Stepping Outside Yourself

A couple of weeks ago, Jean Roberta wrote a marvelous post on what it’s like to sit on the other side of the desk and act as editor. It got me thinking about some specific aspects of how I teach writing in class, and the flaws I see on a fairly frequent basis in the writing of even well published authors.

I’ve bemoaned the demise of the old-style editor before. When I hear accounts of writers being edited today by editors at their publishing houses, I find it sort of chilling. There was a time when every manuscript submitted to an agent or a publisher was considered to be ‘in the raw’. There was an understanding that each piece of creative writing could benefit from a good, stern editor. But in those days, editors weren’t proof readers or line editors; they were more like distillers of fine perfume, taking fresh, recent blooms and turning them into rare essences. They were often writers themselves who had subsumed their own aspirations in order to make other people’s writing better.  But most of all they were readers. They could spot the difference between a brave stylistic approach and a mistake a mile off. To have this kind of regard – love, even – for another’s work is an unusual calling.

Those days are, for the most part, over. If you want your writing (not just your spelling or your grammar) to be good, you’re going to have to do the bulk of this work yourself.  A considerable amount of it you can simply avoid at the outset, by interrogating your plan before you start writing.  Some of it you need to do after you have finished the work and have allowed it to sit for a while, once you have some distance from it.

Different editors have different hot buttons.  I have two major ones: unbelievable characters and bad dialogue.

People will often say that you should separate yourself from your writing. That a bad review is not a bad review of you, but of the work. The difficulty with both the problems above is that they can sometimes point to the psychology of the writer, rather than a flaw in the writing. These are dangerous waters, but fertile, also.

Let us be honest, all the characters we write are, in some small way, part of us.  Just by virtue of the fact that we create them, this must be true.  There’s no use saying this is bad practice and we should stop it.  It does help if you are writing, for example, main characters with a gender different to your own, or a large age gap, but not much. We invest ourselves into our characters like Geppetto breathed life into Pinocchio. We can’t write living characters unless we imbue them with our lifeforce, but if we invest too much in them, we impede their potential to be ‘all that they can be’ and we are reticent to see them put at the kind of external and internal risk that makes for really good conflict in a story.

One of the first exercises I give to my writing students is designed to allow them the pleasure of writing themselves as characters. I ask them to write a portrait of a character who could easily be them.  Go to town on it, I say. Give your character all the attributes you think you have, wish you had, or hope you have. Make them beautiful, sexy, clever, agile, strong, virile, courageous, rich, etc.

Now think of the most awful, most humiliating, most unfair or tragic thing that could happen to them. They could lose all their hair overnight. They could find out they have HIV. They could suffer from a bout of explosive diarrhea at the dinner table in front of their date. Whatever it is you most fear, take your character there and put them through it.

Next, write a scene in which your character willingly, consciously does something absolutely reprehensible to you.  Make them steal, lie, cheat, sell themselves on the street for $20.  Whatever it is you think would be the worst thing that you could do in life, put your character there and make them do it. Don’t make it something they have no choice about – don’t allow them to be the innocent victims of circumstance. Write them doing it willingly.

These are some of the hardest pieces of writing my students ever do.  You cannot imagine how violently they balk.  Well, in fact, if you try these exercises, you probably will. And if you find this easy to do, then you probably didn’t need to do the exercises.  But I will bet most of you will find it very hard. I know I do – I always do.

But once you’ve done it the first time, you never forget how to get yourself over the hump of reticence to really put your character at risk. You know you’ve done it and can do it again. And every new beloved character you create will be freer to be what they need to be in your story afterwards.

The other big problem for me is dialogue. I read a lot of stilted, unnatural dialogue, and not just in my student work. I find it lurking in places it has no business being: between the covers of books published by some of the biggest and most prestigious publishing houses in the world.

Bad dialogue is written by people who don’t listen.  I have noticed that as writers grow older, usually, their dialogue gets much better. Steven King used to write atrocious dialogue. So did William Gibson. Now, both those authors write wonderful, vibrant, realistic interchanges between their characters.

The cure for this is eavesdropping.  Get yourself to a place where you can overhear conversations and listen, and watch. It’s not helpful to do this in social situations where you know most of the people there. Because our prior knowledge and our relationships can deeply interfere with our objectivity. So, public spaces with a lot of strangers is the best option. Coffee shops and quiet bars are good because people often go there for the express purpose of talking. Notice how we speak to each other. Notice how, the closer we are to our conversation partner, the more telegraphic and abbreviated the sentences become. Notice how people establish their social position by what they say and how they say it. Notice how people put ‘spin’ on the ideas and opinions they’re trying to promote.

The second part of the exercise is observation. And for this, you need to be able to put yourself somewhere you can stare at people. Which is why I love airports. People are stuck there for hours. Everyone is people-watching.

A great deal of our communication is nonverbal. Watch interactions between people. Look at the space they make or close between themselves and others. Look at the way they tilt their heads, nod encouragements to continue, apologize. Departure areas and arrival areas are interesting, too. How people say goodbye, how they meet. Not just what they say, but how their bodies speak. Those meetings and partings are hardly ever the cliched tearful farewells or ecstatic embraces of welcome you expect. I once saw a woman say goodbye to her departing husband at the entrance to the international departure area. All her gestures to him were exactly what you’d expect, but the minute he walked through the doors, the relief on her face and in her body was shockingly obvious. And I’m sure you can guess just how fertile my mind grew after seeing that.

Finally – this is the hardest one – take a trip down memory lane to the most painful interchanges you’ve ever had with others. Force yourself past what you felt, to get to what you heard, and then to what was actually said. What words, inflections, gestures triggered the most discomfort in you? There is a clear mechanism at work there. You need to find it. You need to discover how word-choice, inflection, context and back-story fed into the ways that you were vulnerable to those interchanges. Words can open us up, but they can also close us down.

Both these sets of exercises may help to make your writing better, truer and stronger. Both involve a significant amount of self-examination and there is undoubtedly going to be discomfort.  But I’m a firm believer that good writing is seldom painless.  In fact, I have a theory about the link between masochism and good writing, but that’s another post.

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