15 August 2014

Break in Contact

Because of a shift in the blogging schedule, I took a blog vacation for a couple of weeks.  I neither read nor commented, and I hope no one minds. It was a good time for it, because my son started back into school (a new one) last Wednesday, my mother-in-law came for a visit (I like her quite a lot, so that's not the problem some might think it to be), and my older son's motor scooter broke down at the same time my jeep went on the blink.  Consequently, I've spent quite a bit of time acting the part of family chauffeur, lately, driving my wife, daughter and son back and forth to work at different times of the day (and sometimes pretty late at night).

I don't mind all the driving.  In fact, I've always enjoyed driving.  One of my favorite activities during my army days was driving trucks, sometimes with trailers, under difficult conditions.  I feel (and others have commented) that I handle a "deuce-n-a-half" in the field, the way other people handle a sports car on a slalom. A "deuce" is  a 2.5-ton army truck, for those who don't know, which means it can carry 5 tons of load when driving on standard paved roads, or half that load when driving cross-country.  And, a "deuce" excels at running cross-country.

In fact, you can even plow down small trees with one if you have to.

I know; I have.  When I had to.

No, all that driving hasn't bothered me.  And neither has the extra time spent with individual members of my family.  Driving my wife, or one of the kids to or from work is one of the few times I get the chance to speak with them alone, without others wanting my attention.  And that's nice.  It provides an opportunity to discuss personal things, to engage in conversations that might otherwise be difficult to hold.  And, my son's girlfriend sometimes tags along, and she's an English major studying creative writing at Arizona State, so we have fun conversations about writing.

I like the driving. I like the extra time with family. But I find it difficult to set and maintain any sort of schedule when my own schedule is driven by several other people's schedules. My wife is no problem: she goes in around eight in the morning, and I pick her up at five. My younger son is no problem either: he rides his bike to school in the morning, and I supervise his homework when he gets home in the afternoon. My older kids, however, both work part-time jobs that start and end at odd hours.  And they work rotating shifts, which means their schedules vary greatly from day to day -- sometimes even changing during the day.

All this mish-mash of schedules has me considering a very special problem.  One that's all my own.

The Fragility of Writing

I don't know if you have this problem.  I'm sure that some writers don't suffer from it, while others probably do.  I envy the former, and commiserate with the latter, because I find writing a very fragile thing.

Seems to me, there are different types of fragility, of course, just as there are different ways of interpreting the word 'fragile.'

My father-in-law, for instance, a retired postal worker, has been known to comment: "Ah!  There it is again, that word fruh-gee-lee.  I think that's an Italian word, means: Throw this hard at the wall and see if it sticks!"

I did mention that he's a retired postal worker, right?

While I don't know if it's true, I've heard that diamonds are difficult to scratch, but can shatter quite easily if smashed by a heavy solid object.  Something to do with their structure, evidently.

Other materials, such as steel, may have great tensile strength (essentially meaning they're hard to bend), but relatively poor compression strength (not standing up so well when smooshed).

For me, story writing has a very special sense of fragility.

Whenever I read about a writer who works as a successful  lawyer or doctor, is deeply involved in raising ten kids, plays semi-pro volleyball or something as a hobby--yet, has still managed to publish six thousand books and two gazillion short stories in multiple genres--I figure the following:

(A) This is someone with excellent time-management skills.

(B) This is not someone who finds story writing as fragile as I do.

I believe I've mentioned before, on this blog, that if I had my wish, I'd write behind locked doors with red and green lights above them.
I'd control which light was on with a switch: green if I'm not busy, red if I'm writing and need to be left alone.  Maybe I'd add an amber light for when I'm ruminating, casting around for a good idea or something that catches my fancy, ready to hit the red light when something gelled.  I'd stay locked-up with that red light on for as long as it took to complete a single work -- days, weeks, even months -- ordering out for food, cigars, soda, etc., and only coming up for air when the job was finished.

This isn't because I detest my fellow man, or don't like spending time with my family.  It's because one of the ways I find writing most fragile is through what I call "break in contact."  I might be chugging along, writing great stuff, knowing just where the train is headed--and if I'm left alone, I'll get there--but, if my work is interrupted, that break in contact, a time when I'm not engaged with the story, causes problems.

When I sit down to start back in, I often find I've forgotten key transitions that I'd already worked-out in my mind, as well as phrases that seemed perfect for upcoming spots.  Sometimes simply a key word goes AWOL in my absence, evading all my attempts to recall and employ it after my return, occasionally never resurfacing.  (This is most galling when I only recall the word while reading the final copy of the story, once it's been printed in a magazine, and I find myself lamenting: "Arg!  That other word would have been so much better there!")

I've tried writing notes to myself, or even outlines, so that I'll remember this stuff when I get back to my desk.  But I find this brings me up against another aspect of writing's fragile nature.

I once knew a writer who warned me not to ever "talk out" a story.  She claimed that if I got a story
© Marie-Lan Nguyen / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY 2.5
out of my head, before I got it down on paper (or into a computer, these days), I'd lose the inner drive, the need, to get it out again.  I think the idea here is roughly akin to letting the steam out of the boiler on a steam engine.  You might get up a good head of steam, but if you let it all escape through a stop-cock, there's nothing left to drive the engines.

I've found that if I outline a story, every important transition or phrase that I jot down opens a little stop-cock, letting off some of the pressure in my head.  It doesn't take many open stop-cocks -- particularly if they're open for awhile -- to make me lose what I need.  It's as if the motive force, driving my writing, just evaporates.

This is one reason why I often write late at night, or in the dark hours of the morning.  No one is around to interrupt me after they've all gone to bed, and -- after sometimes driving my daughter to work at 3:45 a.m. (she has to be there at 4:00), I have a couple hours to write before folks start getting up.

Except for our cats, of course, who -- for some reason -- seem to insist on being fed!  Then they want to come out on the balcony with me, so they can hang out on the window ledges and watch birds flit through the trees.  I try not to let this bother me.

I'm interested in hearing if any of you find your writing work to be somewhat fragile in nature, and what you do to address this problem.

See you in two weeks!


  1. There's a story about a famous writer, an English poet if I recall although I can't dredge up his name. He'd dreamt up an idea for a fabulous work when a friend dropped in to see him. When his visitor left, he realized the wonderful vision had evaported from his mind, never to return again.

    I've always liked working in the quiet of the night.

    If an idea strikes at an awkward time, I hurriedly write notes when I can, but too often I find I don't include sufficient detail for me to remember what the hell I had in mind. Recently I installed a voice memo app on my Android tablet, but I've yet to use it.

    Dixon, I'm glad you were driving in the Army. In another article I mentioned a former employee, 'the bonehead', who regaled us with tales of his days in the Army driving a fuel tanker while serving as his company's supplier of booze, much as RT described but domestically.

    You're probably thinking to yourself that's a bad combination. From the stories the bonehead told, he was usually drunk when he drove. Unfortunately he didn't see anything wrong and apparently neither did his sergeant or lieutenant. The good news is he didn't relate any crash-and-burn stories, although one might wonder.

    To his credit, he's now a complete teetotaler. I can't commected all the pieces, but he's never discussed how he parted company with the US Army nor how he came to dry out, yet I've wondered if the two are connected.

  2. Leigh - you're talking, I think, about Coleridge, who supposedly was working on "Kubla Khan" when a certain 'Person from Porlock' interrupted him, and some time later when Coleridge got back to the poem, the whole thing had evaporated.

  3. Dixon, I want as much privacy in my writing as I do in the bathroom or the bedroom. I don't want people around; I don't want to be interrupted; I don't talk about my work in progress until I'm pretty sure I know how it's going to end up. I do try to jot down ideas so I can hang on to them (age takes its toll), and sometimes I outline, but not very often. So... Yes, writing is very fragile for me.

  4. Leigh, I remember that article, and this added info about the bonehead sounds true to form. lol

    And -- yep! -- I wouldn't be surprised if the end of his army career was connected to his new-found sobriety, though I would point out that the army's drug and alcohol rehab programs seemed quite good, back when I served. I've never done drugs, nor had a problem with what an AA-going buddy of mine calls being "Allergic to Alcohol" (thank God!), but I've known a few soldiers who had such problems, and the army programs actually seemed to do an excellent job of helping them "beat it" -- at least as much as that sort of problem can be "beaten". I think it's still a matter of "one day at a time."

  5. I think David is right about Samuel Coleridge. I recalled that story as soon as I read your comment, buddy. Don't know why it didn't occur to me sooner.

    Eve, between you and Coleridge it's nice to know I'm not alone in this thing. :-)

  6. Wow, do I know about those breaks in contact from a story! Nice piece, Dixon!

  7. Thanks, Stephen. Do you have any tricks, you'd care to share, for handling them?

    In my current situation I'm considering trying to learn to write in quick snatches of time, maybe ten or fifteen minutes at a pop. Read about a well-known writer (don't recall the name) who said he always had at least three stories set up in three typewriters, at any given time, so he could write on whichever story he felt connected with when he had a moment to work.

    I don't know about three typewriters, but maybe having three stories saved to my desktop, so I could access them quickly when I had a brief chance, instead of trying to re-ground myself in one particular story each time ... maybe that would shake things up a bit and help me mentally vault over this problem.

  8. The writer you might be thinking of, Dixon, I believe is Isaac Asimov. It is said that he had several typewriters lined up on tables in a room, ready to write on one story and when he couldn't go further on it, he would jump to another story to keep things fresh.

  9. Dixon, I have no tricks. The only thing that works for me is to reread and wait. Eventually, it comes back.

  10. Fragility, my middle name.
    Actually, I'm glad you mentioned "time management." I think I'm going to put this on my To Do list. I've never been good at organizing a schedule and sticking to it in my early years but it's crucial now that the clock is ticking a little louder and maybe a bit faster.
    Darn. I've been on Sleuth Sayers for an hour and just missed church.


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