Sunday, May 2, 2010

On Writing

I don’t wanna waste your time
With music you don’t need
Why should I autograph the book
That you won’t even read?
I got a different scar for every song
And blood left still to bleed
But I don’t wanna waste your time
With music you don’t need

--Over the Rhine, “Don’t Wanna Waste Your Time”

Writing is a funny thing.  Like, right now I’m writing about as quickly as I possibly can, as my thoughts are all in a row, ready to go, begging to tumble out of my head and through my fingers.  About two minutes ago I was slogging through writing a scene that I can absolutely, completely see in my head but that I simply can’t seem to put in to words.  Writing is a fickle bitch like that, I suppose.

I’m back to my old project.  It’s existed in one form or another for a good five years now.  I’ve known exactly what the main narrative was literally since the beginning.  In a very real way it came to me in a dream.

I like dreams.  They’re cool.  When I’m dreaming my brain isn’t so encumbered with those issues that are so important otherwise in coming up with a narrative.  Is it realistic?  Is it flattering?  My dreaming brain doesn’t care.  It’s got a story to tell for its own nefarious purposes and it’s going to tell that story come hell or high water.  Last night I had a dream that involved leading a Roman infantry unit in a library.  I mean, seriously.

Anyway, dreams.  Specifically, that one dream that has haunted me for five years or so.

I actually remember basically nothing of the dream itself.  What I do remember, though, was that there was an eight year-old girl named Morgan in the dream.  And at the very end of it, when all else had been resolved (or, y’know, dream resolved), she looked at me and said, “Tell my story.”

I woke up that morning with the plot of a book in my head.  Oddly, the plot had absolutely nothing to do with the dream.  It was like this little dream child had provided me with her back story when I wasn’t paying attention or something.

The problem was that it wasn’t a story I was capable of writing in 2005.  I lacked the skill to actually do the story justice.  It was this story about love and loss, fear and grace, and realizing that everything you’d wanted to accomplish in your life had just fallen by the wayside.  It was about waking up one morning and realizing that the world had passed by and you’d just watched it happen.  Mostly, oddly, it was about fathers.  But, really, it was about the heavenly father.

I wrote little bits of it back when I first conceived of it.  They were character sketches, really, attempts to cement aspects of the people who inhabited the story in my mind.  I absolutely know that one of those bits will make it in to the final in basically the form in which I first wrote it.  I strongly suspect a couple of the other bits will make it in one form or another, too.

That’s one of the craziest things about this.  I know these characters.  I’ve known them from the moment they popped in to existence.  I know how they interact, I know how they talk.  I know their fears and desires.  The fact that they only exist in my head doesn’t seem to be a problem.  Although I suppose it’s a recipe for insanity.  Hell, maybe that’s the line between writer and mental patient.

The book at the time I conceived of it was probably a reflection of my own mental state.  Also, that statement makes no sense.  Of course the book was a reflection of my mental state at the time.  I’d finished a different book not so long before that I’d intended to sell to the Christian publishing world.  To this day I think it’s actually a pretty good book, just with several fatal, gaping flaws.  The biggest problem is that it ended with the standard Jesus-based sales pitch.  Although I suppose that it kind of worked on a weird level.  It was your basic boy meets girl, boy falls for girl, boy becomes a Christian because otherwise he’s unacceptable to girl story.  So I guess it works on the level of social commentary on why we choose to believe or not.

But the problem was that it didn’t follow.  The boy did meet the girl.  The boy did fall for the girl.  The boy wasn’t a Christian and the girl was.  But she seemed to appreciate him for who he was.  And she seemed to be aware of the fact that “Christian” didn’t necessarily mean “a good person,” nor did “non-Christian” necessarily mean “worthless.”

And I say “seemed to” as if I didn’t really know this character who exists entirely in my head and on the hard drive of my computer.  The truth is that I don’t know her entirely.  I find that my characters have an odd habit of telling me who they are even though I’m usually pretty sure it should be the other way around.  But if you develop a voice and a story, then let the character react in his or her own way, you tend to find out that the character isn’t who you think they are.

Terrible things happen to the characters in my stories.  People in my stories do terrible things.  Every once in a while I wonder if I’m some sort of fictional sadist.  But I take no delight in having to write about those things.  They’re usually a part of the back story of the character and where we are now is looking in on them as they deal with life in light of the things that have happened to them.  How does someone who has been abused learn how to trust again?  How does someone who has lost everything ever feel secure again?  What happens when someone who has been abandoned and someone who has been abused pull in to the same orbit?  How do they interact?  How do they respond?  Do they fall in love or do they leave?

When I first conceived of my five year project I thought the answer was simple.  It was all about god.  Deus ex machine.  The interesting thing, though, is that I didn’t have an end to the book.  I might have literally had to have god step in to fix everything.

In my own life at the time, though, I was realizing that god didn’t make a habit of stepping in and fixing things.  It never seemed to happen, no matter how many times I was promised it would.  When I left the church I still had the book, though.

The weird thing is that it started making a lot more sense.  As soon as I wasn’t slaved to the idea of writing a Christian book I was free to let the characters genuinely question the situations in which they found themselves.  I was also free to let them find answers that weren’t necessarily the proper Christian answers.  They’re free to find answers that aren’t Christian at all.

But it’s not the easiest thing in the world to write about.  I need to remember.  Specifically, I need to remember what it was like to go to church, what it was like to pray and genuinely believe god was there, waiting.  I need to remember the feeling that god was actually listening.  I need to remember the despair of feeling no answers were forthcoming.

Mostly, though, I need to figure out how to write about it in a way that’s not disparaging or embarrassed.  That’s the thing I’m having the absolute hardest time with in all of it.  I can see the scene.  I can see the people in the scene.  I can hear them interacting.  But when one kneels to pray I lose the words.

Because the weird thing about this is that it’s not a book about how Christianity is wrong.  It’s not even a book about how Evangelical Christianity is wrong.  I have no intention of disproving anything, and I think it’s folly to use fiction as a vehicle for that, anyway.  It is, instead, about the gradual realization that if you’re going to claim god has a plan when things are good, you have to be able to admit that bad things come from the same place.

It’s about the gradual realization that simplistic explanations don’t add up.  It’s about the point where, “God is in control,” stops being comforting and becomes horrifying.

My writing methods get in the way, though.  I need to be able to express genuine belief.  I need to be able to express honest doubt.  I need to be able to express tenacious attempts to hold on to the former in the face of the latter.  But in order to do that I need to remember what it’s like to feel that belief and to want so strongly to hold on to it.

Music, I’ve long known, is a key aspect to my writing.  It creates the mood I need to feel to properly write.  What I’ve found is that I actually need to pull out my old Christian music in order to properly do this.  Andrew Peterson, Eric Peters, Mitch McVicker, Caedmon’s Call.  It’s all stuff I thought I’d put away forever.  And yet, here we are.  Life’s funny like that sometimes, I guess.


fool for beautiful words said...

"But when one kneels to pray I lose the words."

Why? It isn't you (not your former, nor your present self) I suppose... then why is it hard to write about it without judging the person and the situation? I assume you do understand why people need faith in their lives (well, most of them) on a logical level. That's all what's needed to write about it.
The embarassment is all on your part, because now you question your former beliefs and lifestyle, but... your characters aren't you (well, not fully).

And, on a sidenote, why is it wrong to judge here and there? The reader won't necessarily agree with you.

I apologise if I'm playing the unwanted advocate, just tell me to shut up :)

Geds said...

The problem is that no matter how much I talk about the characters existing as separate entities from myself, they are not. They can only know what I know and use words I know how to use. When I advance the idea of allowing them their own space to react within the narrative it's more of an allowance that the story that gets told isn't necessarily the story I set out to tell. If Thing A happens and I want Thing A to progress to Thing B, but I realize that Character A won't react to Thing A in the way that's necessary to hit Thing B, I have to change. Either something else has to happen or we need to move to Thing C, instead.

As a writer I have to be conscious that my readers are watching my characters as players on a stage. Both sides are consciously aware that it's all staged and the costuming, dressing, and words are put in place for an express purpose.

The only people who don't know they're participating in staged farce are the characters themselves. They're delivering their lines as if they actually do believe. This is because, well, they do (unless, y'know, they're supposed to be smarmy liars). So I have to allow them to deliver the lines that they would genuinely deliver given the characters they are.

And although I am a big fan of the idea of the unreliable narrator, in this case I cannot use it as a device. I need to show genuine faith and honest doubt in the face of real events. Such as they are, at least.

So this is where my problems lie.

Janet said...

I think you hit on it when you say that your characters are players on a stage. To write a character, the author becomes an actor. He has to get into the part, he has to feel the part. He needs to be in complete empathy with his characters, if he is to reveal them as genuine to his audience of readers. And so, if your character believes, then you have to suspend your disbelief. For that moment, you are your character; you feel, think, and react as they do.

In this way, writing can be a kind of therapy for the storyteller. You are compelled to live through things you have rejected, and things you fear. But it's often difficult to go back to a scene that you've already played out to its resolution.

Geds said...

'Xactly. That tension of not knowing how it will turn out is hard to duplicate when you...know how it will turn out. And creating a character who is both believable and honestly believes in different things than the author is exceptionally difficult. I think it's human nature to want to let everyone else know that you're aware of the absurdity of whatever that position is.

This, I think, is what gives us the utter shite that is Left Behind. LaJenkins not only lack the capacity to do that, they lack the desire to try.

fool for beautiful words said...

Allow me a question. You're not a good liar, are you? :)

andrew said...

something you said clicked with me here. it reminded me of something that i've heard more times than i can count:

"something good happened to me, therefore God is good!"

the problem is pretty obvious. "Something bad happened to me, therefore God is ..."

i'm trying to write a novel myself, so i can relate to much that you say here. the characters are 'real', you aren't making them up so much as knowing them and seeing them in your head and listening as they talk to each other. thanks for sharing, this encourages me to get back to work on my writing. if you ever get it done, let us know!