Thursday, July 30, 2020

Resting Transparently

No one knows how writing happens. “Sit your ass in front of the keyboard” is less about writing than typing. “Plotting” vs. “pantsing” deals with the mechanics of story. Where does creativity come from?

If I knew, you think I’d be telling you for free?

The best I can do is refer to a series of videos in which David Milch (NYPD Blue, Deadwood) talks about “The Idea of the Writer.” Recorded at the Screen Writers’ Guild auditorium during a writers’ strike, Milch held court for a couple of hours each day for a week about the creative aspects of writing.

These are rambling discourses, covering subjects as diverse as chemistry,

I have always been more left-brained than it’s probably good for a creative person to be. Charlie Stella described my writing style as “documentary,” and that’s fair. I’ve always thought I did my best work describing things that had already taken place in my mind.

This caused first drafts to require more heavy lifting than I like to do. I’ve used the term “mining” to describe my first drafts, no one’s idea of a pleasant experience. Editing was where I had my fun.

The current book—Number Seven in the Penns River series—is the first time I’ve made a conscious choice to change, thanks to Milch. I’ll write more about his talks as time goes on, but two takeaways not only shifted my attitude about the first draft but make me look forward to each day’s production, so much so the blog has to fight for time. (Apologies to Patti Abbott. I haven’t forgotten about the post I owe you.)

Most important for me (filtered through my experience and personality) is the concept that all art must rest transparently on the spirit that gives it rise; the artist must therefore do the same. It’s a concept Milch adapted from Kierkegaard’s definition of faith as the opposite of despair: "In relating itself to itself, and in willing to be itself, the self rests transparently in the power that established it."

Milch’s faith is in his Higher Power, learned from years of working his twelve-step program. Mine is in knowing I can take as many passes as I want to make things better. It’s all about removing the ego, which is the enemy of creativity. As soon as I start thinking too much about what I’m writing, or whether it’s any good, I stop. It’s impossible to rest transparently when thinking about the potential effect of the art on others, and how they may respond; the writer creates what he creates. The reception is beyond his control.

How to get to a state of resting transparently is up to the individual. I need my increasingly vague and flexible outlines to remove worry I’ll write myself into a corner that requires either an implausible resolution, or throwing away thousands of words of work. (Which I’ve done and it’s no fun.) Like all writers, I depend on a certain amount of inspiration, a Muse for lack of a better word, to do my best work.

The German chemist Friedrich August Kekulé discovered the ring structure of the benzene molecule after twenty years of work. The solution came to him in a dream of a snake swallowing its tail. In Milch’s telling, his peers gave Kekulé a ribbing. “Why did you work twenty years on this? A dream was all you needed.” Kekulé’s reply was, “Visions come to prepared spirits.” That’s the key: how to prepare the spirit. Everyone does it in their own way

Milch swears he never thinks about writing except when actually doing it. How the ego influences that is a post of its own. He battles with OCD and would wrap himself in knots if he thought about the craft too much. His energy goes directly into the work.

The Beloved Spouse™ can attest I am not above overthinking things myself. I have made a major effort not to think about this book unless I’m working on it. I read the chapter’s brief slug in the outline or review the last few paragraphs from the previous day, and jump in. Not only is it easier and more fun, based on feedback from TBS it’s at least as good as the other first drafts she’s

A surprising benefit is how often ideas now come to me unbidden. Last weekend I went grocery shopping and a few disparate thoughts and events coalesced and the next Nick Forte fell together by the time I got home. More came to mind as I told TBS about it. Another useful event dropped in on me the next day, vision coming to a prepared spirit.

I’ve never been more enthusiastic about writing, other than right after conferences. I’m rushing through this so I can get back to the book. (After I add the notes to the file for the next Forte.) It’s messy, but I have faith all will get sorted out, and that’s what really matters.

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