your point but the world you are writing about in mind.

3) Rhythm: Spattering ideas on the screen often shows me what objective I want to achieve (see above about detail, etc.). I think through writing more often than I form a full idea in my head. What I am noticing in this project is that this influences the rhythm and flow of my writing, and I need to pay more attention to that when redrafting and shaping the story in revision. I also tend to search for characters' voices and personas in this manner, and that affects the rhythm as well. In this novella I am trying to play with the third-person perspective a bit and let a focal character influence the perspective in each section. We'll see how well that works as I keep unfolding the story.

4) Exercise: This Write-a-thon is good exercise, partly because there are prompts from Clarion. I am going to tackle this exercise tonight and see what it yields, then get back to writing. I am a day behind but I will catch up after working the prompt.

5) Enlightenment: There is nothing like working on a story to remind you of how difficult and amazing the writing process can be. Even without publication, fiction writing does a lot for me, from improving my mood to influencing how I talk about writing in my column and articles. It's hardest sort of fun around and I get a lot from it.

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