Digging for Words

One writer's quest to bring the past to life through imagination


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Writers – Vive la difference!

In the circles I’ve been a part of over the years, I’ve seen many configurations. Some writers groups consist only of poets, historical novelists, crime writers, or journalists. Certainly sharing a common bond of taste or a targeted goal of specific markets can increase the accuracy of critique, networking and professional guidance. But I personally believe these focused groups can be a recipe for disaster.

Competition is one of the most toxic elements in any creative endeavor, and when people work on similar styles or themes, inevitably the green beast is invited to enter the room. At its least harmful, writers – so fearful of critique – will simply withhold their trust until there’s little left of their group but a forum for false flattery. I’ve also seen these homogeneous writers groups disintegrate as members grow steadily more ruthless, attacking instead of supporting, jealously guarding their egos at another writer’s expense. What started out as support turns into personal affront as friends turn into angry enemies.

But I was blessed nearly from the beginning. The writers group I worked with for ten years consisted of a playwright, a television screenwriter, a young adult novelist, a poet and essayist, a literary novelist, and only one other literary historical writer. At the time, I wasn’t even sure what kind of writing I would eventually do. I just knew I had stories within me of a peculiar sort, and here was a group of women (That was just about our only common denominator!) who were willing to help me.

And I can also honestly share that, at the beginning, my writing wasn’t all that good. It took years for me to find my voice, to perfect my technique, to understand my own approach and my vision. I’m still honing it now, as I believe all writers do. As a teacher of new writers who look to me for help, I regularly recall for them my own feeble beginnings.

Now in my own class, I try to honor each writer for what he or she brings – a different voice, a new perspective, a unique understanding of the world that I can never express or even imagine until I experience it through their words. Some writers enter my class well polished, sometimes published, with a clear idea of why they’re there and what they plan to do. Others are flailing in the first shallows of much deeper waters. Some of my writers are “commercial”: they like plot and action; they don’t care much for carefully crafted language, complex characters or imagery. Their approach is starkly different from my more “literary” writers. I tell them over and over that we cannot judge, that there’s room for every kind of voice, every expression of imagination. My goal is always to guide each writer to his or her own best work. I take what they offer and nudge, comfort, and gently push. And slowly, very slowly, each of them improves.

With all the different minds that surround our table, we often have dissenting voices, even loud disagreements about what a writer should do. When we get to that point, I shout, “It’s great that we disagree. Listen to everything. Then listen to yourself. Take only the suggestions that work for you.”

This is the only way to discover who YOU are as a writer. We each have to find our personal truth in whatever form it is revealed. Even published works rarely find unanimous approval. So when one of my “commercial” writers says, “OK, that was pretty. But why were we even in that scene?”, I say, “Great! So somewhere in that scene maybe you’ve missed a critical thread that draws the reader forward.” Meanwhile my more “literary” writers force everyone to dig deeper, to be more inventive. We even have a “cliché cop” – one writer who catches every slip into formulaic language. The end results are often magical as everyone sees the others’ work grow and slowly even the most divergent fall in love with what their opposites have achieved.

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Wet Soap and a Waterlogged Muse

I’ve received Elizabeth Gilbert’s TED talk from two very reliable friends, so I knew even before I watched that there was something powerful and relevant in her message. It’s about creativity – the power of it, the elusiveness of it, the fear that it will leave you as quickly as it came. I know the feeling well. There have often been times in my writing when I’ve felt quite literally possessed by voices that were not my own. Some people call it channeling, though I won’t go that far. Whatever it is comes to me in spurts or trickles. There are times when it seems the muse whispers in my ear. Other days, I’m not sure she’s there at all.

Gilbert mentions the poet Ruth Stone who said that sometimes a poem would come to her over the fields like a “thunderous train of air”, that she would run like hell to the house for pen and paper, but that sometimes she wouldn’t get there it time and the poem would rush off across the fields looking for another poet. For me, those moments often happen in the shower. The perfect image will fall upon me like the warm rain that rinses through my hair, and I will grab at it, repeating it over and over in my head, knowing that each time I grasp, I lose a little bit of it like trying to catch a floating, waterlogged soap bar. By the time I rush into the bedroom, still dripping, if I have even a tiny smidgen, I scratch out the thought, recognizing even as I do that I have lost something about it that was essential.

Still, I try. We all try. Because those fleeting moments are precious. Most often the words don’t flow or spurt or even trickle. Sometimes the words are just bricks – ugly gray cement bricks that must be hauled with brute force, piled up and crudely stuck together. The craft is in taking those bricks and carefully, meticulously sculpting them into something sturdy and perhaps someday beautiful.

That’s all we can do, as Ms. Gilbert says, with the “sheer human love and stubbornness to keep showing up” at our jobs as writers, as creative people, and as humans.


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The Seductive First Draft

I’ve been cleaning off my desk. It took longer than I thought, but these few weeks since I sent my manuscript to my agent have been fraught with minor illness and unexpected delays. Among the piles I found several half started articles, a couple of nearly finished essays, and a bunch of handwritten, spontaneous fictional sketches that I never even bothered to type into the computer. Most of them will never get farther than they are. Or perhaps in a fit of inspiration, I’ll finish them one by one and then pray that they’ll be read one day beyond the light of my office window.

There’s something seductive about that first inspiration, the idea for a story or essay or novel that comes to you in a flash. It shines in the mind like a brilliant, newborn star, or hangs just out of reach like succulent fruit waiting to be picked.

It is an illusion. Beware.

Those first words rush forth from you, brilliant, masterful. Then there’s the delving into research, all the planning, all those outlines for characters that will soon spring to life. But then, the blank page. How to become God on the last day of creation? All the supports are in place – the sun has risen, the moon set. The land and sea have been parted. The animals all roam among luxuriant forests or grassy, verdant plains. But how – how, indeed, to create a man? Or a woman? Or a child? Or a dog for that matter, someone or something that has light behind its eyes? That has thoughts and feelings and reasons for their words, if they have words at all? But then, you’ll need reasons for that, too, and a unique way of expressing them.

Slowly, I say. Slowly. Take your time.

About thirty pages in – or fifty, if you’re lucky – that first flush of momentum starts to slow down and the blank page doesn’t fill quite as smoothly as before. You discover on page 54 that indeed, the main character CAN’T come from a religious family because his attitudes are all wrong. Unless he’s a rebel. Yes, perhaps he’s a rebel. But then, you’ll have to go back and fix all that stuff about his blind devotion on page 27.

It goes on like that until somewhere around page 150 or 200, you start to understand the underlying themes of your own work. You’d written down ideas like that before: the overarching purpose, the inner life that drives your characters. But now you see that all of that was misguided, and the basic premise was both much simpler and much more complicated. So you start making notes, long notes, often incomprehensible, about what you must change, and ways to fill in the gaps you never even realized were there. And those notes fill a document or a wire-bound notebook, so you know you’ll have to go through them and think them out again. And while reviewing them one day, you’ll notice an uncomfortable number of brilliant contradictions.

Writing is not like life. It doesn’t roll forward of its own accord, any which way, whether you want it to or not. It must be wheedled and cajoled, shaped and fashioned to serve the vision of its master.

So if God’s really up there revising that epic book for the 5769th time, then take heart. He or she hasn’t gotten it right yet. So why should you, or I?