A few years back I worked with a very good writer who was getting an MBA from MIT Sloan School of Business. He came in after he had defended his very interesting thesis and threw himself into the chair beside me. He said, “I have figured out the one thing I have learned at Sloan.”
“What’s that?” I asked, curious.
“If your figure isn’t working, add arrows.”
Now on the one hand, he was kind of kidding, but really he also sort of wasn’t. When you are making a figure that explains some phenomenon, the arrows are the moving parts, the dynamic part of the system. So if your figure doesn’t she the important bit, of course it’s not going to work.
So the main thing I have learned from churning out angst and fluff and action and a few other things at a superhuman (yeah, it’s a pun, deal with it) rate these last two months is this:
If your scene/story/chapter isn’t working, you are probably in the wrong point of view.
Okay, so I have spent the last 71 days writing over 205,000 words of fan fiction for the TV show Supergirl, because the damn writers took a great show and started really fucking it up, putting the main character into a toxic and verbally abusive relationship, probably because the powers that be are trying to “balance” out the canon lesbian relationship and the show started getting very gay. And even Katie McGrath, who plays Lena Luthor, after Melissa Benoist told her about the existence of SuperCorp in fan hearts, rewatched the episodes she has played with Melissa and said, yes, it is completely reasonable. So yes. I have been AWOL here because I have been using my superpower of writing quickly and reasonably brilliantly because I have seen people on the Supergirl fan pages saying how triggered they are being by this iconic character dating a jerk.
But it has taught me the difficulties of sorting out POV when there are a lot of characters and action in a scene, the joys of dialogue, the ease/difficulty of capturing different characters’ voices, and a few other things. It turns out I am very good at writing yearning and very bad at writing snark, but maybe we knew that…
“A word is a bud attempting to become a twig. How can one not dream while writing? It is the pen which dreams. The blank page gives the right to dream.” ― Gaston Bachelard
A week or so ago, I outlined a possibly essay, but I don’t know whether or not I actually need to write it. My usual outlines for nonfiction/personal/narrative essays consist of a list of topics and subtopics. The essay that comes out of an outline like that is exploratory in nature. The topics allow me to “try out” fitting ideas together and see if any of them fit my lived experience. When Michel de Montaigne invented the form we now call “essays” in English, he named it after the French verb “essayer”: to try. At its heart, I think that the personal essay should be a case of trial and error and discovery. If it is not, it is a different beast altogether.
It is, in fact, an expository essay, that bane of high school and college student existence, that thesis statement supported by subclaims and evidence and all that malarkey. I teach this every semester, so I am painfully familiar with the genre. It has great worth, particularly for political and social argumentation. I just find it a little boring to write.
The outline I wrote was of the second kind, more a list of premises and hypotheses: if this leads to this, then that leads to that. But here is the question: If I already know what the essay is probably going to argue, is there any point in writing it? What will I learn from turning sentences into paragraphs? It doesn’t seem to be a particularly publishable set of ideas, so if I won’t learn from it or be able to get a publishing credit for it, it feels like I should probably spend my time doing something else.
So since November started, I have graded 38 second drafts, 38 first drafts and in the process of 38 quizzes. Also at MIT we moved from one building to another, which entailed packing and unpacking and rearranging and trouble-shooting. There was a party on Saturday, because God I needed that, and then right back into more grading, worrying about this election and trying to remember to eat at intervals.
So, yes, for those of you who sounded surprised when I started my NaNoWriMo novel on the Fourth of July: this is why.
[Previously I had a picture of a group of nazis when this post had been going to be about voting and avoiding turning America into a fascist nightmare from the 1930s. Then it wasn’t. I apologize to anybody who might have been offended or afraid of me.]
Okey-dokey. I have been working out in my gym now for more than six years. And six years is more than 300 weeks. That is a really long time. I have worked out alone and more usefully, I have worked out in group classes: first yoga, then Pilates, then spinning. All of these efforts teach us different things, especially if we are not looking to learn about working out physically but rather about writing.
Yoga is great for learning about how to manage your work for the long haul. As I have previously pointed out, my yoga teacher, Erica, made it very clear that pushing beyond what you feel you can comfortably do sometimes seems non-constructive. You work “harder” than you should in a short amount of time. That is how you hurt yourself, which then makes you lose time that you could be using to get stronger, better, all the things. To avoid these ideas, Erica would say things like, “Find your way into the pose. If it doesn’t work for you, pull back.”
That does not align with what I feel like we are taught in the United States and maybe in the Western world, and oh heck, maybe in the world. Work your f@@king ass off. The Protestant work ethic and the immigrant (read Roman Catholic ethnic) work ethic are functionally the same thing seen through different lenses. It still means that folks without privilege are encouraged by folks with privilege to work harder and harder to achieve even the slightest improvement in living conditions. Meanwhile, the more privileged live off the compound interest off their already invested capital, that invested by their fathers and grandfathers (and very, very rarely mothers and grandmothers).
“If genius is not necessary for production, still less is it necessary to have entire liberty. What is more, liberty presents pitfalls that rigorous obligations may help us to avoid. A stream narrowly hemmed-in by its banks will flow more impetuously.” –A.G. Sertillanges, The Intellectual Life
So today is the official beginning of the classic National Novel Writing Month, when everybody and their aunt tries to write 50,000 words (roughly 175 manuscript pages) of a novel in 30 days. It’s not easy, but it is far from impossible. It requires writing about 1665 words per day, which is about 6.5 double-spaced pages, which is within the realm of possibility even on a busy day, and sometimes, especially on a busy day.
This means a few things.
- You must be obsessive about your story, thinking about it constantly. Easy.
- Every time you have at least five minutes free, you need to sit down and write something: a conversation, a description of a setting or a person, an outline of a scene. Harder, mostly for you.
- You will probably write during meals, in line at the grocery store, on the train, etc. Harder, mostly for other people.
If all that sounds insane to you, you’re probably not a writer. Don’t feel bad. Probably there are lots of people out there, conventionally normal people, who can survive not writing about invisible people.