Sunday, July 18, 2010

There's a Staircase Down the Other Side, Part 2

Several months ago, before it was beautiful out (beautiful in my world is over 100 degrees F, like now, when it's that way by noon) I climbed my first desert foothill. It's an ornamental foothill, in my opinion, real enough, but kind of left there out of politeness by the community surrounding it, and emptying into a Walgreen's parking lot. Not roughing it by any stretch of the imagination, not hiking, just clambering up in the way of someone who's used to flat ground suddenly going up.

On my way up the foothill, I was well aware lots of other people had done this. There wasn't a lot of trash, but the ubiquitous broken bottles and a beer can or two, some half-hearted graffiti on rocks. At the top one of the rocks seemed hollowed out and surrounded by other rocks as if someone (or a group of someones) were planning to make a natural-ish BBQ. There were rabbit droppings but no rabbits, and a quick lizard zipping by. Very citified foothill. I just did it to see if I would love climbing the rabbit-colored foothills surrounding Reno and leading to our east-of-Reno habitat (the one we're ever so slowly moving out of.) And as I neared the top, it occurred to me there was almost certainly going to be a staircase on the other side of the foothill, something simple and self-explanatory, something making all this mucking about in dirt and safe an exercise in ...

Well, not futility. Because I liked doing it. My legs like climbing up things (my lungs are never too sure.) The muscles get all happy and they don't get overly sore the next day, even when my foothills are not ornamental. And I learn things, I suppose, or at least feel a confidence that I can go climb a foothill or that the 16-year-old is still in there giving "No Trespassing, This Foothill is Somehow Magically Owned By OTHER PEOPLE" signs conciliatory pats as I blow past them (or crawl, depending how steep it is at that point.)

There wasn't a staircase, once I got up there and was able to survey a kingdom of strip malls and cookie cutter housing developments, but there was a path. And a bench. And it made me laugh and it reminded me of writing because so many times we go through that with a new project - we struggle upwards, we FIND THINGS OUT, we learn new things, we make amazing discoveries, we find new ways to do things that we want to share with other writers, and often we feel ever so clever.

Until we find our notes from the last novel, wherein we discovered the exact same tricks and techniques, or even an earlier draft of what we're working on with notes that say "Do this" with this being the thing we thought we'd just discovered.

Which is not a complaint, but more an amusement. I keep saying we, but for all I know I'm the only writer in the world constantly discovering the same thing to my same amusement. I doubt this though (based mainly on the fact that when I mention it, other writers generally say something like, "I've done that!" which leads me to believe ... well, the obvious.)

And so I wasn't amazed, but also wasn't quite as amused, when recently conversation with another (fantastic!) writer who we'll call Annie here (mostly because that's her name) led to an exchange in which I meant to be asking her about how her writing was going and instead something she said made me think of something about my own and I said that I keep getting up in the middle of perfectly good sentences and wandering off.

I don't mean that figuratively. I mean that I'm actually getting up mid-sentence, laying down my pen, and wandering off to find I'm doing dishes or petting a cat or standing on the porch or packing a box for moving (at least that last activity is useful at that point in time.) I'm still in the zone, still in the daydreamy writer place where story is all and the real world isn't real in the least. I come to because I'm not up and making tea or folding laundry because I'm working through a stuck place (this is common and I have no problem with it at all). I'm up making tea or folding laundry for no reason. The writing was working. The story was going forward. Maybe it wasn't genius work, but it was getting written.

And now it isn't.

Annie thought about that very briefly and said, essentially, that it had been less than two years since the emotion had started showing up in my writing, wasn't it? I kind of stared at her and nodded with no great show of intelligence. Maybe, she said, I was at the point of evolving in my writing where that was changing from a somewhat conscious thing into how I wrote.

Maybe I was uncomfortable with it.

I gaped.

Brief background: My stories until November 2008 didn't have a massive amount of emotion from characters. I myself didn't like to show massive amounts of emotion (and didn't even know what to do with most emotions) and so my characters acted much the way I did. Tell me that my teenage stepson was turning into a virus (as happened in one of my workshop stories) and I would briefly say "That sucks!" (but I'd mean it) and then I'd do what was logical to me, especially if I happened to be (as my character was) a virologist. Apparently, however, readers wanted more. They wanted to know the character was upset.

Well, of course she was. Who wouldn't be? Aren't teenagers difficult enough when they're not replicating into virus? And anyway, she liked the kid. That was a given, wasn't it?

And then came the master class in fiction, in which I wrote a novella about a potential suicide, and tapped into all the emotions (and then brought in some aliens for good measure) and emotion began to come into my writing.

This is process, I believe. My process. And evolution. And hard stuff. And the more I thought about what Annie said, the more it made sense. Because nowadays (does anyone actually say that anymore? Nowadays?) when I sit down to write a fluffy ghost story about nothing more than Boo! Ghosts! I get layers of meaning. It's still a ghost story, only now the character being haunted is haunted by more than a Boo! Ghost! Rather his own past and failings and hopes and dreams are getting in there and the story, I might add, is much. Harder. To. Write.

Delighted, amazed, pleased, and wishing I didn't have to leave halfway through that discussion, I went home and thought about it for about 24 hours after which time I had a weekly midnight tea with another nocturnal-ish writer, who we'll call Diane (for the same reason I'm calling Annie "Annie.") And to her I related this startling conversation I'd had with Annie and how it had turned out.

Diane was quiet briefly (I think she may have been wishing she could reach through the phone and pat me on the head) before she said, "You told me the same thing recently when I was doing the same thing."


Yup. She was having trouble with something she was doing with the novel she was writing and she couldn't stay at her desk for any amount of time. She kept getting up and wandering off, she had told me, and it was making her crazy. And I had responded, "Wow, you must be really hitting some emotion in your writing and writing something hard." Or something to that effect. I can't say exactly what I said because I didn't have the insight or recall to even remember saying it. All I know is I had been able to identify it in her report of her process but when it showed up in my own -- restless writering (should be a word) = hard stuff coming through -- nope! Had to have someone else see it for me.

I'm not sure if I'm pleased with this or not. The idea of discovering the same thing time and again, especially to the point of falling on it with glad cries of "Oh, now I understand!" before discovering I understood it all before and am understanding now as an again? That makes me a little tired. Rather the way I understand that every weekend we spend working on the remodel and moving some boxes and every day that we cram packing, loading, unloading into days that already have all the normal requisite daily living stuff in them has a cumulative effect of making us a little more tired and more tired sooner with longer recovery times.

It's just that this cumulative process is positive. As if I'm running and for every really good run I have a couple bad runs where I'm still tired, but then the next really good run is a little farther or a little better.

And it leads me to wonder if when I'm reading the things I see in other writers' work, the good and the bad and the indifferent (the 'huh' that doesn't lead to loving or loathing but simply to noting) should be things I should look at in my own work. If the times I listen to another writer and say, "Well, maybe that's because -- " and the other writer says, "OH!" in that way of sudden understanding, perhaps I need to look at my own then and see if there's an "oh" moment looming.

Or maybe this is what it is. Constant rediscovery. The joy of a foothill conquered not tempered by the realization that three years ago a taller, wilder foothill was conquered in less time with less scrabbling, but simply joy at the idea that it was conquered, it was fun, and tomorrow it might be the mountain itself.

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