A friend who’s been caught up for months in editing and teaching, and then in all the demands of the holidays, writes that she’s going to enter her “spider-webbed writing room” to see what’s in there. Many writers are in the same position right about now. One common piece of advice for this situation is the logical suggestion that we start by rereading what we last wrote and editing it, or reading over the whole of our manuscript to date. I find the re-reading and editing approach more useful for starting a regular writing morning than for restarting after a break. Sometimes, after too much time away from a project, the thought of looking at the work we’ve already done is overwhelming. What if we hate it? (We probably will, at least until we’re inside it again and regain our hope that this slithery and problem-ridden work-in-progress can become something alive and real.)
We’re just going to get into trouble if we try to make up for lost time by producing ten pages a day, or thinking of what the reader might want/what would make an exciting high-stakes situation, or going down any of the false tracks that lead to inauthentic work or even to blocks. In an interview with Roy Newquist (from Counterpoint in 1964, reprinted in A Small Personal Voice), Doris Lessing said, "You should write, first of all, to please yourself. You shouldn’t care a damn about anybody else at all. But writing can’t be a way of life; the important part of writing is living. You have to live in such a way that your writing emerges from it. This is hard to describe."
Lessing’s words give a sense of how we can create a fierce spaciousness for our work without minding the time given to family, friends, work, politics: everything we do in the world. Maybe too many writers have an image of what a “real” writer is like: someone who lives on toast and canned baked beans in a 17th -floor cold-water walkup flat, writing from early in the morning into the evening, including right through the holidays. (My students, especially older students – their work rich and remarkable just because of all the experience they’re now regretting – often have a mental publishing schedule, in which they’re several books behind.) It helps to let go of these self-punishing fantasies and just start from wherever we are, by making small discoveries and letting ourselves play as if we had endless time. What interests us about the scene we might write next? How can we surprise ourselves with our discoveries?
Here’s a low-pressure writing exercise for exploring the consciousness of all the characters in the room, not just the protagonist, but everyone we think of as “minor” characters – none of whom really are minor, if we think of them as human beings, rather than as a kind of furniture or plot aid. I used this version of a fairly common process for the class “Creative Inquiry for Writers: Writing and Consciousness” at CIIS – it can be useful for re-starting writing because it comes from a slow, dreamlike place.
What is it like to be...?
We’re going to take an imaginative approach to one of the central questions/perplexities of consciousness: what is it like to be like something? One of the most interesting questions that neuroscience, philosophy, and psychology wrestle with, and that art/literature takes on as a central function, is whether there is any way to know the subjective experience of another being. In his famous 1974 essay, “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?” Thomas Nagel writes: “...the essence of the belief that bats have experience is that there is something that it is like to be a bat....we must consider whether any method will permit us to extrapolate to the inner life of the bat from our own case, and, if not, what alternative methods there may be in understanding the notion.
“Our own experience provides the basic material for our imagination, whose range is therefore limited. It will not help to try to imagine that one has webbing on one’s arms, which enables one to fly around at dusk and dawn catching insects in one’s mouth; that one has very poor vision, and perceives the surrounding world by a system of reflected high-frequency sound signals; and that one spends the day hanging upside down by one’s feet in an attic. In so far as I can imagine this, which is not very far, it tells me only what it would be like for me to behave as a bat behaves. But that is not the question. I want to know what it is like for a bat to be a bat. Yet, if I try to imagine this, I am restricted to the resources of my own mind, and those resources are inadequate to the task. I cannot perform it either by imagining additions to my present experience, or by imagining segments generally subtracted from it, or by imagining some combination of additions, subtractions, and modifications.”
One of the central tasks of the imaginative writer (whether of fiction, creative nonfiction, or poetry) is to train our imaginations so that in writing about other people (real or made-up) or any kind of life, we are not merely imagining ourselves in their position (or a character just like ourselves) but finding ways to know – in ways impossible for science – what it is like to be them.
For this exercise, you’ll be inhabiting another person or people; you can either create a character or imagine your way into the experience of a real person. (Even those who ordinarily don’t write fiction can benefit from stretching this imaginative capacity a little further.) Choose a significant moment in your characters’ lives: siblings meeting up for the first time in years, someone learning a partner’s shameful secret, someone leaving home and moving into a boarding house, etc. Take whatever characters and whatever situation first occur to you, without trying to evaluate the merits of the potential scene, or whether it “belongs” in the book or story. Note that significant doesn’t necessarily mean melodramatic – you’re looking for all the intricate shades of interaction and awareness.
Close your eyes: see, hear, smell, taste, touch the whole scene. Try imagining being every single character in the scene, at least for a few moments. What does one see or hear or smell or think that another might not notice? Listen to what people are saying, inhabit their phenomenological/subjective experience (observe the sensory details, what’s happening inside and outside their body and mind), then get it all down without editing yourself.