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a sudden attack of memory

The one and only creative writing class I took in college was Creative Non-Fiction. I did not like the professor, to the detriment of my own grade, because I did not attend some of the mandatory office hours and skipped not a few classes, too. I'm not sure why I took such a sharp and sudden dislike to the woman, and I suspect she was probably a pretty good teacher, and I was just a bit of a know-it-all with an attitude.

(It was also, if I'm going to be honest, my semester of Least Performance. My only withdrawal and my only bad grade also show up on that same semester's transcript. I remember staying in bed and reading a lot. I now wonder if I wasn't somewhat depressed--winter depressed during my first low-sunlight winter, coming from North Carolina to live in Michigan; food depressed, because the food sucked; weight depressed, because I surpassed the freshman 15 and then some; creatively depressed, because I couldn't find the time and space to write, and the one play I auditioned for didn't even recruit me for tech... and so on and so on and so on.)

I also had a suspicion of creative writing classes, brought on by Madeleine L'Engle's sort of transparent authorial advice put into the mouths of one of her characters in A Ring of Endless Light. The suggestion was that creative writing classes stifle, and reading is the True Path. Nonetheless, I took the class because it seemed like an unusual premise--Creative Non-Fiction?--and my friends had all taken the professor's classes and found them rewarding. It was meant for things like biography writers, who take all these facts and have to assemble them into a narrative, and things like that.

Anyway, to get to the point of this entry: the sudden attack of memory was this. Our first assignment in the class was to write a short narrative description of yourself, physically. I whipped it out in ten minutes or something, didn't really think twice about it, and brought it in. We read them out loud--they were maybe two hundred words long. Afterward, the professor pointed out all the interesting word choices I'd made--referring to my green eyes as rebels, since Mom had blue and Dad had brown, referring to my hair as chaotic (the curls), and so forth. The subtext was clear, as soon as it was pointed out, and it looked like I'd labored over a nuanced portrayal of my character, layered in with my physical description. But I hadn't.

The professor asked, "Did you do that on purpose?"

Dumbly, I shook my head.

And she moved on.

That wasn't the first time, and wasn't the last. I find that whenever people find subtle nuances and little things like that in my work, 95% of the time, there was no conscious effort to put that stuff in. I worry about that, a bit. I worry that it means I'm not in control of my craft. I worry that it means I couldn't do it properly if I tried, that I only excel at writing when I'm unconscious about what I'm doing.

I don't like not knowing where that stuff comes from. It makes me feel that I lack mastery, that I lack control.

I feel it's related to all my other little disruptions of faith. Example: When I'm writing along and I can feel the future audience's disbelief pushing in on me, I throw up my hands and say, "They're all totally going to be able to tell that I just made all this up!" I'm pretty sure that one is only me; the other writers I've surveyed about that problem tend to blink at me and say, "But you are making it up, aren't you?" (I have recently decided that this is because as a writer, we lack the immediate audience feedback that an oral storyteller can rely on to figure out if they are heading precipitously off course; it may be a feedback signal that I-as-audience find the story unbelievable, but it might be me doubting myself, so who knows.)

Am I the only one who has such crises?


( 15 comments — Leave a comment )
Mar. 16th, 2010 01:02 am (UTC)
No, I feel the exact same way. And I think writers who are not worried that the audience will see through their lies are either naive or smart-alecs.
Mar. 17th, 2010 02:47 pm (UTC)
*knew there was a reason I liked you*
Mar. 16th, 2010 01:23 am (UTC)
You Are Not Alone.
Mar. 17th, 2010 02:47 pm (UTC)
*is comforted*
Mar. 16th, 2010 01:50 am (UTC)
I don't worry about it. But mostly because I convinced myself years ago that if I didn't believe in the story utterly and absolutely, those cracks would show; that I didn't believe my own story would leak out. I am the first port of call for suspension of disbelief.

This may count as recursive double-worrying.
Mar. 17th, 2010 02:51 pm (UTC)
Epiphany for me!
Huh. Interesting. I find that when I am too watertight on a story, I can't change up things like order of events and pacing, later. I had to let go of that to be able to learn those skills.

That makes me feel SO much better. At least there's a REASON. I mean, my brain might still be broken, but I think I just figured out WHY. :)

(The cracks, they're so the light gets in!)
Mar. 16th, 2010 01:52 am (UTC)
Hey, at least you are a writer. :) Aren't those ways in which your brain is unlike the ordinary brain part of your gift?
Mar. 16th, 2010 02:06 am (UTC)
I mostly just have generic "oh God this is stupid and bad and boring" anxiety in the middle of writing. I don't know that the form the anxiety takes makes all that much difference.

Or maybe we are just having opposite writing-brains again. :)
Mar. 17th, 2010 02:51 pm (UTC)
I figure, as long as we NEVER agree on process, we're probably both doing our things right.
Mar. 16th, 2010 02:46 am (UTC)
You Are So Totally Not Alone.

I get what you're saying about the nuance-layered-subconsciously thing. When I stumble across it in my writing--or, more likely, it's pointed out to me--I don't feel out of control or lacking in skill. For me, it feels like the magic of writing. That something inside me that I didn't know what there came out enough for a reader to see it. That a reader connected enough with my story to see the nuance. Once again: writing is magic in a lot of ways, so try not to beat yourself up too much.
Mar. 17th, 2010 02:54 pm (UTC)
Eek! I don't like magic. I don't trust it!

...I wonder why. *frown*
Mar. 17th, 2010 09:41 pm (UTC)
Mar. 17th, 2010 12:24 am (UTC)
I think it means you're a really good writer innately if you can do that...I keep striving for the same effect on purpose. That said, sometimes writing scares me because I think all these unconscious truths come out. Attitudes towards the world, beliefs. But then it's the same way when you listen to someone talk. Communication is a distillation of self.

And yeah, I get really afraid that people will be able to tell I made something up. It's one of the things that worries me the most because if people know, well then the story's a complete flop.

Mar. 17th, 2010 02:56 pm (UTC)
And yet, they have to know you made it up, right? I guess that's the problem: it's cognitive dissonance, that your books are shelved in fiction, but you're hoping that people will feel the book is real when they read it.
Mar. 19th, 2010 04:28 am (UTC)
Another vote for your not being alone.

The other day I had to explain to someone I was talking to about "transparent prose." It's easy for me to do the "waxing poetic" stuff, as I think it is for most new writers. It's a love of words and wanting to show off. It's much harder to sublimate that and keep the prose out of the way of the story (while still tickling that whole, "Hey, that was a nifty turn of phrase" thing).

So being able to do it just demonstrates your love of words. If we're doing it right those things should come out. Controlling it, well, that's where re-write comes in.

On the other end, there is the aspect of training (especially for physical tasks) that eventually you should be able to do these things without conscious thought. They should flow. For my own work (in design and now with writing), I've learned to trust my subconscious brain (which works something like 10x as fast as the conscious brain). The conscious brain can sabotage some excellent work by over-thinking it (in most cases because of the fear of letting go). Definitely review the work, but just like on tests you want to give priority to your first thought, allow the words to flow. And teach the conscious brain to double check and balance the subconscious brain for evenness (kill your darlings).

And I think we all get that "just shoveling crap from a sitting position" feeling every now and then. I think it's those moments that keep us honest.
( 15 comments — Leave a comment )

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