By Julie Smith
If you read books on writing that are actually written by writers (as opposed to writing teachers), you’ll probably end up being amazed that anything ever gets written at all. There’s something about fiction writers when they decide to dissect their craft—first they tell you they know nothing about writing, it’s really just a very mysterious process and they couldn’t possibly tell you how to do it. And then in the next chapter they turn into Prose Nazis with nasty whips in their hands. All of a sudden, they know exactly how to do it, and they’re going to bloody well insist that you follow directions or else.
Listen to Stephen King—“stories are found things, like fossils in the ground. Plot is…the writer’s jackhammer, the good writer’s last resort and the dullard’s first choice…”
Kind of resonates, doesn’t it? Bet he had fun writing that. He then goes on to tell you how Misery came to him pretty much in a dream. Now that’s an amazing fossil to find. King doesn’t even write mysteries as a rule, and Misery’s a classic, in my opinion one of the best mysteries ever written. And it came to him in a dream! We should all be so lucky.
King goes on to tell you that his process involves “excavating the fossil.., beginning with the situation and moving on to the characters.” Which I think is a really good way to go, but it’s not Anne Lamott’s way.
Listen to Lamott: “You sit down at the same time every day. You put a piece of paper in the typewriter, or you turn on your computer and bring up the right file, and then you stare at it for an hour or so. Then you begin rocking, just a little at first, and then like a huge autistic child….you squint at an image that is forming in your mind—a scene, a locale, a character, whatever—and you try to quiet your mind so you can hear
what that landscape or character has to say above the other voices in your mind. The other voices are like banshees and drunken monkeys.”
She goes on like that for pages and pages, many of them hilarious, but it all seems so hopeless you wonder why she isn’t hospitalized. And at some point she tells you there really is no other way. Though it’s not Stephen King’s way.
The question I always ask myself when I read writers growing impassioned about their methods is “What would Shakespeare do?” Would he sit at his computer and squint at an image? Would he say, hey, I’m gonna create some real art here, and not just some crap for the rabble in the pit, like Othello or Hamlet. Maybe I’ll have a dream and -–I know—I’ll call it “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”
And then I imagine him looking at his calendar, and thinking, oh no, the rent’s due, and so is the mortgage on that cottage at Stratford, and I don’t have any ideas. (By the way, some writers tell you writing absolutely doesn’t come from ideas. That that’s the last thing you want to have.) But remember, Will’s got a mortgage. So I see him grabbing a pint of ale with one hand and pulling out his well-worn copy of Plutarch’s Lives with the other and saying to himself, “Hey, guy, time to re-tell another one. Here’s one about Julius Caesar—maybe there’s a play in that.”
And then I get calm again.
Because in the end everybody’s got to do it their own way. The truth is, there are morning writers and night writers. There are outliners and free-formers. Some people even work backwards–John Irving is famous for writing his last chapter first and I can’t even conceive of that.
But I do think that all these advice-givers have one thing in common—and it has to do with what Robert Olen Butler calls “the zone.” There really is a place of the imagination where writers go, and where the subconscious—or the imagination– takes over, and the good news is, there are methods for getting there. You just have to experiment until you find yours.
But I like Will’s. Nothing focuses the mind like overdue bills.