"Fill your paper with the breathings of your heart." ~ William Wordsworth

The Writing Life Too

And if you're reading this, it means you're not writing.

Tuesday, May 11, 2004

The Writing Life Too
“Here’s the secret to the universe: Everything has structure. From snow flakes to fire, everything has form and function. And this applies to the craft of writing." Jay Bonansinga

The clouds are back in Portland after days, weeks of sun and impossibly lovely weather. I’ll confess to needing a respite from the sun which winks of distraction, beckons me outdoors when I need to be writing, slants down through the skylight above my desk onto my computer screen. My agent has given me guidelines for a rewrite, so distractions are not welcome, because, frankly, I can easily manufacture plenty on my own. Besides, I’m moving in a few weeks and everywhere I look, I see things that need to be packed.

Warning: a small politcal rant follows--
Today there are more hearings about the prison tortures in Iraq. Last week I tried watching Rumsfeld on CNN but his lies, dissembling, misdirection, avoidance and convoluted rhetoric pissed me off so much I had to switch to Air America, the liberal talk radio (hallelujah!)for those who don’t listen to it, to calm my nerves. Actually, that's a lie because the talk show hosts on AA are far from calming, but at least it's nice to hear people who I agree with about this political mess we're in. So I’ve become hooked because much as I love NPR, I need to bail out from time to time and CNN is distracting too especially when the ever-smirking Rumsfd--may he rot in hell--and certain Republican senators are on the screen. I wish I was one of those quiet, contemplative types, but I spend a lot of time alone in my office and I need noise to work by.And then when my brain is too stuffed, I head into the outdoors to sort my ideas.

This morning I had a long, complicated dream about an Indian reservation and rose to write about it, but then my morning poem became an agony about the prisoners tortured in Iraq. Since when is our military run by Hannibal Lector? We’re piling up deficits by the billions for future generations to pay off because we're paying a bunch of mercenaries to do our dirty work. And let's not talk about the obvious sick thrills that a bunch of out of control psychopaths or sociopaths were having far from home. But photos don't lie. And government "contractors" (alias mercenaries) are doing what, where? Since we’re a society that no longer questions our government’s crimes, my poems do.
End of rant.

But for those of you who aren’t interested in politics, I want you to know that when I’m not writing about my rage at government I’m riffing on the sweet parts of life. A few days ago I wrote a poem based on the memory of the first of May when I was a girl and we delivered May baskets in the neighborhood. This week Portland is full of roses fresh and dewy in new bloom. Like spring, the roses bursting into May is a yearly surprise. Portland is called the city of roses and aptly named. The climb telephone poles and spill out of gardens and onto sidewalks. Roses are everywhere in every velvet hue and size and their perfume follows me when I walk past.

I’ve been teaching and editing a lot lately. Last weekend a workshop on fiction middles in Eugene. When I teach fiction workshops I talk about the underpinnings and structure of fiction. In screenplays, the structure is a given, the format a guideline. In fiction it’s the foundation that beginning writers need to learn. All writing requires scaffolding. Now buidling scaffolding isn’t glamorous or easy, but it keeps a rickety story upright. Imagine music or other arts without scaffolding. Imagine Brahms without chords. No chords means no music.

If you don’t understand how fiction works, you’re likely going to suffer when you try to create it. Without some knowledge of the when and how things work in fiction your story will likely fall apart. To write something as complicated as a novel without a plan is like building a house without a diagram. Okay, I think I’ve thrown in enough similes and metaphors here.

So here’s the story on story: fiction is a record of changes that are inflicted on characters. Theses changes, are actually a series of crisis that create a world of hurt for your characters. Each crisis becomes progressively worse as the story goes along and sends your character into a tailspin and forces him or her to take action and select goals. Fiction requires that you constantly implant surprises that rev up the story and keep the reader engaged.

Scaffolding, structure—it holds up the world and your story world too.