Wednesday, March 14, 2018

noodling about writing

When I asked her at some point what she did when "writer's block" struck, my mother, who was a pretty good writer in her time, said that if all else failed, she just killed one of the characters in whatever piece of fiction she was working on.

It wasn't easy for her, but death was a jolt -- a rebooting of a system that had hit a brick wall. Still, to eliminate what had taken time and trouble to create was no small matter. Death and its echo-echo-echoes was a fear both writer and reader could share. A reconnection. With luck, the reader had come to rely on this character the writer had conjured. Death removes hand-holds so the question arises, for both writer and reader, "Where can I hold on now?"

But what if the reader had not come to rely on what my mother had come to rely on? What if, in the simplest of terms, the reader ho-hummed past the event and said, "Ask me if I give a shit."

Somehow, this thought-thread came to mind last night as I opened and read the first few pages of a pre-sleep novel I found lying on the dining room table. I had finished another book and wanted something to read and so I picked up "The Shack." The cover proclaimed the book a "New York Times best seller." The first few pages left me feeling that its point of view and observations were too obvious by half. I had no reason to like or care about the voice I was offered. The observations were those of a bright teenager, perhaps, but there was nothing to make me really give a shit.

Another of my mother's writing dicta came to mind: "Be honest: The reader can smell dishonesty." Oh well, perhaps I was just tired and crabby last night, but this smelled artful/dishonest. Luckily I was also sleepy, so I closed the book and turned out the reading light.

It has been a long time since I read something that made me want to know what happened next. Doesn't the writer have an obligation -- a required honesty -- to try to connect with the reader? I sort of think so. But one of the reasons I write in this blog format is to sidestep that obligation. This is just my form of masturbation -- you will choose yours. The writer who says s/he writes "for myself" is a liar who, given the choice, would rather get laid... or can't quite imagine that anyone else would be interested ... but maybe... maybe ... maybe.

Perhaps yesterday was just not the day. I had watched bits and pieces of a movie called "Jayne Mansfield's Car," a generational series of juxtapositions with Billy Bob Thornton and Robert Duvall, two actors I like. The movie was quirky and human and as clear as the cobra venom I can't help but think is alive and well and free-floating in the South. There were currents and cross-currents and the movie felt honest without the literary frou-frou.

OK, so I was probably unfair, but no one comes to the arts with a sense of fucking "fairness." The arts are meant to sweep me off my feet, make me lose my balance, make me twist slowly in some insisting wind. Take me, I'm yours! Make me want to know what happens next. Kill someone I love ... or hate ... either way, s/he will be sorely missed.


  1. I wonder if we don't do the same thing in life, as a tribe or nation. We want to make things better, but get stuck in the how, so we go to war and kill a bunch of characters. It may not be as distracting as it used to be, but we do what we know so we'll continue with it.


    The killing characters off suggestion your mother made to you was clearly in context to her type of writing and is not readily generalizable.

    The suggestions in the above link can be generalized by writing to other forms of creative work.

    However, for some reason her solution strikes a chord in current politics. Stuck with a Stormy Daniels lawsuit and a Special Investigation? Fire your Secretary of State. Pledge talks with your faux nemesis. Yep, dishonesty stinks to the heavens!