The Creative Process

There’s Something To Be Said For A Little Intentionality

There’s something to be said for intentionality, for doing something with purpose, with direction, with energy.

There’s something to be said for meaning what you say or do or create.

A few years back, when I was living in Dubuque, Iowa, a college town on the banks of the Mississippi, I grew close to a group of guys who today I consider among my best of friends. They stood by me at my wedding, and I in several of theirs. And we certainly have stood together on less glorious occasions, as friends should.

Our friendships were built, I have no doubt, upon shared creation, shared exercise, and shared devotion, each driven and possible only through intentionality.

It was with intention that we created together, that we gathered for nights of shared creation – and critique. It was with intention that we walked late into the night simply for the sake of being, and talking, together. And it was with intentionality that we prayed, sang, cried, and rejoiced together – devoted to one another as well as the God who saw fit to bring us together.

And while our friendships may well have blossomed without said intentionality, it seems unlikely that they would have been the same.

Purpose is binding.

It is true in friendship, in work, and certainly in marriage.

Each, like writing, demands a certain measure of intentionality of us, a certain measure of purposeful effort. To maintain good friendships in the midst of the busy-ness of life we must make the effort to stay in touch, the states (of mind too!) between us notwithstanding. To work well one must, of course, be intentional about the work one does. And marriage, I have discovered in my 14 months of (mostly) bliss, most certainly demands a great measure of purpose.

And if I am to be a good writer – or critic, or reader – I must gather up my energies and with what purpose I can muster I must enter into the act of creation with intentionality.

I must continually make the effort to sit down and write, to put pen to paper and practice. I must work at it.

I’m not, I admit, good about this.

But, just as my friendships won’t maintain themselves, and my work won’t do itself, and my marriage won’t sustain itself, my writing absolutely won’t create itself ex nihilo, like some blob from an imaginary swamp of ideas.

And what would be the point of that anyway?

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The Creative Process

A Great Shining Forth: Yearning and Epiphany

In a 2008 article for The Writer Magazine author and teacher Robert Olen Butler wrote an article entitled “The Driving Force Behind Plot.” In it he argued that “one way to understand plot is that it represents the dynamics of desire.” He says that the great stories and novels, the best characters and problems, are driven ultimately by yearning. In many cases, he claims, yearning is the difference between success and failure in a narrative.

This seems obvious. But Butler makes a nice – and important – distinction: “Instead of: I want a man, a woman, wealth, power, or to solve a mystery or to drive a stake through a vampire’s heart, a literary desire is on the order of: I yearn for self, I yearn for an identity, I yearn for a place in the universe, I yearn to connect to the other.”

If this is the case, if Butler is right, than everything else in a story or novel should fall into place in subservience to the creation of yearning, the depiction of yearning, the meaning behind yearning, that which is yearned for, and what that yearning means. The why of that yearning. Or, perhaps more properly put, all the elements of the story should help make that yearning rightly and necessarily felt by the characters – and even by the readers.

Philosophically this sounds great, but it also sounds much easier said than done.

One of the ways that Butler says this can be accomplished is via what he refers to as the “epiphany” of the story, “epiphany” here being a term he appropriates from James Joyce (who of course himself appropriated it from the Church).

This is what Butler writes:

“An epiphany literally means “a shining forth.” [Joyce] brought that concept to bear on the moment in a work of art when something shines forth in its essence… What I would suggest is that there are two epiphanies in any good work of fiction… The first epiphany comes very near the beginning, where the sensual details accumulate around a moment in which the deepest yearning of the main character shines forth.”

This idea, and especially this quote, has been stuck in my mess of a head as I’ve been writing my current short story, a story about a young boy who finds something that he thinks is the most amazing treasure in the world – something that really only a small boy could love in that way. But he is also a boy who longs to have ownership over something, most anything. This is his chance and when he faces the possibility of losing it he…. well, one day maybe you can read it. Maybe.

But I’ve realized that in order for my story to work then this thing the boy finds, this thing and everything else in the story, must reflect his desire, his yearning, to have something for his own. All of his interactions, his thoughts, his movements, even the settings as much as possible, must relate to the reader how important this is to him. How it means the world to him. It must mean everything.

So as I’ve been thinking this over I’ve been paying attention to ways that great writers and filmmakers – really any kind of story-teller – present this epiphany, especially early on in their stories. Some are more subtle than others.

One of my favorites is found in the opening of Denis Johnson’s mesmerizing, troubling, brilliant, humbling novel Tree of Smoke, a great sprawling epic about Vietnam (well, taking place during and around it anyway).

It’s 1963, the day after Kennedy was killed, and Seaman Bill Houston is 18 and not sure what to make of the Philippines. Barely sober from the night before and carrying a .22 caliber-rifle, Houston is hunting for a wild boar in the jungle of Grande Island while the sounds of the late morning have him “all terrifically on edge…and if he stopped dead he could he could also the pulse snickering in the heat of his flesh, and the creak of sweat in his ears.”

He props his rifle against a banana tree and takes stock of the situation, of the area, keeping an eye out for his prey. Then:

” …something moving from one tree to another caught [his] eye. He kept his vision on the spot where he’d seen it among the branches of a rubber tree, putting his hand out for the rifle without altering the direction of his gaze. It moved again. Now he saw that it was some sort of monkey… Not precisely a wild boar, but it presented itself as something to be looked at, clinging by its left hand and both feet to the tree’s trunk and digging at the the thin rind with an air of tiny, exasperated haste. [He] took the monkey’s meager back under the rifle’s sight. He raised the barrel a few degrees and took the monkey’s head in the sight. Without really thinking about anything at all, he squeezed the trigger.

The monkey flattened itself out against the tree, spreading its arms and legs enthusiastically, and then, reaching around with both hands as if trying to scratchits back, it tumbled down to the ground. Seaman Houston was terrified to witness ifs convulsions there. It hoisted itslef, pushing off the ground with one arm, and sat back against the tree trunk with its legs spread out before it, like somebody resting from a difficult job of labor.”

Johnson describes over the next paragraph the response that Houston has to what he has just done, and how the poor creature dies in his arms, its little heart shutting down right there while he watches it bleed. Go here and read pages 3-5 to get the passage in it’s entirety.

Of course, this is rather an unpleasant opening to the novel. But it sets the stage brilliantly, and does so with more than some incisive action. There is yearning here, desire, longing. This is metaphor. This is epiphany. This is a great shining forth.

What are some authors or stories or films (or whatever) that you can think of that do this well, that set their stage by presenting some Epiphany?

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The Creative Process

Why the Short Story?

The best of the best. Get a copy and read it cover to cover.

When I was in high school I remember feeling some strange disappointment when I would come across a book of short stories by an author whose novel’s I admired or when I was assigned a story for school.

I loved to read and always had, and did so a fair amount, but I found that I much preferred the long form of the novel to that of the more brief, inherently and uniquely reserved, short story. I certainly enjoyed, for the most part, what I read of author’s like Flannery O’Connor (who I today consider one of America’s greatest writers ever), mostly, I’m sure, for her weirdly ambiguous endings and mysterious characters.

Yet, I seem to have found the lack of unique plot twists and of distinctly moving moral situations so common in the short form to be a negative. I’ve been wondering why. Today, I prefer few novels to a wonderful short story (and no, it’s not because a short story does not surpass the 300 page limit I often say I don’t read beyond, jokingly of course).

Don’t get me wrong. Good short stories, and certainly O’Conner’s, do contain moving moral situations. But they are necessarily reserved in their immediate implications towards the reader. Since, in the short form, the author is limited regarding how much information they can provide, how much background they can introduce, how close they can make the reader feel to the situation or characters, such moral dilemmas can only mean so much to the reader. In other words, since you can’t know Mr. Smith from Joe White’s The Made-up Story as well as you could have had the story been a novel, then the fact that he is about to burn down his home and join a militia group is going to be less meaningful than it would be if you did know him as intimately as a similarly plotted novel would allow.

(Note that I said that short stories are limited in their “immediate implications.” Further contemplation and interpretation certainly will open up a world of implications to the thoughtful, observant reader.)

So, it would seem, the short form is concerned above all with the “why?” of the tale and the novel above all with fact, incident – the “what” of the story.

Of course, part of my lack of affection for the short form back then probably derives from the fact that novels – and the good one’s especially – are uniquely capable of creating plot-based excitement and anticipation, emotionally transfixing moral conundrums, and characters whose many layers offer insights into the human existence. Things that the short story simply cannot provide in the same way. The short story writer must work within the confines of their form and therefore they must say what they want to say, or rather show what they want to show, in a much less complicated – though, hopefully, no less thoughtful – fashion.

Necessarily, therefore, the short story, since it cannot do all the work itself, demands much more of the reader than the common novel (there are exceptions, of course). This is probably why, as a high school student, I didn’t much appreciate the form. I didn’t want to have to work as much as was being demanded of me.

I love this quote by Harold Bloom (from How To Read and Why) that, I think, sums the idea up pretty well, and provides some advice to boot:

Short stories favor the tacit; they compel the reader to be active, and to discern explanations that the writer avoids.The reader… must slow down, quite deliberately, and start listening with the inner ear. Such listening overhears the characters, as well as hearing them; think of them as your characters, and wonder what is implied, rather than told about them. Unlike most figures in novels, their foregrounding are largely up to you, utilizing the hints subtly provided by the reader.

From Turgenev through Eudora Welty and beyond, short story writers refrain from moral judgments… The most skilled short story writers are as elliptical in regard to moral judgments as they are in regard to continuities of action of the details of a character’s past life. You, as reader, are to decide if moral judgment if relevant, and then the judgment will be yours to make.

The short story provides some unique challenges for both writer and reader, challenges that they must, in effect, confront together, in concert with each other.

In it’s own meta-fictive way, reading a short story is a bit like solving a mystery. The clues are laid out for us (one hopes) and it is our job to make sense of them.

It is for this reason that I love reading a good short story.

And I suppose, therefore, that writing a short story is something like creating a puzzle, perhaps one of the crossword variety even. It is the job the writer to set forth pieces whose shapes will appropriately fit together. With just the right amount of ambiguity of course.

I for one hope the short story makes a comeback.

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The Creative Process

A New Direction

Hello friends,

It’s time for a new direction.

Beside the Queue, as it is, has run its course, I think. While my initial intent was for this blog to be a hub of review, links, and musings – and that’s just what it was for a time – it never lived up to lofty expectations that I had for it. And that’s primarily my fault as my many interests and projects stole my attentions.

As it’s turned out, there are plenty of outlets available to me where I can post my reviews and thoughts on art as icon, a particular passion of mine. In particular, some new projects are popping up here soon, projects about which I am abundantly excited and which I hope will capture your attention as much as they have mine. But they are a work in progress. And with them this blog is, well, practically unnecessary.

However, I have been thinking for some time that it could be put to better use.

As many of you know, perhaps my greatest artistic passion is the written word (some of you might be saying, “well what about film?” to which I say, “well, yeah, but there is written word in film too! and besides, writing is what I do best”). After all, language is, in my opinion, God’s most miraculous gift to mankind. He gave us the ability to use the tool by which he created the universe. He spoke things into existence and then gave us the ability to, essentially, do the same. I think that’s pretty spectacular.

Of course, the use of language is both dangerous and powerful; it is a weapon and therefore it is important that we learn to yield it well and appropriately. That is what I am hoping to do as I extend my education and as I battle through learning how to writer better, how to say what I want – and need – to say more appropriately.

So from now on, this blog is meant to be a record of my journey in learning to use words appropriately, a record of learning to write. Well, hopefully.

As a fiction writing student I am often coming across new books on the creative process, books full of fabulous quotes – both challenging and encouraging – and ideas and methods and tools. Books like Annie Dillard’s classic Living By Fiction, Wendell Berry’s Standing By Words, The Art of Fiction by John Gardner, and of course, Flannery O’Connor’s Mystery and Manners. As I learn from fine books like these I intend to share ideas from them. The beauty is that no writer, or artist of any kind, is ever done learning. It’s a lifelong process. It’s hard work but its beautiful, wonderful hard work. Its worthwhile.

But I don’t foresee this blog, this journal of learning to write, as being useful for the writer alone. The ideas and truths that lend themselves to good writing also may prove valuable to other art forms.

And when I come a great novel or short story, or I watch an inspiring film, or a film that has something to say about the creative process… well, then I’ll be sure to pass it along. I plan to mix in plenty of rave reviews with the rest of the musings.

Be warned, however. Some of my posts will explore things like editing, and the decisions that go into revision. I hope that these posts will facilitate discussion and debate. I hope to learn from you folks too! From time to time I’ll post a section of a story I am working on (perhaps including a before and after type progression) and will explore why I made the decisions I did, where I think it’s weak, how something came to me. Sometimes I’ll simply ask for advice.

My goal in all this is to learn to wield the weapon that is language in the best way possible. To share that learning with you, to learn alongside you. I want to stand on that queue with you, and, ultimately, climb further up and further in with you by my side and I by yours.

Welcome to Beside the Queue.

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