Saturday, March 9, 2013

It's okay—no, it's imperative—to write poorly.

When writing anything, fiction, essay, memoir, or reports, if you have to write perfectly, making no mistakes, if your "boss" which is usually a voice inside your head, insists that your work be perfect, you'll likely give up before you start. That's why the Writing True Fiction workshop begins with "Freedom to Write Badly". 

Freedom to Write Badly

In order to write, we must first overcome the fear of writing poorly. As Julia Cameron says in The Right to Write, “Perfectionism is a primary writer’s block.” 

Have you ever told yourself, “I’m not a writer,” when your attempts fell short of your vision or failed to measure up to the prose of your favorite authors? That, according to Anne Lamott in her book, Bird by Bird, is because you never see the masters’ first drafts. She declares that all good writers rewrite; that their first drafts are far from what you finally see in print. William Zinnser, in On Writing Well, gives an example of a fourth of fifth draft of a page from his book. He shows his proofreading marks, which, as he says, make it look like a first draft. In his book On Writing, Stephen King gives an example of his raw writing, the kind he feels free to do with the “door shut. It’s the story undressed, standing up in nothing but its socks and under shorts.” After a lot of editing and rearranging, he has a revised copy that is, “the story putting on its clothes, combing its hair, maybe adding a small dash of cologne.” Then he’s “ready to open the door and face the world.”

In order for you to be free to write badly, free from worry about sentence structure, plotting, or mechanics, begin free-form writing exercises with no concern for rules. Free your muse by removing expectations for doing it “right.” It’s important that you first write from your heart and imagination without analyzing and correcting as you go. Do not judge; just write.

Many of the exercises in this workshop are based on “free-form” writing. That's where you write whatever enters your mind, with no thought of structure, grammar, spelling or coherence. This form of writing is meant to awaken your muse and connect you with memories and ideas that are deep within your psyche. It is not meant to be a grammatically correct, astute, or well ordered. Trust the process. It works. Even if you feel you don’t have anything to write, by keeping the pen moving, you will invite the muse as you quiet the critic.

 “Go ahead and make big scrawls and mistakes. Use up lots of paper. Perfectionism is a mean, frozen form of ideals, while messes are the artist’s true friends. What people forgot to mention when we were children…was that we need to make messes in order to find out who we are and why we are here—and by extension, what we’re supposed to be writing.”  — Lamott

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Writing True Fiction.

As I gear up to present workshops again on how to write "true fiction" I thought it would be a good thing to define what I mean by that. What is true fiction, anyway? I can explain by sharing the Introduction to my "Writing True Fiction Workshop." So, here is what it means to me, including quotes from great authors who inspired me.

 “True Fiction,” is more than just a fun oxymoron. While it is completely made up from the imagination, thereby “fiction,” it tells the truth about life in a way that makes it believable. Call it what you want: realistic fiction, true-life fiction, literary fiction, or serious fiction, it has to be true enough that a reader can personally relate to it, be able to say, “I know how that feels, or what that looks like. I’ve been there.” It is character driven rather than plot oriented and written with a passionate commitment to a moral purpose. As Barbara Kinsolver said, "A novel can educate…, but first, a novel has to entertain.” If it doesn’t engage the reader, it fails.

   “It is fiction as truth that I am concerned with here, fiction that reflects
        experience rather than escaping it; stimulates rather than deadens.” 
                 —Wallace Stegner, On Teaching and Writing Fiction

“True art seeks to improve life, rather than debase it.”
— John Gardner, On Moral Fiction

      “Pursuit of the truth, not facts, is the business of fiction.” — Oakley Hall

Guidelines for “True Fiction” as taught in my workshop are:

1) It is a lens on life. “If it deals in make-believe—as it must—it creates a make-believe world in order to comment on the real one.” — Stegner

2) It is author-centered. “You need to put yourself at the center; you and what you believe to be true and right.” — Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird

 3) It is moral as John Gardner defines moral fiction: “a force bringing people together, breaking down barriers of prejudice and ignorance, and holding up ideals worth pursuing.” Truth in fiction includes trustworthiness—a responsibility to be true to both the reader and yourself as an author.  

4) It is consistent.
It must stay true to the characters it creates. Readers feel betrayed when a character they have grown to understand and care about says or does something uncharacteristic without any explanation for the reversal. 

*   It must stay true to the premises it sets up. Even if you are writing science fiction or fantasy, you must stay within the laws of physics or nature that govern the venue or character you create. 

*   It must be technically accurate. Know the area and customs of the land and the people you are writing about. If a certain kind of machine or rigging enters your story, be sure you know exactly how it’s made and what it does. Readers are quick to catch a technical mistake.