This week, when I was trying to write something creative, I found that, to move the narrative forward, I needed to know the space in which this movement would take place. I had to draw a blueprint of the house and the surrounding landscape, and have at least the general outlines of the landscape accurate. I had to take this foreign landscape and, to make anything happen in it, understand its contours and its obstacles. The alien world had to become real.
I actually began to feel a little like Coraline when she reached the limits of Other Mother's world. Other Mother had only created a tactile world, one with smells and tastes and colors, up to a point. Then, the details became fuzzy, and objects became more of an idea of a house or a tree rather than the thing itself. Finally, the world turned into a big haze of fog.
As you try to create another world, and you move from one part that you have imagined in great detail or that you have assembled with extensive research, you find yourself in that haze. When I write non-fiction, I find that this is a useful place to find yourself. You discover the holes in your own research, or new questions to ask that require more research, or even the lack of surviving evidence that forces you to reshape what you are trying to write or describe. Fiction, I'm finding, isn't too terribly different, except that you can make up more of the material, and you don't have to document that material. You have flexibility to some degree more or less.
Back when I was 11 or 12 and into competitive novel-writing with my friend Ann (again, not Historiann, another Ann!), she and I would spend a lot of time drawing the outfits that our characters wore, and the spaceships that they flew, and floor plans of their home, and maps of their homelands. We spent as much time on this as we did on our writing. The two of us were using this novel writing as our project in our "gifted" class. (She was genuinely brilliant, I got in because of a long story that amounts to me essentially cheating on the IQ test). This was at the beginning of the whole identification of the "gifted and talented" students, and they didn't quite know what to do with us except to give us a special "independent study" class and turn us loose in the library. Our novels were our independent study.
The teachers never quite understood what we were doing when we were not writing. "Why are you drawing all of this?" they asked. "What is all of this for?" I don't think they were criticizing us. They were pretty good teachers, actually. They weren't saying, "you should not be wasting time on this other junk! You are supposed to be writing!" I think they were genuinely curious about all of these images and visual ideas that we generated. They wanted to know more about our imaginary worlds. I think they may also have been challenging us to think more about the reasons and logic behind our creations. "Why do they dress the way they do?" one teacher asked. "Why do you have this city covering half of the state?" another wanted to know. I don't think either of us had much logic to our creations. We just sort of grabbed images and altered or adapted them to suit our own aesthetic senses.
In our writing class Saturday, our instructor told us that, as writers, we all must make a world that engages the readers' senses, to give them a seamless transition from the world where they live into the world where our characters live. We even did a "free writing" exercise from the prompt "The air smelled like..."
"Free writing" is sort of a warm up exercise in which you sit down for a set period of time -- 10 minutes, 20 minutes --and just write without your internal editor. Some people use prompts like the one above. Last week I wrote about my first kiss (and I might just share it with you all sometime soon). This week, after "the air smelled like.." exercise, we wrote on a room in our childhood homes. The prompts just help you get started, and the whole point is to warm up what ever synapses or muscles or part or your brain where your words live. You don't edit yourself. You keep your hands or fingers moving for the entire time. You don't erase or scratch out (I cheat on that one). It's great fun.
Of course, this "free writing" is also what I call "blogging." It's part of my problem. As fun as it is, I still need to focus. My blog isn't focused, unless "bitching" is counted as a focus.* My journal, sporadic as it is, is not focused. When I focus, I always feel like the product has to be perfect. The instructor said that these free writing exercises can be put to that purpose of focusing. She uses them to get into her characters by writing the exercise with a particular character or scene in mind. I decided to try her method.
I took "the air smelled like..." and instead of using it to describe a memory, I jumped into something else. Imperfection can be liberating, let me tell you! No agonizing over the right phrase. Just going forward with the knowledge that you can clean up later if you see something good, or chuck it all without the agony of a lost investment. If you go forward, you usually get somewhere. Maybe not far, but somewhere else.
I have sort of done something like this before. Not quite as productively or focused, but it did get some of the work done. So, I'm trying it again, but with more of that elusive focus. I call it the "draft before the draft," or the "pre-writing writing," in which I write about what I'm going to write about. That way, I don't have the pressure of actually writing the thing itself; and therefore I do not have the pressure of unattainable perfection. It's the shit before Anne Lamott's "shitty first draft." ("So maybe the shitty first draft won't be so shitty!" said one of my classmates.) I'm sidling up to the actual producet, seeing what I know about what I'm going to write about, and where I need to know more. Somewhere in the process, a few real lines, a few real ideas, a few bits that might just approximate perfect, make their way out. Then, when the real writing time comes, when the need for perfections becomes stronger, I'm starting with something; and the something generates more somethings.
Everyone in our class is writing fiction, including the teacher. I still don't know what I'll produce in that direction, or if I even will produce in that direction; but I already know that I've learned a few new tricks and validated or refined a few old ones. These will help with writing history if for no other reason than that I can free myself from the perfectionist rut by giving myself a defined activity in which I'm allowed to be a bad writer or to get my ideas out without having to annotate them.
One of those old tricks that I'm refining is that of creating that imaginary or alien world. The one where the action happens, but where you do not live (although it might resemble the one in which you do live). You have latitude to invent when you write fiction, although the invention must be internally consistent. When you write about history, that world not only has to be internally consistent, but also consistent with the evidence. That historical world is one that once existed, but it was a foreign world with different internal points of reference that you must excavate and interpret. As a document editor once told me, "you get inside of the person's head when you start reading what they wrote and then going to read what they read to write the annotation for what they wrote." That was actually the most satisfying part of being a document editor.
In getting into my subject's head, I also always felt a desperate need to go to the places where they lived and visited -- and not just as an excuse to travel! This, in fact, was the way I realized that I had finally found the right advisor for me. My first, evil advisor saw no reason for me to travel to archives or see the places that I wrote about.** The second advisor would only let me write about a subject for which I had a document in her hand for every year she was alive.
The third advisor brushed aside the other two. He told me, first, "if you used that [second advisor's] standard, then you couldn't write about whole groups of people." Then, he told me, "you should always walk the same ground as your subject." He didn't just mean it intellectually. He meant it literally.
He was right, too. All of these tricks of understand a character by understanding what they think, where they lived, what they liked and disliked, work for actors, novelists, and historians. Even if you don't use every single note that you take, every idea that you have, every phrase that you write, you come to a fuller understanding of your subject and you write a richer, more literary, more alive story. You make your reader move from their own world into the one on the page, the one that you have written. You make the alien understandable.
*For a good list of reasons that blogging is both good and bad, see "The Blogging Habit" at Confident Writing. Yes, yes, and yes. Thank you to Professor Zero for the link.
**Yes! No archival research! But just for me, not for his male students. You see, if I went away to archives in Virginia or Ohio or England, then I wouldn't be around for him to pursue his goal of getting into my pants. When I figured all of this all out, he became the ex-advisor. That is why he is evil.