Friday, May 30, 2014

Writing about Ugly Daffodils

This is my first true day off in a very long time: my stories are all with my listeners, speaking for themselves, I have managed the Hydra of grading (though not conquered the monster), and the cats are fed. It seems meet, then, to just catch my breath and take stock as I work my way through my daily allotment of caffeine.

Writing the stories that I have been working on for the past few months has completely transformed my inner landscape. Before I sat down with this project, I was confident of what I referred to as my writing style. I was sure of my ability to reflect internal realities of my characters in a believable way. I didn't care much for including dialogue, didn't trust my characters when they opened their mouths. Most of my writing revolved around recognition of the familiar in a strange world and I built epiphanies, peripeteia, and happily-ever-after's around these. I had thought that two of my major challenges had been tense consistency and avoiding purple prose. Every time I used to revise my work, I would pay meticulous attention to each verb, try to sort out the diction, and endlessly revise syntax. A lot of times, I would re-read a story and fail to find the pivot around which I had thought I had written, and discard that story. I flirted with magical realism, usually unsuccessfully.

I should have known better. I should have read less Virginia Woolf. I should have loved Dickens less.

One of my University professors often said that it was better to write about the pattern on the carpet one stood on, than to write about daffodils. He meant that good writing emerged from being true to one's experience, rather than a conscious or unconscious emulation of admired writers. At that time, all those decades ago, my writing was largely narcissistic (yes, Reader, I kept a journal), and even the fiction and poetry I wrote derived from a very personal perspective. I had a blank book, shaped like a peacock in which I kept my most treasured poetry and this, if anything does, reflects the relationship I had with the process. I had interpreted my professor's words rather too literally and written exclusively about how events and people affected me: that, then, was my pattern on the carpet, my way of avoiding the daffodils. If I were to read any of it now, I would find it claustrophobic and unforgivably abstract. I would burn it all, if it wasn't already lost. I wish I could deny all kinship with it.

I should have stuck to the daffodils, even though I had never seen a daffodil then. My professor claimed that they were rather ugly, as flowers go, Wordsworth notwithstanding. I should have written about ugly daffodils.

These past few months have changed my understanding about carpet patterns and daffodils. This is a good thing. This project has given my characters gumption enough to speak up. Now, if a character does not speak often, I tend to revise the story, coax the silence, and I try to encourage that character to open up a bit. I try to see if the narrator's voice is not too intrusive. I try to contain the narrator's voice to strictly external descriptions. Instead of anchoring the entire plot on a single moment of recognition or realization, I try to sustain a mood of a scene. I now see that my plots had proven too heavy for those single moments to carry, and the forced silence of my characters loomed large, adding to the gravid nature of the stories. I wonder that my readers did not complain of headaches as they ploughed through them! I am learning to recognize and avoid what my wonderfully patient publisher calls "the dreaded inner voice."

Now, I do not revise as much for tense and syntax; using dialogue has done wonders for that! Instead, I try to establish a Rasa or a general emotional atmosphere through a scene or section. I try to understand the many transient emotions that constitute this stable Rasa. I try to ensure that the nature of the characters who inhabit that scene are believable, elastic enough to feel what the scene needs them to feel, and convincing enough to operate within its parameters. I am trying to work on my listening skills, so when these characters begin to speak, I can understand the scene better.

I do not know if this makes my writing any better or worse than it was a few months ago. However, this process has brought me a clearer understanding of my relationship with the writing process. It is my ardent and genuine hope that one day, I finally learn how to write well about the pattern of the carpet I stand on, and find that it is not that different from writing about ugliness of daffodils.



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