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On Writing, for the global blog hop
Monday, May 5, 2014
Last week, fellow writer and SFSU grad Jennifer Skutelsky invited me to join her in a global "Blog Hop" by answering a few questions. So here goes!
What am I working on?
Finishing up my first novel – titled The Many Raymond Days – is consuming the better part of my creative life. Imagine it's discovered that time is a finite resource being sucked dry by human lives, and to ensure our survival individual lifetimes are portioned by random lottery into hourglasses. This novel tells the story of Raymond Day, the scientist who made this discovery and who now must find a place for himself in this world as the one responsible. Since the first draft was completed for my SFSU thesis it has undergone revision, won the 2012 Dana Award, and found a champion in a fantastic literary agent named Richard Florest (with Robert Weisbach Creative Management). Richard and I are now tidying up the manuscript in preparation for pitching to editors at publishing houses. I knew a first novel would be a haul but I never imagined how long – it might be the most challenging sustained effort I've endured – and I can't wait to start the next one. (Actually I have two other novels started.) Meanwhile I've got a number of short stories in various stages of undress I'm looking forward to attending to once I'm done with Raymond. The ones I'm most excited to get back to are "Blind Sticks," in which an entire city pretends to be blind for a variety of reasons, and "Daughter of the Stars," in which a stamp collector competing with a local author becomes consumed and paralyzed by empathy after writing a nearly infinite number of versions of a story, and "The Second Meeting of Minerva and Cecile," in which a friendship disintegrates so badly it is completely erased from one of the friends' memory – but not both.
How is my work different than others in its genre?
I'm not even sure what my genre is. I suppose it's whatever genre contains the likes of Kafka, Cortazar, Calvino, Borges, Poe, Vonnegut, Pelevin, and on and on. Whatever you call it, there's a tradition I write into, to be a part of, to be in conversation with, a tradition of using stories to explore the possibilities of our minds, of our reality, of humanity; stories to expand the imagination, to evoke new forms of questions and empathy, to rewrite the cosmic joke, and above all, to entertain. The writers in this lineage are unique because their lives and minds are individual and their writing is honest. What do I bring to this "genre" that they don't? Would you ask an apple what it brings that other apples don't? It's enough to know the apple is individual and delicious. In other words, I hope to carry the torch for this tradition. The rest is for the critics to decide.
Why do I write what I do?
I am obsessed with the mind, the brain, the biology of consciousness and identity, time, emotion, imagination, the neurological systems that comprise us and are responsible for our experience of ourselves, of each other, and of reality in general. I write to inspire myself to imagine, to think beyond the casual world and into the hidden possible and impossible. It is the most fun and rewarding thing you can do, and a very powerful way of creating acceptance, empathy, passion, and gratitude for life. I almost went into neuroscience as a career, but narrative has always seemed the better tool for studying the brains of others and my own – in particular the imagination, and the dangers of its misuse – and for offering the results of my research to you.
How does my writing process work?
A process suggests something reproducible. I often think I've figured one out but then it changes. Here's the practice as best as I can define it:
First, read. Read read read read read read. Read as much as you can. Read beloved works to dissect them. Read unfamiliar works to expand your vocabulary and imagination. Read disliked works to understand why and what to avoid. Read student work to sharpen your eye for mistakes. Just read. When I read I immediately start to write. Sometimes in the margins (sorry books), sometimes in the blank pages in the back (again, sorry books), or else in a notebook or with my thumbs into my phone.
Second, creativity is a discipline. It is a skill based on practice and you get into a groove the more you do it, just like any exercise. When I don't write for a week it's harder to get back into it. I'd write every day if possible (but it never is), so I write at least a couple evenings a week, even for an hour, or on weekend mornings, and pretty much all day Friday. I look forward to my Fridays the most but they're also the hardest. So much unstructured time! Every writer knows the hardest thing is keeping your butt in front of the computer screen without distraction. Computers feel like work. To combat this problem, I write as much as possible while not writing. I write while walking, while reading, while on the train, while sitting outside. That way it doesn't feel like work; it feels like leisure. And if you create while you're off the computer then it's a lot easier to put your butt in the chair in front of the computer and use it simply for editing. If you edit on paper printouts as much as possible too, then when you sit at the computer all you have to do is render what you've already edited. It really helps. I typed this post into my phone while sitting in my backyard. Sure, it was sloppy, but then I edited it later when I got down to "real work."
Third, there are two modes of writing: drafting, and revising. When I draft I'm a collector. I do most of it out and about as noted above, collecting images, conversations, seeking inspiration in the world that can be bastardized for whatever idea of a story I have (e.g., "what if everyone pretended to be blind."). I try to write the prose itself rather than just the idea (e.g. instead of "The main character has a tree with red leaves outside his window," I'll write "He watched them across the yard, past the maple with its red leaves that each year fell and formed a blood red carpet between their houses.") By forcing myself to be creative immediately, to get to the real words, then I just have to edit later. What accumulates is a lot of stuff that I then have to sort through for what's appropriate to the story. My wife is a sculptor and I think of my drafts as creating a big ball of clay that I have to take a step back from and say "Okay, what's really here? What's the story inside?" before I actually start sculpting. It makes for very messy drafts that have to be severely edited, reduced, refined, and sharpened, so in truth I'm not recommending this approach at all. It's just how I work. Since drafting is collecting it happens with multiple stories at once. Some take a while to accrete into drafts, and to revise, while some are quick. But revising (especially a novel) works better one story at a time since it involves living and thinking in the world of the story, inhabiting it.
Fourth, it's done when it's an orange. How to call a story finished is a bit mysterious. I ascribe to the Truman Capote way: "Finding the right form for your story is simply to realize the most natural way of telling the story. The test of whether or not a writer has defined the natural shape of his story is just this: After reading it, can you imagine it differently, or does it silence your imagination and seem to you absolute and final? As an orange is final. As an orange is something nature has made just right." A story is done when it feels like an orange. Some stories never become oranges. The rare gifts are almost born that way. And those make you feel really really good, and even let you forget about all the difficult ones.
And now, introducing my fellow blog hoppers:
Musings of Disorientation. Her novel, GRAVE OF HUMMINGBIRDS, a gothic mystery set in the Andean highlands, won the Clark Gross Novel Award at San Francisco State University in 2011 and is a quarterfinalist in the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award 2014. Also a ballet teacher and visual artist, Jennifer has a soft spot for elephants and rhinos and lives in San Francisco with her daughter, two cats and a dog named Fifi. Find her at jskutelsky.com and on Twitter at @jskutelsky.was educated in South Africa and the US, where she earned an MFA in Creative Writing. An editor and writing coach, she is the author of two nonfiction books, and blogs at