Sunday, February 05, 2006

One Writer's Process: Steven Schnur

Few writers are as versatile, or as willing to take risks in so many different genres, as Steven Schnur.

He brings a unique understanding to the writing process, having explored picture books (Henry David's House, Nightlights, Spring Thaw, and An Alphabet Acrostic: Spring, Summer, Autumn, and Winter), as well as essays (This Thing Called Love, Daddy's Home! and Days of Awe), middle grade readers (The Shadow Children), and a young adult novel (Beyond Providence).

Each of his books is a deeply-felt exploration of the world, and his work has brought him numerous honors. We're grateful to him for sharing some of his thoughts on writing:

Swimming is not a team sport. When you hit the water, even in relay racing, you’re on your own, and it is this total self-reliance that many aquatic athletes find so attractive.

Writers, too. Solitary by nature, blessed with a greater than normal capacity for solitude and individual endeavor, we dive into uncharted waters day after day, hoping to remain afloat long enough to experience the feeling of accomplishment that comes from successfully conveying complex thought and feeling, of mirroring human activity through nothing more than words.

But like human nature, the writing impulse is fickle and inspiration unpredictable. We can’t impel insight, but we can labor at artistry, and the more present we are, the more actively engaged in the craft, the more likely we are to capture those moments of illumination that visit us unbidden.

Some mornings a long, slow swim seems most desirable, other mornings just a quick, vigorous dip.

So, too, for the writer.

There are days when the mind resists the prospect of taking up a huge, ongoing task, but eagerly embraces a brief essay, a letter, a reflection, or perhaps revision.

And there are days when the thought of beginning something new, without benefit of a thread, a pre-existing story line, an already defined character, is inhibiting, and the longstanding, unfinished work proves exactly what the psyche needs.

We must simply engage on whatever level we can; the avenues of entry are as infinite as the imagination.

If the goal is to write every day in the hopes of achieving some new insight or understanding, then the writer, like the athlete, needs an arsenal of cross-training techniques to maintain conditioning and readiness for inspiration.

Some days are meant for new thought, some for continued and expanding thought, and some for revision. Those thoughts are like seeds. They can take months, even years, to germinate, lying dormant on a sheet of paper, in a computer, or simply in memory. And they can sprout at any time.

I have often come upon fragments left all but forgotten among my papers and been struck by their potential. Suddenly I’m pursuing an idea that first came to me months or years earlier, only now able to take it further, perhaps even to completion.

With hundreds of such fragments available to me, I rarely experience what some refer to as writer’s block. There is always something worth exploring; the trick is to be open to variety, to allow oneself the freedom to stray from the task at hand in the service of a fresh idea.

As in the laboratory, where the most valuable discoveries are often accidental, so too on the page. The chance thought or insight that blossoms in the midst of another pursuit may lead exactly where the writer intends to go or to some place never before imagined. Either prospect is welcome.

What constitutes a successful day’s work?

Some days I feel satisfied only after penning several thousand words. I know those words will eventually be winnowed to a few hundred when my editorial eye revisits them, but for the moment I am satisfied with fresh and unrefined ideas, the raw material of future effort.

The next day I might not have the stamina for so much original production and may, perhaps, turn to something less ambitious, or return to what I have already penned with a different eye, thinking of it as a sculptor does the mass of clay heaped upon an armature before beginning the process of teasing a shape from the formless mass.

Utilizing the refining tools of the editor, I begin to carve away the excess clay, the redundancies and inaccuracies of expression that found their way onto the page in my haste to capture a great mass of thought, feeling and action, gradually defining an eye, an ear, a nose, growing more detailed in my attentions, more precise in my descriptions.

I may hurry through with a great scythe, lopping off whole pages in the sudden recognition of my direction and goal. Or I may spend hours polishing a single paragraph, trying to arrive at the proper balance, the sense of sound (to use Frost’s famous phrase) that satisfies both ear and mind.

For good writing must serve many mistresses. It must sound as well as mean, and it must sound as well as it means.

Poets are expected to show a sensitivity to the music of language, the internal rhymes, rhythms, and alliterations that bring language to life. But good prose does so as well. Finding that sound can take hours, days, weeks, requiring a certain playfulness, a willingness to toy with language, substituting sounds, adjusting tempo, and breath, striving for richness of expression.

The pleasures of writing come in so many forms all along the path to completion, if one is open to them, focused on process rather than completion.

In the end, what I love most about that process is the ability it provides reader and writer to seize and define experience.

Writing enables us to capture, preserve, re-experience, and perhaps better understand our lives. No other art form is as flexible, as versatile, as immediate as the written word. It embodies both what we learn and how we learn and it is bounded only by the limits of the imagination. Even the tool itself, language, is endlessly flexible, adjusting and changing with every age.

I can imagine no more worthwhile or absorbing occupation than that of writing. It contains all and is the key to all.

A frequent contributor to The Christian Science Monitor and The New York Times, Steven Schnur currently teaches writing at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, NY.

1 comment:

jo'r said...

I like Schnur’s thoughts on having an arsenal of cross training techniques ready to suit the energies that a writer has at hand. Some days really do seem better suited to working with older material, especially when you’ve spent a couple of hours to advance only a paragraph on your new piece. Not having the track record that Steven has, I’d first suspect that I was trying to wheedle my way out of facing tough inner issues related to the fiction at hand. However, I can see his logic in proposing that some seeds may need more time to germinate.

I like your idea of having guest writers featured on your site, Bruce. The past visits by Dessen and Kuns were informative and enjoyable, as was Schnur this week.