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How could they possibly understand?

May 17, 2009
tags: ,

A few things came together recently to inspire this post.  I’ll weave them together in the best tapestry I can.  I don’t recall every source.  If one I don’t cite seems familiar, let me know.

The first item is the vaguest, but I think it came from Kate Wilhelm’s Storyteller.  Whatever it was, the writer was talking about how people don’t understand the plight of being a writer.  Even your closest friends and loved ones — especially your closest friends and loved ones — see you struggling hour after hour, day in and day out, alone with your computer and barely typing.  They want to offer you relief, to help you somehow overcome the frustrating struggle.  How could they possibly know that it’s this struggle that we writers live for?  It’s not about victory, it’s about the fight, gaining ground on a vision that can never be perfectly translated to paper.  We’re marathon runners of words, triathletes of typing.  It’s the struggle against ourselves that is beautiful, rewarding.  If it came easy, we wouldn’t do it.

This came up the other day with my wife.  She spends a lot of time in the basement working on her photography (portrait, stock, and event), especially doing editing on her computer.  I can understand what she does to a point.  I can see the changes she makes.  Some are too subtle for me to notice, others are obvious across the room.  She is a professional in that she advertises and accepts clients, but she is not full time.  She is quite talented and I am proud of all she has accomplished so far.


I proposed that we each set aside some time during the week to focus on our secondary careers while the other takes care of our daughter.  She nodded and said something about she makes money doing what she does.

Ouch.  She has a point, I’m not raking in the dough with stories.  That’s not what it’s about, at least not everything it’s about.  Right now her photography money is supporting her photography habit and nothing more.  She’ll move past that eventually as long as she keeps working hard at it.  So will I.

She apologized for the comment and said she understood why I needed private time to write.  I told her she didn’t understand, but that was okay.  Now I was a little harsh there and still owe her an apology of my own, but it was true.  In fact my need for time is so obscure, I couldn’t find a way to explain to her why she wouldn’t get it.

Today I was sitting on my reading chair (read: toilet) and stumbled across as good an explanation as I’ve found as to why my seclusion time is necessary in large chunks.  I found it in the out-of-print book Those Who Can (Robin Wilson, ed.) in Samuel Delany’s essay, “Thickening the Plot”.  I won’t infringe on Delany’s copyright, but I want to share his explanation of how writers really work.  I’ll try to recreate the idea using an excerpt from my own story, “Chasers” (originally printed in the anthology Triangulation 2004).  The italics are what I’m typing; the rest is in my head.  This is a dramatization.  The real experience is much less pleasant.

  • I want to start with my character, Sebastian, flying his ship away from the base.  Sebastian accelerated away from the base. No, too bland.  I need some sensory words.  What does he feel?  Sebastian felt the acceleration… How does he feel it?  Where?  Sebastian felt the acceleration in his stomach… too specific…in his gut…not quite.  I need something more visceral, more descriptive.  How did it feel?  A push?  A pull?  I know, a squeeze.  Sebastian felt his gut squeeze… No, that doesn’t work.  Sebastian’s gut squeezed against his back… Not quite right.  Lower, more internal.  Sebastian’s stomach squeezed into his pelvis as he accelerated. Close.  There’s stomach again.  Why did I discard it before?  Too specific.  Sebastian’s organs squeezed into his pelvis as he accelerated. Good but feels unfinished.  How fast was he going?  Good place to put in some world-specific terminology.  I wanted speeds expressed in decimals of the speed of light.  How fast was he going? Check your research, dummy.  The ship he’s chasing will be going like .2 times the speed of light, so maybe he’s going .1  …as he accelerated to .1. Looks weird.  …as he accelerated to point-one. Better, but he’s not stopping at point-one.  …as he accelerated past point-one. That will work.  Let’s get in his head now.  He’s chasing a ship to refuel it.  He hasn’t caught one before, so is he optimistic or pessimistic?  Optimistic plays better.  He knew he would succeed this time. No, too optimistic.  He had a good feeling this time. Not bad, the good feeling plays against the squeezing organs.  Damn I’m good.  Need to say something about his goal.  He was going to catch this ship. A little blunt and sounds like he’s in a police chase.  Can I put more world-specific lingo in?  Maybe he wouldn’t mention the ship, but just say he’ll catch “it”.  Or better, maybe “catch” could be the noun.  He was going to make this catch. That works conceptually, but the sentences are getting monotonous.  Can “catch” be the subject?  This catch was going to be his. Ick, passive voice.  Was it better the other way?  Not really.  There’s something neat about describing a catch passively, isn’t there?  Eh, maybe I’ll come back.

That’s how writing works, forward and backward and rewriting as you go.  Not always, sometimes it rolls off the fingers like butter, but timewise, this seems to be how I work.  My original opening paragraph was surely not as smooth as this, but the process was the same.  If my wife were to come check on me after this process, my screen would say:

Sebastian’s organs squeezed into his pelvis as he accelerated past point-one.  He had a good feeling this time.  This catch was going to be his.

What have I been doing all this time?  She can’t get it.  She can have an idea.  She can equate it to the moving around of lights she did for a half hour on prom night while she made me stand there as her test dummy, but only writers seem to get it.

I love my wife and I know she wants me to succeed as a writer.  I need to keep this in mind when she calls me from my keyboard to change a diaper or take the dogs out or even do something that does not involve urine.  It’s hard to explain that breaking away from a train of thought derails the process and makes me start over, possibly rewriting several lines, even paragraphs, in order to align the story to where I am now.

What’s my point?  (Do I ever have one?)  I guess I’m trying to reassure my visitors that I get it — we all get it — even though a lot of people don’t, won’t, and can’t.  Writing is hard, it’s lonely, it’s frustrating.  Maybe I’m crazy, but I love it anyway.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. May 19, 2009 1:48 am

    I totally understand. I spent 6 hours today writing, which involved a couple hours of reading through the last few chapters I’d written and then working to get my writing voice back into the story as I started again. I got about 1k words done, but I know it will get faster once I’m back in the groove.

    Course, I’m lucky too in that my husband, while he doesn’t totally understand, sees that I need swathes of uninterrupted time.

    I don’t know how you manage with kids! I’m always in awe of parents 🙂

  2. May 19, 2009 5:04 pm

    I do understand, and I think my husband gets it, now. After the Clarion app, I guess, is when it happened. He saw how happy I was to have accomplished the simple task of applying. He didn’t quite grasp the weeks worth of work it took leading up to it, though. He supports me, but doesn’t understand why I produce so little. But he knows it’s the most satisfying and frustrating thing I do, and he wants that for me. Having said that, even now at this very moment, he and my son are calling me to come out of the office to go food shopping with them. That’s life, I guess. I would love to talk more about this later.

  3. May 19, 2009 6:34 pm

    I don’t really buy that “at least my hobby makes money bit”. It’s like complaining that someone going to medical school is a financial drain. They’re not. They’re just investing in their future. The same might be said of being a writer. Sure, you may not make any money this year, or even next, but you could eventually make millions.

    Last year, I made about $2500 from writing sci-fi short stories. Not a huge amount, but then I’m still a beginning writer with no novels under my belt. Who knows what could happen in the future?

  4. May 19, 2009 6:35 pm

    Sorry, To clarify the above, your wife’s hobby is just further along than yours, but that certainly shouldn’t invalidate what you do.

  5. May 20, 2009 7:57 am

    At the risk of “starting something,” I must add that for me and (I suspect) quite a few others, it’s not about the money. Sure, I have ambitions, but that’s not the whole picture. I write because it feels like what I should be doing. I feel like I need to do it, which is kinda hard for some people in my life to understand. A few have expressed a kind of “ooh-so-you’re-a-writer” mockery, like it’s pretentious. I’ve certainly met some folks who thrive on that stereotype, who are especially keen to avoid or shrug off criticism and treat the work as an infallible window into the soul (sometimes there are even little cigarettes and black turtlenecks).

    Maybe I can’t explain it, but the process of creating a story, and the finished product, satisfy a need. I want to improve and share, and maybe even be successful, but it’s not going to crush me if I never make a million at it. That’s just not the point.

    • osomuerte permalink
      May 20, 2009 12:04 pm

      Maybe I should clarify. It’s not that my wife doesn’t want me to have time to write. In fact, she has made plans to go visit her parents with our daughter this afternoon so I can have the time to write. (Her photography may get in the way of that plan, but it’s the thought that counts, right?)

      The real issue is that I expect her to give up time from her hobby/business so I can work on mine. That’s where the difference in “value” comes from.

      You’re right, Tracie, it’s not about money. It’s about craft, a little about acceptance, and a bit about bragging rights.

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