Literature is news that stays news. – Ezra Pound
(I’m taking a break — i.e., letting myself get distracted — from working on my novel. At this point, “working” means scribbling a lot of stuff in my notebook and asking questions and more questions about characters and their motives and connections. This post is a random collection from my notebook pages. It’s a total DIY Production.)
The deal is, if you write fiction it means you start out by making a big fat mess that just keeps accumulating, like a huge dung ball. But hey, this awareness represents a leap forward for someone with ADHD and OCD (flooring the pedal in neutral). I’ve mentioned elsewhere that I’m a panster, that is, one who doesn’t plan before sitting down to write. But that’s not entirely true. After much self-castigation and suffering, I’ve actually begun to sculpt a first draft (cue electronic applause machine). By sculpt, I mean plonking the monolithic raw stone in the center of my workspace and taking a hammer and chisel and hacking away to find substance, finding the negative space that defines the positive, figuring out what stays and what goes. That is, characters who want things and suffer for those desires.
I’ve learned to finally let go of those high school and undergrad years that were all about outlines and neatly finished product, rarely about process. I’ve finally accepted that process = mess. This is a confession. For a long time I couldn’t bring myself to make any kind of mess in a notebook. I could scribble notes on the fly, but I couldn’t begin a novel draft because I thought it was a waste of good notebook pages. Novel drafts were meant to be written either on a computer or in cheap spiral notebooks. Neither of these appealed to me. I eyed my huge stash of empty notebooks that were collecting dust, unused. Then I got so frustrated I just said fuck it and opened one of the precious things and started scribbling all over the virgin paper. I haven’t stopped scribbling since.
Moving right along.
Thumbing through some notes I’d written awhile back I found that counter-intuitive directive: Be a Dumb Writer. Being “dumb” means entering a novel or story without an answers, preconceptions, or expectations. It means finding a way to put into words what can’t be put into words. The catch is, if you write what you already know, you’re in safe mode. Safe = dull. The cold reality is that only when you’re at a loss for words will you find them. Writing fiction is about risk-taking. Whenever you sense yourself getting fluent with words, it’s a signal to stop. In other words, being in the dark from sentence to sentence is what matters most if you want to write what matters. Every sentence has to be a good one, a field of energy in itself. It’s hell. You hit the wall over and over again, but that’s what brings a novel or story alive, fighting through those early drafts, because a lot gets generated in revisions. That means producing tons of shit on virgin paper.
Writing begets writing. You can’t possibly appreciate the power of that statement until you’ve actually done it. For hours, days, weeks, months on end. I’m here to tell you that it’s true. That’s why I’ve stepped out of the suit with the zipper in back, the writer’s block suit. That’s all it is, a fake costume we wear to keep ourselves from the mess that we have to do to actually sit down and wrestle with language, point of view, rhythm, and conflict.
But the real conflict goes on inside the writer. One voice says “be clean, be neat, be polite, be safe, don’t talk to strangers, etc.” (what the status quo has drummed into us all our lives); the other says “be sadistic, irreverent, unsafe, get blood all over your face.” I just finished watching the whole “Breaking Bad” series on Netflix. It’s a model for the notion that safe is exactly what crazy-good fiction isn’t. It’s crunchy with panic-driven action. That’s a huge draw for mainstream audiences. But I’m going for panic-driven and chronically deep all at once: the full range of human experience, nothing wasted, nothing held back. Mix it up, insane energy and subtext.
This is why Ezra Pound’s quotation at the top has no expiry date. This is why I’ve finally begun to work hard at writing literary fiction.
Oh, and this guy
(Current influences: Charles Baxter’s The Art of Subtext, endless tracks of progressive trance, and the gorgeous cascading synth-pop of Trust.)