Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Lessons from an Invisible Bridge

During one of the many Stanford Continuing Studies fiction writing workshops in which I participated in the early 2000s, the instructor told a story that has stuck with me.

I don’t recall her exact words. Peri-menopause, you know; I barely remember my own name sometimes. My memory may have mangled the story. The gist, as I remember it, is that at various points in her writing career, the instructor had to be talked into taking the next step. Changing majors from pre-med as an undergrad. Applying to an MFA program. Sending a first story to some literary journals. Then another story, and then another. She questioned her readiness to take each step. She questioned whether her stories were ready, or whether they could still be improved.

This story made a lasting impression on me, though at the time we heard it, my classmates and I gave each other incredulous looks. Once we got over the initial soul-killing dread of having strangers read and tear our work apart, none of us had any compunction about sending out stories. We all wanted to be published before we got a single day older. For many of us, this seemed imperative unless we wanted to die unpublished. Many of us were older by a decade or more than the young MFA program students we’d be competing with for spots in the vehicle that typically kicks off fiction-writing careers: the literary magazine. We had to make up for lost time. Preferably, without having to do the hard work of major revisions (which none of us really knew how to do despite talking about it in class endlessly). Revision mystified us. How could we re-imagine something that seemed just fine to us the way it was? Something part of our fiber, like a gestating fetus? Something we were so emotionally invested in?

Besides, publication was everything. It was the first domino in a long line of ego-gratifying events that would all tumble if only the right magazine would bite.

Being published would make us writers. Being writers would make us someone. Everyone would love and admire us (or love and admire us again) including, without limitation: parents, estranged parents, spouses, estranged spouses, lovers, former lovers, total strangers, and of course the famous writers we ourselves loved and admired. Love and admiration, respect, recognition -- whatever personal emotional void needed filling – that’s what we’d fill. (Maybe we’d get a movie contract too, and then we’d make money doing something we loved instead of the unglamorous day-to-day of whatever we currently did. We’d see our names rolling by in credits, maybe get to go to the Academy Awards and sit next to Steven Spielberg… )

It was not lost on me at the time that the person who told this story undeniably was a writer, and just as undeniably, an extremely talented one. When I look back, it’s with the ironic realization that those of us most eager to publish were those whose work, or temperaments, or both, were least ready for it. I count myself among those not ready, though I’m willing to be kind enough to myself to believe that with work, dedication, a room of my own, and enough personal growth to enable me to observe humanity with more compassion and less judgment, I might someday have been. Part of me holds out hope, even now, that I someday will be.

But I wasn’t then. Instead of perfecting my craft, I rushed to publication in obscure magazines, many of which no longer exist. No one who didn’t love me before started loving me. Strangers didn’t stop me in the street. Hollywood didn’t call. Very likely, the number of people who read my published stories is less, in aggregate, than the number of visitors to this blog.

The writer and workshop instructor who told the story about having to be pushed along the path to a writing career is Julie Orringer, who at the time was also running the Stanford Continuing Studies Writers’ Workshop program. I just finished reading her debut novel, The Invisible Bridge. I’m naturally biased as one of her former students, and it is not my intent to review the book here. But if you read one thing this summer, you should read this. The first 400 pages are fine and necessary and have a stately, grand, sweeping, romantic Russian feel to them. The last 200 pages are stunning and have the pace and force of an avalanche.  Apparently, Oprah agrees.

(Nice picture, eh?  I took it while in Budapest a number of years ago.  Same with the one below.  Part of The Invisible Bridge takes place in Budapest, which provided a great excuse to trot out some of my travel photos.)

Instead of reviewing the novel, what I want to do is to use what I learned from its author and the novel itself as a jumping off point to talk about artistry, craft and the creative process. I’d been tossing bits and pieces of these thoughts around in my mind for some time, but reading The Invisible Bridge helped to crystallize them.

First Thought: Writers Should Be Perfectionists

We’ve all heard about famous literary figures X or Y who wrote novels that became classics long hand on legal pads without ever scratching out a word, but I’m convinced the vast majority of great writers don’t work this way. They write the work, and then they let it steep. They rework it. They let it steep again, then they rework it again. They expand it, they contract it, they expand it again. They reorder it. They change points of view, they change tenses, they change words. They change characters – lose some, add some, substitute some, make some that were minor major and vice versa.

They roll up their sleeves, bury their egos, and do the hard work of writing in service to the story, not to what they hope the story can do for them. It isn’t about them, it’s about the work. They don’t settle. They don’t rest until the last overused idea, the last misplaced image, the last clunky sentence, the last inappropriate word, the last baroque darling has been banished. Only then do they let the work see the light of day.

And in the process, they have to commit to the work more than student writers ever do when they generate the first drafts they can see no problems with. Great writers have to live with it. Their attention spans have to be long enough to keep working it until it either truly works, or clearly will never work and has to be abandoned. They have to be willing to abandon their brainchildren who don’t turn out, however cruel it may seem. And they have to be able to tell when to keep working and when to cast a project aside.

I read that The Invisible Bridge took five years to write. I remember hearing, when Julie was still in the Bay Area, that it was expected to take two. I lost touch with her after I dropped out of one of her workshops; I was toward the end of a difficult pregnancy and could not focus on the work of the workshop along with the pregnancy and my day job. Though I’d intended to go back into workshops after the birth, as a mother with a full time job outside the home I soon discovered I had neither the solitude nor the emotional energy required to attempt writing fiction. I can barely find the time to post to this blog, even sporadically. About all I have time for is five minutes here or there to pound out a tasting note on Steepster -- that’s my creative outlet. My fiction writing “career” is on an as yet uninterrupted hiatus.

But though I lost touch with the author, occasionally I’d check the web to see if I could find any news of the book. And finally, fairly recently, I checked on Amazon and found a release date. My copy shipped immediately on release.

One of the things that sets this book apart from some other first novels I’ve read is its degree of doneness. This one can’t be accused of coming out of the oven too soon, of being too doughy, too wet, or with ingredients that have been thrown together and denied the chance to intermingle and develop fully. I’ve read other first novels where the hard questions may have been asked, but they either haven’t been answered or were answered imperfectly. Characters are selfish or otherwise unsympathetic, lack dimension, don’t speak like real people, don’t act like real people. Language is overwrought, anachronisms haven’t been excised. I sometimes wonder whether, later in their careers, their authors will regret having published them in that state.

But from what I know of Julie, I expected nothing less than perfection, or at least as close as she felt she could come to it. As I was reading, I imagined her at work on the novel. I imagined days, and years, coming and going while the manuscript steeped, was reworked, expanded, contracted, was honestly and mercilessly (but with compassion) reevaluated. I imagine her asking the questions she taught us to ask ourselves in workshops. Are all the important questions answered, are all the motivations true? Are all the characters as real, surprising, and complex as actual human beings with free will while being true to themselves and their character? (Free will, in a very Jewish sense, is one of the themes of the book, so all the more important.)

Is justice, to the extent that it can be in a novel of this kind, done? (Fate’s random cruelties and kindnesses are another theme of the book, so all the more tricky.) Is there enough conflict and has it been pushed far enough? Somewhere I have a list of such questions on a hand out from one of my workshops, and though I can’t recall whether these specific ones are on it, you get the idea. I imagine Julie assessing the novel’s readiness over and over again and not being satisfied. And finally, I imagine her being talked into taking the next step and letting go.

It’s not that The Invisible Bridge is flawless. I had a few questions at the end about some of the authorial or editorial choices, and if I set my mind to it I could probably come up with more. What impresses me most about the book isn’t that it is flawless, but that I can tell it is trying to be – that the author has (probably impossibly) high standards for her work, and strives to meet them. It’s so easy to be so blinded by one’s own brilliance as to compromise what should be one’s own high standards, and thereby miss the opportunity to approach perfection.

Second Thought: Writers Should Not Be Egomaniacs

During a particularly dark time in my life, I had a conversation with a friend about happiness. This friend is a self-described Pollyanna type, always smiling, rarely anything less than upbeat. Her sadnesses come, I’m sure. But they don’t last, they don’t drag on. They’re addressed for what they are and she moves on, always optimistically. Until relatively recently, this did not at all describe me.

I asked my friend about happiness. About how to get there. I seriously wanted to know, as I felt it had eluded me for most of my life. Her answer: happiness isn’t an end state. It’s a process. It’s something you work at every day.

“Happiness is a process” has become something of a mantra to me in the years since that conversation. It has become a core belief of mine and has had a tremendous impact on my life in many ways.

One of the great things about this simple statement is that you can exchange a thousand words or phrases for “happiness” and have the statement still be true. And once you do, it’s hard to be a pessimist. Here are a few substitute words and phrases that I think work: Maintaining friendships. Nurturing intimate relationships. Being a good parent. Losing and maintaining weight. Learning a musical instrument (or learning anything, for that matter). Training for an athletic event. Pretty much everything that isn’t instantaneous and temporary. Pretty much everything that is worth doing.

Being a writer is not an end state you get to just because your words show up in print. It’s a process. It requires discipline, dedication, and honesty. Ego gets in the way.

I’m reminded of a story that may be apocryphal and that I heard during one of the Stanford workshops, though I can’t remember who told it. I believe it was about Tillie Olsen, and her application for a Stanford Creative Writing fellowship. Rather than endlessly blow her own horn (what we today quaintly call marketing ourselves), she supposedly wrote something like: I want to learn to write good stories.

It’s so simple and unaffected, and so directed to the goal: writing good stories. Trusting the process, not expecting to reach an end state. And certainly not sitting next to Steven Spielberg at the Academy Awards.

Back when I was in writers’ groups, I was told on more than one occasion that I should try writing a novel. My short stories were usually on the long side, generally too big for the form. I always made some excuse about liking to write stories because it was a less forgiving form, so more challenging.

But the truth was I was terrified of writing a novel. I couldn’t imagine finding any characters interesting enough to want to spend the sort of time with them that writing a novel would require. I was afraid my attention would flag. I’d become bored and restless. In the time it would take to write a novel, I could write ten or more stories, and so have that many more chances of having someone publish something of mine. Being a writer was an end state, and I wanted to arrive.

Now I imagine Julie living with these characters for five years. I imagine her sitting down with them on a daily or almost daily basis. The amount of trust and dedication it must have taken to do that, when I surely would have fallen in and out of love with characters of my own a thousand times. Grown weary of them, and of having to rein them back in when they strayed too far from their roles.

In the end, there has to be a reason for writing, or for doing anything worth doing, that is not about arriving and is not about self-aggrandizement. Khalil Gibran wrote in The Prophet, “Work is love made visible.” The work of writing, like any work, ought to be done with love for the work itself, not just for the promise of success waiting at the end of the rainbow. It ought to be done for love; because it is part of who the writer is, part of the fabric of the writer’s being.

Third Thought: Writers Can’t Help But Write

Which brings me to the third thought, namely that a writer is one who writes, not one who sits around thinking about writing, dreaming about writing, or dreaming about having something he or she wrote on library and bookstore shelves, and waiting for greatness to be thrust upon him or her.

In The Invisible Bridge, the main character, Andras, is an architecture student who is prevented from continuing his studies. But the fact that he isn’t able to finish his training during the course of the story doesn’t keep him from being an architect. It’s how he sees the world, it’s part of who he is. At various times during the story, he finds himself drawing or analyzing a building, seemingly without conscious intent. When he is in love and enjoying a seaside holiday with his beloved, he finds himself drawing the plans for a house in which the two of them could live. When he learns his first son has been born, but is ill, Andras goes to seek permission from an officer at his labor camp to return home to see his child, and though he doesn’t know where this man’s office is “… he felt his way into the heart of the building, following the architectural lines of force. There, where he would have placed the major’s office if he had designed this building, was the major’s office.” Architecture is how Andras expresses himself, and how he finds his way. It’s part of who he is, whether he’s doing it for a living or not.

It’s the same with writing.

At various times in my life I have written journals, poetry, plays, fiction, non-fiction, academic papers, legal papers, gaming walkthroughs, letters, emails, writing exercises, blog posts, tasting notes, and things I’m sure I can’t even recall writing now. But I have always written.

I was going through a box of old papers recently as part of a long overdue project to organize my home, and I found a note I’d received in law school from a (famous) poet with whom I’d done a poetry writing workshop in college. I must have written to him to ask him what to do when I felt I’d reached a plateau in writing.

Here is what he wrote: “… duh, uh, jeez. I keep writing. Always. Even if it seems repetitive or derivative. Other folks take a break: read more, translate, keep a journal, edit. I have faith in you.”

At the time I received this note, I’m sure I focused on that last little bit of encouragement. But the more important part to me now is the advice, which I find I’ve followed even without remembering this note.

When I was taking classes with this poet, and later with Julie, I wanted to be a writer. It wasn’t until very recently that I realized -- I am a writer. I’ve always been a writer. I’m a writer, because I write. Because I feel compelled to write. Because my life isn’t complete unless I write, and because it is part of who I am and how I see the world, and something that I always come back to. I keep writing. Always. Because I have to.

Now, if only I could start being a perfectionist and stop being an egomaniac. Then I might really be on to something.



Alan said...

I recently visited your blog. It is a very interesting one. Keep it up.


elektratig said...

Hi, Morgie!

" . . . in which I participated in . . ." It's the Paul McCartney "world in which we live in" double preposition construction!


**Morgana** said...

I thought you'd caught me in an editing mishap, but on rereading it's really not that construction. If it had been "in which I participated in" with nothing afterward, I'd agree with you.

Holly Jahangiri said...

Reading this, I cannot imagine you ever had doubts as to whether you were or were not a writer.

I agree with everything you've said here, although most of my best writing doesn't take nearly so long, or so much "steeping." And I grow bored and weary of my characters if they begin to plod along - I'll kick them in the derriere and tie up the ending with a nice twist, just to get out into the sunshine, if need be. I don't know whether to beam with pride or hang my head in shame to admit this: I take dictation from my characters until they refuse to move or speak, and then I coerce and threaten and cajole and if they still refuse, I shove them into a drawer and play music or write other stories to drown out their piteous cries of abandonment. I once told a 13-year-old protagonist that if he didn't stop POUTING over my POV shift, I'd dress him up in his older, Goth teen sister's clothes and ship him off to middle school that way. Oh, yes, he started performing after that... ;)

My "Muse" and I have a love/hate relationship, and I am more apt to mock it than to adore it, which is probably why it has led me to technical writing. It's a double-edged sword, isn't it?

I have very little ego about my writing; the "fragile, artistic soul" is a crock of nonsense, if you hope to be a published, working writer who EATS during her lifetime. The world can be harsh; I think a writer must grow a thick skin and an ego that will not crumble to dust at a bad review or an editor's critique.

I don't really aspire to being picked apart and psychoanalyzed after my death by graduate Lit students. It's not my idea of fun, having done it myself to poor old D.H. Lawrence. I would much rather write entertaining stories that lift the reader out of the doldrums for a moment and make him smile or laugh or cry. I am alive and I write for the living.

Being a perfectionist, Morgana, does not guarantee that one will ever attain perfection - just that she will likely die trying. I have tried to curb this tendency over the years, in favor of the old 1980s definition of "quality" - meets the readers' reasonable expectations, on time, and within budget.

Happiness, I agree, is a process - and to a large degree, a choice.

**Morgana** said...

Hey Holly! Thanks for reading. I agree that there's no such thing as perfection (though Court and Spark was pretty close to a perfect album in my view ;-)), but I also think that striving for this elusive ideal is what elevates writing to an art.

I would like to be a better self critic than I am. Although I have high standards for myself, once I get a story in my head, I often find it hard to reimagine it a different way without the input of other thoughtful readers. Often, I will reject their comments, but often they are crucial to improving a piece. My rule of thumb used to be, if at least 3 people in the workshop didn't like something it probably should be rethought. I might not solve the issue the same way the reader would suggest, but it should be rethought. Less than that it was likely more a matter of personal preference, and I would take the comment or leave it.