Have you ever spent exorbitant amounts of time trying to do something someone else’s way, because you didn’t quite know your own way yet?
I spent four years in college learning how to write the right way. I learned story, plot, character development, setting, and note-taking. I learned to write every day, even if I didn’t feel like it. I learned what the great writers had to say about writing. I was taught what a publisher expected, and how to polish my work and prepare it (though not, mind you, how to query). I was taught that publishing doesn’t happen to just anybody, that most roads lead to rejection– to expect it– but to write anyway.
I have a delightful library of writer’s manuals and what I’ve come to think of as devotionals: encouraging words with a prompt at the end, a general and well-worded “you can do it” for the masses of trembling and wavering writer’s souls.
I know about Anne Lamott and the index cards in her back pocket. (Does it say something about me that I generally don’t wear pants that are structured enough to have pockets?) I know about Julia Cameron and the Morning Pages. (I rise at 5:30 each day, but writing is not an option, as my physical and mental faculties do not function at full capacity until ten, at which point I am ready to take a nap. I know the idea is to push past any resistance one might have to writing, but writing “I think I just drooled on my morning pages” over and over might not be what Ms. Cameron had in mind when she set this precedent down.)
The point is, I know. I have been trying to build a house, and I had to start with someone else’s tools. I had to start somewhere. I haven’t tossed out any books simply because the ideas in them haven’t ultimately led to my published work shining from bookshelves across the country. And I do like to carry index cards. What a delightfully small and inviting space, and the idea of jotting down a note is such an upbeat notion when laid side by side with the phrase “pen a novel.” I can jot. I can jot all freakin’ day. But, I lose my index cards.
I pick up these books when I am feeling resistant to the motion, the activity, the yes-you-have-to-think-now threat that curls its finger at me when I am even disciplined enough to make myself sit. And write.
It was in this discipline that I discovered the first tool that was all my own.
See, the problem with so many suggestions is that they can’t all be absolute truth. We each, as individuals, have to figure out what works for us. The closest thing to absolute might be this: your butt has to be in a chair for anything to get written. But I also know that when I am driving, especially if I have nowhere to go, and the music is loud, I chew over my story like a dog over a bone, and puzzle pieces suddenly begin to fit. So driving aimlessly was the first tool that fit my hand just right, a tool that felt right, natural, and so it is natural for me to pull it out of the tool box, to anticipate using it again.
It was resistance that led me to discover the second tool. I was having a spinning day, rather than a sitting one, in which I would rather spin around in my desk chair than sit still enough to get any work done, but I was feeling too disciplined to just give up. Remember those magic markers I mentioned in my last post? Here’s where they come in.
I’ve named this process “dating my characters” because here is where I dump all the questions you might normally ask on a date. I realized I knew some first date information (job, looks, hobbies, relationship status) and maybe some date fifteen information (deep dark secrets and fears) but there were some dates in the middle that were missing. It might be awkward to ask on a first date where they stand on war, if they believe in God and what led them to their conclusions, if they have any, or even to describe in detail the circumstances leading up to their first kiss. It’s different than clustering, because it is rare for any kind of pattern to appear. It’s a way for me to put the blank page in its place, down from the sacred pedestal on which I have placed it, having convinced myself that I have to treat it with a worshipful respect.
Sometimes my magic marker mystery tour leads to answers, but usually it is just a path revealing to me the vast amount of knowledge I, as the creator of these fictional beings, really should know, but don’t. I write in several colors, across blank, unlined pages, in any direction, and my mind bounces around like a bouncy ball through the streets of San Francisco. It is at once focused and freeing, tuning my mind in to look only at my “date,” and not the plot, the structure, the timeline, the setting. Right now, Arty, I only have eyes for you. We will ignore, together, the awkward implications of what it will be like to later date your wife, and then your dad. (Arty is my main character, to whom I dedicated a post oh so many ages ago, I Apologize, Arty)
Have you ever discovered a tool all your own? Can I borrow it for my toolbox, and try it out?