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Avoiding the List: A way to get unstuck and discover language

There are many lists that I have that potentially keep me from writing.  There are, of course, cleaning the desk, remembering to feed the cat, e-mail discussions with SOs about dinner, gifts for kid's teachers, a costume for Burning Man, laundry, buying more paper.   These are lists about the material world, the graspable world, the stuff we can love, sweep, and touch.  

But there are also ephemeral lists that can keep me from writing.  They are the lists about writing itself and the sequence in which it all has to be done.

1. Don't write down the sentence for story B until you have finished story A.

2. Forget the middle scene for the novel because you don't have the scene that comes before it.

3. Never mind the description of X's face at the party because you dont know where to put it.

These are just three examples of lists created by my Literal Office Manager, the manager who has learned that you put first things first and never do something that isn't the first thing.  

Of couse there are times when I must finish something and going to anything else is a distraction.  But it is rarely the Literal Office Manager who knows this.  There is another Manager, whom I call the Guardian Manager who knows when to call on the more Literal Office Manager (and the Stress Manager, too!) and when to follow the impulses of imagination and language.  

This manager has an entirely different list.  It sorts through what is essential not to put off and what is extraneous.  It is tempting not to listen to it, to rely on the sequential habits of the Literal Manager.  I do it far too often.

Now and then I am asked by a university or a summer writing program to teach a workshop in the novel over a week or a weekend.  Most people bring in novels that are in various stages and are misleading to critique because the writer doesn't yet know the shape.

The first workshop I taught left me in a state of dismay after the first day.  Twenty summaries that no one could really understand.  Twenty times twenty dilemmas.  On the second day I pushed the Literal Manager aside and said:

How about everyone picking a private place in the room and just write a scene you have a sense that belongs somewhere in the novel.

People wrote for hours.  Later, there was great relief.  These scenes had been clamoring to be written, the characters in them nearly shouting to have a voice.  They created clues about other parts of the novel--what came before and what came after.

When I write poetry I have much more license to do this because poets work from lines.   One line may occur and then another and although some poems are written from start to finish, I move things around and generally worry less about sequence.

Somehow, though, the notion of sequence inculcated at a very early age haunted me in prose in the form of Lists.  Thes are  notions I learned long ago, starting with Miss Ryan, the scary public school demon who made me stay after school becaues I couldn't draw the clock shaped like a flower she drew perfectly on the board, each number in a petal.   Later there was the Sacred Outline.  And always there was the idea of discipline and order.

Yet it often works best for me when I trust the more creative organizer to make decisions.   This organizer often has an overview that the Literal Organizer doesn't.  I'm not advocating endless journaling about feelings and dreams.  I'm advocating the far more dangerous notion of the line or the story that you know belongs somewhere.

This is the line that leaps up unbidden, the scene that emerges suddenly, or the scene that you can feel, see, or even touch, even if you only see part of it.  These are the moments of creative excitement, the moments that arrive and aren't summoned.  It is good to write these down as soon as possible.  The List, the reassuring, pesky List, has had its moments and will no doubt have many more.

But those lines, those scenes, those titles--they don't wait around to be ordered into the List.  They defy the List.  They even re-create it.  


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Taking Shape

Hi Thaisa,

So first, interesting idea of the Literal Office Manager in your head. I have many, many roles incorporated in my mind but hadn't assigned that specific role to anyone. Yet, it's there, a position to be vetted. Thanks.

Second, you're so right about a novel's shape. I've discovered that on my own that I'll write a beginning and ending and then search for the bridge to connect the two. But the bridge shows the road went further than where I first glimpsed the beginning and the resolution I saw was only part of a resolution. The characters and their situations were more complex than. I'd witnessed part of a scene. Trying to write about it, I discovered the rest of their stories, and the novel's shape changed. 

I'm relieved to hear you say that. For a long while, I thought it was just me. I'd accepted that and moved on but it's more comforting in this matter not to be unique. 

Wonderful post. Cheers

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Thank you

Michael, great to know that there are fellow travelers in this circuitous profession!