Writing Is and Isn’t

(re-posted from Adventures in Fiction)

I’ve been missing in action, out of touch with much of the rest of my life, rarely leaving the house but wandering it when I wasn’t occupying a corner of it, head down, writing a short story for a contest.

Yes. I abandoned everything else for a contest. And what a frustrating, enlightening, depressing, wonderful, horrible, encouraging few weeks these have been.

Writing a short story within determined parameters — word count, genre, deadline, etc. — can seem daunting or constrictive, but I like the challenge. It forces me to write differently than I do for a novel or for my own pleasure. On my own, I can take my time, let the story unravel as it wills, at its own pace and down whatever rabbit trails it wishes to explore. Those, after all, can be revised later, and there’s no rush. For a contest, however, there’s a set time and a set limit, and I must create something that plays well inside that fence.

This short story was harder to write than the two novels I’m currently revising or completing. There were times in the past four or five weeks when I thought, “It’s just a contest. It doesn’t mean anything. Why work so hard when there are other projects that need tending? This is a waste of time.”

But I couldn’t stop.

Writing.

It’s an illness.

It’s aqua vitae.

For non-writers, let me explain writing.

It isn’t glamorous. There are no beach chairs and mojitos involved. There is a lot of hard work and head-desking and pleas for help from passing family members who really don’t know how to solve the plot hole, they’re just on their way to the kitchen, thankyouverymuch.

It isn’t all inspiration and grand eloquence. There is a whole lotta literary crap thrown down that must then be turned over and worked into the soil of verbiage until words come alive and a story grows. And then the branches must be tended, trimmed, shaped. That’s called editing. The shrubbery doesn’t need to take over the yard or overshadow the trees. It needs to be its own thing, and thats what revision/editing achieves. Writing is an ugly business — until it’s beautiful.

It isn’t holding a quill pen and gazing soulfully at the sky, although you’re free to do that if it helps. There is a lot of gazing at the sky, though, or at any nearby object or activity that has nothing to do with one’s story. Sometimes, one stares at strangers in airports without realizing one’s mind is centuries in the past while one’s blank stare is pinioning a hapless fellow traveler.

It isn’t neatly packaged in a daily routine. It is often elusive. If I stare at the computer screen or the blank notebook page for too long without writing, something must change. Words or ideas must sometimes be approached at an oblique angle, as if I were catching rabbits, so I do something to set them at ease – play solitaire, watch a TV show, read a book, take a walk, do laundry, take photos at the park, do research — and let the literary rabbits nibble grass or go about their business until they wander into my snare. Or within pouncing distance. (Sometimes I’m the crafty hunter, sometimes I’m his dopey, eager dog.)

It isn’t just writing what you know. It is researching to learn something you didn’t know, and then writing about it. Writing can feel a lot like perpetual homework. I’m doing now the kind of work I avoided in school. How weird is that? But research can lead to unexpected discoveries, friendships, trips, and new stories. I did more research for the short story than I’ve done for the most recent novel, and in the process learned a lot about Japanese history and how apple trees were introduced to the country. Boring? Trivial? To some. For me, however, it flung wide the doors of imagination.

It isn’t all book signings, seminar speeches, televised interviews, or drinking coffee while looking hip at the local diner. It is being unafraid to call oneself a writer, being dedicated to one’s craft, and passing one’s wisdom to the next crop of writers.

Now that the short story has been sent to the contest, I’ve turned toward proofing a galley for another writer, and then I’ll be revising a novel, learning about e-book formatting, and maybe reviewing a few more books. Because, y’know, homework.

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