Thursday, February 7, 2013

Writing to Learn

I have always narrated my life in my head, even the boring moments. "She stepped onto the sidewalk, avoiding the crack, even though she knew full well that her foot upon a line would, in no way, break her mother's back." 

Sometimes at night I can't fall asleep because I am mentally composing posts, pulling out this word and swapping it for another, only to tell myself this is ridiculous since my perfect phrasing will be lost once I doze off. 

While I am not sure if I would ever be able to write a novel, I found Silas House's advice for those attempting to create a written work to be interesting. 

I am a tad smug since what he advocates I already do. He says a writer must be still in order to write, but not by locking himself in a room and banishing contact with the world. Writers have busy lives too, so they have to erect for themselves a still mental space where words can thrive. 
To write, to accurately write, to grasp reality, writers have to be exposed to reality. Being boarded up doesn't provide inspiration; seeing other people, other potential characters, is the ever-giving muse. 
There is no way to learn how to do this except by simply doing it. We must use every moment we can to think about the piece of writing at hand, to see the world through the point of view of our characters, to learn everything we can that serves the writing. We must notice details around us, while also blocking diversions and keeping our thought processes focused on our current poem, essay or book.
This way of being must be something that we have to turn off instead of actively turn on. It must be the way we live our lives.
The No. 1 question I get at readings is: “How many hours a day do you write?” I used to stumble on this question. I don’t write every day, but when I first started going on book tours I was afraid I’d be revealed as a true fraud if I admitted that. Sometimes I write for 20 minutes. Other times I don’t stop writing for six hours, falling over at the end like an emotional, wrung-out mess, simultaneously exhausted and exhilarated. Sometimes I go months without putting a word on the page.
One night, however, I was asked that question and the right answer just popped out, unknown to me before it found solidity on the air: “I write every waking minute,” I said. I meant, of course, that I am always writing in my head.
I always say I couldn't be a novelist because I am lacking the imagination to put myself into someone else's shoes. But then I thought, what if I can use this writing exercise not to fabricate a character, but simply to understand people better? To be more compassionate? 
I transform the mundane task of grocery shopping into a writing exercise by studying my fellow shoppers through the eyes of my character, a man who is on the run from the law.
I eye each one with suspicion and dodge any cop who might be trotting along with a grocery basket in hand. I sometimes steal a quirk from a woman nearby to apply to one of my female characters in the book. I am multitasking, but there is stillness at work here.
So let's say I still am not cut out to be of the novelists who are able to magically detail the existences of people not remotely like themselves in personality, background, and hair color. But I can try, not for the sake of my writing, but for the sake of my humanity.

To be still, to think, to understand. 


Sweet Profusion said...

Oh my goodness, did you hear this week's Prairie Home Companion? Skit on why English majors fail on dates, because they are too consumed with narrating in their heads, to pay attention to the person across the table. I'm not necessarily saying this is a problem, for you, but something to think about...:)

The Beckster said...

Narrating in your head is a tell-tale sign of a natural born writer. Sure, you may not use it to become a novelist persay, but like you said, this skill branches itself outward and can affect different aspects of our lives. It CAN definitely influence your empathy and ability to understand people. Thanks for sharing.

Princess Lea said...

SP: I found the transcript and it was HYSTERICAL! I was laughing so hard! Thanks for mentioning it!

Beck: Or I can do one book about my life and say "Based on actual events." I don't have imagination for fiction; I can't get over how George RR Martin comes up with pages and pages and PAGES of fiction, all from different points of view.