Don’t Talk about Writing in Progress

progressDon’t Talk about Writing in Progress

During the progress of a writing retreat, one of the members mentioned that a friend was in Africa doing clown ministry work.

This was a new concept to me.

“So, what do they do—dress up as clowns?”

“Yes—to make the children want to listen to them.”

“And do they juggle, and make balloon animals, and do slapstick?”

“Yes, and they incorporate the Christian message in the performance.”

I don’t remember the rest of the conversation except that we laughed and laughed about it. For whatever reason, it struck our collective funny bones.

What I do remember is rushing back home to try to capture the idea. It was completely flat. Almost as if I had used up all my humor and had nothing left for the story.

Since then, I have often found that the more I talk about what I intend to write, the less I seem to be able to get anything down on paper. It is such a familiar problem that I really don’t discuss my writing at all unless pressed and only in the vaguest terms (see suggestion at the end of the post).

Why talking impedes progress

I realize that this might seem odd—why would talking about a work in progress make it harder to write? Seems as if there are two different phenomena operating.

But I think there is more of a cross-over than you might expect.

Takes the juice out of the idea

Talking about the work in progress seems to dissipate the energy associated with your idea. In fact, the extent to which you are pumped when talking about it seems to be inversely related to how effectively you can get it down in words.

Fixes the intent

Usually, when I’m writing I have a vague idea of where I am going. Clear enough for me to continue but without pinning it down irrevocably. But talking about it, or even trying to pin down the intent in my own thoughts, makes it too concrete, too defined. It discourages indulging in pleasant, abstract, amorphous thought from which any number of interesting scenes or characters might arise.

Avoids embarrassing incidents with friends

Finally, if your readers don’t know where you’re taking a piece, on reading the finished piece, you won’t get: “Yeah, it was nice but I thought you were going to write about a genie.” Much as you fix the idea in your head when you talk about it, you do the same for your readers. The end product will violate their expectations. So even if you turn out a better piece than you spoke about, you may not get the praise it deserves.

Write first; talk later

So when friends ask you what you’re writing, don’t give them soup to nuts. Try a short description like “it’s set in the Second World War,” or the technique you’re using—“I’ve created an unreliable narrator.” Then you can talk about the interesting period or technique and not about the story itself.

Write first; talk later.

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.

Acquiring Author Credibility


Acquiring Author Credibility

In the last post, we discussed the concept of the authority of the author.  In general, I think it’s your ability to allow your reader to sink happily into the world you have created for as long as you want her there. In this post, I’ll make a stab at delineating how you acquire this credibility. Truthfully, I’m a little nervous about this as it’s a difficult idea to pars. But let’s give it a try.

Some parts of author credibility

I think of these as necessary but not sufficient conditions for your reader to trust you.

Expertise. Well, obviously. If you’re writing historical fiction, you make the reader uneasy if you write, “Sir Galahad said, ‘Get your buns in gear.’” (unless the intent is comic). Similarly, even in science fiction, violating basic principles of the physical universe need careful and well-reasoned explanations for the reader to buy it.

Confident handling of structure. This is where mastery of craft comes in. Your ability to seamlessly handle the mechanics of story-telling like the judicious use of description, dialogue, showing not telling, etc. The novel should flow seemingly effortlessly to its inevitable close. You accomplish this only by a lot of effort and technical proficiency.

Believability. The tale itself needs to be believable or at least, the hard to believe parts are carefully explained. This is also true of depicting human interactions. You don’t want to kick the reader out of the continuous dream by having her think “Really? Would he actually do that?”

Belief in your story.  You presumably believe in your story because you’re writing it. And you continue to do so despite the occasional quiver in confidence. However, you can show your belief in the story by avoiding bombast—that is, the desire to tell your reader how she should feel about what you are writing. Instead, you just show the events and let the reader come to her own conclusions. You believe in your plot enough that it doesn’t need these artificial supports.

Belief in self. We all have occasional attacks of writer’s block, or are discouraged by how hard this all is, or are convinced that everything I write is junk. Belief in self will allow you to tough through these wobbles and keep writing. Without it, there will be no stories over which to have authority.

Is this enough?

I wish I could say with confidence that I had wrestled all the components of author credibility to the ground. But I’m pretty sure I haven’t because there is a know-it-when-you-see-it residual which resists analysis.

This is the magic I have talked about. It is that indefinable fairy dust that sometimes you can sprinkle over your writing and sometimes you can’t. But you keep writing in the hopes that your Muse or inner spirit or the drop into the right space, will give you the magic. And by the by, credibility, too.