Saturday, November 01, 2008

Burroway - Writing Fiction

How did a whole month slip by without my posting anything here? I've started a writing class at the UW, and, along with too many other commitments, I'm letting things slip.

I'm getting ready for the La Jolla writer's conference next week, and, at work, I'm slogging through the stuff one slogs through in my profession.

For my class, we're reading Writing Fiction by Janet Burroway. It's too bad the class isn't going through the chapters chronologically, because I am also reviewing each chapter in the Craft Corner on Zoe. I've decided to post those chapter reviews here.

Chapter 1 - Whatever Works - The Writing Process

Burroway's first chapter prods us into examining writing as habit. It takes on the stance that a productive writer becomes so out of habit more than talent. Hence, this quote:

Forget inspiration. Habit is more dependable. Habit will sustain you whether you're inspired or not. Habit will help you finish and polish your stories. Inspiration won't. Habit is persistence in practice. --Octavia Butler.

I got to thinking about my own habits as a writer. I'm given to fits of feeling blocked. I've spent a lot of time and energy, not to mention money, trying to find ways through block. So now I'm asking myself what my habits are. What's my writing foundation? I realized that I have a lot of room for improvement here.

I do a morning exercise every day. First thing, before my brain kicks in, I do the morning pages. For me, that's a ten-minute, timed free-writing. Whatever's in there when I wake up. I seldom go back and read these pages. Last week, though, I did. I finished a notebook and went back to page 1 to see if there was any kind of flow. Most of it was pure dribble. Worthless rants about hating my job, plans with friends, my cat, thoughts about writing projects. Why do I do this, I wondered. But every now and then, I found a few paragraphs that seemed lyrical to me. Snippets of effortless art, that stuff that comes from the place I wish I could go to at will.

Now I'm thinking that maybe being able to go to that place at will, the place where the words flow, is something I can develop through habits surrounding writing. Maybe it's not some mythical, muse-occupied space where only those more gifted than I can go whenever they choose. Maybe it's a matter of developing better habits.

Burroway states:

Over and over again, successful writers attest that unless they prepare the conscious mind with the habit of work, the gift does not come. Writing is mind-farming. You have to plow, plant, weed, and hope for growing weather. Why a seed turns into a plant is something you are never going to understand, and the only relevant response to it is gratitude. You may be proud, however, of having plowed.

The chapter offers quite a list of ideas and exercises.

She approaches block from the stance of it being a tiresome cliché.

What's called writer's block is almost always ordinary fear. --Thomas Wolfe

Well, yeah. But knowing that doesn't make the fear go away. For me, I have to name my fears in order for them to lose control over me. As long as they're nameless, my fears are in charge. But she goes on to say:

I know a newspaper editor who says that writer's block always represents a lack of information. I thought this inapplicable to fiction until I noticed that I was mainly frustrated when I didn't know enough about my characters, the scene or the action – when I had not gone to the imaginative depth where information lies.

Okay. I can see that. I've conducted interviews with my characters and watched them go from lackluster to vibrant and chatty. It seems they are like anyone else...they just want someone to take an interest in them.

Another time when block settles in for me is when my ego is directing my focus.

There is an almost mathematical ratio between soaring, grandiose ambition...and severe creative block. --Victoria Nelson

When my desire for my work to be published is in the forefront of my mind, my audience automatically becomes all the people I'm sure are poised to reject me. Who wants to write anything to them???

Practical stuff, really. And all of it easily applied. I looked at some of the ideas under the section, Exercises, to see how I could modify my morning pages practice and make it more structured. I spotted several things in the chapter that I think will make my practice of writing more productive.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

How was the writer's conference? I'm curious about that one. How were the sessions you attended?

Erik Smetana said...

This is a pretty good text, it is one that I've been using this quarter in one of my MFA classes, lots of information and some great short stories, be sure to check out "Orientation" towards the back.