“That is the mystery about writing: it comes out of afflictions, out of the gouged times, when the heart is cut open.”
“Stories are among the most intimate and personal things we have. Stories touch the imagination and are deeply implanted in one’s psyche and consciousness. Without stories there can be no culture. Without stories there can be no imagination. Without an imagination there is no vitality to human existence. Without that vitality humans are mere robots to be programmed, pacified, and subjugated into parasitic consumers.”
Early in his acting career, Arnold Schwarzenegger established a reputation for being both ambitious and easy to get along with. But he once famously clashed with James Cameron on the set of The Terminator about what would become the most famous line in a groundbreaking movie.
Arnold suggested his killer android character would say “I will be back,” arguing that a machine would not use a contraction. Cameron, who was renowned for his meticulousness, held his ground, finally demanding that Arnold stick to the script. As Arnold recalled, Cameron told him, “I don’t correct your acting, so don’t correct my writing.” Arnold did as he was told, and in the above video, he confesses that Cameron made the right call.
Kudos to Arnold for admitting his mistake.
But the real point is how you can be technically right but artistically wrong. Submissions editors see manuscripts all the time that click on all the technical points, such as tension, characterization, and a good premise, but fail to engage the reader.
The showdown between Arnold and Cameron illustrates that sometimes the logical way isn’t always best. A story develops its own internal logic and dynamic, and it takes years of practice to recognize that fact. James Cameron knew what he was doing.
Another way to put it is that you have to master the rules before you’re good enough to break them. Then you can wield them flexibly and effectively.
“There is no nobler chore in the universe than holding up the mirror of reality and turning it slightly, so we have a new and different perception of the commonplace, the everyday, the ‘normal’, the obvious. People are reflected in the glass. The fantasy situation into which you thrust them is the mirror itself. And what we are shown should illuminate and alter our perception of the world around us.”
One of my coping mechanisms when stuck on a manuscript is to read outstanding posts on writing I’ve saved over the years. This morning, I revisited this advice from K.M. Weiland:
One of the best rules of thumb for showing instead of telling is to never name an emotion. Love, hate, happiness, sadness, frustration, grief—they all might be easily recognizable emotions. They might even all be emotions that will immediately get a point across to a reader. But by themselves the words lack the ability to make a reader feel what we are trying to convey.
This insight shook the mental cobwebs that had been holding me back. Weiland’s right — the most stirring and uplifting prose succeeds obliquely, rousing the reader to silent awe or trembling fear. A few examples:
“Some nights in the midst of this loneliness I swung among the scattered stars at the end of the thin thread of faith alone.” – Wendell Berry
“The trees were full of silver-white sunlight and the meanest of them sparkled.” — Flannery O’Connor
“I sat up straight and as I did so something inside my head moved like the weights on a doll’s eyes and it hit me inside in back of my eyeballs. My legs felt warm and wet and my shoes were wet and warm inside. I knew that I was hit and leaned over and put my hand on my knee. My knee wasn’t there.” — Ernest Hemingway
Not only do these examples evoke intense reactions, they do so indirectly. As Weiland advises, the best writing shows rather than tells. Emily Dickinson was on the same track when she proposed that we tell the truth, but tell it slant.
I believe these passages soar for us because they appeal to more than just our logical selves. The neocortex, that is, the rational brain, processes language, but it connects to other parts of the brain as well. The limbic system interprets facts as emotions, and triggers the reptilian brain, which in turn shoots reactions to the body. So if you read Stephen King alone at midnight, you start peeking outside the window and maybe sweat a little. That’s the three parts working together. And we love it.
Good writing, then, achieves unity of mind and body, a sorely needed experience in an age that fractures and alienates.
“Ideas come to you with tattered clothes and runny noses, but if you clean them up and present them to the right people, they’ll get adopted.”
Vernon Grant — Rock Hill, South Carolina artist who designed Snap! Crackle! and Pop! for Kellogg’s.
Just like story ideas … rough drafts need a lot of tough love before they can be published.
We all know it’s a good idea to do something different when you’re stumped on a writing project. When you’re not satisfied with a scene, or just can’t decide what your protagonist should do next, you need to take a walk, chat with a friend, or practice your katas.
But psychologists and neuroscientists suggest an even better strategy is to grab a notepad and ink pen. It seems that the feel and shape of words stimulates your creativity and helps you connect with the narrative you want to capture. As Neil Gaiman once put it, “Writing with a pen is like playing,” and nothing brightens up a manuscript like a sense of playfulness. And this article in Fast Company tells us there’s science to back up what many writers have known for years:
When you write by hand, you write more thoughtfully. Such mindful writing rests the brain, unlocking potential creativity, says neuroscientist Claudia Aguirre. “Recent neuroscientific research has uncovered a distinct neural pathway that is only activated when we physically draw out our letters,” she writes. “And this pathway, etched deep with practice, is linked to our overall success in learning and memory.”
I think there’s something to this. The last time I got stuck in a story, I redeployed to the back porch with pen and pad to chase down my muse. I found her, and we had a very productive writing session, the results of which will be published this Saturday at Idle Ink.
And it’s not just writers who benefit from writing the old-fashioned way. Students who record lectures with a pen relate to the ideas they’re hearing better than those who use laptops, and doctors who take notes by longhand build a better rapport with patients. By slowing down and actively forming words, we stimulate our emotional connection with the stories we’re telling.
“People leave their homes to get away from themselves and from their surroundings. I confess that I live only in my surroundings and in myself. I can conceive of no greater pleasure than sitting in my chair at this desk and looking at the walls around me day by day and night after night…”
“I live in a world of imagination, which is set in motion by something suggested by my intimate surroundings rather than by outside influences, which distract me and give me nothing. I find an exquisite joy when I search deeply in the recesses of myself, and if anything original is to come from me, it can only come that way.”
So, how about it, folks? Do you recharge your creative juices relaxing at home, among intimate surroundings, or by going out into the world?
Many of the submissions Joe Ponepinto has turned down for his literary journal appeared to have everything going for them — tension, good characterization, an interesting premise — yet they just didn’t work. He had to reject stories that hit all the right buttons, but failed to resonate.
Writing as both an editor and author, he tells us what’s wrong with technically sound but lifeless submissions:
In short, the writer is present in every sentence, hunched over the reader’s shoulder, which is why so much in these stories sounds like explanation, like the writer worrying that readers won’t “get it” unless they lay out paragraphs of background info. As Elmore Leonard famously said, it sounds like writing.
How do you create writing that doesn’t sound like writing? Yes, you have to hit all the right buttons, including pacing, characterization, theme, plot points, tension, etc, but you have to do it without the reader seeing you do it. And you can only do that when you don’t think about those technicalities. As Ponepinto puts it, “You have to internalize the conventions of creative writing so that you know them without thinking about them.”
Or, as Ernest Hemingway advised, “Write drunk, edit sober.”
The goal is what the Japanese call zanshin, the state of total awareness made possible by unselfconscious mastery of your craft. There’s only way to get there, and that is to practice the techniques of your craft until they enter your subconscious. In karate class, we had to practice basic skills repeatedly until they became second nature. In a tournament (or, more urgently, a street fight) you cannot win if you obsess over methodology. (How did sensei tell me to block a low punch?)
Martial arts require unconscious mastery and total focus, attributes that are invaluable in every aspect of life, including writing. Here’s what Wannabe Bushcrafter counsels about mastering the sling:
Your mind must be completely clear. Try to not think about anything when slinging. Distracting thoughts absolutely kills accuracy. …
Now here is the hard part! You need to practice, A LOT. You need to practice every single day for hundreds of days. Practice until your arm and back are sore, practice until thick hard calluses form on your release fingers. Practice until your muscles, your eyes and your mind become one. Practice until you are able to consciously purge all thoughts from your mind at a moment’s notice.
For writers, that means we must read a lot and write a lot.
Sometimes you just need a change of venue.
I’ve been fairly productive lately, with a number of wips floating around the internet looking for love in the slush piles. This week, I sent a mystery novelette to Mystery Weekly Magazine, and am now working on a literary flash piece.
I don’t plan in advance what I’m going to take on next; I just wait for the Muse to tell me what genre I’m going to work in. Usually it’s sci-fi/fantasy, sometimes it’s crime/mystery, and rarely, literary. Like most writers, I just do what the voices in my head tell me.
But sometimes, even if you’re inspired, you gotta get away from the computer and the Great Distractor that feeds it. So today, I was out on the back porch, armed only with an ink pen and a legal pad. Instead of the crypt-like silence in my loft workspace, the occasional shout of children playing or a bit of bird song would drift through the trees. My wife and I practically live on that secluded back porch in warm weather. In the evenings we sip wine and talk as the sun sets. Later, we’ll read or work puzzles by the glow of the oil lamp. (Me, crosswords; she, Sudoku)
So, fellow writers, do you sometimes need to change writing venues? What’s your favorite getaway?