I remember a few years ago feeling I had reached the point where I was so stuffed with fiction I couldn’t read it anymore, and turned to NF. I am wondering whether it’s not happening again. I feel like my reading is flighty, agitated and skittish. I can’t commit, I flit around, looking for something easy and comfortable, something that won’t demand much of me. I just finished The Rosie Project and while I had tears of laughter describing Prof Don Tillman to my father when he popped in for a coffee on Saturday (not least because some of Don’s idiosyncrasies are not too far away from some of my father’s), I felt quite disconnected during the read. It was easy to read, and within two pages I knew it was clever and very funny, but like Don, I found it hard to feel ’emotional’ about it and I’m not sure if it’s my mood or the book or maybe a combination of the two. It was a lighter read than what I usually look for, I will say that but anything heavier and I would have been putting it down. I’m halfway through PM Newton’s The Old School and will return to that. I’m also part-way through the first Game of Thrones book which isn’t hard because I’ve watched the series and know the characters and basic plot. It’s all just a bit la-di-da, but I’m sure it’s me, not them. I just want easy and I wonder whether it’s also to do where I’m at with my writing. I am trying to find a still, quiet place to re-enter my zone for what I’m working on now (or trying to, which is wrangling a first draft into a second).
I have more novels stacked up – the two Carrie Tiffanys; Richard Ford’s Canada; Tristram Shandy; Louis de Bernieres’ Bird one; Don DeLillo’s Underworld and Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behaviour amongst others. But the reads that are grabbing my attention are the non-fiction ones. At the moment I am flying (heh) through Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott. It’s like a memoir of writing, and includes lots of how to craft information as well as very personal responses on managing professional jealousy (the book is subtitled ‘Some Instructions on Writing and Life’. It’s wonderful: funny, generous, personal and smart. She talks about the ‘fantasy’ of being a writer or of writing, that even the most successful and beautiful writers slog at it; about the suckiness of a first draft and accepting it then fixing it; and about ‘perfectionism being the voice of the oppressor’ and how it can ruin your writing and create blocks.
Here’s the gen on writing first drafts (p39):
Writing a first draft is very much like watching a Polaroid develop. You can’t—and, in fact, you’re not supposed to—know exactly what the picture is going to look like until it has finished developing. First you just point at what has your attention and take the picture… the film emerges from the camera with a grayish green murkiness that gradually becomes clearer and clearer, and finally you see the husband and wife holding their baby with two children standing beside them. At first it all seems very sweet, but then the shadows begin to appear, and then you start to see the animal tragedy*, the baboons baring their teeth. And then you see a flash of red bright red flowers in the bottom left quadrant that you didn’t even know were in the picture when you took it, and these flowers evoke a time or memory that moves you mysteriously. And finally, as the portrait comes into focus, you begin to notice all the props surrounding these people, and you begin to understand how props define us and comfort us, and show us what we value and what we need, and who we think we are.
You couldn’t have had any way of knowing what this piece of work would look like when you first started. You just knew that there was something about these people that compelled you, and you stayed with that something long enough for it to show you what it was about.
To me this means: don’t give up, stick with it. I guess experience will tell a writer whether s/he is banging on with something that isn’t going to develop properly but that would be another post. To me this is also saying that in Lamott’s opinion or experience, a lot of writing is instinctive, organic and arises naturally without too much plotting or outlining. This counterbalances the other stuff I’ve been reading lately, which has been all about the crafting, structuring, engineering. I’m thinking genre follows the latter and literary is more the former. What I’m going to try to do is borrow some of the screenplayish/genre’ry characteristics of a manuscript and make them work for my literary fiction. Wonder if it’s possible, we shall see.
* Don’t you love this? I do. ‘The animal tragedy.’