Saturday, November 5, 2011

False starts and the perfectionist

In the Enneagram system of personality traits, I am a One. Ones like being in alignment with order, are partial to the details and rules of life. They are often labeled Perfectionists. Both of the first two attributes are definitely characteristics of mine. But I seldom think of myself as a Perfectionist. I'm the one with toothpaste or spaghetti sauce on her shirt., I don't agonize over the documents I write or edit for clients; I do my work, do a good proofread, and move on. It isn't a struggle. I keep my home tidy but I don't stress over dishes in the sink or the rug pad showing in the dining room as it has for the last two weeks. I'm not compulsive about that.

But I realized this morning that the One's perfectionism is a part of my struggle with this new novel. I mentioned in an earlier post that the first two novels sort of unscrolled in plot and organization. And this one is not doing that. I'm struggling for the first time with what feel like false starts. And a perfectionist part of me doesn't like that.

Last week at Writing Friday, I read a chunk of a chapter to my astute friend Jan. She loved the story part of it but felt it couldn't have come from the mother as told story, that it was really the narrator telling this, that it was too perfect, too rehearsed to come out of the mother's mind. Well, of course it was and that had even nagged at me. But it meant I'm not yet on the right track with this book and I'm annoyed about that.

I know this happens all the time to the best writers. And I know my story idea is a solid one. It's just taking some time to find itself and to connect with me. It's a great learning experience, it expands my abilities. But it isn't as easy or fun. So I find myself bumping up against shoulds (it should be easier than this, it should go more smoothly, I should have it all figured out) and that is clearly perfectionism.

So time to go with the flow, go with what is, and keep following the leads.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Unearthing old treasures

Last Saturday, I took a wonderful 4-hour workshop from poet John Morrison on poetic forms: meter, rhyme, and the classic structures. As you may remember, last winter I took on writing 100 poems between Jan 1 and April 15. I was writing in what is called free verse with uneven line lengths and and no established meter or rhyme scheme. To be honest, I never gave them a thought.

So when I saw John's class was on a Saturday afternoon I had free, I signed up. Curiously, I had forgotten how much I already knew about these matters. I have an advanced degree in French literature and while the details are not exactly the same from French to English, the systems are very similar and I had spent a lot of time doing what is called "scanning" of meter and rhyme in French in those classes decades ago and taught them to my students as well.

And then there was the spring quarter I got asked to teach Intro to Poetry to students in English as a part of my graduate assistant job and I worked with a wonderful book called Sound and Sense, a classic. And I learned the differences in English and taught them to my students. And then I put that away in some place in my mind where it has stayed out of sight for the last 30+ years. And it all came flooding back last Saturday and I had a great time relearning, remembering, and practicing.

Three things stood out for me. One, I hadn't had that kind of intellectual fun and conversation in a long time. It's the kind of conversations that academics could do with each other and don't--the intellectual side of academia is hidden and rather private, trumped in large measure by the political. But apparently writers in gatherings do this a lot. I want more of that.

Second, I realize how much fun this was for me is due in part to my being a One in the Enneagram system. We Ones love order and detail and meter and rhyme scheme is all about that. It's almost made to order for us.

Lastly, I could see clearly how this knowledge and additional practice could serve as a major tool in revision of both my poetry and my prose, something I've gone about rather blindly. I'm excited to do more of this.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Meandering in the semi-dark

I got up at 6:30 today to write. Lit the candles, made tea, sat down. The dark was both external (the dawn doesn't come until well past 7:30 now if the sky is cloudy) and internal as I can't quite see my way clear with the story.

The first two novels I wrote, I wrote pretty quickly (about a year each). The stories were unknown to me as they spun themselves but they unfolded in a very straightforward and linear way. I kept asking "What happens next?" and before too long, some intriguing and feasible answer would present itself to me and I'd work with it and write another chapter. I had to go back once the draft was done and reorder a little and fill in some gaps blanks, but the story unscrolled like a lovely Chinese poem.

This new novel is different. Ideas are coming at me from all sides like an unruly classroom of kids waving their hands and shouting "Pick me, pick me." Or a fork in the road with a half-dozen choices equally scary, equally delicious in their beckoning.

Some of the dilemma is in sorting out how to present a large amount of back story for three characters who come together and separate and come together and separate in a somewhat chaotic dance. Equally enticing are the three characters, each with a fascinating point of view. And whispering in the back of my mind is Durrell's Alexandria Quarter, with its retelling of one story by different characters.

I sat this morning for about 15 minutes of my precious hour vacillating. And then I followed the advice I give all the writers I coach. Write a scene, any scene. It will take you in and you will find your way.