The Nighttime Novelist...accomplishes more in about 240 pages than a dozen other "how to write" or "craft your novel" books have ever done.

--Helen Gallagher/Blogcritics
[Review]

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Wednesday, September 22, 2010

In Tranquility: Zen For Writers

If you've read The Nighttime Novelist, then you already know that I love quotes on writing. One that's been popping into my head a lot here lately--for good reason--is William Wordsworth's definition of poetry from "Preface to Lyrical Ballads": that poetry, and I think we can more generally say writing or the creative act, is the "spontaneous overflow of powerful emotion; it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility."

The first part of the line is well-known, oft-quoted, and oft-abused: the "spontaneous overflow of powerful emotion" part. Part of its popularity, or my awareness of it, comes from the fact that I primarily teach undergraduate writers, a certain number of whom think of writing as a kind of emotional or psychological purge; a person's early twenties, after all, contain plenty of spontaneous overflows of powerful emotion--two or three a week--which is why it's such a relief to hit age 30. And the (mis)conception of the artist as a kind of super-charged, self-destructive personality, bristling with conflicting emotion, trashing hotel rooms, staring into space in a state of pure Romantic suffering works fine for rock-n-roll biopics. But it works lousy as an artistic practice.

The most important part of the Wordsworth line, to me, is the least-quoted: that the mysterious overflow, and hopefully the channeling, of
emotion that's part of the creative process can only take place "recollected in tranquility." In other words, in an environment, and a mental state, that's relaxed, secure, free from worry and intense emotion.

Naturally, this often-overlooked part can be the most difficult to pull off.

What I mean: I spent the summer working on my own novel, as well as a couple of short stories, and went at it with gusto, practically moving into the coffee shop a few miles from my home. Every person with a day job knows his or her own best times to work, according to the needs of balancing job and home life, and for me, it's absolutely the summer. But I'm now five weeks into the fall semester at the university where I teach, and I am, to put it mildly, swamped. The actual teaching--standing in front of a class and talking about student work, about writing--is the most enjoyable, rejuvenating part of my job. But it's also a small percentage of the job; it's
the other 90% that's tough to keep up with: the piled-up emails and requests, the advising, the prep work, the paperwork and administrative duties, the sense that there are always ten more things waiting for your attention. (There are.)

So I've gone from being a Summertime Novelist--which I admit is a fun thing to be, I highly recommend it--back to a Nighttime Novelist. And Weekend Novelist. And Free Time Novelist.

And a When I'm Not Too Busy Putting Out Fires Novelist.

But the trick of it is that, when I sit down in a spare moment to write, I have to approach it as if I'm still a Summertime Novelist. I can't sit down to write as a person racing the clock, or thinking about class tomorrow, or the bills or the calls I need to make or the etc. I have to
find tranquility for it to work.

I know how hard this is, believe me, and that there are a million things that can keep you from finding that tranquil space. To name but a few:

  • Grief: Trying to write through a difficult personal time. (This can feel impossible.)

  • Stress: Trying to write when you're having--and I hope you don't--money issues, or car troubles, or legal issues, or...

  • Time: Okay, you've got one hour to be creative. Okay... CREATE! QUICK! Okay, now it's 59 minutes. Okay, okay, now 58 minutes, be creative, be creative...

  • Rejection: I don't mean in general--for a writer, add Rejection to Death and Taxes--but when you've just opened your email and received a Dear Writer and now have to sit down and write anyway. Or, sometimes worse, when you've received a personal rejection in which someone has taken his or her time to tell you, "Your story was interesting but ultimately lacked life and spark and originality or any redeeming quality."

We could keep adding to the list all day; let's not. Besides, the list isn't important. What's important is that, no matter what's on it, when you sit down to write, you do so as if the list doesn't exist. You've got to find some way to achieve a relaxed state even if--especially if--relaxed is the last thing you feel.

It's actually a lot like meditation, which is something I've practiced in the past and wish I kept up with more (see above list of obligations). When I first started meditating, I felt like I'd never be able to do it; I simply had too much clutter upstairs, too many random thoughts competing for attention. I'd get still and quiet, and suddenly my mind would take on the feel of a snarled freeway at rush hour, with competing thoughts all laying on the horn. But a teacher in a meditation class gave me a bit of advice that helped a lot. He said that the more you keep up with it, in a specific routine and ritual, the easier (and quicker) it gets to fall into a relaxed, meditative state until, ultimately, you're able to fool your mind and body into believing you're relaxed as soon as you close your eyes...and, of course, the difference between fooling yourself into thinking you're relaxed and actually feeling relaxed is zero. (Research shows the same thing...that even the physiological responses to closing one's eyes and taking a few deep breaths is one of relaxation.)

When you write, you have to do something very similar. You have to find a bit of tranquility, to write as if those pressures of life and time and stress don't exist while you're sitting in front of the computer. For me this means working in coffee shops at just the right temperature, with the music just loud enough to hear it plainly but not so loud I focus on it, and sometimes headphones on so I can put on a favorite writing album (mostly instrumental and ambient, something I'm so familiar with I can both listen and tune it out...Vangelis' Blade Runner score does the job). Of course these are all tricks I'm playing on myself, specific stimuli that my mind and body associate with writing...but that's exactly what I need them to be. These make it easier for me to find that right frame of mind to focus on the work, rather than focusing on the chaotic world outside of it. Now, what puts me in the right state of mind won't be what puts you in the mood, but when you find the right routine and combination, these'll help you find the necessary tranquil headspace in which to work. And, with luck, this'll allow you to plumb and explore emotional conflict in your work, while also keeping powerful emotion where it belongs: on the page.

Peace out, writers.

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