WIP: Out of My Mind(s)

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I had a professor in college who was amazed that it was possible for Wallace Stevens, arguably one of the best American poets of the twentieth century, to have worked for an insurance company by day.  “An insurance company!  Probably the most unimaginative, un-poetic career on the planet!”

(We can split hairs here if we choose, since Stevens was actually an attorney who eventually wound up as vice president of The Hartford, but the point is well taken.  No offense meant to anyone who actually works for an insurance company, though, since I know firsthand that such jobs can be fascinating.)

Nevertheless.

Regardless of what he did for a living, Wallace Stevens the poet was fascinated with the workings of the imagination.  In “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” he writes,

I was of three minds,
Like a tree
In which there are three blackbirds.  (lines 4-6)

I’m not going to get into an analysis of the poem, but I thought of those lines tonight as I was pondering the differences between academic writing and creative writing, and the two minds that produce them.  A fellow writer, to whom I had jotted a note saying her work ethic and word-count successes had inspired me, wrote back and said, “You’re a writing teacher!  I bow to you!”

I got a giggle out of that.  Please . . please . . don’t bow to me.  I don’t deserve it.

I’m not sure what Stevens was actually referring to with his “three minds” –and I’m not going to get into Freudian theory or Taoist possibilities here—but I am going to guess, simply because he was a writer, that I know what two of them were, because writers in general are of two minds:  the “Me” and the “Muse.”

That is to say, the mind of the conscious writer (aka one’s “Me,” the Left Brain, the logical side, driven by one’s Inner Editor) and the mind of the subconscious writer (aka one’s Muse, the Right Brain, the creative side, driven—one hopes, anyway—by one’s imagination).

Stevens may have been an insurance agent (or a lawyer or a vice president or whatever) during his working hours, but outside of work, he was a poet.  And his fascination with the imagination—where ideas come from—is something that turns up in a lot of his work.

In “Study of Two Pears,” he was frustrated because no matter how he tried to metaphorize them, they stubbornly remained pears:

     They are not viols,

     Nudes or bottles.

     They resemble nothing else.  (lines 1-3)

I would argue that when he wrote that poem, his Me was in control.  But when he wrote (the much later) “Someone Puts a Pineapple Together,” his Muse could barely be contained:

     These lozenges are nailed-up lattices.

     The owl sits humped.  It has a hundred eyes.

The title tells the story:  He didn’t even know who was writing it.  That’s how the Muse works.

I understand that.

My “Me” is a well-organized sort of person, at least where her work ethic is concerned.  For instance, she likes to have all her ducks neatly in a row before the semester begins.  I could tell you, right this second, precisely what my classes will be doing on any random day you pick during the coming fall semester.  November 6th?  Yep, it’s already planned.

But that’s work.  And it works fine for academic writing as well, where one must be linear and methodical.

In contrast, as a creative writer, I’m a pantser, which means I tend to write by the seat of my pants, i.e. with a minimum of planning.  This is because my creative writing—my fiction—is driven by, and on good days is mostly written by, my Muse, and my Muse does.  Not.  Like.  Planning.

Anything.

When I go back and read material I wrote yesterday, I’ll be able to tell you, with no trouble at all, whether my Muse was at work, or my Me.  My Me tends to be pedantic and detail-oriented.  My Me insists on explaining things, and she’s also overly fond of Telling, rather than Showing.  She Tells every single boring detail she can think of.  A character pours a cup of coffee, puts the pot back where it belongs, walks to the door, turns the knob, opens it, steps outside, closes it . . . You get the idea.

Yawn.

My Muse, on the other hand, leaps all over the place like a dragonfly or a hummingbird.  Zip, zip, zip.  When she’s off and running, it’s all my fingers can do to keep up.  Stories go in directions I’d never thought of before, much less planned.  Characters take on lives of their own.

Trouble is, she isn’t all that reliable at showing up for work.

One of my toughest jobs as a writer is to learn to get in contact with my Muse, to convince her that when I place my fingers on the keyboard, that’s a cue for her to show up and get down to business.  But this week, for instance, she’s been off zipping around somewhere else and has barely stopped by even to say hello.

I’ve been told that it’s only after you get the first draft down that you should let your Me step in and do any editing.  I’m just now beginning to understand the reasoning behind that rule.  There are two very different minds at work.  The Muse gets the draft down.  It’s spotty and flawed and it makes my Inner Editor cringe.  But she’ll get her turn too.

Eventually.

Assuming I don’t lose my mind.

WIP: Working at a Snail’s Pace

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This week’s been a bit of a struggle, WIP-wise.  I guess that’s what I get for being so smug about last week’s accomplishments.

My deal with myself is supposed to be that I will write every day—write new material without getting lost in revision and without scooting off into Google-land every time I have a question.  The deal is supposed to be “No research, no planning, no revision, just writing.”

But I didn’t do so well on that this week.  I did a lot of revision.  I did a lot of planning.  And I spent a heck of a lot of time in Google-land.  But actual writing of new material, not so much.  Only four days of actual writing for a total of less than 2500 words for the whole week.  I console myself with the knowledge that I did work on a different story every day, and that most of that work was actually pretty useful.

Writing-wise, the first draft of Eddie’s story is now finished, and I’m truly happy with it.  It was for this story that I spent all that time in Google-land (it’s set in Belgium during WW2), but the time spent was well worth it.  The story wound up taking a couple of twists I wasn’t expecting (don’t you love when that happens?), and they set up some great potential for Chatón’s (his daughter’s) story, which up until this week I had barely even begun to think about.  Now I can’t wait for her name to come up!

Planning:  I did scene cards (a Holly Lisle tactic that my Muse usually balks at) for Emma’s story.  Emma’s and Chatón’s stories are the only two I haven’t even begun drafting yet, and this is the second time Emma’s has come up in the past couple of weeks.  Last time, I did a lot of character and story development, and now, with the scene cards, I think I’ve reached a point where the next time it comes up, I should be able to pound out a good couple thousand words on it–or maybe even get the whole draft done, who knows?  I’m really excited about this one, too.

I also got some revising done on Amelia’s and Tanna’s stories this week, but not as much as I would have liked.  Amelia’s in particular needs some serious cutting.  So now that my Muse has decided she’s willing to do the scene card thing, I think I’ll go back and re-plot Amelia’s story and see what can come out and what just needs tightening.

And finally, John’s story underwent some serious re-conceptualizing this week based on another of Holly’s methods, the Shadow Room, which provided me with a couple of surprising conflicts I hadn’t originally planned on.  Those are going to be fun to write, too.

So all in all, it looks like I’m still on track to have the novel’s entire first draft completed by September 15, as planned.  I may be working at a snail’s pace, but slow and steady wins the race.

Looks like it’s been a pretty productive week after all!

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