About Writers, writing technique

Oh Spark Divine (more or less)

Always, in the process of writing, I am convinced that I am grasping toward greatness. It seems like the most important thing in the world. Even when I’m laboring through an uncooperative first draft and obviously mired in muck that will all have to be cleared away in the second, I feel like what I’m doing is vital and rich and worthwhile.

The final product is never quite what I expected. Don’t get me wrong, I love my own books, but they are all drastically flawed. They inevitably grow up in ways I didn’t really plan or expect. I’m enough of a control freak that this always bothers me a little, but I also know it’s unavoidable. In fact, it’s a good thing. It means your work has life and energy. So you say goodbye to your little book, wish it well, and start your next book, full of the fresh misguided conviction that this time you’ll see it through all the way and it will be perfect and magnificent.

That’s how it is for me, anyway. And probably it’s for the best. Without a deluded sense of self-importance, how would I find the energy to lift pen to paper?

Probably to the reader, a book like Spark seems like a frolic, a trifle. For good reason. It is a frolic. It is, in its own way, trifling. But this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. My first professional review (all right, it was from Publisher’s Weekly, but it was only a contest, and the book was never published) called my book “sprightly”—it had a “sprightly tone.” At first, I wondered if that wasn’t just a bit belittling. Sprightly isn’t, perhaps, the most dignified adjective to apply to work of literature. But eventually I appreciated it. I even came to embrace it or at least the playful energy it implies. Even in a serious story, prose can frolic a bit. Nabokov could be sprightly. So could Melville, not to mention some of my other personal favorites like Delany and Tiptree. It implies, I think, both facility and agility.

Or maybe I’m just trying to put the best face on it.

Consider Spark. It’s certainly got a light feel to it, but structurally, the novel’s tone is inverted. Even subverted. The apparently serious story with the apocalyptic overtones (the pocket universe, the skulks, the Duchess) is absurd, almost parodic.  And it’s ultimately trivial. It doesn’t amount to anything. Meanwhile, the apparent trivia of day-to-day life—boyfriends and basketball and friendship and loyalty— that is what the story is really about. That, obviously, is what really matters. That is what lasts.

Said another way? (big theme here, watch out):  The great machinery of the universe is inscrutable and inexorable. When we get too close to it, we are often threshed. We, threshed, rise up, dust ourselves off, and start reconnecting the fragmented bits of our reality. ‘Cuz that’s life.

Does this hifalutin bit of analysis mean I think Spark is a Great Book, worthy of term papers and Spark(ahem)Notes? Naw. Of course not. When the great cataclysm approaches, and the Powers That Be prepare the rocket-propelled time capsule, filling it with those Works of the Once Great Human Race that will justify our existence to the unknown civilization that finds the floating space library, Spark will not be onboard.

But this sad truth does nothing to quell or belie the impulse behind the writing. I don’t set out to write immortal books. I mean, who does that? I may hope for greatness, but mostly I think of a story, and if it intrigues me enough, I start writing.

But that process is, all by itself, magical and amazing. It’s amazing that we want to do it. It’s magical that we can. We are homo scribens, the race that writes, the storytelling species. Locking into that impulssvechae means messing around with greatness, with divinity. My goofy novel came from the same place as Lolita, as The Poisonwood Bible, as Moby Dick. In those quiet, passionate moments, when we’re dancing on the third rail of creativity, we catch a lightning glimpse of an immortal face, we hear the nonsensical muttering of the muses.

How can we come away from that experience untouched by greatness?

Those muses, those angels, do have a message you know, a very simple one:  We are here. We are real. And all of our twisting, writhing, passion-filled, agonized creations are nothing but a reflected bit of that seemingly infinite light. A candle flame’s worth. Without even meaning to, without even understanding, we are passing on that message.

They are here. They really are.

 

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27 thoughts on “Oh Spark Divine (more or less)

  1. mimispeike says:

    Atthys says: . . . my own books . . . are all drastically flawed. They inevitably grow up in ways I didn’t really plan or expect.

    Me: I’ve got that problem solved. I plan nothing.

    Atthys: Without a deluded sense of self-importance, how would I find the energy to lift pen to paper?

    Me: I keep going because I have to find out how it ends. The pinned-down details that land on the page are inevitably more delightful than what floats around in my brain.

    Atthys: . . . fragmented bits of our reality. ‘Cuz that’s life.

    Me: A book that doesn’t give us bits of reality, fragmented, in ways that feel true, in astute characterization if not in plot points, is hardly worth reading.

    Magical? The desire to write is magical. The rest of it is really hard work.

    I disagree about angels. Muses? Certainly. My muses are the writers who have come before me, who have shown me what fine prose is. The greats are the angels on my shoulders, the only angels I recognize, or need.

    Liked by 2 people

    • atthysgage says:

      I think for me, Mimi, the difficulty is less in not being able to finish than in not being able to start. But then, I am, by nature, a loafer. My normal inclination is to wait and see if a problem will go away by itself, rather than confronting it head on.

      I can’t dispute you on the hard work part, but magic is still magic. It’s simply magic that requires a lot of hard work.

      Liked by 3 people

  2. GD Deckard says:

    I agree, Atthys writes better than he thinks he does. I still remember scenes from Spark. Sales measures commercial success. But a good story sticks with you.

    Liked by 2 people

    • atthysgage says:

      I agree with your definition. They certainly do. And that quality of being memorable means different things for different authors. I retain few details of plot from Pride and Prejudice, but I remember vividly the pleasurable sensation of reading certain of Jane Austen’s sentences. With Moby Dick, I might remember certain passages and plot points, but the stronger memory is more of mood and atmosphere, the feeling of being engulfed by a great story. What sticks in the mind from various authors or stories? An interesting question.

      Liked by 3 people

  3. atthysgage says:

    Lest anyone confuse my conflation of angels with muses for a sort of salvation-via-poetry argument—no. Our struggles are earthly. I don’t believe in any sort of afterlife that could fit on a canvas. My intuition tells me that once we die, we become dust, and that’s the end of it. Of course, I don’t know.

    But even if i am right, there are bigger things than our squalid struggling. We KNOW there are. We also, I think, know that those things will never be known to us with anything approaching certainty. We are limited to the lightning flash and the nonsensical muttering. But it is nonetheless miraculous for that.

    Liked by 3 people

  4. mimispeike says:

    I judge writing the way I judge art. Does it turn me green with envy? That’s the gold standard.

    Years ago, in an interview with a highly regarded graphic design firm, in a prestigious design periodical, the question was posed, how do you decide who to hire? The answer was: we look for work we wish we had done ourselves. Naturally, this method of evaluation is fluid. Everyone has their own yardstick. I love Jane Austen, but I adore any number of people you’ve probably never heard of.

    What I would call exceptional, (here comes that old line): I know it when I see it. And I don’t care how many disagree with me. And that’s how we all need to think, or be eaten whole. Or too intimidated to try.

    You notice I don’t mention marketability. I’m a big fan of Steve Jobs, who said (roughly), people don’t know what they want until I give it to them.

    When readers see my thing, they are probably going to say, Christ! Another Puss in Boots? Screw that! I’d say the same thing. My challenge is to convince them that Sly is unlike anything they’ve ever seen and yes, they do need to give it a look.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Unavoidable indeed that the final product differs from the initial vision, and shines far less brightly. But as you say, it’s what goads us onto the next, as a new vision arises and we think, ‘Yes! This time I’m going to nail it!’ And the struggle begins anew.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. I’ve done hard work, like digging graves in hard soil or moving unwieldy furniture that weighs at least 100 pounds all by myself or raising a child alone — or calculus. I suspect each of you has done that kind of hard work, too. Usually, hard work makes me sweat.

    The idea that “writing is hard work” puzzles me, but enters so many writings about writing that it seems presumed to be true and universally understood, and therefore needs no definition or support. Maybe I missed the commandment, “Thou shalt not write easily,” but if those muses, angels, or gods of writing didn’t issue such a commandment, I would very much like to know exactly what aspects of writing each of you believes the description “hard work” comprises.

    Truly, I am flummoxed every time I come across it.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I think from your examples, calculus comes closest – not that I remember much about it. But the notion of ‘mental effort’ is well accepted in cognitive psychology – learning a list of nonsense words is more effortful, for example, than learning a nursery rhyme. There are days when the writing flows and it does indeed seem easy; there are others when what I want to say seems forever out of reach. Or as Eliot put it much better:

      So here I am, in the middle way, having had twenty years—
      Twenty years largely wasted, the years of l’entre deux guerres
      Trying to learn to use words, and every attempt
      Is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure
      Because one has only learnt to get the better of words
      For the thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which
      One is no longer disposed to say it. And so each venture
      Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate
      With shabby equipment always deteriorating
      In the general mess of imprecision of feeling,
      Undisciplined squads of emotion.

      Liked by 3 people

      • The Eliot quote is an interesting choice, Curtis. Correct me if I’ve got this wrong, but I think he’s talking about how the world changed between the two world wars, and how he had to re-think the way to express his changed perceptions and even his choice of subject. The world had become Atomic — it was a vastly different world. A world filled with new horrors and fears. I think that change is similar to — but probably more extreme than — the way the world change for Americans after 9/11. I doubt he could have written Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats after 1945.

        Liked by 2 people

        • The poem appeared in 1940 so it’s not the A-bomb as such that’s behind it, but you’re right the poem as a whole reflects in part the situation in London at the time. But I think it goes beyond that, being a meditation on his own spiritual and philosophical development, with this passage in particular dealing with his development as a poet. Of course he’s in a totally different league and sphere, but I like that passage because even at my lowly level it resonates. A raid on the inarticulate – when the words that emerge don’t manage to capture what’s somewhere there in my mind.

          Liked by 3 people

          • I think we cannot live an examined life without also examining how people’s perceptions, beliefs, values, and opinions differ from one another’s. That examination always leaves me with a grateful sense of wonder, and a deeper affection for my fellow human beings. Thank you, Curtis, for helping to bring this varied group of thoughtful communicators together. I look forward to sharing many more conversations with you, Atthys, GD, Mimi, Perry, and anyone else who is motivated to join in.

            Liked by 3 people

            • And thank you, Sue, for your always thoughtful contributions. But the instigator of this site was GD, so I pass your thanks on to him. We’ll see how it goes, but with every post it provides a little more discussion and food for thought, so that in itself is positive.

              Liked by 1 person

              • Yes, my thanks to GD, too! But without a connection to you, Curtis, I probably wouldn’t have found my way here. The company is thoughtful, respectful, and forthright, which makes me feel welcome and unafraid to express either my opinions or my ignorance. 😉

                Liked by 1 person

    • atthysgage says:

      I think you are closest with a combination of calculus and raising a child (which I didn’t do alone, thank goodness, but I was the principal stay-at-home caregiver, three times over).

      I have dug ditches, worked in a warehouse, did telephone interviews (this last wasn’t physically hard, but pretty much consisted of eight house of emotional battery), and done endless retail bookstore jobs. All of them were harder than writing, but also easier in a way. I don’t think I can put a finger on precisely which aspect of writing makes me characterize it as “hard.” I find it both emotionally bruising and mentally taxing. I usually walk away from it feeling dissatisfied. So yeah, that’s hard. It can even be agonizing.

      But, of course, not always. There are times when it fairly gushes from my pen, and it feels like a living, thriving thing. Those moments don’t last long, but they are accompanied with a feeling of elation and pure satisfaction. Beyond a doubt, they are worth the wait. But the balance is weighted toward the agonizing, the painstaking, the fussing over minutia. I sing for fun. I dance for fun. But writing I do because I actually (as per the post above) believe, at some level, that it is important. All evidence to the contrary.

      Hopeless arrogance.

      Liked by 2 people

    • Perry Palin says:

      I left my last full time paid employment in April. I had a job where I did a lot of work, and I quit. I don’t work anymore.

      Today I started with pre-breakfast barn chores. In the morning I switched out the rotary mower on the farm tractor for the back blade, which involves a lot of pushing, lifting, and shoving since I’m working with mismatched machinery, some of which is older than I am. I moved all the gopher traps. I did a wellness check on the horses and cleaned their shed. After lunch I pulled weeds around the grapevines, trimmed the grass around one of the vegetable gardens and the berries, and butchered the rest of the ducks. I’m pretty beat right now. Was this a lot of work? No. I’m not working. I’m playing.

      I write every week. I want every story, every paragraph, to be my best. I study and I read and I strive to improve my writing. It’s a challenge, and sometimes it’s hard, and sometimes it makes me tired, but this is not hard work. This is play.

      I have an appreciative audience, however small, and I’ve made a little money at writing. If I can grow the following, win a few writing awards, and make some real money, that would be fine. But I’m not going to make this into work. Then I would have to quit again, and then what? Maybe take up playing the banjo?

      Liked by 3 people

  7. mimispeike says:

    Getting it right, on every level, is hard work. Mastering technique, marrying your command of phrasing to delicious content, and grooming the result until every hair is in place, or until it looks so fly-away-brilliant that it makes other writers grind their teeth. Moving words around (well), that’s heavy lifting.

    To produce work with Atthys’ finesse, do we really think that’s easy? Dream on, little dreamer, as Greg Brown, another ace wordsmith, says.

    Liked by 2 people

  8. GD Deckard says:

    I’m a Frizzbetarian. We believe that when you die, your soul goes up on the roof where nobody can get it.

    My favorite fictional characters are often those who look up from their squalid struggling at the chaos of bigger things with perspective. Like Vonnegut pictured in Cat’s Cradle:

    God got lonesome.
    So God said to some of the mud, “Sit up!”
    “See all I’ve made,” said God, “The hills, the sea, the sky, the stars.”
    And I was some of the mud that got to sit up and look around.
    Lucky me, lucky mud.

    Sly, I like to imagine, sees things in perspective because deep down inside where it really counts, he doesn’t give a rat’s ass.

    Curtis is right about days the writing is easier. Maybe good writing needs time to composes itself before rising to awareness.

    As for writing being hard work -dang, but this blog provoked a lot of thought!- Sue has a point. As a labor of creation, writing requires less effort than raising a child.

    Liked by 2 people

  9. mimispeike says:

    I’m touchy today. This was perhaps not the day for me to read that writing is not hard work.

    I have been struggling with four short paragraphs for two days, each tailored to a page of my site, quick quips stylish enough to encourage the viewer to explore the rest of the page, new material not repeating anything I’ve said on the intro pages, economical and, above all else, flavorful.

    I’m invoking Jackie Gleason, Rocky and Bullwinkle, anything fun (but solidly pertinent) that I can think of. This is filler, to furnish the depth of header that I need to accommodate my drop-down menu, but it can’t be throw-away filler, it needs to be bam-zoom catchy. The right tone, the right thoughts, the right words, it’s damn hard.

    I have been in a funk of discouragement, which reminds me, I need to get on that Carl E. Reed blog post. I need to coral my way-too-many/going-in-all-directions thoughts into a compact overview.

    Liked by 2 people

    • GD Deckard says:

      Now we need a blog on what writers do when they are unable to get the right tone, the right thoughts, the right words, when it’s damn hard. We all know that frustration. I’d like to know what others do to cope.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Perry Palin says:

        When I can’t find the right words I stop and work on something else. It’s not like I’m working on a deadline. Sometimes the something else is an article for a club newsletter, and sometimes it’s trout fishing or working with a horse. When I’m working on a story I am living in the story all the time, and the best words sometimes come when I’m driving my truck, or eating a sandwich, or feeding the cat.

        Liked by 3 people

  10. mimispeike says:

    GD, I drink a lot of wine. And I obsess, like I’m doing now. I just keep at it. What else can I do?

    This is why I’m moving so slowly on my website. It’s a complex, multi-page (nineteen and counting), multi-goal project, and I nit-pick everything.

    Liked by 2 people

  11. GD Deckard says:

    Meh. I take a week off, let things percolate while I play computer games. Fallout is my favorite, but I also spend time on UO – it’s the oldest online MMO. 1980’s graphics but the most open, interactive world. There’s a zillion ways to play in the UO lands and seas.

    Another thing that often snaps me back to my WIP is to write anything at all that feels right and call it a blog 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  12. mimispeike says:

    Apropos of nothing, except the Discouragement piece I’m about to write: I have been raked over the coals by certain Wix Design Experts for comments made in the last twenty-four hours. For accusing Experts of thinking in narrow channels. Excuse me, they have done work for Fortune 500 companies! Far beyond me, for sure.

    The difference is, it just came to me, they think in terms of movie trailers, flashy elements popping up, etc. I am telling a story, with both a visual and textual rhythm. I still say (I just won’t say it to them), too many sites look alike, and rely too heavily on gimmicks.

    I don’t see a lot of sophistication on the web. It’s more hit them over the head. In their defense, that’s what it takes for many in/out web surfers. I’ve been told that many will not have the patience to read my multi-pages. If they don’t have the patience for my very visual, and wordy, teaser-presentation, they won’t have the patience for my story. What have I lost?

    This reminds me of my small company, decades ago, that held a contest for a new logo. The winner was as blah/ obvious as could be. But the judges were businessmen, not designers. I try (whether I succeed, that’s another question) to produce work that might make it into Print magazine, a showcase of best of the best.

    Liked by 3 people

  13. Thank you all for this lively conversation. Your responses have helped me see “writing is hard work” from points of view that differ from mine, which is one of the best ways I know to develop a deeper understanding of anything. I’d like to share my conclusions.

    There are two kinds of people in the world. Hell, we all know there are almost as many “kinds” of people as there are people, but for the sake of the point I hope to make — and the implied humor that sometimes accompanies such generalizations — I’m falling back on that time-tested dichotomy. Two kinds of people: people who have a passion for jigsaw puzzles, and people who don’t.

    People who don’t care for jigsaw puzzles might have a variety of reasons between them for their lack of interest: the pieces are too small, they take too long to finish, it’s just too hard to pick out pieces that go together from a pile of 500, 1,000, maybe 2,000 pieces. Jigsaw puzzles demand too much mental effort (hard work) for the minor reward of a put-together picture. It’s just a total waste of time.

    But people who have a passion for them see them differently. A jigsaw puzzle is a problem to be solved. A challenge to be met. It requires a way of looking at the pieces that relies heavily on spatial visualization abilities — a right brain function. This is less accessible to 95% of the world’s population (right handed people) than the verbal / linguistic abilities located in the left hemisphere of the brain.

    That is not to say right-handed people can’t have excellent spatial visualization abilities. My own experience, supported by such works as Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain by Betty Edwards, is that right-handed people can learn to access left brain abilities. At will.

    I understand being frustrated when you can’t find the precise word or phrase or image you want to communicate a feeling or description in writing. It happens to me, too. But I don’t see solving that problem as hard work. I agree with Perry. It’s all a matter of how you choose to look at things. If you see it as work, it’s easy to believe it’s unpleasant and hard. If you can take joy in the process of solving the problem, meeting the challenge, putting the puzzle together, then it’s play no matter how much work it takes.

    The things I listed as hard work for me put me directly against my limits. I have physical limits that I will not be able to overcome (though a good hand truck goes a long way to leveling the furniture-moving challenges — I just don’t happen to own one). Calculus never afforded me a 3-dimensional mental image of what I was doing with the formulas, and I didn’t have enough interest to discipline myself in that field so I could solve that problem. Child rearing, particularly alone, is a 24-hour a day, every-damn-day-for-at-least-18-years challenge that can drain your body, mind, and spirit, especially if there’s not enough money. It’s a challenge I could not choose to walk away from, so I found the joy and made more joy, and just did the work. Staying up to that task is harder work than writing can ever be.

    So when you get stuck in your writing, my suggestion is to step back, stop struggling with it long enough to get out of your own way. Open your mind and allow the problem to move around on its own. Don’t pick at it. Play a video game. Go for a walk. Take a shower. Take care of some horses. Put together a 1,000 piece, solid white jigsaw puzzle. Let things flow between your brain hemispheres. Solutions may very well present themselves.

    Liked by 5 people

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