Friday, April 4, 2008

Why Fiction Is My Bliss

This question came in to me from a writer named Sharon on one of the listservs I belong to:
Here's a question from one word nerd to another, Tiffany: when writing fiction, are you as convinced as often and as intensely as I now am that what I'm producing is utter crap?

And here is my answer:

interesting question, since I have a slightly different problem. When I am writing and everything is on and the neurons are really firing, I feel convinced that what I am writing is brilliant and lyrical and sure to bring me fame and fortune. The moment I am finished with a draft is the moment I lose all those good feelings and feel that I have just produced, as you put it, utter crap.

Chris Offutt, who is a great writer and who I saw lecture at a writers' workshop, reassured me in this sequence of feeling, since he said it was essential to be in love with something as you're writing it--or else how would you ever finish it?--and that it was similarly essential to fall out of love with it the moment you've stopped--because how else would you ever be able to cut and slash and revise to make it not suck so much?

It's kind of the same thing Anne Lamott says about letting the little kid write and dig for gold and making sure the thin-lipped editor lady is far, far away while that's happening. When I teach, I talk about this as the separation of the creator and the editor, which I think is essential. You can't write great fiction if you're critiquing yourself as you go along, and you can't create great fiction if you allow that dreamy, inspired poetic part of yourself handle the surgery that's required afterward to repair a good, but defective, heart.

The trouble is that I think anyone who tries to write fiction has the poet, but it requires education and patience and fearlessness to cultivate the surgeon. I actually think science writers and journalists have the opposite problem, and I see this in my classes: too much surgeon, not enough poet. (Not to say that it isn't there! Just that you can't have that nagging surgeon in the room saying, "Well, I wouldn't do it that way, not if you want the patient to live.")

So yes, I'm basically advocating schizophrenia as a means to writing fiction. Hey, schizophrenia worked for me! :-)

So, Sharon, to answer your question, what you're writing is wonderful, and what you're writing is crap. It's just a matter of getting the right person to work on it at the right time, so that when they're finished, what you're left with is just the right amount of both wonderful and crap: in other words, art.

Now, if only writing fiction was as easy for me as talking about it. Still, I love it, and I believe in it. What do you feel this way about?

1 comment:

erzsebet said...

At the risk of sounding like little miss copy cat, fiction is my bliss. Reading it, writing it, revising it, discussing it, dreaming it, being awestruck by it: bliss, bliss, bliss! I jealously guard my writing time, and hold my reading time sacrosanct, all in the name of unadulterated bliss.

- erzsebet