Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Attend the Mutant Frogs

I was talking with a playwright friend the other day about a review he had received. He made the point that at times, while a specific criticism may not itself be valid, it may be a symptom of a problem area, a sign that something needs fixing, even if its not the something the critic thinks. These kinds of criticisms are the mutant frogs, those signals that all is not right in the waters or ecosystem of your written work. I had a similar experience in getting critiques of my novel and the mutant frog comments helped me identify the areas of the book that had not kept pace with the continuing evolution of the characters, often sections that were holdovers from an early draft and no longer fit the direction of the story.

I like this notion of mutant frogs as a way of hearing criticism. Look past the surface of the critique. Does it point you toward an area of toxic waste in your work?

What signs serve as your mutant frogs, clues that something is amiss in your work? What about canaries in the coal mine (not to batter my metaphors too badly)? What signals tell you when to cut your losses on a piece as being too toxic to support life?

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Dueling Viewpoints

So, I've started reading THE HOUSE OF SAND AND FOG by Andre Dubus. What strikes me thus far is what a good example it is of an effective use of multiple viewpoints. He basically sets it up that you find yourself sympathizing with 2 characters on opposing sides of an experience. They can't both get what they want, by by alternating between their viewpoints and making both sympathetic, he makes you hope they both get what they want. In so doing, he illuminates a particular concept - that to achieve the American Dream, it may often be at the expense of someone else's dream. Anyway, that's my impressions thus far.

Dueling viewpoints, anyone? Have you ever explored this in a piece? If so, what was your goal? Did you succeed? Why or why not?

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Writing on Demand

It's lovely to build a notebook, revisit your ideas, write what the muse inspires, work on the pieces that truly call to you, but what of the command performance? An opportunity or a need arises and - bam! It's time to write something, on a deadline. "Be creative," you shout at your poor brain as it stares at the blank page like a deer caught in the headlights. Is this writer's block or simple fear-driven paralysis? My college motto often breaks thru the paralysis for me - "It doesn't have to be perfect, but it does have to be done." Still, is that the road to quality writing?

The command performance has the great advantage of demanding completion, demanding output, no excuses. Sometimes, that urgency can plow through the wall, free you of all your crazy internal editors and censors, drive you out of your writer's shell, stretch your writing muscles. "Write on this topic. Write in this genre. Write something of this length by this deadline." The sheer compulsion of external motivators can produce remarkable results.

How do you feel about the writer's command performance? What have you experienced as the best and the worst of your own writing on demand? Ever wished for those external motivators when you didn't have them? How successful are you at completing things without those demons driving you? When they're absent, what do you use to motivate yourself? Which do you prefer - intrinsic or extrinsic motivation?

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Writers as Readers

As I browse through the book review section of the paper, I am struck yet again by the number of books that are out there, and how few of them I've read. I used to think I was an avid reader, but sometimes I wonder. I guess it's WHAT I read. I read old classics, I read books that catch my interest when I browse in the book store or the library, I read books on topics I'm looking to learn more about, I read children's books for my teaching. I don't read from the latest best seller lists. I don't seem to read many modern novels. There's a lot I don't read.

How does what you read affect your writing? As a writer, should you strive to expand your reading repertoire? Are you ever afraid it will just paralyze your writing if you read the work of others?

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Shakespeare Meets Jerry Springer

What do Shakespeare and Jerry Springer have in common? Just ask the kids at the school where I teach. After I described the plot of MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM to the afterschool Drama Club, one of them said, "Jeez! It's like the Jerry Springer Show!" In fact, I realized, they were right - catfight and all. Both portray conflict and the complicated entanglements that are human relationships. And both are popular in part for that reason - people can see and recognize their own entanglements in both men's particular forms of expression. But Shakespeare makes his catfights poetic.

Monday, January 01, 2007

Should Old Acquaintance Be Forgot?

Many a great writer - and some of the rest of us, too - have had the urge to burn our false-starts and incomplete work. Or at least throw them away. Certainly never look at them again. And yet, I have found of late that there is value in some of those old pieces. Indeed, work I thought was garbage has time and again returned, tugging at my sleeve, until, with the good grace of time and distance between creation and revision, I have been able to recognize the potential in a piece I had given up on.

Who are the old acquaintances of your writing, those sketches, half-formed ideas and unfinished novels that deserve a second look? Old acquaintances should not be forgot. Let them go, leave them alone, and they may well come home wagging some new inspiration behind them. (Now there's some kind of bizarre stream-of-consciousness metaphor-mixing happening, huh?)

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