"What do you plan to do with your one, wild, precious life?" -Mary Oliver

Friday, September 16, 2011

Shock-Resistant Shit Detector

Do you engage your S.R.S.T. when you sit down to read a novel? Do you slip it into high gear when you're writing one? Are you empathetic and compulsive and fascinated by words?

This much I know: nothing else gets done when I'm caught up in the make-believe world of my novel. The greenhouse is a mess. There's a knee-high thistle in my hosta bed, cobwebs on the porch, cukes and tomatoes going to hell on the vine, garlic that needs to be sorted and stored in a cool dark place. These things bug me but here I sit with novel #2 spread out around me with pencil edits and crossed-out chapter breaks, unable to care about anything as much as I do it.

All I can think about is Boyd and his dangerous attraction to the migrant worker's daughter and why would he hide a gun there and a body here? What was he thinking? And why doesn't the ground stay frozen like it used to and the ice thicken on the lake enough to walk out safely on? Why do the creeps always have the upper hand? Why does his co-progatonist cut her hair to change her appearance and run away instead of standing up for herself and for him? Why do I care more about this than the weeds in my own life? Is this what John Gardner, teacher and writer, means by creating a vivid and continuous dream? Our own lives become a shambles as the dream on the page takes shape? Or is this the trance our readers are supposed to fall into, not us?

There are so many solutions to the problems our characters get into. As Gardner says, "Problems in novels are unlike problems in algebra which have one solution." Likewise, there's only one thistle to be pulled, and a set number of garlic to store, and one greenhouse to tend to, and I can knock the cobweb down with a broom. These things are easy and have one solution. A novel has any number of solutions, but, alas, I fear only one will be good enough. Only one will be brilliant.

A writer must have what Hemingway called the "built-in shock-resistant shit detector." In concert with the writer’s eye, (the ability to see how things really are and to write it down without falsification) and the appetite for compulsive revision—killing your darlings with a heightened intuition for the silly and the abstract—is the writer’s “special intelligence”.

We have to keep at it with daemonic compulsiveness until we can say, "It's as good as I can make it." And that will be good enough. Trust your unconscious. As Gardner says, "The unconscious is smart."

The pages are piled around me, numbered and full. The hum of the refrigerator is the only sound, and the sun colors the eastern sky like autumn sedum. I imagine these literary sages standing guard, daring me to try.

24 comments:

Creepy Query Girl said...

I love that phrase! Better make sure my shit detector is in prime working condition...:)

Yvonne Osborne said...

Hi there Query Girl!

You don't look at all creepy!Thanks for visiting me and commenting here. I love that phrase too and decided to write a post with it in mind. Thanks again!

catwoods said...

And why are you not yet published, my dear? Your words are so soothing and resonate so deeply within my writer's soul.

I'm like you, my life becomes a shambles as I live for my characters and through my characters. Sometimes I wonder if this makes it harder to see their flaws--and ultimately my own within my writing.

Thanks for another thoughtful post!

Lydia K said...

SRSD. I need to get me one.

That being said, I think I have something similar, the internal "this is just crap" monitor.

L. Diane Wolfe said...

Shit detector - I'll have to remember that!

Ed Pilolla said...

it is not easy to kill those babies, but yes, we must... when putting together a story, bullshit and cliches are so easy to see and difficult to remove. but there is nothing better than holing up in my cave and creating, whether drafting or polishing.

Yvonne Osborne said...

Cat,
Thank you so much. I hope to be soon. I truly think it will happen.
Our characters are flawed, as are we. We can't fix everything.

Lydia,
Thanks for stopping by!

Diane,
Thanks for commenting. I think we all need one!

Yvonne Osborne said...

Cat,
Thank you so much. I hope to be soon. I truly think it will happen.
Our characters are flawed, as are we. We can't fix everything.

Lydia,
Thanks for stopping by!

Diane,
Thanks for commenting. I think we all need one!

Jackee said...

Ugh. I need a filter for one those for sure. But I too let the yard go (and dishes) when I'm writing. First drafts are my favorite to sit hours with.

Have a happy weekend, Yvonne!

Sarah Wedgbrow said...

you were right. must-read. :) what else is there to say? you say everything so well. perhaps only that I can't wait to read novel #2...will pass on the over-ripe veggies. xx

Yvonne Osborne said...

Ed,
I like that....holing up in your cave. We all need one of those.

Jackee,
Yes, the first draft is the most powerful. It's the one I can get lost in, and I love that. Thanks!

Hi Sarah!
Oh, I'm glad you came over. I thought you might like my S.R.S.D! I hope to soon have #2 at the query stage. And then we'll see. Thanks for commenting!

Liza said...

Oh my gosh Yvonne. The way you write! Sign me up to read that novel when it is done. Please?

Anne Gallagher said...

Brilliant!! Simply Brilliant.

You should see the mess I'm putting off to get my novels done. The house looks like it exploded. And the significant other keeps asking, "When are you going to clean?" I handed him the vacuum, said, "Have at it." he hasn't spoken to me for a week. Ah, silence.

Jon Paul said...

It's truly fascinating to me--and I love the way you describe--the interaction between our diction and our daily existence. It is almost as if you must steal energy and order from the latter to find make the former work, and finding brilliance--that's a whole other conversation.

Great post! Thanks for putting it up.

Talli Roland said...

My shit detector is usually turned off during the first draft. But it comes on full force on the second! :)

jbchicoine said...

Yeah...ha! My garden didn't have a chance this summer--I was having too much fun manipulating the lives of imaginary friends! :)

Yvonne Osborne said...

Liza,
Thank you, thank you! I will, and I hope you'll like it. I think you will. I know I've enjoyed writing it. I didn't even have to kill all my darlings!

Anne,
Ha! That's funny and so like my own experience. Why should we have to clean when we're busy writing masterpieces? After all, no human activity takes more time than writing.

Jon Paul,
I think that's exactly right....we steal energy from our daily lives to make our imaginary ones work. And we don't look back; we don't have a choice. Thanks for commenting!

Talli,
I've thought about this and you're right....the shit detector doesn't have to engage until we start editing. When I'm reading somebody else's work, however, it engages at the first sentence. Do you find that to be true??

JB,
Glad I'm not the only one neglecting my garden. But isn't it fun manipulating lives? So much more fun than weeding? Thanks!

Jemi Fraser said...

Great advice and I love the SRSD! I love that there are multiple solutions to every aspect of a book - makes them so much more fun to read and write!

Yvonne Osborne said...

Jemi,
Thanks! Yes, so many twists and turns. If I just didn't have to sleep and go to "work"...

Suzanne Casamento said...

Go, go, go! And yes, trust the unconcious!

Ed Pilolla said...

i like the shit detector. it cannot be employed enough.

i've carried with me a couple rules along the lines you are talking about: first, doesn't matter if something is true. it must ring true off the page. second, great writing is done by editing.

when i'm writing the home tends to go to hell, too. then i have to clean up, and after i clean up then i -- ideally:) -- get a burst of energy for catching up on the chores.

Yvonne Osborne said...

Suzanne,
Thank you! I need all the encouragement I can get!

Ed,
I like that...doesn't matter if something is true, if it doesn't come across that way on the page. And yes! good writing is good editing. Is that why every time I go back to a poem or a passage in a novel I change something? Is nothing ever good enough? Yeah, thank God for those bursts of energy:)

Mindy McGinnis said...

Sigh... the writing on your blog has given me a talent crush :)

Yvonne Osborne said...

Mindy,
Well....I'm, ah, speechless. Really. Thank you so much. You aren't too bad yourself. Plus you have an agent!