Wednesday, November 12, 2008

SCRIBBLE: Self-Declared Outlier

“So, Scribble, what is it you think you are DOING, sitting out there in some dusty village writing all morning when you could just as easily move back to the city and get a proper job. 69 is not too old to work. You’re endangering your future. Don’t you want a nice life?”

You again, eh? This time I have a good answer for you. There’s this guy named Malcolm Gladwell who writes books like “The Tipping Point” and “Blink” and now “Outliers.” I’m an outlier.

“What the heck is that?”

It’s someone who is out there on the edge and -- often because of that -- gets an advantage. And that advantage often comes down to having 10,000 hours of practice. Let’s see, four hours of writing every morning, maybe a couple more in the afternoon, so let’s say five to split the difference, seven days a week (that’s 35), 52 weeks a year, for about five years so far. (I moved here ten years ago but didn’t write so steadily at first.) That makes 4320 hours of constant writing in my immediate past. I suppose I’m halfway there. Now that you have a pop label, are you happy?

“So you’re a scribbler/outlier. Give us a little insight into your technique. How do you do it?”

Partly I’m just wired that way and part of it is that I’m habituated. As Robey (also a writer) advised me when I asked him for advice about my piano player character in “Both Sides Now,” after awhile one’s hands want the instrument, whether it is a guitar or a keyboard. Another big part is listening and thinking, reading, remembering, just sort of opening up and waiting. Some of it while waiting to sleep at night. Once in a while during a nap in the afternoon. Ideas arise. An advantage of NOT having a community is that I don't talk them away.

It’s important to roll them around for a while before writing but on the other hand, some ideas are transient and I get out of bed at 3AM to pin them down, which is the great advantage of living alone -- though the cats grumble. But I’m not one to just produce a bunch of words without having at least a thread to follow. I found when teaching that people tend to dive into writing before they’ve really gestated the subject, so they just write knee-jerk stuff they wrote last time. There seems to be a fear that they won’t be ABLE to form new ideas or good questions. Maybe we do too much time-driven writing: reports, exams.

A lot of writers write about their own writing and the reading they have been doing and it all turns back on itself in a knotted and boring way. There have to be times of not-writing. Anyway, brains need spaces for the sorting time, the deep connections that one doesn’t even know are being made unless they show up in dreams.

“Mapping? Webbing? Outlining? Formal research?”

Depends on the subject. I can’t just invent stuff about the limbic system. I need to study. Bless the Internet! But If I’m just joking around about cats, that’s different. Though some times of the day, the jokes come easier. For serious fiction, beautifully written, I need a plan of action, a spine, a plot. It took theological seminary to teach me how to think about plot. “Story theology” was big for a while -- now people don’t talk about it or write about it. Theology, like everything else, is a matter of fads. Esp. in the academic world, the students come in and ape the professors, who are teaching what they learned as students a few decades earlier, and then they go into revolt and invent a new way of thinking. Or, most amazing, the world suddenly shifts and the academic world either makes itself into a bubble or nearly shatters, because most people don’t study enough meta-structure or history of thought to keep from being paralyzed. They think they’re being taught The Truth.

“If the academic world isn’t resourceful enough at thinking, what sort of hubris makes you think you are capable of finding your way through a labyrinth made of revolving doors?”

I don’t. I get lost all the time.

“Then how do we tell when you’re lost and when you’re really gripping the truth?”

Use your own knowledge of the world. Don’t depend on reviewers. Don’t depend on what you see on your neighbor’s coffee table. So much of what people believe was pitched at them by ad campaigns, even ad campaigns in the religious world. I know. I’ve been there. I have better discussions with my UPS man, who is a Salois, a Metis/Blackfeet.

“How it is that you write about outrageous people who are all involved with sex, defiance, guerrilla lingo, taboo stuff?”

They make a world as surely as some religious or ethnic or vocational context makes a world. Because it has bounds, it can be explored as a coherent unit, and these people -- who are often brave as well as traumatized -- are sometimes capable of great intimacy. More than that, as a child I confronted the Forties atrocities in newsreels, then unfolded into a Peace Corps attitude that landed me on the Blackfeet Reservation and then bolted back to Portland, Oregon, at a time of ferment and experiment that I thought would prevail. I thought we’d be able to maintain the theatre, the handcrafts, the gardens, the freedom as mainstream. They still exist, but pushed off to the margins. Maybe the music survived best, but I was least involved in that. I'm not bitter, as my friend Penelope sometimes is.

Anyway, it turns out that this supposedly dangerous taboo world is just all the issues that were pushed out of sight in the Fifties: incest, abuse, alcoholism, commodification.

“So why can’t you write about them in the city?”

Because when I think about this stuff and reflect on my life and other lives, trying to put to use the skills I learned in seminary, I find myself often in a state of grief or rage or terror about something over which I have no control. In this village people go about their business in a dependable way, predictably. When I walk down the street for the mail, it puts me back into the reality of stable families in a community where they’ve lived for generations. I’m sure that’s how people were meant to live. But I’m an outlier.

"So why aren’t you rich, famous or even on the bookshelves."

Dunno. I don’t think about it except when the bills come due.

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