Monthly Archives: December 2013

Writing in shapes

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Some days ago, I found myself fiddling with a bunch of scenes that were heading nowhere. These scenes came after the midpoint of my script; they followed a culmination point (the characters experienced a major triumph) and should lead to a deflation point (the characters would mess up badly and sabotage their own gains).  So I had a few scenes that seemed to fit in that part of the script, but were somehow failing to establish a bridge between points A and B. I had this thought: here I am, perpetually rearranging a bunch of squares when I should be drawing a line. I should get rid of the squares and draw a line.

The number of metaphors you can use to assess the writing process is endless. Mountain climbing, mining, sailing, juggling, dreaming… I’ve read, and appreciated, a large number of images meant to help us understand, tame, befriend, the task of writing. They provide insight and metaphorical tools. With those squares and lines popping in my head, I decided to see if I could find some wisdom in Geometry.

Soon enough, after briefly considering circles, squares and triangles, which are no good for thinking stories (because they’re flat and closed), I ended up with spirals and fractals.

Spirals are great. They start small and grow larger, layer after layer, revolving around one central point. They don’t go back to the initial point, but their movement always bears a connection to it. This point, in a story, is the idea – what we are saying, boiled down to one sentence or so. On a previous post, I reflected on this – on how this idea is elusive and, rather than a starting point, is a finish line. Contradiction? Yes and no. The thing is, we don’t draw our spiral only once – we keep drawing it until we get it right, seemingly simple and harmonious and eternal. John Gardner: “The organized and intelligent fictional dream that will eventually fill the reader’s mind begins as a largely mysterious dream in the writer’s mind. Through the process of writing and endless revising, the writer makes available the order the reader sees. Discovering the meaning and communicating the meaning are for the writer one single act” (in The Art of Fiction, 1984).

Trying to tackle fractals on Wikipedia, I quickly got lost surfing through Chaos Theory and other nerdy stuff. I’ll simply retain, for the purpose of this blog post, that fractals are complex patterns that show the same details at different scales. If we zoom into a fractal, we find the same pattern, deeper and deeper. I do believe that a good story works the same way. Each scene in a good movie actually contains the whole movie, in a simplified, stripped and flipped way. Like the scene from One flew over the cuckoo’s nest that I analyzed in this post. Or the final scene from the lovely Frances Ha that I saw a few days ago: Frances writes her name on a piece of paper, for the purposes of labeling the mailbox of her new apartment. But the piece of paper is too big for the slot in the mailbox. So she disposes of part of her family name (Halladay) and becomes Frances Ha. This scene reflects so perfectly what the movie is about – this girl that is brimming with generosity and appetite for life, a bit too free, too large, to fit in the world, and who learns, without losing her spark, her lightness, how to carve a path for herself, how to let go of some things, how to find her balance.

Interestingly (but I dare not go into detail because the mathematical complexity is prohibitive for me), one way of creating fractals is through a (partially) random, iterative process. Writing is much like this.

So, voilà – geometry. I’m now gonna twist those squares into something else. Maybe ovals 🙂

Fellow failures

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My experience is that a story always resists being told. No, this isn’t right; it sounds as if it’s the story’s fault. I experience those difficulties as a personal failure. What am I doing wrong? Thousands of people for thousands of years have been writing stories and reflecting on the process of writing them. Knowledge is available. Since I’ve accepted (and that’s good) that “talent” is not the issue, I assume I didn’t read enough, didn’t practice enough, didn’t develop enough of a work ethic. This must be true to some point. But for every one of those stories that actually remained, there must be a hundred that didn’t make it. Writers dwell in a city  of dead ends. I regularly find myself in them.

It’s not because I rejoice in my neighbour’s misery that I experience warmth when reading about a fellow writer’s failures. I encounter kinship and solace. It’s not really the failure that triggers this effect, but the truth, the humanity that the acknowledgement of an endeavour unfulfilled always reveals.

I’ve just read a New Yorker article about writer Mark Salzman. After writing three novels, he spent five years working on a fourth one. Painfully. “Five years and it was the most terrible experience of my life”, he recalls. “I could not get my characters to act like real people. I couldn’t get them to talk like real people. Hell, I couldn’t even get them through doors: Her hand reached toward the handle of the door… Her hand extended toward the oaken knob of her… No no. Jeesh.” His writing self started to wither: “(…) any sound distracted me and just drove me crazy, so I took to wearing a huge towel wrapped around my head and stereo earphones on top of the towel (…). I have two cats, and they liked to sit on my lap when I worked, which distracted me. And so I made a tinfoil skirt, because cats don’t like tinfoil.”

Eventually, at the end of the fourth year, Salzman decides to start again from scratch, and on a sudden heap of confidence, finishes the novel in just one year. But he receives mixed reviews from friends and editor; he re-reads it and realizes it’s a bad piece of work. He is destroyed. He gives up.

I like the humour in his account, and I like this cruel second part, the apparent groove that led to a disappointing outcome. There’s actually a happy end – a short, five week act, when Salzman goes on an artist’s retreat and, freed from the pressure of achieving something, moved by the unusual sight of autumn leaves and a new-found simplicity, writes the goddamn thing, real quick. These epiphanies are alluring; they happen, sometimes, they can happen to you, to me. But they may also never come. I prefer to savour the tragedy at the end of act two: a writer who toils, suffers, and achieves nothing. Except, perhaps, that quiet, anonymous, humble contribution to the advancement of mankind that consists in joining the large ranks of tentative writers; because the more writers out there, the more memorable the works that will endure in time.

I came across Salzman’s story in Twyla Tharp’s book “The Creative Habit”, in a segment about the ruts (holes) and grooves (productive bursts) that creative people may find themselves in. We all want to be in a groove, but they are elusive. You can have the most wonderful work hygiene and still find yourself stuck. Acknowledging the rut is a first step towards getting unstuck. The hard part is getting back in track. I think Salzman’s story teaches an important lesson: look for enjoyable things, even if that means forgetting writing for a while. Do a little thing that is a little new, a little challenging; pick some of those autumn leaves.