Category Archives: The Writing Process

Writing and Reading and the Invisible Forces at Play

I teach a personal development course where journal writing is a major portion of the work we do. This is a guided journal with prompts aimed at self-revelation: our strengths and weaknesses, our influences and challenges, what holds us back, what turns us on. The idea is to freewrite the answers to the prompts. No editing. No censoring. Just catch what you can on the page. And, like fishing, the more you cast your thoughts, the more likely you’ll catch something you didn’t even know existed inside you.

The idea of discovering the unknown is also true in creative writing.

In the New York Times article, “The Invisible Forces That Make Writing Work,” Roger Rosenblatt explores an interesting phenomenon of composition: the idea of hidden influences that shape a work of art:

You come up with an image, phrase or sentence. Your head snaps back, and you say to yourself, Where did that come from?! I’m not talking about automatic writing, though that may be part of it. I mean the entire range of invisible forces that produce and affect the work. There are things the writer sees that the reader does not; things the reader sees that the writer does not; and things neither of us ever sees. These, the most entrancing of the lot, have a power of their own.

Things the writer sees that the reader doesn’t.

Things the reader sees that the writer doesn’t.

Things neither sees.

The Invisible Forces That Make Writing Work” is an insightful take on the writing and reading process.

 

 

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Denis Johnson’s Last Line: “And you, you ridiculous people, you expect me to help you.”


“There’s nothing wrong with me”—I’m surprised I let those words out.
But it’s always been my tendency to lie to doctors, as if good health consisted only of the ability to fool them.
Some years later, one time when I was admitted to the detox at Seattle General Hospital, I took the same tack.
“Are you hearing unusual sounds or voices?” the doctor asked.
“Help us, oh God, it hurts,” the boxes of cotton screamed.
“Not exactly,” I said.
“Not exactly,” he said. “Now what does that mean?”
“I’m not ready to go into all that,” I said. A yellow bird fluttered close to my face, and my muscles grabbed. Now I was flopping like a fish.

from “Car Crash While Hitchhiking”

I first heard of Denis Johnson in 1985 when a co-worker told me her sister had dated him. He was a poet she said. This was in Jacksonville, Florida, a million miles away from the world of Denis Johnson. A few years later in graduate school, Padgett Powell had us read Johnson’s first novel, Angels. It was a gritty underbelly kind of story, like glimpsing into a bus station and seeing someone with tinfoil on his head. Later, I tuned into his other novels, such as Fiskadora, which the New York Times described as “the sort of book that a young Herman Melville might have written had he lived today and studied such disparate works as the Bible, ‘The Wasteland,’ Fahrenheit 451, and Dog Soldiers, screened Star Wars and Apocalypse Now several times, dropped a lot of acid and listened to hours of Jimi Hendrix and the Rolling Stones.” And then, way after the fact, I read what most would call his masterwork, a short story collection called Jesus’ Son. I’ve read it multiple times since. Anyone who has not read Denis Johnson should start with Jesus’ Son. A blurb on the paperback gives us a clue to what special magic is going on here: “Reading these stories is like reading ticker tape from the subconscious.”

The opening story that starts the collection is a kind of storytelling you probably haven’t experienced before. Jeffrey Eugenides describes it as a story where plot matters less than the “brokenness” of the narrator’s voice, “where the personal brushes up against the eternal.” Johnson, in his youth, had been a heroin addict, and if you combine the spiritual emptiness of a druggie with a gifted poet, a  storyteller who studied under Raymond Carver and was inspired by Isaac Babel’s The Red Calvary, and an artist with a clear unabashed honesty and the courage to go where few would ever admit to going, let alone describe, you get that first story in Jesus’ Son, “Car Crash While Hitchhiking.”

Denis Johnson, who, from all accounts, enjoyed people but shunned them like he did the booze and drugs that nearly killed him, lived in the woods in upstate Idaho with his wife. According to Deborah Treisman, The New Yorker fiction editor, Johnson had a shed by a lake on his property where he would sometimes work. Treisman writes, the lake “provided a metaphor for how he thought about his sentences, which he polished, sometimes for years, until he felt he had got them right. ‘There’s a surface tension to the words,’ he told me. ‘It is an illusion, and you can poke at it once, and then after that you’re just poking the ripples.’” Lawrence Wright said Johnson described writing a novel to him this way: “You get in your teacup and take your oar and strike off for Australia,” he said, “and if you wind up in Japan, you’re ecstatic.” Wright uncovered three writing rules Johnson told students:

-Write naked. That means to write what you would never say.
-Write in blood. As if ink is so precious you can’t waste it.
-Write in exile, as if you are never going to get home again, and you have to  call back every detail.

And once written, how did Johnson take the reviews? “A bad review is like one of those worms in the Amazon that swims up your penis. If you read it, you can’t get it out, somehow.”

A lot of people loved the writing of Denis Johnson. And a lot of writers who marveled at his words will no doubt be reading them again in the coming days. Johnson was 67 years old when he died earlier this week from cancer.

The Spark: Insights into Creativity

David Crosby has never been known as a prolific songwriter, especially compared to his band mates (in The Byrds and CSNY). And what songs he has written have, as with many works of art, come from turmoil. It seems he believed in the old adage: an artist must suffer to create. But now Crosby is 75 years old. Time is running out, and he’s hit the most creative years of his life. In his song, “By the Light of Common Day” (working title “The Muse”), he gives insight earned by long experience into the creative process: that those hard times he had–the early loss of his girlfriend, the drug years, prison–weren’t necessary. He didn’t need “to make it rough,” as he says in the song. The muse doesn’t need that; it just needs us to listen.

By the Light of Common Day (Lyrics by David Crosby, music by Becca Stevens)

By the light of common day
Things look different
Than they did in the starlit dark

The dark was warm and clouded
It was easy to deceive yourself
And those around you in the work

To say the craziness and pain
The spreading of the stain is
Exactly where you gain the spark to make it
As if being happy isn’t quite enough
Somehow I needed to make it rough
Rough enough to break it

To make those long connections
And run in wrong directions
Till I break it loose

I was wrong of course I see now
The spark is there all the time now
If you know how to listen to your calling
The muse is quietly knocking on your door now

To say the craziness and pain
The spreading of the stain is
Exactly where you gain the spark to make it
As if being happy isn’t quite enough

Somehow I needed to make it rough
Rough enough to break it
Rough enough to break it

You have to go faithfully each day
And open up your head some way
Somehow

And what will come in answer
Some strong and gentle dancer
Will carry a song through your door
Some great lifting force of light
Will come to balance fearful night
And raise its voice and then raise yours
Raise its voice and then raise yours

 

 

A Manner of Being: Writer’s on Their Mentors

A Manner of Being: Writers on Their Mentorsedited by Annie Liontas and Jeff Parker, is a collection of essays by writers reflecting on the influence of their mentors (or lack of mentor). Most of the relationships were born in university classrooms, but despite this similarity, the experiences explored in Manner of Being are as varied as the collection of writers from which they’re drawn. The book delivers many lessons–in writing, teaching, life–and the lessons aren’t always delivered by writers (a nanny here, a bookstore owner there). There are some heavy hitters, though. Of the seventy essays, some of the writers represented are Pam Houston, Philip Levine, Mary Gaitskill, Gore Vidal, John Irving, Gordon Lish, Mary Jo Salter. There are also lesser known writers who have wonderfully told tales of their apprenticeships.

Click here for an example essay originally published in The New Yorker: George Saunders on Tobias Wolff.

 

Writer + Agent = To Kill a Mockingbird

Jonathan Mahler’s New York Times‘ article, “The Invisible Hand Behind Harper Lee’s ‘To Kill a Mockingbird,'” offers a glimpse into the interdependent process of creating a masterpiece.

“In the spring of 1957,” Mahler writes, “a 31-year-old aspiring novelist named Harper Lee — everyone called her Nelle — delivered the manuscript for “Go Set a Watchman” to her agent [Tay Hohoff] [but] the manuscript was by no means fit for publication. It was [. . .] ‘more a series of anecdotes than a fully conceived novel.’ During the next couple of years, she led Ms. Lee from one draft to the next until the book finally achieved its finished form and was retitled ‘To Kill a Mockingbird.’”

Read the article here.

And for kicks, check out this wonderful interview with Harper Lee.

 

 

Vonnegut on Novelists

” . . . novelists are not only unusually depressed, by and large, but have, on the average, about the same IQs as the cosmetics consultants at Bloomingdale’s department store. Our power is patience. We have discovered that writing allows even a stupid person to seem halfway intelligent, if only that person will write the same thought over and over again, improving it just a little bit each time. It is a lot like inflating a blimp with a bicycle pump. Anybody can do it. All it takes is time.”

-Kurt Vonnegut, Palm Sunday

Observations on First Lines and Voice in Fiction

The opening lines of a novel matter (there are lists, after all, for such things, the “Best First Lines from Novels“). Point of view is set. Characters are introduced. Voice is established. And maybe more, as Gabriel Garcia Marquez notes:

One of the most difficult things is the first paragraph. I have spent many months on a first paragraph, and once I get it, the rest just comes out very easily. In the first paragraph you solve most of the problems with your book. The theme is defined, the style, the tone. At least in my case, the first paragraph is a kind of sample of what the rest of the book is going to be.

So what happens when writers cast out those first lines? Where do the words come from? What is the writer looking for? And how does he or she know when they’ve found it? Below are author insights culled mostly from The Paris Review interviews.

John Steinbeck: I suffer as always from the fear of putting down the first line. It is amazing the terrors, the magics, the prayers, the straitening shyness that assail one. It is as though the words were not only indelible but that they spread out like dye in water and color everything around them. A strange and mystic business, writing.

Edna O’Brien: I always have the first line. Even with my very first book, The Country Girls, I went around with this first sentence in my head long before I sat down to write it.

Joseph Heller: My novels begin in a strange way. I don’t begin with a theme or even a character. I begin with a first sentence that is independent of any conscious preparation. Most often nothing comes out of it: a sentence will come to mind that doesn’t lead to a second sentence. Sometimes it will lead to thirty sentences which then come to a dead end.

I was alone on the deck. As I sat there worrying and wondering what to do, one of those first lines suddenly came to mind: “In the office in which I work, there are four people of whom I am afraid. Each of these four people is afraid of five people.” Immediately, the lines presented a whole explosion of possibilities and choices—characters (working in a corporation), a tone, a mood of anxiety, or insecurity. In that first hour (before someone came along and asked me to go to the beach), I knew the beginning, the ending, most of the middle . . .

INTERVIEWER
Was it the same process of “receiving” a first line with Catch-22?

HELLER
Just about. I was lying in bed in my four-room apartment on the West Side when suddenly this line came to me: “It was love at first sight. The first time he saw the chaplain, Someone fell madly in love with him.” I didn’t have the name Yossarian. The chaplain wasn’t necessarily an army chaplain—he could have been a prison chaplain. But as soon as the opening sentence was available, the book began to evolve clearly in my mind—even most of the particulars . . . the tone, the form, many of the characters, including some I eventually couldn’t use. All of this took place within an hour and a half.

Joan Didion: What’s so hard about that first sentence is that you’re stuck with it. Everything else is going to flow out of that sentence. And by the time you’ve laid down the first two sentences, your options are all gone.

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