Tuesday, July 12, 2011

How to Postpone Writing

Sharon Wildwind

Ever get one of those months? Maybe the last month in graduate school or the first month after a new baby comes home?

With a writing deadline last week, sandwiched between two art deadlines; shift trades with my job-share partner; an on-again/off-again feeling that I’m coming down with a cold; and a raft of niggling appointments cutting into most days, I feel like Alice’s white rabbit. From the time I get up to the time I go to bed, my most compelling thought is I’m late, I’m late, for a very important date.

I know that my two sets of characters — one in a play and one in a novel — are out there somewhere, though goodness knows what they are doing with their time. I’ve barely spoken to them in the past twelve days. Since they are all relatively new characters I haven’t yet introduced them to one another. At least my two older sets of characters knew one another intimately. When I hit a spell like this they amused themselves with tales of the gosh-awful things I’d asked them to do in their respective series.

Thank goodness I had a writing teacher who insisted that I learn how not to write. He warned me that there would be days, weeks, (hopefully not) months like this, and that it was as important to know how to retain a story in my head as it was to write a story.

Just in case you ever have days, weeks, (hopefully not) months like I’m having right now, here are some tips on how write while, at the same time, postpone writing.

Initially work with a time span of a few hours. Set yourself a task like, this morning instead of writing, I’m going to take a walk and think about writing. This afternoon I’ll write what I thought about. Gradually lengthen the time frame from a few hours to one day, to three days, to five days. That’s about the limit. Most people, even those who practice doing this a lot, start to lose details after several days.

Some people are detail magpies. They collect detail after detail, rearranging them until they built a big picture, like putting together a jigsaw puzzle. Other people like to look at the puzzle box first. They see that one small area contains a black-and-white floor and go looking for all the black-and-white pieces first. Then they look for the red pieces that make up the rose vase on the table, and so on. The first type of learner is specific-to-global and the second is global-to-specific.

Why does this matter? Because specific-to-global learners will remember details easier and global-to-specific learners, will have an easier time remembering overviews such as theme, stakes, and character impressions. So while you’re taking that walk, focus on the easier things to remember.

Since I’m a global-to-specific learner, I find it easier to think about the big picture. That doesn’t mean I won’t notice a perfect park bench for Jason and Tiffany to sit on while having their fight, or that I’ll ignore the juicy dialog I overhear in the coffee shop, but what I’ll try to keep in my head is the bigger picture of where the story is going.

Most of us use different learning techniques in different situations, but some generalizations can be made. In North America approximately 85% of people who have participated in learning-style studies are, like me, mixed visual/kinesthetic learners. That means I learn best through a combination of seeing something and doing something. If someone forced me to sit on my hands, close my eyes, and just listen, chances are I would remember very little. Only about 15% of those tested learned best by just listening.

You’re going to need a small, portable, dedicated place to make notes. If you’re a listening learners, get yourself a recorder. If you’re a see it/touch it learner, buy a small notebook. The key here is that word dedicated. This recorder/notebook is for remembering writing only. The more you dilute this tool with shopping lists, the address of your new dentist, or a note to call Sue, the less effective it will be to helping you remember the story.

For the listening learner, life is simple. Talk anything into the recorder: snippets, key words, lines of dialog, impressions, a description of a woman’s suit that would be ideal for your protagonist, and so on. Sing song snippets. Recite poetry. Create doggerel or limericks. When it comes time to write, sit down, close your eyes and just listen. The sounds should evoke material that can be translated to pen, typewriter, or computer.

For the see it/touch it learners, practice taking notes on the fly, a few key words — Jason-Tiffany-green bench-birch tree-hot day-big argument—will be enough to get the creative memories flowing. Take photos. These days few of us run around without a digital camera. Make small drawings and diagrams. You don’t have to be an artist. Who cares if your bench looks like it’s made from popsicle sticks? You’re going to know that it’s Jason and Tiffany’s bench and that they had a big argument there.

The big pay off in all of this is not only that these techniques come in handy during the months like my July, but that you start to take advantage of the gifts that come along every day, those perfect images, words, and connections you will want to use when you sit down to write.

Quote for the week:
Can anyone remember what we were working on three months ago?
~Hollywood writer, returning to work after the writers’ strike, February 2008


Sheila Connolly said...

I'm late, I'm late,
For a very important date.
No time to say hello, goodbye.
I'm late, I'm late, I'm late!

(Thank you, Lewis Carroll, by way of Walt Disney)

One of the fun things about being a writer is that the stories keep simmering in the back of your mind, even when you're not aware of it. And always carry something to write (or draw) on!

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Sharon, did you make Jason and Tiffany up for this post, or are you really writing what I'd peg as either a chick lit or a Regency romance?

And from the So Old I Know Almost Everybody Department, I remember Paul Simon, dressed in a bunny suit, singing "I'm late, I'm late" in a school performance in Queens when I was in seventh grade (he and Artie Garfunkel were in ninth).

Anonymous said...

Jason and Tiffany are my stock example characters. Jason is older, about twenty-seven. He works in IT. (It seems like every second IT tech I talk to starts with, "Hi, I'm Jason, how can I help you?) Tiffany is younger, with that long, straight, ubiquitous blond hair that sported by every high school student.

Oh, gosh, I envy you the New York experiences you've had. I give quite a lot to have seen Paul S.'s performance or even to have had them two years ahead of me in school!

Sandra Parshall said...

I tell myself that a writer is always writing, whether she's at the keyboard or not. It makes me feel better. :-)

lil Gluckstern said...

I'm a great believer that things are simmering on the back burner while we take care of what's up front. I like your idea of pictures, and drawings. They make things come alive.
Liz-this is eerie. I went to Queens College with S and G. Used to listen to them sing in the college cafeteria-many, many moons ago.