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?


  1. Cindy and Joe:
    I'm on my way into work this morning and noticed the blog. Joe, since you mentioned Heisenberg I'd like to share a line that he's from "Copenhagen."
    "Swerve left, swerve right, or think about it and die."
    It really spoke to me about getting off the dime with my writing...When the time is right, of course :o)

  2. Well now ... well now ...

    I guess I've got several points to hit here. I'll try to keep 'em orderly. :)

    First off, thanks for the blog! Ain't technology grand?

    Second, I finally get to see Joe's comment on Cindy's first posting! I thought he had sent one, but for some reason, I couldn't ever see it over on the WRW pages.

    About those comments: Who says you can't write poetry, Joe? That's about the best poetry I've read in a long time.

    I know there are times when I have dreamed something, then gone out and done it. Sometimes the dream seizes you and you cannot let go of it, even though your "rational" mind says it's at best unwise. My podcast
    is an excellent example. The last thing I needed was to commit myself to writing and performing an average 500 words a day. Sometimes you just have to go with it and make the best you can.

    As for why I write, and the question of writing for an audience: 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.)

    I write because I have something to say. A lot of the time, that something is as simple as, "Look! Isn't this cool?" But I am compelled to say it. Can't not talk.

    Plot? That's tricky. I guess for me, the challenge is to allow the characters to develop the plot and the story, rather than make them tools of the plot. There've been a number of times in my stories where I've fallen into that trap -- the results were not pretty.

    Hope all this helps! Thanks again for the chance to join the dialogue.

    "Let Jeeter finish his epilogue."
    "Well, it's more of a monologue, really."
    --Mystery Science Theater 3000

  3. Nita - Good point. I can truly think myself into a tree sometimes. It's my greatest downfall as an actress, actually - and perhaps one of my strengths as a director. As a writer, it is a little of both.

  4. Sorry to take so long to reply. Blogger was fine until I made the mistake of merging it with my Gmail account. ;)

    Why do I write...bottom line, because I can't stop. And I've tried, which ties into the connection between writing and depression. I think Alice Flaherty and Leon Wieseltier have a point. Depression has been described many times as emotion that's been buried or suppressed. And writing often makes it easier to let all that out, maybe because it's such a solitary process. You're alone with your thoughts and feelings, saying them "aloud."

    On the other hand, depression can come in from the outside, through well-meaning folk with harsh words, doubts, and discouraging words, which can make even the physical effort an exercise in sheer willpower. Sometimes the best thing people can do for writers is, to paraphrase a certain Corellian smuggler, never 'em us the odds.

    Re introspection, I've got nothing against it. If anything, the discussion has me wondering whether I need more. And I'm all for craftsmanship. It's just that nobody can explain the art, how a simple portrait of a girl with a half-smile turns into the Mona Lisa. Leonardo's skill and forethought can be studied. But his artistry is still intangible, and that doesn't make the craft any less valuable. The abstract and the concrete are opposites, not contradictions.

    Re "Copenhagen," I didn't know about the play until you mentioned it, so thanks, Nita! IIRC, the point raised in that part of the dialogue is actually pretty apt here. We don't wait for each possibility to occur to us. We flash on all of them and pursue the best of the bunch. Like you said, when the stars are... I mean, when the time is right.

    Re Jamie's comment about poetry. Ironically I could hear William Burroughs when I wrote that part.

    Re plot... for me, it's a mix of character, POV, and best dramatic effect. I wanted to make it simple, but that's the best I could come up with. Well-defined characters tend to shape the plot, more than anything else. What happened at this year's WOW, when I had trouble with Mattocks the beat cop, is a good example. I couldn't get a handle on him until I realized that was his primary motivation. He just wanted to be left alone. And I got a stronger, more dramatic story when I pushed his speech about keeping quiet till much later in the plot, raising the emotional stakes in the process.


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