Today, I’d like to consider the happy realization that I’m still becoming literate. Today, I’d like to thank the universe for random, fruitful encounters too, because the latter gratitude is predicated on the former.
I met a woman at the coffee shop this morning who refocused my mind on a lot of things. During our conversation, I discovered a way to articulate a good number of things that will help not only my writing practice develop but many other aspects of my existence.
Our conversation began because of an off-hand comment I made. She was sitting down at the table next to me and appeared chilled. While she curled up in her down coat, I mentioned that the coffee shop really should invest in some comforters we could just wrap up in as we sip our bean juice.
“Oh, we just got back from Methow,” she responded, and then we started covering some bases. The intrinsic anxiety of electric cars. The gradual, often slow, development of children’s travel tolerance. It meandered for a while until we locked onto the creative process.
“A poet has been appointed ambassador. A playwright is elected president. Construction workers stand in line with office managers to buy a new novel. Adults seek moral guidance and intellectual challenge in stories about warrior monkeys, one-eyed giants, and crazy knights who fight windmills. Literacy is considered a beginning, not an end.”
—Ursula K. Le Guin, The Operating Instructions
Since I made the transition from a mechanistic approach to life to one driven by imagination I’ve been a part of a number of these groups. Some, not all, have helped me reach beyond my current place in a story, effectively leveling me up as a writer. Others, unfortunately, seem little more than side quests where I waste much time foraging endlessly for tokens that cannot be bartered.
Holy cow, have I thought about this. Tried to put it into words, sought to transform my experiences with these groups into, if not a set of Laws to Write By, at least some guidelines to be aware of as I engage my imagination. And, objectively, I’ve failed to transform these adventures into anything other than a confusing, self-contradicting, impediment creating collection of reasons to never write another word. That is until today. This morning, in fact, at the coffee shop.
Because I’m not starting from the right place. Writing, fuck that, creating anything is a deeply personal practice. You can’t imagine a world, with a bazillion possibilities, while consuming marketing advice about how to sell that. Your head is likely to twist right off your neck, fall on the floor, and roll down the stairs and into the street where raccoons will gleefully braid your nostril hair.
That is to say, I can’t write anyone else’s story. I’ve got to stop trying to do that.
So, to collect my thoughts and get back to the topic, I’ve experienced a number of different writing groups — some helpful, some not so much — and the difference when you peel back this pile of onions is that the helpful ones don’t bother correcting what you’ve submitted. They don’t tell you that something is implausible. They don’t point out line edits that you need to make or suggest sentence reconstruction. These groups are keenly aware of the need for all that, but they also know that’s why we hire editors.
Instead these instrumental, super valuable groups understand that story, even if written for an audience of one, requires a sort of recognition. They answer the question “Do you see the value in this story? If so, where’s it at? Once we know where it’s at, how can we make it much more valuable?”
If creating is a lonely, individual method of imagination then we should define how collaborative efforts, such as writing groups, should help us achieve our particular set of goals. If they can’t and we, as creatives, can’t steer them in that direction then it’s critical we move on.
Setting the Standard
If forty-six years of life has taught me anything, it’s that there is a difference between “it’s” and “its” that I need to be vigilantly aware of and that it’s really important to know what’s important. I’m not sure which of these is more important.
“Despair could never touch a morning like this.”
–Kim Stanley Robinson, Pacific Edge: Three Californias
I am, however, aware that I can ask for editorial help to fix my misuses of the contraction.
Our conversation touched on this idea quite a bit because it’s foundational to success. I stuck those eight words from KSR in this post because to me they represent a fulfillment of what is important to me in my writing. Those eight words are like a protein, folded and unfolded just so; when my eyes or ears suck them into neural receptors and transmit them to the thinking part of my mind for consideration, they fit perfectly. They grab me, they transform me, they light a fire in me.
I don’t know how or why KSR strung those words together. Why he didn’t start this novel with “A morning like this, despair could never touch.” Why he didn’t then go one to write a dialogue between his protagonist and his cast? But, for me anyway, this is by far one of my favorite hooks of all time. It drew me into his tale as if he’d written those words just for me.
Which, now that I think about it is a funny way to look at imagination. Is there any other way to share our experience, our emotions, our inner selves than like this? It’s so random, but there it is.
I’ve known for a long time now what I want my writing to do. I want it to tell a story like this. My goal is to unfold a word-protein in someone else’s mind correctly, just like these eight words unfold in mine.
Writing for a market is like meditating for someone else’s approval. One of the alternatives to the word “literacy” is “scholarship,” and both of these words fail to convey the actual meaning I see between them. I’m grateful not just that my brain can decode language in its written form, this is the beginning Le Guin talked about. Instead, I’m thankful that literacy is a study. It is a pursuit of giving and receiving, the exchange of ideas with ever increasing clarity.