Friday, April 19, 2013

Beyond the Formula

I haven't been posting as often lately because I've been pulling together a draft for a book based on my experiences over the past year-and-then-some (among other things). I was making backups of the postings from my old blog, and I ran across this. It was a good reminder from 2009 me to 2013 me, and I'm sharing it with you here. As proof that this sort of thing actually works, the first piece of fiction I published (in Fiction on the Web, the venerable short stories website) was born of a mental riff on "Phhhht".

Thursday, March 5, 2009
It's OK to Play
Every now and then, I get an aha! moment. Not always at the most convenient times, but worth capturing and remembering even so. I got one of those last night as I was reading myself to sleep, and it woke me up again like a persistent toddler about 5AM today. And now, here it is almost 9PM and the idea still sounds good to me, so I'm passing it along to you.

I'm in an extended conversation these days with some fairly serous, highly educated folks, who want to nurture and develop their creative talents. Some do it for their own pleasure, and some as a way of expressing their deep, important capital-T Truths to those who come after them. The pleasure folks seem happy with craft projects and dabbling and just enjoying things in general. The capital-T Truth people are a bit disdainful of the whole thing, because you see, they are past that childlike stage and they must devote their time to perfecting their art. All that inner child stuff and writing with your non-dominant hand and representing your dreams in sand trays is all right if you are a blocked artist, or a mere hobbyist, or a beginner. Once you get past that stage, there is serious business to be done.

The aha! came as I was reading David Jauss' "Alone With All That Could Happen". The third chapter -- the one that talks about rhythm and flow. He starts out talking about the writing techniques of varying one's sentence lengths and cadences to influence the pace and fluence of the story, then moves on to the pacing and flow of chapters, sections, entire books. It's the kind of stuff that makes you want to go back to that short story with the ending that doesn't quite work and diagram it to death to see what's wrong with the danged thing.

But then. Jauss starts talking about the "musical unconscious". Stories that exist in a sort of pre-verbal language before the words form around them. Writers walking around going, "aah. aah." because the story has an aah in it, but they don't know if it's a cat or a camera or a hammer. Apparently, he has some scientific studies to back this up. The mind is equipped with an inborn "assembly language" (to lapse into computer-speak), an internal operating code that requires an interface to translate it into English, or French, or Navajo. A rhythm that you recognize but can't quite articulate.

And that's why we dabble and play and indulge the goofy thoughts, odd sound effects, warped observations, Dali-esque dream sequences. These are a way of speaking with and listening to the pre-verbal utterances that come from so deep within that we aren't even aware of it most of the time. Didn't you ever wonder why your best story ideas came at the oddest times and places? Why the title of someone else's play turns into your very different novella. Why your neighbor's whiskey bottle collection in his living room window grabs you by the lapels and forces you to remember something you dreamed 3 years earlier. Why that poem or book chapter seemed to write itself, relegating you to the role of stenographer?

Haven't you ever read prose where the technique was flawless, but it seemed flat, lifeless, derivative? The author has Tolkien's technique down cold, but the writing doesn't draw you into that magical world. The whole thing has a paint-by-numbers feel to it, and you can see the bits of technique poking out like outlines on a badly doctored photograph. Like a Beatles tribute band that gets all the notes right, but doesn't make you wanna dance like John, Paul, George, and Ringo did. Skim through the editors' preferences in Writer's Market and count how many times the phrase "writing class" is used in a snarky way.

No, technique and polishing and crafting all come later. You start with the 3AM idea, the bit of a song stuck in your head, the "aah, aah", the drumming of your pencil on your desktop. You go with the goofy, the skewed, the "where am I going with this". And you let it grow unhindered until it's strong enough to withstand your pruning and trimming. Would you prune a half-inch seedling?

Yes, you can try to emulate the masters. Learn from their success. By all means. But if you don't start with your very own inspiration, anything you do will look like a knock-off. They said it first, and they said it better. You start with your own stuff, and even if what you wind up with is a little rough around the edges, it's yours. Go back and look at those masters. Didn't they speak with their own voices? Wasn't that what made them great?

1 comment:

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.