Now that I’ve finished reviewing notebooks and journals, it’s time to get back to writing about writing fiction. So like nearly everyone else in the world, I’m writing a novel. I’m pretty sure that everyone has a story to tell; we are creatures that need stories as much as we need food and shelter. We need doorways into other worlds. We need to know we aren’t alone. We need to hear about who we are and where we came from and where we’re going in the midst of our daily lives. It’s a way to shore the holes of terror that we feel when we stare up at the night sky and ponder our insignificance in the universe.
Let’s face it. Writers are a dime a dozen (I know, it’s a cliche), and we don’t get much recognition on film credits. If we printed out all our rejection emails, we could wallpaper our whole house and keep the cat box and bird cage freshly lined every day. But I write because I know that there is nothing on earth that can replace what I have discovered on the pages of books–poetry, fiction and non-fiction. I have things to add to the deep well of human experience–call it the collective unconscious or universal mind, if you want–and so do you, as long as we keep our minds and hearts open to life, regardless of what it brings. We all want to return to something we remember in our DNA, some home, some connection, some state of paradise. But we also want to laugh until the tears run down our faces and cry until our hearts break open and soften. So,
Bring me my Arrows of desire:
Bring me my Spear: O clouds unfold!
Bring me my Chariot of fire!
I will not cease from Mental Fight,
Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand…
I’ve been struggling for a long time to develop my own process to find my way into a novel. I’ve read countless craft books (Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird notwithstanding), taken workshops, even earned an MFA, but I still didn’t feel comfortable in my writer’s skin; I’m getting there slowly; I’m developing a routine; I’m finding my way; “I’m breaking through/I’m bending spoons/ I’m keeping flowers in full bloom/ I’m looking for answers from the Great Beyond.”
Writers are quirky and often have strict needs that need to be met before we can start to write. Sad, really, that one of my biggest obstacles was whether to write my first draft longhand or on a computer or typewriter. I’ve tried all three and finally settled on longhand. I couldn’t find a format that suited me until recently. I found an old, well-made, black three-ring binder at a thrift store for a couple dollars. I filled it with some old, yellow binder paper that I think I found among my mother’s things before she died.
I like the binder format for writing because it lies flat and forgiving. I can add and subtract pages and organize them with little effort. The beauty of writing longhand is that you use one hand rather than two. It’s focused and intense. I write on every other line so that later I can return and insert corrections. I also can see what I crossed out, unlike when I use the delete key. The paper is old, but it is of good quality (around 90 gsm), so I can use my preferred fountain pen and write on both sides of the paper. I like to use a fountain pen because it glides effortlessly and there is little friction between the pen and my thoughts. I number the pages so I can refer to them elsewhere in the draft.
But I still get stuck wondering what will happen next. My ADHD kicks in. My mind is a jumble of a million voices and distractions. A snarl of rats’ tails. Back in the day I’d just toss everything aside and give up. Or I’d start revising before I finished the first draft and get discouraged because I could never get further than the first twenty or so pages. The deal is, keep the momentum moving forward so you have something with a beginning and end to revise.
“A writer is a [person] who, embarking upon a task, does not know what to do.” – Donald Barthelme
I’m getting better about allowing myself to make a mess in every way imaginable, and the large format allows me to do it in a large way that’s easy to see. But all the while in the back of my mind I know that I want every page to achieve something, or else why write it? By achieving something I mean touching something in the reader, some emotion, some recognition, some connection to the larger sense of being human. For example, if I feel troubled in my own life, I can recall a character in a book that I’ve read who is also troubled and feel an instant connection with that character, a sense that I’m not alone because that character transcends time and space and speaks to me, takes away the loneliness and gives a bit of courage and inspiration that I couldn’t find anywhere else. For it is soul speaking to soul, not the mind or some advertising agency or tyrannical force imposing its will upon me. This is the sort of writing I aim to achieve.
In order to get there, I often have to leave the pages of my draft and open my travel journal pages and write out my troubles and questions about where I’m going in this novel. Wherever I go I take a book to read and my travel journal to write down my thoughts.
I’ve written my way through quite a few snags this way, exploring, free-writing, grousing, and even coming up with those gems that get thrown down the chute, where I say, “Wow. Where did that come from?” I feel more confident and comfortable writing these thoughts in a journal than directly in the first draft, finally transferring the best ones into the draft. I think I’m on to something here, and thought I’d pass it along to anyone who is still seeking ways to refine their fiction-writing process, for what it’s worth. Believe me, its’ not that easy for everyone. Some of us really take a long time to make sense of our own process of writing a first draft.
[Most of my posts are written in first person. They are personal. But I have to trust that others can relate to my experiences, so I've begun to relax and not apologize for my blogging style. In fact, my favorite bloggers are irreverent and satirical as hell. I have a ways to go yet before I reach that level of skill.]