Introduction to The 4 A.M. Breakthrough
Writer's Digest Books, 2009
Take a look at some sample exercises in The 4 A.M. Breakthrough.
Copyright Brian Kiteley
Email me: email@example.com
The Basics: What You Need to Know
This book is a companion to The 3 A.M. Epiphany. The two books work in tandem, but you can also read The 4 A.M. Breakthrough by itself. In this book I give much less basic fiction writing advice than I gave in The 3 A.M. Epiphany (which came mostly in the introductions to the chapters). Here I jump right into the problems and processes of these 200 exercises. The exercises should speak for themselves. The categories of exercises in The 4 A.M. Breakthrough are, with one or two exceptions, new. The Appendix has advice on how to teach this book.
My History with Fiction Exercises
Accidental Exercises. The first decent story I wrote began as a combination of two different exercises. I’d been writing the same kind of mediocre story for six years. In 1982, I wrote in my journal an imitation of Thomas Pynchon, because I was reading and thoroughly enjoying his first novel V. In the same journal, I wrote another imitation (of Evelyn Waugh, who several months later fascinated me). I wrote it on a blank page in the journal, as it happened right next to the Pynchon imitation, because by accident I’d left two pages in the journal blank and then moved on. This was obviously not a conscious act. I opened to those blank pages and started writing the imitation of Waugh, thinking I was writing it in the proper place in the journal. In fact I wrote it several months behind the current entries. I noticed the mistake only when I turned the page to continue the exercise, and discovered I was writing in the “past” of the journal. Then I looked at the exercise on the previous page and I realized both pieces of fiction were about the town in southern Spain where my family lived for three months in 1969 when I was 13. I liked the way the two stories fit together, even though they had very different sets of characters. I had not intended for the two stories to go together, but it was easy enough to link them, because of the shared town, Nerja. One was about a young British woman who’d just killed her Spanish boyfriend (maybe in self-defense) and the other story was about my brother and our family. For a long time afterward I was very conscious of the fact that an accident triggered the first really good fiction I wrote. In effect, I used a fiction exercise to create my first good story. I knew I was writing an exercise, by imitating Pynchon and Waugh, but the second part of the exercise was the accident and the real revelation—to combine such apparently unrelated parts to make a different whole.
Language is Alive. I wrote this sentence years ago: “I believe language is infinitely malleable, a live being in our hands, which deserves our great respect and curiosity.” One exercise I designed for The 3 A.M. Epiphany (and have used myself several times) is to take the full name of someone you love and use the letters from that name as the only alphabet available for a set of words and sentences which serve as the raw material for a very short piece of narrative. I did this using my brother’s name. My brother died of AIDS in 1993, and I’d been trying for years to compose my thoughts about him. The page of fiction that grew out of this exercise was a construction of the last moments—and thoughts—of his life. The story took several years to write (even though it was never much more than a page long), which seemed like a natural amount of work for a project about my brother’s last thoughts. The way these sentences—and this language—came to me, in laborious and methodical pieces, is an example of how one can reflect on language—words and letters even—in a microscopic way, not seeing narrative of any sort but seeing the most basic elements of fiction. The vignette arranges and rearranges the words I could come up with from a set of Scrabble letters (literally) scattered around my desk. I had to seek out the only words available to me in this arbitrary fashion and yet I also saw how much my mind was still manipulating the material, without the more conscious part of my mind knowing it. This is a good example of what I mean when I say language is a live being in our hands.
Adapt, Improvise, and Overcome. Former baseball player and manager Yogi Berra said, “You can’t think and hit at the same time.” But can you think and write at the same time? Writers should practice hard, work on repetitions, and think through the process as much as they can, whatever the process is. But when it comes to actual competition—writing the fiction itself, like playing tennis or golf—writers should trust that they have trained their instincts well and not think at all. Practice makes for better instincts. Fiction exercises are one part of a very particular sort of practice to build better instincts. There has always been a practical, instructional attitude in American fiction—it often dismisses opinion and interpretation. There has also been an ideal of the na´ve innocent, the rube who came to the city from the farm and wrote down great stories about driving an ambulance in a war. American fiction writers, much more than European or Latin American fiction writers, like this notion of conversational, easy, unpracticed, apparently guileless novel or story. The Marines have a saying, “Adapt, improvise, and overcome.” Writing fiction is not like going into battle, but you do test yourself the way a soldier does test herself. The first two commands—adapt and improvise—are crucial. Writing fiction is somewhat like living reality—it is unpredictable, but you can train yourself to react gracefully to life’s surprises. Prepare for fiction the way soldiers train for battle.
Staying One Step Ahead of Disaster. The filmmaker Orson Welles said, “The director’s job is to preside over accidents.” In The 3 A.M. Epiphany I quoted Daniel Dennett, in Consciousness Explained, who theorized that the task of the human brain “is to guide the body it controls through a world of shifting conditions and sudden surprises, [to] … gather information from that world and use it swiftly to ‘produce future’—to extract anticipations in order to stay one step ahead of disaster.” We read fiction to see how characters improvise their lives moment by moment to survive. In order to write fiction, we need to train to build up and stretch certain muscles and practice a variety of plans for retreat or attack. We practice our skills at improvisation, which sounds like a contradiction in terms, but it isn’t. Actors who specialize in improvisation do not do typical rehearsal, by reading lines. They practice by responding to phrases, props, or new costumes thrown at them. They have to react without any preparation or even thinking. One of my models as a teacher is Harry Mathews, author of My Life in CIA. Harry’s approach to fiction workshops is closer to an acting class than to a typical writing class. Over the course of a couple of hours he would inspire students to take on different parts of a fictional persona, actually adopting layers of a self, as an improv actor would. This persona might or might not become a narrator or a character in the student’s fiction. I once took a one-day workshop with Harry when he visited the University of Denver, which he insisted should be eight hours long. He staggered the parts of the exercises, interleaving them, so that we were not always sure which exercises we were doing. He made us act out our possible characters, speaking aloud their quirks and endearing insanities. Harry Mathews also showed me, more than any other writer, how one can play with form and restraint to make beautiful music out of the essential structures of fiction.
Learn by Doing. In the early 1980s, Sid Caesar was a guest host of Saturday Night Live, during the down years when Lorne Michaels was not producing the show. Caesar was host of his own similar show in the 1950s, Your Show of Shows, and he was amazed by the way the SNL writers proposed their sketches each week before the Saturday show. They gathered 20 or 30 sketches, partly written and even rehearsed a little bit. Sid Caesar said they were wasting a great deal of time on each of these sketches. In his show the writers proposed a sketch with a line of description, not much more. If the sketch was accepted for the show, the line was turned slowly into a whole playlet (or sketch), and the thing was worked on until it was funny, right, and perfect. SNL operated with the notion of looking at these 30 or so rounded-out sketches, even though it seemed to waste a lot of the writers’ time. What intrigues me about this story is that these writers were operating on something like the system of fiction exercises I advocate in this book and in The 3 A.M. Epiphany. They wrote whole small pieces instead of a brief outline form of the idea. I propose an alternative to the idea of outlining a story or novel. I have never written outlines for my fiction. My novels have had very simple structures—an entomologist’s field notes or an aimless walk through Cairo two men take during Ramadan. I believe in learning by doing, like building an airplane in the air. Because of my novels’ uncomplicated outlines, I feel free to include whatever catches my eye during a day’s composition. These exercises are a formal way of filtering the day’s residues.
Never Throw Out Sketches. The apparent excess of Lorne Michaels’ system for Saturday Night Live allows writers to work out stories and sketches over long periods of time. Perhaps in Your Show of Shows the writers did keep track of ideas for future sketches as they were working on the week’s sketches. But what Saturday Night Live seems to have perfected was the notion of an on-going endlessly revisable file of stories. The writers honed their stories, working on them week after week until perhaps one week the sketch caught the producers’ fancies. One year, Larry David was a writer on Saturday Night Live (several years before he began co-producing his own sitcom, Seinfeld). He wrote dozens of sketches, only three of which made it to the show itself. One of the actors he frequently used in these proposed sketches was Julia Louis-Dreyfus. The sketches he wrote for her were revived when it came time to write the plots of Seinfeld. The reason they were rejected by Lorne Michaels, apparently, was that they were generally about nothing, acutely observed descriptions of ordinary life (which sounds a lot like what Seinfeld became). The moral of this story is that you should not throw anything out. Think of your writing as a collection of rough drafts. Do fiction exercises for whatever you’re working on, but also just as play, practice, to keep writing when nothing feels inspiring. Organize your exercises, put them in groups with other similar pieces, rewrite their titles often, reread them, reorganize them.
Schmucks with Laptops. The Hollywood mogul from the first half of the 20th century, Jack Warner, dismissively called his screenwriters “schmucks with Underwoods,” which were the most common typewriters of the day. The full quote is “Actors? Schmucks. Screenwriters? Schmucks with Underwoods.” We are all schmucks with Underwoods or laptop computers—we’re all in this game for the love of the game, not the money. No one else cares if we write or don’t write. This book aims at demystifying the process of writing. These exercises should make you realize it is possible—and even fun—to write fiction. Lao Tze’s maxim that each long journey begins with one step is something like what I’m trying to teach with this book and with The 3 A.M. Epiphany. Each exercise is a step. Make enough of them and let them interlock and interact, and you have a short story, a novel, or a long hike into the wilderness of your imagination. Your stories don’t have to be made up entirely of exercises, but if you become stuck, try one or two out. Give yourself many options. If you’re stalled and you have several choices to make about a possible scene or section of writing, it will be easier to proceed. It is much harder to resolve your dilemmas when you have no alternatives.
Experiments and Fiction
Showing Evidence of Its Own Making. My ideal story or novel reveals the history of its own making, as well as all the other things a story or novel should do. I don’t mean metafiction, which is a story told by the author who appears in the story (that “author” becomes a character in the book, not necessarily the author of the book). All books contain details of the histories of their making, but some writers can’t help exposing those details more plainly than other writers. Why do I like novels that show their own constructions? Eighteenth and 19th century novels had lists of contents at the beginning of each chapter (“in which the hero makes a fool of himself over a cup of coffee”) and sometimes running heads at the top of each page that described what was happening in that page, for the purpose of keeping the reader informed and perhaps allowing the reader to luxuriate in the details of the moment being described. Donald Barthelme’s story “Paraguay” starts with a quotation from another writer writing not about Paraguay but Tibet, which is noted only in a footnote at the end of this quoted paragraph. The reader reads along feeling the odd style, noting the archaic tone, but at ease and at home in this imagined country of “Paraguay.” The footnote is at the bottom of the second page, a crucial delay of recognition I’m sure Barthelme worked out typologically. It tells us that all travel in a very foreign place is similar, even interchangeable; it revokes our reality, too. A reader skipping past the footnote will not know that Barthelme has been playing with the way descriptions of foreign places blur into one another.
No Drinking over Kansas. In 1970 the Attorney General of Kansas tried to prevent airlines from serving alcohol while flying over his state, which did not allow the sale of any alcohol at the time. This sort of quixotic historical fact often makes fiction look strangely pale and unimaginative compared to the peculiarities and (sometimes) sheer unbelievability of reality. Sprinkle in this kind of historical or contemporary reality liberally with your own fictionalizing. There is and should be no real difference between fiction and nonfiction. The distinction between the fictional and the fact-based world is overrated and the distance between the two is shorter than most critics imagine.
Self-Conscious Games. A regular book reviewer for The New York Times, Michiko Kakutani, said of one of Dave Eggers’ books, that he “is a writer torn between two warring proclivities: a taste for the latest postmodern, self-conscious literary games and an ability to write genuinely moving, heartfelt narratives about real people and their very real lives.” Why are these two things necessarily at war—in Dave Eggers or in anyone— these days? I was a student of the Donald Barthelme’s, who did both these two “warring” things with a great deal of grace and intelligence. I think many writers do both—write playful, allusive, intelligent, heartfelt fiction. Look at Clifford Chase’s book Winkie, about his teddy bear, which had been his mother’s teddy bear before that, and later on was brought to life by some obscure desire, then confused for a terrorist by our idiotic federal government. Chase’s book is sincere autobiography, weird adult fairy tale, and a serious study of an animated teddy bear baffled by the modern world. Play is a solemn and integral part of life, and adult versions of childhood fantasies can be both self-conscious and genuinely moving.
Hysterical Realism. I’ve always objected to this phrase that the great but conservative book reviewer James Wood coined to describe postmodern fiction. It uses a sexist term, hysterical, which is falling out of use these days; it came from the Greek word “of the womb,” and hysteria was defined as a neurotic condition peculiar to women and thought to be caused by a dysfunction of the uterus. Below is a long excerpt of Stephen Marche’s obituary of Robbe-Grillet, from Salon, March 6, 2008, in which he takes on just these issues very nicely. The French writer Alain Robbe-Grillet wrote novels and coined the term Nouveau Roman (the new novel). His fiction was “methodical, geometric, and often repetitive descriptions of objects” that replaced the “psychology and interiority of the character,” according to Wikipedia.
It is entirely appropriate that six months before Robbe-Grillet died, James Wood became the principal literary critic at the New Yorker. [Wood] is the master and commander of the forces of archaism.…. At the core of Wood’s appeal as a critic is not an idea or a program but a prejudice, a leaning, that the novel is essentially a 19th century form…. There is more than a faint tinge of moralism in his nostalgia: You should not want to recognize yourself in novels because characters like you are not fit for them. Wood has made himself the opposite of Robbe-Grillet. He instructs us in the maxim “make it old.” The novel is not for novelty. Must you show off?
The two brands of Puritanism embodied by Wood and Robbe-Grillet are beginning to crack. Eight years after Wood coined the phrase “hysterical realism,” the book of the year  was Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, a perfect example of all he rejected. Robbe-Grillet would have disliked it as well: too much plot and funny dialogue, too many political ideas and witty asides. Writers like Jonathan Safran Foer and David Mitchell, among others, are becoming more aggressive stylistically, and more popular, and more pleasurable.
The two strands of postwar literary fiction, the ultraradical and the willfully archaic, are both antithetical to the spirit of the novel itself, which is polyglot and unpredictable. Novels are supposed to be messy. They are written to express ideals and to make money; they steal from everything and everyone, high, middle and low, belonging to everyone and no one in the same moment. They don’t fit anyone’s conception. That’s why we love them.
Sincerity is In. And here is Scott Turow, reviewing a novel by the very good writer Tony Earley in the New York Times Book Review March 9, 2008, showing exactly what Stephen Marche describes above (pointing out the Times’ conservatism, not Tony Earley’s)
Sincerity is in. Never mind the skewering irony of the Facebook generation, or the postmodernism that led boomer intellectuals to see the fractures in every value system. Since 9/11, American readers have shown an appetite for simple tales told with becoming directness. While that approach may never characterize our most self-important fiction, it has been reflected in a number of artful works of popular literature in the last few years.
The key phrase here is “self-important fiction.” Turow is a good writer, but he comes from the profession of the law. He might find the notion of writing about the world without his lawyer’s experience intimidating (or not what his audience expects). But I have to ask, what is self-important fiction? Is it fiction that takes itself too seriously? I’ll grant that self-serious fiction is not a good thing. But Moby Dick, Ulysses, and The Dead Father are pretty self-important novels—and yet they are also very funny.
Deep Play. In Interpretation of Cultures, the anthropologist Clifford Geertz defines this odd term (deep play sounds like a contradiction in terms, serious play):
Jeremy Bentham’s concept of “deep play” is found in his The Theory of Legislation. By it he means play in which the stakes are so high that it is, from his utilitarian standpoint, irrational for men to engage in it at all. If a man whose fortune is a thousand pounds wagers five hundred of it on an even bet, the marginal utility of the pound he stands to win is clearly less than the marginal disutility of the one he stands to lose... Having come together in search of pleasure [both participants] have entered into a relationship which will bring the participants, considered collectively, net pain rather than net pleasures.
I’ve always taken deep play to mean a complete engagement in the process, as if there were no outside, nothing beyond the game. Diane Ackerman, in her book Deep Play, says, “D. W. Winnicott wrote about play as a creative state of withdrawal from everyday life.” Here are some more of Ackerman’s insights on the subject, from her book Deep Play:
Animals play, in part, to stay active and fit. The exploring play of primates helps them gather information about their environment and food sources. The escape play of horses keeps them in shape for flight. Social play establishes rank, mate-finding, and cooperation when needed. Play probably helps to keep an animal's senses well informed and alert. The central nervous system needs a certain amount of stimulation. To a dynamic organism, monotony is unbearable. Young animals don't know what is important, what can be safely ignored; they have had fewer novel experiences, and their senses are fresh and highly sensitive. Everything matters.
Old-Fashioned Innovations. Any fiction that does not observe the fairly strict rules laid down for popular fiction tends to be ignored by major American reviews of books. But innovations that creep into the mainstream become traditions. Multiple perspectives, streams of consciousness, cutting back and forth in time, or even telling stories backwards—these were all radical innovations even 50 years ago. Only the press (The New York Times Sunday Book Review, for example) and mainstream publishers worry about annoying readers with too much innovation or difficulty. Look at television commercials, television shows, and big-budget Hollywood movies, and you will see a dizzying array of “experiments” in narrative structure and efficiency. Christopher Nolan’s movie Memento (2000) works backwards. Its protagonist has suffered severe short-term memory loss, and he tattoos himself with the information he learns to solve the mystery at the center of the film. This sort of story would have upset audiences and critics alike in 1980, but something has changed in audience expectations. Gradually these innovations in form become familiar and necessary because they describe the chaotic nature of contemporary reality. Our minds have changed in the last few decades, too. This is obvious to me, as a teacher of 20-year-olds. The young now especially see the world visually, in a much different way than my generation of baby boomers does. Icons, layers of images on computer screens and television, multiple uses of attention—these are some of the triggers of the great change in consciousness. This is neither a good nor a bad thing. I have thought, often fruitlessly, about how to engage young readers and writers in my classes. This book and The 3 A.M. Epiphany are my meager attempts to get at these new ways of assembling and comprehending the world.
Duck Amuck. Suspension of disbelief is what happens when a reader of fiction agrees to temporarily suspend his judgment in exchange for the promise of entertainment. The old argument was that if you thought you were reading a piece of fiction, the fiction could not be properly experienced or was not effective as fiction. Suspension of disbelief is more or less a double negative of belief, which is the foundation of the essay and personal non-fiction. In a personal essay, belief is the key. Who believes you, as author? Why do readers believe you? What and when did you start or stop believing certain tenets and golden rules? Life is a series of moments of sudden or gradual believing or disbelieving. Letters written in the 18th century were always meant to be spoken aloud—recited. Only parts specifically directed to one person were read silently. Letters were a communal experience. Silent reading was a later development. Do we actually read fiction as if it is a dream and we are living alongside the characters experiencing the fictional world? Occasionally in film we have an actor turn to the camera and wink. All of the television show The Office (both the British and the American versions) operates with the characters (or actors) explicitly aware of the camera. We know we’re reading a book we hold in our hands, and yet we can still live with the slight conundrum that what we’re reading is both happening and also simply on the page. Too much self-awareness, like some of the old-fashioned metafiction practiced in the 1960s and 1970s, can be annoying, but a certain amount of it has crept into our consciousness of the media we watch and enjoy. As long ago as the Bugs Bunny cartoons of the 1940s, the “actors” occasionally turned to the camera and spoke to the audience. The great moment came in Duck Amuck, a Daffy Duck cartoon made in 1951 and released in 1953. Daffy Duck is persecuted by a cruel off-screen cartoonist who relentlessly alters Daffy’s voice, location, clothing, appearance, and even his form. In the last frames of the short, the animator turns out to be Bugs Bunny. Bugs Bunny briefly stands in for both the animator and the audience, and he very lightly pokes fun at the notion of suspension of disbelief, without in any way destroying it.
Fiction vs. Movies. This is from an interview Gary Lutz did for The Believer:
I think that movies are the ideal medium for getting characters from one place to another without making a big deal out of routine movement, and at the same time you can get the colors of the rooms or the neighborhoods, the weather, and emotionally convenient music on the soundtrack. Nobody has to come out with dulling declarations of “Then she got into the car” or “There he goes to the bathroom again.” How-to books on the short story instruct writers to block out scenes as plays in miniature. Something in me wants to counter: Then why not just write a play or movie script instead? Why not try to do in a sentence or paragraph what can’t be done in a shot or filmic sequence? Anyway, I am not one for plots—I think I recall somebody having remarked that the word “plot” itself gives off a whiff of burial dirt—and I find the concept of “cause and effect” to be tediously overrated.
I agree with this, although I also like to find interesting ways of describing how she got into the car, ways that no one else has done before, because whatever she was feeling as she got into her car was unique and perfectly suited for the moment she got into the car.
Writers vs. Visual Artists. An old friend of mine, Amanda Rea, kept a blog from her residency at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, from October 2007 to May 2008. At the beginning of her time there, she commented on the difference between the visual artists and the writers—there are ten of each at the Work Center (where I was also a fellow in 1984 and 1991). Here is the heart of her remarks:
Last night, there was a show-and-tell, in which the writers read and the artists showed slides of their work. Most of all, I enjoyed listening to the artists describe their work. They are unapologetic about their obsessions, and unquestioning. “I’m interested in furniture.” “I’m interested in props.” “I’m interested in machines that either work or work metaphorically.” “I’m interested in myth-making.” “I’m interested in making a life-sized Colossal Squid.”
I envied the visual artists in Provincetown all the busywork they had to do to get ready to paint or make sculpture. But I also learned a great deal from them—from their reading and their processes. It was easier (and more often fun) to watch a painter make a painting (and work through drafts of it) than it was to watch a writer make a story or poem. For one thing, I was a writer too, and there was a reflexive envy or comparison that interfered with clear viewing of the process of other writers. I could see how a visual artist’s creative mind worked, and I was surprised by the points of contact between the two activities. I was also occasionally devastated when a painting I’d grown to love over several weeks was scraped down to canvas in a fit of frustration. Painters, I saw, could not keep earlier drafts of their work.
How to Use this Book
The Control Panel. In The 3 A.M. Epiphany I said each section of exercises should open a control panel of yet another literary concept, picking out for writers the little gears that control a single unparsed motion. Use these exercises to understand the small and large processes of writing fiction, memoir, and nonfiction. Combine two or three exercises together. This bears repeating from The 3 A.M. Epiphany: “The individual exercises in this book might sometimes feel like isolated problems, remote from the larger overlapping issues of a story or a novel. By combining them, or by putting together stray elements from several different exercises in one piece, my students have achieved wonderful results.” For instance, you could put together the two exercises Parataxis and Autism, which naturally belong together anyway (an autistic person often speaks in blunt, simple sentences without any connector phrases). The exercises are my ideas. Take them over and claim them as your own ideas. Nobody will know. For the first exercise in the book, Parataxis, I say, “This fragment of fiction should concern a grown woman begging her mother not to remarry her father or a series of phone messages a 19-year-old man leaves for the woman who has just broken his heart.” These two alternative plot prompts are simple and very different from each other. When I give story or plot ideas like this, they are less important than the structural or conceptual instructions for the exercises. Do need feel as committed to these parts of the exercises. Follow your own instincts or your own better ideas for the plot. Or follow the story line of something you’re already working on.
Word Limits. In this book, I suggest four word-length-restrictions for the exercises—250, 500, 750, or 1,000 words (which translates to roughly one, two, three, or four pages). I suggest these lengths to match each exercise’s inherent properties. The most difficult exercises often have 250-word limits. The rare 1,000-word exercises indicate a relative open-endedness of scope (although they are not license to blather). The majority of these exercises have a 500-word limit. George Bernard Shaw occasionally apologized to his correspondents for not having had time to write a shorter letter. The implication is that Shaw spent time revising some letters and presumably reducing them. My older bother Geoffrey often rewrote his letters to our grandparents, when he was in his early teens. I was intimidated by this activity and a bit scornful of the idea that one could rewrite a loving letter to such wonderful people. I thought it robbed the letter of spontaneity, a crucial part of the process of expressing love to someone. I was wrong. Restricting the length of fiction pushes you to come up with small gems rather than an unreadable mass of material to sift through. The ability to compress what you need to write into very small molds is one of the most important things you can learn as a writer. I urge you to do whatever you can to obey these limits. At the same time, you can and should think of these exercises as something much larger, rangier, or baggier. But if an exercise grows into something larger—a story, a novel idea—keep in mind the basic notion of restraints as you move along. I object to flabby, meandering fiction. Stick to the story or the concept. Make each sentence you write do one or two distinct and interesting things. Let each paragraph be an island of thought and similar activity.
Catalogue and Cross-Reference. So you write 10 of these exercises, and one turns out to be a very good idea. That’s great. What about the other nine exercises? Put them away, but don’t forget them. You may find very good ideas for other fiction among these fragments one month or one year later. You should train yourself to think of all your writing as useful, attachable, and interlocking, like Lego pieces. I tell my graduate students to consider their teaching and their writing (when they’ve gone on to become a professor somewhere else) as being interchangeable. Each is a form of writing. All the notes I take for my classes, all the variations on syllabi, all the paper assignments I dream up become useful—or are potentially useful—some time in the future, as parts of a book, an essay, a talk, or fiction. Writers should think of their lives as being made up of a lot of little writings. The key is to label every small thing you write, so you can recover it later. Catalogue, cross-reference, keep hand-written journals, save your emails in a separate file on your computer, type up intriguing pieces from your journals. Cannibalize all of your own writing. Most important of all, reread all your writing. It won’t be useful if you’ve forgotten it and left it to languish in a basement file cabinet.
Get Lost. K.C. Cole, a science writer and columnist for the Los Angeles Times, writing about science journalism in the Columbia Journalism Review, says, “In science, feeling confused is essential to progress. An unwillingness to feel lost, in fact, can stop creativity dead in its tracks… [Science] editors, however, seem to absorb difficulty differently. If they don’t understand something, they often think it can’t be right—or that it’s not worth writing about.” I contend that confusion—or not-knowing—is good for writing. The way most writing teachers use exercises is to stimulate and help find material. Writers rarely see the need for this process once they’ve started writing. But fiction exercises can be used at any time in the process—when you’re stuck, confused, desperate, or even when you’re working very happily and fluently. Stacy Schiff, in The New York Times said, “Tea is said to have fueled the Industrial Revolution; caffeine has been credited with modern physics and chemistry. ‘A mathematician,’ the prolific, non-sleeping Paul Erdos liked to say, ‘is a machine for turning coffee into theorems.’” Fiction exercises can be your coffee—energizers, clarifiers, simplifiers.
Using Procrastination to Your Benefit. If you’re facing a deadline you absolutely have to meet—for example, to write a paper for a class that meets in two hours, or a letter of recommendation, or a memo describing how the Y-screws cannot possibly fit into the X-holes your subsidiary in Indonesia has just manufactured ten thousand lots of—spend the first ten minutes of this precious time writing a piece of fiction, quickly, no editor of the shoulder, no stopping the fingers from their dance on the computer. Use your own natural skills as a procrastinator for the good of your fiction (in this case at least). Find moments to write fiction when it is least convenient and most desirable to do so. You’ll find, during these frantic little interludes of writing, that you often write beautifully, much better than when you give yourself an hour or four hours to do nothing but write beautifully. Why is this? We need constraints. We need to be ordered not to do something to want to do exactly that thing. The tension that creates good writing is often torqued by the constraints we feel while we’re writing. The exercises in this book are tools for avoiding postponing writing (or overcoming writer’s block), but there are times when procrastination is a good thing.
Stop Thinking. In the Boston Globe Gareth Cook talks about methods of decision-making that could easily be applied to the creative process:
Scientists have some remarkable new advice for anyone who is struggling to make a difficult decision: Stop thinking about it. In a series of studies with shoppers and students, researchers found that people who face a decision with many considerations, such as what house to buy, often do not choose wisely if they spend a lot of time consciously weighing the pros and cons. Instead, the scientists conclude, the best strategy is to gather all of the relevant information—such as the price, the number of bathrooms, the age of the roof—and then put the decision out of mind for a while.
Then, when the time comes to decide, go with what feels right. “It is much better to follow your gut,” said Ap Dijksterhuis, a professor of psychology at the University of Amsterdam, who led the research. For relatively simple decisions, he said, it is better to use the rational approach. But the conscious mind can consider only a few facts at a time. And so with complex decisions, he said, the unconscious appears to do a better job of weighing the factors and arriving at a sound conclusion.
Read the instructions for whichever exercise you decide to do—read carefully. Apply the problems of the exercise to whatever you’re planning to write about. If you are in the middle of a story or a novel, consider where the exercise would fit best and read around that area. But when you begin to write the actual exercise, stop thinking. Operate within the restraints of the exercise but don’t think. Train your instincts. Let yourself swoon completely into the process.
Language is Metaphor. Peter Calami reviewed Steven Pinker’s book The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature in the Toronto Star, and he tried to tease out Pinker’s essential argument about metaphor:
“Rather than occasionally reaching for a metaphor to communicate, to a very large extent communication is the use of metaphor,” [Steven Pinker] says. “It could be that 95 per cent of our speech is metaphorical, if you go back far enough in language.” Why? Here, the teacher part of researcher and author Steven Pinker comes to the fore, offering a boring explanation and an interesting explanation, both with an element of truth. The boring explanation is that using metaphor is a quick-and-dirty way of expressing a new idea without the trouble of coining [notice the metaphor] and propagating a new word. “But that presupposes that the mind itself works metaphorically, that we see the abstract commonality between argument and war, between progress and motion. And it presupposes that the mind, at some level, must reason very concretely in order that these metaphors be understood and become contagious.”
When I lived in Greece in 1988, I could read, with my rudimentary ancient Greek (one semester in college), the one common word on passing trucks, which was metaphorai—vehicles that transport material from one place to another. The exercises in this book are also metaphors. They help writers to put together into a fragment of fiction two (or more) parts that don’t go together—or wouldn’t seem to go together at first glance. Let yourself be transported out of your fiction and into other fictions. Don’t be afraid to work with the building blocks of fiction at all times.
The Big Picture. At the end of The 3 A.M. Epiphany, there is a little section called “Limbing Up” in which I said that writers “need to teach themselves to write useful and necessary fiction, as well as good and competent fiction. Seek the higher ground, search for the material that challenges and changes you as a writer. These exercises should allow you to play with language on a small scale and build units of subject that help engineer the larger projects you want to do. Be ambitious, take on complex intellectual, political, and philosophical problems.” This is very important. The exercises in this book and in The 3 A.M. Epiphany might seem designed to make you concentrate only on small details. But keep the big picture in mind. Don’t let the work you do on these exercises distract you from tackling moral problems, philosophical issues, and important subjects in your fiction. Exercises are not the goal. They should be the means of writing larger projects on significant questions. Behind the theory of these exercises is the simple idea that you should ask questions of the world. Ask your grandparents, parents, aunts and uncles, friends, and strangers why they do the things they do, what their essential philosophies are, and why the like what they like. Constantly ask yourself why you like what you like, too. Writers ask questions. The best stories and novels are full of more questions than answers.
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