Friday, December 29, 2006

Censors and Sensibility

A recent turn of events has led me to contemplate the many forms of censorship writers encounter. There is, of course, the external forces - censorship driven by the market, your audience, the FCC, etc. And then there's self-censorship.

Sometimes, we self-censor based on the audience we have in mind. When I'm writing for an audience of elementary-age children, I will naturally exercise a certain kind of self-censorship. But even there, where the parameters ought to be pretty obvious, you can run into hazy territory. I may be okay with witches or ghoblins, or stories about death or divorce or other ugly realities that kids experience. Someone else might think these topics inappropriate or unacceptable. I've been working on a highly abridged version of MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM for my drama club of 4th-6th graders. The word "ass" appears in reference to the donkey's head that Bottom wears. But, Shakespeare being Shakespeare, the double-meaning is played upon liberally. Do I cut these references? It seems a crime. But parents may complain.

There is a deeper kind of self-censorship, the kind Virginia Woolf refers to as the Angel on your shoulder, the voice that tells you not to upset your family or friends or polite society by writing about darker issues, or intimate subjects, or family secrets, etc. Woolf has a wonderful essay in which she describes killing off this Angel as a necessary act, especially for women writers who are particularly susceptible to its form of self-censorship.

Can censorship be a good thing? A necessary evil? Or just plain evil? Which kind of censor is the hardest to beat - the outside one or the inside one?

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Writing from the inside out

I was lying on the couch tonight, recovering from stomach flu, and watching a show about Rod Serling. They spoke of how often his scripts were born from writing through and about his own internal conflicts or fears.

Often as writers we begin to think of our writing as an outside entity, driven by external forces and ideas. The muse visits us. Our characters take control of the story. I have often written about the process in this way here in this blog. The mention of Serling's drawing from his internal struggles was a reminder to me. Sometimes, our best work comes not from looking at the world around us for inspiration, although that can be powerful, but from delving deep inside ourselves and squaring off against our own fears, hopes, desires, struggles. This writing can be painful, can be dangerous.

Writing from the inside out. Maybe it's like sewing a garment. You muust put it together inside out first, to make the seams clean. When the structure, the bones, are finished, you turn it rightside out and put on the finishing touches that make it beautiful for the world. The best writing combines these personal internal visions with the external connections that make them speak to others, to the audience.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

What's In a Genre?

My last entry, and subsequent comments, got me thinking about genre. Specifically, its purpose and its limitations. Who is genre for? Is genre something the writer decides in advance, or is it something a reader uses to identify and classify work? Does genre help us, providing useful templates to lead the way through the thorny woods of our story, or does it limit us, setting up barricades and "Do Not Enter" signs to our creative detours?

I tend to think genre is something we assign after the fact, a common, if simplistic, way for us to find readers and publishers, and for them to find us. What do you think?

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Two Plotlines Diverged in a Wood

Two plotlines diverged in a yellow wood... And I don't know which is the road less traveled or how to choose. I am working on a novel that has both fantasy and realistic elements. It has developed a split personality. There is a point in the plot when it could go in one of two directions. The one takes it further and faster into fantasy territory. The other keeps the setting more realistic, while the fantasy elements appear in that realistic setting. I cannot seem to write my way through this.

Is my dilemma the mark of a larger problem, a lack of clear vision for the overall story? I had been working on it with the realistic grounding and fantasy elements invading. I had gotten quite a bit written that way. Then, I re-read it and suddenly, it seemed to make sense, and be a better read, to thrust it pellmell into a fantasy realm at an early point in the narrative, thus scrapping my earlier work. But some of that earlier work is good stuff!

"To scrap, or not to scrap - that is the question." God help us all when we have to tackle major rewrites and revisions. It truly is a "re-vision." Seeing the whole piece anew.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

The Self is a Narrative

"The self is a narrative, not a fixed identity. There are countless cultural fictions that lie about the self ... For writer's, there's 'Find your own voice.'" - Siri Histvedt in NOVEL VOICES.

Your self, and therefore your voice as a writer, is constantly changing, growing and evolving - a work in progress. In a way, this is true of humanity, too. Our identity as the human race, the human story, is constantly being told and retold with different voices, changing and ever-shifting. By telling our stories over again, we actually participate in creating that identity. That is a part of the writer's job, the storyteller's job.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Spending Time with Your Characters

A character comes to mind, or you call one forth or start to sketch one out. Maybe you start telling their story and you find gaps and holes begin to pop up, or the character floats grayly in a fog and eludes your vision. How do you get to know them better?

When I first tackled writing a novel, I found that simply telling the story only carried me so far. I had to take occasional rest stops to get to know my characters. The story would grind to a halt because I didn't really know their history as well as I needed to.

What was their childhood like? Where did they grow up? Who is their family? What do they want? Has it changed? What is their job? How do they dress? What little stories and memories do they carry around? What makes them laugh?

I believe there are no pointless questions to ask about character, because you never know what little details may pop into the story later and give your reader that extra measure of reality.

Sometimes, I sketched out a history. Sometimes, I retold a crucial scene from the perspective of a character I needed to understand better. Sometimes, I had other characters describe the person in question.

So I ask again, what do you do to spend time with your characters? Ever met a character you couldn't stand? Did you keep him or her and make yourself get to know them? Or did you decide they were better left undisturbed?

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Make the Wrong Choice

I was talking with someone tonight who told about being directed in a play to "make the wrong choice" when they were stuck on a scene. Got me thinking about how this can apply to writing. It's a very freeing instruction. Of course, in writing, it involves a level of commitment, by virtue of actually putting the wrong choice down on paper. Still, maybe we all need to make more wrong choices as writers in order to arrive at the right choice.

Go make a wrong choice with a piece of your writing. Make that wrong choice on purpose and see what happens.

Friday, December 08, 2006

Life is the Fuel

I like reading journals by well-known writers I admire. Steinbeck & Woolf are among my favorite journals. Steinbeck often talks about not getting any writing done when he stays up too late with friends, goes out or has people over, etc., etc. Very human of him - comforting. I thought about Steinbeck's late nights this evening as we came rolling in at 11 pm from a festive and sumptuous dinner. Life is the fuel - the fuel of our writing. Some solitary time is needed, but we also need to live, make merry, be among our fellow humans. Or perhaps solitude is the fuel and life is the main ingredients, the raw material.

In "LETTERS TO A YOUNG POET," by Rainier Maria Rilke, Rilke encourages a young man in his solitary, almost hermit-like occupation, extoling the virtues of solitude for the poet.

What mixture of solitude and human conviviality works for you as a writer?

Thursday, December 07, 2006

The Company of Writers

Last night, the chatroom had a full house. Lots of folks showing up to exchange ideas and talk about their latest work. It got me thinking about how important the company of other writers is.

I arrived pretty late at my understanding of the need for connecting with fellow writers. It isn't easy. I was always very protective of my writing, and terrified someone would shoot it down, or worse yet, wouldn't "get it." Writing is meant to be a conversation, meant for an audience, as Jamie pointed out. But it is so intensely personal. Of course, personal can become lonely, and at some point someone has to see what you've written. In recent years, I've learned just how vital the company of other writers is - electronically, in person, on the phone - anywhere you can get it. It has given me the courage to be public about my work, even send it to publishers, far more than I ever have before.

The company of writers can call forth my green-eyed monster. It can also inspire me, give me new perspective, revitalize my own work, cast out the demons of doubt and isolation.

What does the company of writers mean for you - good and bad?

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

A Head Full of Characters

Jamie said, "the challenge is to allow the characters to develop the plot and the story, rather than make them tools of the plot."

So, what characters am I hanging out with lately? Well, there's Red-faced Rosie, a little girl who throws big tantrums. She helps me write through my pissy moods. Then there's Ryan, an ordinary kid in a special needs world trying to figure out how to get more attention when he has to compete with difficult kids. There's Hope, a chubby girl, big and different and creative. And Jimmy, inspired by a kid who lived across from me where I grew up. And there's Lillian, based on my grandmother, daughter of a wealthy and demanding father who grew up to run away and marry a poor, alcoholic Irishman.

Who are the characters running around in your brain these days?

The Writer's Audience

In a comment, Jamie says:

"I would contend that all writing is for an audience. Even private diaries, where the audience is the writer himself -- or, perhaps, the audience is the future. I think a writer always has to be mindful of who his audience is, or the work will suffer. (That's a long discussion, maybe best saved for another time.)"

No time like the present, Jamie! And since it IS a long discussion, I have given it its own thread.

FYI - Reading Comments

To see what other Writers have said, click on "Comments" at the end of the post.

Seeing Sound

There is a brain condition in which the patient sees sounds: "'Ah' is something white and long; 'ee' moves off somewhere ahead ... 'yih' is pointed in form..." etc.

This makes me think about how writers balance form and function. We want to convey meaning, but we also play with sound and imagery, we roll the words around, choose between words with the same denotation but different connotations. Where better than Writers On-the-air to explore this balance - the role of sound in conveying meaning and imagery.

I shall steal the above patient's quote as a starting point for a mini poetic meandering:

'Ah' is something white and long ...

"L' is luscious, dripping, wet ...

"Sh" rushes flying through the snow ...

"Ck" trips you, stops you cold ...

Which sounds are evocative for you?

Monday, December 04, 2006

The Birth of Writing

There are some theories that writing first evolved, in certain cultures, from the tally marks used in commerce. My friend Ms. Flaherty says, "How could poetry and literature have arisen from something as plebeian as the cuneiform equivalent of grocery-store bar codes?" She expresses sadness at this, but I think it is somewhat glorious. Beauty born of mundanity. Perhaps it is a reminder to us as writers to find the poetry and power in the ordinary, the everyday. Poets excel at this. We prose types may need to make an extra effort.

Which everyday activities might inspire you?

Sunday, December 03, 2006

previously on Writer's Wavelength

Ruminations on Writer’s Block and the Muse:

I’ve been reading a book called THE MIDNIGHT DISEASE-THE DRIVE TO WRITE, WRITER’S BLOCK AND THE CREATIVE BRAIN, by Alice W. Flaherty. IT’s gotten me thinking about the mechanism of inspiration versus perspiration, and the competing forces of motivation and blockage. I’m noticing today that often, when I can’t sleep and my mind is full of a million little details of life, writing actually helps me move through that - real writing, creative writing. What’s happening in the brain then? what process takes the million mundanities and processes them into something unrelated, waving narrative and character out of them? In a way, that’s what our dreams do. Perhaps when I write through insomnia I am actually creating the waking version of dreams? The mind weaving story out of all its preoccupations, story that seems completely unrelated.

Thus endeth the musing and rumination. Your thoughts are welcome.

Joe Medina Says:
November 29th, 2006 at 8:39 pm
Kewl, this is a lot more thought-provoking than I expected. I must’ve taken these questions for granted longer than I thought. I’ve got to read Alice Flaherty’s now. I’m intrigued.

I’m tempted to go into the science of it. Or rather, the theories. Hypnagogic mental states. Quantum brain dynamics. But I’d only be distracting myself from a simple fact: It’s an integral part of who I am. And I don’t know what it is.

For me, that’s part of the fun. Maybe we’re quantum computers that invent their own software. In a ghost realm where a particle can be here and not here at the same time, turning everyday nonsense into a heartwarming, carefully plotted character study would be a cinch. Are you working on another chapter or breaking symmetry? Is that a paradox in your pocket, or are you just happy to see me? Dream it all and let Heisenberg sort it out.

I do thinking we dream while awake, and that we do a kind of lucid dreaming when we write. There is craft to the art, the editing and conscious effort. But the process is still mysterious. Suddenly a character takes on a life of its own, or there’s a twist in the plot that surprises even the writer at the keyboard. We tap into an energy that doesn’t seem entirely ours, but not completely alien either. Whether it’s the same cosmic power that made shamans out of ordinary men, or a Zen-like collapsing wave function courtesy of superstrings in our heads….

Come to think, what’s the difference?

cjmcgean Says:
December 2nd, 2006 at 6:36 pm
Leon Wieseltier, cited in THE MIDNIGHT DISEASE: “Whenever I read Kafka, I wonder:what sort of dejection is this, that leaves one the strength to write and write and write? If you can write about the wreckage, the wreckage is not complete. You are intact. Here is a rule: The despairing writer is never the most despairing person in the world.” To which Alice Flaherty adds: “Of course, that is one reason why we write, to prove to ourselves that the wreckage is not yet complete.”

Why do we write? And how does depression affect our writing? Is art of any form a means of salvation when faced with mental illness? Cause, effect or neither? Flaherty refers to research that posits a sort of bell curve in reference to mania (a state of arousal) - just enough for action, not so much to become disorganized. Perhaps the same could be said of all mental states - just enough to motivate and give depth, not so much that the wreckage becomes complete.

All of which brings me back to the fundamental question of author’s purpose. On the one hand, we write for ourselves, because it is how we express ourselves, because we have a story that demands to be told, a character who insists on speaking, a message that must be shared. But we also write for an audience. Is a work of writing complete without an audience? I used to feel that was a fundamental difference between writing for theater and other forms of writing - the role of others. Writing seems so solitary, but theatrical writing truly does not exist in completion until other artists are involved - actors, producers, an audience. Yet perhaps that is true of all writing. All except private diaries. It does not fully exist until it reaches an audience. “If a tree falls in the forest, does it make a sound?” If a piece of writing never reaches an audience, is it complete?

Why do you write?

cjmcgean Says:
December 3rd, 2006 at 8:24 pm
Joe wisely reminds me such introspection can distract from the sheer joy of the creative act. But I can’t help it!! I yam who I yam.

And I “yam” thinking a lot about plot these days. This dance between dreamlike inspiration and conscious, sweaty craftsmanship circles around plot for me just now. The dreamlike state cannot sustain long enough for coherent plotting of a longer piece of writing. The conscious, craftsman mind has to step in, look over the meanderings and find the logical - or purposeful or meaningful - pathways through them. Plot. How to get from point a to point B. It sounds like it should be so easy.

What do you do to guide your plot?

New -new- new

Here we are in the new, spiffy Writer's Wavelength blog. So, what's so great about new anyway? As writers, we are often faced with the horrifying specter of new. Editors looking for a new voice or a new perspective on things. The adage "there's nothing new under the sun." The fear that our work simply rehashes what others have said. Why bother writing anything if there's nothing new to be said?

But writing is also about retelling the oldest story -the human story. It's a complex story, so there are always little details to add. Maybe it's like sewing or knitting. The format, the pattern may be the same, but that doesn't mean we stop knitting. When we write, we join a conversation that is as old as the Lascaux caves in France. The conversation of humanity. Does a story have to be new to be worth telling?


Along with the standing invite to the chatroom on Wednesday evenings, I've decided to make our webpage a sort of open blog. This blog is intended to start a writerly conversation. Chime in when you can.

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