Friday, July 31, 2009
I have this landscape on my computer screen – a photo my son Micah took at Arastradero Preserve.
Each day, once I’ve read the newspaper, walked my collie, had breakfast, cleaned the kitchen, taken a shower, mailed some letters, worried about the broken dishwasher . . . once I’ve almost spent my whole morning, that is, immersed in my life, I sit down at my desktop and see this beautiful, simple landscape, and remember my writing.
This is, then, my first Achilles Heel as a writer: Life.
As for my second, well, come with me on this little walk.
Something I love about the photo is the path, curving up the slope to blue sky. It suggests what I search for in my writing: a clear path for my story. The writing process, for me, is this search. I try one route, and it ends in sand; I try another, and I land in a marsh, feet stuck, mosquitoes biting.
Of course, what I say to any writer in a similar predicament is: Keep trying! If this path didn’t work, try another! It’s the only sane advice, and yet it’s difficult advice to take.
As someone who started to write fiction after a first career, I still feel like someone new to this process. I look for signs; keys to the map; the best routes to follow.
So this is my second, my most vulnerable Achilles heel: Story.
Description, yes! Lyrical passages on someone’s face or the weather, I can do that! But finding my story? Argh!
I think I’m getting better at it. That is, I’m gaining more patience. If I have to cut 150 pages, so be it. Sometimes I just have to slice my way through underbrush and even damage some very beautiful mature trees, until – incredibly – one day I look up and see a simple path. A beginning, middle, and end. And even though I’m only on page 50, for the seventh time, I am on my way.
It’s important to note that I can’t reach this point on my own entirely. I’ve been lucky in a few brilliant, insightful manuscript readers: my daughter Marissa; my spouse Bryan; other writers; my wise agent Priscilla. Just last week a fellow writer, Maud Carol Markson, led me by the hand out of a wide marsh indeed.
Such readers help me clarify what this landscape is through which I’m trying to move, and who is coming with me on the journey. They help me understand who my characters are as people – and this, after all, is the key. A work of fiction can move forward compellingly once the characters become profoundly real to the writer. Wonderful words: “I think your character is --- ,” or “I think your novel’s about ---,” upon which I always say, “Wait a minute; let me write that down.” My heels feel stronger already.
I’d love to know what your own particular Achilles heel is, in writing or in life. I wish you a fruitful journey!