Thursday, May 11, 2017

Until You've Written About it, You Haven't Read it.

This is one of those academic facts that still does not make sense to me. While I am reading, I seem to be making sense of grammatical units, an argument or a story seems to be forming in my mind. After I have read, I can tell you what the thing was about. It's not like I'm illiterate or trying to read in a language that has yet to be deciphered.

But none of that is really reading--it's just mechanics. It's better mechanics than when a child sounds out a sentence and looks up brightly because he accurately pronounced all of the letters, but just as a teacher might wait for the child to put the sounds together coherently, to make sense of what he's read, we must force ourselves to put together what we have read. I have in mind a very material image of a new jar of play-doh; when we read mechanically, the content is like the fresh, unshaped dough. In its pristine form, it may be tantalizing, but one could not put it on a shelf and admire it and call that "play."

To play with play-doh, one must mash it. This is the essential first step: to feel its cool materiality squish between one's fingers as if these human hands were webbed like ducks. The second step is to roll a snake/log, but the second step is not the focus of this particular blog post; I am talking about the smashing.

How does one metaphorically smash Shakespeare or Joyce? How does one move beyond admiration with the former or even achieve that much with the latter? If I had not already given you the answer in the title, you might be alarmed at the question. Move beyond admiration for Shakespeare! you might be thinking. Is she mad?

Think of it then like love. You admire someone from a distance; proximity stirs deeper feelings. One must be closer to Shakespeare than a mere admirer, and to bring him close as you might pull a lover to you by his collar, you must write.

Writing does not mean taking notes or copying down favorite lines. This is merely a clever way to avoid writing, a trick we all play upon ourselves. When you really write about a piece of fiction or literature or art, it will be much more difficult than merely copying. You will either love the thing about which you are writing and thereby have too many topics, all too broad, to ever begin, or you will be apathetic toward the thing and thereby believe you have nothing to say about it.

Start by copying it. If it's art, draw it. If it's a piece of writing, sometimes rewriting it is useful. You will find much more pattern and meter in The Waste Land that way than any other method I have tried. But a more direct approach is to simply describe the thing.

When you try to squeeze a work of art into other words, it will resist you like a child being squeezed into a car seat with a winter coat. To describe something, you have to generalize in places, and as you do, you begin to notice the corners of a story and the shadows of a poem that you overlooked in your hasty first reading or your lackadaisical 33rd reading.

If you are like me, you will be tempted to "write" about a thing in your head. This is not writing; it is either thinking done in preparation for writing or it is procrastination; either way it is like serving diced onions for dinner instead of using the preparation stage to prepare, that is, cook the whole meal.

When you move all the way from the recipe to chopping the onions to sauteing them and mixing them with other things like chicken and spices, you have made a meal. Likewise, when you move through the entire act of reading, from reading a book to underlining, thinking, and ultimately describing and then making an argument about it, only then have you read the book.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Writing the Same Story

Do you ever get the feeling that you're writing the same story, over and over again, like some kind of dystopian version of a Greek tragedy? You begin to wonder why you do it, whether other people notice. The self-awareness then becomes paralyzing for a while, and at last you try to write something new. Eventually you reach the point of some level of self-satisfaction for this new narrative and begin to imagine again that you might write many stories instead of the one.

Then you look back, and the story that seemed new while you were writing it is the same old story you've always written. What's strange about this moment in which you'd thought you'd escaped is coming back to the story again, as if for the first time. You begin to realize that each version of it is a revision of the one before, even if the characters or genre have changed.

Eventually you realize that the final perfect version might be a myth. You realize that no one really has more than one story to tell, and so you wear the knowledge of your single tale like you wear your human nature, with the humility of the finitely-dimensioned.

Eventually you find the story you've been trying to tell; you found it in the margins, in the revisions, the spaces where you worked but forgot to read.

Monday, February 6, 2017

On Cliche

Last month I was thinking about writing dialogue and cliches. I was astonished to realize that the few lines of direct conversation from my life that came to mind first were cliches, so I made a list. I can tell you the gist of a thousand conversations I've had, but DIRECT QUOTES were hard. I came up with nine, but that's only because I allowed myself to include things from last week.

Before you read on, try it. What lines stand out in your life? For me, it was almost all times that someone was angry, although there were a couple of single lines of encouragement like, "Just breathe."

What I realized is that all of these (with two exceptions) were cliches. We speak, I was astounded to realize, in cliche. I don't know what percentage of our daily communication rests on these overused phrases, but it's most if not all. We exchange dialogue like we exchange Hallmark greeting cards--sincerely perhaps, but these words are not our own.

When I reached to try to find words I could remember or use that were NOT cliche, the first things that came to mind were things my kids have said. Most recently: "If you get sick, I will take care of you. I will bring you water and give you kisses." Most memorably: after a big hug, my little boy stood back from me wide-eyed and exclaimed: "You hugged me so tight, you touched JESUS in my heart!"

How does a writer handle the fact that people speak in cliche but good writers don't use tired phrases? We are supposed to look at life and write what we see, but what do we do when what we see is cliche?

I don't have an answer for writing, but for life--I want to learn to speak more like a child, full of sincerity and wonder, using exactly the words I mean to say, even when the linguistics don't work: "I didn't get an INCH of sleep last night!" And "I love you" because sometimes the cliche still holds lots of meaning. Sometimes it gains meaning with tone or delivery. Sometimes we get a glimpse of the strangeness and wonder even in a cliche.