Why I am loath to give writing advice

Sometimes I feel like I ought to dispense more writing advice on this blog. There is a pretty big audience for writing advice. And back when I first starting reading author blogs, the main thing I was looking for was writing advice. But I am not sure how much advice I have to give.

One of the most perplexing lessons of the last year was about how much of the work of writing is totally unconscious.

It does not feel like it ought to be that way. It feels like I should be able to think about what I want to write about, then think about all the ways to write that thing, and then evaluate each of those ways, and then begin writing the one that seems the most promising. Or that I should be able to start with a character, and then that character’s circumstances will generate a setting, and then the combination of character and setting generate a point of maximum drama, and that’s what the story is about.

In practice what I mostly do is sit down and start typing. Two thirds of the time, what I write is total nonsense that I exile to a file called “fragments”. Of the remaining one third, about half the time the fragment will turn into some kind of story-situation, a character, a voice, or a setting will appear, I’ll start to toodle around, and quickly recognize that this story, if completed, will be totally trite. I exile those to “fragments”. Of the one-sixth that are left, about half will grow to five hundred or so words, at which point I recognize that I either: i) have no idea where this going; ii) am totally bored with it; or iii) like some aspect of it, but not the way I’ve currently executed it. I give those their own named files and a line in my spreadsheet. I have hundreds of these story beginnings. Of the one-twelfth that are left, about one third will permanently stall out anywhere from 500-7000 words. These are ones I intend to come back to someday, maybe.

So when I start writing something, I will end up with a story about one in every eighteen times.  There’s very little premeditation to the process. Of course, I do take notes on potential stories and plots and characters. Sometimes I am walking around and I come up with a story and then I sit down and write it. More often, I am walking around, come up with a story, sit down to write it, have it stall out, and then two years later one of my unpremeditated stories will turn into the story I abandoned ages ago. So the thinking about potential stories is not a total waste, of course.

But still, I consider myself a fairly thoughtful and intelligent person, and it frustrating that the primary activity in my life is not a particularly intellectual one. I spend more time thinking about what to eat for dinner than I do about what to write, or how to write it.

If I try to think about what to write, then I immediately run up against a lot of unanswerable questions. Why one character instead of another? What is the purpose of this story? Why this scene and not another?

The part of the mind that produces characters and situations and phrases doesn’t produce reasons to go along with them. The conscious mind deduces (or perhaps just rationalizes) the reasons. It’s like when you really like a work of art, and then have to think about why you like it. The liking comes first.

So when I think about writing, I often fall into the trap of trying to get the unconscious mind to do the conscious mind’s work.

What’s funny about this is that the unconscious mind can clearly be trained. The stories I produce now are much better than the ones I used to produce? Why is that? It is not very clear to me. But practice helped, and so did increased reading. And I’d like to think that writings like these helped, that this meta-narrative about my writing life and what I want to accomplish in it (which does take up a lot of my thinking), might have given the unconscious mind a little bit of guidance.

Nor is revision without merit. Revision is kind of a dialectical process for me. I read through something and highlight all the words and phrases and paragraphs that seem “bad” to me. I don’t even bother to justify why they’re bad, in words. I write down all the story elements that seem bad to me.

Then I fall into despair, because I have no ability to fix all the bad parts. If I command my mind to replace this part with something else, it will often not comply. Or it will do so sluggishly. This blog entry was prompted by a story that I revised and submitted a few days ago.

The story was of the right length and had the right number of characters. Its plot proceeded in the right sort of way. It was told in the right tense and in the right voice. Even its novelties were of the right number and magnitude. It was just new enough and just interesting enough. Nothing immediately sprang out of it and screamed, “This is bad!”.

And when I finished reading it, I said to myself, “This is utterly forgettable. This is not at all what I want to be writing. This the worst possible result for a story. It is worse than if the story was bad.” I made some desultory attempts to revise it and then sent it out.

For the past few days I’ve been revising a story whose ending was not right. This revision process basically consisted of me writing ending after ending until I (just now) found one that kind of stuck. But it was not something that was penetrable to thought. It was not a puzzle that could be solved.

The conscious mind is good at figuring out solutions to problems, because all the normative complexities are already given as assumptions within the problem-solving framework. What do I want? Well, I want this obstacle to go away. My mind can generate a thousand endings that will make the problem go away, i.e. they will end the story (usually these endings involve a death)

But the conscious mind is not good at operating in the absence of guidelines or principles. It tries to interrogate the unconscious about what it wants:

What do I want when I write a story? Well…I don’t know really. What do I want this ending to do? I don’t know. Do I want it to make people cry? Well…maybe, if possible…but it would not be terrible if they laughed either.

The dialectic can’t work in that way. I don’t know how, precisely, it can work. Mostly I find that the conscious mind works best when it does not ask for guidelines, but instead provides them.

For instance, I’ve been dissatisfied with my visual descriptions for many years. All the time, whenever I thought of my writing, I was like, “Shit, I cannot describe anything. I want to describe things good. Whenever I meet someone, I immediately forget what they look like. Whenever I walk out of a room, it walks out of my memory.”

And then, one day, I was standing outside the World Bank, smoking a cigarette as the rain drizzled down, and I began to see things. I saw the little shake that an Asian woman gave to her umbrella in order to get it to unfurl. I saw an elderly man in a purple rainslicker holding the hand of an elderly woman in a camo-green rainslicker; they were both wearing baseball caps. I saw a man walking under his umbrella with a manila folder in his left hand, splayed out and catching the wind as he walked. I saw another woman darting by with something clasped very close to his chest. I saw that everyone carried bags, but that they carried them in different ways. I saw how one woman swayed slightly to the left in an action pose and let her bag hang loose, and how other people carried it under one elbow and cradled it like a baby. I saw how many different kinds of umbrellas there are: how there are single-color ones, black and blue and green; striped ones, and colorful ones, and even a plaid one.

And since around that time, I’ve noticed that the descriptions (at least the visual descriptions) in my writing (and in my mind) have gotten much more concrete.

So yes, the main contribution of the conscious mind is to worry about things until the unconscious mind solves them. That is still  not very satisfying, but at least it is something.

3 thoughts on “Why I am loath to give writing advice

  1. Ben Godby

    Very interesting meditation. I have the same kind of “breakthroughs” that occur without warning or premeditation; and I do premeditate, just that premeditation no longer bears fruit. I can still actually divide my “writing life” into phases, and although the early phases were characterized by distinct progressions that were inspired or guided by the writing advice of various writers, that kind of advancement no longer occurs. Instead, sometimes, when I’m not expecting anything, something will click. That clicking is unconscious; I can’t usually put it fully into words. But its cause is usually rooted in the guidelines I put in place for myself, whether it is reading more, reading more widely, or doing exercises like backwards-outlining and character sketches that help me think more deeply about the elements of story. I actually had two clicks recently: one after I read “Deliverance,” which significantly improved my ability to invest emotion into landscapes; and another one just the other day after I read a Bernard Cornwell book that appeared at first to be a series of utterly random events but ended up demonstrating an incredibly sophisticated three act structure with all sorts of foreshadowing and very, very clever twists and turns. I didn’t expect to learn these lessons, but I did proceed with the assumption that reading would give me insights into writing and story.

    Your writing process really intrigues me. I have to say that I really hate abandoning stories – not that it doesn’t happen. I usually semi-meticulously plan my work. However, most of my best stories are the ones that were not meticulously planned; they were the unconscious, metastasized products of all the practice I had done with those conscious, meticulous plans.

    Cool post, Rahul.

  2. Alex J. Kane

    This was interesting and enjoyable.

    I’ve also wrestled a lot with the various degrees of conscious/unconscious control. It’s probably even my greatest pitfall. I either tend to plan too little, or plan too much. In light of this, my next project is going to employ a “rough outline,” which will hopefully afford me some room to evolve as I draft, but also give me a framework for the story.

  3. Pingback: The gift that I recently received from my horrible writerly anxiety « Blotter Paper

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