March 7, 2009

Your Writing Isn't That Good, Moron.

Creative Writing classes breed a certain fallacy. A semester runs around four months, with various deadlines spread out over this period. The student feels the pressure of these deadlines and starts habituating their writing process to suit the time frame of the semester. Thus, a short story becomes nothing more than an overly-tweaked first draft. My prof pointed this out over the phone with me as she lambasted my latest submission.

I'll paste the opening scene of my latest story A Monument to the Divine:

Arjan Van Leur stands amongst a grove of Silver Birch trees, thirteen yards from the blackened ruins of his father’s house. Curls of paper-thin bark lie parched at his feet—the heat of the fire great enough to singe great distances. The air smells of resin and ash, the heavy wet of water-soaked charcoal that catches in his red beard like day-old cigar smoke. Next to his boot-clad feet, a canvas pack contains: spare underwear, socks, a scarf for cooler weather, a flannel jacket. He studies the messy yard and its abandoned farm equipment, the clover infested lawn, the neglected vegetable garden—a sure sign of his father’s departure, as the once-immaculate landscape now bows to encroaching death.
A casual read and it seems okay--at least to me. But what is it actually depicting here? And why this use of language? Polished shit I like to call it. Boot clad feet? Why not boots? Thirteen yards? Are you sure? Not fourteen and three inches? Of course I didn't notice this at first. In fact, I handed it in thinking I'd just channeled Alistair MacLeod. Essentially, I wrote a first draft and spent maybe six hours editing over, but not through, serious flaws. I've been told it takes a minimum of forty drafts to really capture a story; a draft being a complete re-write of the piece. The most I've done is about eight--and not on this submission.

Jack Hodgins
likes to write the first draft, then stick it in a drawer where he never looks at it. Then he sits down and writes the entire story again. The first draft is for him, for the creative necessity of getting the story out. Once done, he can actually sit down and tell the story. It's a fairly heavy indictment on most students' processes, I think. The nature of semesters are to blame in some ways. Three stories in four months? Four months would be great to get a good solid start on one.

My friend Sam likes to harangue CanLit for its empty wordiness, its ability to spend reams of paper comparing one's inner turmoil to the mossy underside of a turtle's belly. Just tell the fucking story, if I may paraphrase him. He has a point. In my case, it's showing up in my early drafts, where I make the mistake of confusing language forms for plot. Just tell the story, Harry. For God's sake. Boot-clad feet...what the hell.

Sometimes I think I should just be a gardener.


Colin said...

Warrior-poet-gardener perhaps, but never just a gardener.

Your description of the process of writing multiple drafts reminds me of a conversation that several colleagues and I had with a well-known opera singer who is widely regarded as one of the finest actors to grace the English opera stage. The question was posed to him how he went about preparing to perform a particular opera role. He became somewhat agitated and replied that he never "performed" roles; he simply went out on stage and was himself. He then went on to explain the massive amount of work he put in before he could do that. It involved exploring all the different emotional, mental, physical, technical, and musical possibilities available to the character. It was an incredibly detailed process of exploring all of the dramatic possibilities available to the character coupled with the myriad of technical elements that accompany singing and acting. Finally, after investing all of that preparation for a particular performance in addition to a lifetime of honing his craft, he stuck it all in the drawer, so to speak, walked out on stage and inserted himself into the story. Of course, after doing all of that work, he was no longer the same person he was at the beginning of the process. All that exploration, or as some call it "practice", had become a part of him; resulting in the audience being able to recognize the "character" but one that was wholly unique to himself.

I know that it is awkward to place writing beside performing but I think there are some parallels between the drafting process and the "practicing" that goes on in other disciplines. You are developing your technique, your voice, your style, whatever you call what you are doing at school. Polishing shit seems to me like an essential part of that process. I know that I did it all the time in the somewhat safe environment of University and continue to do it every time I practice (sometimes while performing). The key is to know when to flush (ok the metaphor is rapidly breaking down). I'm not suggesting some Yoda-like "unlearn what you have learned", I don't think that's possible, but rather at some point to set all the knowledge and technique aside and like your friend says "just tell the fucking story". Or sing it.

Sam said...

Excellent post.

That Ayn Rand book had some good points on sticking to story. Her main point is, "Sure, there are authors who can 'feel' their way through a work intuitively, but you're not one of them, so you better know exactly what you're doing at all times and think about what effect you're going for."

I can't do that all the time, but I know the biggest problem I had with my last project was lack of focus and unity. I revised it ten times or so, but the story just wasn't there at times, because I hadn't thought my way through the problem.

Harry Tournemille said...

Colin - not an awkward parallel at all. In fact, I'd argue the sentiment applies to most of art's processes, the never-casual movement of refinement. Where I think writing might differ slightly is that often what is first produced, that first draft, can be completely unworkable. Meaning: you simply start from the beginning again. With music, or my limited understanding of it, the material is already there (for the most part), so the refinement starts at an earlier point...maybe even a more complex point (though, that is debatable once you get to higher-level writing).

Sam - focus is huge, yes? Time to focus is equally of value. In my excerpt, the narrator is all over the place as far as positioning in the scene and perspective is concerned. He's not telling the story as much as he is bouncing around pointing out details. In that sense, Rand is spot-on.