1/28/2017: Drafting vs. Planning

I have been making a lot of “development documents” for the novel, but I typically just draft when writing shorter pieces. I know I have a tendency to do development documents for things I’m afraid of getting wrong, and I think I also do it for the novel because I haven’t wanted to do “unnecessary work,” knowing how much time might be “wasted” if I write things that’ll just be thrown out.

In my drafting process, I read what I have over and over again, and when I do, if something strikes me as needing to be changed, I do it. Often this brings something else to mind or sight that needs to be changed, so I do that as well. And I keep reading and changing. And as I do, my vision for the piece changes. I can start with one idea or right side image or left side pattern and end up with something completely different because of how the little changes end up redirecting me. It’s a lot of work. It can takes hours upon hours for a single poem. I have started poems that didn’t rhyme and were about one thing that end up rhyming and being about something else—all because of adding individual changes and finding other things that match them or need to be thrown out and feeling what things go together or not.

And another description of the drafting process—sitting there, active quiescence, reading, mulling, until something pops up to add, remove, or change. Lots of reading, sitting, thinking, mulling.

Pre-thinking looks different. It’s all about finding things I don’t know or don’t know how things fit and then trying to figure out how they do before actually making changes in the draft. It ranges from figuring out how sin works in my world to figuring out what the theme is to figuring out how to make the parts I know are there fit with other parts to fit the theme, even if it means changes things or adding things to do so. But it all happens outside of the draft.

I think I had forgotten what it feels like to draft. I’ve been doing semi-daily poems, and I’m getting back into what it’s like to go from clustering to polishing in a day or two. It’s kind of addicting. Depending on how well a piece clicks, I get to a point where I just don’t want to put it down until it’s perfect. It hasn’t been the same with much of the book (though it did happen sometimes).

I doubt either one is the only way to do it or the best way to do it all the time. I suspect there are times when one is better than the other. But I know that I pre-think whenever I’m afraid. I do it in all kinds of contexts.

One of the worst things is writing when I’m not feeling it. It kind of just drolls on. But one of the best things is writing when I’m feeling it. I can’t stop it.

There are some benefits of the drafting process that I’m missing. For one, it means reading the piece over and over, which means knowing it very well. That’s a good thing, given how long it is and how much stuff is in it. It also means I’ll only change or add or remove things when I get the feeling things need to be changed. This means no droll writing. The book may not end up where I planned or plan, but it will end up at a place that’s polished and that I become convinced is what it should be. I think that conviction will go a long way.

I was thinking of a metaphor when I was playing with my daughter during her bath. She has those foam letters, and she was sticking them on the wall one random letter at a time trying to make a word. She didn’t know what word, she was just sticking them up there one at a time until she got an idea for one and then finishing that word off. We started with EAT, then EATFOOD, then EATFOODISKR3M (eat food ice cream—we supplemented unavailable letters with numbers), and on until it became EATIC6CR3M (eat ice cream). She knew more and more what she wanted to write as we added letters and then words. That’s just about the best metaphor for the generative process that I could ever find. You don’t know where you’re going. You just go. You add. You rearrange. You throw out. And when you get the little light, like a match on a fuse, it just goes, and it gets more and more focused until you have it. But you got to keep putting stuff up there until you do. And isn’t that light just the trial-web shift? The random letters is the trial web. It shifts as/when you focus.

What about when I come across those things that I don’t know and just feel like I have to know before I move on? It’s like if I was writing about God and came across something about him I didn’t know—something like “Does God change? Depending on the answer, what I’m creatively connecting could either be really great or heresy.” It seems like in those cases I need to know the facts first. Who is Lithoth? What are h’lae like? What happened to Gus to make him who he is? What did the fall look like? Those all seem like prolegomena upon which the generation of the story depends.

Surely that part of me that finds connections has to be convinced of the truths behind those connections before I can comfortably make the connections. Else I’ll wonder, “Can these be connected, or is this completely wrong?” And since my world is supposed to be a realistic world, it seems like a lot of things need to make sense before I can creatively connect them in a story. Lots of things need to be worked out logically before they can be acceptable within my image.

And to some degree, that’s what I do when I’m drafting. If I find that a stanza needs something to introduce it, I write another stanza before it. I do that kind of thing with the development documents sometimes.

The big difference is when I use the development documents to figure out the themes or plots or character arcs and then rearrange things so that the themes make sense—without ever make changes in the text. It helps me understand how things fit into the themes (organize), but it lacks the spontaneity and feeling of the drafting process. It feels wrong, but I don’t know why.

I wondered if perhaps my distaste for just writing where things “need to be changed” (as a result of my development documents) is a sign that I should stick to poetry or other shorter things. That novels are just too long and dull to keep my interest—too much busy work (though I should point at that this was not as much the case when I was writing the first draft—it was the case sometimes, as I suspect it always is when just putting foam letters up without feeling any light is). But perhaps it’s more of a sign that I should be drafting more. There’s definitely no life in taking those logically developed changes into the text. Not in and of itself.

I’m glad this came up. It may mean I’ve done a lot of not so great or productive work—at least as far as the novel is concerned—but it means that I’m learning. Or perhaps relearning.

Also, even if I didn’t learn anything when writing, say 10 chapters that I end up deleting, it’s still worthwhile. It’s not wasted time. It’s a necessary part of the best process for writing. So when I’m afraid of not being productive, I need to remember that it’s less productive to only develop logically than it is to develop with both sides and delete three quarters of what I write. That’s the only way to grow and flourish and focus what the writing is to become—to cut and polish the gem.

Another thought. If I compare my poems to my novel, if I am drafting, I should be writing scenes, or units, all out of wack. Moving them around. Writing out of order. Writing up ahead or behind. Removing scenes by the armload. Interchangeably writing scene-focused and multi-scene-focused.

One thing comes to mind. Me developing apart from drafting reminds me of how I wrote that first short story about the magician and how my reader said it was super predictable. I had concluded that I was writing mostly left-brained and that the development outside of the writing was one way I was doing that. I wasn’t exploring or playing. I was trying to make things fit without exploring or playing. I was afraid to play. I think it takes both—both exploring and trying to make things fit. But it’s trying to make things fit as I explore, and I think the exploring comes first.[1]

I fear that I am in the same boat now. And I think fear is probably the culprit. I’m afraid of it not fitting or making sense. I’m afraid of the theme not being robust or complex or impressive or beautiful or emotional or rich… And in fear, I’m trying to force it to fit instead of playing with it. It takes both.

Go play.

Another thing. I remembered (and developed) all this as a result of regularly writing poetry. It reminded me what the process is like when it clicks. I should keep doing this short, experimental practice stuff. It well help sharpen me and keep me sharp.

[1]Could the other come first at times? When would it be good for the making things fit to come first? Perhaps when there’s a problem that needs to be fixed. And maybe that’s it. Those problems come up as your exploring-fitting. It seems like you’d be vacillating between exploring-fitting and fitting-exploring. I think I remember Rico even saying something about that. But unless it begins with a problem that needs to be fixed—and this novel did not—then it begins with exploring-fitting.

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1/19/2017: Writing As Relationship

I was reminded this morning that life is all about relationships. I tend to get focused on knowledge and action, and I tend to try to dominate those things.

And it dawned on me that a more appropriate metaphor for my interaction with both knowledge and action is relationship, rather than domination. I don’t cow them into submission; I invite them to join me. 9/5/2017: Or, perhaps, I ask to join them.

It’s much the same as what I’ve been writing about. Magic, in my world, can be dominated or loved, and it’s the latter that’s better.

Esther Meeks has a book about knowledge that uses a similar metaphor, apparently.

And perhaps the best concrete example of relationship that I can use is my relationship with my wife. Think of spending time with her, having conversations with her, getting to know her, having fun with her, working with her… If I manhandle her in my attempt to do these things, and working together comes to mind the most, not only will she resist me, but I fail to love her. And excepting that she, in love, turns me around, our relationship will turn sour. It will die. And until it is again injected with life, it will remain dead.

Relationship takes time, forgiveness, learning (growth), flexibility, relaxation, fun… If it’s all work, and the only goal and guideline of the relationship is to get work done, the relationship breaks down. Relationship is all about love—loving each other, loving God, loving others together…

Yesterday I was having trouble writing. All I wanted to do was veg (I am in the middle of breaking my media addiction, so the cravings are intense sometimes, and my motivation for good things is often low, and I’m a grump). This is almost exactly like I have been with Mysti at times, especially when I was more into video games. I would want to play, and the time that I had to spend with her when I wanted to play was terrible. We couldn’t connect because I just wanted to be elsewhere. And yesterday a similar thing happened with writing. I made myself write instead of vegging. But I couldn’t connect with it. There was no chemistry. It wouldn’t come to me, and I kept averting from it. And the harder I tried to make it work, the more aloof I felt, and the less writing would respond to me (low quality stuff, writer’s block, language just not coming out). Because there was no desire for relating with writing, no warm connection, no real desire for connection other than for accomplishing my goal of 1) not vegging and 2) producing, the relationship was dead.

As soon as the warmth between you and whatever it is with which you are relating goes away, the relationship breaks down. And whatever you attempt to do with that thing will be as stifled as your feelings.

But I imagine it goes the other way more. If you only work on a relationship in order to make it of more utility, it seems… dead. But maybe that’s wrong. It’s like people with whom you work. It’s difficult to actually have a relationship if the only reason for doing so is the work or goal you share. The relationship really blossoms when you actually like each other, when you want to relate not only for the common goal but more for the relationship itself.

And I guess that’s what the goal of writing has been for me. The whole Bill Hendricks search for a vocation. I wanted to find something with which I would click. Something with which I would have chemistry. I feel like finding writing was like matchmaking. And if me and writing get on well, if we like each other, and the relationship continues to grow, it’ll work out long-term. I can commit to it with surety that things will work out.

This actually reminds me of my writing class. I thought of it the same back then—that learning to write was like starting a relationship. I guess I forgot about that.

But it’s not just writing. The more we healthily relate to anything, the more natural our common work with that thing will be. The more we try to dominate anything, the more it will break down—if not immediately then eventually. Domination only ends in death. It’s unlike God. It’s the difference between trying to control and feeling free enough not to have to.

So how to relate to writing from here; some ideas:

  1. Spend regular time together. And if it’s been a while since you have, don’t expect things to be warm and cozy right away. It’s regular time that nurtures a relationship.
  2. At the same time, sometimes it’s good to spend brief periods apart. Relationships take effort—especially at first. Give yourself a break from time to time.
  3. Fun helps: just as you go on dates with your wife, do fun things with writing. Those warm feelings go a long way.
  4. Try new things together. Learn together. Working on some common goal with writing. That’s what the healthiest level of the relationship is anyways—to not only relate with each other but to relate with others together.
  5. Learn more about writing. “Dialogue” with it by learning about it and then putting what you learn to practice. Listen to others who have studied it. Study others’ writing and see how they relate with it.
  6. If you have a bad day, figure out what you did wrong (if anything), make it better, and try again.
  7. My characteristics when I attempt to dominate: feeling the need for control (“It just won’t do what I want! Do what I want!”), feeling pressured for time or quality, wanting to force writing into those goals, frustration, lack of motivation,
  8. Relationships take time.It takes a while to internalize what works and doesn’t work for that relationship. Time and practice. “Brick by brick,” as they say. It probably won’t be magic right away—especially as you work through your addictions, which draw your desires elsewhere. I am still learning to relate with Mysti after almost eleven years of marriage. It’s waaaaaaaay better than it was before, but growing closer really never stops. Or it shouldn’t.
  9. If writing just doesn’t respond to you, no matter how well you try to make the relationship work, maybe it’s a bad fit. Likewise, if you just hate spending time with it, and you’re doing a good job at trying to relate with it, maybe there’s just no chemistry, and you should try something else.
  10. With that in mind, some key characteristics to look for in a good vocational pairing:
    1. Does it forgive you? Do you forgive it? After the dust settles, can you go back to it and the relationship be warm or get warmer? Or does it remain sour and defensive?
    2. Does it respond to you? When you try to work with it, does it work with you?
    3. Do you ever click with it? Those times when things just fall into place.
    4. Does it give you joy, or is it a burden (think of this on a scale)?
    5. Do you share common goals?
    6. Does it have a future? Can you see yourself committing to it?

12/5/2016: On The Fear of Death

Is the fear of death, or the reaction against death, the impetus for all of our actions?

“‘The tale is not really about Power and Dominion: that only sets the wheels going; it is about Death and the desire for deathlessness,’ wrote J.R.R. Tolkien in a letter in 1957.  He would often tell interviewers that The Lord of the Rings ‘is about death … and the search for deathlessness.'” (Not sure where I got this, but it’s not mine).

Surely Satan and Sauron seek power and dominion, and I had developed in my great antagonist a similar bent. I had concluded that their search was one of pride, one of seeking to surpass the Almighty, to become Almighty themselves, to be truly Independent. That is, they forget or disbelieve in their dependence on the One and step into faithlessness, into disobedience. Adam does this as well, having adopted the Serpent’s philosophy. Milton shows that Lucifer sought something higher than what he was given. He assumed independence, having become dissatisfied with God’s provision (without cause). Again we find lust of the flesh, lust of the eyes, boastful pride of life.

But perhaps that’s not enough. For that’s probably how it starts (if I can even imagine what it’s like to have no sin nature and to make a sinful decision from a neutral state)—how it starts prior to one’s fall (or at its inception, rather, after which all things change). But after a fall, we all have death, the separation from the being from whom all life flows. And having death, do we not all seek to remedy ourselves, to recreate ourselves, to conquer the death that is in us and that we feel at all times, to conquer the death in the whole world? Does that not drive all of us into all that we do? If that’s the case, a being’s desire for true independence becomes one of self-preservation, which necessarily correlates with a separation from the Life Giver. No longer is Independence sufficient, or Independence for the sake of Supremacy or Mastery, but Independence to the end that we are safe and complete and whole, without requiring any other for any of our needs and/or desires (should they not match). But I suspect that our method of achieving this escape remains in the same vein to the fall, us having lost our connection to Life. We seek to recreate ourselves by means of the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the boastful pride of life.

Of course, fear and false confidence are the two sides of pride. And to be sure, we feel both, sometimes even simultaneously. It is likely that it is not merely the flight from death that propels us but also the periodic belief that our swords and shields can defeat the dragon of death. Both drive us toward the same goal—to be independent. To be sufficient in and of ourselves.

11/22/2016: On Ambition

I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that I’m worried about being a good writer. Or really even just being “a writer,” as if it’s some special breed of human. Indeed, it seems like most articles raise them up, along with other artists, to a pseudo-deity, much the same as celebrities. It draws all my ambition.

A godly man would view fame and wealth as all but worthless—at least for the normal reasons I pursue them. Tolstoy did, but only after discerning their worthlessness from experience. They are utility. Reach more people. Help more people. They carry the responsibility of the Talents, much like my education. Without these, they are merely the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.

It is as much an idol—identifying myself as a writer—as identifying myself as, or making myself, a good person was in the past. I take the question “Who am I?” as impetus for becoming praiseworthy. But such is the flavor of my sin nature. And it seems that, like in my character perfectionism, God has forbidden me from attaining my desired identification. I fall into intense insecurity long before I succeed. It is my Babel Tower toppling. Baal failing to light the fire. God disallowing me from feeling independent of him.

And just as in the case of wanting to be and know that I am a good person, being and knowing that I am a good writer are bound by God’s will and thus dependent upon his grace, just like the toppling of the tower. That is, God could let me continue to build my tower. He could let me succeed. He could let me take credit for it for the rest of my life, just like he does for so many successful persons (according to worldly standards). But in grace, he reminds me that I am indeed dependent upon him. And not only does he remind me, but in grace he gives me belief. That is, if he does. I cannot force his hand in this, else it would not be grace. I cannot manipulate his timing. I am helpless to change my independent assumptions, and therefore all of my motivations for things that accord with independence, by myself. These things usually involve some measure of personal greatness: christian character, artistic skills, creativity, intelligence, good looks.

A few thoughts:

First, I don’t have to know that I am a good writer to be a good writer, even though I imagine it would help in determining my vocation. I say this because I feel particularly down at the thought that I might not be good—a product of my insecurity at the moment. But I guess this is just me trying to reassure myself according to that same system (of being a good writer). At the same time, perhaps I just want to know what the best use of my time is right now, and I assume that the best use involves doing what I do well (or the best). But I wonder if that’s the best criteria for choosing what to do. In and of itself, choosing to do what we are best at has little value. Choosing to do what we do best in order to help people has merit, but of course such purity requires character, which requires grace. But perhaps choosing to do what God has put before you is best. Or perhaps my worry about what to do involves another fear—what if I choose the wrong thing to do? Just another branch of the insecurity vine. In any case, I cannot outignorance or outevil the sovereignty and goodness of God. Choose what is in my head and heart to choose.

Second, there is a measure of clear-mindedness in spite of the fear of not being a good writer to determine that I am at least good enough and interested enough to pursue writing. Such has been the conclusion so far, though the fear persists. Again, it seems like I just want to assure myself that writing is the best path. It may be. Why I want to assure myself of this—perhaps because of my insecurity. See above.

Third, all sanctification is by grace through faith. Being a good, loving writer—the goal worth having—is by grace through faith. Trusting God and being humble (contra insecurity) are also goals worth having. And in God’s grace, he may topple my tower of writing well (agnostic of love) in order to teach me writing in the slums. Or he may forbid writing altogether. It’s up to him, and it’s good.

I want to write well primarily because of ambition (right now anyways). I have not wanted to write well to enhance my ability to reach people, to build the world—at least I have not noticed that motive. I believe that desire is in me, but it takes second seat to my pride. Tolstoy moves from the first to the second as well: https://www.brainpickings.org/2016/05/16/leo-tolstoy-purpose-diaries-youth/ and https://www.brainpickings.org/2013/11/20/tolstoy-on-motives/

If this will change, it will be by grace through faith.

And in the meantime, I guess I’ll just keep writing. Until the next time God topples one of my towers.

If I end up being a professional writer, I wonder if I will always bounce back and forth between purer motives and ambition.

I was reminded that Lewis wrote about what tempts me. I think it was in The Great Divorce. He wrote about the artist who became more enamored with the craft of painting than about that which he painted, though he was initially interested in painting because he wanted to capture a bit of the beauty he saw and share it with others. While reading those articles on Tolstoy, I realized that I have become fixated on the craft of writing—I imagine because I believed it to be the quickest route to praiseworthiness. But the sincere writer records himself, not just his skills, not just his interesting thoughts. He records his emotions, and so his values, his beliefs, his struggles, his flaws. And he shares himself with the world. He connects with it. Perhaps in hopes that he can help it along its way. Perhaps also in hopes that it can help him. Or perhaps just because he’s part of it, and our grand design is to proliferate, to create, to cultivate, and he wants to contribute to humanity’s effort toward this end. I think it was realizing that I have failed to do this that my insecurity began in this episode. I failed in this regard, God made it obvious to me, and I fell apart, having come to depend upon being a good writer rather than upon God. I sell my loyalty for trifles.