Swimming With Books

A writer's reading journal, & sundry other notes.

Posts Tagged ‘writing process

Swimming with Books went visiting…

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over at the blog of my lovely publisher, Victoria University Press. It’s about the writing process. And things.

It starts like this:

Can a writer alter the type of story she instinctively writes, or the temporal and psychological structure of that story, and produce a new story that is not false, unsuccessfully experimental or try-hard, but has conviction and internal strength?

Here’s a story I often find myself writing. In the story’s present my protagonist is strongly affected by an event or series of events that’s already complete, and usually of some duration and complexity. The effect of the inciting event on my protagonist is inevitably emotional and psychological. Therefore, in order for the reader to properly understand the protagonist’s current state of mind, the event needs to be narrated in detail.

More (scroll down a bit)

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Written by Susan Pearce

June 8, 2011 at 9:25 pm

Posted in Essay

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Where do ideas come from?

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Benjamin Franklin's map of the Gulf Stream

Elizabeth Gilbert (Eat Pray Love) is of the opinion
that ideas and creativity circle the world like gulfstreams, looking for ‘portals’, and if you’re not open to them, they’ll go and find someone who is. I get the impression that she means actual gulfstreams of ideas, just as she seems to mean actual angels when she talks about angels.

I too entertain some unverifiable ideas, though I don’t have Gilbert’s ability to believe in discrete, human-like supernatural entities. But for writing purposes, I’ve found that pretending to believe can be useful. Our imaginations believe and act on what we tell them.

Back when I was writing the first draft of Acts of Love, I tussled with the character who eventually turned out to be Stella. At that point she had a different name, and having written a few chapters, I couldn’t figure out anything further about her or what she might do. Stuck stuck stuck. One day I got myself into a bit of a makebelieve trance and told her I’d ‘interview’ her. My agreement with myself was that she temporarily existed outside the world of the book. She was to talk to me, the writer, about the way I was writing her, and about what might happen to her in the novel. Then I wrote non-stop in my notebook in ‘her’ voice for about forty-five minutes. Amongst a load of twaddle, she said something which changed the direction of her character: ‘I’m not as angry as you’re making me out to be.’

That was a surprise. At the time I couldn’t see any way for her not to be fundamentally furious. But over the following months she changed shape (and name) into a less whiny, more active person. I’m not suggesting that I actually communed with her ‘spirit’. I knew, at the time, that I was fooling myself. And I understood that something in me knew more about her character than I consciously knew at the time.

In the same Radiolab podcast that I linked to above, Gilbert also talks about finding the title for her bestseller Eat Pray Love. Essentially, this consisted of gently asking the manuscript to reveal its name to her.

I thought this sounded a little kooky (though really I wish I had Gilbert’s ability to believe like this – it’s as though she never became divorced from that childlike part of herself), but historically I’ve been bad with titles. I still haven’t officially graduated my MA – ten years this year – because I’ve been too embarrassed by my collection’s title to lodge it in the university library. I really must get onto that.

Recently I needed to find the title for a story and having just listened to the podcast, thought I’d trick my imagination into setting up a quick link into my conscious mind. There’s a fairly left-field body-mind thing that I do, so I did that, and asked the story for its title, and ta-da, there it was. Not perfect, not particularly memorable (‘Everything That Rises Must Converge’) but good enough for a deadline and a lot better than any of my previous attempts.

Are those eyes benign or scary?

This idea that so much of what we write comes out of the non-cognitive parts of our minds does fascinate me. In the Guardian Weekly (11.02.11), John Gray wrote in the The Hunt for Immortality that  H. G. Wells, having absorbed Darwinism, was convinced that humanity would become extinct unless right-thinking people seized control of evolution. He thought the Bolsheviks would do a great job of creating a higher species, and found Lenin ‘very refreshing’. He wrote that if the Soviet state killed lots of people, ‘it did on the whole kill for a reason and for an end’. Chilling.

However, Gray points out,

“His scientific romances tell a very different story. When the time traveller journeys into the future, in The Time Machine, he finds a world built on cannibalism, with the delicate Eloi seemingly content to be farmed as food for the brutish morlocks, and travelling on into the far future finds a darkening Earth where the only life is green slime. In The Island of Dr Moreau the visionary vivisectionist performs vile experiments on animals with the aim of remaking them as humans. The result is the ugly, tormeted “best-folk” – a travesty of humanity.

Wells’s fables were a kind of automatic writing – messages from his subliminal self that his conscious mind dismissed. They teach a lesson starkly at odds with the one he spent his life preaching: the advance of knowledge cannot deliver humans from themselves, and if they use science to direct the course of evolution the result will be monsters. This was Wells’s true vision, always inwardly denied, and for much of his life expressed only in his scientific romances.”

Gray suggests that despite what Wells thought he believed about the construction of a ‘higher species’, Wells’s subconscious knew better: that it was wiser, closer to the truth, and more far-seeing. (Though ‘closer to the truth’ just shows my own biases.)

How can we know ourselves well enough so that, maybe, we can write the strongest stuff in us without it having to trickle down through the convoluted pathways and firewalls we may have set up between our dreamworld and our conscious minds? The best way I’ve found, so far, is just to write, and write some more. More on that another time.

Written by Susan Pearce

June 6, 2011 at 10:04 pm

Posted in Essay

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Michael Chabon on writing

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Manhood for Amateurs

After enjoying CK Stead’s memoir I was in the mood for more writing memoir, so was pleased to find Michael Chabon’s Manhood for Amateurs on the biography shelves of Cummings Park Library. I took it to WOMAD where (because of its title, I guess) it was twice mistaken for the reading matter of the sole male in our group.

Chabon is a marvellous, energetic writer, lively and hyper-engaged with the world and his own mind.  He’s quick with metaphor, often cramming several into the same sentence, and seems as intent on entertaining us as a circus ringmaster.

I think the book deserves a slower, more considered reading than I gave it – I was after some easy distraction – but part of my tendency to skimread in the latter half of the book did arise from a heretical feeling that I was reading something not completely unrelated, in tone, to an Oprah magazine. If you’ve read more than one copy of that magazine, you may be aware that from every experience must come a lesson: something to take away with you that will inform the rest of your life. (You may also suspect, as I do, that the magazine is copy-edited by an automated cheerleader: I haven’t sat down and analysed the style but the tone never differs from article to article.) Maybe it’s just that he’s a huge personality, whose writing has an overwhelming flavour, and I probably did do the book a disservice by reading the essays fast, all at once. But I got a little bit fed up with him, towards the end.

But Chabon’s essays are often very moving, and I wanted to read large chunks of the book to friends with children who fiddle with Lego and lack wilderness to play in, or who make mistakes.  He’s brilliant, and incidentally provides more evidence towards my (fairly obvious) thesis that if you want to be a writer, it helps to be an optimist (about writing, at any rate).  In ‘XO9’, he makes it sound rather desirable to possess a dollop of OCD-inclined DNA:

When I consider the problem-solving nature of writing fiction – how whatever book I happen to be working on is always broken, stuck, incomplete, a Yale lock that won’t open, a subroutine that won’t execute, yet day after day I return to it knowing that if I just keep at it, I will pop the thing loose – it begins to seem to me that writing may be in part a disorder: sheer, unfettered XO9.

Yes, in part, perhaps, the ability to keep on going when there is no rational reason to do so: pretty much the opposite of any guarantee that the story will work, that it’ll succeed, that it’ll demonstrate that your mind is not repeating itself, that it’ll help pay the mortgage. Knowing that if I keep at it, I will pop the thing loose.

Chabon also comments on his difficulty with writing women. He resents this difficulty from a feminist perspective: why should it be so hard, seeming ‘to endorse the view that there is some mystic membrane separating male and female consciousness’? I appreciate that he notes that he does have difficulty, that he doesn’t necessarily get it all right when he seeks to ‘create in my fiction living, fiery female characters to match the life and fire of various real women I have known’.   I can’t imagine Nabokov or Flaubert making that last statement.

Written by Susan Pearce

April 9, 2011 at 3:53 pm

Janet Frame’s Towards Another Summer

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Towards Another Summer
Feb 6th: I copied the following paragraph onto the whiteboard for my writing class yesterday, offering it as an on-the-button description of what might happen if you don’t ‘look sharply after your thoughts’, as Emerson said. It comes towards the end of the novel, at the beginning of a chapter in which Grace has been invited to view her host’s office in the attic:

She sat before Philip’s huge desk, considering the drawers and pigeonholes crammed with papers…How could he dare to give a stranger permission to enter this room! Or was this room not the repository of his secrets? Perhaps he himself had no access to his treasures; perhaps he hoarded them elsewhere without ever recognising them; perhaps he discarded them one by one without ever having known them?

There were several passages like this one, that made me stop and wish to commit them to memory. Now, of course, I can’t really remember what they were about…there’s one that describes the subtley shifting expressions on Philip’s face as (she surmises) his feelings change. I particularly enjoyed the chapters that deal with the book’s present moment, in the cold northern city that Grace is visiting. But those chapters act as coat hangers for the chapters about childhood memories, and after a while, wonderfully evocative as they are, those representations of memory seem somewhat self-indulgent & not to fill any larger purpose in the narrative.

Jan 26th: Having finished Patrick Evan’s Gifted, I picked up Towards Another Summer again and took it on our camping trip to the Whangaparoa Peninsula. I bought it when it came out but, at the time, wasn’t in tune with Frame despite having loved her writing since first reading her at 20. Evans’s wonderful novel has helped, and possibly so have my experiences over the last 18 months. Camping didn’t leave much time for reading so I’m still less than halfway through: oh, also, I temporarily put it aside, in the tent, for the more easily accessible stories in The Return by Roberto Bolano. (Must note here that Gifted is still burning in my consciousness.)

Side note: I read the first few paras of Pride and Prejudice on my new Kindle (!!!) this morning, just because it’s the only book on there at the moment, and while I’m determined to enjoy the Kindle (cheaper books, portability, special gift from my love, etc) my first five minutes of use freaked me out a little. I noticed myself reading very self-consciously, hearing my voice echo inside my head rather than, as I’ve been used to since childhood, the text bypassing any inner auditory sense and going directly to my understanding so that I seem to absorb the words rather than having to ‘read’ them. Also, I appreciate the choice of text sizes but am startled by the wide gaps between paragraphs and the frequency with which I have to turn the pages.

Written by Susan Pearce

March 27, 2011 at 3:56 am