Saturday, September 08, 2012

How books are made.

The dentist did not send us a reminder of our half yearly visit this year and I have used it as an excuse to avoid the visit.  Even though I know in the back of my mind that I should call for an appointment, I use the dentist’s failure to send out a reminder as an excuse to avoid doing what I know I must eventually do.  

I’ve signed up for the Keiser weight training though, that’s a tick in the box of the doing-things-good-for-you category, but for the dentist and the rest I can’t claim much success.  The rest being all those other jobs I put off until I must get them done, the washing, report writing, cleaning out cupboards, but I will get there. 

Procrastination I call it, the demon of progress.  My greatest avoidance is to immerse myself in the book I tell myself I am writing.  Actually it’s written, mostly, only I must put it together, make the pieces into a whole, and eliminate that which is unnecessary.  

I joined a class recently, six sessions,  to help us produce a manuscript, and Lee Kofman who takes this class gave me the task of working on my structure, at least four hours a week.  Lee knows how much I hate structure. 

Even the word sends shivers through me.  I gather that structure is like a skeleton on which the flesh of the story hangs, but then I think of what Julian Barnes has Flaubert say to us in his novel, Flaubert’s Parrot:

Books aren’t made in the way that babies are made: they are made like pyramids.  There’s some long pondered plan, and then great blocks of stone are placed one on top of the other, and it’s back-breaking, sweaty time-consuming work.  And all to no purpose!  It just stands like that in the desert!  But it towers over it prodigiously.  Jackals piss at the base of it and bourgeois clamber to the top of it, etc.

I lack structure, I entirely lack structure through out my life.  The obvious example to me comes in my approach to housework.  I might start to tidy up the kitchen sink, put dishes in the dishwasher, wipe nearby benches, but as I stand stacking and wiping a thought will come into my mind about what needs doing elsewhere or an object will appear in my line of vision that needs to be put somewhere else and I will traipse up through the hallway to the bedroom or bathroom or wherever and while in this new room I will see something else that needs attention, the bathroom cupboard calls for re-arranging for instance, and I will work on this.  Pathetic really.

I hold my experience of my father responsible.  My father may have been a man of structure but he passed none of it down to me.
 The man of structure even as underneath the neatness he was beginning to fall apart.  

When my daughters complain about writing an essay, their father will insist they come up with a plan first of all.  Then he will urge them to work on a beginning, a middle and an end.  Say what you are going to say, say it and then say what you’ve said.  Simple. Hey presto – a typical academic essay. 

To me it’s boring, but if I had learned this, whether from my father or from the nuns at school, I might not be in trouble with this book as I am today. 

I do not plan anything in this way, not anything written.  No, I simply plunge in where the fancy takes me and I wind up with many possible beginnings, several chunky middles and an occasional ending, but they do not necessarily fit well together.   I cannot get the form.  As Julian Barnes writes:
Form isn’t an overcoat flung over the flesh of thought (that old comparison, old in Flaubert’s day); it’s the flesh of thought itself.  You can no more imagine an Idea without a Form than a Form without an Idea.  Everything in Art depends on execution: the story of a louse can be as beautiful as the story of Alexander.  You must write according to your feelings, be sure those feelings are true, and let everything else go hang, when a line is good, it ceases to belong to any school.  A line of prose must be as immutable as a line of poetry.

Blogging is the perfect medium for me because it can be more chaotic than a novel.  My only structure is the weekly post.  The rest I leave up to chance.  And chance is a fickle creature, sometimes she offers wondrous gifts and at other times, a load of crap.  


R.H. said...

I'm the same, disorganised, no structure.

Rob-bear said...

The process is the structure itself. The structure inhabits the words, strung together like beads on a string, paragraph upon paragraph. Page upon page.

Whether the structure is sufficient to hold the project together is another matter. Entirely. The weight of the words may cause the whole thing to collapse. Meaning you have to start the stringing again.

So much for metaphor.

Mary LA said...

How I resist closure. Structure is there already, so often, but we have to impose another kind of structure, less intuitive and more unnatural. So hard.

And I over-complicate it for myself each time. Trust the process, distrust of the self manipulating the process, no end to the process and what is still waiting to be written within the text each time.

It sounds though as if you are close to completion?

Juliet said...

I've had to learn about structure, because like you I tend to work intuitively. But that makes for a lot of work bringing a book together. Gradually I've learned the value of a plan. But my compromise (which might suit you) is to start off intuitively, then pause to write down a structure (of sorts). This seems to bring the best of both world together.
It's hard to start with a plan because it all feels too dry. Important I think to have a good warm up first.
Good luck with completing. It sounds as if it's not too far away.

River said...

My housework is often slapdash too, a bit here, a bit there, but I never put off doing the washing. Twice a year, whether it's needed or not, I go down to the creek and beat those clothes against a rock....

Following that essay paradigm, I should be able to write too, after all, I was quite good with essays at school.

Andrew said...

Unless there is something wrong with your teeth, six monthly visits are not necessary. Once a year is ok. Oddly the same dentist asks me to return every every twelve months and my partner to return every six months. There is nothing wrong with our teeth but I guess she picked me as the less inclined to spend up big every six months.

If I am writing something that I care about, I find the best thing to do is get all down as it randomly flows, then pull it apart and polish it later. If you focus too much on construction, grammar, typos and punctuation you can lose your brilliant thoughts.

I am never critical of anyone who has made an effort to write. Especially those who have no idea of sentences and, well the correct way of writing. Young people who perhaps mostly write in text speak or similar, must be encouraged to write longer pieces. That they write at all is to be applauded. There will always be pedantic types around to correct them, but hopefully not discourage them.

Speaking of writing, I think I have written too much.

Jim Murdoch said...

I watched a programme about waves recently. Not like me to save a science programme but the blurb in the TV paper intrigued me: waves are not made of water. Preposterous, of course. What else would they be made of? The answer's so blindingly obvious: energy. Waves are an illusion. Yes, the water moves but it never moves very far; it’s the energy that passes on to the next wave. So a wave is not an object, it is a process. And this raises a lot of interesting issues about what exactly an object is. It is energy frozen in time. And anything that can be frozen can be defrosted. A brick may not look as if it’s in a state of flux but it is. It will not stay a brick forever. And it’s the same with us. Humans are a process.

I don’t set out to write sonnets or sestinas. They’re not beyond me but I feel they’re artificial. And, of course, they are. There will be those who will argue that all art is artificial and they have a case. I do write novels or at least book length pieces of prose that most people would identify as a novel but I don’t plan my novels either. People divide writers into two categories—plotters and pantsers—and I identify more closely with pantsers than plotters but I don’t think about writing as flying by the seat of my pants. Or if it is it’s flying in slow motion. Writing for me is a natural process. I can begin with pretty much any line you throw at me. Some take me to more interesting places than others. If I get bored I stop and look for something else to write. I don’t understand those writers who when they’ve completed one novel jump straight into another—actually the best example I can think of is a filmmaker, Woody Allen—but I do relate strongly to what Kathleen Jamie had to say in her article in The Guardian. She says, “It seems to me that if you know precisely what you've done, or are going to do, then it's a project. Projects are not art. Art proceeds without a map.” Each book I write—and every story, poem and play—is an exploration. It is a process and I agree completely with what Paul Valery had to say about poems (although I would apply it to all fiction): “A poem is never finished, only abandoned.” I continue until I have seen enough—not necessarily everything there might be to see—and then stop. If I didn’t do that people like Murnane would not be able to take my words and look beyond them … and continue the process. As Samuel Johnson says, “A writer only begins a book. A reader finishes it.” We are not builders; we are architects.

I like order. I think there is nothing more beautiful than two columns of figures that add up. I never coloured over the lines as a kid. I find it odd that I’m not someone who plans his writing beforehand. I’m never happy though until I’ve imposed order—my own version of order—to the words that appear on my pages. There is order in everything. Even chaos is just an extremely complex form or order. My job when I begin writing—and this is most obvious in the poems—is to find the underlying structure behind the words and not impose my own structure on it.

Procrastination is another one of those terms—like writer’s block and inspiration—that people often get the wrong idea about. I think of procrastination as a wilful putting off of something, deliberately dragging ones feet. As Jamie writes: “[B]eginning a new work is not a matter of finding a topic to write ‘about’. First of all but you've to spend time – years! – frequenting the scrapyard or the sewing box, cobbling together a new self, then letting it find its way.” I feel guilty that I’m not writing a book now—what I am writing is poetry and that’s fine because at least I’m writing—but really it’s not guilt, it’s that word I invented (or discovered a need for) when writing Left, guilst—as angst is to anguish to guilst is to guilt—and I have nothing really to feel bad about because natural processes take their own sweet time.

The Weaver of Grass said...

Interesting about the structuring of your childrens' essays. I was never able to do that in my student days. I would think about the subject for hours on end and work it all out in my mind. Then one night I would sit down and write it. Any other way always seemed to me to kill my creativity. There is more than one way to do these things - I am convinced of that. So don't despair at your so-called lack of structure - it is just your way of doing things.

Rubye Jack said...

It took me many many years of living in chaos to realize the value of structure. I still don't like it, but find that when I'm able to maintain some degree of structure, I am more at peace with myself. The chaos/structure dichotomy is what seems to make my life go round. Ha.

Anthony Duce said...

I like the chaotic approach too. Enjoyed this piece on structure very much. I haven’t figured out how to be consistent, to have a structured approach and still be very creative, lately doing my art. I had it down in my previous life as an architect, but after thirty plus years it became as set of rules as I moved from being a creator to being a boss overseeing others, making them follow a structure I tired of following myself.

Kirk said...

When I write, I plan it out all in advance,

and then change my mind as I go along...

Glenn Ingersoll said...

I'm sure the dishes and your book will get done. Knowing that you read my "Thousand" you won't be surprised to hear me say that structure in my work discovers itself as it goes along.

Elisabeth said...

Well I'm glad to hear that you too suffer from disorganisation, Robert. It's good to share a difficulty with another.
Thanks, Robert.

Elisabeth said...

Stringing beads is a terrific metaphor, Rob-bear and I can imagine the beads - words - might sometimes get too heavy for the string and so we need to start all over again. Perish the thought.

Thanks, Rob-bear.

Elisabeth said...

I wish I were closer to completion, Mary LA. I have many words written, more than I could ever use, but putting the words that work together is the trickiest task of all.

Thanks, Mary.

vazambam (Vassilis Zambaras) said...

Reading this post makes me feel as if I'm reading something I could have written myself if I had any sense of structure. Must be a myriad of us out there helplessly lost in abyssmal disorganization.

Elisabeth said...

Yours sounds like a good way to go, Juliet. Unfortunately I seem to have trouble getting that structure into place even when I'm trying hard to give up on the purely intuitive, when I'm trying to find a planned structure.

Thanks, Juliet.

Elisabeth said...

Writing essays according to the structure my husband suggests sounds easy enough but it might lack a certain surprise element, River. Unlike your wonderful comment here which surprised me with its reference to your twice yearly ritual of beating your clothes against a rock, down by the river.

Thanks, River.

Elisabeth said...

I don't think yo have written too much here, andrew. I appreciate your thoughts. I feel a tad guilty because I put off the periodontist again this morning after a vivid dream last night. The dream did not deter me but another clash. I've changed the appointment three times now which is certainly beginning to look like procrastination.

As for writing, I'm with you on the importance of getting it out first as it comes. the re-working can always come later. But it's the re-working I find the hardest, not the getting it down.

Thanks, Andrew.

Elisabeth said...

Well, Jim, until now I too would have thought a wave consisted only of water and air. The idea of energy appeals to me not only in relation to objects but as you suggest in relation to the writing process.

I must be a pantser, rather than a plotter though that's the first time I've heard this word 'pantser' used. I often fly by the seat of my pants, though I do so with a level of confidence that comes out of my experience that the writing process works and the mere fact of sitting down and writing for some time uninterrupted can produce unexpected results.

So like you I do not plan, I trust and often times during the process I can feel all manner of feeling, ranging from confidence and pleasure to abject despair and self loathing.

To me again it's all part of the process. And the way I feel during the actual writing is no measure of the quality of the writing in the long run. So I learn not to trust my feelings as I write. And yet I try to write into my feelings - a strange paradox.

I also recognise Kathleen Jamie's distinction between a project - the planned activity - and art, the unplanned. Thanks for the link. It gives me heart.

And as for a book being completed by a reader, that makes sense too. unlike you, I'm not an orderly person, as you know. Hence my difficulties with structure. I, too, procrastinate from time to time and suffer from 'guilst' - what a great expression.

Why do we do it to ourselves? I wonder, when as you say, these are 'natural' process that will take on their own momentum, rather like the waves of energy you describe at the beginning of your comment.

Thanks, Jim.

Elisabeth said...

I agree, Pat, there are multiple ways of doing things and when it comes to writing it helps to have that acknowledged.

Too often the so-called experts talk as though there is only one 'right' way and that is their way, when in fact there are probably as any ways as there are people.

Thanks, Pat.

Elisabeth said...

That's a useful dichotomy, Rubye Jack - that of chaos/structure, and to think it makes your life go around is the recognise the same process in my own life.

At the moment my desk is relatively neat. I tidied it only a couple of days ago. Over the next several weeks I shall mess it up again throughout the process of whatever tasks I undertake during that time and then one day unexpectedly it will get the better of me and I'll begin to tidy it up again and keep it neat for a day or so until the process begins all over again.

Thanks, Rubye Jack.

Elisabeth said...

Your life must seem very different now, Anthony from architect to artist. I note that Jim in an earlier comment talks about writers as architects. And yet here you describe architecture as applying a sort of set of rules that can interfere with your creativity.

It's funny how much we need both, the chaos and the structure as Rubye Jack describes above.

Thanks, Anthony.

Elisabeth said...

I suppose the plans you set in place and then change as you go along are also a mixture of structure and the unstructured, Kirk, though perhaps not quite as chaotic as some approaches.

Thanks, Kirk.

Elisabeth said...

It's obvious from your writing, Glenn, that your structure finds itself. You could never plan writing as occurs in your 'Thousand' blog. It's too surreal.

Thanks, Glenn.

Elisabeth said...

Abysmal disaorganisation is a good way to describe it, Vassilis, especially the part about being lost in it.


David-Glen Smith said...

Ironic. Just yesterday I asked my Freshman Composition class how many of them refer a formula to writing assignments as opposed to a "free-for-all" structure. Half of the class wanted to be told what each paragraph must contain.

I was writing when I was four. Instinctual. Erratic. Impulsive.

That's why I like blogs. --and for that matter why I like your blog.

persiflage said...

The beginning, middle and end approach has always appealed to me, ever since I heard Danny Kaye talk about it in relation to the symphony (except of course for the Unfinished Symphony, which has a beginning....)
Writing is a mysterious process a lot of the time, and it can be aggravating when a great stream of (seemingly excellent prose springs into existence in your mind, only for it to evaporate, at least partially, if it can't be transcribed immediately. Evidently frequent use of a notebook would help, but it is snot always possible. Your structure is in there somewhere.

Elisabeth said...

I enjoy blogs for the same reason, David-Glen, for the erratic and the instinctual. But I recognise there are many others who prefer the rational and orderly.

Thanks, David-Glen.

Elisabeth said...

I'm sure the structure is there somewhere, Persiflage, if only I could find it.

I too enjoy beginnings, middles and endings. They are the essence of story telling, only sometimes there are multiple beginnings, middles and endings and it's hard to find the most useful chronological order, the one that works best for the story and so I struggle on.

Thanks, Persiflage.