Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Writing in Fragments

Sometimes you can shape your life to the cadences of your creativity. Sometimes you have to shape the cadences of your creativity to your life.

When I first decided to become a writer, at the recklessly young age of 20, I embraced Hemingway's preferred writing rhythm: to wake early, write for two or three hours, until the writing juices were spent, and then not think about what you've written the rest of the day–a strategy to replenish those precious creative juices, to let thoughts percolate in the unconscious.

I constructed my life so that I could write in such a manner for several years (waiting tables at night so that my mornings were perfectly pristine for writing), and I loved that life. I'd love to live that life now, in fact, but I have children now, and I have to work 9-5 jobs, the kind with health insurance, so my time to write becomes ever more narrow and unpredictable, a matter of fragments, or even fragments within fragments.

Instead of writing in my best moments, I write mostly in my worst moments, late at night or during the intermission of a child's performance or in the five minutes I have before booting up the computer in the morning (I probably spend a little bit more time with my kids than Hemingway did).

This is all to say that I'm constantly scheming and rethinking my writing process, if not the actual products of writing itself.

I recently flipped through Francine Prose's Reading Like a Writer in search of random writerly guidance and she commented how the best writers create their minor characters in just a few deft strokes. As an example, she showed how Jane Austen “speedily and almost offhandedly dispatches” Mr. and Mrs. John Dashwood.

“He was not an ill-disposed young man, unless to be rather coldhearted, and rather selfish, is to be ill-disposed: but he was, in general, well respected; for he conducted himself with propriety in the discharge of his ordinary duties. Had he married a more amiable woman, he might have been made still more respectable than he was: he might even have been made amiable himself; for he was very young when he married, and very fond of his wife. Mrs. John Dashwood was a strong caricature of himself;–more narrow minded and selfish.”

Capturing a character in just a few lines is a difficult thing to do, but it plays into a writing project I just started. In tandem with the literary journal I began earlier this year, 100 Word Story, I've been trying to write one 100-word story each day. It relieves the tension and frustration of not being able to truly delve into the writing life, but it also does a number of things:
  • Makes me pause and notice things in a way that I ordinarily wouldn't because I have to conjure a new story each day;
  • Makes me focus on a condensed, succinct piece of writing–no fluff, no extra words, no padding;
  • Helps me keep the writing momentum going–and even develop future longer pieces (I look to some character sketches as the foundation for future NaNoWriMo novels);
  • Allows me to have a number of prose poems and short shorts to be able to submit to magazines–so I can submit more frequently, instead of waiting months to finish a 20 or 25 page story (literary journals are more likely to publish shorter pieces anyway) or years to complete my novel.

I've been applying the Francine Prose quote to characters from stories I've written over the years to see how I can distill their characteristics into such a short space. I'm also occasionally taking characters from current longer pieces and writing miniature stories about them. Even if I never do anything with these pieces, they are a way to enrichen my longer stories and extend them in different directions.

It's safe to say that I will probably never again experience my “ideal writing life”–life is rarely so kind–but circumstances often unexpectedly lead one to a better place. I think of Lydia Davis, who decided that she couldn't possibly write a novel as a single mother, so she wrote all of the intriguing short shorts that made her name. Likewise, Toni Morrison, another single mother, finished her first novel by writing for 15 minutes each day after putting her children to bed.

Progress happens in the accumulation of increments. That's where I find my writing faith at the moment. I bow to small things and hope they lead to larger things.