Thursday, April 1, 2010

Solomon's Puzzle: Learning to Write

Learning to Write:

I had an idea that interested me; I wanted to write but my attempts read like the biographies I'd devoured as a child with descriptions as purple as twilight. I had to learn how to write. This took study and experimentation and joining writers' groups where I was painfully critiqued. And it took thought which is, for me, fairly difficult.

I began in solitary study. I read books on writing, especially John Gardner's books; I studied Strunk and White’s Elements of Style, and made notes in the margins of the fiction I read. Every new thing I learned amazed me as if I'd never realized that writing was a craft, meant to be as carefully wrought as sculpting.

The local writers’ group had large monthly meetings and small critique groups. For awhile, I attended both. The critique group provided three priceless gifts. First it offered others' opinions about my work, which though painful to hear, helped me learn to step back to gain critical perspective. I tried to look, in review, at my work from another’s eyes. Evidently what I thought and tried to put on paper was not perfectly clear and amazing to everyone! The group also taught me the lingo and with it I began to learn the elements of fiction. When a group member read a short story of mine and complained that the POV bounced. I had no idea that POV stood for "point of view," or through whose eyes the story is told. That POVcould bounce, and whether it was supposed to bounce and how to get it to shift properly, as, for instance Hemingway does, was an entire, new study required of me. But I love this kind of learning and set to it.

The critique group also gave me a friend and reader for the emerging, somewhat cohesive draft of Solomon’s Puzzle. Sherry’s support and honesty challenged me to think more deeply about my characters and the issues that conflicted their lives. When the antagonist began to take over every scene, it was Sherry who called me back to my purpose. Was this to be another novel aggrandizing a villain or was it to be something unique? Was the novel meant to provide instruction or serve as an artistic expression? I didn’t always understand what she meant, but that gave me more to think about, more to study and learn ,which I remained eager to do.

At the time, an old friend who had a real world job in editing began reading the emerging manuscript and taught me some basics about writing. Teresa could make me laugh about my phrasing, such as when I wrote that a busy, active cook, “flew around the kitchen.” This sort of prose might have been acceptable in Little Women, but the image it provokes is ridiculous, you have to admit! Teresa laid down other principles for me to follow: “Don’t explain,” she counseled. “Let the dramatic situation speak for itself.” For instance there is no need for J.K. Rowlings to explain how miserable Harry was at his aunt and uncle’s home or why. This is demonstrated in the action and situation. The fact that he lives in a cupboard under the stairs says more than paragraphs of analysis could. This and other of her insightful instruction I took to heart and still treasure. Looking back, the time that Teresa and Sherry spent with me  trikes me as extraordinarily kind, the courage it took to be honest about my writing strikes me as true friendship and an admirable amount of decency.

I began to make progress and had several things published including some pieces of short fiction.

But my novel remained the thing I most wanted to write. By this time, I had tried twice to write Ben's story. The first time was like finger painting and I rightly discarded it. The second attempt which Sherry and Teresa read taught me more about writing and about my characters. But I realized that the novel’s structure was wrong with too many flashbacks to different time periods. Not only were characters remembering things that happened sixteen to twenty years prior, but they were remembering key, dramatic events that happened four months earlier at the start of the school year. Thus nearly all of the action was narrated as flashback and my characters spent a lot of time with their arms crossed, staring into the mist remembering.

This would not do. Though I’d attempted to imitate Milton (no arrogance in me at all!) and begin the story “in medias res,” I saw that I had begun too far "in the middle of things" and had to back up the narrative to begin in August on the first day of the school year when Ben arrives in Annapolis innocent still of all that will befall him here. By now I understood what made him stand apart when the others were joyously rescued, and though my knowlege of the characters came with that snowy scene that would take place at the end of the novel, I had to begin elsewhere. I knew I had to begin again. The feeling was like an itch I couldn’t reach because I knew deep inside that there was so much about writing and literature I did not understand .

I laid aside my manuscript. My children were progressing through formal school now and I felt the loss of their voices at home. As well as seeking to clarify what my dream meant and how better to describe it, a desire had awakened in me to learn to teach. I could not explain this desire, but found it irresistible. I returned to university studies to complete my degree in English but not before dropping into my backpack, a small notebook. In it, I planned to scribble what I figured out about my novel. So off to UMBC I went, taking my dream with me.

1 comment:

  1. It was a joy reading those early pages of your book. I can't wait to read the final result of your years of work.