Sunday, February 17, 2013

Where Writers Write

Ever since Virginia Woolf published A Room of One's Own, (and quite possibly before) women writers, as well as men, have been on the lookout for an ideal place to write. Woolf believed that a private sanctuary was a necessity for women because, without it, they were at the beck and call of husbands, children, and everyday household duties. She believed that women needed a private place where no one could intrude in order to fulfill their highest potential as writers.

It isn't just about rooms. It is also a question of whether the best writing takes place in a geographical location isolated from the hurly-burly of ordinary life. After all, writing is a solitary pursuit. Surely we need peace, serenity, quiet. Perhaps writing is at it's best when it reflects "emotion recollected in tranquillity" as William Wordsworth put it.

Against this view is another, quite opposite ideal--the notion that "real life," life in the raw, is what inspires writers. Some writers are convinced that their best work requires the energy, the vibrancy, even the chaos, of living in the city with intensity, even if it's on the margins of society. For these writers, being in the midst of life, messy, noisy, and crazy as it often is, stimulates the mind and emotions, gets the creative juices flowing. For these writers, too much quiet dulls the senses and the imagination.

I have to confess that I have vacillated between these two views for years.

On the one hand, I have envisioned myself in an idyllic setting, surrounded by trees, water, perhaps mountains. I write to the accompaniment of birdsong and a gurgling stream. No one disturbs my peace or my concentration. There is no telephone, no television set. I am free to create whatever comes to mind.

On the other hand, I have often imagined myself living in the heart of a big city where honking horns and screeching brakes are my accompaniment. A life lived with the intensity of people coming in and out of my space has sometimes seemed to me the best stimulator of creativity.

The truth is, I have never spent much time in either type of environment. My adult life has been lived in small college cities--Syracuse, New York, Madison, Wisconsin, San Luis Obispo, California.

Over Valentine's Day, my guy, Rufus, and I went to Catalina Island. Catalina is one of the Channel Islands off the coast of California. It once belonged to the Wrigley family of chewing gum fame. It boasts the lovely and tiny town of Avalon where no one drives cars, only golf carts. The whole rest of the island is unspoiled, mountainous land owned by a land conservancy. No houses. No developments. It is beautiful and very quiet.

We were charmed by the island. Here is a picture of us standing by the water. 

I immediately began to fantasize about finding a peaceful retreat on the island where I could write.

Rufus thought it would be an ideal place to paint.

The thing is, within twenty-four hours, we realized the town was TOO quiet. What would we do for movies? For shopping? For concerts and other kinds of entertainment? Beautiful it might be, but we're used to a certain amount of stimulation.

Here's the truth about finding the perfect place to write:  THERE IS NO SUCH THING!

Reality is, if we want to write, we will write wherever we find ourselves. Looking for the perfect environment is just a way to procrastinate.

We live where we have found work or where our families have settled or where we went to school. If we're writers, we'll write. If we're only fantasizing about being writers, we'll find a million excuses for not writing.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

More on Head, Heart, Gut

I know many experts tell writers to write from their deepest places, to be "authentic,"to be "real." They tell us we can't find our voice unless we have the courage to explore our innermost selves and expose our vulnerabilities on the page.

I don't believe that's true. I believe where we write from depends on our intention, our purpose, what we want to convey to the reader.

Last week, I talked about the fact that fiction can be written from the head, heart, or gut.

If our intention is to stimulate our readers to analyze, solve a puzzle, or see the characters as unsympathetic, we write from our rational mind so as to engage the reader's mind. If we want the reader to feel inspired, compassionate, elated or filled with joy, sorrow or pain, we write from our heart to appeal to the reader's sense of shared humanity. If our intention is to create a visceral experience that is as physical as it is emotional, we write from our gut to engage the reader's most primitive instincts.

Let's look at some examples of how this works.

  Here are three different treatments of the same situation.
  • "I saw Emily the other day. She looked a little pale, but not really all that different from her normal self, though I guess you could say she seemed distracted. We had lunch at that little place downtown she always liked. She didn't want to talk about Henry--even though I brought up their breakup a couple of times. She kept changing the subject. Wanted to talk about her work, the kids, the vacation she was planning this summer. I tried to tell her it would do her good to talk about Henry, but she wouldn't go there. Oh well, what can you do? Of course she and I were never that close. I can't imagine what happened. It was an accident, wasn't it? Must have been. How is Henry taking it, anyway?"
  • Emily walked to the train station more depressed than ever. She'd been wrong to come into town today. She wasn't ready to face people. And meeting Karen for lunch had been a terrible mistake. The woman had spent the whole time pumping her for information about her divorce. Talking about it would have been like ripping a bandage off a fresh wound. And even though she changed the subject every time Karen brought it up, she'd had to swallow tears more than once. Would she ever get over Henry? Would she ever forget his touch, the look in his eyes, his voice when he spoke love to her? The tears came, blinding her. She would never get over this. Never. What sense did life make any more? How could she get through another day? She just wanted to stop feeling, just wanted to go numb. But this pain wouldn't leave her alone for even a minute.
  • She stands on the platform, knees weak, heart pounding. The food from lunch rises into her throat, and she swallows it. She looks down to see her hands shaking as they hold onto her packages. She is mildly surprised at how her body is afraid even though she isn't. The animal in her is not ready yet. Maybe it's not supposed to be. Maybe the instinct for survival is more powerful even than despair. She glances at the huge wall clock across the platform. Two more minutes. Only the briefest time left before she'll be at peace. God damn it, why is she so terrified, then? Why can't these last few moments be a prelude to peace? Why can't she already feel the tranquillity of death? If the damn train isn't here momentarily, she'll lose her nerve for sure. A roar fills the station, fills her head. Steam spews out from the long-awaited and now fast-approaching train. Thank God, thank God! Emily steps to the edge of the platform. She only needs to take one more step into empty space and it will be over. Her heart is bursting as she steps into the void in front of the locomotive. And then there is nothing.
In the first example, we are detached from Emily. We see her through the eyes of an acquaintance who is only interested in the potential for gossip that Emily's situation represents. We don't like Karen, the acquaintance who is speaking, and we may feel a little sorry that Emily had to endure lunch with her, but we don't feel any sense of personal loss at Emily's death. Instead, we are curious to know what happened and why.

In the second example, we feel Emily's sorrow over the loss of her marriage. We are privy to her thoughts and feelings. We feel what she feels-- resentment at Karen's insensitivity and a desire for  Emily to feel better. Emily's plight arouses our compassion.

In the third example, we are standing on the platform with Emily as she waits to throw herself in front of a train. The scene is immediate and is narrated in the present tense. Emily's terror is palpable. Our own heart may begin to pound in sympathy. As the train approaches, our fear may grow with hers. We want Emily to listen to her instincts and step back, out of harm's way. When she doesn't, we are horrified. A deep silence seems to follow her death. We have been to the brink with her.

So which of the three examples above is written from the author's "authentic self?" Does that question even make any sense?

I don't think it does.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Head, Heart, Gut

Every story I can think of appeals to the head, heart or gut. Whatever the genre, it comes down to one of these three.

Stories from the Head 

These are plot-driven. We, as readers, are supposed to figure something out. We are not deeply connected to the characters. We are committed to understanding why or who or what.

Mysteries often fall into this category. Think of Agatha Christie. When a character is murdered in an Agatha Christie novel, we do not grieve. Nor do we root for one character or another (except possibly, the detective--Hercule Poirot or Mrs. Marple, for example.)

The author keeps us at a distance from the characters so that we cannot get close enough to care for them deeply. We see them through the eyes of an omniscient narrator or another character who does not know them well enough to empathize with them. Often the narrator uses irony or some form of humor to preserve our distance and make them less important. Sometimes we are encouraged to look down on one or more of the characters.

Stories from the Heart

These are the stories that touch us. They are often inspirational and leave us feeling better about ourselves and the human race. They can be tales of adversity overcome; stories in which love ennobles, or even saves, the characters; or tales of spiritual journeys where the main character(s) experiences a long process of self-discovery.

 "The Accidental Tourist" by Anne Tyler is an example of an excellent novel of this type.

Our task in this type of story is to identify with the dilemma, conflict, or challenge faced by the main character; to care that he struggles with issue(s) in his life; and to recognize the resolution of the story as the best possible outcome.

The author brings us in close to the characters in this type of story. We are meant to like them. He does not give them unforgiveable character defects. Rather, he creates defects which hinder the characters from living a full, rich life. He asks us to care that the characters are hampered in this way and to hope they can overcome their difficulties. We rejoice when the resolution brings the characters happiness and fulfillment.

After all, they are just like us.

Stories from the Gut

Stories from the gut are visceral, even painful. We are brought so close to the characters, we wince when they get hurt, our hearts pound at the unexpected noise outside their door, and our heads ache with hangover after they've spent a night at the bar. These stories hit us at a physical, as well as an emotional, level.

Many horror stories are written from the gut. So are a certain type of crime novel. James Ellroy's novels are examples. So are Michael Connelly's.  "The Red Badge of Courage" is an early example of a novel from the gut.

In these stories, the main character is often neither noble nor admirable. Though the protagonist is the ostensible "good guy" he is often as flawed as any villains who may appear in the piece. If he has a saving grace it is his sense of integrity or his commitment to the truth. But he is not necessarily a good citizen, husband/lover or father. He is often a loner incapable of forming close relationships.

We are forced to admit our connection to him because the author forces us share his breathing, his very heartbeat, as well as his thoughts and emotions. We share this intimacy with him is in spite of ourselves. The resolution may be less than satisfactory, but at least the protagonist survives to bring the story to its conclusion.

These are usually stories about survival. Our interest is less about the rights and wrongs of the situation than it is about whether the protagonist will survive the ordeal he is forced to endure. It is not whether he will come out a better person but whether he will come out at all.


So these are three spaces from which we can write a story--the intellect with its sense of curiosity and problem-solving ability; the softer emotions associated with love, compassion and the desire to become better; or the baser instincts associated with brute survival where fear is the dominant emotion and the goal is to win in the end.

Which is better? Which type of story makes us the better writer?

As always, the answer depends on our intention. Each type of story demands that we dip into our writer's bag of tricks and use the tools and skills best suited to the occasion. Usually we begin by writing one type of story and hone the skills needed to tell it effectively.

 If we're lucky and motivated, we'll move on to one or both of the other types, practicing with it until we've mastered the skills needed.

Our best outcome is to develop so many tricks of the trade that we can write any type of story that we feel called upon to tell.

Think of Joyce Carol Oates as an example of a writer who has written in virtually every genre with great skill and facility.

In the end, head, heart and gut must all be available to us as writers.