January 07, 2007

The Prison of Imagination

***This post is dedicated to M., who said, and I quote, "Blog more." :-)

“All my life I’ve been frightened at the moment I sit down to write.”

So said Colombian novelist Gabriel García Márquez, whose fear of writing did not stop him from winning the Nobel Prize for Literature, for One Hundred Years of Solitude, a masterpiece of fiction and magical-realism known the world over.

It is nice to know that in my fear of the blank page, in the gripping terror that engulfs me when I sit down to write, I am in good company.

In the two months since I posted “The Tyranny of the Blank Page,” in which I wrote about the mental and emotional obstacles to writing fiction, I am ashamed to admit I have not written much of anything. A few more blog posts, yes. (Few being the operative word.) But nothing that will start me along my slow, long struggle to reach the bestseller lists.

Like I said in that first post, I’ve had nothing but gobs and gobs of free time to write. And yet, I’ve done gobs and gobs of just about everything but write. (Well, no, that’s not really true. All I've really done is watched gobs and gobs of The X-Files, and Quantum Leap, thanks to a week and a half of leave time, and a subscription to Netflix, which, I hereby declare, is the greatest thing since Nutella. (Why Nutella? Well, let’s face it folks, “sliced bread” isn’t really all that great, is it? You could easily buy a whole loaf of bread and slice it yourself. But how would you possibly get all that chocolately and hazelnutty goodness whipped up so smoothly on your own? … I rest my case.)

In my defense, during all this time in which I haven’t been writing, I’ve at least been thinking about writing. In fact, I’ve done so much thinking, and so much introspection, that I may have finally discovered exactly what it is that has kept me from putting pen to paper (or hands to keyboard, as it were), more often.

It’s my imagination. I’m a prisoner of my own imagination.

(This, of course, is a natural sequel for “The Tyranny of the Blank Page,” but I have to admit, I’m beginning to wonder what it says about me, when I resort to using such violent words in association with something I claim to love so much…)

If you’ve ever seen the movie The Shawshank Redemption, you might remember a character named Brooks Hatlen. Brooks was a white-haired, older gentleman, who had spent his entire adult life inside the Shawshank facility. At one point in the movie, he gets released. (I don’t remember if he was paroled, or if his sentence was up. It’s not important. The point is, he got out of prison.) Brooks got a job bagging groceries at a supermarket, and found himself a small apartment. The thing is, he had spent so much of his life at Shawshank, that he didn’t know how to function anywhere else. Inside the prison walls, he was safe. The minute he stepped outside, however, everything fell apart. Nothing was what he expected it to be, and he simply couldn’t adjust. He was so frustrated and so scared by his failure to adapt to the outside world, that he wound up hanging himself.

You must be thinking, how could this possibly be related to writing? Well, let me see if I can explain what I mean when I say my imagination is a prison.

When I get an idea for something, whether it’s a poem, a short story, or a novel, it’s always perfect. At the moment of conception, when my mind gets the very first inkling of something that would be worth writing, the entity is complete, whole, and pristine. It’s almost as though the start, the middle, and the end, are all wrapped up in a little ball, or better yet, a single point.

The Italian writer Italo Calvino wrote a story called “All At One Point.” It was set during the time just before the Big Bang, when everything, and I mean everything, was converged in a central, infinitesimal point. People were always fighting, because there was no room to move around. Everyone, by definition of the point they were trapped in, was invading everyone else’s personal space. There were plants, and animals, and houses, and everything else we think of when we think of the world, even though it was before most of those things had evolved, or were invented. The story required a great degree of suspension of disbelief, but if you could manage to put aside your questions and doubts, and your junior high school physics, it made for really entertaining reading.

I mention Calvino’s story to try and explain what an idea looks like in my mind. It’s all converged in a point. A tiny speck. And yet, it’s all there: characters, a plot, lines of dialogue, a great opening sentence, and an even better closing. All the symbols, all the wonderful descriptions, all the joy, all the heartbreak, is wrapped up inside itself, around itself, in this beautiful, pristine form.

The difficulty starts when I try to take the ideas out of my head, and put them on paper. To take something that exists in a perfect, untouched, abstract state, and give it a physical shape. To take these incredible visions, this amazing potential, and transform it into letters and words, and hope that none of the greatness gets lost in translation.

My imagination is a prison because, just like old Brooks inside Shawshank, my ideas are safe inside my imagination. As long as they stay there, they remain perfect. They have the best possible opening line, the best possible final sentence, and, most important of all, everything in between conveys exactly what I wanted to express, in exactly the right way, so that the reader takes away every single nuance, and every single feeling I wanted them to have.

The minute I start to actually write, however, things can only go downhill. If an idea is perfect inside my mind, then when it leaves, and starts to take shape as not a notion, but a novel, it can only get worse. Maybe I won’t find just the right word. Maybe I won’t be subtle enough. Maybe I’ll be too subtle. Maybe the way the character looks to me in dim light, or moonlight, or broad daylight, won’t be the way he looks to my readers, because I’ve failed to describe him the right way. Maybe they won’t laugh when I want them to. Or maybe they’ll laugh when I don’t want them to. Maybe they won’t cry, because my writing doesn’t convey the torturous, soul-sucking emotional agony my character is in.

And now, for a fun break, here are two quotes that summarize this feeling, and also show me I am not alone in this neurosis:

The story I am writing exists, written in absolutely perfect fashion, some place, in the air. All I must do is find it, and copy it. – Jules Renard

Every creator painfully experiences the chasm between his inner vision and its ultimate expression. The chasm is never completely bridged. We all have the conviction, perhaps illusory, that we have much more to say than appears on the paper. – Isaac Bashevis Singer

I know that this fear is a big part of why I don’t write as much as I should. What I don’t know is where it came from, or how to make it go away. Making it go away is probably very simple. I would think that writing more is the only way to make it go away. The more often I overcome this fear, the less I’ll have to fear, right? Once you’ve slain six dragons, slaying the seventh is a piece of cake.

As for where it came from, well, I’m not really sure how to answer that. I suspect it has a lot to do with what I talked about in “The Tyranny of the Blank Page.” The rest of it, though, has to do with my own expectations.

In all the time I’ve spent thinking (and not writing) in the past few weeks, I realized there’s more to it than what I said about living up to the standards of other writers. The fear of falling so far short of my personal literary idols is very real, so I don’t want to dismiss it. However, I have come to realize that what has stopped me from writing is actually the fear of living up to my own standards. The ideas in my head are so beautiful in their undisturbed state, and the heart of the issue is that I doubt my ability to make them as good when I put them on paper.

The thing is, I don’t know why I question my talent. I’ve proven to myself over and over again that I can do it. During the past four years (and I can NOT believe it’s been that long), I’ve written an impressive collection of JAG fan fiction stories. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the concept of fan fiction, in a nutshell, you take the characters from a TV show (or movie), and write your own stories with them in it. Some people try to make their stories just like regular episodes. Others, like me, take a more literary approach. We use the characters, stay true to their backstories, and stick to show canon, but we write as if it’s a “normal” short story or novella. (Go ahead and laugh … how do you think those old Star Trek novels got started? And I bet some of those people have made plenty of money over the years!)

I used to be embarrassed about my obsession with JAG. It was all I talked about, all I thought about, and all I wanted to think about. I got hooked on it in early 2002, and wrote my first “fic” in October of that year. I watched it as often as I could, which, courtesy of syndication on the USA Network, was about three times a day. JAG had been on the air since 1995. Thanks to those reruns, and also to being unemployed, I caught up on six seasons in about six months. Through not having a job at all, to having a job I hated, to being in graduate school, to hating graduate school, and through joining the military, JAG was the one thing I could always count on to cheer me up. I scoured the Internet for JAG-related websites, and was certainly not disappointed. I came across a few fan fiction sites, and the rest, as they say, is history.

I used the phrase “used to be embarrassed” about my fan fiction hobby, because enough time has passed, and I’ve written enough stories, that I’m actually very proud of what I’ve accomplished. Since I do not own the copyright for JAG or any of the associated characters, I can’t have my stories published in “the real world.” I do, however, have a relatively large following on the Internet. (I post my stories to several websites, each time making sure that it is clearly stated that I do not own the copyrights, that no infringement is intended, and that no money is being made from my work. And, as I constantly had to tell myself during those years of writing nothing but JAG fanfics, it was better than writing nothing! … Kind of like when I write in this blog!)

I’m very proud of the JAG writing I’ve done. And, even though I can’t make a name for myself in the literary world by using characters someone else invented, the effort I’ve put into those stories has without question made me a better writer. I loved working on those stories, since they allowed me to be immersed so deeply in the JAG world. And now, when I look back on the pieces I produced, my heart gets warmer not only because I remember how there were days when JAG (and the online community it introduced me to) seemed like the only good thing in my life, but more so now because I see how much my writing has improved. My first stories were good. The ones in the middle were better. The latest ones are excellent. So, even though I won’t be able to buy a yacht off the royalties from them, the true payoff is the improvement in my craft. Writing so many of those stories helped me to fit the pieces of the puzzle together better. How did all the individual scenes fit into the bigger picture? Was one particular line of dialogue so essential, that I needed to build an entire scene around it? Or, my most hated, was a certain scene so good, and so well written, but just didn’t jell with the rest of it? Would I have to let it fall on the cutting room floor, and accept that just because it sounded good, didn’t mean it worked in that particular story?

Anyway, I mentioned my catalogue of JAG stories because they are proof not only that I can overcome my fear, but that the fear is unfounded in the first place. I wasn’t so afraid at the beginning, when I first started writing fan fiction. But maybe that’s because my stories were simple, and relatively short. But later on, during the last two years, as my writing itself got better, the stories I wanted to tell become more complex.

I’ve never been very good at coming up with plots. I’ve always relied on the notion that my writing was strong enough, and the JAG characters so well formed, that readers would hardly notice they were reading thirty pages of description, dialogue, and exposition, with nothing actually “happening.”

And it worked, too! Readers loved it! I had them fooled, bless their giant, JAG-loving hearts! The thing was, I wasn’t fooled. I knew I was going to have to learn how to write a decent plot, if I ever wanted to be a “real” writer.

I have since written two JAG stories with (if I do say so myself) very kick-ass plots. Both stories were extremely well-received. Readers liked them, and they told me so. And, more important, I liked them. I was quite satisfied, and not a little impressed, with how they both turned out.

The funny thing is, I remember how terrified I was while I was writing them. I had a very clear picture of certain scenes in my mind, and I was convinced I’d never be able to do them justice on paper. The pivotal moments wouldn’t be as dramatic as I wanted them to be. As I had imagined they would be. I wouldn’t do a good enough job of leading up to them. Or they were so complex I couldn’t get a handle on them. I was like an interior decorator, working with a completely empty room. I knew I had a living room, but depending on what color I chose for the walls, and for the carpet, the room would have an entirely different feel. Putting a sofa on the left side could create a whole different look from putting it on the right. With these two stories, everything wound up in the right place, but it took a long time to move the pieces around. It took a lot of arranging and rearranging, before it sounded just right.

The great thing was, I did it by myself. I asked other writers, whose work I admired, for advice. I even went so far as to ask one of them if she would co-write one of the stories with me, since I doubted, even from the very first moment, that I could “pull it off.” She was too busy working on something else at the time, so I wound up writing it on my own. It wasn’t easy, but I did it. All the good ideas on those pages, all the drama, the suspense, the joy, and the sadness, came from me. There are a few specific scenes that come to mind when I think of these two stories. A few scenes, around which everything else was hinged. They were pivotal moments, and I didn’t want them to fall flat. The good news is, general consensus by my “fans” said they didn’t. And, even better, I say they didn’t. Even now, months and years later, when I reread them, I don’t think I could have done a better job.

When I go back and read some of those old stories, I’m often surprised at how good they are. (When I go back too far, though, like to junior high school, or even elementary school, I’m embarrassed by most of what I wrote, and if bits and pieces of book reports or very early attempts at short stories ever turn up in the Enquirer, or on the E! network, when I’m famous, I’ll deny everything.) But seriously, at the risk of singing my own praises, I’m usually pretty impressed when I read my work. I sometimes even say to myself, “Damn, this is good! I can’t believe I wrote this!”

Like Garcia Marquez, I am always afraid when I sit down to write. Even if I know what I want to say; even if I already know the ending. Even if I know everything that has to happen, I doubt my ability to string it all together in a way that anyone in their right mind would want to read.

My friend S’s favorite author, John Irving, said it best: “I don’t know how far away the end is – only what it is. I know the last sentence, but I am very much in the dark concerning how to get to it.”

My strategy used to be the same. I would come up with a fabulous ending, and then, all I needed to do was figure out how to reach it. This is still my favorite way to write, but my last few JAG stories were written very much out of order. I wrote scenes as they developed in my head, and then, when I had enough of the major scenes done, I wrote the little things necessary to connect them all.

I’ve realized I can write from start to finish, or finish to start, or completely jumbled up, and it’ll always turn out fine. The trick is keeping sight of the big picture. Where do each of those scenes fit in? What needs to happen before I can put a scene in its proper place? What needs to happen afterward? Is the plot strong enough to stand on its own, without a lot of character insight? Or, on the other side, are the characters, and their interactions with each other, so powerful that I don’t need an amazing plot?

I go through what I call a “simmering” stage, when I write. I get an idea, and it has to simmer in my mind for a while. I have to think about it before I can write about it. I have to have enough of it planned out in my head before I’ll be ready to start writing. I can come up with details anywhere: daydreaming at work (my favorite); laying in bed; reading someone else’s work. I’ve started carrying around a mini notebook, so I can jot things down before I forget them. At one point, while I was working on my longest JAG story (which weighed in at a whopping 224 pages—in a 9-pt font!!), my desk was covered in fluorescent-colored Post-it-Notes, each one with a few lines of dialogue, or the gist of a scene I had yet to write.

Sometimes ideas simmer for days, sometimes months, and in one rare case, it took two years. (I got a great idea for a story in August 2004, and even wrote a bare-bones outline. I got sidetracked by various things, including another story that I chose to write first (and which ended up at a not-too-shabby 176 pages, in 10-pt font). But, I never gave up on it. It was always in the back of my mind, doing what my ideas do best: simmering. I kept my notes in a safe place. I remembered the central theme I wanted to present, and I stayed true to it. I am pleased to report that the pot finally boiled over this summer. I started writing it in July, and finished in September. (Not bad, for 92 pages! It still tickles me to know I incorporated lines of dialogue I had written two years earlier! It just goes to show, you never know when you’ll use something. If not now, then maybe in something you write a few years down the road. If it’s genuinely good, it’ll be just as good later. And if it’s not, then you know it wasn’t that good to begin with…)

Besides the fear of living up to my own expectations, there’s one other thing that makes me question myself every time I sit down to write. It’s the little voice that tells me no one would ever want to read about _________. I don’t know if this is something all authors have to overcome, the “Who Cares Syndrome.”

I wonder if Betty Smith ever asked herself why anyone would want to read about a poor girl growing up Brooklyn in the 1920s. (A Tree Grows in Brooklyn). Or if John Jakes ever told himself that no one would read a saga about families torn apart by the Civil War. (North and South). Or if Terry Goodkind ever asked himself why anyone would give a damn about love, war, and one man’s journey to fulfill his destiny in a faraway, imaginary land? (Wizard’s First Rule).

I can only rely on the truth I find in my absolute favorite quote about writing:

“When I want to read a good book, I write one.” -- Benjamin Disraeli

Every JAG story I’ve written was a story I wanted to read. But, since no one had written it yet, it was up to me. If I wanted to read about __________, I was going to have to write it, myself. And, I must say, four years, and I-don’t-know-how-many-stories later, I’ve done a pretty good job. I haven’t done much writing, but I’ve done enough to know that I don’t trust anyone else to write the way I do. If I had given one of my ideas to someone else, they would have written the story in an entirely different way. Not necessarily worse, but definitely different. And it’s just like the quote says: if I want to read a certain kind of story, hear specific kinds of language, and form specific kinds of images in my mind, I’m going to have to write the story myself.

After all, I’m the only one who can read my mind. I’m the only one who can take those abstract images and transform them into the exact words I want, the exact pace, the exact tone. So, no matter how afraid I am to do it, I have no choice. I’m the only one who can.

And now, I’ll leave you with a selection of my favorite quotes about writing, taken from http://www.quotegarden.com/writing.html

There's nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein. ~~Walter Wellesley "Red" Smith


Easy reading is damn hard writing. ~~Nathaniel Hawthorne


The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug. ~~Mark Twain


Writing is easy: All you do is sit staring at a blank sheet of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead. ~~Gene Fowler


Everywhere I go I'm asked if I think the university stifles writers. My opinion is that they don't stifle enough of them. There's many a bestseller that could have been prevented by a good teacher. ~~Flannery O'Connor


The coroner will find ink in my veins and blood on my typewriter keys. ~~C. Astrid Weber


An author in his book must be like God in the universe, present everywhere and visible nowhere. ~~Gustave Flaubert


A writer is somebody for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people. ~~Thomas Mann


Having imagination, it takes you an hour to write a paragraph that, if you were unimaginative, would take you only a minute. Or you might not write the paragraph at all. ~Franklin P. Adams

**Also, if you're interested in the JAG stories, you can find them at: http://groups.yahoo.com/group/StarTrailsJAGfic (There's a link in the list to the right on this page.) But, I have to warn you, some of the stories there are of an "adult" nature. If you're under 18, you might go blind if you try to read them!

1 comment:

Beth C said...

Here's irony for you: I read this post while procrastinating from my own writing. ;)

Two things help me kick-start myself in this arena. One is having a deadline. Nothing gets the blood flowing better than the fear that you'll lose something by failing to put words on a page. A manuscript deadline may be months away, but there's a serious penalty for busting it -- like not seeing the work get published. So I tend to work toward interim self-imposed deadlines...which means I need to get a chapter done by the end of the week.

My other helping hand is the knowledge that nothing has to be perfect the first time. Throw something down on the page, and if it doesn't completely click then change it, reread it, change it back, change it again. We don't lose points for that, and it takes some of the pressure off that first draft, even if it's just pressure you've put on yourself. It's always easier to revise than to create from scratch. Just have to be able to get started. :)