Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Bird by Bird (plus Tales About Racing)

So, I’m reading this fantastic book about writing called Bird By Bird, written by Anne Lamott. Amy gave it to me at the beginning of the weekend as a present, and I’ve been chomping at the bit to read it ever since I caught this wonderful little passage on, like, page two of her introduction:

“One of the gifts of a writer is that it gives you an excuse to do things, to go places and explore. Another is that writing motivates you to look closely at life, at life as it lurches and tramps around.”

Too true.

So far (I’m about halfway through), I completely adore it. Not because she offers up some wonderful and more importantly practical advice on the everyday task of sitting down to record words (her analogy of the “1-inch picture frame” is completely true and wonderfully articulated), but also because, as with most books “about writing” that I love, she wraps up this advice in-between little scenes of her life and past experience, all of which help contextualize what she’s saying.

I’ve been given some great books about writing. Oddly, they tend to be gifts from important women. Sherrian has given me several over the years, and Kara, of course, gifted me with Stephen King’s wonderful works On Writing and Secret Windows, both of which have helped me immensely since beginning my last (thankfully successful) attempt to craft a manuscript. Now Amy and the Lamott book. Don’t know why that’s important, but it feels like it is.

The only complaint I have, if one could even call it so, is that the stories Lamott recounts are generally very full of rage and angst and dizzying joy. Writing, for her, seems to be a very roller-coaster affair, full-to-bursting with stratospheric highs and Stygian lows. I’m sure that this is the inevitable side-effect off distilling years upon years of writing experience into the pure, undiluted form of a book on writing (a process designed to cull out all the boring, everyday stuff), but still it makes me wonder what’s wrong with me sometimes because, well, it’s generally not that way for me at all.

Writing, for me, is often a very “workmanlike” task. I sit at my PC (most) every morning, and open my file. I read back 2-3 pages, so I can catch the flow of what I was saying, and then when I come to the big white space at the end, I begin to type. Generally, I get down two or three paragraphs, then delete out three-fourths of what I just wrote. Then I write another half a page, and delete most, but not all, of it. Lather. Rinse. Repeat. Over time, the simple mathematics of what I’m doing accrues into three or four pages of story over the course of an hour-and-a-half or so. Then I have to shut down and go to work.

Repeat 4-5 times a week over 6-8 months, and you have the first draft of a 120K-word story. Editing, of course, is a completely different matter, one deserving its own posting.

Terrifically fascinating, huh?

I just made an illustration for Amy last week: a city-scape of her favorite place: Dubrovnik in Croatia, drawn from a panoramic photo taken from the city walls. It was the perfect subject for me: detail-laden and sweeping, filled with teensy, fiddly-bit details that I love rendering. Drawing it was like writing, in that I had all this white space to fill up, and in order to do so, my primary ally was my dogged determination to just get everything down that I saw. To make sure that every tile roof, every church dome and roof-line dormer window, was put down on the paper.

When I showed the drawing to her, her face lit up, as if I’d done something far more amazing than I really had. I felt, truth be told, like a bit like a fraud. All I did, after all, was document what I saw in front of me. How hard could that be? True, I was thinking of her as I laid down every line, and that’s likely what she was responding to just as much as the final illustration itself, but still...

Writing is the same. I see things so clearly in my head sometimes, that writing them down feels more like note taking than creation. Sometimes I wish that my brain would stop endlessly churning on things 24/7/365, even as I realize that if that were to happen that I’d lose something integral and fundamental about myself, something that only a few select people generally can see (and who I hope admire about me).

As such, I suppose saying what I did above could be considered to be conceit, but it’s really not. Such is the contradiction of the creative person’s mind: eternally driven to document and create but equally harried by a million little doubts about the integrity of one’s work.

How do you deal with this crucial, character-defining issue? As one writer/artist to another, I really, really want to know…

WRITING UPDATE: Finished the first draft of “Dragonrider” this morning. It’s a modern myth about an Iraq vet that runs afoul of Hastseltsi, the Navajo god of racing one night out on Rt. 129, the deadly Tail of the Dragon in North Carolina. I’ve been going down there for the last few years to participate in the MINIs on the Dragon event. In October, you may recall that I totaled my beloved orange MINI Cooper S on the road, and ever since that day, the desire to write about the road has been top of mind.

Writing about Manny, my Iraq vet, was very stressful, and ended up incorporating some of the recent testimony from PTSD-afflicted anti-war vets to congress. Careful readers have picked up on some very subtle commentary about this issue that I put into the manuscript of Nights of Sin (good catch, Jerry), but "Dragonrider" is and will be my only overt piece related to our involvement overseas. As such, I’m equal parts happy and relieved that the tale’s finally out of my head and out in the world, where it belongs.

Now the editing begins. (( Happy dance )).

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

thanks for including me in your blog and in your life, matt. it is impossible to put in words how beautiful "amy's dubrovnik" is.