Inevitable Knots and Despair, Hopefully Followed by Epiphany*

Empress Dowager writing a "great characte...

Empress Dowager writing a “great character”. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For a long while, I haven’t written anything about my writing here. I’ve been tied up in knots, some of my own making, some from not doing a good job of sorting out the helpful feedback from the not helpful kind. I keep saying I’m going to put together a praise/encouragement file for times like these, but the thing is most times when I’m tied in knots, I don’t realize what I’m doing to myself until I start coming out of it. Usually, sooner or later, I blunder into something that gets through the fog and I start to clear it out.

This time it was:

A series of conversations with Zoe Marriott on Twitter. And two of her posts: A Question of Letting Go and Take A Deep Breath…

A post by Gwenda Bond: Fast Vs. Slow (I admit, I was panicking about how I can be such a slow writer and why was I even working on this project that I had started in 2008 and put away and taken out again).

But most importantly, this post Finding Your Voice and its writing exercise, which I found via DaphneUn when she mentioned Doycet. Yes, give me logic and analysis! I’m so tired of the “you know it when you see it” mantra. (However true it might be, it’s not helpful!)

The post includes a writing prompt and exercise. If you are at all interested in doing it you should go over there now before I spoil it for you. Really. It’s one of those exercises. You only get one chance at it. Ok?

Here’s what I wrote in response to the prompt:

 New Year’s in Chile is in the summer. For a northerner—as in Northern Hemisphere—like me, it’s disorienting, but in a good way. It’s easy to walk around, from bar to bar, in the historic Bella Vista barrio, once home to artists and manual laborers and disenfranchised poets, but now increasingly bourgeois.

I had just pushed into a bar with strobing red and blue lights when there was a general scramble away from the dance floor that left me stranded. Sometimes I’m too contrary for my own good.

A guy sprawled in the middle. He was obviously dead; I was close enough to see that the knife stuck in his chest wasn’t pulsing with the beat of his heart. Never mind why or how I know about that. I did the decent thing and checked his pulse anyway and closed his eyes. By that time the lights were the white florescent kind. I don’t know if the manager—green under their bluish glare—or the dead guy—dead, ditto—looked worse.

I wrote this and thought, I do have a voice! Why am I letting myself be “corrected” out of it?! Jeez and hallelujah.

My answers to the questions after the prompt:

I never manage to follow “the rules”

Strong narrative preference

Preference for character over plot

No dialogue

Mono focus

A little bit elliptical (ok, a lot elliptical and probably too subtle). I always seem to come at things sideways: geography, poets, bourgeoisie, settings). It seems to be hardwired into my writing DNA; that’s ok, but how can I be elliptical and not lose my readers?

Character super important

Weak on conflict, or something I can’t quite put my finger on. Again, coming to the conflict sideways. Indirect conflict. Offstage conflict? (Not sure if this goes to voice or rather an aspect of writing I need to work on)

I LOVE long sentences. But I also love sentence fragments.

Unhealthy addiction to en dashes I blame entirely on an old boss

Setting/place is a character to me

Some descriptions are specific (red and blue strobing lights) but others could use much more specificity (bar, guy, knife, manager), in general, but also depending on which are important

This was all automatic. Very little of what I wrote here was conscious choice after deciding there was no way in hell I could follow the directions on all parts of the writing prompt. (I was sitting in my still-new living room and I did not want to envision a murder there.) What the hell does it mean that everything else was automatic and coming up directly from my subconscious?

More thoughts from comparing with other writing:

Good at analogies/metaphors that are appropriate for the character

Either 1st or 3rd person, but always very tight

Something that might be missing from the project I’m working on: a kind of gallows humor. A little morbid, maybe slightly explicit (is slightly explicit an oxymoron)?

Ok, your turn. Thoughts? Did you do the writing prompt? What was your experience?

*The title comes out of one of the twitter conversations I had with Zoe Marriott. She suggested embroidering it on a pillow, which in a sense I have now done, sans embroidery and pillow.

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5 thoughts on “Inevitable Knots and Despair, Hopefully Followed by Epiphany*

  1. Hmm. That’s an interesting exercise. Here’s what I came up with:

    The man lay in a pool of his own blood on the bedroom floor.

    I splashed alcohol on a paper towel and used it to wipe the garrote clean, discarding it next to the corpse.

    Outside I could hear the crowd fall silent, draw breath as one, and then burst into cheers.

    Midnight, then. A new year.

    The man would be forty-eight today.

    Somewhere far away, in latitude but not in longitude, the ball dropped in Times Square. Marissa would be there.

    But I get ahead of myself.

    I’m resistant to the idea of myself as a writer having A (singular) Voice — maybe because I’m still finding it, maybe because I fancy myself a chameleon, or maybe just because I’m contrary like that. This snippet has a lot in common with my recent writing, but is that because it’s my One True Voice or because it’s the first voice I’ve been able to execute reasonably well?

    My VP Thursday story was my first attempt at noir, and now it’s what I write by default, apparently (at least to that prompt, today). But I think I could have written to that prompt with other voices and still been “me” in a fundamental enough way that I’m comfortable describing it so.

    Some older ways of teaching painting apparently have students copy famous works, and I’ve been curious if something similar would work for Finding One’s Voice in writing, with an emphasis on variety in styles (and maybe genres) — write a story each in the style of Catherynne Valente, Elizabeth Bear, Brust’s Paarfi, J.K. Rowling, … and see what you like and don’t like. It’s something I mean to try, once the big noir-influenced project I’m working on is put to bed.

    • Nicole Lisa says:

      Oh, fun, thanks for playing! I have so many things to say in response:

      That I agree about the “one true voice” question. In fact I often refer to myself as a chameleon too, especially in writing and probably heightened by 10 years of translation, which is what else–trying to match someone else’s voice.

      That I love seeing how your writing response to the same prompt is so different from mine, so much closer to the murder, for one thing.

      That it’s kind of hard not to go a little bit noir when murder is in the air (but that would be a fun prompt, same exercise, but no noir).

      That I was just reading Jennifer Crusie’s blog post about assigning students to re-write their openings in the style of [in this case various romance authors]. It sounds like a great exercise to try out.

      And finally that I think I fudged a bit on the difference between my voice and the character’s voice in this post, but I was so excited to write non-wooden, non- banal sentences after tying myself into knots that I didn’t notice.

      • You’re welcome! It was fun.

        Gosh, 10 years of translation would really do that. Especially in an at-times highly-charged environment, it must make you very sensitive to the nuances of people’s words. I have an acting background, which I think is part of where my chameleonic tendencies come from. I strive for my writing to disappear into my characters in the same way I strive for my acting to disappear into my characters.

        I started with, “well, obviously, ‘The man lay in the bedroom in a pool of his own blood’ — but that’s so clichéd. ‘I killed him.’ Ooh, that’s a nice twist. But a bit too on-the-nose. Hmm. Maybe ‘I wiped’ &c.” and went from there. Making the killer the viewpoint character and sticking us right there inside his head felt right, but then I’m a known villain sympathizer. 😉

        Murder without the noir would be a fun prompt! “The old man died peacefully, at last, surrounded by his loved ones. None of them realized at the time that he had been murdered, of course…” I’m not sure where I would go with that.

        A character’s voice is sort of a subset of the author’s Voice, somewhat definitionally, isn’t it? Or an author’s Voice is the superset of their characters’ voices? Something like that. It’s a necessary confusion, I think, is what I’m saying.

        That feeling of flow after a long jam — that’s a gratifying feeling. I am a bit stuck on plot right now — I need to go back and listen to Bear’s lecture on plot structure and see if it can break the dam loose.

  2. (Also, as you can see, I’m entirely with you on em-dashes in my own prose, although they somehow stayed out of the writing sample. I love ’em, but they sneak in everywhere, and occasionally I have to break out the leafblower to clean them out. 😉

  3. Nicole Lisa says:

    Hurrah the en-dashes!

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