The Revel is in the Details

Write a descriptive essay about the place you do your school work, I would tell my students. They would sigh, and they would labor, and they would hand in papers.

Jared’s essay might look like this:

My desk is four feet long and two feet wide. It is made of wood with metal legs. On top of it is my laptop, and a cup full of pens and pencils. I have a chair that is padded and has wheels.

A vague and sterile picture forms in my mind. So I go back to the writer.

Where is your working space, I ask him. Is it in your room?

No! Jared says, shocked–as if I should know exactly where he works. It’s in a corner of the family room.

Wow, I say. That’s open. Is it noisy?

Oh YEAH, he says. My sister always has the TV on, and she’s talking on the phone at the same time. And my mother comes through and yells at her every fifteen minutes because she hasn’t done her homework.

Now I’m starting to see the edges of this space more clearly. Does it have a window? I ask.

NO, he says; it’s in a corner with no windows, and it’s dark. I only have one of those cheap little lamps from Dollar General, the short kind that shines on your hands and only takes a 40 watt bulb. I have to slide my books under there to read them.

Is it cramped? I ask, the picture getting more and more clear.

Oh my gosh, says Jared. I have to climb over my dad’s lounge chair, practically, to get into my chair. Which is on wheels, but it doesn’t matter, because once I’m in the chair I can’t really move. So usually, what I do is, I wait until everyone goes to bed, and that’s when I do my best work. At midnight, when my sister shuts up, finally, and the house is quiet.

NOW I get it; there’s a clear picture of Jared’s working space. (Poor Jared! I think.)

Write down, I tell him, those things you just told me about the corner and the noise and the cramped space and the light.

He shrugs, like I’m a little but wacky, but he does it. And he writes a clear, rich description. We ditch the details about the size and components of the desk, and what is left creates a vivid picture of a very particular space.


It’s not the number of details; it is the importance of them that we have to consider.


If I’m writing about what the kitchen’s like when I’m baking for Thanksgiving, I want to give an impression of the holiday bustle and feeling. I might talk about the flour drifting off the counter, the marble rolling pin (it was my mama’s) lolling next to the ceramic pie pan, which is waiting for the bottom shell to be rolled out and crimped. I’ll talk about smells–the cinnamon, the nutmeg, the rich roasting smell of pumpkin pie filling. The turkey’s thawing in my big roaster, and the Ohio State game is blaring from the family room. My husband slips in every twenty minutes or so–he is notorious for (yuck!) eating raw pie crust. The holiday baking kitchen is cluttered and warm and fragrant. I don’t have to mention the brand of my oven or the materials my counter-tops are made of to create that feeling in my reader’s mind.

If I’m writing to impress though–well, to start, I’d be writing about someone else’s kitchen. If I wanted to show a kitchen that was high end, I’d talk about marble counter-tops and stainless appliances and travertine tile. I’d mention that the stove-top had eight burners, that the wall-mounted ovens were double, that one could fit eight diners around the marble-topped island. I’d be creating a picture of an entirely different kitchen (and trust me, that IS entirely different from mine). And I’d be writing it with a completely different purpose in mind.

Writing descriptively means picking just the right details. It means closing our eyes and saying, When I think of graduation day, what do I hear? The roar of a crowd, the murmur of a mother, the pounding beat of “Pomp and Circumstance”? Whose face do I see? What do I feel–the scratch of the polyester, the heat of the sun baking the back of my neck?

Often just an image or a scent or a mention of the kind of framed art that hangs on the wall can evoke the picture we want to create. ‘Black leather swivel chair’ suggests one kind of office. ‘Cheap fake panelling’ gives us another office setting entirely.

We should revel in the details, but we don’t have to use too many. We just have to–and sometimes this is the hard part–use the ones that count.

Happy blogging, my friends!

#monthly
#creative writing

Finding Time

One of the biggest myths around writing is that in order to do it we must have great swathes of uninterrupted time.
–Julia Cameron, The Right to Write

“I just don’t have enough TIME,” I told my boss, Mike, ruefully shaking my head.  We were talking about an invitation I’d received to be on a college committee that had no relationship to what was then my professional role.

He grinned at me: he completely agreed that this particular committee was not one I should invest my resources into abetting. “Oh, you have time,” he said.  “You just don’t choose to spend the time you have on this pursuit.”

His words rang true then, and they have come back to me often over the years. I DO have time—after all, time is the only thing we really do have. I just need to choose how to spend it in wise and worthwhile ways.

That is as true for my writing as it is for anything else I long to pursue. If I don’t have time to write, it’s because I don’t choose to spend the time I have on writing’s pursuit.

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Many of us have a dream of long stretches of unencumbered time.  I see myself, post-retirement, at a pristine desk.  First, in this vision, I sit contemplatively.  Then I rouse myself and flex my fingers and begin.

Sometimes I see myself picking up a pen and pulling lined paper toward me and just taking off, scrawling away. Sometimes I see myself hunching up to my IPad and letting my index fingers fly. Whatever the variation of the vision, it’s the luxury of time that allows me to be prolifically brilliant, to produce vibrant prose that never fails to move and sway and enchant my mythical readers.

Even as I dream this pretty dream, I know it’s hogwash.  Probably, confronted by those long open spaces of lovely, unscheduled time, I would choke, and crash, and burn. I would look around and find a dish to be washed, a letter that absolutely HAD to be written, a bill to be paid…some chore to be done.  I would remember that I had promised somebody something, and of course, the good thing to do, the righteous thing, is to put that person’s need before mine.

I would get up from the desk; I would embark on my busy work, and if someone asked me, later that day, what I’d written, I would lament, “Oh, I didn’t have TIME.”

And I might even believe it, too.

Often the greased slide to writer’s block is a huge batch of time earmarked: “Now write.”
–Julia Cameron, The Right to Write

 

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Time expands if we need it to expand.

Way back in the 1980’s, when I was teaching at a Catholic middle school and working in the lingerie department of a fancy department store to bridge the gap between my salary and my bills, I discovered Julia Cameron’s book, The Vein of Gold.  I ordered it, I think, from a bookclub I’d stupidly signed up for.  I had a yearly commitment to making four purchases; The Vein of Gold at least sounded like a sort of useful kind of book.

I had missed Cameron’s The Artist’s Way entirely, but when The Vein of Gold arrived, I just fell into it–the perfect book at just the right time.  In it, Cameron told me there were three things I must do if I wanted to unleash my creativity:

I must take myself on a one-hour ‘artist’s date’ each week–just me, by myself, looking, say, at beautiful fabric at a craft store, or touching lovely handmade paper at a stationer’s.

I must walk daily, and take a long walk on weekends.

And every morning, I must sit down, first thing, pull out three sheets of paper, and write until I filled them.

“Oh, puh-leeze!” I thought, looking at my two-job, busily social, life,–a life in which I constantly felt guilty because lessons weren’t planned a month ahead and papers weren’t graded immediately. “There is no room for these lovely-sounding things.”

And then, somehow, someway, I did them anyway.

I took the artist date when I picked up my department store paycheck on Thursday afternoons, detouring to a museum or a specialty store before I headed home for dinner.

I took my walks at the beginning of the two hour break between school letting out and store letting in.

And the morning pages took me thirty minutes every morning. At first, the writing was a horrible chore; I had to drag myself out of bed in the morning, half an hour early, and slam my head on the table before picking it, and my pen, up and starting to write.

But after a week or so, the writing became not an obligation, but a necessity. Skipping a day had fuzzy, foggy consequences, and I didn’t like it at all. Morning pages were a commitment to myself, as were the other two creative duties.

My time expanded because I had made those things priorities.

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Writing does not need long spreads of pretty, smooth, unruffled time.  Writing needs great ideas and the time and the will to put them into written form.  The ideas, I find, never come when I pull out a blank sheet and sit expectantly, waiting for the lovely words that will surely float into my head so I can fill that pristine paper. They come when I am walking and nowhere near a keyboard.  They come when I drive by myself, NPR whispering in the background, and my mind is free to roam where it will. They come in the middle of a workshop, when I’m on the treadmill, when my hands are plunged into soapy water.

I steal the time to write them down.  I burst in the door from work, quickly get the dog out for her necessaries, and then run to my IPad and tap away, getting the gist and the shape of the idea into a document before it flies away.  And then I swing back into the whirlwind of the day, changing clothes, taking care of laundry, getting dinner on the stove.

But later, just as day fades into dark, I come back, and the idea waits there for me.  Like a lump of dough, it is, and I flatten it onto the table, knead it and shape it.  Because, if you’ll excuse the labored metaphor, it’s risen while it rested.  Now I can form it, make it into the creation I need and want it to be.

Ten minutes?  Fifteen, maybe–to get the idea down, pinning it for later use?  Half an hour, later, to shape it?  I waste more time than that on Facebook, on minesweeper, on idle chatter, every single day.

Of course, once shaped, the words, for me, are not done, not ready for reading.  I come back to them obsessively, over and over again.  (My WordPress blog lets me know how many revisions my drafts undergo.  I sweep in quickly, over the course of a few days, tweak and save and exit.  Often, my report will say something like, “57 revisions.” It’s how I work, it’s the way I write: the swoop-and-tweak-and-fly-away method.)

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I first started teaching research writing back in my middle school teaching days.  There was a very specific method we were to have the students follow.  You’ve probably been forced to use this method–one where research goes on index cards, then a source list grows.  From the cards comes an outline.

From the outline comes a paper.

Tweak, edit, format, put the footnotes in–neat and tidy: done.

The only trouble is, not everyone writes like that.

In my experience, half the class writes a paper from an outline.  The other half writes an outline from a paper.

I belong to the latter group: the act of writing is the act of organizing for me.  I suffered a lot of frustrations until I finally gave myself permission to sit down and just write, to let the ideas flow and stain the pages. To go back later and organize and make sense of them.

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To use the time we have, we need to know how we write best.

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I know people who very effectively draft and edit all at once. Writing books often tell us to use techniques that quell the Inner Critic and allow us to forget punctuation, to damn bad spelling, and to just write, full speed ahead.  But I know people who can’t do that.

These people can’t move forward if ‘friend’ is spelled ‘firend,’…they just can’t go on.  It’s like their writing spirit is snagged on that misspelled hook.  No matter the great advice in writer’s manuals, their need to correct that word builds a barrier.  No ideas will emerge until the barrier is removed.

So those folks should edit as they go.  I have a friend like this.  It takes her a week, sometimes, to write an essay.  But when she is done, it is flawless.

She’ll tell you she never revises, but she does: it’s just built in to her process.

But she, too, writes in the nooks and crannies of time available; she’ll take fifteen minutes after the kids are in bed and add a paragraph, write a little more in the morning, add an essential thought when she comes back home from work.  With her busy schedule, if she waited for even a one-hour block of clear time, she’d never, ever put finger to keyboard.

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So first, we have to figure out how we write, and then we just steal the time and do it.  A paragraph here.  One gleaming, amazing sentence there.  The writing seeps into the brickwork of our life.  It grouts our thinking. It takes our dreams and our visions and it builds them into a fine structure–a sturdy wall, a decorative pillar, a fine and funny fancy.

It does that, not all at once in some open-ended frenzy of time, but in the niches and the spaces between.

We may not have leisure time, but we do have time. We may be choosing to spend it elsewhere, but, when we stop to reckon, we  really do have the time to write.

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Happy blogging, my friends!

#weekly
#creative writing