Monday, October 19, 2009


There’s really no end to writing about writing or teaching writing or accounting for the success of writing, which is all to the good, isn’t it? In the nonexistent end what really counts is sitting down and just putting one word after another. Staying in the chair is the first success.

Some of us wouldn’t do it except that we need to do it. No accounting for it. Sometimes we write stuff that no writing teacher or even advanced writing student would approve of. I remember a sharp-tongued “friend” who read some of my early efforts and scolded, as a good veteran of writing workshops, “SHOW, don’t TELL!” But I needed to tell the reader a lot of stuff because readers don’t know stuff. Sometimes they just don’t have the facts and other times they’re looking at stuff in some old-fashioned or irrelevant way and need to be straightened out. If it’s good enough for Herman Melville to tell us about the whaling industry, why can’t I tell the reader about living on a reservation? I think this show-not-tell advice is valid if you’re trying to write workshop fiction of the most recently fashionable kind, which depends upon a kind of Henry James hidden shift in consciousness, revealed to the observer by subtle but perceptible signs, which is flattering to the author for being so observant but not necessarily interesting to the reader. Except that the conventional readers are rather alike and are fond of sitting in front of mirrors like subteens, searching for teeny variations.

Most people seem to like plot -- what happens next and what the final outcome might be. They’re out of luck these days when it comes to movies. A current editing technique jumps over boring stuff like going out of the house, driving to the store, parking, walking in the door. Now the shots just skip from going out of the house to being in the store, counting on the viewer to understand how the person got there. But lately that’s developed into big gaps in the plot where the screen writer simply didn’t think it through. At the end the action just stops, unresolved. Partly, I think, this is due to the repetitiousness of plotting: too many people have life experience that consists only of prior movies. THEY’re bored, so they assume we are, too. Mostly, we are.

Genuine original experience is still vital to writing. But there is a key irony in the difference between conscious experience/self-organization versus UNconscious experience/self-organization. It is quite possible to go to an event, think you have had a good time, come home and wake up shuddering in the night -- because while sleeping the conversation or someone’s face or the music finally triggered an old memory or a new realization. If an author can write in a way that plays off the character’s apparent interpretation of what’s happening, while all the time “showing” what’s really going on in the subconscious and maybe in a “realer” reality, then the story can become extraordinary.

When the media began talking about how the WTT catastrophe was the “end of irony,” I was confused. I thought the attack was meant to be highly ironic and it was, indeed. That a spoiled rich kid whose overactive and resentful imagination could get him to energize a lot of hedonistic jihadists (which is ironic in itself) to martyr themselves by smashing into overbuilt skyscrapers meant to symbolize monetary dominance, at the same time killing all the “little people” who worked there, is so internally contradictory as to be almost “over-ironic.” Excessive to the point of incredulity. Maybe that’s what they meant.

The human mind’s split between conscious v. unconscious is a built-in irony. The latter is full of connections, patterns, meanings, experiences, memories and hopes -- while the former wrinkles its brow, struggling to think of something. The more the conscious mind can “entrain” or activate the unconscious, the more powerful the writing can get. It’s the same for any art, which is why art can kindle a new identity. What the teacher does is not to say, “do it this way” but rather “you can do it.”

The quote below is from the most recent post on “Dragoncave,” the blog of the aptly named “Art” Durkee, a musician, artist and writer posting at He often reflects on his own method as well as content and emotional state. In this instance he’s talking about a major piece of composing that he feels brings him back to himself after a couple of years of challenge, suffering, and loss.

“Looking at the overall form, in retrospect, I see that echoes and weavings-together happen at each structural point in the music. As though I'd intended it, although no part of my conscious mind was aware of this happening during the actual writing. I notice the patterns and forms, their many symmetries and echoes, after it's all been done. I only accentuate a pattern I have noticed, during the actual writing, if I'm aware of it.

“Obviously some greater part of whatever portion of my self that is the creative force behind this writing has a better sense of overall form and shape and gesture than I do myself; "I" being the conscious, verbal part of the self, the most intellectual part of the self, the personality-ego interface if you will. That greater self knew what was going on, and shaped things more than I knew as I proceeded. I can look back and marvel at how intentional it all seems in hindsight; all the while knowing that during the actual writing I had no clue. I marvel at the wisdom of the greater self.

“Often I can look back over the writing of a piece like this, in hindsight, and spot more patterns and detailed echoes of form than I was ever consciously aware of during the actual writing process. This is nothing new. I'm quite used to this, as part of my creative process. It is how essays, poems, other pieces of music, and many visual artworks have been made. I actually enjoy finding the hidden echoes within a piece, afterwards.

“I have learned over time to always do my best to avoid analysis during the actual writing process: if I get too analytical too early on in the process, it can kill the energy of the entire project.”


vmh said...

This is very timely for me. Thank you. Great post.

Lance M. Foster said...

That's what I do. I over analyze too soon and kill it. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

When I was younger I usually showed the story, recording events as they happened. Now I largely tell the story, mostly with stream of consciousness. I have a novel coming out in March that is almost entirely told rather than shown. Fashion changes, and today's rules are tomorrow's folderol.

Art Durkee said...

Huh. Thanks for the mention, and especially for the context in which the mention occurs. This is an interesting bit of thinking about writing you're onto. Very cool.

Mary Strachan Scriver said...

Glad you liked it, Art. I don't have an email for you and didn't ask your permission to quote at length. I think anyone interested in the creative process would do very well to keep track of Dragoncave.

Prairie Mary