Hello, dear readers, and welcome!
For probably the next few posts, I wanted to write a little bit about "Cracking Fiction"...or breaking out of some fictional constrains or habits, as we might call it.
I began thinking about this Monday, which here was Labor Day. I spent most of the day with a writing friend, plotting over our respective stories. We happened to be at the bookstore, and found a book on writing fantasy, our go-to genre.
My friend has been outside of the writing circle for a while, with work and all, and wanted a refresher. But as I was flipping through the book, reading, I received this oddly tense feeling of being boxed in. It's not that the book was bad, it was simply that the things it was saying made me feel constrained.
I don't really usually like "how to" writing books, because I prefer to learn by example, and I honestly don't like being told what or how to do something, unless it's merely informational. I don't want to read how to write like Tolkien or Lewis -- I want to read their work, and see for myself what I think about it; I want to learn about them, and hear their own words. I do think it's good for writers to read how-to books, because we should learn the backbone of our genres and their history, of writing as a craft, but maybe what I'm driving at is that we shouldn't allow ourselves to feel boxed in, like this book was making me feel.
I'm not much of a Romance reader, or Thriller or Mystery, but I like Fantasy. I like new worlds. I like strange, out of the ordinary stories. But I'll be the first to admit that I think the Speculative genre is extremely competitive and rigid at times. There is definitely a strict sense of "how to" and "how not to".
I'll give an example: At my writing critique the other day, my friends asked for some exposition in the beginning of my story, because they thought it was a little vague. But I had purposefully not written exposition because I had read that that was the "wrong" thing to do for Speculative fiction (or fiction in general), and that people hated it. I've always found this strange, because I personally love exposition, because I like to know more about the world, the culture, the characters, but I was still afraid of doing it "wrong". In being afraid, I not only wrote something I didn't much care for, because it wasn't detailed, but I also ended up writing something that my readers didn't much care for, either.
Your love or hatred of the story, or the method of telling it, will always show in your writing.
It's funny, because everything sort of ties in. When I finished reading what I was reading of the "how to" book, and I set it down, I was left feeling closed in, like I had been stuffed into a box; there is nothing worse than a box for a creative type. But then I picked up another book, one I had randomly found while wandering through the store, and everything changed: this was a book with (all?) of Tolkien's original drawings for The Hobbit.
Tolkien is one of my go-to writers when I'm feeling lost or frustrated -- or I guess you could say he's one of my go-to "inspirers", because not all of them were or are writers. I've learned so much from him and his counterpart, C.S Lewis, just as I've learned from Madeline L'Engle, Mary Shelley, Walt Disney, Jim Henson, J.M. Barrie, and many more. This time was no different.
I have to say, I loved the drawings in that book. They are so different than what I picture when I read The Hobbit, and also quite different from what we see in the film (my opinion of which shall be left out). But one of the first things I noticed when I saw them was this: not all of the lines are straight, even on buildings.
Tolkien made some beautiful sketches, inkings, and even some pictures in color (like the fantastic original cover for The Hobbit), but none of the lines are perfect, or even trying to be perfect, it seems. This might not seem like much to a non-artist, but it struck home with me. I'll be the first to admit that I don't like digital art as much as hand-drawn; I'm just old-fashioned that way. But I have noticed a sort of trend, in digital art and hand-drawn, for things to be perfect, symmetrical, almost like the computer rendered them instead of a person.
Not all drawings are like this, but quite a few seem to be. Perhaps its the "precision" of the tools used, or our desire for everything to be perfect immediately, quickly, on the first try (not going to happen, I'm afraid); this has become part of our culture, for better or worse. But when I noticed these lines, I immediately thought of my own artwork, of trying to make it "perfect" on the first try, and how I do the same with my writing, almost subconsciously.
I'm sure the pursuit of perfection has always existed, but I'm not sure it has always existed in the same, overly intense way. Whatever the case, this small realization really opened my eyes, as I realized that I've been trying to draw all of my lines straight, to make everything concrete and perfect. I realized that I've been the one shutting myself inside of that box.
I've recently been reading Anne Lamott's "Bird By Bird", which talks about writing in all its glory and awfulness. If you haven't read it, I recommend it. A wonderful, very smart friend of my practically ordered me to read the book. At first I wondered what exactly the title meant, because it's kind of an odd title for a writing book, but in the book I discovered the meaning. Mrs. Lamott writes:
“Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report written on birds that he'd had three months to write, which was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books about birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him put his arm around my brother's shoulder, and said, "Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.”
Bird by Bird. I want to put that on my wall, next to my sign that says: "No one asked you to be happy. Get to work." (Sidonie Gabrielle Colette)
How truthfully can we say that we taking writing, artwork, or anything else in life "bird by bird"? I think trying for perfectionism immediately, or perhaps at all, is what takes much of the joy out of our work, or gives us the stress that we don't need. Mrs. Lamott has something to say about this, as well:
“Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft. I think perfectionism is based on the obsessive belief that if you run carefully enough, hitting each stepping-stone just right, you won't have to die. The truth is that you will die anyway and that a lot of people who aren't even looking at their feet are going to do a whole lot better than you, and have a lot more fun while they're doing it.”
I want to have fun while writing and creating, and I don't want to be stuffed into a box, by myself or anyone else. Realizing this immediate perfection that I have come to practice has really helped me see that if anything needs to be stuffed into a dark, cramped space, it's that immediate perfection, not me.
I'm no Tolkien (I wish), but I can now see the importance of drawing imperfect lines, because in a way, they are perfect -- organic, real, fun, and inspiring. When we write outside of the lines, we explore, and we stop worrying about being perfect. This where we can find creativity -- and ultimately, ourselves.