Me and Edgar Livin’ the Dream

I’ve known all my life about authors who were inspired by alcohol or a drug-induced stupor or a dream:  Samuel Coleridge (Kubla Kahn), Edgar Allen Poe (just about everything), Mary Shelley (Frankenstein), Hunter S. Thompson (just about everything), to name just a famous few.

And of course, we members of the rock ‘n roll generation are all-too-familiar with the concept of drugs and alcohol as fuel for creativity, since too many of our heroes have died as a result of overindulging in one while trying to capture the other.

I think the idea is that a second layer of creative consciousness is released during times when the brain is active, but not really alert and bothering itself about its immediate, high-level daily tasks, like keeping us from stepping into traffic or remembering to eat our spinach.

I don’t think I really believed it until I had the experience myself last week.

Before you decide that an intervention may be needed, let me assure you that neither drugs nor alcohol were involved. But I did wake up in the middle of the night with the idea for a character, a McGuffin and the opening paragraph of a new novel. I don’t remember actually dreaming about it, but it was very much on my mind as I opened my eyes. In the first few minutes of wakefulness, before I was completely awake, I fiddled a little with the details and by the time I was truly awake I had something rather interesting.

Now I’m an Olympic-level heavy sleeper, so it’s unusual for me even to wake in the night, let alone feel inspired to leave my bed. But I’ve learned never to spurn inspiration whenever, and in whatever form, it may strike, so I tottered out of bed to write it down. And damn if it wasn’t pretty good. It was so good that I decided to concentrate on the resulting story for a while to see where it took me.

I’ve been trying to write a humorous novel for some time; it’s actually difficult to write humorously without working really hard and the hard work seems to stifle the humor—just one of the many apparent contradictions we writers face. But over the next few days, while I was writing my dream-inspired book, I found myself chuckling as I wrote, and in a few places actually laughing aloud. I’m not certain the book is actually funny, or if I’m just so delighted at how easily the book is flowing that I’m chortling with glee at how clever I am.

Either way, I’m pleased with it, I’m happy to know that the dreaming thing works, and I’ll keep you posted.

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Alternate Realities and MapQuest

I had an epiphany this week as I was struggling with one of my novels.

I often stop writing for a while—for an hour, a day, anything up to a week or more—when I’ve reached some sort of impasse. In the past I’ve told myself it’s because I don’t know what to write next, that I don’t have a clear idea of the plot, so I don’t know what should happen. But now I think it’s something different: I stop because I don’t know how to move my characters away from the scene they currently inhabit, even when it’s clearly necessary.

I’ve already admitted that I polish my prose too much in the early stages of the game. It can feel productive, when I don’t have anything original to write, to smooth over the rough spots in the bits I’ve already written. This has another downside in addition to postponing the moment when I get on with the new writing: By the time I’ve read and re-read, and polished and refined a scene it becomes more and more imbedded in the “reality” of the novel and thus much harder to change.

If, until the 20th reading, Miss So-and-So and Mr. Whatzit have arrived at the baker’s, chatted with the baker and picked out some pink-topped cupcakes, it is really, really hard to have them by-pass the baker and walk into the hardware store instead. For one thing, all the conversation they had with the baker about sprinkles and chocolate ganache doesn’t translate well to the hardware store clerk, and instead of cupcakes they would need to buy wrenches or something instead. And that feels “wrong,” because I’m so emotionally invested in them having that conversation with the baker and buying those dam’ cupcakes.

In a way, by trying to change the scene I’m changing a reality that’s become as real to me as the real world. (Do I get points added or taken away for using change, changing, real and reality so often in the same sentence?) I’ve come to believe in the world the characters inhabit just a little too much.

All right, that’s one manifestation of the problem, and I should be able to take it in hand by not re-reading and revising my early drafts so much. I’m working on that although, truth to tell, I’m not getting very far. Sometimes my re-reading is almost a compulsion. It starts as a way to remind myself of what led me to where I’m about to pick up the story, but then it becomes an end in itself (Hey, this is pretty good; I’m liking what I did there, what if I change the order of these two sentences . . .) and a substitute for writing, and that can’t be good.

Note to self: Don’t begin your writing day by reading.

The other manifestation is a tradecraft issue: the inability to envision how the characters get from here—the corner of Ninth and Main, to there—a penthouse apartment on Parkside. Do they walk? Take a cab? Fly through the air on gossamer wings? And whichever way they travel, does the reader need to take the trip with them or can the next scene open with them sitting comfortably on a sofa in the penthouse, sipping martinis?

Experienced novelists solve this problem all the time and for us readers, its seamless. But the ragged seams showed plenty while it was being written, believe me.

Most often I manage to open the next scene with my characters already relaxing in the penthouse. But every now and again I get tangled up in what I call the MapQuest version: They strolled down Ninth Avenue, turned right and crossed the street at Pelican, stopping for the light at Parkside before . . . etc.

Note to self: Forget MapQuest; go straight for the martinis.

Novelists? Women Novelists? (Shrug)

LIKE ALL WOMEN, I’m accustomed to, and have learned to ignore or rise above, the low level hum of misogyny in daily life. But to have some of the most significant writers in the English language considered inferior in some fundamental way is really too puzzling to shrug off. It strikes at the heart of what we all want to believe–that quality work will be appreciated, valued and rewarded.

Want some specifics? Agatha Christie and J. K. Rowling are two of the most popular writers in the English language. (While popularity is no guaranteed indicator of quality, Christie isn’t just “popular.” She is more popular than any other writer since the invention of movable type.) They have been translated into dozens of languages where they are just as beloved as in their native tongue. Why? Because the work of these two women speaks to universal conditions of the human heart and experience.

The lack of respect for their work isn’t simply a matter of masculine vs. feminine subject matter: more men than women write about wars, it’s true, but Christie wrote about murder and the triumph of justice. There’s nothing gender-specific about that.  J.R.R. Tolkien wrote about wizards and elves and he is revered. J.K. Rowling writes about much the same thing and she earns smirks.  (Go ahead; feel whatever you are feeling about that statement and then give me your best arguments for the quality of one over the other, untainted by gender scorn.)

Tastemakers with an intellectual reputation share some of the blame: In 2012, the New York times Review of Books reviewed 316 books.  Only 89 were written by women*.  Being frustrated by this goes far beyond a desire for liberte, egalite, sororite. It should leave any reading, thinking person breathless over the “Aha” moment. The trouble is, knowledge of the Times’ perfidy more often just garners a shrug.

And so a recent occurrence, proving once again that misogyny is casual, pervasive and unremarkable in our culture, earned yet more shrugs.

Wikipedia recently divided their former category of American Novelists into two: American Novelists and American Women Novelists. (Please tell me you see the fallacy there.)

Under this new categorization Wikipedia users searching for  American Novelists reach an exclusively male list. The other novelists can be reached only with an additional, more gender-specific search.

News of this segregation of women writers caused a s**t storm of protest and irritation (mostly from women) and the process is still under review.  But what interests me is not that it happened, because that can be undone, but WHY it happened, which really can’t until our entire culture is picked up by the scruff of its neck, shaken soundly and yelled at until it gives in.

The man (and it was a man) who felt Wikipedia needed to categorize American novelists by gender defended his methodology by explaining he was trying to make the very long list more manageable.

Seriously?

Setting aside for a moment the triumph and glory of having a long, rich “unmanageable” list of American novelists to be proud of, isn’t there an easier way to “manage” it?

A solution so simple and so basic that it should have occurred to anyone?

A solution which goes back almost as far as Gutenberg?

The fact that it wasn’t his solution is sort of dumbfounding, and the lack of awareness behind his solution all the more disheartening. But for the record, and please feel free to use it any time a similar problem presents itself, here’s my gender-free suggestion:

American Novelists A-M    and    American Novelists N-Z

 

* VIDA Women in Literary Arts

Indecisive? Maybe.

HONESTLY, THE DAY AFTER I began this blog didn’t go well for me in a writing sense.  I’d spent the best part of a day setting up the site, writing the first post, then blabbing about it on Face Book.  There was no writing getting done on the novels, but I felt as if I was priming the pump, which felt good.

The blog was serving one of its purposes; it was keeping my writers’ muscles flexible. And of course I got the strokes of having written and published, no matter in how limited a fashion.

But the next morning, instead of leaping to my laptop to work on one of my novels, I found myself practicing some fairly advanced avoidance techniques. On-line shopping, Face Book, gardening, checking out my first blog post in case something had changed since the last time I checked it, and then admiring how it read and how it looked on the page.  (Very cool actually.)

A trip to the drug store was suddenly imperative.  It’s important to have two extra tubes of toothpaste and some hair conditioner in case you run out. A read-through of the past week’s work to date—this is one of my best avoidance techniques—gave me another hour’s distraction.  And then suddenly it was time to get ready for a dinner date with friends and the opportunity to crow in my next blog post about how productive I’d been was lost.

The truth is, I’m at the stage with all three novels when I have to buckle down and get serious about the next stage in the action and I’m postponing the commitment. I’m facing a junction with multiple roads heading off to all points of the compass.  Almost any journey is possible now, but the next step will limit the roads I can travel, and the step after that will narrow down the route even more as I get closer to my destination.

I can’t decide if I’m excited and enthralled by the number of paths open to me, or if I’m just really, really indecisive.

In one view I’m empowered by the possibilities; in the other I’m sort of a coward, unwilling to commit, right?

Difficult to decide which.