Novelists have the luxury of leading us down the neural pathways of a character’s mind, allowing us to wander the by-ways, stopping at every scenic overlook on our way to Casterbridge, Casablanca, Mordor, Starkfield, the Land of Oz, the epoch of belief, the heart of darkness. We laugh, we cry; we suffer, sympathize and triumph with the characters in a novel as the author lets us eavesdrop – leisurely, tangentially, mysteriously – on their thoughts and the full spectrum of their secrets. The not-novelists have no such luxury.
Poets and playwrights are tasked with using fewer words for their explorations. They may not have as much freedom to wander, but they’re not in any danger of wandering off the path, either. The writing of a poem, a story, or a play is all about the limitations.
That’s hardly a bad thing, as there’s nothing that’ll fire up one’s creativity faster than the need to find a way ‘round an apparent roadblock: a two-color palette, the twelve-tone scale, or sixteen lines capped off with a rhyming couplet. Stories cut to the chase with fewer words than a novel; plays are all about words; poetry is about the perfect word. So, are we denied an inner glimpse or the revelation of tortured thoughts in these forms? There’s an anguished six-word story attributed to Hemingway that’s as good as anything I’ve ever read.
But that’s not the point, or else Charles Dickens would’ve been Emily Dickinson. How do they do it? How do writers start? Is it the idea? Lovely morning, I think I’ll write about madness. Or is it the need to write? Maybe I have to pay the bills. I can make a case for having fewer options (limitations again) with no fall-back job in place. I wonder if Hardy, Wharton, et al., zapped by the creative spirit, smiled grimly at a blank page and mused, “Where do I start?”
That Blank-Page Syndrome makes me start in the middle, usually in the middle, because at the beginning is just too damn difficult. It doesn’t have to be the actual center, of course. It can be a tempting character or a tantalizing emotion; it can be a scene that haunts, a thought that won’t let go of me. I’ve done all of those. It can be get-up-in-the-middle-of-the-night-and-put-the-words-down, just to grasp the pastel outline of the dream before it glimmers away in the dawn. Yeah, I’ve done that, too. And sometimes I start with what I want to call just-writing.
That’s the hardest, just writing. Great phrase, isn’t it? It sounds so simple. One foot in front of the other, one bloody day at a time, just write – whether it feels good, whether I’m in the zone, even if it’s the hardest thing ever. Sometimes I’m going along, my infernal internal editor fully on (the bastard) and the writing clunks and chugs and sputters Oh. My. God. It’s got to be the worst crap in the world.
Doesn’t matter. Because looking at it the next day, it’s usually not nearly that bad. In fact, I usually wonder what the hell I was thinking, because, y’know, this’ll work if I— and change this word— and oh, right, now I see where it needs to go.
So why don’t I just go and do it?
- Exhibit A: I’ve got two years of research, all the photographs, a detailed outline, and a couple sample chapters for a kick-ass second book – but no more forward movement.
- Exhibit B: I’ve got a dynamite ending to Act I of a play – the middle-of-the-night-gotta-write-it-right-now one – with a polish I put on that scene a couple years ago and it still reads like a dream – but no beginning and no second act.
- Exhibit C: I’ve got a great idea and the perfect one-word opening line for another play, one with music – and that hasn’t happened either. Oh wait, that one’s about writer’s block – could be a problem.
Never mind how one starts. How does one overcome the inertia and continue just writing?
At the other end of the spectrum, Arthur William Radford airly intones, “Half of art is knowing when to stop.”
Maybe now would be a good time to stop this. I need to go and just-write.
This is one in a series of learning exercises, in tangible form, imperfectly recording my journey towards my own writer’s voice. See my introduction to the response papers and read the next in the sequence.