Writing as Therapy

Absolute Blank

By Ana George (Broker)

First, the disclaimer. I am not a therapist of any kind. I’m not even that much of a writer. There are a few novels in my drawer, to be sure, but nothing publishable, yet.

But what I have, I’m willing to share. Things go wrong in these lives of ours, and sometimes we need a little help to get back on our feet.

For me, writing has helped immensely. Telling stories, any stories, is part of who I am, and it’s part of who I am when I’m mentally healthy. So struggling to tell stories when I just don’t feel like it at all is an important part of regaining my equilibrium.

One of the primary therapies that helps people go from having flashbacks, intrusive memories, etc., is to construct narratives around the events that caused the post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

In a recent episode, the American Public Media radio program On Being interviewed Kevin Kling. Kling was born with one withered arm, and in early adulthood experienced a motorcycle accident that nearly killed him, and took the use of his other arm. He is also a storyteller, and he loves to laugh.

I found it striking that he remarked that retelling a story, your own story, with different endings, is a good way to get better. It helped him to recover from the PTSD his accident triggered.

Trying on different endings, different answers to the “where should the story go from here?” question, is both a great way to edit a plot flaw out of a story, and to imagine where your life could go.

The full interview with Kevin Kling is available here.

Likewise in an interview, Kurt Vonnegut, best-selling author of Slaughterhouse Five among others, remarked, “A writer is lucky to be able to treat his neurosis every day.”

Writing is, I think in its essence, a process of picking at the sore parts of your being. A common piece of advice to writers is to write what you’re afraid of. Open a vein, bleed a little into your story. Share your experience of pain with your characters; it makes them more believable.

Telling a fictional story that relates in some way to your stresses and bad memories may be a step beyond a memoir-style retelling. It allows more inventive changes to the tale, moving further afield from the simple facts of the case, and a more extensive examination of the what-ifs of the situation.

It’s worth pointing out that there are opposing opinions. For example, Anis Shivani in this essay describes academic creative writing programs as hazing and therapy in the model of an old-fashioned mental hospital. Linking to this, the Brevity Non-Fiction Blog suggests that someone give Mr. Shivani a warm cup of milk.

As an exercise, let me suggest thinking for a few moments (but not too long; this is therapy, after all) about the things that bother you most, that scare you most, about life, the situation you’re in, the way the system works. Write out a list with a few items on it. Now wash your mind out, sit down with a blank page (or word processor window), and write about those things, either one at a time, or several together. Play with different outcomes. Find one that’s good and not wildly improbable.

The stuff you write for therapy may or may not be something you’d share with others. Writing for publication is perhaps a different kind of a thing. But art, to be good, needs to be authentic; it needs to be about something real. And so, in the process of readjusting yourself, you will also, just maybe, readjust your writing to be more authentic. Playing around with different endings may make writing that started out as a private, therapeutic exercise into something that would be of interest to others.

Final Poll Results

What Scares You Most

A Pen In Each Hand

By Broker

As an exercise, let me suggest thinking for a few moments (but not too long; this is therapy, after all) about the things that bother you most, that scare you most, about life, the situation you’re in, the way the system works. Write out a list with a few items on it. Now wash your mind out, sit down with a blank page (or word processor window), and write about those things, either one at a time, or several together. Play with different outcomes. Find one that’s good and not wildly improbable.

If at First You Don’t Succeed,
Write Smut

Absolute Blank

By Ana George (Broker)

Writers’ block is a fact of life. There are a great many reasons for it, and the remedies are as varied as the causes. Stay tuned for some words about a remedy that often works for me: Smutwriting.

Now sex is a part of life for real people. It informs who they are in subtle ways. On the other hand, many fictional characters are flat, cardboard creations, caricatures of people, who appear, play their role, and disappear without a further thought from reader or writer.

In a novel with many incidental characters, most of them might be forgettable. But as Michael Cunningham once remarked at a reading, each of those people is the main character in his or her own novel. He also said that his fiction is autobiographical in the sense that he tries to be true to each character, her own needs, and fictional life course, even if he only tells a small part of the story of that character.

And sex is a part of that, for many people. And not, for others, but that’s also taleworthy. Perhaps even more so.

Let me be clear: I’m not (or at least not necessarily) saying all writing should be smutty or even contain romance or overt sexuality. Backstory, what happens to the characters off stage, the part of the story you don’t put in the book, is also important. It helps the author get to know the characters, so they behave more like real people, so you as the writer are not surprised by their motivations. Hemingway pointed this out in his Iceberg Theory.

So you’re stuck, trying to figure out where the story should go from wherever you left it. You have an idea for another plot element, but getting from there to there is not something you can see from where you’re standing.

Follow the characters home. Write everyday details of their lives. She comes home, wonders why her partner’s car in the driveway inspires such dread. She fixes supper, but one of the kids won’t eat it. Familiar, well-worn arguments, advanced incrementally, because, after all, you’re only writing one Tuesday night. And maybe she’s randy come bedtime and he’s not. Next morning when she reports to work in your novel, she’s grumpy and tired but for no reason she’s going to tell you, because it might end up in the book.

Or there was this guy she saw on her lunch break that had that certain dreamy hurt puppy look in his eyes that always made her knees weak, but that she’s ignored for years in an effort to keep her life together. Does she miss the feeling? Or is she grateful for being delivered from the need to pay attention to it?

In a way it’s like writing fan fiction (or even slash fiction) about your own universe. I suppose fan fiction is an examination of (usually someone else’s) a canonical text, asking what-if questions, what happened before this, what happens next. These two characters are so luscious, I want them together, dammit, and I’ll write the story myself if I have to. The resulting stories are in no way part of the canon: the actual story that’s in the book, on the screen, whatever. And yet, for the fanficcer, the existence of these backstories (erotic or otherwise) enriches the experience of the canonical story.

Sex is also a way people in real life express rebelliousness. It might be a way for fictional characters to do that, as well. You have this nice life all plotted out for them, a nice plot arc, and then in chapter twelve, they break the fourth wall, walk out of the book and into the writer’s studio, sit down, and say, “No, I’m not doing that for those reasons.” Is that rebellion because of some facet of their lives you haven’t written (or even thought) about? What would a teenager do in this situation? For another take on this, see Mikhail Bakhtin’s ideas of the Carnival and grotesque realism.

It is perhaps a truism that disappointment and regret are great sources of story ideas. If nobody does anything regrettable or disappointing, the story is the poorer for the lack. And, for many people, sexuality is rife with disappointments and regrets. Again, it’s not necessarily the case that you need to write about it explicitly (or if you do, to include it in the book) to reflect on the lifelong regret caused by an off-stage broken romance.

I recall being told as a young writer that sex scenes in stories must always advance the action, and significantly change a character. I set out to break this rule, if only because it’s not true of real-life people. Why is sex different from other biological needs and wants, such as eating or sleeping? Sex is something people do, some of them fairly often, and having life-changing experiences every time is just not in the cards. It may be true that the reader only wants to be in the bedroom on those rare occasions when something like that does happen, but the characters are there whether it does or not. Perhaps it’s our job as writers to convey this aspect of our characters’ personalities. For example, their familiarity (or lack thereof) with each other could convey a lot of information to the reader. I’m not convinced I’ve written a sexy scene that’s not transformative that is also worth keeping. So maybe the rule is a good one, but it’s a boundary and writers exist to push at the boundaries.

This past year has been a difficult one for me, largely because of events in my personal life. Sometimes I feel like writing, and sometimes I really don’t. Sometimes writing is therapeutic, or cathartic, and sometimes it’s just fingers moving, putting symbols in little rows on a computer screen.

Recently I found an erotic picture on the internet that was very engaging, for a variety of reasons. Certainly one of those was that the woman in the picture was strongly reminiscent of the way I imagine one of the characters in an ongoing saga-in-progress. Her body was mostly hidden behind her partner’s, and it was clear she was taking charge of the encounter.

And I found I had to write the story of a time my character did just that with her partner, whatever the larger context might have been. How did she feel about it beforehand? Was the experience memorable enough that she thought about it the next day? Was it wonderful? A disappointment? Forgettable? What about his feelings? Are they the same as hers (surely not entirely?) and if different, are the differences important? And which two scenes should I set this encounter between? How does it fit into their lives as they move through the story?

And so now it makes sense that she snaps at another character the next morning, that she seems distracted, that her eyes keep straying to her cell phone, wondering if she should wait for a call, or call her partner, and wondering what she’d say if they did talk. I’m sorry, what was that you said?

Backstory is important, and people’s (and characters’) sex lives are part of the backstory that forms their personalities. Characters will ring true if their authors think about who they are, beyond what appears in the story. When in doubt, write smut!

Final Poll Results

Rewriting a Novel:
or What’s This About Writing Workshops?

Absolute Blank

By Ana George

A while ago I wrote an article about writing a novel in a month. I’ve done this National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo or “NaNo”) thing four times now, producing a 50,000 word draft novel each time.

Let me stop for a moment to echo Justine Larbalastier who, in her writing blog, repeatedly points out that some writers produce readable first drafts, and others do not. Let’s say the draft has been edited to the point that it’s readable, there’s a story that flows, the typos have (at least mostly) been fixed, the sentences are grammatical, and while it may not be the most wonderful story ever told, it’s a story. That’s where my NaNoWriMo manuscripts typically stand at the end of November.

I’ve been kind of intending to take a writing workshop at the local adult education center. I’ve drooled in their catalogs for several years, but this fall my schedule cleared enough to actually sign up for one, and they offered a workshop on novel writing.

I was about to start rewriting my 2007 NaNo, and so I signed up. The cost was about $160, for eight two-hour sessions, and it was limited to twelve students. I signed up several weeks early, to ensure a place. The catalog blurb said to come to the first class with a few-page long synopsis and a first chapter to share.

Meanwhile, I started in on the rewrite. I had the first draft printed by Lulu.com, a print-on-demand service, in the form of a book. A 50,000-word document costs me around $17 to photocopy at the local copy shop; Lulu printed and bound it for about $10 (plus shipping costs). The per-copy shipping costs are minimized by ordering several, so I got one to keep on my shelf, as-written, one to scribble in and mark up, and several to circulate to reading friends. One such friend, an eighth-grade English teacher, made extensive marks and comments, which proved very useful.

Having re-read the novel several times myself, and with first-draft readers’ comments in hand, I started the rewrite. I did it in order, taking one chapter at a time from the folder with the original manuscript in it, and bending it to suit the new ideas. I re-read the comments on each. Some plot elements had to be moved; one significant chapter needed to happen much earlier. This kind of thing is perilous, because the characters know what they’ve already done and been told, so it’s important to keep track of what depends on what, at least long enough to get it written into the book.

As another example of a fairly drastic change, one character’s nationality (and name) needed to be changed. Again, much depends on this kind of thing, so it’s important to pay careful attention if you need to do something like this.

In some cases, chapters were split and expanded, giving more detail, or acting out a story that was merely mentioned in conversation between two characters. Writing coaches are fond of saying “show, don’t tell,” and perhaps this is the kind of thing they’re talking about. The plot slowly took on more of a shape, through the pruning out of unneeded scenes, and the addition of new ones.

I got stuck, about three-quarters of the way through the book. The ending of the first draft was rushed, readers of the first draft urged me to expand it, and I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with it.

Enter the writing workshop

One of the assignments for the fast-approaching workshop was to write a synopsis of a few pages. This was hard going, but proved to be very useful. The first draft was all characters and plot, just a list of who, what, where. A couple friends (including the novel forum here at Toasted Cheese) helped by making comments that were functionally “um, what?” The second draft had much more of the why in it, but not enough about the characters and events to allow the reader to follow it. A final draft, which I submitted for the workshop, struck a balance.

While writing the synopsis, it became much clearer to me what I wanted to do with the ending. I can recommend from experience: when you get stuck on the plot, write, or re-write, a synopsis.

The workshop itself was a lot of fun. At the first class we went around the table, and the students each read a few pages from the beginning of their novels-in-progress. Comments were relatively few, by design: did it get your attention? Could you taste the snow? Were you embarrassed for the shoplifter?

For the remaining classes, two students were assigned to bring in enough copies of their synopsis and a first chapter (or two), which were handed out. These were read and critiqued in the ensuing week, and discussed at the next class.

The discussion was fairly formal: the first ten minutes were for positive comments only. The next twenty, for any comment anyone cared to make about the chapter and the synopsis. Up to this point, the author was, by rule, silent, except perhaps to clear up confusion. The last ten minutes, the author could answer, elucidate, ask questions of the critics, and so forth. It was difficult to sit through half an hour of discussion on my own book, without answering, but it was most enlightening, seeing the things other people saw in it: parallels to similar novels or movies, wondering where it was going and how it would get there.

In my case, the consensus was that my novel starts too gently, without enough of a hook to draw the reader into continuing. There’s little idea of where it’s going from that first chapter or two. This became clear from the other students’ comments. They also pointed out that the understanding of the characters about the nature of time and the mutability of history changes as the book progresses. I’m not sure I had noticed that before someone pointed it out. It should certainly be made more explicit in the synopsis, and perhaps in the book itself. Here is an article on how to write a fiction synopsis. The rewriting process for me was like a three-legged stool: the synopsis helps with sorting out the plot, the workshop helps with the synopsis, and the novel itself helps with both the synopsis and the workshop (if only through sympathy with the other writers’ plights).

There were enough dropouts that we had an extra session at the end of the class with nothing to critique. We agreed among ourselves that we wanted to learn more about plotting, so the instructor encouraged us to write a synopsis either of one of our own novels, or any other novel which we’d found interesting and plot-rich. I responded with a synopsis of my first NaNo (from 2003), which served in part to emphasize the plot flaws of that story, but was also valuable experience in writing a synopsis, and in seeing how it reflected on the plot. Another student wrote a synopsis of a published book, in a spirit of learning from the masters. One other student demanded to read the 2003 NaNo on the basis of the synopsis (so maybe I did something right).

Writing Group

Several of the students from the workshop have decided to form a writing group, to get together from time to time and critique each others’ work. That’s due to start later this month (January ’09). I think most of us felt it would be useful to have more detailed feedback on the rest of our novels, beyond the first chapter and the plot synopsis. Perhaps this will be a place where we can do that for each other. It’s certainly the case that most readers of a novel will give only very perfunctory comments (“I liked it.” or “It was good.”). If you can find somebody who will tell you Aunt Agatha really has to go, and that this side-plot is interesting but not germane, recruit them for your writing group. Start a writing group if you don’t already have one.

Final Poll Results

A Novel in a Month? Am I Crazy?

Absolute Blank

By Ana George

I think I first became aware of National Novel Writing Month in 2002. Several people on a community site I frequented at the time seemed to be doing it, and I’d been writing little vignettes and short stories. Chris Baty decided in 1999 that it’d be fun to get a bunch of people to all write 50,000 word novels in a month, and so he declared November to be National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). It’s still going, stronger than ever.

I’ve started three of these things, and finished two, in 2003 and 2005.

In my case, going into November the essential ingredients I had on hand are a few characters (but feel free to make up more of them as the need arises), an idea for a plot or at least a situation, clearing one’s schedule as much as possible, and a writing buddy. Note that this list does not include communion with the Muse.

If you wait for the Muse to whisper something in your ear, you’re not going to make it. Lightning strikes are nice, and they can make for some rip-roaring tales, but they’re rare. Just write. Something will happen, often something rather nice, or even wonderful. I found myself sitting down wondering what comes next. Putting myself into the head of one character or another, and watching what happened next. The NaNo thing is really about getting past writer’s blocks, the need to edit everything to death before going on

I found this approach rather incompatible with plot outlines, or writing scenes out of order. The characters have a way of peeking over my shoulder at what’s already been written, and then can’t resist a certain foreknowledge of the plot, which changes how they react. So, for me at least, the discipline of writing the story linearly, in the same order I expect it to be read, was an important survival strategy. Your mileage may vary; I tend to write character-driven fiction. But I found it hard enough to keep track of what all was going on in a linear story, let alone juggling several story threads and trying to remember who knew what in which scenes.

That said, I found I’d left enough threads untied that I could figure out who-done-it at the end, and, during the long Thanksgiving weekend, pull out a rather interesting tale. Then, in both cases, I had to go back and plant the gun (metaphorical) in the drawer in chapter 3, so it’d be available when someone needed it to straighten out my tangle of plot lines.

It’s a good thing try to wrap up the tale at just over 50,000 words, because the steam tends to decrease dramatically once one has met the quota. If you’re planning on “finishing it later,” I’ll warrant you never quite get back to it. Everybody who writes 50,000 words in November and verifies this on the site is a “winner” (and you even get a PDF plaque to prove it).

Having a writing buddy is a Great Thing. Somebody who’ll wake up each morning, read what you’ve written, perhaps make a comment or two, but most of all be disappointed if there isn’t anything there to read. If they’re also writing a NaNo, all the better, but you probably don’t have time to read along in more than one or two other novels if you’re writing one of your own. I’m not sure if this is a unique thing for NaNo writing or not; I’ve never really had a writing buddy as such for ordinary writing. Don’t expect in-depth critiques, either giving or receiving. I think the most useful comment I got in the middle of things was “Hey, it was Christmas and now it’s Spring Break already.”

Let’s run some numbers. The goal is 50,000 words in the 30 days of November. This is 1,667 words per day. I type 30 about words per minute, so I can write 1800 words per hour, which means I should plan on at least an hour a day, day in, day out, no exceptions. In practice, it takes me a bit longer if I’m also making up the story as I type. I think I spent around 50 hours on each of my two successful NaNos.

Of course, when there are rules, there is the urge to bend them. If the only thing you’re being graded on is word count, you tend to use 10 words where one would do. And to save and run a word-count after ever sentence or two. These are bad habits, but you’ll develop them anyway.

Sometimes a plot line or a stack of prose just goes bad. When you have a deadline, you sometimes have to just go on, or throw out a chapter or two, in hopes of patching the hole in the edit, later.

It’s a good idea to keep track of everything you invent. The first time the neighbor shows up, you make up a name for him. The second time, he already has a name, and you should have it recorded somewhere so you can find it. There are a number of software tools that help with this kind of bookkeeping. Tastes vary, and finding a tool that works well for you can be frustrating, or as simple as a web search. I used a TiddlyWiki, which is a one-person, local version of a wiki, the software underlying, for example, the Wikipedia. I wish I’d kept track of more information in it.

The NaNoWriMo website has a number of aids as well. There are forums where you can ask things like how fast smoke signals propagate, and whether the ancient Chinese did anything with gunpowder. You can also register your daily progress and monitor that of your friends. Competition is a good thing. There’s also a NaNoWriMo forum on Toasted Cheese, where you can make fun of your favorite editors for failing to write a novel.

The point of the exercise, really, is just to get a draft of a story written down. To convince you that you are, in fact, capable of writing a long story. You can edit later (yes, Virginia, there’s also a NaNoEdMo in March).

And what’s become of my two draft novels? One’s still sitting in the drawer where it went at the end of the month. The other’s still got some ideas swirling around, for ways to make the plot clearer, better motivate the action, and explain the relationships between the characters. Perhaps one day I’ll dare to submit it to an agent or a publisher. The handful of people who’ve seen them seem to like them, so perhaps there’s something worth saving. It’s a long strange ride, but I now know that I can put together a story that’s pretty coherent over 200 pages or more.

Final Poll Results