Friday, June 1, 2018

Confusion, Poetry, and Overwriting

Back when I was throwing out most of my possessions to make the world my oyster, I came across a stack of papers I had been saving. I’m the sort of person who writes every time I have ten minutes (or I used to be), and would constantly collect napkins and post-its and notebooks and not always type them up. I soon learned, especially as I would start to work on more projects at a time and didn’t always have a notebook with me, to start labeling them very specifically: Title of book, date, document location in which the story last left off (if it was on my computer, in my notebook, or on another piece of random paper), and a page number.

I wasn’t good about getting them into the original right when I got home. I also quickly learned to start keeping them in one place, else I’d spend hours searching for that one section of a manuscript to eventually end up rewriting it all together.

My plan was to type up the papers so I didn’t have to carry them with me when I traveled halfway across the world to Australia. Instead, I ended up shoving them all into my suitcase last minute. Because of course I did.

One day, alone in a giant house, I decided it was finally time. I sat down with my papers, knowing that many of them would be useless and out of date, and began typing. I didn’t expect it to be interesting, and in many ways it wasn’t, but I also didn’t imagine I’d be surprised by what I found. Many of them were from three years prior, before I had learned the importance of documenting in the above manner. Some were scenes from long finished manuscripts, preceding changes, original versions that I had forgotten were once even a possibility. Others were ideas I had no memory of even having.

But mostly, as I read through them, amused and reminiscent, I also noticed something else; I liked my writing more back then.

I could tell by the time-frame that they were created before I started to receive massive criticisms on my work. I knew that it had affected me in some ways that I wasn’t entirely sure of, but I hadn’t realized how much until I actually read through those unpolished versions.

My writing experience truly started when I was around 12. I began to create prolifically, about one novel a year for every year up until college. The year I graduated, I completed four.

The transition and unhappiness that followed me at my university dropped my productivity. I have written about five novels since I left high school in 2008, and started many unfinished ones. Which is actually not as bad as I thought. I also, while living in L.A., focused on playwriting and producing, and got a decent number of short stories printed, so as I say this, I’m doing more than I thought I was. Considering that this book I just finished took me several years when my average used to be three months for a first draft, I have been feeling like slacker.

In any case, back in high school, I just liked writing. I didn’t like editing, I didn’t like submitting, I just wanted to write. So I wrote. For the first four novels I didn’t bother to read anything I made, didn’t bother to give it to anyone, do anything with it. You can see the vast difference between the first four and book five—when I did decide to go back and look at my own work.

The fifth novel I ever wrote (a standalone, as the rest) was a turning point for me. It was the first book which I really enjoyed what I had done. I was truly proud of my writing ability and thought it could make it. Freshman year of college, I did query to five agents and a couple of publishers, receiving only one response—a rejection, of course. I planned to do more work, cutting the 140,000 word book down, but instead I lost interest. I worked on other things. One year, I focused on publication of short stories. Then the submission of plays to local theatres. But other than that, not much.

A little before the short story splurge, I began my journey to really, honestly improve my writing. Some of my delusions of grandeur and potential from youth had dwindled, and instead of wanting to be a good bullshit artist—someone who is immediately recognized for their genius of their raw, inherent talent—I enjoyed the process of pushing my fiction further. Prior, I just wanted success. Now I wanted stylistic control and skill to craft the book that was in my head.

It has been a hard journey.

For one thing, I had full trust that my teachers always meant the best for me. There was a weird conflict of ego and faith that I’ve seen in hindsight many times: Someone would tell me something, I would think they’re wrong, but deep down, secretly, I assumed it was just my stubborn pride telling me so, and really I was the one who didn’t know what I was talking about. And sometimes they were right. And sometimes they weren’t. And other times we were both right in a way, or it didn’t really matter.

The point is, I never believed in a teacher being selfish when it came to conveying information, even when I didn’t agree with their ideas.

I didn’t have a problem discussing my concerns, of course. When someone said something that didn’t make sense, I was the first to go, “THAT DOESN’T MAKE SENSE.” But I believed they had an answer, that I just wasn’t understanding. I was actually a pretty good teacher’s pet even though I was argumentative. Honestly, most were just happy I was participating and engaging. Many knew I was doing it out of curiosity, not to be a little shit. My high school was a great education.

This attitude, however, took my college professors back. They were used to students agreeing with them, listening, and obeying. My peers were much more trained in the ways of “listen to your elders,” much more respectful. They, like me, believed in the knowledge of their teachers, but unlike me thought that if they didn’t understand it, it was best just to agree.

The problem was when the professors’ arguments didn’t pan out. For one thing, after years and years of just being listened to, they weren’t practiced in actually proving their point. They hadn’t thought about why something was true because they never needed to before. I felt like that was the kind of L.A. mentality; you just said (or even believed) whatever the person in charge wanted to hear. That was how you got ahead. No questioning, just being likable and obedient.

Of course, this didn’t garner respect, and there was this weird sense that to get respect you had to not only be a dick, be the right kind of dick to get anyone to listen to you. You could be nice and have no one actively try to screw you over—but they wouldn’t listen to you—or you could be a force to be reckoned with and have everyone looking for ways to make you fail. The only way out of those two horrible options was to come up with some sort of credibility, like being a teacher or gain the teachers’ admiration—which seemed to be contingent on looks and talents that only benefited those teachers.

In other words, be a good, sexy actor with no intention on directing or writing, who is only dismissive of the other actors around you and awe-struck by the professors before you. Actually seems pretty Hollywood, looking on it in hindsight.

This means to determine credibility was my biggest heartache. I didn’t fully understand it at the time. I wanted to make my professors proud. I fully examined the plays they praised and the ones they hated, and while my skepticism has been a constant within me, I believed there was a truth in their opinions that stemmed from honest artistic integrity. But no matter how I searched, I couldn’t seem to find it.

There looked to be no correlation between the scripts they loved. There was no through-line between the ones they hated. No common denominator. No constant logic. The only thing that seemed to connect their opinions was something superficial, something foolish, snobbish, and impossible to circumvent: They loved plays that made them look good.

Anything written after the 1970’s is garbage. Neil Simon is garbage. You don’t need to read him. This obscure play that no one has heard of? Brilliant. This rambling four-hour mess of a buzz-wordy concept that my best friend wrote? Wondrous. This half an hour rambling mess of a buzz-wordy concept that my student wrote? Shameful.

I was good about not writing for the praise. I can’t even begin to describe how assured I was of myself. I did a lot of work being completely oblivious to how it could have gone wrong, unaware, unconcerned, of how few people had confidence in me. If someone said that I couldn’t do something, I just thought they were naïve.

I did a lot of stuff out of being oblivious.

But it wasn’t all that great. In fact, I knew my writing wasn’t meeting its potential. I had hit a wall. My writing was decent enough, but it wasn’t to my standards. I knew that. I got a lot of wonderful compliments in locations that people didn’t expect the writing to be great, but wasn’t getting far in the actual competitive field. I wanted my writing to be more, but I couldn’t fully understand the obstacle. What was I missing?

That was why I turned to others for advice, and why I wanted to understand what made Antoine Artaud so great for his fifteen minute, impossible to preform nonsense while my peer’s emulation of him—done strictly because my professors' praise of Artaud consumed our classes—was “just trash”?

Now, I have an opinion on some differences, and I could legitimately provide my own reasoning why Jet of Blood worked better than the homeless-Rubik’s cube piece, but more so, if I had sat down and watched those plays one right after the other with no knowledge of who the playwrights were, I would have written them both off to be meaningless, weird-for-the-sake-of-being-weird gibberish. The only reason I could see a difference is because I put the effort in. That begged the bigger question of, “How do I know if a play is over my head and needs more consideration or if it’s just stupid?”

“You learn with experience,” my professor told me.

“I learn what with experience?”

“I will never give you a play that isn’t any good.”

“If I believe that I wouldn’t be asking.”

I’m a good bull-shitter, and I knew that I could argue the artistic value of pretty much anything. My gut reaction to a work was not always right (I’ve hated a lot of my now favorite shows and books when I was first exposed to them.) In fact I'm terrible at vetting by first impression. Not just art, but people too. I started to develop the philosophy that there is no such thing as good and bad writing. Not this universal truth, at least, like I suppose I had been thinking. If a book appears in the woods and no one’s around to have a feeling about it, it isn’t good or bad.

It started to feel immensely like how you write didn’t seem to matter as much as how people thought you wrote. Reputation, confidence, and charm seemed to be more important than skill and style.

Even though I was putting my work out there more, I was still struggling to get feedback. The people in my writing classes were often either brand new—an undeveloped ability to analyze and communicate their feelings—or competitive aspiring authors with tainted opinions hand fed to them by their professors. While I couldn’t get the reaction I wanted, I didn’t feel like anyone was zeroing in on the actual reasons it wasn’t working.

As for my professors, even the ones I still respected towards the end, seemed to be lazy. I don’t blame them, actually, but if you agree to read something, I think you need to make a point to do it. Know your schedule and learn how to say no. I had a creative writing teacher who told me he would read my senior project, for instance, and after telling me he’d get to it many times, he eventually said he wouldn’t be any good because it was a script, not prose.

I said, “But I want you to focus on the plot and character arc,” I said, “which is pretty much the same as a novel.”

But really, he just didn’t get around to it.

He also was great at discussing writing concepts, but I don’t believe, looking back on it, good at actually editing. I don’t remember much, but I knew that he tended to write off works that weren’t in his comfort zone and never really considered what the authors were going for. I actually feel like I got a lot of good ideas about writing from his class, but never anything specific to my issues at hand or the type of writing I wanted to be doing.

The head of the theatre department would love to push me off onto other teachers. I was always a little offended because while I was working my ass off, struggling to get anyone to read and give me feedback, demoralized, stressed, and pained by it, he acted as though my problem was I was just too egotistical to think I needed it. He seemed completely naïve to how hard it is to get someone to read and comment on your work—as he sat there refusing to do so. He wasn’t commenting on me specifically or what I was doing. He just made assumptions about the hubris of young writers and gave untried advice. In a month where I'd printed and distributed at least a dozen of unread copies, (and in a year of so many more) he was telling me my biggest problem was refusing to distribute any.

When he told me I should give it to another professor in the department, I explained I had given him several, he doesn’t read them. He replied, “Well, he claims you can’t take criticism.”

“How would he know? He hasn’t given me any.”

And that wasn’t just some flippant argument. The professor in question never gave constructive criticism. I had taken his screenwriting class. He liked to be liked, and he only offered up praise. He never did thorough edits, never did say, “This is what you should change.” I couldn’t remember a criticism he had ever given anyone.

When I talked to a fellow student about it, as we sat there one sunny afternoon bonding over our growing loss of faith in the department, she told me, “He’s probably referring to the fact that you argue with them about their lessons.”

My non-writer friends, after I tell these kinds of stories, always ask, “Do you think you’re good at taking criticism?”

This is the sort of question that no matter what you say, people are going to think it’s a lie. Or you’re stupid. I always answer, “Depends on who you ask.”

It wasn’t until after college that I truly managed to get real feedback. I went back to Wyoming and attended the Jackson Hole Writers Conference. I felt uncertain about it because to pay 30 dollars for three 40-paged edits seemed a little scammy, but the experience gave me far more understanding than I had had in years of classes.

It wasn’t super fun, to be clear. The first real criticism I got was the worst one I have ever received. Not, ironically, because of the quality. There were some comments that were dead on, super smart and insightful. There were others that were stupid beyond all belief:

“He clamped his mouth shut.”
“With what?”

She wrote all in caps and had rhetorical questions. “WHY WOULD YOU DO IT THIS WAY? JUST DO THIS!” Why did I do it that way? I did have my reasons, and once you understand those, it might help to convey why it didn’t work or that my priorities were off. She never really said why she didn’t like my choices, just that they were ‘obviously flawed.’ Her feedback was just a bunch of demands and orders. Do this, change that. Problem was, I didn’t always understand what she was trying to do or trust her simplified solutions would be successful.

It was her callous approach that made it difficult. I wanted to believe her, but at the same time parts of me were bracing against the criticism. Was it my pride? The way she was talking to me? Is it my instinct? Why don’t I agree with her? Do I need to get over myself or trust my gut?

I couldn’t tell.

Not all of her advice was obviously correct or inaccurate. A lot of it was vague: “Just simplify everything.” Okay. What do I simplify? To what extent? Like a Dick and Jane book? I agreed with the specific sentences she circled, but I couldn’t identify why she left alone the ones she did and why she hated the ones she did.

I even approached her after, thanking her for her advice, and asked, “How do I know where to simplify?”

“Just simplify everything!”

I didn’t want to do that. I don’t particularly like reading minimalistic writing. I liked my style. It was the one thing I was truly proud of. Even by that point, where I still didn’t have a lot of reaction to my actual writing, people had said that, “I love the way you write, but sometimes it’s jarring.”

I believe them, I felt it to be true myself. Prior to 2011, I wrote for me. I didn’t care about rules, I didn’t care if I was thinking outside the box or in it. I wasn’t trying to be weird and I wasn’t trying to be the same. I just did what I liked. With it came an organic way of speaking, a way of speaking that was true to how I actually spoke in general. I could always tell when someone took the words out of my mouth, quoting me, even if I didn’t remember saying it because I was the only person who would put it that way. I had a naturally unique voice that had developed on its own, no external pressure from me.

But I knew that this “jarring” writing was a continuous problem as well. I had personally found sentences in my work like that. Others had complained about it enough. I knew damn well how pretentious we authors could be. I couldn’t always remember why I chose a word I did, and it was entirely possible I was showing off in specific moments. “Kill your darlings,” they say. Sometimes the things you’re most proud of are the things the read the most ingenuine.

I believed her, but her solution to just go through and simplify every single sentence wasn’t useful. I have always had people assume that “you should know what words I know,” but that’s just not the case. I never write anything I don’t think my readers will get. I don’t have any desire to be dense. I think, at least at the time of writing, I’m being as clear as I can be. If I read it and I think it’s not clear, I will also change it. Understanding how your readers think is one of the hardest skills to learn. If I were to just go through and write every sentence in a way I knew everyone would understand it, I guarantee it would sound like I thought my readers were all idiots. That wouldn't go over very well.

That criticism upset me more than any other to date. It was worse than when someone was deliberately rude and you knew they were wrong, or even when someone was blunt and you knew they were right. I sort of liked her and I sort of hated her. I agreed with her at times and not at all in others. She was correct about her criticism, but gave me no more hints on how to apply it. I just didn’t know what to do with it.

It tormented me for a long time afterwards. The other feedback I had gotten was somewhat similar, but not really. They too commented on words they couldn’t stomach, but no one had any sort of consistency with each other. That would be true for many more edits on those chapters to come. Everyone had line edits, no one agreed on which lines. I changed what I agreed with, gave out the comments to some others to have them explain them to me, changed a little more, then put it aside. I would find this woman’s papers every three months or so only to have a flurry of emotions brought up again. The whole thing made me feel helpless. Eventually, I realized I had gotten what I could from it and threw them out. That was the best way to let go.

As the manuscript grew, changed, and evolved, I noticed a few trends. One was the ever-so lovely inconstancy of line critiques. The common denominator seemed to be the same response, “I love the way you write, but sometimes it’s jarring.” My best quality seemed to be my worst enemy.

Over time, I got more and more, “I’m confused.”

In the first version, the beginning was exactly as you would expect. It featured the mundane life of a girl in a cult. I struggled how to describe the danger and abuse from the eyes of someone who didn’t see it. In one example of what I felt to be a snobby write off of the above critic’s, I had the protagonist look through her closet and she reflected calmly on memories, what she wore the time she witnessed a woman beaten for adultery, for instance. My critic wrote, “YOU’RE TELLING A STORY, NOT JUST TALKING ABOUT STUFF!”

Was it a boring way to describe it? Yes. The best way to describe it? No. But was I just talking about stuff? No. That was my way of telling the story.

The agent I met with afterwards (who also didn’t care for sci-fi), and I discussed this issue when I had the epiphany that I didn’t need to tell it from the protag’s point of view. I switched back and forth throughout the book already, so why not tell it from her lover’s? A man who very much hated their community, who knew damn well of the wrongs they could do. Who while she was living a life of ease, he was running for his life.

I had done many rewrites of the intro, but none of them that I liked. This new epiphany worked really well, solving some of the complaints—except it didn’t set up the world as well.

After the change, I started to get comments of, “I’m confused.” It began to be the only consistent remark in a sea of, “I don’t like this one word.”

It took me sometime to understand this undertone because few people actually said they were confused. As I stated, most gave orders. “Do this, change that.” It wasn’t immediately apparent what they were trying to solve. I gave the first few chapters of my manuscript out to many people, I went to writers groups, and I would say that it was about eight months later that I started to get some constancy.

I practiced simplifying my language in places, looking for moments that more than one person got stuck on (which was rare). I asked a fellow writer to circle each moment she got confused only to have her read through it and say, “I guess I understand everything.”

This process, as you can imagine, was incredibly frustrating.

I continued to write in this time. Not as much as I would like. I could feel my writing getting lazier as it applied the simplicity. I didn’t want to take any risks anymore. I was fixated on what people would say with every word I put down.

My manuscript did get cleaner. In the process of receiving feedback, I also cut out about one-third of it. The last 20,000 words were just me trimming any excess verbiage I didn’t need. I became more succinct and more simplified. I also made content changes, and I think those were more effective than the altering the prose.

I don’t feel like I’ve devolved in my ability, but I do think I’m safer. As I read through these scribbled pieces of paper, I see words and phrasing I don’t even know how I came up with. Are they pretentious? Jarring? Some. In the right eyes? Definitely. Or definitely not. It’s hard to tell.

I’ve never believed in the pleas for simplistic writing. It has its place, it needs to exist, and for those who love it, they should write it. But I have always said I enjoy a good turn-a-phrase and have felt restricted by people’s assurances that you can’t get away with it anymore. We want simple and to the point. Writers who play with words don’t care about readers. People only use big words to show off. Why use a big one when a shorter one will do?

I struggled to find the right balance. I didn’t want a dense read, but a challenging one. I didn’t want to sound like a show off, but I still wanted a narrator with a voice. I wanted readers to enjoy the work. I wanted my writing to hit an emotional note. Why wasn’t it working?

As I look back over my pieces and see the evolution of my style, I won’t say that everything is better than what I do today. In some ways, definitely not. Revising old scripts, I find myself cutting a lot of standing around time. “He froze.” “She looked at him.” But I managed to do something natural, something real, something strangely charming that I feel is lost in what I’m working on now.

What this means for me, more than anything, is the revelation of the same old feeling I should have already recognized. As I realized that I did truly like my writing, I understand that, no matter what I said, I had always secretly denied liking it. I had assumed it was only my pride. I believed I was just another inexperienced asshat who refused to recognize I was overwriting.

My style today might be less jarring, but it’s also a lot more safe. I’m going to see what I can do about that.

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