Rainy day. Good for writing. Good for contemplation. And I’m doing more of… guess what?
There’s a fragile glass ornament hanging from my floor lamp. It’s an ostrich feather enclosed in an oval glass bubble. I love this piece. It makes me think. The sunlight from my window makes every furry tendril of the feather come alive. It lives and breathes. The feather wants to fly.
My biggest challenge as a writer is learning how to contain the story. I am chock full of stories. They roll right off the top of my head. No problem there. To harness the stories, thread them on a central vein (the theme) and keep my writing airy and alive takes work. The enclosed glass form holds everything in. That is the form of the novel.
Hopefully with a little luck I can pull this off. What a miraculous feeling it is to get the feather inside the bubble. How do you contain a story? There are tricks and techniques, but most of all, it takes hard work. That reminds me– time to get back to my writing.
But first tea…
Happy Tuesday, dear friends!
If you whip a bowl of heavy cream for a desert topping, you notice at first it begins to thicken, then it starts to peak nicely and finally it’s perfect. What happens if you continue to beat it? You are in big trouble because the cream will clump up and turn into butter! Not exactly what you had in mind, right? The trick is (as with most things in life) knowing when to stop. It goes for writing too. Obsessive writers can beat their writing till it is flat and lifeless. Knowing when to walk away takes courage and humility.
Here’s the thing about over-crafting. You never quite know at which point the writing changed texture and lost its freshness. It’s not the big changes but obsessive nitpicking that does it: a word here, too many nips and tucks and before you know it the writing is clumpy and flat. Butter. When that happens to me, invariably somebody in my writers group will say, “What happened? The first version was so much better.” If I did not save the first version, it’s gone. It’s almost impossible to recapture the freshness turn the butter back to cream, so to say.
IN PORT OR NI PORG?
My bro-in-law tells us this story. He used to work in Merchant Navy in his younger days. Every time the ship docked in port and crew members went ashore they had to sign themselves out in a ledger. Next to their name they wrote the words “IN PORT” so others knew they had left the ship. Now, there was this Chinese cook. Let’s call him Wong. Wong spoke no English and knew just enough alphabets to sign the ledger. One day bro-in-law looks in the ledger and here is what he finds:
First day Wong writes: IN PORT
Second day Wong writes: NI PORT
Third day Wong writes: NI PORG
From IN PORT to NI PORG!!
This may be a stretch, but the point I am trying to make is this: if you obsessively reshuffle words and piranha-nibble your writing, you can lose the sense of what you were writing about somewhere along the way. It happens in subtle stages. So instead of being safely IN PORT you could be floating in NI PORG! Does this make even sense? Well, whatever.
And here’s my parting advice: never rewrite on an empty stomach and always drink plenty of tea.
Have you beaten your writing into butter? Instead of smooth sailing have you been marooned in NI PORG? Are these silly questions? You decide.
Cheers and have a good weekend!
STEPHEN KING On Writing: I have never read Stephen King, but I love this book. Read it several times. It really helped ground me in the writing process. King does not bullshit. He comes from the school of hard knocks. He can be so damn funny – like side-splitting funny! Who would have thought! I expected him to be a morose and gloomy character. No way!
FRANCINE PROSE Reading like a Writer: This book helped me develop a discerning eye for reading. It does somewhat spoil the joy of just losing yourself in a story but eventually you get beyond that. It is great way to understand the stuff good writing is made of. It’s humbling and inspiring at the same time.
ANNE LAMOTT Bird by Bird: A joyous and hilarious read, full of warm humanity. This book taught me not to take myself too seriously: not to get “too sexy for my shirt”. When writers become prima donnas, they are no longer any fun. Read the chapter on “Jealousy”. If you as a writer have not felt this way one time or another – you are a saint!
What books have helped you develop your craft or shaped your philosophy as a writer? Please share!