Saturday, December 16, 2006

Stumbling Through the Wilderness

I do a lot of thinking about "the craft" of writing because I write a lot of articles in that "how to" category. Believe it or not I'm drawn to this know-it-all kind of writing for my own sake, not because I actually wish to enlighten others (nor do I believe I am some kind of expert). When I am forced to break down into six points or five paragraphs or 1800 words what it means to use action, or how to create a plot, or what makes characters seem 'real' to the reader, I have to scrutinize what is otherwise a very intuitive, non-logic based, frankly mysterious process that I engage in on a regular basis.

People generally think of writers as intellectuals, but I am NOT an intellectual. Nor am I a scholar. I am actually bad at details and hazy on specifics and I'm a bad argument-constructor and problem solver. I don't traffic in the world of well-thought out logic. I must work overtime when it comes to that element of writing until my head hurts and my eyes are sore.

I write much the same way I do any creative act: spontaneously, grasping filaments of imagination and idea and pulling them onto the page to see what I've got. For me, writing is far more like finger painting, or making soup than it is like thinking or idea-making. In fact, it's a lot like dreaming--abstract, emotionally-driven, vaguely imagistic but mostly just a bizarre assortment of symbol and a sense that meaning lurks beneath if only I can get lucid enough to figure it out.

I know there are many writers for whom writing IS an intellectual, logic-based act, who carefully plot and compose and revise with full awareness all the while. But I think there are a lot of writers out there like me. We write to discover, and we don't even know what it is we're after when a draft is done.

So when someone comments on our work, "What did you MEAN?" or "Why did X do that?" we often don't know ourselves until the moment the question is asked. Even then, maybe not.

I have only maybe once or twice in my life set out to write something with the meaning in mind (fiction, at least) and it usually didn't succeed because the better-honed skill in me is the one where I take all the odd mosaic pieces of my intention, put them together, then stand far back from the wall where I can look at the image as a whole. Then I rearrange and move and change and get frustrated and really stuck and kick and fight and go temporarily blind. And then meaning comes. It often surprises me, excites me and on really good days, makes me feel like ruler of my own universe.

I was telling someone the other day that I don't really like the process of writing those first drafts because it always feels rough and ungainly and imperfect--and I get very critical of myself. But I think that was an untrue statement. I do like it--I like that wild searching, that groping in the pitch after vague traceries of something important. More than liking it, it's the way I navigate through the world.

But I will keep writing those "how to" articles and books because they are the other half of the process by which I learn to shape my own wilderness into a landscape that someone else can enter into. Because along with a creative impulse, I still have a damn ego, too.



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