Don’t ask, don’t tell

Note: there will be no post next Friday, 12/30.  Check back 1/6/12. Happy New Year!

The question comes up at parties, over dinner with new friends, next to a chatty traveler on an airplane. The inevitable ice-breaker— What do you do?—has made me want to say “Taxidermy” or “marine research,” to make up an alternate identity and avoid the question that always follows when I say that I write.  Write about what?

I once made the mistake, at a luncheon of academic types, of saying “childhood” and “loss.”  I cringe now, remembering.  Not that fiction can’t be about big themes, childhood and loss among them, but for a writer to define her own work that way?  I might as well have said Life or Truth or Beauty.  Chalk it up to grad school; I was drafting my aesthetic statement, a required part of every master’s thesis, at the time.

But now, if someone asks me what my fiction is about, after I try to change the subject, I describe the characters instead. A girl in 1969 who doesn’t want the astronauts to land on the moon.  A woman getting crank calls from her married lover’s daughter.  A drug addict who follows a stranger on the street, thinking that she’s his sister.  A woman who kidnaps her own son and moves to a new town to start over.

It’s much, much easier to do this, by the way, for work that is finished and much harder for work that is still being formed.  In fact, I think it’s even dangerous to define work that’s still being formed, sort of akin to the Jewish custom of not bringing any new baby furniture into the house until the baby is born healthy and safe.

Recently I was asked why my novel features a kidnapping.  Had I thought about what that might say about my own life?  No, nor did I particularly want to.  Talking about my work jinxes the creative process, silences the intuition.  Thinking too much about what my fiction means makes me squirm.  Once it’s written and looking for a home, then I’ll have to formulate a marketing pitch, but not yet.

One of my happiest moments as a writer happened during a workshop.  In the story, “Away from Trees,” a young archeologist who is mourning her brother’s sudden death visits a ghost town in the Eastern Sierra, where the town’s only building made of brick is the court house.  Her dead brother’s name is Court.  I did not plan that connection. I didn’t even realize it, until someone said, “I love the way the only building not falling apart is the courthouse.  Such an important symbol the writer planted.”  But I hadn’t–at least not consciously.

Wallace Stegner wrote that the guts of any significant fiction is an anguished question.  If we knew the answer, we wouldn’t need to write the thing in the first place.  And yet, of course, once we’ve started writing any piece of fiction, we have some idea of what it’s “about.”  To pretend otherwise is disingenuous, false.  But I’m writing today to celebrate the not knowing, the questions, the anguish.

I’m working on the umpteenth revision of a novel.  I’ve kept every earlier draft, so many I can’t even keep track of which came when.  (How hard could it have been to have jotted a date on the first page? But I didn’t.)  I’ve had long periods away—but I’ve always come back, I suppose, because that inchoate question still hounds me.  As a reviser, I tend to overvalue the small detail, the turn of phrase, the re-arranged syntax.  This time, I’m looking more at the larger issues:  What is this scene accomplishing?  What’s changed in these ten pages?  Where’s the urgency here?

What about you?  Does asking the anguished question help or hinder?  What has jinxed or helped your intuition?

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4 Responses to Don’t ask, don’t tell

  1. Now that my memoir is done, I plan to begin a new book (two new books, really) in January – one a collection of personal essays and the other a novel. When a writer friend asked me what the novel was about, I told her I didn’t want to talk about it. The idea is SO raw that I can’t even form it into sentences yet, and even if I could, I wouldn’t want to – not until I’m well into the middle of a first draft. I did share the premise with one friend a year ago and when she asked for more details and I didn’t have answers, she said, “Well, obviously you have a lot of thinking to do.” It was so insulting that I wished I hadn’t told her anything. Now I’m keeping my mouth shut until I have something solid to show people.

  2. Yikes, Meghan, that’s one of the best cautionary tales I’ve heard about keeping mum. Next time you can tell her that if she wants answers, she can look for propaganda. (I know, I know, I never think of those comebacks at the time…) For what it’s worth, I love personal essays. More than even fiction, I think, and there too you get to explore many an anguished question… Oh, that’s another blog post. Can’t wait to hear more about both…when you’re ready! Thanks for writing.

  3. Callie Feyen says:

    I’ve proved over and over again that the best way to end a conversation is to tell someone that I write. It ends at the speed of light if I pair the previous statement with, “I’m a stay at home mom.”
    But I can’t get the itch to hold a pen and make marks with it out of my system, so I’ll sign up for a class. I’ll share something I write with a teacher. She’ll send it back with the statement, “You’re a writer!” She’ll notice something about trains that I put in my piece. Something that I didn’t notice when I wrote it. I’ll look at these two statements over and over and think about them throughout the year – what about those trains? I AM a writer! – and let them become a part of me. I’ll keep practicing. I’ll fail. I’ll learn new things. I’ll share too much. I’ll think about what it might feel like to revise something for the “umpteenth” time and hope that I’ll have the confidence to do that one day.
    Merry Christmas and Happy New Year, Lindsey! I’ll try not to ask, but I’ll listen with attention when you choose to tell.

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