Saturday, February 15, 2014

Writing Advice from a Son

My older son's vocation is managing data for an investment firm, a job he excels at and loves. Understandably, the demands of work supersede his avocation as a writer, and he is a very good writer.  I've always tried to encourage him to write in his "spare time" which in this 24 x 7 tech world is nearly non-existent.  In his salad days he wrote a lot, mostly unpublished, although one short story was published a few years ago. 

Besides writing this blog from time to time, I play the piano.  Those are my two main creative outlets.  Recently, I had sort of an epiphany, writing a short story I didn't know was subliminally swirling around in my mind, one that was inevitably based on some of my experiences, but mostly indirect ones.  I sat down and wrote it in about four hours, having no idea I was going to write it until I started and I let the characters take me to the conclusion.  I didn't even know what characters would appear.   

With some editing it is nearly finished, as I intend to revisit it again after it sits for a while.  I first shared it with Ann and then Bruce, my best friend from college who became a high school English teacher, but who I thought would write the great American novel.  He is one hell of a writer as well!  Their helpful suggestions led me to share it with my two sons.  Jonathan made more encouraging suggestions, but Chris, the writer in our family, took my request to another level, and we got involved in a number of emails back and forth, his encouraging me to go further, much further than this nascent attempt at creative writing, my backing off more and more with each exchange. 

My "excuse" was alternative time commitments, my age, my lack of experience as a creative writer (always thinking of the shadows cast by my "Gods" of American short story writing, Cheever, Carver, Updike, and Yates).  I complained to Chris that I am merely an amateur and that I lack the skills, really, to take my writing to another plane, and I'm content with what I've done, as I'm content with the realization that my piano playing is enjoyable, but at a level I would not consider "professional"

So, below is an edited version of Chris' emails on the topic of writing, something he is encouraging me to pursue by not allowing my "self" to get in the way of my "true self."   And being a good writer is about truth, an inner truth.  Am I a "block off the old chip?" Perhaps I will try again but only when a similar "epiphanic moment" moves me, and I can safely censor self-consciousness. What he wrote what could be considered a primer on writing.

Art is not something "once and done"; not a list among the "too much to do" checklist. Relax and back up the bus and go with the flow. The only discipline required is to handle anything you do not accomplish in your writing: if you're able to control this, then you should have no problem. Not that you should expect to have any problems ---- what I'm saying is that all of your other observations, from the expectations, self-consciousness, expectations and awareness, all that fluid experience will sustain the evaporation in the eventual winding out at day's end. Awards and trophies are just the symbols of light that burns us out. 

Obviously it would be my natural domain to function in prose; the piano is an extension of yourself like the "sound of words" are an extension of my own. In fact, my old English teacher in high school compared a good piece of fiction to classical music. I never forgot that, and it makes sense when I "hear" your words on paper. I read in a different manner I believe than others because I want to feel the rhythm of language, not focus on how the notes are composed...does that make sense ?

Writing is a hearty meal, yet it takes time to prepare, and it's tough to gather the ingredients. Art is a condition of ourselves more than an extension of our selves.

I'm proud of my writing, but it's purpose was that of satisfying the condition, bringing the art to life. Once it was released, I lost control of it. My writing is unique in that it grew disproportionately to my lifestyle: my career went one way; my art the other. Obviously I'd like to heed your call, and someday I might, but, perhaps like yourself, in your words: "but to try to even think about constructing a novel would hang heavily on me, given my abilities, age, other interests, etc., etc."  Substitute my need to work, I could not even gain traction to write, It's another job unto itself.

You on the other hand, relatively speaking, could achieve much more, albeit, if you gave yourself more staying power. It's more of a journey than a commitment. Indeed, you have to feel it's useful on a more fundamental level. It's obvious by the degree of explicit and implicit self-consciousness you convey that you're not in touch with that level. I think you would even admit that this is what differentiates the big boys (Updike, etc.) from amateurs.

When I write, I seem to possess so much confidence, too, because I feel as if the language is far, far less than my feelings can possibly convey. The language of life, of love, love for each other, what we hear and see and experience couldn't even match the dry, conventional layered latency of language. We think it can, but for me, it simply does not. The fundamental level I seek is to overcome the written word; isn't this the task of any human endeavor anyway? In your piano playing, do you really follow the notes as you turn the pages? Or do you try to go further? When I play soccer, guys say I go more than 100%, that I play for a higher purpose. I was taught that very purpose long ago by my soccer coach. Our mentors, the very nature of the people you refer to in your narrative, are there to teach you a lesson...Pay it Forward. Characters should control the writer.

I really am not interested in knowing who/what your characters were based upon; that's mechanical stuff to you. If I got it wrong, then I'm fine with that. The point is that I liked how you engaged the characters in your brief story, you made their presence fluid, tangible, something which sticks and flows, like true relationships.

Your self-consciousness is actually a fear. You have nothing to prove to anyone. Your expectations are your only obstacles. It's an old saw: we are our own worst enemies. We are ultimately judged by how we stand alone, not beside the works that acquire us, or give us form. I sense a mighty world of my dad has risen like a rare whale out of the ocean, ancient, unseen, beautiful and bearing it's might from out of the deep water-blue. I hope to see the creature rise again; if not, the ocean, as always, will understand.

And, obviously, my love for writing is engaged by your experience, which generates the generous critique, too.