Monday, November 28, 2011

Through the Wringer, and What I Found There*

In the third semester of my MFA, we were asked to write a reflective essay about the program thus far. The following summarizes the journey up to now. And what a journey it has been.

If someone were to ask me to define “the writing process” a few years ago, at the eve of my decision to pursue writing seriously, I probably would have shrugged and said something inane like, “Um. Sit down and write, I suppose?” Now that I have embarked on this serious pursuit for almost three years now, one and a half of which have been under the auspices of a master’s course on the subject, I should have a much better answer than the above, and I do: “Sit down and write.” Full stop. No “ums” or “supposes” or question marks. I can imagine my father now, mouth agape and wondering, “You’re spending how much money to come to the same conclusion you had for free three years ago?” Well, Dad, it’s true. The biggest lesson I’ve learned in the past three semesters is that if you want to be a serious writer, the most important thing is to write.

It seems self-explanatory, but it’s not. There are so many reasons – read “excuses” – that writers – myself included – purport to explain why they aren’t the best writers that they could be, when most of the time, the key between them and their best writerly selves is just getting down to the business of writing. Of course, there are many tenets, tips and tools that a writer can learn from paying attention at an MFA course, reading other writers, and picking up a grammar class along the way, but none of that matters unless the writer is fully committed to sitting down amidst life’s chaos and writing.

But enough of the soapbox. This essay is supposed to be reflective about what I’ve learned through the past three semesters, so now that I’ve stated the obvious, let’s get on with the subtle, measure by measure.

I stepped into my first summer residency fresh off the accomplishment of completing a 130,000-word novel that had swallowed up about a year of my life. I was feeling pretty good about having finished, but not that great about the novel, and not quite sure why. It just didn’t seem “up to snuff,” though at that point I was lost as to why it wasn’t working. Through the residency, I began to understand the mechanics behind good and bad writing. Know your characters. Hook the reader with your openings. Earn your endings. Make sure your scenes involve change. Remove unnecessary words. Use specific details to bring your story to life. Avoid stereotypes. Make sure your narrative arc fits your narrative. (Ditto with narrative voice.) Treat your setting as another character that affects the story. Know your genre. Know your form.

All of these basic gears and cogs reformed the way I thought about creating fiction and telling stories. On a deeper level, I was challenged in workshop to think about the “dramatic imperative” of my stories, as in why the story needs to be told, and the “heart” of the story, as in what I am trying to say through the story. Stepping outside of the stories and words, I was also asked to think about what kind of writer I wanted to be. Did I want to get published? Appeal to the masses? Make money? Create art? Do something different? Write literature that could stand the test of time? Then career-wise, I was introduced to the practice of caring while not caring about publishing. Rejecting rejection. Abandon my babies. Take myself seriously as a writer. Create space for writing. Write what you’re passionate about. Over that week, it became glaringly obvious why my novel did not work: it was written as a series of chronological events that happened to me, rather than as a work of fiction. In order to be truly worthwhile, my novel had to be more than just an account of a personal experience.

I came out of that residency completely blown away by all that was involved in writing well. That summer’s visiting writer, Timothy Mo, gave us another aspect of writing to think about – what it’s like to be a writer. He was wonderfully generous and open about his feelings: “You have to wear your arrogance like an armor around you.” “[I have a] reputation of eccentricity. I talk to myself. You have to adjust to loneliness. Insane – that’s what you’re heading for.” “If you exorcise the demons, you may not be able to write anymore.” And quoting Graham Greene, Mo said, “There is a splinter of ice in the heart of a writer.” In talking to Mo and other faculty, I felt as if I was getting a glimpse of the mad inner-workings of the minds behind novels and stories. The writing life was hard and best attempted by those who are either dead serious about pursuing it, or have no choice in the matter. I’d spent most of my life not writing, which meant that I had a choice. Was I dead serious enough about this writing business to choose it as a life?

After that first residency, my mind was overrun with all the tenets, tips and tools that I was learning and at times I found it difficult to even eke out a sentence without censoring myself. I often wondered if I had what it takes to write well. My old manuscript was pushed aside and I attempted to rewrite the novel from the beginning, re-mapping the narrative arc, re-plotting every scene, and revisiting the characters inside and out. I thought I could finish a major rewrite within the course of a semester, but I only managed to get through the first two chapters. Another lesson learned: patience. In order to write well, I had to learn to be patient with myself and with my work. There was no rushing through a manuscript if I wanted a thorough, effective edit. I wrote and rewrote the first chapter three times, questioning myself through every rewrite. Then, came my first mini-residency.

The fall mini-residency of 2010 was a revelatory experience. I realize that I am the sort of person who goes through many “revelatory experiences” and enjoys feeling “changed” (sometimes only temporarily), but a year later I still feel the same way that I did when I staggered out of that three-day generative workshop. It was a difficult residency. I cried; I lamented; I despaired. Those dramatic actions tend to happen when a person is told that her work is average and uninspired (slightly paraphrasing). I was challenged to look at my work from three angles: individual, internal, and unknown. In terms of the individual: what makes my stories and my words completely unique to me, or in other words, what can I write that no one else can? Then, the internal: have I gone deep enough in my work and self, or am I just scratching at the surface? Finally, the unknown: if you write things that are individual and internal, sometimes you touch upon the unknown, that glimmer that makes literature shine across cultures and generations. It was immediately obvious that what I’d submitted for that workshop was a lame scratching of the surface. In fact, I’d written the piece with an idea in mind of where it might be published. Massive writer’s faux pas. Perhaps for a more experienced writer, writing for a certain publication makes sense, but for one that is still learning, that intention manifests like a bad accent. I was disgusted with myself. I vowed that I would never allow that intent to drive my writing again.     

From that residency on, I looked inward and asked myself what kind of writer I wanted to be. It was a question I’d been asking since the first summer residency, but I asked it again. And again. And again, until the answers began to surface: I want to be a thoughtful writer. I want to capture my unique perspective of humanity on the page, and by “unique” I do not mean that mine’s more special than anyone else’s, just that it is particular to me. I want to describe how humans interact with each other and how emotions drive actions and choices. I want to write about things that matter, take a snapshot of life as it is right now, with all the contemporary and cultural particularities that surround me. I want someone to pick up my writing some day in the far future and be touched by a glimpse of one person’s perspective on life in this decade. I don’t want to just publish. I want what I write to matter.

My second mini-residency was less of an emotional rollercoaster, and more of a window to the many ways that a story can be told. I found that I was interested in surrealist stories and magic realism, though it was not the kind of storytelling I’d ever thought to try. I was challenged to think about what level of observation I wanted to achieve in my writing, from basic sensory details to individual identity, the perspective of one character or narrator based on his particular personality and individual history; to group identity, how characters are affected by the shared history and background of the group that they belong to, whether cultural or generational or spiritual; and finally, to world identity, how characters are affected by the world they live in and how they impact their world. I recognized that the particularities that comprise my background, especially with regard to living within multiple cultures, give me a unique perspective as a person and as a writer. It was up to me to figure out how to enrich my writing with this perspective. I began to think more about the implications of my writing, not only in terms of the types of stories and characters I wanted to create, but also the kind of social commentary that I was making in my work, consciously or unconsciously. And speaking of the unconscious, the visiting writer for that residency, Robert Olen Butler, also challenged us to think about the unconscious layers of our writing during his “From Where You Dream” lectures. He asked us to consider writing as an art form and delve into the creative process with the attitude of an artist, or in other words, to aspire to the unknown. Over the course of that semester I noticed that my writing was evolving: I was no longer content with scratching the surface. My stories and characters began to haunt me. I wanted to go deeper, to let my imagination guide me towards something more meaningful than just characters and plot.  

All this talk of artistry and imagination, however, still requires the right packaging and delivery into the world, and my second summer residency seemed to come just in time. I learned about craft and many practical aspects of revision and editing, such as charting the polarity of a story (positive and negative developments), using scene versus summary, ratcheting up the tension in a story, understanding the stakes of the characters, building scenes through bits and beats, using images to structure stories, and the art of sentence variation. In both workshop and the lectures of the visiting writer, Junot Diaz, I also recognized the significance of giving myself permission to write and letting go of the critical self standing behind me with a bat.

The Diaz lecture was by far the most impactful visiting writer lecture and I believe it had a lot to do with the compassion he showed for us beginning writers. He advised us to forgive ourselves for our failures and have compassion for our characters and ourselves. He encouraged us to have fun with our writing, to “induce play and let go of the fact that you want it to do something.” He reminded us that in order to learn, you have to be willing to be transformed, to stop confusing comfort with safety, to realize that the answer is irrelevant and the truth lies in the process. And when the going gets rough, he suggested, “Remind yourself why you love the form…It’s the only thing that adds love to the world without taking anything – putting your hand out into the darkness without knowing who will reach back, and to be comforted, changed, to feel the love that you’ve created, that’s what you’re here for. No matter how long it takes, try to write something.” He also told us, “What stands between us and what we want as artists is simply showing up and doing your work.” In other words, sit down and write.

This past semester has been quite different from the rest, given the focus on the critical thesis. I have thoroughly enjoyed the critical thesis process and am very glad that it is a part of the curriculum. Through the thesis, I was able to delve into the critical side of writing from an academic standpoint that was very different from the craft-focused essays written in previous semesters. I chose to embark upon an inter-art study of music and literature, which led me to read many critical texts on the relationship between the two art forms. Armed with a better understanding of the field, I took an in-depth look at Kazuo Ishiguro’s most recent work, Nocturnes: Five Stories on Music and Nightfall, to see how the stories compared structurally and thematically to the musical form of a nocturne. The analysis gave me a different way to think about how stories are structured, and how musical concepts, such as balance and contrast, repetition and variation, can be applied to the narrative arc. I also found it enlightening to read all of Ishiguro’s works, learn about his background through interviews and articles, and follow his development as an author leading up to his most recent book. This close analysis of one author gave me a lot of insight on how a writer can progress from the debut novel to the award-winning novel to the experimental novel and back to the award-winning novel. I am grateful to have had the chance to write an academically oriented thesis based on research and close textual analysis.

Over these past three semesters and five residencies, I have learned a lot about craft and technique, read many inspiring stories and novels, and gained some insight on the wacky publishing world. What I’ve found most useful, however, is the knowledge I have gained about myself as a writer. I recognize now how my critical self can bring creativity to a standstill. How writing is difficult for everyone, from beginning writers to award-winning authors. How looking within is the best way to find the stories that I am supposed to write. And most importantly, I recognize that this thing called writing is something that I am dead serious about. Now all I have to do (after finishing my critical thesis) is sit down and write.

*An overt reference to Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There (and by no means an attempt at plagiarism).

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