Is writing a white art?
I’m quite serious about this.
To clarify I mean writing as in fiction writing – telling stories about things that (as far as we know) never happened anywhere. Non fiction, particularly creative non fiction can have a similar process but doesn’t usually. More specifically I mean writing as I and some of my friends (published, unpublished, confused and never finished a novel) do it. The “now someone is here and is dictating and will drive me insane if I don’t write it.” Gateway writing, Kate Paulk calls it.
And by “white art” I don’t mean anything racial – before we get the loonies wanting to stone me or worse the loonies wanting to pat me on the back – I mean in the sense of the arcane, magical arts, the lore of the supernatural where, for instance, a blessing on a new dwelling (unless you do it by burying some unfortunate by the corner stone, of course) is a white art, but raising the dead is a black art.
Now that we clarified that, let me repeat – is writing a white art?
The question used to torment me. I was afraid I was doing damage to myself, and possibly the world by conjuring up these things that never existed and imposing them on reality.
It is neither such a stupid idea as it sounds, nor is it originally mine. Various religions proscribe lying, and what is fiction but an elaborate lie. And stories, particularly novels have been considered (at various times) as dangerous to dabble in as any of the magical stuff. It was assumed they’d do something to the writer (admittedly it was assumed other arts would too. And it’s probably right. The process is very similar.) And even in these days, we assume a high ratio of madness/art. “He’s a writer, so he’s nuts” is quite a normal thing to hear. I suspect most of the time they mean it as a pre-requisite, but I wonder if that’s true. Eric Flint once said that if you aren’t mad when you start this job, you will be. He later backpedaled and said that he meant because of all the time we spend alone. Perhaps that’s what he meant all along, but that was not my feeling when he said it.
Oh, at the time he said it, there was plenty of justification for it. There was no indie, and we were at the whims of editors, with our career potentially terminated suddenly because we “said the wrong thing” to the wrong person. THAT will drive you bananas. Even if you’re not in danger of saying the wrong thing. It’s rather like living in a totalitarian state, I think. You watch yourself ALL the time.
BUT – this is important – to me at least the bigger force driving one towards madness is the encouraging of thoughts and impulses most people squash or don’t think about. The impulse to create out of whole cloth. The need to create really convincing lies. Or, in some cases, listening to the voices in your head and trusting them to tell a story.
That is how I work, of course. I was talking to a friend yesterday and she was asking about my process, and then, with remarkable acuity said “Most of your work is getting out of your own way.”
Which is true, of course. The thing appears, as it were, in misty and milky form, unexpectedly, and then … and then it starts “pushing” at me.
I could never answer the question “are you a pantser or a plotter” because I can do both and function as both. Writing an historical book, of necessity, for instance, requires fairly detailed plotting in advance, so I know what to research and which books I’ll even need to buy. (Actually it’s two phases, the first being to read about the people, place, event in general and then, as the novel starts to form, plot it out, buy more detailed books. Then write it and when finding something that I forgot to look at (like what they ate for breakfast because in the outline I didn’t put in that minor scene-filler) make a note on the manuscript and order the relevant book, so it will be ready for the rewrite.) Even in Space Opera I like to have some idea where I’m going. Which is why my subconscious shrugs and says “hey, boys, let’s humor her” and – this was required in the old model, anyway – lets me write an outline. And then…
I have a friend who sold an episode script to star trek. In the end, they kept the title, and one of her lines. She had, for years, a cartoon on her cork board, that read “This is where we start departing from the script” – and had someone holding a placard that read “act one scene one.” Half the time I think my novels (and often the longer shorts) are like that. “Oh, sure, let the little woman have her outline. We can just ignore it.”
The thing is, if I tell you which books were written from plot and which let me see one chapter at a time ahead and that was it, you’d be surprised. You really can’t tell. In fact the “one chapter ahead” stuff is often more cogent, coherent and saner. Because in the plot-ahead books, I often have to force it and then I’m unhappy with it, and it often doesn’t make internal sense.
So, we come back to it. These things of the subconscious, these monsters of the id… Is conjuring them and letting them roam the Earth quite a “clean” activity? Is allowing them out better because it spares other people creating their own, or perhaps encourages sickish fantasies? Is what we produce the collective dreaming of the human mind and we few just the receptacles where it pushes through with unstoppable force? (This would explain how several people at once, who have never had contact with each other, come up with the exact same idea.)
I don’t have much choice one way or the other, mind. My grandmother once was explaining to me the consequences of refusing gifts of the other kind. She said there was this young woman who was supposed to be – well, the closest definition is Pratchett’s hags: midwife, healer, with some whoo hoo stuff and some headology thrown in – and she refused it. And the pressure of the refused power slowly drove her insane, till she was going around with her hair unbound, and unable to function in every day life. And then she gave in…
I can’t say I’ve ever gone around with my hair unbound (when it’s short I do it all the time. But it meant something different in the village. It meant presenting a decent and sane appearance to the world.) but there IS something similar. If I don’t write it, I start dreaming the story and day dreaming the story and it does become very hard to function in real life.
Mind you, surrendering to the voices in head and day-dreaming is much easier than writing. Writing is a craft and a learning, it is taking the monsters of the Id and training them, and letting them shamble out into the world OUT of your head.
The people who never learn to shape the dream or who refuse to, usually end up on medication… or should.
The craft of making them live in other’s minds, involves killing them a little. You have to tell the character in your head that you really don’t care what he had for breakfast. What did he do about fighting the bad guys? It’s removing some of the reality from them, to make them believable on the page. To make them real for OTHER people.
And it brings me again to “is it a black art?” Because when the mist comes, formless and without details, but with force and urgency, you have to take that… vitality and shape it. You have to trust parts of your brain that frankly should be decently covered.
It’s faintly indecent. And possibly dangerous. And ultimately you don’t have much choice. You have to get out of your own way and let the things out.
Bell, book and candle? Or perhaps mind, keyboard and reference books?
The fact remains that most of the writers I know are SOCMOB (Standing on corner, minding own business*) when two bad dudes or in this case characters come up and make the writer do stuff…
Okay, so the stuff they make us do is not QUITE as bad as eating someone’s face raw. And, heck, some of us get paid for it. But what is it? And what does it do to us and others?
*(Sitting in my front porch reading my Bible is not any better. I’ve tried. Now I have Biblical characters tromping around my head demanding I heed them and write them. They’re not very good about waiting their turn, either.)