Fun, Fear, and Flamenco

Here’s an update on what I’ve been doing instead of blogging…


A few hours ago I got that peculiar feeling that I was being watched. I twisted around on the couch and saw a baby black bear peeking in through the screen door only a few feet away from me. (Sorry, no photos.) It was a great experience, albeit a bit disconcerting for me now that I’m sitting on the same patio where the bear came by. What freaks me out the most is knowing that I might come across one when I’m on a hike and not inside some safe structure—though I realize that a screen isn’t exactly impenetrable. Apparently they can open doors unless you have a good quality round door knob, and it seems your music collection doesn’t scare them as much as your chatter:

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No, there aren’t any black bears stalking around in the desert of Tucson. We rented a place in Durango, Colorado, far away from the 115 degree temps back home. I love hearing people in the checkout line at the grocery store complain about the heat here.

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In Silverton, about an hour from Durango, there’s still snow on the mountain, as you can see in this photo of Geordie playing on the train tracks

There are a lot of things to do in Durango, and most of them involve adventure. I’m not into becoming nauseated on the slowly rocking narrow gauge railroad train, nor do I want to face the possibility of falling to my death on a zip line. Yesterday we went rafting on the Animas River. I envisioned floating along, watching birds, waving at pedestrians along the river trail. Instead, we crashed into waves that went far over our heads. I felt like I was in the ocean. If I’d known the rapids would be that crazy I don’t think I would’ve taken my non-swimming husband on that activity. Everything went fine and we both had a good time, but in retrospect that was pretty scary. An older gentleman on our raft went overboard while shooting some kids with a water gun, probably because he was so focused on shooting the kids with the water gun and not on staying in the raft. I think our next venture will be checking out the hot springs spa down the street, maybe at night so we can do some stargazing. (The stargazing here is incredible. I can see the milky way so clearly that it almost seems like cirrus clouds are attempting to block the view of Cygnus.)

As I look into things to do here, the connection between fun and fear comes to the foreground. For some of us, the rush from imminent danger—usually in a controlled and relatively safe environment—is a pleasant experience, and that’s supposed to explain why we do some of the crazy things we do. For me, fun doesn’t come from facing physical danger, or if it does, that physical danger had better be entirely fictional. But I wonder how much of my kind of fun involves overcoming fear of another kind—for me, public humiliation, at least on some level. When I think about the sort of things I enjoy doing, there’s almost always a social component, or a creative element to my activity that involves public scrutiny at some point. For instance, if I do artwork, this will eventually be shown. If I cook something besides a grilled cheese sandwich, someone else will eat it too (and my husband is a gourmet…a published gourmet.) If I play guitar, someone will hear it. If I blog…well, you know.

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My partner is a Pilates instructor and professional ballerina…no pressure or anything. On the other hand, the dancer furthest away from me is 80 years old, and putting my whining self to shame.

I am not a dancer by any stretch of the imagination, but recently I’ve been taking flamenco dancing lessons, beginning level. At the end of May we had a recital in which we danced the Sevillanas. This was supposed to be a casual event at the teacher’s house, but eventually became a highly staged performance at a square with 100 rented seats…and that was apparently not enough. The kids had to sit on the floor while others stood around in the back. To make matters worse, we all danced on a set of ‘stages’—platforms really—that were built to protect flooring from the nails in flamenco shoes, and this felt like dancing on a trampoline. Everything went fine for the most part, excepting a shaky moment that apparently no one saw. I can’t say I felt any particular rush of pleasure while dancing in front of an audience. If anything I felt a bit disappointed that I didn’t do as well as I did while practicing in my garage for the month leading up to the performance, but I was happy that I didn’t blank out and forget the steps. I’m not really surprised by this. I tend to derive a great deal of pleasure from the craft side of things, not so much from the performance side. Still, I wouldn’t have practiced as hard as I did without the performance, without knowing things could go wrong.

In writing there’s a similar danger that things could go humiliatingly wrong, although this in a time-delayed fashion. Writing is done in a more controlled environment than public performance, but it is a public performance. The act of writing something down renders thoughts empirical, visible, public. In writing, the work is done elsewhere at the author’s leisure, and so expectations can be set higher, and the audience will naturally be less forgiving than they would be in listening to someone give an impromptu speech.

These things are on my mind now since I recently submitted a draft of my novel for my writing group. I gave myself an arbitrary deadline—my birthday in May—as a way to get through it, finally, and as a way to remember when I got through it should I look back years from now and wonder what the hell happened. Now I’m waiting for the group to meet again in July to do a critique on the whole thing, beginning to end, and I have to admit I’m nervous. I don’t usually get nervous about writing, but this is different. This is the entire novel. Because my writing group will know what happens and where I’m planning on going with my story, they won’t be able to give me the benefit of the doubt on any particular chapter or scene. This is the real test to see if it all hangs together. Things can go horribly wrong here. The stakes are high, not because I’ll be publicly humiliated, but because I’ve spent a good deal of my life on this…and actually, truth be told, failure at this point would be sort of humiliating because I’ve had plenty of time to get things right. Don’t get me wrong, I know I’ll get useful suggestions for any problems; my group is a god-send. But still, what if the whole story just makes no sense and I have to start over? What if?

Could it be that writers are adrenaline junkies of a different, more sedentary breed? Perhaps not the sort to get high on the potential for physical threat, but instead on skirting intellectual disdain from peers?

One of the best bits of writing advice I’ve received was this: Take Risks. This advice seems to hit on something true about most bad writing—it’s boring. I know that my best writing tends to come from risk-taking, the kind that makes me highly uncertain of how it’ll go over with an audience. As a writer I’m not too discriminating about forms of praise, but the best comes when there’s a sense that things could’ve gone the other way. That little bit of danger is what makes the praise all the more meaningful.


Do you find risk-taking fun? Meaningful?

What was the riskiest thing you’ve done? Did you find it rewarding or educational?

The Challenges in Writing a Philosophical Novel

A while back I did some Googling to find out whether someone out there had written a book similar to mine, and in my research I came across Charles Johnson’s novel, Faith and The Good Thing. Too good to be true. He too makes use of the most powerful centerpieces in Plato’s works: The Allegory of the Cave and The Divided Line in the Republic, and Diotima’s Ladder in the Symposium. To name a few. 671564(See this for more on the meaning of Diotima’s Ladder.) I wondered how he turned these theories about the relationship of reality, truth, and beauty into a story that people would be able to appreciate as fiction.

I’ve always felt that Plato’s ‘harmony of the soul’ would make for a great story, if only I could figure out the right angle. I know the phrase sounds antiquated, but if we change the language a bit, we’ll find a remarkably current philosophy of lived experience, a nuanced one that doesn’t ignore all-too-human truths, and, contrary to popular belief, doesn’t ignore the  world we inhabit. But it’s true that Plato’s more concerned about the inner workings of our minds, and for him this needs to be understood before we can make sense of the world. We have complicated emotions and desires that can really mess us up, in so many ways, even intellectually, and we might not realize it. But Plato also says that these are an integral part of us, and necessary for attaining knowledge. Without desire, there’s no impetus to do much of anything, much less study philosophy. And yet, philosophers tend to think of emotion and desire as something that ‘gets in the way’ of reason, if they bother to discuss it at all. Plato plunges headfirst into the mess of the human psyche, and leads us to ask: How do we make sense of ourselves as creatures with noble ideas in a world that doesn’t seem to live up to our expectations? Should we lower our expectations, give ourselves a so-called ‘reality’ check? What if we get it wrong, and don’t realize it? What if  transcendent ideas actually are real? What makes something real anyway? How can something be said to be not real?

I think Plato has meaningful answers to these questions. My challenge is to turn something as technical as the Divided Line into an engaging story, to bring these questions back to life.

I was surprised to find that Charles Johnson and I came up with the same idea—we both independently thought to create characters that represent segments of the line. (Of course, he did it first.) My “Faith” character is also a religious young woman who represents picture-thinking on the line. Johnson’s characterization makes perfect sense to me, obviously, but it might not make sense to those who don’t know the intricacies of the allegory.

But that doesn’t matter. Faith’s plight as a religious young black woman whose mother dies, leaving Faith to roam the earth (well, Chicago) in search of “The Good Thing” makes for an intriguing story. She wonders what The Good Thing is, and so do we. Faith becomes a prostitute in order to survive, constantly searching, constantly changing as she encounters dodgy characters, each of whom represent other aspects of the divided line. She’s moving up the line or ladder, but from her original standpoint as a fairly stable innocent figure (representative of right opinion), moving up to higher levels of knowledge and sophistication is dangerous. Plato would agree, and the events in the novel exemplify what would otherwise be a yawn-inducing epistemological threat. Johnson has shown that the theoretical has serious, material consequences. Plus, there’s an element of magic to the tale, which lends an epic feel to the novel, a bit like John Gardner’s Grendel, (Gardner was apparently his writing mentor.) There’s a surprising merging of science and witchcraft, of art and reason, of myth and truth, and these create a thematic tension that sustains us throughout.

All of these elements make the philosophy come alive, but Johnson may have lost a broader audience was when he had characters dropping references to philosophers/philosophies that the average reader might not understand. What worries me is that I didn’t even notice that these references were problematic until I got feedback from my book group. So much about this novel was, in my opinion, brilliantly successful. Members of my group all agreed that the writing sparkled. And yet, these references were enough to make erudite people, some of whom are professors, dislike the book as a whole. The online reviews echo this complaint. Yet I missed it, so eager was I to make my comparisons and theories. This was an eye opener for me.

My takeaway from The Good Thing:

Don’t reference without clearly explaining. Better yet, don’t reference without being prepared to integrate the point into the plot and theme in such a way as to make the idea come alive on its own, with no need for you to call attention to the reference. OR—reference with such a light touch that readers who won’t get the reference won’t feel that anything’s missing.

Don’t make the characters wooden in order to drive home a theme. Give your reader time to figure out what’s being exemplified, and don’t worry if the philosophical theme isn’t crystal clear from the get-go. Don’t worry if it never becomes crystal clear. If you stick too closely to the archetype, you lose that breath of life that makes fiction fiction. Johnson juxtaposed his children’s fairy tale narrative style with a dark subject about modern life to make his archetypes worth following. But what he did is hard to do. And while I don’t know what segments of the Divided line all his characters represent, I got his overall interpretation well enough to let those details go.

Be funny. Yeah, easier said than done. But humor makes readers more likely to forgive you your heavy ideas. Johnson did just this, and it worked. He had a way of spinning out yarns that I’m incapable of. But there are more ways to be humorous than telling jokes. Consider goofy ordinary things that people do, and bring those into a heavy philosophical moment, grounding that scene in the mundane. Consider the setting and how that can contrast or illuminate the point in humorous ways. If all else fails, just put a dog or a baby in the mix. Interruptions can do double duty by being both funny and revealing, especially if your characters react in different, revealing ways.

 

Don’t be tempted to put all your philosophical ideas inside heads. This is sort of the default for philosophical fiction: dialogue, dialogue, dialogue. It’s a kind of info dump when you think about it. When I don’t know how to convey some idea, I tend to just stick it into dialogue and run with it. Or I have someone thinking about the idea. But that’s lazy of me. Try conveying those ideas with no dialogue, at least as an exercise, and see where that leads. You might be surprised.

Don’t be too brief. If you want an idea to resonate, make it resonate. Don’t whittle it down to nothing out of fear of being boring. More than likely, you’ll make it boring by scraping away the meat of it. There are other ways to deal with dense material than to strip it down to a Cliff’s note. And if you want to let readers get their geek on, but you’re worried you might still be putting out too much info, put the diagrams and equations in an endnote. That way everyone can have their cake.

That said, brief nuggets of wisdom can work well.  Especially when repeated in a certain thematic rhythm. Johnson used a few snappy lines to crystalize various ideas, and the repetition of those lines gave a sense of movement in its own right. Also, these gave a sense of finality: “Don’t be interrupting to ask if the tale is true. Was it Good? Was it Beautiful? All right.”

Use subtext. The best of all possible worlds is when material conflict converges with ideological tension. When one character has something to hide from another, he or she might speak in generalities—in our case, in dry philosophical terms—while really being concerned about something much more mundane, which is, in a sense, more important. Make that mundane worry crystal clear for the reader, make it clear that this worry is bubbling beneath the surface of what’s being said or done, and you’ve virtually given yourself a free pass to go wild with theoretical musings.

For instance, when Faith meets Tippis, one of those dodgy characters she encounters on her travels, he takes her to a bar and drowns his sorrows in pontifications: “Everything you want is an object for the satisfaction of drives developed in childhood, and you, in society, are an object for others, hardly ever yourself…” and so on. This doesn’t feel like a lecture in the context, because they’re at a sleazy bar, and we know Tippis is eager to use Faith as an object for his sexual gratification. Faith realizes this too, and now we wonder how she’ll react to his professed philosophy. We also get a sense of just how pathetic Tippis is, and can feel sorry for him in this sense, just as Faith does, even when she’s powerless to stop him.

Give those ideas relevance by making them a stake in the game. If you can make the philosophical idea a necessary feature of your plot, you’re golden. If the protagonist doesn’t figure out the mind-body problem in time, his lover will literally lose her head. Well, maybe you can tell me how that might work.

By the way, tomorrow I’m going to the Tucson Festival of Books to see Charles Johnson do a workshop. Maybe I’ll get to thank him in person!


Any ideas on how to write a philosophical novel? Or a novel about ideas? What tricks or tools would you use?

Translating in the Dark

I’m working on a project with Andreas (you may know him as “Nannus”) to translate Frege’s “On the Scientific Justification of a Concept Script,” which is funny since I don’t know much about Frege—close to nothing—and I don’t speak German. Nannus, however, is a native German speaker with a strong grasp of English and logic, so I thought my work would be a simple edit of what he’d already published on his blog. I believe I told him it would be nice to move away from the original German syntax to make the writing more accessible to English readers, and I thought it would take very little work since the article’s so short. Professional translators are probably laughing at me now.

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This has been an entirely new sort of writing project for me. Normally when I write, I craft sentences to approximate the idea I have sitting in my mind, and yet, this act lends the initial idea a distinctive clarity, tethering it in specificity. I can’t say I have no idea of what I’m gonna say before it becomes formulated into words, but the idea is usually cloudy, a mere outline. It’s not controversial to say that writing clarifies thoughts, but we don’t always like to acknowledge that it can uproot an initial idea by displaying, sometimes all-too-concretely, its incoherence. Thanks to the delete button I can contradict myself without embarrassing myself, I can change my mind in private so that by the time my idea comes across to an audience, it seems as though my thoughts have always been relatively clear, as if it were only a matter of putting them on paper. In seeing my ideas so concretely, almost objectively, I can revise them, altering them to make them more logical, qualifying them to soften their rough edges, tweaking them to make finer points that otherwise
wouldn’t be available to me. This is part of Frege’s point (as I understand him)—that “external signs” make more permanent what is otherwise transient, that thoughts would not be what we think they are without written language.

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A bit of doodling from high school which I found as I was cleaning out my mom’s house. I decided to photograph this bit and then throw away the journal. No regrets. I like the photo better than the original, especially that glare in the corner.

I found that this distinctive benefit of writing—the clearing out of cobwebs in one’s own mind—gets lost in translating, which instead forces words into what feels like a jigsaw puzzle, the emerging picture being some mysterious original content, the author’s intent, somehow graspable though difficult to re-articulate. This isn’t a perfect metaphor since there’s room for some structural alteration which a jigsaw puzzle wouldn’t allow. For instance, I could break apart sentences that an English reader would find tediously long, within limits. But this breaking apart sometimes meant changing a word or two, which then required changes further down the sentence often due to seemingly trivial things like syntactical expectations in English. And after doing this sentence-level reconstruction, all this had to be looked at from a paragraph level, and the reformulations had to be altered yet again to form a coherent whole. And so on. Not to mention the odd dynamic here since I couldn’t consult with the original text myself, which felt a bit like I was playing out some inverted version of the Chinese room argument…and of course I would be the one locked in the room with nothing but vapor clouds of propositional content, wasting most of my time wondering about pizza delivery options. Plus, I wanted to make changes in places I felt there was inconsistency or superfluous detail clouding the author’s message, but that was not only not my job, but not allowed. The irony here is that Frege’s article is about the cloudiness of language and the need to create a new form of communication free from equivocation, hidden premises, and mental muck. Good luck with that, Frege. I suppose a thin crust pizza might make it under the door relatively intact, don’t you think?

Do you have experiences of translating other people’s words? Or lost in translation experiences? What did you learn?

 

Going Plotless

In my last post I described the rule-breaking writing exercises I’m working on with my writing group. I promised to post an example:

Don’t write a tight plot. Sounds easy, right? But here we want to focus on how to write a story with multiple trajectories that don’t quite add up. How might this work?

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Trisha ran.

A mourning dove flew about, ready to lay some eggs, searching. For what? She’d know it when she saw it.

A roadrunner hopped up to the edge of a patio covered in glossy Saltillo tile, recently sealed. It watched the large docile creature sitting at a white bistro table, a man eating a turkey sandwich. The roadrunner didn’t know the turkey was turkey, but that didn’t matter. It wondered in that indistinct animal way whether the tile would be slippery, whether it was trustworthy. The roadrunner made its move.

A woman gazed out her front window over her kitchen sink. She always happened to be doing the dishes. Trisha appeared to her as a flash of sunny blonde hair moving in that smooth manner of golf carts, the ones that seem to glide over the hills, turning without needing to slow, almost liquidly. The girl didn’t have things in her ears, those gadgets they usually have. Good for her. Live a little. The woman went to the pantry and used a wooden spoon to knock down a box of low sodium wheat thins from a high shelf. It fell onto the counter and she dove out of its trajectory. It landed on its side and spun a bit, but stopped at the edge of the counter. A few crackers fell to the floor, and her Yorkie looked up at her with a question in his eyes. Was she wearing a bra? The woman looked down at her own very liberated chest. The Yorkie, being a Yorkie, acted like he wasn’t all that interested, but he circled around, his little paws tap-tapping coyly, always coming back.

The roadrunner hopped up, landing on the hard solid foot of the large docile creature who appeared to be taking in some form of nourishment.

The man did not move a muscle. He tried to stop breathing. He couldn’t believe his luck. What a story this would make, a roadrunner landing on his shoe, begging for food.

“Go on, Yogi. You can eat it,” the woman squealed, pointing at a nearby cracker, snapping her fingers. “C’mon.” Live a little. She didn’t want to bend over to pick up the crackers. Her back hurt.

The roadrunner hopped back down, forgetting its previous concern about the tile. It was only a little harder to walk on the tile.

The Yorkie sniffed at the perfect squares which were somehow not broken from the impact of the fall.

Trisha turned the corner. Easy enough given the perfect curve of the sidewalk, one which widened at turns. This curved bit of sidewalk had been inspected recently for tripping hazards (anything over 1/4”), along with the rest of the street.

The Yorkie’s nostrils flared. Millions and trillions of bits of information flew into a black tunnel that opened into a wet cave. Things we don’t know.

In any case, the sidewalk wasn’t the problem. A palo verde stuck its green claw out into Trisha’s path. It reached for her as if animated by her arrival, but really it dipped in the gust of wind which had just picked up violently for a second. The green claw had smaller green claws, all of which were armed with needles. All this claw-ness would later be masked by thousands or millions or some other high number of flowers, cartoon shapes of crayon yellow. But it wasn’t that time of year. Now the palo verde looked like a massive pile of homogeneously green sticks randomly stacked on top of a wandering trunk. The trunk the same blah-green as the sticks, except for a few brown marks where it’d been scorched.

The microburst of wind and the bob of this palo verde branch sent some number of insects into the uniform blue sky. It was the kind of dusty day that obscured distant mountains.

In a swimming pool in a Santa Fe style house way out on the east side—granite counter! stainless appliances heated pool travertine thru out. Gorgeous Mtn.views a Must See!—a lizard clung to a vertical island, a bit of mineral deposit which had collected on the edge of the pool. Its “fingers” worked best on natural things, not so well on slippery tile, and the lizard just happened to be lucky enough to drop over on a spot where the minerals had deposited themselves over the tile. The lizard eyed the water each time the wind kicked up a slight wave. If it weren’t for the occasional eye movement, this lizard would look exactly like the lizard a few blocks down that had gotten itself stuck in-between a window pane and a screen. A perfect specimen of natural taxidermy, fried in the sun, still clinging to the screen, immortalized forever like a pressed flower. That lizard was about the same size as this one, about the size of two quarters placed side-by-side. A cute little guy. It was that time of year for lizards to be out and about, and for them to be about this size. This lizard clinging to the mineral deposit, it flattened itself into a slit of shade from the overhanging concrete edge of the pool. The overhang saved it from frying in the sun. It also prevented it from escaping. Not in any real way, but in a lizard-brained way. In the same way that the window-fried lizard could’ve theoretically gotten free if it had known how to go out the way it came in.

The man smiled and called out, “Here roadrunner,” tossing out a piece of bread. What a story.

The roadrunner hopped back, dodging an object. It stopped at a safe distance and reconsidered.

The palo verde moved very slowly toward the things that gave it life. What gave this particular palo verde tree life, or more of it, temporarily, was the growth of this branch in this direction.

The HOA had not counted this branch as a maintenance issue since it didn’t obstruct the path.

One hot current of air wanted to go one way, a cooler current wanted to go another way, and there was a sort of atmospheric traffic jam. The palo verde branch got jostled down, out of harm’s way. It bent, but didn’t break.

The pool lizard clung on.

The other lizard clung too.

The endless blue sky so uniform it might as well have been a paint color sample stayed right where it was.

The man threw another piece of bread, bigger this time.

The pool lizard tried to escape, but rediscovered the problem of the overhang. Now it faced the other direction, away from the water.

The roadrunner looked at the bread. It wanted the turkey, not the bread.

The man threw another piece of bread, further away this time.

The roadrunner walk-hopped away.

The man called out to it, but the roadrunner disappeared into a wash, behind some treacherously thorny stuff which the man didn’t feel like getting into.

The mourning dove picked up a stick, flew it to some high-traffic location which she’d picked out for her nest, tried to fit the stick into her nest and noted several big animated creatures moving in the proximity of her real estate. She dropped the stick onto the ground. She stood on the edge of her new digs—the lid of a box filled with garden tools, tools that needed to be used on a regular basis now, since it was that time of year—and looked at nothing for a while with her thoughtless black eyes. The big creatures backed away. She didn’t look at the stick she’d just dropped. She didn’t look at all the other sticks she’d dropped, the ones right there. She flew off in search of a new stick.

Trisha ducked.

The roadrunner came back to the man. The man finally gave him what he wanted, a bit of turkey. The roadrunner gobbled this down and waited for more, which came forthwith. The roadrunner ate as much as he could, then waited for a big one, a nice fat slice. He snapped it up in his lethal beak and ran off with it to find his mate, who waited for him behind some prickly pear. He showed it to her.

The man with the sandwich chased the roadrunner down into the wash to see where it was going with the turkey. He saw the female roadrunner and this confirmed what he’d heard about roadrunner mating rituals. My discarded turkey is like a giant diamond ring. Turkey bling. He couldn’t wait to tell his friends how he helped a fellow male get laid. The female seemed ready to submit, but at the last second she ran away with the Albertson’s deli meat dangling from her beak.

The palo verde got a few of Trisha’s golden hairs, but she got one of its claws, one of the dead ones, one which had dried out and for that reason snapped off easily. She swiped it off her head without missing a step. The stick flew onto some blah beige landscaping rocks and rested there, virtually hidden.

The man with the sandwich tripped and landed in the prickly pear. In his palms there no longer resided a turkey sandwich, but instead a story, one he would not share.

The mourning dove picked up a new stick. This was a perfectly good stick. It caught her eye because shiny things were attached to it. She flew her treasure to her new home. A big featherless biped stood near her space. She didn’t notice until she’d nearly reached her abode, at which point startled, dropped her golden stick, fluttered into a nearby mesquite. Another nest grew under her box, a better nest than her own, but she didn’t know. She flew away, searching for a new stick.

“Get into the fucking car.”

Trisha ran faster. She knew she couldn’t out run a car, but she ran anyways.

A wave of pool water splashed the lizard and cooled its scaly back, but it did not take this as a boon. It twirled frantically, its tail whipping. Then a basket scooped it up. It’s little legs flailed randomly until it fell over the the edge of the basket and into the cool blue.

The Yorkie brought his delicate pink tongue down to a square. The square lifted, stuck to his wet tongue, then dropped. “Yes, you can eat it. Go on.” He looked up with a question in his eyes.

“Treat!”

Yogi took the square into his teeth, carefully, so as not to lose a crumb, and absconded with it to his hiding space between the ottoman and the couch.


I never meant to write this much, but I found myself needing a lot of space to include multiple POVs. Another woman in the writing group managed to complete this exercise in less than one page. She used a sort of free-association to tell her tale, but instead of creating a thematic unity the way I’ve done here, she literally linked the story together by referencing the last sentence. I’d never seen that done before. It worked well in a strange way.

Have you ever gone plotless? Was it on purpose? What did you learn? 

Rule-Breaking Writing Exercises

I’m in a writing group that’s been going on for years now. Normally we follow a certain schedule (if you’re interested in how our Garden Group operates, see this), but recently I’ve decided to shake things up a bit. I asked everyone in the group to tell me a rule he or she generally abides by. I explained it doesn’t have to be a rule in a prescriptive sense—I didn’t want this to be something the writer felt must be written in stone, especially since most of us know those rules are rare—but, I said, it can be. Each writer gave the following:

  1. Write from one POV at a time. Show, don’t tell.
  2. Give authenticity of space, sense of place.
  3. Be sure to have a tight plot and believable, likable characters. Write something that can be read on an airplane while at the same time giving a deeper commentary. Shoot for realism…in other words, no idealized characters.
  4. Use all the senses.
  5. Nail the voice first, then worry about the plot.

(The last one was mine.)

Then I proposed that we continue to do our regular novel submissions and critiques, but with these we’ll submit very short rule-breaking exercises based on the above. The point of the exercises is not to write something publishable, but to see what can be learned from rule-breaking and from each other. For example, I feel pretty confident about rule 4, but 5 and 8 (mine) will be really hard.

Here’s the agenda (the third author’s rules had to be broken down into several exercises):

  1. Write in omniscient. Tell, don’t show. (Of course, you must show to some degree, but do a great deal of telling.)
  2. Write in whatever POV or tense you like, but give NO sense of place. You can give other sensory details, or not. Try to think of what would justify doing this.
  3. Don’t write a tight plot. Sounds easy, right? But here we want to focus on how to write a story with trajectories that don’t quite add up. How might this work?
  4. Write an evil protagonist. A veritable villain with no redeeming qualities, not even a sad, broken childhood to explain our villain’s character. Pure. Evil.
  5. Write a beach read. Don’t be deep, no greater commentary, nothing intellectual. Imagine you’re writing the next best seller and your agent tells you not to go anywhere near literary. You’re gonna make a ton of money. Movie deals. You might hate yourself a little…or not? Can this work?
  6. Write something with a big point, without any aim to please a general audience. It can be scholarly or not. The tone is up to you.
  7. Don’t use senses in an evocative way. You can let the reader know the story’s taking place in a grocery store, but you have to leave it at that. We’re not looking at the flowers in the grocery store, not seeing the color of someone’s shirt, not hearing the cash register…unless these are crucial for the plot.
  8. Write a tight plot (keep it simple, maybe even cliché, since this is only a quick exercise) and the voice should be not only secondary, but utterly bland. Since “voicelessness” is impossible, think of someone who’s conventional, not someone who bores you to death (since this would actually count as a strong voice).

So far we’ve gone through the first three rule-breaking exercises, and here’s what I’ve learned so far:

Omniscient + Tell, Don’t Show.

Telling worked best when the telling had either a strong narrative voice and/or told of very specific and interesting details. In longer works, telling is often used to move the story forward without having to read about people opening car doors and doing boring things to get from point a to b. Here, telling served a different purpose, yet it turned out not to be a big problem.

Omniscience, however, creates distance, which was problematic in a short writing exercise. There simply wasn’t room to dip into the inner thoughts of multiple characters without “head hopping.” The way to avoid head hopping is to either avoid dipping into a close third person, or use that close third person to purposefully create a sense of chaos. Controlled chaos. The voices of the characters must be distinct both from each other and from the narrative omniscient voice. I felt we all came close to pulling this off, but we all needed minor tweaks to clarify.

Note: We all wrote dark stuff.

No sense of place/No authenticity of space

This exercise seemed to be the most difficult so far, at least for me. I tried to use the setting as a minor point of tension, a little question in the reader’s mind: “Where is this person? What is she doing?” I tried to avoid describing the room, sticking closely to my character’s thoughts. I wrote from the POV of a woman involved in the Milgram experiment (banality of evil, compliance to authority.)  Unfortunately, everyone guessed this was the Milgram experiment and they imagined the location/setting without my having to describe it. I imagine if I’d chosen to write something more original, I might’ve gotten away with it. But hey, plots are hard to come by. For an exercise, I figured it’d be all right to steal.

Others chose to establish a setting, then alter it in a way that wasn’t expected. They ended up writing surrealistically, and that led to an unreliable narrator. The two combined can work, but only for short bursts. Surrealism is difficult to pull off, and I find it much easier to take when I know I can trust the character generally, and I know that what I’m reading is an altered state.

Since these exercises were “short bursts,” the writing turned out to be interesting and, in my opinion, new territory for these writers.

Note: We all wrote dark stuff.

Don’t write a tight plot.

The joke was inevitable: “I do this all the time! This exercise will be easy.” Doing this successfully is a different matter.

What came out of this was interesting. I ended up doing something very similar to another writer—I kept a thematic consistency to make up for the lack of plot. You get the outlines of what could happen with all the dangling threads based on consistent mood and theme.

One writer commented that the imagery seemed richer than our usual writing.

Another writer noted that the reader fills in the gaps, that the lack of plot encourages a more active participation on the part of the reader to make sense of the story.

I ended up writing something slightly out-of-the-box for me. I tend to write about the mundane, and I did it here too, but this time I played around with POV in a way I hadn’t before.

Note: We all wrote dark stuff.


The common denominator: Dark stuff. We haven’t figured out why. My hypothesis is that, in a writing exercise, we don’t take ourselves too seriously. This gives us license to go there.

Another thing I noticed is that many of us wrote way more than a few paragraphs. Some even submitted the exercise as a short story.

What are your writing rules/tendencies? Have you ever tried to break them?

If you feel so moved, feel free to share your rule-breaking exercise in the comments. You can break your own rule or use one of the above as a prompt. (I’ll share one of mine in the next post.)