Saturday, January 07, 2006

Muddy Water

Let's start the new year without fooling ourselves.

There are days when the water is going to look like mud--a dark, opaque, impenetrable, ugly liquid without light--and swimming will seem impossible.

Even when you step further and further into the water.... all you'll find will be mud.

But here's the thing: mud may be a necessary forerunner to clarity, and you may need to struggle through it before you reach clear water.

Who ever said writing was straight-forward or linear?

It's a process that involves getting your story down on paper--using any method that works--which means following any thread you're given and pulling to see where it leads.

Sometimes you'll come up empty-handed.

Or find yourself at a dead end.

Or with nothing more than a handful of sludge--or sand--that slips through your fingers after hours of work.

Try not to let yourself get discouraged.

Put the words down in whatever order they come.

Let them simmer and stew.

Cut and paste.

Cross-out, add new words.

Feel the mud squish between your toes! (Take a look at Phyllis Root's marvelous, mud-splattered picture book, Mrs. Potter's Pig, for a refreshing look at the creative process.)

Instead of trying to keep everything neat and orderly, let things sprawl, go in different directions.

Play, lose yourself in mud--the way you used to play when you were a child. (Remember those days when you weren't self-conscious about getting covered with mud?)

Then, all that mattered was the exhilaration and joy of playing, and the freedom to explore the world in your own way.

Letting things come in this way--rather than trying to take control over or force the sequence-- is one of the hardest parts of the writing process for many writers.

When I taught a writing class in Rosemont College's Graduate Program for Writing, Literature and Publishing, some of my students found it hard to believe a story might have emerged from a writer's pen differently than it appeared on the printed page.

We were reading Jack Gantos' Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key, and I wrote to Gantos to ask if he had written the story as it appears in print or in a different sequence.

Here's his response, which he was kind enough to let me share here:
The first chapter was pieced together after I wrote the first draft. I went back and took the original first chapter--and separated out the "wired" riff and added some new material to it so that it is set in school. That short first chapter reads as the opening notes of a symphony and thematically winds itself through the book. Plus, it is a hook for the readers. If I get them in the first 3/4 pages, then I feel I've got them for good.
As for how I write books, I always start with the juicy parts first: the action and the character voice. Then I work out the transitions and theme and all that jazz. But I go for the best writing first and I don't care if it ends up being the beginning, middle or end of the book. I just want to write something that gets me excited and keeps me going. Writing a book is hard work, so it is important to nail down some scenes which are perpetually whipping me with both enthusiasm and determination.
Try Jack Gantos' method of swimming through muddy water.

Write to your passion, to what excites you and causes the hairs on the back of your neck to stand up. Try not to worry about the sequence. You can put the pieces in order later.

To get through the muddy water in the year ahead, keep swimming however you can--back stroke, side stroke, dog paddle, crawl--and trust that you'll reach clear water before too long.

The amazing thing about muddy water is that you can't know in advance what you'll find. You need to be willing to swim into the unknown and explore.

1 comment:

Jack said...

Here’s another example of a 1997 Jack Gantos lecture on organizing material for writing autobiographical novels, which in one way or another includes his middle grade books, like Heads or Tails, Jack’s Black Book, or the Joey Pigza books. The main points:

1. You must believe your life is interesting.
2. No inhibiting Protestant ethics here, get to the good things first.
3. Make a list of these things you recall, parents, teachers, disasters.
4. Draw map of your neighborhood.
5. Pick interesting events and put icons on your map to represent these.

Now you’re off and running with a complete road map to guide movements and events. Remember though, just ‘cause it happened, don’t make it interestin’. Lie a little, dress up characters bizarrely, what can I get away with? It’s all fun.

So much for the light-hearted storytelling by Jack. One of his books that gripped and shook me was his more serious coming-of-age autobiography, “Hole in My Life.” It involves growing up on a Caribbean Island, and getting involved with working for a man who tried to smuggle dope into the U.S. on a sailboat. Jack was arrested and sent to prison, and the life he described inside was truly chilling. How such a personable, wonderful writer like Jack survived that ordeal intact is a marvel.