Monday, March 17, 2014

Why We Write - An Occasional Series

Why do I want to write?

What drives the impulse to express oneself in writing? It's no different from the source of any creative urge toward the arts—to dance, to draw, to sing, to write, to design. Human beings love to express themselves in a way that says something about who they are and what they want to achieve.

The writer Anne Lamott, in her writing book Bird by Bird, quotes other writers' answers to the question of why we write. Poet John Ashbery said, "Because I want to." Short story writer Flannery O'Connor responded "Because I'm good at it." For me, it's an urge I've felt since childhood, and it can't be denied. But being good at it is also an incentive! Writing is fun to me, no matter how difficult a writing day may be.

Perhaps we weren't all born with a gift for putting that message out there, but most of us find some way to do it. Creativity is a uniquely human trait. Sometimes it drives a person to join one of the writing groups at Seven Bridge Writers Collaborative. They may come in feeling shy, awkward and uncertain about their ability to write—especially when it involves reading what one has produced in a 20-minute spontaneous writing session.

That's not unusual. Even the most experienced writer has uncertainty about his work at one level or another. Perhaps it's the publisher who drops her from the list, or the agent who doesn't call back. Or it's the writer who cannot even find an agent and worries that the future means self-publish or die (in this case, meaning fade away, unread). For the writer who merely wants to say something for future family members to read, or for her own satisfaction, there are uncertainties as well. I've seen that before.

The first thing to do is get over yourself. Really. We're none of us perfect. A new writer who comes into the group may not produce more than a paragraph the first time. Or, having written a little, he or she may be embarrassed to read it aloud, worried that others will consider the work amateurish. Some read through tears, having unleashed an emotion that's lain dormant inside them for too long. Some come in laughing, and stay to write a piece that will entertain all.

As the weeks pass, each person gets better at writing in a small window of time. The ideas come more readily, the prompts stir ideas more quickly, the group becomes familiar and thus less threatening.

Our group members take turns reading what we've produced, then other members note what they liked about it, guiding a writer toward more insight into the piece. Anyone is free, at any time, to "pass" without comment. As weeks pass, we learn something more about our writing, and begin to look at it with fresh eyes. We may continue to work more on the same piece, or start something new each week. A number of writers save their writing and use it later, creating a short story, a memoir, a scene.

I've come to believe no one who wants to do it is a non-writer. Some are not "good" at it, true. But often enough those same people have a wonderful story inside them that they are trying to get out. In time, they do, and the others in the group benefit from their raw experience, beautiful viewpoint or witty charm. It happens, regularly. There is something emotive and pain-letting about writing, but there's also a wonderful strain of joy that fills a writer when the words come out right.

We learn, through these sessions, to refine our thoughts and trust our insights. We learn to write unafraid and trust others to be interested and helpful in what we've done. We learn that we can let go of hidden fears or angers and move forward. Sometimes, writing is therapy without a bottle. Then, it becomes a game of learning—about style, technique, impact.
There's progress from week to week, month to month. A few people will drop out once they've discovered what propels them to write, or choose another avenue that better suits them. Others return and end up working on a project of their own. Yes, there are some really good writers, as we might dub them, but they are among the most understanding and supportive participants in the groups. They want you to achieve your goal, regardless of its scope.

Writing is a real door-opener for beginners and advanced writers. Come try it out, and see how it fits in your life. There are informational brochures at the library or you can chat with Assistant Director Karen Silverthorn.

Ann Connery Frantz

Thursday, March 13, 2014

March Craft Workshop

Saturday, March 15, 2014 
Threading and Weaving: Handling Exposition 

How do you give readers information about characters and their fictional world without bogging down and/or stopping the flow of a story? When, where, and how do you incorporate backstory into a narrative? How much information is too much? Too little? 
In this two hour workshop, we’ll answer these questions and more about how to handle exposition in writing. We’ll discuss what to do and what to avoid when it comes to threading and weaving informattion into stories without stopping the forward momentum of the narrative.

The workshop is open to all writers of all genres at any level. 

Friday, March 7, 2014

The Man Himself

Last week’s blog got me to thinking about the “putter-inners” and “taker-outers,” as F. Scott Fitzgerald famously called them in a letter to Thomas Wolfe. Fitzgerald believed that there were “two camps” of writers: those that embellished and those who pared away. Dostoyevsky versus Hemingway, say, or the correspondents themselves, Fitzgerald versus Thomas Wolfe.

It is an old argument and a highly subjective one. After all, writing style, like a wardrobe, is personal and evolves over time. As writers (and readers) our tastes change, our views and experiences broaden. Complex style requires complex thought, and (like the use of an omniscient narrator) are often embraced gradually, along with age and (hopefully) wisdom.  

For my part, the most successful writing styles echo subject and theme.  Meaning should be reflected in every choice the writer makes. Obscure words, syntactical maneuvers, structural underpinnings; these are considerations the writer must contemplate in service of the overall story. It is a subject closely aligned with narrative voice; the way a writer manipulates language to evoke character, time, and place.

I would argue that, for Zinsser, as well as Strunk, White, and a host of others, the divide is not so much between simplicity and complexity, as between clarity and obscurity. Confused writing fails in its essential purpose: to communicate with the reader. And Call me Ishmael.[1] is as fine a construction as, It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.[2]

For Hemingway, the majority of a story lay below the surface “like an iceberg,” its very purpose to conceal more than to reveal, thereby, so he theorized, more deeply involving the reader. The literary excesses of James, Faulkner, and Joyce revealed the human mind in all its unreliability and confusion; stylistic choices with much the same purpose as Hemmingway’s bulky subtext: to engage, to dramatize, to illuminate.

Good writing reveals both the writer’s purpose and the writer. Style is the man himself, so intoned Georges Louis LeClerce, the French Naturalist, and so it is with the writer of fiction. The writer’s history and education, convictions and emotions rise to the surface of a narrative, a byproduct of a thousand careful choices the writer makes in the crafting of story.

That is, gilded or stripped to only the most significant bones, the writer’s work will only be as honest, passionate, and insightful, as the writer herself.

Hollis Shore

[1] Herman Melville, Moby Dick
[2] Jane Austin, Pride and Prejudice

Monday, March 3, 2014

Bibble, Anyone?

            “I only achieve simplicity with enormous effort.”
                                    Clarice Lispector, Brazilian author and columnist

            “Clutter is the disease of American writing. We are a society strangling in unnecessary words, circular constructions, pompous frills and meaningless jargon.”
                                    William Zinsser, American journalist and writer

A couple of weeks ago, I reflected upon the above Lispector and Zinsser’s quotes. My immediate reaction was that words are weird. We drive on parkways and park in driveways. We send shipments by car and cargo by ship.  We buy a TV set but only receive one television. We pronounce “school” with a “k”, but pronounce “change” with a “cha”.  Both etymology and history provide clues to these ironies, but only the most learned delve to those depths. And I wondered, “Do even the most learned understand why a wise man is considered smart whereas a wise guy is a fool?”

I considered, too, many other mysteries of life. Why does a man wanting to attract a woman wear cologne scented like a dead rat, when chocolate around his neck would be a more successful strategy? And why are we compelled to touch the bench with the “wet paint” sign attached to it, as if we need proof that the sign is not lying to us? And why is it that men beating on one another is considered bonding, while women doing the same is called a catfight? Does our writing become pompously frilly or filled with circular constructions when we try to explain the unexplainable?

As writers, we are told to write simply but life is anything but simple. If the admonition is to “show, not tell,” shouldn’t complicated lives be revealed through complex sentences?  Writers’ minds are cluttered with thoughts, ideas, stories clamoring to get out. Our filing cabinets overflow with half-finished novels, poems and narratives; and sticky notes line the edges of our desks and counter-tops, keeping safe the brainstorms we had in the middle of the night. If our lives are so untidy, is it even possible to write without the cloudiness Zinsser calls a disease?

We are told to write what we know. What we know is that chaos and beauty co-exist, and self-control wars with the desire to throw off the shackles of boundaries; love, joy and peace are marred by suffering, misery, and doubt; and the rational and illogical work together side by side. Who can capture such things with simplicity?

Yet, simplicity continues to be the aim. Even within one particular faith tradition, an age-old story has been handed down through the generations about an audience waiting with bated breath to hear what a very old disciple had to say. He shuffled center stage, said, “Love one another,” and sat down.

Three words to capture a lifetime of living and ministry?  Is this how a writer is to write?  Paring down our thoughts to their barest essence? But then, what becomes of the story from which the grain was gleaned? And what to do with the absurd? When a character asks, “If electricity comes from electrons, does morality come from morons?” do we simply let the question speak for itself?  If Lispector speaks the truth about simplicity taking enormous effort, can we be blamed for wanting to write the easy way? 

We’re warned not to use a paragraph where a word will do, but who today knows what a bibble is? Are writers to refrain from its use because no one knows its meaning?  Or rather, can we write an amusing, lengthy anecdote about a man slurping and spilling his soup and smacking his lips in appreciation as he sips his toddy afterwards? 

In a world of complexity, can we embrace the use of weird words, circular construction and pompous frill when needed, while also appreciating the need to weed out unnecessary words?  Let’s not limit writers to always saying what they mean and never meaning what they say. Let’s allow writing to simply be what it needs to be, whether complex or simple, as long as it remains true to writer and reader.

Paula Castner