The other day I was mad at myself because a whole twenty-four hours had gone by that I hadn’t looked at my novel. This is a new turn of events. Since, ya know, a couple of months ago the “not looking” was the standard and the “looking” was cause for celebration. But then work was done in spurts and fits. Now there is a slow secretion of words, a drip. I like it better this way. It’s rhythmic. It feels like progress.
Feeling a touch of procrastination. It’s hard to tell sometimes where the dicking around bleeds into the writer’s block. Like right now I have a crasher in my one-room efficiency and a ton of birthdays and several deadlines for other projects and there’s always the blog. It seems like there isn’t time to look at the novel.
But this seems to also have happened when I am faced with rewriting the most difficult scene in the book. Perhaps this is not a coincidence. Perhaps I can’t find time to look at the manuscript because (at least to my lizard brain) that one scene is going to take the rest of my life to finish. And I certainly can’t prioritize time for that.
The scene I am attempting to write is the one in which Eve eats the fruit. I’d rather not get into why that scene is in the novel or important, suffice to say that it is essential to the storyline and mighty overwhelming to ponder putting to print. How do I capture something so important without sounding didactic? How do I visit a story so old without sounding cliche? And most troubling, how do I write the history of the world in small brushstrokes without resorting to historical stereotypes?
Has anyone seen Adaptation? There’s a brilliant scene where the struggling writer, attempting to make something great and wanting to “begin at the beginning” sets his story at the origin of life on earth:
“four billion years ago. Life has not begun. Endless, barren terrain. Silence. Silence… then, after the entire history of life on the planet, in the last seconds of the montage, we see the whole of human history: tool-making, hunting, farming, war, lust, religion, self-consciousness, yearning. Then, bam! Cut to Susan Orlean writing a book about orchids. And the story begins. It’s perfect! It’s circular! It’s everything!”
And every time I go to work on this monstrosity I’m reminded of that scene, how he gets overwhelmed by the size of his desire to create greatness. Thus are the very seeds of writer’s block, and I seem to have discovered the perfect scene for engendering it. The Eve scene really is a monster, a Frankenstein, rewritten three times but the old never quite tossed out. The whole thing stitched together with ugly mutant stitches. Thoughts?
Now suppose you’re a guy and you see a woman who looks kind of cute. In fact, she looks great! And you hear her talking, maybe and she’s got a nice laugh. What you’d really like, more than anything else you can think of, is to nab her. It’s not just the sex you want—-you can pay a prostitute for that (that’s called ‘vanity publishing’). You think you might want the whole package. It’s worth putting some thought and imagination into the courtship process. Because if you just walked up to her and said, out of the blue, ‘Wanna fuck?’ of course she’d say no!
So you ask her out for coffee. Take her to a couple of movies. Haul her out to the beach—-if there’s a shoreline somewhere around—-and tell her your life story. Take an interest when she tells you hers. Pull out some amusing conversation if you have any. In my life, I’ve discovered the really successful seducers are the ones who don’t nag or pout or bully. They take the position that the magic afternoons both of you are thinking about are already a done deal. You’re lovers already, sparring and bantering, playing around, having fun. It’s only a matter of time until you get into bed. It’s up to the one being courted to decide when that happens, and the successful seducer is willing—- morethan willing!—-for it to take as long as it takes.
To radically shift metaphors for a paragraph, editors, playing ‘hard-to-get’ at every level, are programmed to say no like those plastic ducks you used to see in 99-cent stores. Their little heads with their pink bills are set to wag back and forth: no, no, no, no, no. But the thing about those ducks was: With timing and concentration, you could put a drop of water on their bills, and from then on they’d nod yes, yes, yes, yes, yes! How do you get the duck to do that? It’s certainly possible; it’s part of the game.
By far the most common problem afflicting the writers in Michels’s practice is procrastination, which he understands in terms of Jung’s Father archetype. “They procrastinate because they have no external authority figure demanding that they write,” he says. “Often I explain to the patient that there is an authority figure he’s answerable to, but it’s not human. It’s Time itself that’s passing inexorably. That’s why they call it Father Time. Every time you procrastinate or waste time, you’re defying this authority figure.” Procrastination, he says, is a “spurious form of immortality,” the ego’s way of claiming that it has all the time in the world; writing, by extension, is a kind of death.
In a letter to Bennet Langton, Samuel Johnson writes, “I know not anything more pleasant, or more instructive, than to compare experience with expectation, or to register from time to time the difference between idea and reality. It is by this kind of observation that we grow daily less liable to be disappointed.” What a jerk this guy was, right? I think differently about disappointment: I don’t think our goal should be to avoid it. I think disappointment is evidence we’re on the right track. I think it means we’re after the things that matter. I think we should stop being afraid of getting caught caring about our failures.
Johansen, thank God, did not know quite all, even though he saw the city and the Thing, but I shall never sleep calmly again when I think of the horrors that lurk ceaselessly behind life in time and in space, and of those unhallowed blasphemies from elder stars which dream beneath the sea, known and favoured by a nightmare cult ready and eager to loose them upon the world whenever another earthquake shall heave their monstrous stone city again to the sun and air.
–Call of Cthulhu by H.P. Lovecraft
I love magnificent, ridiculously long sentences in classic novels. They feel so rebellious, these sentences you could never have gotten away with in your sixth grade essay assignment. I can just see every English teacher from here to Lovecraft pointing their finger, adjacent hand on hip, eyebrows pinched. In response, I hurl this sentence from Lovecraft and shout: Take that, you daft and dusty old grammarians!
Orwell’s six rules hold good:
Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
Never use a long word where a short one will do.
If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
Never use the passive where you can use the active.
Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.
One cardinal rule to which he always returns involves “doubling in the middle,” which he calls a “near-fatal error” and the mark of an inexperienced palindromist. As he explained in our first conversation about palindromes, “If I say to you, ‘straw,’ and you thought, well, ‘straw warts,’ that’s a palindrome, but the w is doubled, so it only calls attention to the palindrome. What you want is for some letter to be the reversible hinge. So if you said to me, ‘straw,’ I would think, ‘straw arts.’
Environmental writer Michelle Nijhuis on Ian Frazier and the humorous environmental writer.
The genius of this ending, I think, is that the heart breaks not just for the serious little girl, but also for the crowd, the dogs, the pigs, and everything trampled by the pigs the world over – the entire mess at once. Our cleverness allowed the pig to take advantage of us, and the pig’s cleverness, in a roundabout way, landed it in a muddy arena filled with dogs. Everyone, and no one, is to blame.
Good grammar saves lives.
One of the reasons it is a situation is because it has immediacy.
(Immediacy is the idea that something is going to happen right away, and so characters are forced to make decisions and take action. The scene cannot just linger on, and the characters can’t say, ‘let’s sleep on it.’ Not all situations require immediacy. A group of people trapped on a desert island is a compelling situation, aspects of which may or may not have immediacy.)
It’s also a situation because there is an imperative. Someone wants something, badly.
It’s also a situation because there are possible consequences.
It’s also a situation — and this is key — because the audience is invited into the story and can participate by attempting to imagine future scenes.