Friday, August 29, 2008

Return from the Wilderness

Seriously, the past four months or so feel like I've been in the wilderness. I was only out of internet and phone range for eight weeks, but my work on the website and my writing and everything else literature related has been flagging terribly. It hasn't been happening. The pen had run dry, and I was busy.

For me, it's been a dry spell for writing, but so much fun in so many other ways. I've set up a new apartment in Baltimore, I'm starting on my MFA, and I'm surrounded by people who aren't just working at writing, but are working their lives around writing. I, finally, am working my life around writing. And it's a great feeling. But all these months leading up to it have been the exact opposite. Instead of writing, I've been...doing other things. I've lead science students on hiking trips through the forests of West Virginia. I've seen the 2.3 acre radio telescope at Green Bank - the worlds largest moving object on land, the most precise radio telescope on the planet. I've said hello and goodbye to nearly two hundred of my best friends. I've attended lectures on global warming and breast cancer and maple syrup disease. I've talked with friends I hadn't seen in ten years, given writing seminars, driven a U-Haul on Pennsylvania Avenue through D.C. during rush hour, chased people with water balloons...and of course I was the one who got wet...

What, then, does this mean for my writing? Have I given up my novels? Do I have to relearn the short story? Am I stuck now with writers block?

The answer to all of the above is no. I stopped my forward progress, but I didn't stop my writing. I've been writing snippets of things all summer - morning show ditties, impromptu songs for my girlfriend, 10-minute free-writes with science students. But none of these short works have been typed, none of them are "publishable" or even really manageable. They fill up notebooks of all shapes and sizes, pretty much whatever paper I had on hand at the time. It's unlikely that any of them will ever show up here or anywhere else online. There were, in fact, no Dagny stories, not a one (and if you know who Dagny is, you understand what this means...the word "payback" comes to mind...)

Often, as writers, we fall prey to this myth that all our stories must be good. We believe that we must craft every word to be if not perfect then at the very least great. Sometimes, we'll spend days and months and years worrying over the same story, trying to get the elements just right. We rebalance the plot, reconstruct our characters, deconstruct the setting and the mood and the tone of our stories. We revise the one story until we're tired of it. And to become professional creative writers - the kind of people who get paid for stories and poems - this process is crucial to future success. Publishers and MFA faculty want to see the best we have to offer. They want to see that we're worth the time to read. But for many writers, this process of revision gets confused with the process of creation. Oftentimes, we credit ourselves with growing as writers because we have made one story better.

Don't stop with one story. Experiment. Spend ten minutes writing something that you know you'll throw away. Skip the laptop routine and scratch out a few words that you won't share with others. With writing, an essential aspect of mastery is practice. As in any field, be it sports or science or music, we become good because we experiment. Every professional violin soloist spent years if not decades scratching out notes that would torture the human ear - and it's that practice which provided them the confidence and skill to be performers today. It is the same with writing. Just as no violinist would spend an entire lifetime playing a single concerto to the exclusion of all others, as writers we cannot afford to work on a single novel or a single poem to the exclusion of all else. There are too many techniques, too many ideas, too many facets of life to chain ourselves - and our literary careers - to the quality of a single piece. We must break ourselves of the idea that every story will be good and realize that experimentation is as much a process of elimination as it is a process of creation. We create, we judge, and we sift the gems from the sand. But trust me, there are no diamonds without a lot - and I mean a lot - of rough.

This said, let me leave you with a bit of guesstimation regarding my own work. In my apartment, I have an entire file box filled with stories I wrote before and during high school - thousands of pages of original, handwritten work. On my computer, I have my stories sorted by year - from 2002 until now, we're looking at probably twenty to a hundred stories per year. Some of these stories were meant as novels, some as novellas, some as shorts, some as still-births. One of the stories weighs in at 190,000 words, and it even has an ending. Out of these hundreds of thousands of words - actually millions of words spend for several hundred story ideas - I have about fifteen short stories that I'm happy with. I have one short novel that I'm happy with. I have half of another novel that I'm happy with, but it doesn't have an ending. And out of all this? One short, short story has been published so far - I earned $100 for it back in February. And why am I starting on a master in fine arts? Because I'm not that great of a writer. I want to be better. I want to learn what it will take to be better.

So as you write, remember to break out of the house every once in a while. Try that wild, off-the-wall story idea that probably won't work. Don't worry about wasting time. Don't worry about whether it's "worth" your time. All writing is worthwhile. All writing is worth producing. It might not be worth reading when your done, but that's okay. It's part of the learning. We cannot succeed until we learn how not to fail.

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