Of course, the problem with that mentality is that it can quickly lead to extreme laziness and a lack of productivity and gumption as the months wear on. The structure and deadlines of the academic year keep me focused and producing creative work; without that structure, it's very easy to let the whole summer slip by without any real writing getting done. This summer I'm determined not to let that happen. But that begs the question: how do we keep our summers as busy as we want them to be?
"Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility" - William WordsworthWhen you're reading and listening to people about how to write, you'll notice how much of a fuss is made over the importance of passion in your writing. Writing without passion, you'll hear, is dead, dull, and uninteresting; it is artless. It does not have the spark of life. All of these things are true, but not enough attention is drawn to the need for peace as well as passion in your creative work.
As William Wordsworth wrote in the above quotation, which was part of a preface to his collection Lyrical Ballads, poetry with passion is only half of the equation. Poetry written immediately after an extreme emotion of observation is unchecked, wild, and undisciplined. It may contain your strongest language, but not your best language. The second part of the equation is the tempering effect of contemplation. Here, I want to write about these two parts of just about any artistic discipline, and how to incorporate both of them in your own writing.
I’m feeling almost overwhelmed with questions. Should I alternate fiction with poetry (I must teach both) or have half of the semester be fiction then poetry? Should I lump all of an author’s stories together in one week, or split them up depending on what theme I want to teach that day? How will I find time to workshop everyone’s work? I’ve been feverishly poring over my bookshelf this past weekend, picking and choosing. Because this is an intro creative writing class, I want to give my students a firm background in the classics, so I’m beginning with some Chekhov, Poe, and Hemingway. But I want them to begin to see the magic of contemporary fiction, so I’m filling the syllabus with Lorrie Moore, John Updike and Larry Brown as well. (If you haven’t heard of Larry Brown, his story collection Big Bad Love is on my five star list).
The convenience of portable music players these days has made them ubiquitous. While thirty years prior, people traveling or working or walking would be forced to listen to the noise around them, today people can shut the world out on a regular basis by putting in a pair of earbuds. Listening to music on the go is great for entertainment and for passing the time, but there’s a reason why I choose not to listen to music for my daily commute on the train. If I did, I would feel strangely disconnected from the world around me, uncurious about the people I’m sitting next to, unable to imagine their lives, all because of the distraction of music. Sometimes just listening is needed.
Basically, our professor had brought in these very different people — with very different professions — in order to have them all talk about their trades and belief. How do these different crafts people get people to trust them, to believe in the different stories they were telling, and be moved or entranced by their very different performances? The rabbi spoke movingly about the wall of skepticism that most people hold up on a regular basis that he had to find holes in, through which an openness toward spiritual experience could emerge. It was a difficult task, but like creative writers, he often used stories to touch and connect with people. The stories from the Torah are often moving, sometimes mysterious, but always an interesting avenue into concepts of morality and faith.
The magician taught us about the magic of showmanship and performance. After wowing us with a few elegant and fairly spectacular card tricks, he began to break down the elements of the trick for us, showing how he had gotten us fully engaged. It was not the essence of the card trick that engaged us. As he said, all card tricks boil down to the same moment — "Is this your card?" To make that moment of surprise and delight fresh for us, he used small, peripheral moments of showmanship to throw things in doubt or throw us off the track. He entertained with jokes or by pretending to make a mistake; he used small unnecessary flourishes, such as making it seem like his shadow was moving the deck of cards. All of these things, the little bits of icing on the cake, were actually what made the final moment of revelation more delightful and real. It was just like in fiction, when the small details of everyday life make the big moments seem more poignant.
The actor, too, spoke fascinatingly about the power of possession. The most successful choices in his acting, he said, were often not about the big shouts or body movements, but about small things that seemed to come over him almost involuntarily, like twitching his eye in a moment of heightened grief. He did not calculatingly make these choices, but it was almost as though the energy and attention of the audience came into his body and possessed him, leading him to make choices that were bolder and more human. While the writer does not have his audience seated in front of him, he can imagine the power of his reader's attention, and make choices with greater verve as a result.
It was truly a rare evening, one that I feel very lucky to have been able to attend. It was wonderful to see these very different artisans and to see how similarly they approached their crafts.
When you're working on a new story, there's often a very sharp difference between one that has only a small spark of energy in it and one that really has your full interest and attention. When a deadline arises, a story has to be written whether you are really invested in it or not, but the experience of writing it can be so different! Instead of feeling like I was chained to my chair for the weekend, exhausted at the prospect of dredging more words out of myself, I stayed focused, asking myself questions about what was best for the story rather than how I could quickly get to the end.
This story was inspired by a few different things I read or observed. One was a science-fiction story I read years ago called "The Tourist", which I always thought had a very intriguing concept. I won't spoil it for you; try and find it and read it for yourself. The other thing that got me going was a recent bus trip I took to visit home. On the way back to New York, I was sitting on the bus waiting for it to take off, and feeling a little sad and thoughtful because of my reluctance to leave home. An old woman got onto the bus and sat across from me after climbing the steps with difficulty. She was waving to a young woman in the terminal through the glass door, who was holding a small baby and waving the baby's arm in a goodbye. Even though the doors were closed, the woman continued to say very softly, "Bye, baby. Bye, baby." She kept saying this and waving for the long fifteen minutes it took for the bus to load and take off. I found the moment very moving, and I knew immediately that I would write about it.
I handed in the story in a daze, exhausted, unable to do much editing at all. I included the cautious note for my classmates that it was only a first draft, but it ended up being the best workshop of the semester, with many people agreeing that it was their favorite story of mine and was really fantastic. It's wonderful when you get an idea and you feel the strength and capability in yourself to do it justice. And then you begin. Writing with that confidence can often turn a very small or shaky idea into a great one, I think.
Keep these guidelines in mind when introducing dream-like elements into your story, and you'll find your writing injected with a new energy and spark of life.
What I'm Reading