When I was a junior in high school, I wrote a totally horrible shitty first novel. It was called Affinity for Darkness, and you can read it here because when I was in my early thirties, I posted this totally horrible shitty first novel in public.
It was supposed to have something to do with humility and something to do with toughening up, posting this hot mess of a novel. It was supposed to be an exercise in posting something that I knew was really bad so that I’d feel less self-conscious about posting the work that I hope is passably good. I don’t know how well that worked, especially because I hemmed and hawed and cringed and winced every time I was going to hit “publish” on another post of another chapter of this shitty first novel.
Since memoir and personal essay are some of my favorite genres to write and read and contemplate reading and writing, I thought I’d start putting up some reviews of different memoirs, and use that as a way to dig into discussing different aspects of writing. I can almost guarantee there’ll also be some fiction reviews at some point. As I said from my very first post, whether a post on here is about blindness or Breaking Bad or organic chemistry or a book review, I always want the underlying focus to be on storytelling.
Before reading Autobiography of a Face, I’d only read one thing by Lucy Grealy. It was “The Country of Childhood” from her As Seen on TV essay collection, and it was about her experience becoming an American citizen (she was originally from Ireland). I was hungry for more of her work, and then once I found out a little bit about her story, I picked up her memoir. I was definitely looking for a personal connection because though my story is different from Lucy’s, I knew that getting inside the skin of someone else who’d grown up being very physically different was going to make me feel less alone. But I didn’t actually read the book until it was assigned for a class this past April.
Autobiography of a Face tells the story of Lucy’s struggles with her face. She got Ewing’s sarcoma in her jaw as a child and spent lots and lots of time in the hospital. It’s a window into another world, the friendships and hierarchies of hospital patients. There is even a chapter where she and a hospital friend sort of con a hospital volunteer into taking them to see the animal lab and get somewhat traumatized by seeing the vivisected and caged animals.
Lucy details the excruciating pain of chemotherapy while also conveying her childhood ignorance about the seriousness of what was going on. For most of the early stages (maybe even years) of her disease and treatment, she has an almost blase attitude toward it all, takes things in stride, doesn’t really understand the significance of what’s going on even though adults try to hint at it. She has to have a major surgery to remove the cancer in her jaw, and then spends years and years, operation after operation, trying to reconstruct her face.
So, I love Anne Lamott. It’s been awhile since I read it, but Bird by Bird was one of my favorite writing advice books. I’ve taken several writing classes with two wonderful women – Janet Thomas and Susan Reese – and both have read her “shitty first drafts” excerpt to encourage the class to write. I find her funny and wise and kind-hearted. There is a section of Bird by Bird that I can open to naturally, even taking the book off the shelf after years without touching it. I’ll excerpt it here:
“Becoming a writer is about becoming conscious. When you’re conscious and writing from a place of insight and simplicity and real caring about the truth, you have the ability to throw the light on for your reader. He or she will recognize his or her life and truth in what you say, in the pictures you have painted, and this decreases the terrible sense of isolation that we have all had too much of.” “Try to write in a directly emotional way, instead of being too subtle or oblique. Don’t be afraid of your material or your past. Be afraid of wasting any more time obsessing about how you look and how people see you. Be afraid of not getting your writing done. “If something inside you is real, we will probably find it interesting, and it will probably be universal. So you must risk placing real emotion at the center of your work. Write straight into the emotional center of things. Write toward vulnerability. Don’t worry about appearing sentimental. Worry about being unavailable; worry about being absent or fraudulent. Risk being unliked. Tell the truth as you understand it. If you’re a writer, you have a moral obligation to do this. And it is a revolutionary act–truth is always subversive.”
Or, why I haven’t been writing like a motherfucker. This will make sense later on in this post, I promise.
I don’t know who originally said the perfect is the enemy of the good, but you know who quotes and paraphrases this all the time? Vince Gilligan, creator of Breaking Bad, a show that I think is virtually perfect. There’s a lesson in that.
I never meant to abandon my blog for so long. Life just gets in the way sometimes. I had a pretty heavy courseload last term–advanced organic chemistry, behavioral endocrinology, evolution, two labs–as well as my job (in which I got a promotion of sorts) and then there is this little tiny test called the MCAT which has been sucking away all the leftover time.I always think I’m going to be better at time management than I actually am. Balancing my passions for science and writing is something that will probably battle on inside me for a long, long time.
But I haven’t forgotten about this blog at all. Sometimes, in fact, I get overwhelmed by all the things I want to post about. I have so many in mind–book reviews, discussions on writing-related topics, posts about all the Breaking Bad episodes I haven’t posted about yet, discussions on topics related to other TV shows, blindness and albinism-related posts, and the list goes on–but today I want to talk about writing. Or, more accurately, not writing.
As I mentioned in my first post, Foraging Into the Blogosphere, I’m partially justifying my obsession with the TV show Breaking Bad because it offers so much insight on good writing, insight that I think writers of all different types of stories–fiction, non-fiction, screen, prose–can apply towards their work. Most of my posts have been about either Breaking Bad or Writing, and I’m hoping these posts can merge the two topics, and will be applicable whether or not you watch or like the show.
Not long after getting into Breaking Bad, I was typing up some of my old writing from longhand into Word. It was memoir material I had written while still way too close to the subject matter, and had never edited, just raw “shitty first draft” material. And it was terrible! I couldn’t believe how repetitive, self-indulgent, and just plain MESSY it was. It was confusing even to me, and I had written it and lived it. What was I trying to get at? I couldn’t tell. And I was not in control of the writing as an author should be.
My first thought was along of the lines of, “Writing quality wise, this is equivalent to Private Practice, and I want to strive for Breaking Bad.” Now, there are two things I want to clarify here. One is that I don’t really think I’ll reach BrBa level, but it’s nice to have a goal like that, one that will push you beyond your usual limits, your current perception of your abilities. And it may not be BrBa for every writer, but I think it’s important to find that thing, whether it is a book, a poem, a TV show, a movie, a song, something that inspires you with its genius and is so brilliantly written that it provides a new, high standard to strive for.
Writing about your own life is like walking through murky water. On one hand, you are employing some of the techniques of fiction. Dialogue. Description. Setting. Character Development. Theme. Symbolism. Story arc and plot. Scene, scene, scene. Internal monologue. All of these come into play. And then there are the smaller, detail-oriented things like cadence, sentence variation, and playing with language in an artful way that expresses what you want to say.
And yet, it’s not fiction. There are limits on all of the above elements (except perhaps the language and sentence levels). Your dialog has to match, more or less, the dialogue as you remember it from real life. Your character development is limited to how much you’ve developed your insights and observations about the people around you, how closely and in how many dimensions you’ve paid attention.
Your story arc often won’t fit the more linear traditional arc. That can be one of the trickier things to work with. I think you do need a fair amount of crafting to make the raw material of your life into a story worth telling. You can’t just vomit out exactly as you remember it happening because life is so messy that your story would end up that way too. At the same time, I think it’s dangerous to control the messiness too much, to work too hard to fit things into and expected and accepted story arc. Doing so can push you too far into fiction. There has to be a balance between free-flowing creative energy and craft. And the more you write, the more both come naturally.
Last week, I wrote about Breaking Bad and endings in this post, and today I’m going to look at another show’s season ending, and discuss some writerly things about endings in general, particularly for crime writing.
Spoiler Alert: If you aren’t caught up and don’t know who did it, go get caught up…then come back.
Sunday, June 17th was the big Season 2 finale of AMC’sThe Killing. Like with Breaking Bad, I came to The Killing late in the game and just started watching it this year. There are a lot of things I really like about this show, most notably atmosphere.
Today I was perusing Sue Monk Kidd’s website (and discovered that The Secret Life of Bees is being made into a movie and will be out in October), and came across this little tidbit she posted in a list of advice she’d give to writers. Here was number seven:
“Err on the side of audacity.
One day it occurred to me that most writers, myself included, erred on the side of being too careful in their writing. I made a pact with myself that I would quit playing it safe when what the story really wanted… what my heart really wanted, was to take a big chance. The best writing requires some daring– a little literary skydiving. Look at your idea and ask yourself: how can I make this larger? The novelist E. M. Forster once said that a novel should deliver a series of small astonishments. After I finish each chapter, I read it with an eye toward figuring out where I’ve played it safe, where I backed off, where the small astonishment was lost.”