Monday, June 29, 2009

Emotional Punch in Your Writing--Why Setting and Show-Don't-Tell Deliver Emotion

A memoirist in my writing workshop was refining a passage in her story about the effect of her father's early death on the family. She wanted this passage to be especially impactful for the reader--convey the emotion of this difficult day.
After her father dies, she is in the kitchen with her aunt, watching breakfast cleanup and trying to absorb the grief that's descended on everything. "It's a really important moment in my story," the writer pointed out to us, "so why do I feel like I'm writing it from another room?"

Since the passage wasn't delivering the emotional punch she wanted, we started analyzing her description of her aunt that morning. "Well, her hair was messy, her clothes didn't match, and she picked at her fingernails while we ate breakfast," the writer said.

Our class agreed these were good details to describe the upsetting moment, and they were specific. But we were still not getting the impact of grief. It wasn't a "felt" emotion, only a thought. The writer wasn't yet putting us in the container of the story.

"Is it because you're telling us about her," one student asked, "and you need to show us?"

For a Reader, Emotion Comes from Demonstration, Not Description
Showing and telling are familiar terms to many writers. But what do they exactly mean? The writer in my class selected a key emotional moment to demonstrate the family falling apart. She felt the bewildered grief because she had been there, watching. But we didn't, as readers.
That meant that she hadn't yet succeeded in demonstrating the emotion. She'd only described it.

I asked this memoirist to close her eyes and put herself back into that scene, if she could. What did she notice, what small details came forward now? "Watch your aunt move around the room," I suggested. "Is she cleaning up from breakfast? What do you notice--smells? sounds? anything odd that stands out?"

Setting Details--Small but Essential Transmitters of Emotion
The writer jotted down four things:

A rotten smell came from the garbage can.
Her aunt's lilac sweater is buttoned funny, and she was usually the fashion example in the family.
Her aunt's hands shook--they were so unsteady she dropped a glass in the sink.
She didn't clean up the broken pieces.

The writer looked up from her page. There were tears in her eyes from that final image of the broken pieces of glass in the sink.
I asked her why.
She said the glass pieces remained in the sink all morning--and sun from the window made them sparkle enough to catch the attention of anyone coming into the room. But nobody did anything. It was a touchstone for her from the emotion of the day, one she'd forgotten until now. It demonstrated the disorientation the family felt.

Bingo. She got it. She rewrote the scene and it sang.
We all felt the emotion now.

This bit of "shown" story--via a setting detail--transmitted (demonstrated) the emotion of grief and loss directly into the hearts and minds of her readers. She'd been unsuccessful with description, but demonstration succeeded.

This Week's Writing Exercise
Read a passage of your writing where you want to convey emotion, where you want a punch. Now close your eyes and put yourself in the scene (if writing fiction, imagine your character in the scene). What setting details, tiny ones especially, do you notice? What smells or sounds?

Make a list, as the writer above did. Add one to your passage. See if it helps! Let me know.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Necessary Boredom--Why Nonstop Rainy Days Actually Help Creativity

Dorothy Allison is the author of Bastard Out of Carolina and many other novels and short stories. Unusual in someone who has had a very dramatic and traumatic life, Allison spoke in an interview about "necessary boredom." If it's present, she has enough intensity in her head for writing.

As I thought about this, I realized the truth of it: when I have too much going on in my outer life, there's no internal space to dream. My writing process suffers.

Writing process asks you to put aside the tendency toward drama in your outer life and put it into those pages. Writing is a priority in your life, you are committed to starting/finishing your book, and you are able to disengage from the outer drama enough to find the inner stillness to capture original ideas.

Lately, I have had to work hard to find this inner stillness. In the past month I got married at my home with 70 guests present, my family began packing to move to another state, my teenager graduated and is preparing for a month-long cross-country trip, I squeezed in a visit to see my elderly mom, and I helped open a cabin belonging to my family. Exhausting just to write about! And that's not counting normal work--teaching writing classes and coaching writers each week. Where, I've wondered, is there time for necessary boredom?

Schedules help. As much as they hamper the creative flow for me, they also create space for it. I sat with my family and went over schedules. We blocked in time for doing nothing. Sounds strange, backward, but it worked. Each family member got nothing time, alone in the house if possible, or alone at the fun places he or she likes best. We're all creative people. We all needed this necessary boredom.

The rain helped too. New England has had rain 19 out of 21 days in June, and many are experiencing what the New York Times called "rain rage" but I took it as a sign from the Universe that necessary boredom was being fostered.

Today's my morning. As soon as I post this blog, I'm taking myself into a spare bedroom with books and journals and ideas. I'm sitting and staring, getting bored with myself and my life. Out of it, I hope ideas will come. I'll be there to write them down.

This week's exercise: get bored. Stop running the wheel for two seconds and do nothing. Schedule it if you have to, as I did. Let yourself slow, slow, slow down enough to where the original thoughts begin to surface. Where you let go of all those other people's voices and begin to hear your own.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Self-Assignments and the Writer's Notebook

Years ago, I read Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg and got the idea of self-assignments, based on writing prompts or seed ideas. These "freewrites" are simply set-aside moments when you write about something, anything, and stir up the creative juices. In book-writing, freewrites are where the "inner story" comes from--the theme, meaning, subtler levels, unconscious connections that delight both reader and writer as they emerge onto the page.

My self-assigned daily freewrites came out a bit self-conscious when typed on the computer. When I read in another writing guide about having a writer's notebook to scribble notes and ideas, I decided to use it for my freewrites.

I lived in France, so I became addicted to Claire-Fontaine's graph-paper-paged notebooks, spiral bound and thick, with bright colored covers. At Prisunic in Paris they cost less than $2.00. I would buy them by the dozen and load my suitcase on the way home to the U.S. Now they're available on Claire-Fontaine's website, although they cost more than $2.00 each. I'd date the beginning page, paste in photos or sketches, make lists of topic/island ideas for my book, craft the openings of short stories or essays. Each week I read over my notes and typed the most interesting ones into the computer.

Begin a New Notebook for Each Book Project
I began a new notebook whenever I started writing a new book. When the notebook was filled, I combed through its pages once more, then shelved it. Often, months or years later, I'd remember something neglected in its pages and I could retrieve a passage I liked for a story or chapter that needed a hole filled.

My daily self-assignments came from the lists I kept going in the current notebook. When I finished the notebook, I photocopied the lists and pasted them into the new notebook. The lists became the front or end pages, easily located.

Why Have a Writer's Notebook?
The muse speaks at unexpected moments. How do you capture her ideas, which can disappear as fast as a dream on a busy morning? You take notes.

I'd love to take a survey of published writers, since I know many have these writer's notebooks. One colleague said it was the main way she scribes her interior landscape. If the muse begins to funnel ideas and there's no place to get them written down, over time the ideas stop coming.

I've learned that by making myself available to the muse, the inner vision, more ideas come. It's as if I'm forging an agreement. You give me the idea, I promise to pay attention.

This week's assignment: Get yourself a writing notebook. Claire-Fontaine or thrift store or local bookstore, small or large, spiral or perfect bound or loose-leaf pages, lined or plain. Enjoy the process of finding one. Write the date on the first page, then spend 10 minutes starting an "idea" list of topics you're interested in writing about someday. Create this list on the first or last page of your notebook. Practice this week carrying the notebook around and scribbling down ideas whenever they come.

Monday, June 8, 2009

How to Balance Structure and Exploration in Your Book Writing Process

I've just spent a few intense days reading the galleys for my upcoming novel, Qualities of Light, which will be published this summer. My editor is wonderful, and I love how the book has come together.
I began it almost nine years ago with a short story about a complicated family of artists who live on a lake in the Adirondack mountains. Through many twists and turns, dozens of rewrites and moving over half the manuscript to be in another book, I finally got my story. Who was telling it, what it was really about.

Now that it's going to be published, I'm working on its sequel. These characters won't leave me alone, and that's a good thing. But it's as if I've forgotten everything I learned on Qualities of Light. I'm once again agonizing over that balance beam a novelist--and any book writer--must walk between structure and exploration.

When Exploration Starts a Book
When you begin a new book, you enter via one of two doorways. If you start via exploration, it feels like an expansion inside. You're following a winding river, not sure where it's going to lead.
You get a direction, a glimmer of light, and you follow it. You may overhear a snippet of conversation and it intrigues you. Ideas float into your writer's vision. You're pulled into these ideas, and they take you somewhere. One writer said, "It leads to a moment. I write to that moment."

Writing a book from this doorway is expansive and playful. You may wonder, Am I really writing a book? (Or, Am I really a writer? Both worries surface for me, with each book I start from exploration.) But the gathering of images and words on paper is too much fun to stop. It brings you insights, it can change your life. You may also look as many book writers do--distracted. A conversation in your head is occupying most of your attention and nobody else can hear it.

But there's a point when you start to lose your way. Writing expansively is fun, but it just creates more and more ideas. Eventually, you need to structure them. You need to get serious, as one of my teachers would say. Fish or cut bait.

How do you do that? Coming from exploration, you use tools like outlines, storyboards, and character/plot lines--the structuring place where some writers begin.

How Structure Begins a Book
I began some books (the two novels mentioned above) from exploration. My nonfiction books were all begun from structure. I had an idea, yes, but I outlined or storyboarded it immediately. The structure formed the book-writing journey.

Structures are reassuring to many writers. They create the outline and it's like a good map--or so they feel at the beginning. Structures can take you far. But most structures only represent part of a book: the plot, the action, the outer thread of the story. To get deep into character, emotional truth, insights that surprise both you and the reader, you have to go back to exploration.

Moving from structure into exploration is a wild ride, especially for very linear thinkers. I recognize these writers (I are one!) when they come to my class, outline tightly in hand, and refuse to deviate from what they've already decided. No matter that their book hasn't sold, that agents or editors have told them "it needs depth" or "it's a bit dry." Exploration would give them exactly that depth and juice, but it's too scary.

I learned this when I fell into fiction. I learned how to explore. Because much of the good stuff came from places I'd never been as a writer.
The goal? Balancing these two. Exploration writers move to structure, to get their books grounded in form that a reader can follow. Structure writers explore, to give their stories juice and energy. It's a lovely dance. If you're feeling stuck, it may be because you're not welcoming the other part of the process.

Writing Exercise for This Week
This week's exercise asks you to freewrite for 20 minutes about where you are with your book or your writing in general. What are you craving right now? Do you long for wild rides or more sense of direction? What's your next step--more exploration or more structure?

Monday, June 1, 2009

Toggling between the Arts--Refresh Your Writer Mind

Do you pursue more than one art form? How does it help your writing? Are you toggling between the arts to good effect?

Most days, I write. But when the writing dries up, when my chapters feel old and tired, I switch to painting. Susan Hodara from the New York Times interviewed me about my artistic multi-tasking--click on the link at top of right column above my photo to read it. I'm certainly not alone.

Joni Mitchell was a painter first. Steven King plays in a band. There are hundreds of other examples out there--who can you name?

Benefits of Artistic Multi-Tasking
Having another art form lets the writer mind play. Images, for me, lead to better writing. My painting feeds my books. A well-loved writing mentor told me she has dry spells that last for months. She's well published, prolific--from poems to novels to plays to even an opera. This used to worry her but no longer. She realizes a renewal time is necessary between efforts. Whenever she finishes a big writing project, publishes a book for instance, she lets her creative self lie fallow. Eventually, the ideas begin to bubble up. I often do this in summer, for one month.

When summer comes to New England where I live, when my garden bursts with iris and peony, I become slightly disinterested in my book and my painter's eye wakes up.

Another Way to Do Artist's Dates?
Julia Cameron, author of The Artist's Way, calls this "filling the well." Cameron recommends a weekly artist's date, solo, away from your work, to get renewed. I do it with my painting. Slop on some color, daydream over images for a while, and the writing ideas begin coming through again.

This week, your writing exercise is to play with color. Get out some markers, crayons, oil pastels, watercolors, collage materials. Paint your story, your book idea, your frustration, your glee with your writing process.

It only needs to take 10 minutes out of your busy schedule, and it'll pay you back many times over in renewal of creativity. See if toggling between the arts affects your writing the next time you face the page.