by Jean Roberta
This weekend, I have several big jobs to do, and I’m fairly sure I won’t finish them all. Unfortunately, none of them involves writing fiction.
1) I need to make a dent in my To Be Read list of books for review. The book that is most accessible to me physically is a hardcover anthology of fabulous (in every sense) lesbian sci-fi, just out from Lethe Press. In due course, I’ll post my review somewhere on-line, with a link on Facebook.
2) I really need to finish writing a first draft of my proposal for a book project for the university where I teach, so I can get time off to work on it. This book, which already has a publisher, will be about censorship, broadly speaking, not only the official kind imposed by governments but the mob-rule kind imposed by organizations which supposedly rebel against governments. The publisher wants me to focus on eyewitness events, for which I was present or involved. Egad. I have a mass of material that needs to be summarized in a logical way.
3) I need to start reading the pile of student essays that were handed in to me on Friday. The essays are on the short stories I’m teaching in a first-semester English class. The student efforts I’ve seen so far are not completely garbled, or incoherent, but they need work. It’s my job to explain how they could be improved, not because I want students to say exactly what I want them to say, but because I want them to express themselves as clearly as possible.
4) Later today, an expert in decluttering (who runs a business doing this) will arrive to help me tackle the basement of my house, which reminds me of a jungle or a war zone full of landmines. Ms. Declutter is a friend of my stepson, and she has been polite about the mess so far. I’m afraid we’ll probably have to take everything out of the basement to make sure we can find and destroy all the black mould. (I killed a large patch of it with bleach last week, and was lectured by my whole family for doing this without a mask or gloves.)
Looking at this intimidating to-do list, I see what all these tasks require: discrimination or judgment. Writing anything, fiction or non-fiction, requires the same skills that enable a person to create order in a house. What’s important needs to be identified and put in an appropriate place. What’s less important needs to be used to support or enhance the important stuff. What is not needed has to be discarded without mercy. No “maybe I can fix it and use it later.” If it’s taking up too much space, it has to go.
Reading an amazing collection of sci-fi stories, most by veteran writers, and then reading the writing of undergraduates in a mandatory English class, is a study in contrasts. Good writers demonstrate by example what works and what doesn’t work.
To show what I mean, here is the opening scene of “Eldritch Brown Houses” by Claire Humphrey in Daughters of Frankenstein (Lethe Press):
“This is Salem at its oldest and spookiest: cold fog off the ocean, daylight dimming early, gables and gombrels looming at odd angles. I’m gazing out from the upstairs window of the Corwin place, from beside a case of age-yellowed cloth dolls. The streets are empty except for the tail-lights of a single car, receding.”
Don’t you want to read the rest of this story? All the details in this paragraph, from the physical atmosphere to the vintage architecture to the aged dolls to the one modern car that is going away, combine to create a unified effect.
By contrast, a typical student essay reads somewhat like this:
“I am going to write about a story called “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman which is in a big book for my English class. This story was written in the 18th century.
[Note: students often confuse the 1800s, or nineteenth century, with the one before. It’s all in the past, and who cares about the difference?]
This story has a first-person viewpoint. It is about a woman who is depressed because she just had a baby. Her husband is a doctor named John. They go to stay in a house in the country for the summer. Some people think the house is haunted, but I don’t think so.”
Do you want to read the rest of this essay? Please, for me? I didn’t think so. Note the scatter-gun effect. What does the viewpoint, the character’s depression or the husband have to do with ghosts, or the illusion of ghosts?
In my comments on the student assignment, I will have to be more articulate than the student. I will have to explain that all the information in the opening paragraph can be used in some way, but it all needs to support the student writer’s thesis, that this story is NOT about ghosts. The widespread perception of contemporary readers (from the time of first publication) that the story IS about ghosts – or even demonic possession — needs to be debunked.
When dealing with a mass of material, in the form of notes, ideas, or physical objects, I need to apply my own advice to myself. What effect am I aiming for? What could be added, and what needs to be pulled out? If I have good material, how should it be arranged for best results?
It’s easier said than done, but just naming the challenge ahead is a good first step.
Other writing instructors before me have pointed out that half the job of writing is editing. Many writers before me have found this part to be the “work” of writing (as distinct from the “play”), but it can’t be avoided, and it can be as much a journey of discovery as the typing of a first sentence.
To those involved in a parallel process of shaping a work of creative writing, I say: Don’t give up! Be equally ruthless with irrelevant details and with the black mould of writer’s block. You are not alone.