Friday, May 23, 2008

Staying in the Room

A couple of nights ago, a student said in class that she had a question. What she really had was a complaint about the fact that she didn't like the story she turned in that night. "I used to be able to spend a lot of time on these assignments and write four different versions and pick the one I like best. But now," she reached for the words, "I just don't have the time."

I understood. I mean, I understand what it's like to turn in work that you think is terrible, and that makes you feel terrible about yourself. Feeling that you suck is the cornerstone of any true case of writer's block. Not coincidentally, it's also the cornerstone of any true case of narcissism.

I've been reading Ron Carlson Writes a Story. In it, Carlson takes apart a story he wrote years ago, probably 20 years ago. And he remembers what it was like to write the story. He recalls the urges to go get a cup of coffee just as things were getting interesting, or when he felt stuck. He recalls the complete uncertainty that he felt at various points when he didn't know what was going to happen next in the story. The best advice he gives there is this: All the valuable writing I've done in the last ten years has been done in the first twenty minutes after the first time I've wanted to leave the room.

I agree with this philosophy. (Much as I'd like him to have to admit that he stays in the room and writes for twenty minutes after hearing one kid clock the other one while they snack at the kitchen table. Honey, I'd love to stanch your wound, but Mommy's communing with her muse just now. I'd like to hear how he keeps writing for twenty minutes after hearing his spouse ask where the butter is. Yeah, but I can't see it in the fridge. Can't you just come get it?

I've felt that my greatest failing as a writer has been the inability to sit and feel utterly lost in a magazine story or book chapter or radio story and just keep sitting there tinkering and feeling lost until something happens, at least for a few minutes. But I'm getting better. Carlson seems to think that twenty  minutes is a good length to tinker, to push through uncertainty. Something will happen in those twenty minutes. He seems pretty sure about this.

So, in class I took great pleasure in climbing on my high horse and stealing this idea from Carlson. And really going on and on pretty passionately about how you have to just sit down and feel the suckage and the shame and just keep going. And it sounded so cool, and great and wise, at least to me.

Of course, the following morning was a great day to climb down off that horse and refuse to write a single word of a story that was already four days overdue.  And even to ignore the friendly, if pointed, email from my editor along the lines of, "Hey, there. Thinking of turning this in anytime soon?" Um, yeah, just after I warm up my coffee again and play another game of online Soduku.

1 comment:

Grace T said...

I keep meaning to read Ron Carlson Writes a Story. I was watching the Burroway DVD (I found it in the Grub bookshelves) and the one thing I took away from the DVD was that quote from Carlson.

We can handle 20 minutes, right? 20 minutes seems like something I can handle.

Good luck on that magazine story.