Showing posts with label writing life. Show all posts
Showing posts with label writing life. Show all posts

12 February 2024

Solitary confinement.

            Novels, short stories and poetry may be the last bastions of solitary writerly pursuits.  With the exception of the rare co-author team, most fiction writers labor in isolation, islands unto themselves.  In other creative fields employing writers, notably film and TV, and advertising, creativity is a team sport.  Playwrights usually start out on their own, but in the course of production, others are likely to stick their hands in the cookie jar. The playwright still gets all the credit, but she knows that others had their say.

            I’ve written alone and as part of a team and each has its charms.  This may be self-evident.  When working alone, all you have is yourself, and you can write what you want.  No one is over your shoulder, no one is scowling at one of your ideas (except your editor, who usually comes in at the end of the game).  It’s you alone, all by yourself, the god of your world, immune from interruption or censure.  It’s what I also love about fine woodworking and single-handed sailing. 

            But few places on earth are more fun and exhilarating than a writers room.  In advertising, we usually worked in teams of two – a copywriter and an art director, where our specialization would dissolve at the conceptual stage and each would throw in ideas for art or copy without restriction.  I might have a half-baked notion that my partner would slice into a fine part and add something interesting.  I’d take this fledgling thought and add something else, and it would go from there.  Before we knew it, something workable would emerge, and when the creative director came into the room, we’d have something to show for the time spent.           

            When writing alone, all the talk is inside your head.  In a writers room, the talk is usually about anything other than the thing you’re supposed to be working on.  If this was recorded, most strict administrators would fire us for wasting precious business time on nonsense.   But we knew we were actually circling the idea, finding context, getting to the destination via a circuitous route.  That’s because we were always thinking about the task at hand, and any nutrition from the conversation went directly into the conceptual efforts.  Ideas beget ideas.  Talk gives birth to lines of thinking that spew out concepts.  This is how it works. 

            Advertising might not be the noblest of pursuits, but it’s not that easy to do well, and when it all comes together, the adrenalin flows just as strongly as when you compose a satisfying piece of fiction (though some would argue advertising and fiction are not that different from one another).

            In his book The Innovators, Walter Isaacson maintains that the most important common element of all history-making digital advances was collaboration.  He makes his case vividly and convincingly.  Though he also cites iterations as key components.  One idea building on another.  You could apply this to fiction.  Where would the modern detective novel be without Dashiell Hammett and Sam Spade?  What constitutes inspiration versus simply cribbing from an earlier work?  

             Discerning readers know the difference.  They can spot a derivation, which can be rewarding, and just as easily condemn a book as derivative.  I once wrote a book that was heavily influenced by the first chapters of James Joyce's Ulysses, which my editor mentioned to a Joyce scholar he knew.  The scholar was offended, telling the editor that my work had nothing to do with Joyce.  Okay, but I knew how I felt when I was working on that book, the same way I felt reading about Stephen Dedalus.  In the quiet of my private mind, I told the Joycean snob to stick it where the self-importance doesn't shine.  

            I think it’s fair to say that an iteration, at its most benign, is a form of collaboration.  Musicians will tell you at least half of popular music is based on the traditional 12-bar blues - tonic, sub-dominant, dominant - format (Steve Liskow, please weigh in).  That doesn’t mean so many priceless songs are illegitimate.  

Often when confronted with two equally appealing alternatives, I vote for both.  Working alone is the best, except when working in a team.  I wouldn’t have it any other way.



05 June 2023

Write the next chapter, or install a new mailbox? Hmm.

I always want to be doing anything other than the thing I’m supposed to be doing.  This is the impulse that drives my productivity.  It’s why I have so many irons in the fire, because there’s nothing like a fresh iron to take your mind off the ones already in the forge. 

The problem with working on the thing I’m supposed to be working on is it’s hard.  It’s hard because people are usually waiting for it to be finished by a certain deadline.   It’s much easier to be working on something no one is waiting for, because no one but you knows it’s being worked on.  These projects are always my favorites.  They’re only between me and my anonymous impulses.  Since I always feel compelled to write stuff, this is a happy state.  I get to do what I want with no danger of pressure or reproach. 

I think most writers are the same way.  Procrastination yields tremendous results.  There’s nothing like a short story deadline to get a person out there in the garden transplanting shrubbery, or calling up neglected relatives to learn how they’re doing, even if the response is to wonder why the hell you’re calling them in the first place. 

The urge to procrastinate is behind all my re-writing.  I tell myself I can’t possibly write anything fresh, but I can always invest screen time going over existing material.  The result is very useful rejiggering, which often stumbles into fresh composition, despite myself. 

I don’t fear the blank page.  In fact, I like it.   What I fear is hard work, which original writing always is.  I know I can do it, since so far I always have, though that doesn’t mean I don’t resist launching the effort.  I feel the same way about preparing my taxes or hauling out the trash.  All past evidence proves I can do these tasks, and when I’m done, will feel richly satisfied.    But getting started is a drag.  And since I’m an inherently energetic person, I look for something else to do instead, like study the Ming dynasty or repaint the living room.  

I’ve published 18 books so far and written about 22.  Not to mention all those short stories and essays.  And written countless lines of commercial copy.  Enough writing to have cleared a few acres of Southern pine and done some damage to my elbows and carpel tunnels.  But I marvel at people like Isaac Asimov, who would wake up in the morning and just write all day long, rolling his chair from typewriter to typewriter writing several books, or scientific papers, simultaneously.  Did his fingers ever get tired?   The late, great Donald Bain published 125 books.  How many more did he actually write?  How did he keep his elbows going?  

Did Asimov, Bain, and that other freak of productivity, Stephen King, feel drawn to write because they were avoiding something else they thought they should be doing?  Origami?  Cleaning out the garage?  Learning French?

All the best writing advice says you should sit down in front of the keyboard every day for a subscribed amount of time and write something.  I never do this.  My subscribed amount of time appears willy-nilly, often when I’m avoiding doing something else I really should be doing.  Suddenly, there I am, sitting down in front of the keyboard.  This could happen at any time day or night, any day of the week.  As it constantly does.

Now that I’m done writing this, I’ll go split the wood that’s been calling to me.