Friday, December 19, 2008

Propulsion Systems

This post is about engine systems that manipulate solar winds for FTL drives in sci-fi stori...

Ah, who am I kidding? I'm not writing about that. What I've actually been thinking about is something Book said the other day, about how writing serves as a sort of cathartic process for him. This meshed with a conversation I had with my wife about poetry and got me thinking about art as exorcism... and how this isn't me.

So, propulsion systems... what drives the words onto the page for you? We've touched on the reasons we write, yet how do we go from a want or need to actually writing?

I'm gonna jump back to that poetry conversation for a moment... We were talking about how writing poetry is often cathartic (at least from our subjective observations). My wife often writes her poetry out of emotion, out of feeling something, out of an experience that brims up and overflows, and so to keep yourself from drowning you scoop up some of that excess, some of that overflow, and plant it on the page. The poem, if you will, is a translation of emotion into language. I've found this sort of process, this propulsive drive, is really very common among poets. Confessional poets, of course, but many others too. It seems natural... a feeling, a release of that emotion onto the page... a cathartic moment. Poetry is language at its most expressive, a short form that can be completed quickly while the emotion (whether recent or remembered) is still closely felt... and poetry thus seems perfect for this sort of cathartic experience. The few poems of my own that were ever any good (the very few...) were the ones that enacted this translation process in some way, growing themselves out of a sharply felt emotion or emotional experience.

And people write fiction with this sort of drive at its heart (as Book suggested of himself). This realization, though, was shadowed by the realization that this process was not my own, that this is not what drives me to get those words on the page. So what was my process? What propelled me to turn an idea into a story, into this odd thing woven out of words and sentences? What I realized was that, in many ways, my drive is the opposite of my wife's poetic process, sort of an invert of this need for exorcism or release. My propulsion system is, I think, explorative.

It's less about having something, and needing to get it out, as it is about wanting something, and needing to get it in. Ideas, characters, stories... they float about and intrigue me, draw me toward them, compel and fascinate me... and so I ask, What is this? What's the true nature of this idea, its beating heart? My need is less to share something than to try and inhabit something, a need to explore and understand, to feel and experience... Something grabs me, and I see its surface... but to really understand it (or at least attempt such an understanding) I need to write, I need to delve in and find the depths.

My newest novel manuscript, The Terrible Weight of Gravity, is the story of a woman who is kidnapped and held for ransom in a cell. I knew nothing, really, about this sort of thing, nor was I trying to represent some other aspect of my life or experience, some other aspect of my emotional terrain, by portraying this story. When I started writing I didn't know anything about the subject that I had to share, I had no experiences that gave me any knowledge or understanding worth repeating... but I wanted to know. I was drawn to it, I think, precisely because it was alien, precisely because it was so far from anything I had experienced. What is it like to be trapped in a cell? Aside from actually trapping myself in a cell (no thank you), the only way for me to come to some sort of understanding was to 1) read about it, and 2) write about it.

It's a bit like acting, maybe, a need to put on a new face, to feel a new experience. Maybe writing stories, for me, is sort of like an Acting Method for Introverts. I can't climb on stage (or into a film) and transform myself into a woman trapped in a cell (I don't have that gift), but maybe I can do it inside my own head. And maybe my fingers can translate that slow exploration of character and scene onto the page, finding a form that might allow me to share this interior experience with others... just as my favourite books have shared experiences with me.

Pay it forward. I've been given many beautiful and important stories over the years, stories that have shaped who and what I am, and so perhaps it is only natural that I want to return the favour, to offer my own stories as payment for the gifts I've received. Hey, it's Christmas, right? What better time for giving?

So, anyone listening in, what drives you? You an exorcist or an explorer? Or something else entirely?


Bookworm1605 said...

Booyah! I thought we were going to talk about FTL drives for a second there.

I think in all honesty, I am probably both--an explorer and an exorcist. Most of us probably are a mix, with something else witchy thrown in. I love to create worlds and explore them with my characters and the search for new terrain to turn monsters loose in has always driven my world-building. Having said that, yeah, much of what I write is an attempt to pull something out of my soul and try to get a better look at it under the microscope of a story.

I haven't led a particularly traumatic life. Like everyone else, I've got issues--things buried deep inside me that could be frightening if they saw the light of day. I've got a lot of guilt associated with family situations that are not my fault, but you know how that goes... And like a lot of men, I'm not real good at talking about junk like that. So writing has become a cathartic outlet for me. It's a way of taking those ugly things and burning them with the sun's wholesome rays.

It's a process, one that I need to work at. Looking back at my stories and their evolution I realize that most are fairly emotionless. I think that's the source of the frustration I'm feeling at this point in my writing 'career'. I'm no longer satisfied with a ton of action and dialogue. My inner demon requires more and more emotional investment and that's something that I haven't been comfortable with.

Come to think of it, I've only realized much of this as I am writing this post. So I guess this simple writing task has been an exercise in self-exploration and catharsis in and of itself.

Thanks, Ink.

Wanu said...

I've always been quite taken with the Infinite Imporbability Drive myself...

That's quite a thought-provoking question, Ink. You know, I studied a little bit of human evolution and one of the interesting things was the development of art - cave paintings, pottery... these things didn't appear in our past until society reached a certain level of development. Time, basically, when people have enough to eat, when they're beyond subsistence living, always on the hunt, as soon as they got a chance to sit down and ponder, art appeared.

Bizarrely, before I took writing as seriously as I do now, I noticed that I wrote more often when my life was going badly. Adverse circumstances seemed to push the creative drive, and I think at those times it served as escapism (rather in the same way as reading) and the need to express combined.

Geebes is always fascinating on this subject, she talks of stories as if they are an entity in their own right, and you have to listen, or sometimes try to catch them, like butterfiles.

Certainly, it is difficult to be proud of ones own thoughts, especially as it is so very unclear where they come from. That creation stage is mysterious. Just as a cut on your hand will stop bleeding and scab over, you don't say 'Look! I healed myself!" I think it's like that with the early envisionment of a story, to some extent. It is more like 'it comes' rather than 'I went in search'.

I've experimented with this loads. As aforementioned, I've found that stories can be provoked by simple forms, even internet plot generators. But, I have a counter theory. You can't sit on the sofa, say, and wait for eternity to end. Even if you tried it, some part of you would spark into life, and you'd find yourself making dinner, or switching on the TV, or booting up the PC, or calling a friend... You'd be powerfully motivated at a certain point, motivated even beyond your own thoughts, beyond an experimental desire to sit and wait for the end of the universe. (I haven't tried this, because I can't sit still for more than a couple of minutes, but bear with me, I think it makes sense).

I call this 'waiting for the gut'. I think we switch between living via thought, and living via gut many, many times throughout the day. Some activities, we're convinced to do on an intellectual level, and others more on an instinctive, or emotional level.

I think stories come, in this way, if you let them.

Lots of authors admit that they have great story ideas (either new or related to a current project) while they're totally involved with something else - they're at work, or driving, or something else which requires attention. This is interesting, and says something about the 'reception' theory. Like sneezes, or laughter, the story is sometimes a king which will come unbidden and make itself at home.

You'd think that only the best stories would be the ones that act like this, but I find this is not so. I've been harrangued by stories which later I've come to think of as completely duff, whereas others I've written to experiment with description, or character, or because I thought I hadn't written anything for a while, and they can be cracking.

It must be so multi faceted, and the whole thing is a little crazy.

A famous author said (I forget who, but one of the classic authors) that 'happiness writes in white'. ie, that the truly happy individual will not write at all.

I think there's a lot of truth in this, and indeed, I've seen a keen writer get married, very happily, and never again put pen to paper - their desire to just evaporated. Maybe if they'd been further along the craft route, that would have been different.

And also, there are a good number of people post to the rants board at FM claiming that life is very bad, and all they want to do is write, but they can't make the time... Maybe, just maybe, the desire to write is suddenly so strong, precisely because life is so bad?

Someone asked me once (genuinely) if I kept myself unhappy for the sake of my art.

Well, no, I'm just a miserable bastard! But I understand why they asked. Suffering does seem to lead to strong art, and stories are no different.

However, I think there is a level of authorship beyond the expression of emotion. Kinda like... you know, in most families, the woman does the cooking, but yet most Executive Head Chefs are men? Same-same, I think a lot of people use art (particularly writing) to express themselves when unhappy, but the pros are quite happy, both in life, and when writing.

This also comes full circle to the passion thing - you can't indulge a passion unless you have time for it. And how do passions become passions? Who knows? Maybe the addiciton can start with a need to express, and the magic of handling prose, delivering delight, and all the other things an author handles, can take things off in a new direction.

Anyway, lots of thoughts on the subject, but I better get to my personal answer: I think I started out with misfiring neurons and a need to express, but over time developed things I wanted to say, and a love of prose (a love affair with words, as Sarh so interestingly put it), and now I think it's altogether more like an addiction.

You'll also find some 'how to write' book authors make mention of the 'authors' high' - and they regard that as the total, 'in the zone' thing, when you're absolutely motoring, typing as fast as possible to keep up with the scenes playing out in your mind. This, they sometimes say, is very absorbing, and thrilling, and is the number one reason why writers become addicted to their own form of art.

Not sure, myself. I think it's much more multi faceted, but certainly, there are a number of addictive factors. So I'll add that to the pile of possible answers - addiction.

Pan Historia said...

Great post, great title. I'm definitely of the storyteller/explorer variety. I really connected on a visceral level to your 'method acting' analogy because that really applies a lot to what I do and write. I like to put myself into a character's head and then imagine the scene completely enough to feel like I'm there - a form of time travel if you will.

Anyway, great blog. Glad I discovered it.

Joielle said...

awesome blog. I am glad you told us about it, Pan Historia. I can relate to all three viewpoints, since my story or character ideas may come from a lot of different sources, sometimes just from some stray comments overheard from passersby. Haven't you ever just wondered what brought about that pithy comment, and what is going on in their lives to bring them to that point. At times writing is also cathartic though I don't feel that I have had such a particularly painful life in contrast to many others. Then at other times there is simply something simmering in my brain that if I don't get it out and onto paper, (well, computer hard drive now,) that I will simply explode. have I ever waited to see if I actually exploded or not? Of course not One doesn't waste that incredible moment of sheer joy once you have captured those words for posterity.

Ink said...

Hey Pan and Joielle, thanks for jumping into the conversation. Some great stuff here.

I found the "people want to write more when things are bad" idea quite interesting, as I think it rather dovetails with that "exorcist" propulsive drive. Maybe with a backup drive system of "escapism?" I think it's that idea of release, of that cup brimming over... and you get it on paper before you drown. I just had the sudden image of a drain or valve, and a plub being pulled out... release that pressure. It's like writing is that emergency drain up high on the tub so that the water doesn't overflow. It's a safety valve: to reduce pressure, write three pages of sci-fi blow-em-up story...

It's one of the reasons I think I'm really not the exorcist type, and really much more the explorer. I think I need a general level of peace and happiness to focus on writing. When things get rough my mind sort of drifts away from stories. I watch more television (passive) than I read (active). When my father passed away in a particularly crazy time in my life (graduating, moving, getting married, new profession, etc.) I found I didn't write for a long time, or at least very very little. It wasn't a block, exactly, it was just my mind occupied somewhere else. Now, writing might have been good for me... but certainly there was no emotional drive occuring.

But once things settled down, and life found a rhythm, the stories started coming with more clarity and force, taking up more and more of my cranal capacity... and with that came the urge to explore, to put something on a page and figure out just what it might be.

Though, I do think, as Book and Joielle said, that people are complex, and it won't always be clear. Hybrid engines! Multiple propulsion systems! Say, you might have someone who writes fiction as an explorer... and poetry and memoir as an exorcist. Or the fiction writing might vary back and forth depending on events and mood and the particular stories being written.

And once we get hooked into this whole writing gig, well, addiction might be there for all of us. Certainly I'm obsessed with words, with the rhythm and flow of sentences... and with Story, capital S.