Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Bad songs

My brother Scott Crawford is a musician, and the other day he was telling me that while he has more free time than ever, lately he can’t seem to write any good songs. Sometimes the whole process seems so overwhelming that he can't even pick up his guitar. I told Scott that I’ve come across this situation many times in my writing. His problem is he's trying to write good songs.

If there's one thing I've learned this year, it's that you should never set out to write something good. It's this line of thinking that kept me from writing fiction for most of my life. In the past, I never set out with the simple goal of finishing a story no matter how bad it was. I always tried to conjure up a great plot, or unique characters, or clever lines, and then I'd quit because it all seemed too damn hard. I used to sit around and say, I want to be a writer, but I can't think of anything interesting to write. I didn’t realize that I should've been penning short stories about a guy who couldn't write, or churning out haiku about dog poop -- whatever. If I'd done that, I'd have hundreds of stories by now. Most of them would be atrocious, sure, but there'd be a few gems in there too. And think of all the practice I would have had.

You have to be willing to write what Anne Lamott calls "really, really shitty first drafts." Write the dumbest story or song you can think of, but write it. Maybe you’ll use parts of it; maybe you’ll use none of it. Maybe you use it just to entertainment your friends at 2:00 a.m. (I'm thinking of a few of Scott's more entertaining songs). But, over time, if you keep at it, you'll come up with enough pieces to craft a decent song. You may decide you like the guitar riff on that stupid song you wrote about your roommate who never does the dishes. Or the intro to that preposterous song about manatees. Or the unusual chord that came to you serendipitously, mid-song, that you'd never have thought of had you just been sitting there cold, trying to think up an unusual chord.

I've played guitar for years, and I've never written a single complete song. I've written lyrics, choruses, hooks and chord progressions, but never a song I'd consider finished. That's because I never gave myself permission to finish a bad song. I always assumed I needed to have the whole idea of a good song in my head before writing it. But this is all wrong.

We need permissions, but we also need boundaries. This is where Scott's excess free time (and mine) can be a hindrance. We all need rules and deadlines. If someone said here's a guitar, you have two weeks to come up with a great song, most of us would be paralyzed. We'd spend two weeks fretting about coming up with a masterpiece and probably give up. But if someone said, you have 30 minutes, write a dumb song about a stapler, we'd probably surprise ourselves. In fact, I have done this exercise many times with my friend Daniel. Now, those songs were usually made up in 30 seconds after consuming large quantities of alcohol around a campfire, but I bet if we'd just written down parts of those ridiculous songs, we'd have enough for an album.

The point is, if you spent 30 minutes a day writing bad songs, you’d end up with a lot of terrible songs, but you’re likely to have several good ones in there as well, or at least parts of good ones. And the best thing is, you're getting practice, learning to improvise, and soon you will be able to sit down and write a decent song off the bat.

I can't praise this tool enough. I use it almost every day. When I have to write a scene and I don't know where to start, I just start writing -- anything. I'll say something like, "this is the scene where the character finds out X… and it makes him angry so he does something about it… what if he did this.” 

I keep my pen moving the whole time (I've been writing a lot by hand these days).

“…and the character is limping from hurting his ankle in the last chapter and when he looks at his ankle he realizes he needs new shoes... but he's poor... now he’s lamenting that he should’ve chosen a new line of work...

and Bam! I'm in the scene and my pen doesn't stop moving for ten pages. Next thing I know I’m in places I didn't know existed and my characters are doing things I didn't expect and certainly couldn't have imagined before I started writing. The scene unfolds, simply because my hand is moving, because my creative self is warmed up, because I’m open to it.

So, if you want to write, whether it's fiction or music, just start writing. Write something ludicrous. Write a song about how much you suck and how you're a loser because you can't write anything good. Beck did just that, and it launched his entire career:

Soy un perdedor
I’m a loser baby, so why don’t you kill me?

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Late Bloomers

62,000 words. Over 210 pages. It's the longest thing I've ever written by a factor of ten. The Word document takes a while to load it's so big. I feel like I'm in the home stretch of my draft, so I don't want to take too much time to write here. But I wanted to share an inspiring article from The New Yorker (no, I don't usually read that magazine but I'm thinking about getting a subscription to make me look smarter). It was written by Malcolm Gladwell and it's perfect for my present situation:

Ben Fountain was an associate in the real-estate practice at the Dallas offices of Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer & Feld, just a few years out of law school, when he decided he wanted to write fiction. The only thing Fountain had ever published was a law-review article. His literary training consisted of a handful of creative-writing classes in college. He had tried to write when he came home at night from work, but usually he was too tired to do much. He decided to quit his job.

“I was tremendously apprehensive,” Fountain recalls. “I felt like I’d stepped off a cliff and I didn’t know if the parachute was going to open. Nobody wants to waste their life, and I was doing well at the practice of law. I could have had a good career. And my parents were very proud of me—my dad was so proud of me. . . . It was crazy.”

He began his new life on a February morning—a Monday. He sat down at his kitchen table at 7:30A.M. He made a plan. Every day, he would write until lunchtime. Then he would lie down on the floor for twenty minutes to rest his mind. Then he would return to work for a few more hours. He was a lawyer. He had discipline. “I figured out very early on that if I didn’t get my writing done I felt terrible. So I always got my writing done. I treated it like a job. I did not procrastinate.” His first story was about a stockbroker who uses inside information and crosses a moral line. It was sixty pages long and took him three months to write. When he finished that story, he went back to work and wrote another—and then another.

In his first year, Fountain sold two stories. He gained confidence. He wrote a novel. He decided it wasn’t very good, and he ended up putting it in a drawer. Then came what he describes as his dark period, when he adjusted his expectations and started again. He got a short story published in Harper’s. A New York literary agent saw it and signed him up. He put together a collection of short stories titled “Brief Encounters with Che Guevara,” and Ecco, a HarperCollins imprint, published it. The reviews were sensational. The Times Book Review called it “heartbreaking.” It won the Hemingway Foundation/PEN award. It was named a No. 1 Book Sense Pick. It made major regional best-seller lists, was named one of the best books of the year by the San Francisco Chronicle, the Chicago Tribune, and Kirkus Reviews, and drew comparisons to Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh, Robert Stone, and John le CarrĂ©.

Ben Fountain’s rise sounds like a familiar story: the young man from the provinces suddenly takes the literary world by storm. But Ben Fountain’s success was far from sudden. He quit his job at Akin, Gump in 1988. For every story he published in those early years, he had at least thirty rejections. The novel that he put away in a drawer took him four years. The dark period lasted for the entire second half of the nineteen-nineties. His breakthrough with “Brief Encounters” came in 2006, eighteen years after he first sat down to write at his kitchen table. The “young” writer from the provinces took the literary world by storm at the age of forty-eight.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Progress, paralysis

Progress update: I'm at about 55,000 words, or 180 pages of a double-spaced Word document. Now, astute readers may remember that I was hovering around 50K words three months ago. I've cut a lot of words since then. I've killed characters, given up on subplots, and deleted scenes I knew I wouldn't use.

For the past few months, I've been been writing nonstop, but I'm often taking one step forward and two steps back. Overall, since I started this project, I've probably written about 80,000 words and cut 25,000 of them. I didn't delete them permanently; I keep the extra text in a giant scary document called "Things I Might Need Later." But now I have a real 50K words, full of scenes and characters I actually plan to use. And it feels good. 50K words is significant because it's on the threshold between a novella (like Old Man and the Sea) and a bona fide novel. For example, The Catcher and the Rye and The Great Gatsby are each round 50K. And National Novel Writing Month (which starts in November, if you're interested) uses 50K words as its milestone.

Nowadays, the average mainstream paperback is around 100K words. So I want to have a first draft of around 80K, and then expand to around 100K with rewrites. I've finally learned enough to be able to give a realistic projection, so my new goal is to have an official First Draft completed by.... drum roll... Thanksgiving. Then I plan to set the draft aside for a few weeks and work on other stuff -- short stories, research, etc. After the hiatus, I'll come back to the draft with a fresh eye, roll up my sleeves, and start in on the hardest, most important part: rewriting and editing.

My Intro to Fiction class at The Writing Salon has been eye-opening, but I fear it might slow my progress on my draft. Maybe I should've waited until I was on the second draft. By showing me how much I don't know, the class could cause me to think too much -- instead of just writing and writing and writing. The Writing Salon instructor likens a beginning writer to a beginning musician. He says you can't expect, just because you appreciate music, to be able to just pick up an instrument and play. It takes years of learning basic chords, doing drills, and playing other people's songs before you get to the point where it becomes second nature. Only then can you expect to be able to improvise and create your own sound.

All this makes me worry about how much I'm trying to accomplish this year. There's so much to learn. At least being in a class with other beginning students gives me perspective on how hard writing is -- and a cadre of people to share the pain. My first night of class I met a guy named Rob, who has been writing poetry and prose for years. He told me a story that summed it up for me. Recently he had a physician friend, who had never written fiction before, tell him he was going to take two months off and write a novel. Rob told his friend, "that's funny, I was thinking of taking two months off to become a doctor."

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Show Don't Tell

Last night I started a new fiction class at the Writing Salon. We discussed the writer's mantra of show-don't-tell, particularly with respect to setting and emotion. Our homework for this week is to go somewhere and just observe for 15 minutes, and then describe the setting and our accompanying emotion -- without actually telling the reader what the setting is or how we are feeling. For example, if you're angry, you'd write about the physical symptoms of anger -- flushed face, clenched jaw -- instead of saying, I was angry. And we were supposed to keep in mind all five senses. I did the exercise today, and I thought I'd share:

The glass security booth is unmanned, so I glide past the booth and into the room, like I belong there. There is no one inside. There are 50 wood-and-steel chairs lined up along the walls, and not one person is sitting in them. There are pizza-sized tables sandwiched between some of the chairs, and on them are magazines – People, Newsweek, Time. The magazines are stacked neatly, and many of them are bright and unwrinkled. Some of the magazines are even fanned evenly across the table, like you’d see in a staged house. A flat-panel TV hangs above the chairs, and Wolf Blitzer is on the screen in HD. The volume is turned up and Wolf’s voice echoes through the vacuous room. Squares of bright colors hang in measured spots along the white walls. Upon closer inspection I see they are magnified pictures of microscopic life: DNA, cells and viruses. The prints are mounted behind heavy pieces of protruding glass, giving the images a 3-D quality.

I sit in one of the chairs against the wall and cross a leg over a knee. It was hot outside but in here it is cool. The air has a filtered quality to it, but not in an artificial way; it’s like being under a grove of trees in Muir Woods. I can hear humming from an air-conditioning system, but I cannot feel any breeze, which is perfect because I’m wearing shorts and a T-shirt.

Above me there are dozens of lights hanging on parallel steel cables, spanning the ceiling in deliberate haphazardness, like you’d see in an architect’s office. A skylight brings in abundant natural light, and I close my eyes and turn my face up to it. There is a warm sensation spreading in my stomach, the kind you get when you slip into a Jacuzzi. When I open my eyes again I lean over and look at the floor. I can see my reflection in the panels of shiny, checkered tile. The floor looks like it should smell of antiseptic or bleach, but there is no smell to the room at all, except for my own sweat, which has now dried on my forehead.

A formidable steel door with a person-length glass window marks the entrance to the rest of the facility. Beside the door, on the wall, is an electronic card reader; and next to that, a hand sanitizer dispenser. Hanging below the sanitizer is a sleek curve of plastic -- to capture any gel that misses the hands. The whole apparatus looks like it was designed by Apple Computer.

Through the glass of the door, I can see multicolored equipment – tubes and gages and tanks -- resting on a gurney. Everything laid out in neat rows. Two women in blue scrubs saunter past the door and out of site. The images beyond the door seem exceptionally sharp, and it occurs to me that my contact lens prescription must be right on.

A voice calls over an intercom, paging a doctor whose name I can’t quite catch.

I pick up a People magazine and flip idly through the pictures of celebrities. My breathing is measured and calm. My heart rate has slowed since I sat down; it seems to have recovered from my walk. The leg I have over my knee is beginning to feel tingly and numb, so I switch legs. My eyelids feel heavy as I sink lower in the chair.

I am jolted by the sound of ragged coughing. Is it a patient, an emergency? No, it’s just the security guard, returning to his post.

I wrote this in the emergency room at UCSF Med Center (No, I'm okay -- I just went there to write). It was not the setting I expected to find nor the emotion I expected to feel.