PAM'S PROSE PRACTICUM
Presented at the It's About Time Writers Reading Series,
Seattle, WA., Thursday March 10, 2005
Writing is an odd and solitary practice, at least when a writer is actually at the keyboard blackening a page with what she believes is the story or poem that will take her somewhere worthwhile. If you're interested in writing you should plan to spend huge amounts of time sitting on your butt hunched over a keyboard with your shoulders rolled forward into what will SOMEDAY be a permanent posture. Another little bonus you can expect to accompany the craft of writing (and which is directly related to all that time spent in front of a keyboard) is that the aforementioned butt It's going to spread until ultimately it mimics the size and shape of the chair cushion on which the writer sits while punching out her opus.
Believe it or not, this is a pretty standard way to hone craft. It's the necessary daily grind. You put in your chair jockey time to practice your instrument. This is what teaches you how to problem solve with your characters when you've written them into a corner, which you WILL do on a pretty regular basis. This is where and how you'll learn to trust your characters to tell their story so that all you have to do is get out of the way and take dictation.
I write poetry and fiction, as well as a little nonfiction when pressed. In each of these disciplines, my focus is almost always character. I believe that once you develop a fully realized character, your story OR your poem takes on its own life and you're set free to write what you witness unfolding in that world, taking on flesh, bone, shoe leather and concrete inside in your imagination.
You can read all the how-to books on writing that you want and they'll give you some pretty good advice. They'll also give you completely useless information that works great for the writer who authored a particular tome on writing but won't do a thing for you as a writer trying to learn your craft or, for that matter, as a writer trying to improve your craft. So, before I begin to lay this one out for you, I guess I feel compelled to give you a caveat, a cautionary notice that goes something like "reader/listener BEWARE."
I'm about to give you writing advice that may or may not be helpful, that may or may not make any sense at all given your personality, gender, age, political bent, philosophical leanings, work ethic, current health status, sexual preference, etc." Basically any variable you want to insert will make an apt disclaimer. It's my belief that ALL advice should come with such a disclaimer.
And so let's begin with Pam's Prose Practicum:
Here's a plot for you: Pearl Boggs is a white woman in her 80's who leaves her husband of 71 years and takes up with a black man she meets during her travels. Not very interesting yet you say.
Okay, let's try this: Pearl Boggs is 87 years old, married 71 of those years to a man who, decades earlier, drank himself blind with his own corn liquor mash. What Pearl and Old Bob don't know is that Pearl is about to leave her home in Ash Flat, Arkansas. Not only that, she's about to leave Old Bob and strike out on her own hitchhiking across America where she will meet Maitland Pruitt an 85 year old retired Baptist minister and widower.
Maitland is a black man who dislikes most whites on principle but especially dislikes uneducated rednecks, which is how he sums up Pearl on their first meeting. Maitland becomes entangled with Pearl when he mistakenly believes he has compromised her, sexually, and can't think of a reasonable way to extricate himself. This misunderstanding keeps the two travelers together long enough, initially, to give them time to discover what each inherently has to offer the other.
These are both renderings of the same story plot. It is in fact the plot of a story I wrote which was published some time ago. The difference between these two versions is fairly simple to explain. The first version has no life, no breath, and no reality. In the second version, characters begin to develop as personalities who come from real places where they live with real family members. One version gives very little detail, the other gives more.
The point is details are what make characters come to life. To develop these three characters into a full blown story, I can give one of them a distinctive walk; another may have a mannerism that could be easily and frequently inserted into the text of a story without becoming irritating and repetitive. Each of them might have unique ways of phrasing things that would make dialogue easier to identify and follow. They all have different levels of education, different levels of practical wisdom, different ways of seeing the world and their place in that world. In other words, these characters have histories because they have lived lives. And it's the small details of these histories that I, as an author, will sift through and use within the context of the story I'm telling.
How do I find these historical details for fictional characters, you ask.
I do my homework. Once I've become enamored with a set of characters, because for me it's always character that drives any story, I set the story in a real time period. Knowing when and where my characters live gives me the opportunity to find the headlines that would have mattered to them and would have figured into the personal history of the character.
I give my characters actual birthdates and read their horoscopes for clues to personality. I know where each character was born, where and how each was raised, what they were educated to be and where they were educated, what traumas they suffered, what joys. Basically I interview them to find out every little detail that might be usable.
Then, when I feel I'm acquainted with each character, I let them walk through my imagination with the story they want to tell me. I no longer attempt to have a story plotted out in advance, because my characters ALWAYS ignore that script and write their own. And I find it's more interesting for me to write this way than to follow some formula from beginning to end. I think I'd actually be incapable of sticking around to write the end of something if I knew EXACTLY what that end was going to be. This might be VERY different for genre writers, but since I don't write genre knowing my precise plot in advance is not a requirement.
MY approach to the craft of writing allows me to be surprised by my characters. It keeps me open to plot twists that might not otherwise occur if I were more controlling about the process. It keeps my writing fresh and varied. But most importantly, it forces me to be more attentive to character. If a character has not been fully realized, it won't be capable of leading a writer anywhere. That means the story will cease to progress. It'll die on the page. Or, and this is perhaps the worst scenario, it will continue in a formulaic pattern to a predictable end. THIS IS THE ANTITHESIS OF GOOD WRITING DON'T GO THERE!
What you as a writer may want to take away from this presentation is that there are many ways to approach craft. None is an absolute. The craft of writing is as individual as each of us who writes. One writer will tell you that you must write every day. Perhaps she will even recommend that you write every day at the same time for the same length of time. This would be too confining for me.
A good writer needs to live life in a world where she encounters other human beings. These are the characters that will ultimately people your plots. Without experience, life is dull. This same thing can and should be said for writing. Experience will feed your imagination. It will give you an ear for the voices that begin to emerge in your writing as a natural process of having become aware of the inflections in the world around you.
Part of writing is living your life and paying attention while you're doing that living. Eavesdrop in cafes, on the street, in elevators. Listen for the way speakers string words together. Listen to regional accents. Become a mimic.
Don't stop there. Go sky diving or terrify yourself in some other way and live through it. I guarantee that whatever exhilaration you wrench from this life will worm its way into your writing some day when you least expect it and enrich a scene that might otherwise have fallen flat.
A writer is a story teller. Good story tellers spend time in the world where stories occur. Later they go home and embellish what they've seen, heard, felt, or experienced. Hemmingway and Anaïs Nin come to mind as good examples for this writing-what-you-live kind of approach.
So my advice on craft pretty much boils down to "Go out into the world, pay attention to the people you meet, take notes; it can't hurt. Ask people questions and listen to the answers. This will serve you well when you begin interviewing your characters. Be prepared to borrow from the real people you meet in order to create your fictional characters. Pay attention to the news of the day so that you can use it as anchoring for your fictional plot.
Once you've got your characters and a timeframe, research the history for your characters' personal passage through time. Use some of those headlines you found in order to mesh fiction with fact. Create character studies that function like a memory of someone you actually know in reality. This is what will make your characters real.
Now, let your characters tell their story. Don't get in the way. Be attentive, follow along typing as they dictate. Call them on it when something rings false but keep writing. It may be that another character is meant to expose this untruth within the unfolding story and what you have to do is trust in the process. Keep writing till you come to the end of the tale.
Keep writing even if all of your poems or stories end up in a dresser drawer never to be published in your lifetime.
HEY! It worked for Emily Dickenson. That's all I've got to give you on the craft of writing. If it helps, great.
Thanks for listening.
Pamela Moore Dionne is the founder and managing editor of Literary Salt at www.literarysalt.com. Her poetry and fiction can be found in print and online journals. Dionne has been a Jack Straw Writer and a poet in residence at Centrum. She received both a Jack Straw AAP Grant and an Artist Trust GAP Grant.