How to avoid a diet of government cheese

Normally when I try to write fiction, it’s because 1) I feel guilty that I am not writing more or 2) I have an image for a character or a scene in my head and I feel I HAVE to work with, unravel, and weave it back together again. The problem that I always run into, once I copy down as many details as I can from the image in my mind, is that I don’t know what to do with it next. A writer has to make risky decisions about what to do with a story, and usually I am clueless as to what those decisions should be.

In a cruel irony, I lost the one story I’ve ever finished when my computer was stolen about six years ago. Granted, it wasn’t destined to be in an anthology of great American short stories, but the plot (or at least a vague version of the plot) was something that wouldn’t stop nagging me. I kept getting this image of an attractive, pale, dark-haired man crawling down a dystopian sidewalk to a post office, and once there, reading a handful of letters (that later you find out he writes to himself). At night he walks about the street more or less like a normal person, and his post-post office ritual is to sit in a diner and make conversation with a pretty waitress. A couple of other things happen in the story–it made a lot more sense in my sixteen-year-old head than it does to me now. But at least I tried to do something with it. I hear it’s worth exploring the ideas that won’t leave the imagination alone.

I have been thinking more about the fiction writing process recently, because like most English majors I have a fantasy that one day I will be a “great writer.” I have a strong suspicion (based on some evidence) that if I don’t ever write, this dream will not become reality. But there is hope! Just the other day I had an idea for a story, and I sat down and started hammering away at my computer keys. Every couple of days I go back and add to it or change something I don’t like, but this is the first piece of fiction I’ve written that I’ve actually known what I wanted the plot to be.

So for what it’s worth, here are my notions on what is important if you want to be a writer and also avoid living in a van down by the river, in the prolific words of Chris Farley. It’s all pretty obvious, so maybe this is a post more for myself than for you other aspiring writers reading over my shoulder.

To be a writer you have to read great writing. My latest endeavor is to finish Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections, and in its pages I have encountered outstanding descriptions of a conservative housewife’s view of marriages, a little boy’s confinement at the table after refusing to eat his vegetables, and a depressed father’s reliance on alcohol for some kind of solace. Listen to this for a sample of the meaty goodness you’ll find in this book (from page 267).

“Whether anybody was home meant everything to a house. It was more than a major fact: it was the only fact.

The family was the house’s soul.

The waking mind was like the light in a house.

The soul was like the gopher in his hole.

Consciousness was to brain as family was to house.”

For those who say that fiction is on the downhill, I ask you to turn to Jonathan Franzen, among others, as proof that there is hope. Keeping up with great fiction can be discouraging, because I for one will never be able to write like this. But it’s challenging, as well as informative about what works in a contemporary novel.

I have found it can be very helpful to read bad writing, too. So maybe it’s a little narcissistic to read something that you know you could write better. Nevertheless, it’s educational–I’ve learned quite a bit through identifying the things that I hate about a novel, whether it’s a cliche I have learned not to use, clumsy phrasing, or inconsistency.

Mike Birbiglia, writer of the movie Sleepwalk with Me, reiterated this idea last night during a Q&A session at the IFC Center: “Instead of just complaining about culture that you don’t like, identify what about it bothers you, and explore that.” I think this is a more constructive approach than my usual tactic of whining to every living creature around me about movies/books that I dislike, and so I’m trying to adopt this philosophy instead.

Another thing that’s helped me has been to read great writers’ advice on the art of writing (who would have thought?). One of my favorites is The Writing Life by Annie Dillard. Her first recommendation is to find a plain, uninspiring space to work, because that coerces you to be the creative force, rather than relying on a lovely tree or piece of wallpaper to do the work for you. You’ll agree with some advice and find some pointless, but it never hurts to see what works for other people.

The last and most important counsel that I have been told endlessly and just need to accept is to, simply, write. Write even when a bolt of lightning doesn’t strike me while I’m eating my Cheerios, and write when I feel uncomfortable taking risks and making decisions. Only then will I realize my dreams, or, as is more likely the case, get something published and just be proud I accomplished that.


2 thoughts on “How to avoid a diet of government cheese

  1. This made me sit down and write, Rebekah. Thanks for that. Glad to hear you’re still going in for this fiction business. Also, a thousand points for having the tags “Chris Farley” and “Jonathan Franzen” on one post.

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