writing

How is writing like sawing a plank of wood?

This topic was inspired by my recent decision to remove a plank of wood from where my computer sits, in this makeshift cupboard thing that was built in my bedroom (before I moved in). I was always hitting my head on it and it would also make it really difficult to talk to my family and friends on video chat, because my monitor would show the top of the plank which was covered in a drippy white paint job. I’d always considered removing it, but yesterday I decided, “today’s the day.” I surmised that the plank could be removed without compromising the rest of the support structure, so I got out my little handsaw and got to work. I recorded myself doing it, in different stages, because I wanted to prove to my Dad that I’d been able to remove the plank without the whole thing crashing down. (Also, I did it to amuse myself later.)

The first thing that I should explain is that this handsaw was a piece of garbage to begin with, when I bought it two summers ago for £3 at Wilko. I was looking for just a little garden saw at the time to take down a couple of small bushes in my front yard. It did the trick at the time, but since then it’s generally fallen into a state of disuse. The teeth on it were jagged and pointing in different directions. Because of this, it took me a long time to complete the job. While I was sawing away I had lots of time to contemplate my reasons for doing this, and I gave myself the task of trying to find out how it could be a metaphor for writing. “How is sawing a plank of wood like writing?” I asked myself. And here are the answers I came up with:

  1. Sawing a plank of wood is like writing because if you start off with the wrong framework that someone else gave to you and you think it’s going to fit into your formula for success and the plans you have in mind, it’s not going to work. You’re going to have to remove pieces of the framework to adjust for you. Writing is an individual process, which is why there can be so many people who do it so beautifully. A creative writing teacher can offer the same one-line writing prompt to her students, and get thirty different and equally amazing results, because writing reflects the individual. When I write something, I bring all of my experiences to the table, the good and the bad. None of my “mistakes” that I’ve made in life are unworthy for reflection. Every single thing I’ve learned in my life, including about relationships and what I’ve learned about love and growth, are all going to come out in my writing. If I’m trying to fit all the “me” inside someone else’s writing framework, it’s quite possible it won’t feel right. Adjustments must be made. You can always admire other writers, but you have to seek out your own voice. There might be a particular style that you wish you could emulate, and that’s good. Having ideals is important, and only in reading other works will you be able to get better at honing your own voice. But it is YOUR voice that you need to let come out. (More about writing voice in future blogs.)
  2. Writing is like sawing a plank of wood because if you don’t have the proper tools, it’s going to take you a very long time to get where you want to go. What are the proper tools in a writer’s toolbox? First of all it’s your own state of mind; your relationship with yourself. How will you ever be able to develop your own voice, if your mindset denies your desires? You need to develop a good relationship with yourself. I don’t know about you, but I experienced a lifelong problem with depression until I was about thirty-five years old. I know it’s kind of cliche for a writer to be depressed, and we’re supposed to take our pain and write through it, producing something brilliant, etc. But in my experience it was a cumbersome thing that followed my every decision. I doubted myself constantly, including my ability to generate ideas to even being “worthy” of writing. I’ve made mistakes in the past and relationships and with my life path, and these always seemed like problems that all added up to my unworthiness to become anything, least of all a great writer. Or even just a writer. So my suggestion, if you have this problem with mindset, is to fix it by whatever means possible. We are human beings, and we have to be kind to ourselves. If you need therapy, or medication, or just a change in routine that means you get out more and pursue positive relationships, just do it. Try everything. You are worth the effort, and turning off that voice of doubt will do such amazing things for your writing. Other important tools are understanding the type of writing that you want to produce, which means reading up on the structure and techniques of the genre you’re writing in (i.e., if you’re writing crime fiction you’re going to want to learn police procedures, crime scene science, etc, whereas historical writing will obviously require a great understanding of the era about which you’re writing). You’ll also want to read up on topics like plot, character development, “showing” and not “telling”, and other various important techniques.
  3. Writing is like sawing a plank of wood, because you can start off with the general idea of where you want to go, and you can dive in with a full view of your plans laid in front of you. But then halfway in you realize it’s all wrong, you could have done it a different way, you see gaps in logic within your plot line, or your characters are more 2D than 3D, etc. You take a break, step back and realize the awful mess that lies in front of you: a half-sawn off plank of wood hanging from its frame; sawdust covering everything; your muscles are cramping and you feel tired. At this point you could abandon the project altogether, right? But you still have to clean up that mess. Or, you could go back and start over in a different way (but that might take longer). OR — you could keep going. Saw through that plank! Listen to your writing voice, and back up your own original ideas. Yes you can make adjustments when necessary, but stick to your original plan. Every writer has to produce their rough draft before anything else happens. Even Thomas Hardy, at one point in time, was sitting in front of his manuscript for Tess of the d’Urbervilles and probably wondering why Tess had wandered out into the middle of Stonehenge, and how to get her to the scaffolds that awaited her. And if you think William Faulkner didn’t have his doubts about crafting a story around a family carrying a coffin containing their mother’s dead body forty miles away to Jefferson, well you’d be wrong. If you think he didn’t wonder if this was too crazy, too weird, too unrealistic, too morbid to be written about, his characters too depressing — it’s not true. I assure you he had his doubts, but he managed to see it through, creating the amazing piece of literature of As I Lay Dying, containing that amazing shifting point of view which you know he had to struggle crafting and even accepting that it would work. He started with an idea, and he began on the journey just as his characters began theirs, and just like them, I promise you, he got stuck, he waded into the river chasing Addie’s coffin, and he pulled it back out again. True brilliance on the page is not the product of a natural talent that has the ability to generate genius in one fell swoop. Every great writer will have wondered, at some point, what the hell they were thinking and how do they fix their mess. But you can rest assured that they continued sawing that plank. And once they finished the rough draft, that’s their first real breakthrough. Then the massive work of revision begins, and the writer again must continue sawing the plank. When all the sawing is done, and the sawdust is swept away, you can step back and look at what’s there — and I guarantee you, it will be a thing of beauty.

Writing is like sawing through a piece of wood, because you, the carpenter, must keep your tools in top shape, and you must be working in the best framework for your needs, not trying to be fit inside someone else’s ideas of great writing. But equally as important is simply finishing the job. Saw through that plank!!!!! 

 

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Building a Writer’s Platform, and Other Modern-day Nonsense that I’m sure Hemingway wouldn’t have put up with

I recently read a very depressing book about how to find a literary agent, which basically said that you couldn’t get an agent these days unless you had a major internet following. The author of the book suggested blogging as one way of building an “author platform” which, in order to grow large enough to catch the attention of the literary agent, has to be massive and will therefore take twenty years to grow. As I said, this was depressing to read. I really have no clue what to blog about, and I don’t feel it’s the type of writing I want to be doing, and actually runs the risk of harming my writing by taking time and energy away from the true writing I like to do, which is storytelling. But, I figure in twenty years, despite not having a clue about blogging, who knows? I might have gained such a huge fanbase that no agent would turn down the chance to sell to my massive following.

So, there we go. I’m blogging, despite the fact that I don’t really want to. And lucky you, whoever you are, reading this: you get the pleasure of reading something written by someone who didn’t want to write it nor even knows what to write it about (hey, is it everything you dreamed it’d be?) Because this is what writers are supposed to do, I guess, in this day and age. It’s actually kind of sad for Hemingway, because he would have really been adept at the whole 160-character mentality of Twitter, if only he were writing in modern times. He would have probably advocated for an even smaller character count, actually. And just think if Shakespeare were alive today, slaving away at his growing email list (he’d no doubt draw us all in with a tantalizing free e-sonnet offer). Jane Austen is just lucky she never had to create a YouTube channel (although I totally would have signed up for Dorothy Parker’s).

This is the side of stuff that I don’t know, and I’m barely willing to learn. I have a hard enough time making sure my characters do the things they’re supposed to do, like fulfill their destinies within their intended plot lines. Do people even know the gravity of my responsibilities? I’m responsible for shepherding each of my characters through the horrible destitution that befalls them, and bring about such a profound change of mentality that they emerge at the end a different person altogether. These characters have to be believable, relatable, relevant, complex, and they have to be so good at these traits that the real people reading about them forget their own lives for awhile. Wow, when I put it like that, I feel like I should give myself a raise.

So these are the things I work on. This is what I find important — putting more stories out there into the hands of people who appreciate stories. Every writer has their own version of what’s worthy of being written about; some people choose fantasy or horror or science fiction. I just choose the basic format — how people relate to each other. How they relate to themselves. I find that fascinating. I find the human spirit fascinating, and my characters never disappoint me in this regard. I can hit them over the head with the heaviest of clubs, and they will rise again, fighting harder. They will see their goals to an end, more determined than ever. That, to me, is worthy of writing about.

I don’t look at writing as a “hobby” but more like a passion. Sewing is my hobby. It’s fun and I like to do it for awhile, but then I might leave it for awhile and go surfing the web, not stopping until I’ve learned the entire history of the subject of “milk” on Wikipedia. Maybe I’ll return to sewing afterwards, or maybe I’ll find some other way to entertain myself. But writing is more than passing the time, or practicing a hobby, because you can walk away from a hobby, and not spend hours of time away from it, still working at it in your mind. Anyone who has this level of dedication to anything is practicing art, not a hobby, in my opinion. And this dedication is what I want to continue working on, to get better at every day, honing my ability to finely interweave subplot within plot, create diversions, distractions, surprises. I want to learn how to be better and better at expressing human thought, and contemplating those age-old questions that generations of human beings before me had inevitably, at one time or another, asked themselves: “How do I love without losing myself?” “What will become of me when I die?” “What, if anything, is worth going to war over?” “Can I get away with tearing that little piece of mold off the bread and eating around it?”

These are the passions that writers keep returning to, and when it’s going beautifully and the dialog just flows naturally and the plot comes together, you get a high that’s better than any out there (I’m extrapolating). But there are the other times, when your character doesn’t want to grow with the labels you’ve placed on him or her; there are times when you feel like you don’t really know your character at all, and they question it too. It’s like having kids – you have all of these visions for what they might grow up to be, but they grow into these amazing people that are so much better than what you envisioned. If you can get out of your kid’s way, that is — and the same is true for a writer’s characters. You can just sense the resentment in your main character’s mind, as he wonders how you could ever expect him to run (and win) a local election when all he wants to do is dance! “What the hell?” he seems to ask you over your shoulder, as you struggle to piece his story together. “Don’t you know me at all? I would never do that. I would never say that.” Suddenly you’re consumed with doubt, and it’s not long until your entire plot outline begins crumbling to the ground. You abandon the project for awhile, but find yourself struggling with it as you stare at the ceiling at night.  Eventually you stop fighting your character’s need to dance. He belongs on Broadway; stop with the podium debates and put his name in lights already.

And so you’ve learned, just like you do with kids: when you stop forcing them to perform in a role you arbitrarily made up for them, they suddenly have the freedom to say what they ought to be saying, and do what they ought to be doing. In this way, writing can be a madness, too. Of course these people aren’t real — we’re creative, but not crazy, right? Well, there is a level of craziness to writing, and if you’re like me, you’d jump at the chance of finding a 12-step group where you can finally utter the words “Hi, my name is ___ and I’m a writer.” The first step is admitting that we are powerless to our craft, including the craziness that comes from interacting with imaginary people. It’s like the belief that every person has something that he or she is meant to do. For literary characters, this is true, and telling their story becomes an intimate project that, in the end, the writer feels completely honored to have been a part of.

But nowadays, writers are having to split their time between the worlds they create and the mouthpieces by which their potential reading public can get to know them by. Writers these days can’t even get the attention of a publisher without going through an agent, and before an agent will give you the time of day, you not only have to have finished your novel, but paid a couple grand to have it edited, too. What??? Isn’t that the editor’s job? Nope. The writer pays for editing services, not to mention publicity. This is why the words “day job” exist, because a career in writing is expensive, and time consuming! Long gone are the days where we were only responsible for sitting in front of the typewriter, making the magic happen by pecking out 90,000 words over a few rolls of ink ribbons and couple of reams of paper.

So, there you have it folks — whoever you are — this is my blog, that I didn’t want to write. As boring as it sounds, my blog is going to be about writing (because what the hell else does a writer blog about???) I was actually pleased that this blog already existed; apparently my plans for building this writer’s “platform” was on my agenda a year ago. So that means I’m now only 19 years away from my big break.

I’m going to go now and remove the strange looking taco theme that seems to be in use on this blog; I’m also thinking I should try to flesh out some of the content (like, actually put something into the boxes, instead of leaving them to say “This is a text widget. The Text Widget allows you to add text or HTML to your sidebar. You can use a text widget to display text, links, images, HTML, or a combination of these. Edit them in the Widget section of the Customizer.” Or I might just leave the text widget to announce its own usefulness; it kind of underscores the idea that this is all so generic.

Hemingway didn’t have to deal with generic. He got to go off watching bulls be stabbed and go sport fishing in Cuba, then came home to write about it. Damn you Ernest, you had it so easy….