I Can’t Write Until I Have Something Deep To Say


 I Can’t Write Until I Have Something Deep To Say

I think people sometimes believe that writers must have deep and important thoughts before they start writing. Shakespeare had all the poetry in his head, just bursting to get out. Jane Austen already knew the intricacies of the social dramas she so brilliantly portrayed.

Okay, obviously I can’t check with these guys to be sure, but that’s not my experience nor that of any writer I know or have heard speak of the writing process.

Bad news: can’t do deep to order

Setting out to be ‘deep’ seems a dubious way to start.

First, and importantly, it may stop you from writing at all because you haven’t yet acquired the ‘depth’ that you think you need to write.

Secondly, and equally important, the final product is almost guaranteed to be pretty boring. Earnest and worthy, perhaps. But not good reading.

This approach ups the chances that your characters are representations of your ideas (sincerity, truthfulness, whatever) rather than living breathing entities who can be both inspiring and despicable. In short, human.

Also, novels with an a priori message are prone to long passages where they figuratively hit the reader over the head with “this is my message—get it?” Most readers don’t like being preached at from a fiction pulpit.

Good news: don’t need to

But the good news is that a message is not required before starting to write.

With my first book, I realized what the book was about only near the end of the writing that . But I didn’t have time to redo it as I was committed to a publisher’s deadline. With the second book, I built in enough time to do a redraft which allowed the threads to become clearer. I would have liked to have done another draft to refine it but again, I needed to respect the publisher’s deadline.

What I am trying to say is that whatever depth I was able to demonstrate on the page was as a result of refining, elaborating, streamlining, and sometimes chopping. It did not appear as whole cloth the first time through.

The act of writing prompts the thinking and reflection. One idea flows to another and another. The thinking and writing grows from what it feeds on. And then you rewrite and rewrite to get it right.

So when you consider a book you admire for its insights and depth, recognize that you are seeing the result of the unseen struggles of the author to make his message clearer, more nuanced, and insightful. Don’t compare what you turn out the first time with the author’s finished product. It really is apples and oranges.

You do have something worth saying but you have to work at bringing out. The depth will come with the writing, rethinking, and rewriting.

How do I do it?

Rather than starting out with the intention of writing something deep and important, start out with a situation, or a character, or a moment in time, which feels as if it has meaning for you. A terrible injustice, a generous person, the bravery of a group.

Whatever it is, write the scene which renders that feeling without using the terms I just used (i.e. terrible, generous, bravery). Show the actions of the characters which will prompt in the reader the same feeling that you had/have without naming it. Then rewrite until the message comes across in a satisfying way.

So you can do deep—you just have to work at it.

Safe Writing

safeSafe Writing

I know I’ve been driveling on about appearing naked on the page and telling your emotional, if not literal, truth. I absolutely believe that this is the way to compelling story-telling. But it is exhausting. And frustrating. And makes you long to retreat into safe writing.

What is safe writing?

It’s your fallback position. It’s what you find easy to write—whether action, romance, or humor. We all have comfort zones where we feel that we’ve mastered the craft involved and the subject no longer terrifies, if it ever did.

I know a very fine writer who could write sensuously and sensitively about sex. This is no mean feat—most of us have trouble with this type of scene, worried it will be too much or too little; too crass or too vague. But she mastered them. Except for a problem which can be true of any type of fallback writing. Often it seemed that when she had a choice to go deeper into the characters, she would veer off into a sex scene. And since she did it very well, the reader was distracted away from what might have been a more fruitful area.

I’m not suggesting avoiding what you’re good at, but it’s important to be aware when you might be using it as a crutch. Or, better analogy, a scenic route that allows you to avoid the main road.

Why do writers do this?

Risk-free writing is self-protective

I think a common reason is the one illustrated above. Going deeper into the characters usually means going deeper into yourself. Which is undoubtedly scary. A character’s conflict with her mother may bring up painful memories of your life. To avoid revisiting these uncomfortable feelings, you instead create a mother and daughter who get along, support each other, and have each other’s backs. Which you probably can’t write convincingly as you didn’t have the experience of that. So, might not be good writing but it protects you.

Unfortunately, these painful areas are often where the gold is. When you use your experience of similar thoughts or feelings to inform the characters’ psyches, they ring truer because they are truer. Remembering being abandoned and allowing these feelings to be with you as you write can make powerful writing.

But only if you are willing not to play it safe.

Or derivative

The other, more practical, reason to avoid safe writing is that it is often bad writing. Protecting yourself from unpleasant feelings keeps you on the surface. And then the piece feels derivative because you’re not bringing your authentic self to it. The unique voice and perspective that makes you worth reading.

Do I need to be wild and crazy?

No, you don’t need to be wild and crazy in your writing. Unless that is actually you.

But there are two things that you can try to get out of safe writing.

The first is play. Play with what a scene or a character might look and feel like if it was more based on you than on some ideal. Don’t have to use it in your final manuscript but run up a trial balloon.

The second is to be brave. Say you try the experiment and you find (as I think you might) that the worts-and-all character which reflects some part of you is more absorbing than your original writing. Take a deep breath and see if you can use your true feelings as you write.

I know—back to exhausting and scary. But worth it when the real you shows up in your writing.

The Morality of Writers


The Morality of Writers

So here’s the thing: all fiction writers lie. It’s our job to make up what doesn’t exist or at most, might have existed. In this mode, morality doesn’t come into it. It’s fiction and everyone knows it. You’re not meant to believe it.

And yet, we all understand the power of fiction to encourage belief in readers. Who has not written a story in which friends/family believe themselves depicted? Despite our protests, they persist in believing that the story is grounded in reality.

At some level, readers see the story as truth even while accepting it is fiction. It is both the curse and the blessing of good writing.

Morality and emotional truth

Of course, you’re striving for believability in your writing. You want your reader to sink into the continuous dream you’ve created and completely surrender to it. To do this, I’ve urged you to tell the emotional truth, even if it is not the actual truth. Or in memoirs, to make up the stuff you can’t remember. I’ve even pointed out when your writing needs to be less reality based to seem more real on the page. All in pursuit of a compelling story.

Is there a point that this can be taken too far? Clearly, there is as my last post on Truman Capote illustrated. But there must be a thus far, no further point.

What is thus far, no further?

Yes, there’s the rub. We know we’d never go as far as Capote. But when would we know to draw back to avoid the damage he did? As with all things like this, we know there’s no hard and fast rule but surely there are some guideposts. How about:

I’ll never write to hurt someone

So, your mother is sure the unflattering picture you painted in your novel of the mother is her. She is hurt. Do you change the character to cause less offense? Do you let others decide what and how you write? Is your mother even right? Who can tell in these situations? You wrote what was true to you. What else can you do?

I’d avoid bringing criticism down on my head

So, off the top, you’d censor yourself with respect to the type of story you choose, rein in how outrageous the characters can be, omit acute observations on life that might be controversial, and ensure the ending of the novel is morally satisfying. My god, does that sound like a boring story!

Nothing is ever universally praised or adored, no matter how much we writers wish for it. To write to avoid censure is to shrink your imagination to a timid, fearful thing which can hardly be seen.

My unique world view

I certainly don’t have the answer to this dilemma. The best I’ve come up with for me is that what I write is from my own unique view of the world. I don’t expect everyone to agree with or approve of the writing that comes out of it.

I’m trying to write a compelling story which reflects the truth inside me.

I believe that if you don’t keep yourself or your reality at the center of your writing, you aren’t being you on the page. At most, you’re being who you think people want you to be. And yet, even if you succeed in this dubious goal, they won’t like the finished product. Exactly because it doesn’t reflect the real you and readers can pick that up.

I know, kind of a crummy answer—but the best I can do.

Capote—2005 Film


Capote—2005 Film

Okay, to be clear, I’m talking about the 2005 film, Capote in which the brilliant

 Philip Seymour Hoffman  portrays Truman Capote as he is writing, or trying to finish, his novel In Cold Blood.

The author Truman Capote reconstructs the 1959 murder of the Clutter family by Perry Smith and Dick Hickcock. But he cannot finish the non-fiction novel because he lacks an ending and a detailed account of how the killers committed the act.

He befriends the killers, especially Perry Smith, by flattery, persuasion and promises of help to get the details he feels he must have. Although he stays connected to them through the appeals of their death sentences, he knows he needs them to die in order to have the dramatic climax his story demands. A review by the late Roger Ebert provides an excellent analysis of the film but I want to focus on one aspect of it.

Guilt and Capote

Although the 1965 publication of In Cold Blood was massively successful and revealed a new way to amalgamate fiction and non-fiction, it greatly damaged Capote himself.

He felt enormous guilt for the way that he had manipulated the two young men to get the details he needed of the murders. Capote recognized that he both cared for them as people and exploited them.  He also wanted their execution not only to provide an ending to his book but to rid himself of the unwanted friendship.

His guilt was so boundless that he started to drink and self-medicate heavily and never completed another book. He died in 1984 of liver failure.

Guilt and writing

Capote is obviously an extreme case of the writer’s obsession to get at both the truth and a good novel.

But when I saw the movie, I insisted that two friends go see it. We discussed whether we felt that passion. And we all admitted that we did. Although hopefully none of us would go as far as Capote did to assuage his obsession, we nevertheless recognized the desire to capture the perfect story, the flawless seizure of the moment.

We also discussed how far we might go ourselves in this pursuit. We take our observations of the people around us and thinly disguise them as characters in our stories. The portrayals need not be accurate or fair or true. Nor kind nor generous. Because it’s fiction.

Do we feel guilty? Well, occasionally maybe as little twinge but the answer is to change more details of the character so that it is less recognizable as the real person. It is not to ask if by doing this we aren’t at one end of the continuum for which Capote provides the other anchor. Next post: The Morality of Writers.

Process not Product


Process not Product

Process not product was my mantra for a long time. It was my way of reminding myself that the goal of writing is not just a finished product but is mostly about the process of creation.

I find it particularly useful when starting a new project. I’m often so eager to get out of the limbo of endless possibilities that I jump on the first idea that comes up and run with it. Nothing wrong with experimenting with that idea but I need to keep open to the magic of writing. And allow other potentials be entertained and played with.

The mantra is also helpful when my focus is I need to get this done. I want a finished product/story. Feeling this way, I am generally unwilling to consider any path than the one I am fixated on. When a better ending or a more interesting by-way might be just beyond my tunnel vision.

I know that this sounds as if I’m advocating an infinite wandering in the woods, never settling, never deciding. But I’m not. I am urging remaining open to the creative process which lies within all of us.

What process are we talking about?

So, this is going to be hard to describe. But I know I am in the process when I stop trying to force myself down a certain writing path or story; when I let go and sink into that deep place from which all flows. The calm home that may grant entrance to supplicants but not invaders. Patience and waiting and silence. Just letting it happen, just letting it happen as it is going to. I can’t always drop into that place but when I do, I emerge with something silver. Whether fish or chalice, to be determined.

I’m not sure I can do any better than that to describe the mental state but I hope you have a sense of what I’m talking about.

How do I get there?

Another hard bit. I suspect that everyone’s ability to trust the process manifests itself in different ways. The best I can do is recall a time when I felt it to see if it resonates with you.

I was writing a long short story of a chef and kept adding characters and events with no real end point in mind. I was trying to follow what I was feeling and keep at bay the ‘this isn’t working,’ ‘it’s isn’t going anywhere’ stuff. Without any assurance of anything else to replace those thoughts, of course. Just rolling with what came up.

And then, suddenly, all the disparate elements came together.  The chef’s partner becomes the impetus for change; a rival chef shows the way; the downtrodden sous-chef creates the moment when the chef changes. It was unimaginably exciting to feel the pieces, which had previously been floating off on their own, coalesce into a satisfying and seemingly inevitable whole.

Why does it matter?

Remaining open to the magic of the writing process can have wonderful moments such as I just described. But more importantly, it matters because when I am in the process, whatever it is, I know I am writing from my true self. For one brief moment, I am putting into words who I really am. That may come out in how a character reacts or a scene evolves, but whatever it is, it is me.

Does this sound all over the place and even a little woo-woo? I know. That’s the magic of writing.