Monday, April 23, 2007

"Writin'" Books

Earlier this month I came back from the post office and tore open my Amazon package to find: The War of Art by Steven Pressfield, and Narrative Design by Madison Smartt Bell. Ah, just in the nick of time! I’ve been working on The Novel. And I’ve stopped having fun.

I read Pressfield first. It’s a slender book, similar in build (if not substance) to Sun Tzu’s The Art of War. Chapters can be as long as three pages. More likely they’ll be shorter. To wit, here’s one entitled What I Know, in its entirety:

There’s a secret real writers know that wannabe writers don’t, and the secret is this: It’s not the writing part that’s hard. What’s hard is sitting down to write.

What keeps us from sitting down is Resistance.

Such sentiments have a very limited currency with me, alas: I simply don’t find sitting down that difficult. I sat down five times to write this blog entry. I took five separate stabs at it, too. In those five attempts I wrote a pile of words that shall remain blessedly unseen by others, so I think I can say with some authority that sitting down and writing isn’t the difficulty for me. Writing something worthy of posting, however, has been a bit of a trick lately.

Pressfield has written some books I very much enjoy: Gates of Fire and Tides of War are terrifically compelling historical novels. The man is no stranger to research, but unlike other novelists who’ve tried their hand at historical fiction, Pressfield makes a keen distinction between the baby and the bathwater, and if these two novels are the norm for him, he consistently delivers the former to his readers.

The War of Art, however, does not deal with issues of discernment, nor does it mean to; it is a motivational piece. The copy I have has been blessed by Jay McInerney and (hello!) Robert McKee, and Esquire magazine calls it, “A vital gem ... a kick in the ass.” Though Pressfield dutifully addresses the writer as “she” in one chapter, then “he” in the next, I suspect men are more likely to buy it.

There must be writers who respond well to a kick in the ass. Me? Not so much. I wish I'd found a copy in a bookstore and perused it before buying. The book can be read from cover to cover in less than an hour, and to my eyes it’s not that far removed from The Artist’s Way — which I’ve read and followed, by the way, and find modestly helpful. But since I’ve raised the specter of The Artist’s Way, here’s a question that niggles at me: what is it about Hollywood that gets writers talkin' religion when they talk craft? Do they have baskets of money that verbally prompt these people to use language that's, well, just a tad flaky?

Julia Cameron and Steven Pressfield wax philosophic-lite when they reach out to uncork their would-be proteges. Reading them both, I get a little itchy and scratchy: “Hm. Sounds vaguely pagan,” I’ll think after reading Cameron (“Our creative dreams and yearnings come from a divine source. As we move toward our dreams, we move toward our divinity”). Or, “Oh, that there's Pantheism,” after reading Pressfield (“Everything that is, is God in one form or another”). Feel free to attribute my distancing to the well-honed knee-jerk reaction of an orthodox acolyte. But let me just state for the record: nothing raises my hackles faster than a Christian artist invoking God this, Jesus that and the Holy Spirit over all. Neo-Pagans can inspire my curiosity, and as for Pantheism I'll admit that most days leave me wondering if that’s not really The Way It Is. But when it comes to artistic instruction, I'd prefer it if my teachers considered me an atheist. Hard to say why that is, exactly; I guess religious talk of any sort is freighted with considerable proprietary emotion. Call this Resistance if you must, but is there any reason why we can’t avoid altogether the topic of religion when we’re figuring out how best to flex the artistic impulse?

Getting back to Resistance — I spent four years resisting Resistance: sitting down, turning on the computer and typing my way to the next stage in my novel. Most of that was not "happy" time, and once my first working draft was finished I vowed to leave it alone until I discovered some way to enjoy myself, dammit. I publicly read a selection from the first draft recently, and the generous response I received encouraged me to pick it up again. So I did. And I stopped having fun. Just what, exactly, is my problem?

Here’s Madison Smartt Bell:

Anyone who’s ever grappled with a longer narrative, something approaching the length of a novel, say, will have discovered (quite painfully, perhaps) that sheer intuition won’t carry the project all the way through ... Some writers can tolerate a very high level of detailed advance planning for a long work without losing their own interest and sense of discovery in actually writing it. Others are so differently constituted that they cannot tolerate any abstract advance planning at all and must proceed through novels as intuitively as they would through short stories (with the result that they suffer more and have to write a lot more drafts).

BINGO!! Yes, that was, and still is, me: limping along on my Achilles' heel, sheer intuition. Michael Ondaatje claims to work in this mode, and I suspect Jim Harrison is of similar temperament. But if I’m going to take another worthy stab at this project of mine, some planning and coloring within the lines is desperately in order.

At this point it might be reasonable of me to finally break down and purchase one or two books from Writer’s Digest. So far I’ve avoided them, not out of snobbery but of fiscal thrift: the few I’ve browsed through struck me as articles padded into book-length form. Thankfully, there are hosts of worthy articles available on the web. And, even more impressive, there’s a true professional who, on her blog, offers her own advice from considerable personal experience: Lynne Viehl. "36 novels in five genres"!? I'm paying attention, and I'm taking notes. Here Ms. Viehl provides 10 links of varying potential (I'll pass on the freeware, but the articles are certainly worth consideration). And here's an excellent interview with Ms. Viehl by the sadly-no-longer-blogging Mad Max Perkins. One nice exchange: Q: "I have to say: of all the people who responded to my 'Call to Authors,' questionnaire, your story struck me as the most upbeat. You seemed not to have met the same level of disappointment and frustration that a lot of the other authors spoke about. Were you sugar-coating?" A: "I've had my disappointments, but not many, and they made me work harder. I didn't know anything about the industry and I never met another writer until after I was published, so that may have something to do with it. My only expectation was simply to see my name on the cover of a book, and I've done that twenty-six times in five years."

Between Viehl’s professional picks and Bell’s articulate observations (mastering a blues scale on guitar is terrific decompression advice for anyone, by the way) my joy has returned, as has my energy for the project. And that’s how it shall remain ... (*cough*) God willing.


prairie mary said...

I guess maybe you already know that I went bonkers for "Narrative Design." He really speaks my language, but I do tend to go back and forth between design and intuition. If my design doesn't work that well, I don't mind killing off a character or changing the locale. If I can't think what happens next, I might make some little squiggly sketches of alternatives -- maybe sleep on it. I also think in terms of hydraulic forces: this element pushes THIS way but that fact is going to deflect it to THAT way.

Prairie Mary

Whisky Prajer said...

Mary, your own glowing review of ND was what piqued my interest. Mind if I join the choir? I think Bell is terrific: insightful, articulate and practical.