I actually had a whole other topic halfway written for this month’s (exceedingly late) Amy’s Lane, but I couldn’t write it.
It wasn’t controversial or difficult or even challenging—it was about sequels, and I’ll probably post it next month (on time, I hope) because it was good stuff, but I just couldn’t write it.
First I sproinged a nerve in my shoulder and then I got sick—fever, crud, headache, I-hate-everything-on-earth-because-it-moves kind of sick, and while I’m still shaking off that last part, the fact is, the sick didn’t keep me from writing.
It just kept me from writing that particular piece.
So that’s what I’m going to talk about instead. It’s going to be a ramble. Get your prose-hiking boots on, and be sure to hydrate. There’s going to be lots of creative underbrush and strange fauna ahead.
One of my biggest influences as a writer has been Stephanie Pearl-McPhee. No, she’s not a romance writer—she is, in fact, a blogger in the most traditional sense of the word. She knows how to write essays. Having taught English for twenty years myself, I have a high respect for someone who uses the media in the old fashioned way of putting together a cogent argument, complete with thesis statement and support details, because God knows, that shit ain’t easy to teach.
Anyway—Stephanie once had to go to a mountain retreat to write a book. And when I’m talking mountain retreat, I’m saying the woman lives in Canada, and this was like, outer Canada. I remember reading her blogs talking about things like, “Minus fifteen degrees Celsius” and, “I can only stay outside for twenty minutes or I’ll get hypothermia and die.” She once had me wetting my pants because she almost twisted her ankle twenty feet from her cabin in a snowstorm. I know knitters, we aren’t action heroes, and that shit was dire. But she went to this cabin to finish a book and she needed to finish a book, and dammit, that’s what she did.
What she didn’t do was knit.
And I thought this to be really telling. She wrote an entire essay about how when she was pouring her creativity into one place, she had nothing left for the other. So when she was pouring her creativity into her writing, she had nothing left for her other favorite creative endeavor, knitting—and I have to say, the more I write the less I knit, mostly from a time constraints, but still. Spot on.
But Stephanie wasn’t a fiction writer—and I am. (She wasn’t bicraftual either, but I’m going to stay away from crochet for this essay. Whole other critter. Very bumpy.) I think maybe this topic needs to be addressed again from someone who writes fiction, because the difference between fiction and non-fiction is a very tricky fish. Alas, in spite of the fishing metaphor, I have no knowledge of the Canadian Rockies, and would probably die in the wilderness if anyone left me there to write. There will be no excitement or life-threatening action in this essay. My apologies to you all.
See, the thing is, I just read that the RWA has revamped their bylaws, and that people need to prove that they really are trying to be writers in order to stay in the guild. I have to say—and please don’t judge me when I say this—I was a little amused by the fact that they had to defend themselves over, what was it? 20,000 words? The guild passed a resolution that said their members had to prove they were trying to be professional writers by showing that they had written at least 20,000 words with the goal of publication in the span of a year. (Or was it two years? I’m still boggled.)
There are writers out there who can only write 20,000 words in a year?
I’d rip people’s faces off.
All of this… this… thing, rocketing around my brain, and I only dribbled 20,000 words of it on paper? In a year? I wrote 200,000 words a year when I was teaching full time! I had to. I was miserable, furious, elated, depressed, joyous and raging against the machine. Where else was that going to go but my fiction!
It wasn’t until later that I started the blog and remembered that, yes, I could write essays too, as well as teach other people how to write them.
And yes, some of my rage/elation was channeled into that, as well.
But in different ways—and that’s where things get interesting.
One of the interesting facts about publication is what I sort of think of as the concentric circle theory of types of writing.
Autobiography sells best. Biography is a close second. Essays or nonfiction, right up there. When we make the leap to fiction, it’s contemporary fiction, then urban fantasy fiction, then high fantasy and science fiction. You see what I’m talking about?
We start with an “I” narrator, and the reader can easily identify with the “I” narrator and say, in black and white terms, “This is reality according to this real person, and I don’t have to stretch my mind any further than that.”
This is the basis on which most of the reality television industry is formed, by the way, and why reality TV does so well. Yes, we know that there is a fictional narrative engineered into the fabric of the show, but the casual onlooker does not, and the leap, from a person’s everyday life to what they see on the screen requires minimum energy and imagination and most especially, that hardest of human brain functions, empathy, which is why these shows do so well.
So, autobiography and biography easy. A well-written essay can take our brains by the hand and lead us to a conclusion—if we aren’t constantly challenging these conclusions, again, that’s easy. (Which is why every time I see a book written by Rush Limbaugh a part of my soul dies. The logic dysfunctions abound, but the people who are picking up the book don’t read it to question it—thinking is often the last thing on their minds!)
And once we leap to fiction, the trend continues. Contemporary stories sell best—I’ve heard my publisher say it a thousand times. Yes, there are exceptions—Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, Twilight—but for the most part, contemporary sells best.
Because it’s easier to digest and easier to empathize with characters who are (as it may seem) “closer to real.” After contemporary comes “werewolf and vampire” stories—or, urban fantasy. So, we get our fun supernatural elements, but in a landscape people recognize, and, again, “closer to real.” Fantasy, science fiction, steampunk?
Yeah. For a lot of readers, the painstaking work that goes into building a believable world is the same machinery that intrudes between a reader and his or her understanding of the characters. It is harder to read fantasy and science fiction—it takes more work, more imagination, more empathy to read advanced alternative world fiction than it does to read contemporary fiction. This makes the reader base smaller.
So there’s the progression—from a reader’s standpoint. Nonfiction to fiction, autobiography to high concept alternative universe fiction. Ripples in the psyche extending out ward from the “me” to incorporate other, more complex of “me’s”-- you can see it.
It doesn’t work the same way from the writer’s standpoint.
Everything we write has its own challenges for one. Are we writing biography or autobiography? (A blog post recounting our weekend, perhaps?) This writing requires we impose a narrative on a collection of facts or memories, and while it’s easier to read, it’s often difficult to write. There is a process of reason going on here, an organization, a grouping of one idea after another that must be meshed in with a timeline. It’s almost a mathematical process, and it requires a sense of linear thinking. (For, aherm, some of us, this isn’t the easiest thing in the world.)
If we’re writing an essay (again, blog posts and articles fall into this category)—the same thing is needed. We are required to make a point and sustain it, even if it’s a “random” post, and all we’re doing is sustaining the point throughout the length of a paragraph. Linear thinking is required, grouping, categorization, organization, and the ability to articulate the progression from detail A to point B. As I used to tell my students, the thesis is a subject + an opinion. The details about the subject support the opinion. The reasoning about the details explains why.
This isn’t an easy thought process. It’s painful sometimes, especially when the connection between subject and opinion seems obvious to us. Making that articulation between the fact and the opinion is difficult—and, yes, it requires imagination and empathy—almost to an excruciating degree.
Fiction is an equally difficult fish to latch onto—but it’s a very different fish.
Fiction is a fish in the sense that there is a subject and an opinion. Yes—I’m serious. Even in romance, there is a subject and an opinion, and usually the opinion is that love gives us hope, and that we have hope there is love. But still—that means we need to make the people and the conflicts in our head behave in such a way that this hope is made apparent to the reader.
This would appear to be actually the harder job.
Add in a paranormal element, or a completely different Alternative Universe element, and it’s even more difficult to create.
But it’s difficult to create in a different part of our brain.
The places where our characters interact, where they have conversations, where they’re being motivated to do the stupid things that they then have to bail themselves out of—that’s not the same part of our brains where our logic lives. The logic happens, or our characters wouldn’t feel real. But it’s not the piece-by-piece, painful articulation of non-fiction prose.
Now I’m sure there’s a neurological study to back this up, and I have my own physical proof. Very often I tell the story of the time I ran to aqua aerobics class (late, of course) when I had been deeply in the middle of writing Under the Rushes. Even while I swam—and I do deep-water aerobics, no buoyancy belt—my brain was still engaged in the story. Mechanically, I followed the instructions of the aqua instructor until she told us to tilt to a forty-five degree angle to our left, and bicycle.
And I almost drowned.
Because that was where all of my brain activity was happening, and I couldn’t disengage fast enough to make my body work. It was terrifying. One minute, my body was working independently, following a logical progression, and the next minute I was flailing around in my element while my brain frantically tried to disengage from the all consuming task of building worlds and creating real, breathing people.
It’s happened a couple of times since--although I try to pull my head out of what is literally my own ass before I go work out now—but the truth remains.
When we’re that deep into creativity, we don’t engage the same part of our brain that we use for the painful logical progression of an essay.
So let’s get back to my first failed article on sequels, and why it didn’t get written.
It didn’t get written because I was sick and miserable, and my body was betraying me as the giant lump of useless flesh that it has become. Because reasoning my way through even the most basic essay interfered with the process of sitting up, breathing, and making my fingers work without melting into a miserable little ball and whimpering until I fell asleep.
However, during that same week, I wrote nearly 20,000 words of fiction.
Because the part of my brain making my body work could flounder and fail (and believe me, it did) but the part of my brain making my characters work?
Was happily engaged doing just that. And, frankly, it was a better place to be than the rest of my body, so I sat at my keyboard and lived there for a while, until I could stay awake long enough to write this article on where creativity comes from.
And so you are asking yourselves (as you often do when you read my articles, because it takes me forever to get to the point) “Yes, Amy, we’re glad you’re feeling better but why did you just waste our time?”
Because even though our job title may be “fiction writer” the fact is, we’re called upon to do a lot more than that. We’re called upon to edit, to blog, to write articles, and to e-mail. We’re called upon to give face time to social media and to lecture and to be on panels and to have lunch with people who love books as much as we do, and who want to see our books sell really well and would like to help us do that.
We’re called upon to access more than just our “fiction brain” in order to be “fiction writers” and knowing where these different creative processes come from is important for us to understand.
Are we pissed off at our spouses and thinking up worst-case scenarios for our marriage? What do we want to do with that energy? Channel it into fiction where it can create angst? Channel that into non-fiction where it can create a strong and passionate argument? Channel that into knitting where it can create little teeny hats because our stitches are so tight and small with suppressed emotion? Or channel that into an argument that may result in great makeup sex? Where is that energy going? You may want to make sure it’s not going into an e-mail with your publisher or agent, or on social media, but there are places to take it where it could help you—and that’s good to know.
Are we happy and exuberant and excited about the world? Well, do we want that in fiction, or do we want that in social media? Do we want it in our stories? Do we want it in our blog-post, because that sort of energy is always very attractive? Or do we want to take a day off the computer and give that energy to our family, because God knows, we sacrifice some of the best parts of ourselves to our computers, and they deserve something besides the crumbs now and then?
Or are we sick and exhausted, and hunching at our computers because it’s all we have energy to do, and wondering how to make the most of this valuable writing time and not squander it checking to see if our GoodReads number has become unstuck from where it was a week ago?
For me, retreating to fiction when I felt miserable was a comfort beyond measure. I urge everybody to know where your writing comes from, and what your limits are and aren’t depending on how you feel. I get asked about writer’s block all the time, and truth is, I rarely get it. I can always write something. My trick is usually knowing what it is that I can write when I’m feeling the way I feel. I think this can be everyone’s trick—and that it’s a very useful one indeed.
That, and knitting or crocheting.
Because I’m telling you, when I could no longer write, and all I wanted to do was hunker down in misery and create that way.
But the point is to know your wellsprings—where does your creativity come from? Use the appropriate well for the appropriate taste, and the spring will continue to flow.