Sunday, August 25, 2013

Your Brain on Writing

I love it when I get a nice staticky point of contact between my professional (teaching) life and my personal writing practice.  I know there are many writers who feel that the teaching of writing can drain them of the energy for their own composition, but for me, it often supplies a little bubble of energy or insight.

This week, I found myself talking with folks (students, friends, and writers) who were struggling with the process of getting things on paper.  Not the classic writer's block, not the sense of "I have nothing to say," but the feeling that it wasn't worth putting words on the page because those weren't the perfect words.

My first encounter with this concept was in college, when I got to know a student down the hall.  He wrote beautifully.  Exquisitely.  His 2-3 page response papers were gorgeous.  But he hated them.  And he also took hours and hours and hours to generate them. We got to be good friends, and often studied in the same room.  Let me describe our processes:  see if you recognize yourself in them.

Imagine a paper due the next day.  Here's my desk: books and class notes out.  On top of them, a clean sheet of paper that I'm gradually filling with an outline.  Next to this, square in front of me, my computer.  I look at the outline, I type a few sentences -- maybe I reach over and grab a book and reread a passage.  Go back to the computer, change a few things, write a few more sentences.  And so on.  In two hours' time, I print out a copy, take a walk, and then come back to revise.  At my friend's desk, he's got his computer in front of him, his head in his hands (two fistfuls of hair, usually) and he's staring at the cursor, which is blinking in the middle of a lovely sentence.  

These were analytical papers, but the same holds true for fiction or creative non-fiction composition.  This isn't about habit or writing practice, I believe, so much as it is about how one understands writing itself.  A process, yes, I hope we all know that.  But not a linear process.  One doesn't begin at A (concept/idea/thought) and proceed sequentially to Z (published product).  It loops back, again and again.  And not just through a procession of drafts, but also because you read and think and write and talk with a friend and then rewrite, and then discover you need to read some more... and so on.  

My friend (and many of my colleagues and students) get stuck because they believe that before committing anything to paper, it must first be "right" or "good."  Even if they know they will revise, they won't set a word on a page unless the piece/idea is fully conceived of.  For them, thought precedes writing.  For me, writing is thought.  The idea doesn't fully exist until I have written it. The process of writing and the process of understanding are simultaneous for me.

Is it possible to begin writing too soon?  to compose when you don't understand something enough to write on it?  Of course.  The reading and research and thinking need to happen beforehand... but the idea -- whatever it is -- doesn't exist until the words are on the page.  At least that's what I believe... I welcome your comments!

Monday, August 19, 2013

The First Review!

I've heard from other writers that it is best to avoid reading reviews of your work... but when I got an email from Simon & Schuster saying that Publishers' Weekly had put out a review of Revolutionary, I had to read it.

Perhaps I will regret reading other reviews, but I was glad to see this one!  It is one more step on the path of making this novel seem real. And making it seem like it soon be out.  Very exciting.

Here is a link to the review:

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Understanding Your Characters...

This post is tailored specifically to those who are developing characters in historical fiction, but is, I believe, applicable to the craft of understanding your characters in general.  It also builds on some previous posts I have done about women in the revolutionary war.

You can read the earlier posts (I hope you do!) about Molly Pitcher(s) and their role not only during the war (camp followers) but after the war (loyal wives, in-the-moment-soldiers).  Given how these women are celebrated, as I noted earlier, it is not surprising that Deborah Sampson was given little attention for many decades:  she didn't fit neatly into the women-who-followed-her-husband-into-combat mold that felt "safe" to 19th century readers and writers.

When I began the research for my first novel, Revolutionary, I wanted to look at as wide a range of sources as I could on Deborah.  The earliest material is filtered through her biographer, Herman Mann and the later material is filtered through the biases and predispositions of the era in which they were written.

So here's the first part of the craft lesson for writers of historical fiction: make sure you look at your "real life" characters not just from one historical vantage point.  Get the fullest picture of them that you can by considering how they were written about by their contemporaries, by their children, by their friends, by their rivals, and by later writers.  It is poor history (and poor historical fiction) to rely only on one source or from sources all from the same era (even if it is "eye-witness").

For Deborah, two visual images will suffice to prove my point.  Here they are:

Both are early-mid 19th century depictions of Deborah Sampson that accompanied pamphlets or short writings on her. In both she is in uniform and with a weapon (or two!).  But, as those who read the earlier blogposts might note... she is also posed near a cannon.  It is not impossible that Deborah might have been near cannons in her service.  Certainly, she was at sites that would have had them.  But it is quite hard to argue that she used cannons at all.  Cannons were for pitched battle and Deborah was involved in small skirmishes only.  (Granted, she did claim to have been at Yorktown, or Mann placed her there, or both, but this is not true.)

So, when I was researching her character, I asked myself: why is she depicted this way?  What is being said about her?  I believe that both artists are making a subtle nod to the Molly Pitcher(s) legends.  By putting Deborah near a cannon, they are indicating to the viewer that this is a woman on the battlefield.  It is somewhat comforting -- suggesting that she served in the familiar and acceptable manner -- to have her depicted thus.  Much more comforting than Deborah just waving a sword or holding a gun, I'd argue.

To leave my particular case and look at craft in general, what I'd suggest is this.  Read (and look) widely as you explore your historical character.  Chip away at bias.  Consider how your character has shifted and been reinvented over the course of history.  And then...

Take good stock of how you wish to depict your character.  Realize that you are situated on this continuum that you have just explored.  Your depiction will be no less biased, no less a product of your own time and expectations (and this, I would argue is true for fictional characters that aren't historical) than any other.  It is better to be upfront and aware of your bias though.

In my own case, I knew that being transgender, I would come to Deborah's story from a particular angle.  Likewise, writing with a 21st-century understanding of gender and women's rights, I would also be biased against certain depictions of her and want to show her actions as reasonable and even virtuous -- quite the opposite of how many of her contemporaries saw her and wrote about her.

In order to fully understand, fully develop, and fully realize your characters, you need to understand your own perspective on that character!

Let me know what you think... Leave a Comment!

Monday, August 5, 2013

To the Desk Drawer!

It is an old saw, I know, the writer who relegates the draft to some obscure drawer.

And yet... many writers I know have done just that.  Some chuck the manuscript into the drawer with a feeling of regret, others anger, some despair.  There are those who do so reluctantly.  (There are many who do so virtually, perhaps having a folder labelled "drawer" on their computers?)

I would like to argue the case that retiring a manuscript to a drawer is a good, healthy, and productive writing practice.  As I write this post, I am entering into the final throes of a (very) rough draft of a novel.  If all goes well, in a couple of days, I will be "done" with it.  And from there... into the drawer!  I say this with zeal.  It is time for that baby to sit by itself for a while.  My brain has been full of these characters and places and, to be honest (don't tell them!) while I love them, I'm a bit sick of them.

And though I intend to put them in that drawer and forget about them, it's only for a while.  Because, just as I am planning to wind this rough draft down, and just as I am reaching into the far recesses of that drawer to shove the rough manuscript in, I am simultaneously bringing back out to the light of day the rough draft I last worked on about six months ago.

Perhaps this makes me some sort of serial monogamist when it comes to writing.  I can only work on one thing at a time, that is for sure.  And while I like to reach an endpoint with a draft (I almost always, even if I feel that it isn't going the way I want it to, write the story/novel/essay to the end.) I also almost always shelve things with the intention to come back to them... often relatively soon.

So, for me, the drawer is where work goes to get better.  Or where work goes while I get better.  Too many writers I know (and I preach this to my students as well) will work a manuscript well past the point of productivity, flailing, as it were, at a dead horse.  I preach the gospel of putting drafts away early (and often), letting them sit there while you still have some energy and enthusiasm for the project, working on other things, getting new ideas out onto the page, and only when you have almost forgotten about the other draft, going back to it.

By the time I pull a manuscript out of the drawer to work on it again, I have forgotten what I loved and hated about it.  Given enough time, and it even feels like I'm reading someone else's work.  And that's good.  It gives me the distance I need to edit and revise and rewrite effectively.

I suppose that what I'm advocating as a writing practice is the same as what I find with people: it's great to spend time with someone... but I'm sure we've all spent too much time with someone.  Better to have a wonderful day together, say goodbye, promise you'll meet again soon, even pick a date a few weeks or months in the future... and look forward to it.  In the meantime, you'll read and write new things, you'll have different adventures, and you'll return for time together refreshed and engaged.

So go ahead, toss that manuscript in the drawer, turn the lock.  But don't throw away the key.