Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Mind Games

A week ago our six month old puppy, Page, decided that 4 AM was the perfect time to go outside and play. After an appropriate amount of grumbling on my part, I got up and let her out into the backyard. On the way downstairs, I noticed a large heart-shaped pillow, bright red and covered with lots of smaller white hearts. It was our sixteen year old son's Valentine's Day "card" to his Mom from last year.*
I stood on the back porch as Page dashed around madly making giant figure eights. She's a Beagle mix, golden haired with white spots, but has very, very long legs. She looked like a miniture greyhound as she sprinted around and around and around. Then I thought about that red heart pillow. Our son is a person of giant emotions -- frequaently loud in all ways (our neighbors are wonderfully tolerant when he plays electric guitar), always hugging friends hello and goodbye, compressing more words per second in his rap songs then can be imagined, never settling for a simple story line or answer in his songs when something complex, contradictory and dark is demanding to be heard. There is wonderful freedom in his approach to life and art -- often reckless (he says what he feels in the moment and doesn't look back or forward), but just as often making a moving and thoughtful emotional comment that has real impact. *
Of course, we also want to have all of that rich emotion in our nonfiction writing, though we operate in a world of rules -- space limitations, monitored by a series of gatekeepers (from editors, to reviewers, to teachers, librarians and parents) between our books and our readers, plus our need and drive to be as accuarate as possible. This isn't a complaint about the system we work in; but it's a reality that can sometimes make us hesitate when we're writing and sometimes/usually leads us to question what our inner soul is telling us to say: If I say it this way, it will be much more passionate or active or whatever, but will it be as accurate or clear?*
I know some writers who go with the flow, put down on paper whatever their head is telling them, and either leave it to their editors to make suggestions for revisions or go back later themselves. I envy them. Unfortunately, I am a compulsive self-editor. I think over, question, revise and re-revise every phrase, every sentence, every paragraph as I write them. Then I rework the section and question it all over again. And my earliest books reflected this labor. Over the years I've come up with little gimmicks to maintain a more spontaneous feeling. Nothing genius, mind you. Just ways to stay relaxed in my head. For instance, when I write, I tell myself that I should imagine I'm talking to one reader who happens to be sitting across the desk from me, which means writing in a conversational, informal way. If I feel a section is sounding too much like a freshman college lecture, I stop and do something else (wash dishes, water plants, take Page out) and come back later, hopefully with a fresh eye and approach. And I always read over a manuscript several times with a slightly different mode of attack. I'll make believe I'm the nastiest editor alive and write all sorts of challenging comments and suggestions in the margins; I'll read it with a young reader in mind who might not be familiar with the subject; and I'll just read it start to finish in one shot to be sure it flows along smoothly, noting whenever something (an odd phrasing, an overly long sentence, etc.) makes me stop reading. *
These are just little tricks -- mind games really -- and sometimes they work. Just as watching Page doing crazy laps in the dark night for ten or twenty minutes can free up the brain and get it ready for another day's work. I hope you all have a wonderful Valentine's Day and that (if you work) your thoughts and words are passionate, free flowing, and exactly what you want to say.


Annalisa said...

This made my pitter patter heart flutter fast and skip a few beats...I am one of those who writes and says anything that comes to mind and filters later. You make me smile and appreciate the ideas to work better. Writing for one specific reader as if in a conversation is my new mind game. Smiles.

Susan E. Goodman said...

I was lucky enough to be sent up with the Air Force to the Arctic Circle on the condition that I wrote a book about it. But when I actually got home and sat down to write it, it just kept coming out flat. Then finally I went up to my office one evening and turned off the lights. I imagined an eight-year old sitting beside me and I just started writing down everything that was unbelievably cool (no pun intended) about my trip. That broke the logjam!

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