Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Why We Write

The other day, the devil came and whispered in my ear “anything you want, you can have. All I want is the usual.”

The usual? My soul? Okay, devil, take my soul – just gimme a few more of those juicy publishable things I call words.

And so the devil, satisfied with this renewed bargain, allowed me a few more minutes of computer time while I – ever so excited – spewed on about my life in general. I wrote about my parents and my girlfriend and myself. I chatted – to myself, because some things cannot be shared – about the state of my future and the decisions that await. I made everything seem so dark and hopeful and twisted because it felt so right, so justifiable, so true.

And then I come back to this essay. This is shot number three at “why we write,” my contribution to understanding the motivation of the working writer. And by working I don’t necessarily mean publishing – I mean a writer who is putting pen to paper regularly, dripping blood and sweat through the ends of fingertips worn raw with typing. That alone is the qualification for a working writer – the closer we come to this ideal, the more the words will match our lives, the less room there is for imagination and the more sway we give to truth.

As I write this, I feel like a fraud. I feel like a lamb with a shotgun about to hunt down his own cousin so Mary can have a little lamb with her sauerkraut. I’m not a writer by trade – I’m a struggling human being. Forget the artist part of starving – I’ve spent my entire life scrounging for money. So I tell myself the experiences will contribute to my art – does that make me a writer? If it means dropping engineering to study English? If I then enlist in the Army to get money for grad school?

Currently, I don’t have enough money to marry. Buying airline tickets to meet my girlfriend’s family isn’t in the budget. But writers aren’t collections of money – writers are people who put pen to paper. Writers are dedicated souls who search for the meaning in life and then – harder still – do their best to share what they’ve learned without spoken words, without hand gestures, without lights or camera or CGI or even a hint of sound.

Am I a writer? Some days I feel more like a sellout. I take the easy way out in the name of “literature.” When I could have toughed it out and demanded a desk job, I allowed an injury to get me out of the Army. When I could have taken on some debt for that fifth year to finish engineering, I decided to graduate and get out. I see people talking and I’m too afraid to meet them. I see politicians argue and I’m too quiet to show that I care. I’m not a writer because I love it – I’m a writer because there’s nothing else for me, there’s no other way to get my words out to be heard. I don’t talk loud enough. I’m a guy, a male American, and I’m too afraid of my own voice.

So here I am telling you, another writer, my friend the reader, what it takes to be a writer. If I charged you a dollar, it would be fraud. But since this is free, it’s ethos. It’s the mythology of writing. It’s my contribution to the lore of the professional wordsmith. And you read this because you want to know why you should keep writing, you want to know why we all keep writing.

I can tell you this – I began writing in the seventh grade. It was a journal we were assigned to keep, a page a week for an off-campus class I was lucky to take. I don’t know now how I managed to earn a slot in this class, or why anyone trusted a seventh-grader to ride the train half-way across Chicago once each week to take this class and miss half a day of school, but this class taught me to write. It taught me to put personal words on the page. The teachers taught me to staple the pages in half for the days when I didn’t want to share my words. Later, when I read about Arthur the King and Frodo the Hobbit, I thought I could write the same kinds of stories. I thought I’d be like other writers, taking my personal life and weaving it into the worlds of heroes and dragons. I didn’t know what I was doing – I was fourteen. I couldn’t tell the nominative from the jussive if you held a gun to my broadsword. But still, in the nighttime hours, when my parents went upstairs and there was no trusting a teenager to cross Chicago by himself to see friends, the pen was there. Without classroom assignments, there was no need to staple pages shut. The trick was saving these pages from the fate of spring cleaning, when every useless toy and outdated scrap of homework met the dumpster. They were my precious thoughts, those pages, my personal publication for the audience of one. And still I save these story notes and journal entries from back then. They sit in a box at the side of my desk, pages and pages of incoherent scrawl I’m afraid to read for fear of heartburn. I wrote that? Ick! Thank God I learned to write before our home had a computer – it’s harder to back-up loose leaf. And vomit goes better on paper than mousepad.

Still, the writing happened. Somewhere along the way I learned the feel and the sound of words written well. It may have been the long summer days stranded alone in the middle of Chicago – I had the choice of biking down to the end of the block and back or reading a book. Going around the block – and out of sight of the house – required special permission. My brother was autistic, my buddy from two-doors down grew up on Playboy in an attic that smelled of cat piss, and visiting my friends from school required a parent to drive. The books ate the time. I spent days on Treasure Island with the pirates. Black Beauty was a dear equine friend. King Arthur was more than my hero – he was my inspiration, my guide for how to live, how to act, how to be.

Still, I produced more tripe. Piles of tripe. Great bound piles of pages that weren’t fit for bathroom reading. Even in college, I did this. Somehow I found my way into creative writing workshops, and somehow the teachers liked me. I don’t think it was the work so much as it was the way I listened. When they said my stories needed conflict, I stared at them and waited for the punch-line. When I presented my eight-hundred-word masterpiece for Intro to Journalism, the professor cut four-hundred words and said the rest needed work. Again, I waited for the punch-line. I was barely twenty – I had no clue what I was doing.

Still, I wrote. I wrote because my girlfriend at the time wouldn’t have understood my leaving her the computer. I wrote because my parents couldn’t understand ne’er-do-well English majors. I wrote because I was too tired to study math or physics or any of those other subjects. I wrote because I wanted the bad guys to win. I wrote because I was only a phone call away from being the bad guy to someone, somewhere.

I’ve spent the past three weeks asking myself why we write. Twice I've tried writing the answer, but the words didn’t flow. They didn’t ring true. I was asking the wrong question. I wanted to explain why writers write – I should have been asking why I write. It’s pointless for me to fathom the depths of your soul – I might understand a bit, but I can’t explain why you should write. I have enough trouble understanding my own reasons. Especially this week, when I’ve written hardly a word aside from this essay. I tell myself I want to write fiction and that I want to publish novels, but then my own chapters make me nauseous. I get headaches and vision loss and a serious urge to “go outside” at the thought of editing my own work for mass consumption. And don’t get me started on the thoughts of finding an agent or, worse yet, publicity. It’s not my vibrant social life that fuels my writing – it’s the vibrant writing which fuels the little social life I have. Except with my girlfriend – she’s foreign, so her English isn’t the best. We hold entire conversations involving two syllables and a helping of curry-fried-shrimp. And where did I meet her? Online. Through e-mail. With the words we share beyond sound.

And so, when the devil returns again – when it’s morning, and the sun shines, and I’m late for work – I’ll look deep inside and ask what comes next. Is it the writing, this craft of my voice made audible through print? Or is it the daily struggle of getting out and saying hi and smiling back?

Ask yourself – before you forget – about why you write. Ask yourself the meaning of the words on the page.

I say this, now, because next semester I start a new phase in my writing. In the past, I’ve written in the dark, on hidden notebooks, majoring in the wrong subject, short on cash, in the middle of Afghanistan. But now, suddenly, I will be paid to write. A university has decided to trust this kid from Chicago. The professors see great promise in my work. They look forward to meeting me. They tell me that they are fascinated by my life experience. They believe I will be a fine addition to their MFA program.

So write. Write as much as you can. Write until it makes you sick. And then keep going. Learn from the authors you enjoy, learn from your mistakes, learn from everything you can. But remember where you came from. Fix your motivation in your mind – and in your writing – now. Because it does matter. Because it shapes who you are and what you write. Because the depths plumbed with words begin with the vast ocean we call life. And the minute you forget where you came from, you lose everything worth writing for.

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About Ryan Edel

Thursday, April 3, 2008

First Law of Delete

A great point brought up in one of my classes was the question of where to go next with a story. In writing, this question plagues everyone. No story is ever so complete that it can't use work, not even the million-copy bestseller. Every word we write, there's the question of which words to place next, which direction to take.

For this class, and in all your writing, I encourage you to remember the First Law of Delete - anything written can be deleted. If you don't like it, you can get rid of it later. If it's awkward, ugly, smelly, disgusting, or simply too horrifically beautiful, the delete key's always ready, always hungry.

I say this because often, as writers, we get caught up trying to make a piece "perfect." This line of thought actually hurts the creative process, especially during the rough-draft - this is one of the main causes of writer's block. For the assignments, feel free to read the prompt and then start writing. Write for fifteen minutes. If the words feel wrong, keep writing. Keep pushing forward. Oftentimes, it takes a few minutes (or even a few hours) to get in the groove - all those words that sound wrong are simply stepping stones to the right path, the slow curve of the on-ramp before you merge with the interstate.

Later, after the fifteen minutes (or twenty or thirty, if it's a good day), you can apply that First Law of Delete. And some days you will - there will be days when that whole fifteen minutes just doesn't work. But no worries. There will be other days when that awkward smelly no-good first paragraph becomes the keystone for a new plot you never saw coming. Embrace that plot. Enjoy it. And remember this irony: knowing you can delete everything helps you the stories you never forget.

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About Ryan Edel

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Fiction - The Unplanned Birth

In my workshop today, one of my writers touched on the fundamental difference between fiction and nonfiction. She said that she normally writes nonfiction, and that she’s accustomed to outlines and roadmaps for her writing. But she hasn’t liked the results of her planned fiction. She found that she likes the results of her freewriting, but that the process is scary – there is no planning, and editing is needed at the end. But still, the she likes the results.

Part of the reason freewriting inspires the creative process is that it forces the mind to write automatically. The result is that the words you produce are words you’re intimately familiar with. You begin writing about your life, about the things you’ve seen in life, even if the story is not a true story. And it works. It has the feel of truth, because in a deep way the words written on autopilot are truth – your truth. The life you’ve been living.

This is the funny thing about good fiction - it can't be planned. It's as random as our lives, as constant as the stars. Certain aspects of the human experience are accepted as absolute - the need for food, for example, or the strain and exhaustion that come with stress - but the events and decisions of an individual defy outlines. It's a strange phenomenon - generally, most writers avoid crossing back-and-forth between fiction and nonfiction. Before freewriting, I tried to control my writing. I wanted to “make” it good. I believed in working hard to produce the “perfect” story. But results of controlled fiction aren't good, let alone perfect. The characters are stale, the decisions pre-planned, the conflict watered down.

Fiction is not nonfiction. How do I know? Try writing nonfiction without an outline and good sources. That's just not a good idea, not for a longer work. The reader has to believe in the work, and for nonfiction that means believable, reputable facts. And these facts have to fit together tight as a jigsaw puzzle. To make the truth coherent, you have to sit down and plan it out, piece it together, see how every isolated piece matches with every other.

It's not that fiction's any different in that regard - the "facts" must still be "right," and they must certainly "fit together," but the source of these facts is a different place entirely. Some call it the heart, some say it’s the unconscious mind, others believe it's the soul. Tapping it, though, is hard. Allowing the disorder and the chaos of the inner mind to creep out onto the page is a process all by itself. And then telling your conscious mind – the part of your brain that stops you from giving embarrassing revelations at work – to step aside? For some, it’s inconceivable. I've met people who don't believe in freewriting and won't try it - they hold on to the control they have, choking their own creativity. It's not a pretty sight - flat characters, organized plots without purpose, antagonists who don't care about anything except owning the world.

When editors look for good fiction, they aren't looking for someone who can string words together in the "correct" way. They're looking for someone who can reveal a protagonist's inner hate, someone who can show the antagonist's hidden love, a writer who makes us appreciate life in new ways. As you push forward in your writing, make sure that you are learning to write from within rather than simply pen beautiful sentences. Don’t plan your novel to death – write it. Feel it. Express it. And then later, after the words are on the page, after you’ve bled your soul through the keyboard, go back and edit. Assert the control you didn’t need before. Make sure the grammar isn’t too ugly. But don’t do this until you’re done. Don’t edit until after the last line is written. If you’re tempted to edit early, tempted to “tweak” the story a little bit, just keep one thing in mind: you can always edit grammar. You can insert and delete characters and subplots in a finished story. You can even go through and emphasize a theme that didn’t get enough “air time” in the rough draft. But no matter how much you edit, you can’t revive a story without heart.

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About Ryan Edel