Everything I Write Is Junk!

junk

Everything I Write is Junk!

I think writers come in two flavors: one assumes everything they write is worthy of publication and; the other is convinced that what they write is junk worthy only of being deleted.

The latter flavor is the subject of this post and the former is in a following post called Deathless Prose.

Destructive self-talk

I get it.  The voice in the back of your head is telling you, Why are you bothering to write? You really think you can turn out anything good? Who wants to read this anyhow? Been there, done that. What’s worse is that, in that moment, it feels like an eternal truth whose force will never diminish.

Worst of all, if you succumb to The Voice, it’s less likely you’ll continue to write. And a fresh and unique voice will be lost.  (I know your Voice is saying, Fresh? Unique? Who is she kidding? Ignore and keep reading.)

Well, good news. First, you’re not alone. Many, if not most, writers experience this at one time or another. Second, my observation is that this state tends to be more common with new writers. Not always, of course, since it can also be a manifestation of writer’s block, but often. And that’s good news because if you keep writing—which is what you want to do anyhow—the feeling will fade.

Having said that, however, it’s a difficult period and the following might help.

Strategies to combat believing your writing is junk

No money back guarantee but one or more of these might help.

Difference between craft and worthless. If Your Voice is like mine, it takes a pretty blanket approach. Not only will you never get better but it applies to all aspects of your writing.

But in fact, that isn’t true.  Writing consists of both creativity and craft (e.g. building tension, developing compelling characters, creating a continuous dream). So, especially if you are beginning, your ideas may be great but you need more practice on the craft side to get the ideas across effectively. All of which is learnable. Time-consuming but doable.

Launch many expendable pieces. You need to pour your heart and soul into this piece while holding the idea that it may or may not ever see the light of day. Not because it’s worthless, but because writing is about experimenting and not all experiments are going to work. So, be both committed to the writing and more relaxed about its eventual fate.

Reread later. If The Voice is being particularly insistent, put the piece aside for a bit—a week or so—and then read it again. Odds are, it’s got some real potential which you weren’t able to recognize because It was screaming in your head.

Ignore the evil demon. If all else fails, just ignore The Voice. Try a Scarlett O’Hara and promise to think about It another day. Just keep writing. And remember that it will probably go away eventually. Okay, may come back at some point as writer’s block, but at least it will stop being your constant companion. You can wait it out.

Ideas Turn to Dross

drossIdeas Turn to Dross

Dross. At one point, I read Les Belles Images by Simone de Beauvoir, writer, philosopher, seeker of truth. I wrote:

I want to be Simone de Beauvoir—well except the dead part and Jean-Paul Satre didn’t sound like a picnic. But a de Beauvoir in training. An apprentice de Beauvoir. A de Beauvoir groupie even although this last seems difficult to pull off when the subject isn’t expelling her fair share of carbon dioxide. Although think Marilyn Monroe. Or Elvis.  Thirties, no? Cigarette holder, art deco revival, possibly turban. Need to grow about six inches, lose fifty pounds and have that laser eye surgery.

It wasn’t that I admired her lifestyle, but her ability to think great thoughts and more importantly, to get them on paper. 

Turning to Dross

Instead, I often feel like what I have in my head goes through a funnel of the sharpest angle and narrowest spout so that what eventually gets down on paper was only the suggestion of photocopy of a mimeograph. I struggle with what I had in mind and the shadow that actually appears on the page. In fact, the recording of the thoughts seems to be the mechanism by which they turn to dross. Maybe they weren’t gold to begin with but they seemed more valuable before being written down.

I wish I could be like Simone who seemed to have been able to hold onto more of what she wanted to say than I can.

I think (I hope) I’m not alone is this—that things are always better, brighter, more exciting, more lyrical in my head.

Is there an answer?

Of course not. Or at least not an easy one. I think it is a struggle we all are engaged it.

So I have thought about it and these are the tentative conclusions I have come to:

 I realize, for me, that I tend to try to make things simple and clear—a hangover, I am sure from the business writing. Taking complex concepts and explaining them concisely and clearly.

Exactly the wrong approach, I think, for fiction. Linear is bad, clarity is suspect, brevity is overrated. Instead, perhaps the opposite. Capturing the world in a phrase, life in a gesture, philosophy in a sigh—this is the nirvana of fiction writing. For all the complexities to be as one, without the need to tease out the threads and lay them out so they don’t tangle. That part of the joy is the tangled. The accidental touching, the knots that make themselves. Because I think we understand at some deep level this complexity and rejoice in it even if we cannot trace all the threads or see all the connections.

Which still doesn’t help me think bigger thoughts on paper.

Ah well, I’m like Dorothy Parker, the 1930s member of the Algonquin Round Table and cutting humorist, who said: I hate writing, I love having written.

Using Your History can Hurt Your Writing

history

Using Your History can Hurt Your Writing

This post is proof that I can argue from both sides of my mouth. Or, more kindly, I can see both sides of the argument. In the last post, I discussed how to use your own life history to enrich a fictional piece. And generally, I think it’s a good idea.  But sometimes it can backfire. Especially if the scene morphs into more auto-biography than originally intended. Then it can cause problems.

You avoid crucial scenes

One way to avoid the dangerous bits of personal history is to skim over or leave them out.

One writer was telling the story of a foster child whose foster parents wanted to adopt her. However, at the time, and in that locale, the birth mother had to give her permission. The ‘I’ character had to talk to her mother for the first time in years. This is my re-creation of how she handled the scene.

I stood at the door, knowing my mother was already inside. I couldn’t bring myself to grab the handle. What if she says no? What if she wants me back? My stomach churned. But I took a deep breath and pulled the door open.

When I came out of the room, I closed the door gently behind me. The tears I had been able to hold in now flooded my eyes so I could barely see. Thank god! Thank god!

So, here, the writer has avoided the uncomfortable bits by almost literally closing the door on us. Something happens in that room which turns out well but we are just told about it, rather than shown the scene between the mother and the ‘I’ character.

In this way, you protect yourself against having to possibly relive painful feelings but rob the reader of what is compelling in your story.

Your writing goes flat

Another way writers sometimes try to avoid raw feelings is to write the scene, say the one between the birth mother and the ‘I’ character, but make quite clinical or fact based. I’ll give a try at showing this.

My mother didn’t look that different from what I remembered. Smaller but that was probably me.

She kissed me lightly on the cheek. “My, how you’ve grown.”

We sat down at the table. I began. “I want to be adopted by the Warnsleys. But I have to get your permission.”

My mother paused for a moment and then said, “Well, I guess that would be for the best.”

“Well, thanks.”

Honestly, do you buy this? I don’t. We know the ‘I’ character was afraid the mother will say no, so how come no reaction from her when she says yes? In addition, this is presumably a big thing for the mother—how come she acquiesces so easily? Wouldn’t she try to justify why she had to put the ‘I’ character into foster care or regret  losing whatever tenuous relationship she has now with her daughter?

In short, I think the writer is primarily concerned with protecting herself from old feelings but in the process, has produced flat writing.

I know it’s hard, but to truly write well, you have to risk appearing naked on the page. If you cover yourself up carefully, even in fiction, the reader won’t see a real person or a compelling story. And isn’t that what you are aiming for?

 

 

From Auto-biography to Fiction: Norman Mailer Approach

mailer

From Auto-biography to Fiction: Norman Mailer Approach

I know I have mentioned Norman Mailer before, but I can’t find where and in any case, I’d like to go into more detail on his approach than I did originally (I’m pretty sure). Specifically, his realization that you can use an emotion you understand to inform a character in a situation you’re unfamiliar with. He said that although he’d never been a soldier, he knew what it was like to be in fear for his life. He used that emotional appreciation in his debut novel, The Naked and Dead.

Applying the Mailer approach

This is a great way to use events which have happened in your own life to inform your writing without necessarily recreating the original scene. Let’s work through the process.

  1. Consider a character you’re having trouble with. You can’t seem to get the feel of the persona. Say you’ve created an alien on an alien spaceship. Needless to say, you’ve never experienced this situation.
  2. List what you think isn’t working with the character. I don’t care about him. He seems stilted and unreactive.
  3. Pick the biggest problem. Let’s take stilted and unreactive. On the one hand, the stereotype of an alien might exhibit just such qualities. On the other, readers being alienated from your alien doesn’t foretell gripping involvement in your novel. They need to identify or at least empathize.   What do you want the character to be? Spontaneous and curious.
  4. Look into your own life. Take a moment to think about a time—a specific time—when you were spontaneous and curious. On a camping trip when you were ten? The first time you went to a museum? When you turned the car around and went in the opposite direction than planned? Whatever it is, drop into the scene again. Take in all the sensuous details—sounds, smells, images. And tap into how you felt. Excited? Calm? Floating?
  5. Apply to the problem. Take that compendium of feelings and sensations and write from that space, but about your character. How does he feel (show, please)? What does he do? How does his alien nature change, warp, or enhance the feelings you had? Let it flow.

It’s not foolproof

I’m not saying this always works but it can kick you out of a stuck place into something more productive. You’ll know if it’s working if your writing feels emotionally true, even given the alien setting.

In addition, this approach is somewhat mechanical just to illustrate the point. If you can conjure the feelings in your own life and apply them to the character rather than going through these steps, by all means do it. The more organic you can make the process, the more likely it will live on the page.

But sometimes, using auto-biographical bits in your fiction can cause trouble. Next post.

How to Keep Writing: Bum in Chair

bum

How to Keep Writing: Bum in Chair

Often, what keeps us from writing is not a lack of things to say or stories to tell, or the skill to tell them, or even the courage. It is sometimes as easy as keeping your bum in your chair. To keep writing even if you have the irresistible urge to throw in a load of laundry, play with the cat, or re-organize your cupboards.

So this post are some fairly simple-minded but I have found, effective, ways to keep going when these other siren calls intrude.

Keep your bum in chair with mantras

This isn’t at all new age. I don’t know why it works, but even if nothing is coming to you and the urge to check your Twitter account sweeps over you, just keep typing. Doesn’t have to further the story. Doesn’t have even to make sense. But the act of keeping your fingers typing seems to eventually force your brain back in gear.

I do have some mantras which I type when I’m just trying to keep my fingers moving.

Don’t reach for it. Let it come if it’s going to

Sometimes, I’m straining for the next idea, the next scene, the next sentence. By writing this phrase, over and over, it reminds me to have faith in myself. That it will come if I am patient. Perhaps not today but it will come. Just let it come on its own timetable.

Process not product

I can inadvertently get into a production mode. This has to get done. I need to finish this story. I focus on the end product and forget that the magic of writing is in trusting the process. You let yourself be immersed by that special cloud that comes to you when writing and allow its flow to direct you. Rather than trying to push it to the finish line. Process not product.

Fierce and bold

I won’t bore you with the story but suffice it to say that I have a rubber duckie with a pirate scarf and a machete under his little wing which reminds me that I need to be fierce and bold in my writing. No matter how weak or dull my writing machete feels right now, I can swing it with ferocity and bravery.

So, not rocket science but it works for me. Here’s what I wrote one time when I was being tempted off the chair.

Just do it but don’t reach for it. Impossible state. Magic state? Don’t reach for it. Let it come if it’s going to. Process not product. Fierce and bold. Fierce and bold. Keep the fingers moving. Keep the fingers moving. Don’t reach for it. Just let it come. Don’t try to shape it as it comes. Let it come. Let it be what it’s going to be.

Start your engines please

At other times, an almost opposite approach works. Sometimes it might feel right to put yourself under some pressure.

Then, I literally write: Start your engines, please, gentlemen (sic). It’s 10:32. I will write until 11:02. No stopping. No on-line.

Doesn’t have to be half an hour. Can be five. But set a timer and stick with it. This is the time to stop communing with your inner angst and get something on the page.

I use both approaches, mantra and engines, choosing the one which fits my mood at the time. Doesn’t matter what you use as long as it keeps your bum in the chair.