Notes From Underground

We all are familiar with that moment in a new relationship when, no matter how well things seem to be going, we feel the need to stop and analyze it. Does he/she really love me? Is this just a fling or something more lasting? Do we have what it takes to go the distance?

Yes, and we’re just as familiar with that sinking feeling that occurs when the mere fact of asking those questions – of interrupting a process in order to impose mental order on it – slows the momentum of the relationship or, worse, brings it a grinding halt.

carrotsMany years ago, in similar circumstances, I sought counseling as a love affair teetered. I’ve never forgotten the words of my very wise counselor: ‘You can’t pull up a carrot to watch it grow.’

This is one of those lessons in life I’ve tried to apply to many situations – among them, of course, my writing. Are you tempted, as I am, at various stages of the writing process to stop writing and start analyzing your work? What generally happens next is that pages are torn up or tossed into the computer trash bin. You start to question where you’re going, and next thing you know you’ve killed your fledgling novel/memoir/essay by imposing a critical eye too soon.

Here’s another lesson, this one from the leader of a brilliant screenwriting workshop I once took: ‘Don’t get it right, get it written.’ In his quite extensive experience, he had seen far too many first-time script writers finish ‘Act I’ of their movie, stop to analyze it, and decide to start over again. Wrong tactic, he said. As counterintuitive as this may seem, the right strategy, in his view, was to stop thinking and keep writing. Just keep going – you can revise later.

Well, of course he didn’t actually mean to stop thinking. But in the creative process, rational thought can all too often interfere with the surfacing of a deeper kind of thinking. Let’s call it intuitive thinking, the kind that allows an idea tucked away underground to rise to the top.

When I’m in the initial stages of a writing project, I seek out situations that favor this kind of thinking. In my personal lexicon, I refer to it as ‘dream time’. Get on a bus, look out the window and don’t think about anything much at all. Or head into the shower and let the water flow as your mind wanders any which way. And then, suddenly, an image will appear that removes whatever obstacle you may have been struggling with.

By not thinking too hard, you’ve opened the gates to a different part of your brain, the part where creativity blossoms.

‘Dream time’ also functions in a literal sense, I’ve found, when faced with a thorny writing problem. Very often, as a journalist with a big feature to write, I’ve gathered the facts and quotes but then struggled to find a way to present them most engagingly. I’ve got the story but I haven’t got the intro, known in the profession as the lede.

What to do? Sleep on it – i.e., stop thinking. Then in the morning, when you’re least expecting it, just making the coffee and not fully awake, an image will pop into your mind. And there you have it – the perfect lede.

A recent article in The New York Times described another way to address this issue. To unleash your creativity, Gretchen Reynolds wrote, ‘take a walk.’ She cited a recent study showing that ‘walking markedly improved people’s ability to generate creative ideas.’ In other words, stop thinking so hard. Do something else to allow your brain to tap into its hidden resources.

My latest experience with this phenomenon happened just this morning. I sat down to write this blog post and used the word ‘carrot’ in the title. After writing a few paragraphs, I got up to fetch some something from the kitchen. While walking back to the computer, a new idea sprang up. Dostoyevsky had been the last thing on my mind, and yet there it was – ‘Notes From Underground.’ The title that best captures the thoughts I wanted to express.

Our minds work in mysterious ways. We cannot always unearth what we want to say by consciously digging for it. We have to leave the creative process alone to allow our ideas to grow. And by making this effort, we are very often rewarded.

As writers, we need to resist the temptation to get everything right on the first draft. Of course we need to go back and revise – to take the sculpted object and refine and polish it. Sometimes to remodel it more extensively. But not too soon.

‘Don’t get it right, get it written.’ For me, that was a great piece of advice. Do you agree?

This post was originally published on She Writes, a great site for women who write.

Sex and the Single Writer

Here’s something funny. The cover quote on Erica Jong’s groundbreaking Fear of Flying calls it “the most uninhibited, delicious, erotic novel a woman ever wrote.” That was in 1974 and the praise came from John Updike.

Fast forward 34 years, when Updike – no stranger to erotic writing – won a Lifetime Achievement Award for bad sex in fiction. The Literary Review, which bestows the dubious distinction, said in 2008 that Updike had received four consecutive nominations for passages from The Witches of Eastwick. Phrases sited included the following (and if you’re offended by porn-ish writing, please don’t read on):

“She had gagged, and moved him outside her lips, rubbing his spurting glans across her cheeks and chin.” (This is a minisample. For the full passage, click here.)

Few would say that Updike, who won the Pulitzer for Fiction twice, is a lousy writer. And yet, in at least this instance, he failed when writing about sex. He is hardly alone. Other recipients of the Bad Sex in Fiction award include Sebastian Faulks, Tom Wolfe, Norman Mailer and Nancy Huston.

pommeSo the question arises: Why is it so hard to write about sex?

I had to grapple with this question when writing Desperate to Be a Housewife. It’s the story of a young woman coming of age at a time when the sexual revolution was in full flower.

The writing was going along well when suddenly, in the third chapter, I found myself describing my heroine’s encounter with a sexy East European graduate student. I wanted to make it true to life, and the scene was hot – so hot that I had to quit writing and go get some air, three days in a row! And there was more sex to come.

When I showed the first draft to a friend, herself a writer, she cringed.

“Be careful when writing sex scenes,” she warned me. “The sex needs to move the story forward. If it amounts to ‘insert tab A into slot B’, you’re on the wrong track.”

On the other hand, she added, if one waxes too flowery or romantic, “there’s always the danger of being compared to a Harlequin when writing about sex and relationships.”

So there we are, the double bind. If the sex is too graphic, it will be viewed as porn or simply trashy. If it’s coy, the work risks being classed as romance fiction.

Maybe this is why many literary writers fall back on the old Hollywood solution – a long kiss and a fade-out, leaving what follows to the reader’s imagination. They hint at sex without actually describing it.

As I set out to revise my first draft, I decided that this solution would not be right for my book. My heroine’s sexual encounters were key to the narrative as she tried to figure out what counts most in life – is it love or freedom, or a combination of the two? These are questions that affected an entire generation, and the tremors they caused are still reshaping the sexual landscape today.

Kiss-and-fade-out wouldn’t cut it in the story of an era where women were exploring the new possibilities that had opened for them on many fronts, including sexuality. I wanted my readers not just to imagine what happened, but to feel it. To feel the longing, the flood of desire, the power that drove women – once the pill made it possible – to experience the pleasure offered by their bodies. With all the risks that entailed.

But how to achieve the “uninhibited, delicious, erotic” writing for which Updike praised Erica Jong – without qualifying for the bad sex awards?

There is no easy answer to this question. But here are some thoughts.

First, the sex needs to advance the plot. If it’s a gratuitous scene, cut it out. Second, it doesn’t have to be serious. Humor can play as much a role on the page as it often does in bed. Third, what happens during sex – and before and after – can illuminate aspects of character. If a protagonist evolves as a result of the experience, the scene is crucial.

As a society, we tend to compartmentalize sex. It’s in a private world, not to be spoken about. But as authors, we need to challenge ourselves to break through those boundaries.

When I’ve read from my book at readings around Paris, people often ask about the sex scenes. Were they hard to write? And why include them?

Why write about sex? That’s an easy question, and I always give the same answer.

Because it’s part of life.

Do you agree?

Is This a True Story?

When you sit down to write, how much is truth and how much fiction? If you’re writing a personal story, should you call it a memoir or a novel?

Or, to put it differently, what constitutes truth in creative writing?

I gave this matter some thought after completing a short piece about Chernobyl during a writing workshop in 1995. I had been to the site of the nuclear accident in 1987, one year after the explosion and fire, and wrote about it then as a news agency reporter for Reuters. It was the usual wire service dispatch – a description of the exclusion zone created by the disaster, the tall pines withered by radiation, clothes still on the line because the people who fled had no time to bring them inside. Factual, dispassionate, newsworthy – and true.

Eight years later, the workshop leaders asked us to write a piece using long sentences. For some reason, the Chernobyl experience came back to mind. This time it was a different story. More true, I felt, because it better conveyed the emotion of the experience – our dread upon entering the radiation zone, the unspeakably sad beauty of the silent Ukrainain spring. To my mind, it was a far stronger piece than the news article. Creative, but not fiction.

What I learned from this experience is that there are different ways to tell a true story. By setting aside journalistic objectivity, I had allowed a more subjective reality to shine through.

The question of truth came back in a different way last year when I was finishing a memoir, Desperate to Be a Housewife, about a young journalist on the trail of a story with a happy ending. Ahead of publication I was handing the manuscript out to friends for comment – and a number of them testily informed me that I couldn’t call the book a memoir because I’d changed the names of all the people portrayed, including my own (in order, I like to joke, to protect the guilty). Here’s a comment from one of them, a writer himself:

‘Thinking about your magnum opus in the middle of the night, I felt that it really is against the rules for someone writing a memoir to then hide under a pseudonym. The purpose of a memoir is exposure. If it is a book by Meg Bortin about someone else with another name, then it’s a novel, not a memoir.’

We argued about the possible merits of changing the genre to ‘autobiographical novel.’ And there were pros and cons, given the content.

It’s the story of one woman’s path through the minefield of changing roles for women at a very specific point in time – after the pill and before AIDS. The sexual freedom we enjoyed came at the price of casting aside many of the values we grew up with, and many of us struggled to reconcile our lives as independent women with our longing for happily-ever-after.

Because the heroine is a journalist, the story is set against a backdrop of historic events, from the Vietnam War protests in America to the Soviet Union and … Chernobyl. It’s also packed to the gills with sex (more on that in my next post). Because the story is so personal, I didn’t feel I could write honestly about my misadventures with men if I used their real names. So why not call it a novel?

Well, for one thing, it’s a portrait of a world-changing era, and I wanted the events recognized as fact. As a journalist, I wanted the power of a true story. As a woman, I wanted to pass along to younger generations an account – warts and all – of the struggle of my generation to forge new possibilities for ourselves as women. Of the passion, the heartbreak, the obstacles, the joy, the many mistakes we made along the way.

In the end, I decided to stick to Plan A and call my book a memoir. My own name I changed to Mona Venture – a play ‘my adventure’ in French and, in that sense, true. But was I right to make that choice? So many novelists use true stories and tweak them only slightly, giving themselves more literary freedom in the process. So which genre to choose?

As creative writers, we all face this dilemma. When sitting down to write, I concluded, the main thing is to remain true to oneself. And how that truth is expressed depends on the story.

Memoir or novel? Tough choice. How do you see it?

Coming soon…

What are the issues a writer faces when sitting down to write?

In a series of blog posts starting next week, I’ll address some of the questions I’ve had to ask myself in a lifetime of writing — as a journalist, author and blogger.

Questions like when it’s appropriate to change the names of people portrayed in a memoir. Or how to write about sex without qualifying for the Bad Sex in Fiction awards. Or whether it’s okay to use fictional names when writing oral history.

november 2013These are just a few of the issues that have been on my mind in recent weeks. If there are questions you’ve asked yourself when facing the blank page, I’d like to hear from you. I hope this blog will generate some interesting discussions.

— Meg Bortin