Thoughts on Revision: Part I

I’m not sure I’ve ever suffered from what’s usually called “writer’s block”: the sight of a blank page doesn’t fill me with any particular fear or dread. But “REWRITER’S block”? That I know something about.

A real challenge for me, and I think for most writers, is my relationship with comments and feedback. Author Neil Gaiman has been quoted as saying, sagely I think, that when someone tells you something’s wrong with your story they’re usually right, but when they tell you how to fix it they’re usually wrong. The thing is that writing isn’t mathematics; sentences, characters, and plot threads can’t cleanly be judged as “correct” or “incorrect.” For every person who finds Joyce’s Ulysses brilliant, for example, another will find it loathsome, and the same could be said of any book ever written (though the proportions of like to dislike might vary). In getting feedback and using it to inform rewrites, how to judge whether a comment is “right” or “wrong,” helpful or to be disregarded?

It’s entirely natural, maybe even inevitable, to bristle to some degree at criticism. But I think, if we’re to get better at navigating feedback, the crucial skill isn’t separating the worthy feedback from the unworthy, but rather learning to pick apart one’s own mind, and more specifically scrutinizing the very hazy line between ego and taste. It’s easy to disagree with feedback and put that disagreement down to differences of taste: “This commenter just has different tastes from me, and what he/she doesn’t like about my work, I actually think makes it stronger/more unique/spicier.” In some cases this is an entirely valid response — taste does differ from reader to reader, without question. In more cases than we care to admit, though, this is the mind lying to itself, throwing up walls to keep that precious, fragile prima donna the ego safe in its padded room.

And how to distinguish between the ego-reaction and the taste-reaction? I don’t think there’s a simple answer to that. It may be that making the effort to do so is in itself the goal and the answer.

Share on Facebook

Don’t Stop When You’re Stuck

The principle of not stopping when you’re stuck (writing, in my case) is hella important. Get unstuck first, or in the very worst case, work out a list of possible ways to get through the sticking point, before stopping for the day. When you’re stuck, your unconscious knows you’re stuck, and it’ll find an excuse to spend more time tomorrow watching TV, reading, playing around on Facebook until…oops! No time to write today!… instead of wading back into the deep mud. I may be talking about writing, but I’d posit that this is true of any creative process, any subject being studied, or any complex project that requires creativity.

Share on Facebook

StoryThoughts: “Howards End” (novel) by E.M. Forster (1910)

[Contains one minor spoiler; originally posted on Goodreads May 17, 2012]

Aside from his nonfiction book “Aspects of the Novel,” “Howards End” is the first Forster I’ve read. This is by no means a bad book, and I can see why it might be considered a classic, and why a film made from it made for perfect Oscar-bait: the novel is well laden with English country houses, Victorian and Edwardian social mores, and good old fashioned English salt-of-the-earth, stiff-upper-lip characters with deep feelings deeply suppressed.

My lukewarm response to Howards End is, I confess, cultural in nature: the moral dilemmas and kvetching of the Victorian and Edwardian upper classes almost always fail to hold my interest. Even when they’re making a moral point, as Forster here is striving to do, about the dehumanization of the working classes by the upper crust, so many authors make the fundamental mistake of treating those working-class characters as some combination of comic relief and opportunity for the important characters, i.e. the upper-middle-class or High Society heroines, to learn something about What Really Matters. All of which is well and good, but when in “Howards End,” for instance, Helen is faced with the scandalous prospect of single motherhood, any drama or moral crisis inherent in this situation is, to my mind, fatally weakened by the fact of her familial wealth–whatever the social opprobrium, neither mother nor child is in any danger of going hungry, and Helen has an easy option of popping off to Germany to live with what seems to be a lesbian lover. Had she been a person of the working classes with the same crisis, the same sexual proclivities, the stakes would have been much higher, the solutions much less easy, the ending much less pretty and pat.

This isn’t a weakness unique to Forster; I have consistently had the same reaction in trying to read, say, Virginia Woolf or Henry James (whom I can only count as an author of Victorian England, wherever he may have resided at parts of his life). It’s not that wealthy or comfortable characters never suffer; we all do, in our own ways. But all these safe little characters with their safe little moral and social dilemmas are tiny goldfish in tiny goldfish bowls when set against the genuine dramas spun by the stronger writers of the time. Dickens is the towering example in the realm of (mostly) realism, while the ones who manage to pull genuine drama out of the wealthier English classes are those who pandered to the masses with fantasy or potboilers: Conan Doyle, Bram Stoker, Robt. Louis Stevenson, Oscar Wilde. And at risk of sounding extremely jingoistic, I might add that for my money, no English “literary” writer of the Victorian/Edwardian era–even Conrad, whom so many writers are taught to worship–even deserves mention in the same sentence as the creative giants working on the American side of the pond in the 19th century, namely Melville, Twain, and Poe. “Howards End” is a safe book which for its conclusion takes tragedy and, rather than leave the stage blood-spattered and the audience in shock, as Shakespeare or Poe or Melville might, pulls the reader’s attention away from any unpleasantness and back to a pretty family, a pretty yard, and a pretty house.

Share on Facebook