In a conversation with my wife, we talked about my writing. It seems that over the past year or so I have simply not been motivated to sit at the keyboard and pound out a novel. Admittedly, there has been a bounty of challenges in my life over the last year and it has taken time to heal both physically and mentally; it seems a lot of it is in the past now and perhaps I can move on.
To a non-writer the act of writing seems simple. One sits down and just writes what it on their mind. How hard can it be? The non-writer just talks and words come out and writing should work the same way. Or so it is sometimes thought, especially by the uninitiated. I have tried to “talk” writing; pull out the DVR and open a dialog. It never seemed to work for me, although it could for some, and I ended up at the keyboard. Then again, I don’t like audio books either so that may have an effect.
I explained to her that writing, at least in my definition, is getting into a rut or groove. I noticed this while working on my first novel. Writing of this magnitude consumes your every thought. Your characters live inside your head every hour of the day. You dream about them. They are part of your life. It’s not like a short story, or this article. Those things pop into and out of your head like yesterday’s lunch. It over and done and you move on to the next thing.
The other side of writing is feeling. Unless you are writing fantasy, your writing is probably reflecting exactly who you are and perhaps that is not what one needs in fiction. Imagination is a key along with creativity, but unless you have lived what you are writing, good luck with coming across as it being an experience. Or can you?
Let’s say you want to write about the time you were involved in a battle during a scourge in a foreign land. You have never been there. You have never been in a fist fight. And yet you think you can narrate something as complex as killing a man charging at you with bayonet aimed. Can you do that? If you do create character is it a fragmented memory from television, movie, or perhaps a book you have read?
Mark Twain or was it Hemingway (seems it has been lost in translation) said “Write what you know.” Others have said, “Know what you write.” Perhaps all of them are wrong.
Ponder for a moment.
Was Toni Morrison a slave? Was Nabokov a murderer?
My guess is they were not and I am thinking that I am correct.
So, what do you do?
The answer is not easy and most writers shudder at the thought of creating something from nothing…although the uninitiated think they do it all the time. Should you use your past as reference? Of course. It serves as a baseline and best, but to create a real character they and the story needs to be truer than true. Hemingway, who was a master at autobiographical fiction still said, “From all things that you know and all those you cannot know, you make something through your invention that is not a representation but a whole new thing truer than anything true and alive.”
Your job, as a writer of fiction, is to take that character, that story and make it truer than the truth in that the truth is; your story based on you is probably not very interesting. This is some of what I try to point out to memoir writers. Your life…your real life…is simply not that intriguing unless perhaps you were a double agent for the KGB and the United States. Even then, you were still just a person that put their pants on like the rest of us. With that, if you wrote your memoir to include every truthful detail of your secret life, we would probably be asleep at the first page.
Write in order to tell the reader about themselves. Alan Moore said, “Artists use lies to tell the truth. Yes, I created a lie. But because you believed it, you found something true about yourself.” Your audience reads to escape their own reality. You write to escape yours.
To paraphrase Bret Anthony Johnston; Rather than thinking of your experiences as structures you want to construct in writing your story, consider them scaffolding that will be removed once your work is complete. Take small details from life to bring to mind a place along with the characters that will inhabit it. Those details serve to illuminate your imagination. Many force their fiction to conform to the contours of their life; change your methods to look at every point where a plot could be rerouted away from what you have always known. Write not to express yourself, but to escape yourself.
All of this thinking, creating, lying, truth telling and more lying and stretching whatever truth you believe as the truth can be exhausting. It requires a focus and for you to sit and stare at a blank screen or off into some space where you can adjust yourself into that groove and begin or continue the process. You sit and begin and before you realize it, hours have passed.
Point being, as I explained to the wife, it takes time and a lot of it but perhaps writing is a simply a state of mind where the truth is not always a lie and a lie is not always the truth.