Friday, February 20, 2009

Scribbling in a new key...

The prodigal poster returns! I know it's been a while... and after I put so much thought and care into my New Year's post, too. I posted that with such good intentions to find some sort of self-discipline as a writer. But it's interesting to read that post over again, realising just how much I've changed as a writer in the last six weeks.

Taking a biographical writing class over J-Term has really shifted my view of what it means to be a writer, or to be a "creative writer," I suppose. For me, writing has always been something that takes place between me and a blank page/screen. It starts with a flash of inspiration, a few words that resonate together. And it comes out of the nebulous ether that is my brain. Maybe that's why I never get farther than a few pages on any story. Because my ideas are so fragmented that they can't stand up to the intimidating blank page or flashing cursor.

But in this class-- in the tradition that has many names, my favorite of which is "literary journalism" -- we were writing stories that had already happened. I got to interview interesting people about their own lives, then try to make that into a story.

That opens up a whole new area of the process: fieldwork and reporting. In literary journalism you will still end up behind that computer, but you won't start there. You'll start out in the world, where all the interesting stuff is anyway. For this class, I took buses to random parts of town that figured in the story, searching for detail. I went alone to a pub and pretended someone had stood me up so I had an excuse to sit, not order anything, and take notes. I sat in the back corner of a tea shop and just watched everything around me, watching how people move through the space, how people interact with each other. I got to ask nosy questions about how people lived. And I had to make them feel comfortable enough that they would trust me, not look at me as a crazy girl with a purple notebook and too many questions. It's terrifying-- maybe every bit as terrifying as fiction/poetry writing. But for some reason, I can more easily push myself to pick up a phone than a pen, some days. And once the reporting's over, I have pages and pages of notes to start from. I know what happens next. All that remains is to tell you, the reader, in a way that keeps you engaged.

Not to demean the actual writing process-- because it still uses so much creativity. Each sentence must still be crafted with care-- more care, sometimes, because I can't invent useful details or bits of dialogue. I must work with the fragmented information I have, while still making it into one cohesive whole. There's an element of self-discipline here that's easier for me-- it's easier to be accountable to the subject of my story when she's outside of me, waiting to see what her life will look like on paper. It's easier not to give up. And isn't that what I've been searching for?

I've always used Gabriel Garcia Marquez's saying that "“there is nothing in the world or the next that is not useful to a writer" as an excuse to be curious. But this sort of writing opens up new areas for my curiosity. If a person or community interests me, then chances are they'll interest others too. And if it's interesting and relevant enough, perhaps a magazine might even--gasp!--PAY me for a story. OK, so that goal is only a leetle more realistic in nonfiction than it is in other forms of writing. But just check out the magazine shelves at Borders. Someone has to write all those articles, for all those completely different magazines. Why can't that person be me?

Not to say that I can't achieve many of these goals through poetry or fiction, or the other forms of writing that I've considered. But I can't deny that some sort of switch has flipped in my brain. Thinking about the world through a reporter's lens, ideas are taking shape in my head that I never even considered before. And for the first time in a long time, I'm excited. I can't wait to get working on the next story.

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