Sunday, May 19, 2013

Fire and Ice in Fiction

Zeal and discipline. Spontaneity and rigor. In the preface to Lyrical Ballads, William Wordsworth defined poetry as “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility.”  That applies to lots more than poetry. Unrestrained passion followed by meticulous craft describes not only all writing, but probably all art.

The trick lies in the definitions of “passion” and “craft." In a well-known quotation from Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott claims that the only way she “can get anything written at all is to write really, really shitty first drafts.”

Perhaps. But the problem with writing “crap” is how hard, not to mention discouraging, it is to write past it later on. Besides, quite a substantial gap exists between the stench of dung and the flame of creativity. Maybe Lamott meant that first drafts must emerge impulsively. By all means. Better, though, write not because you have a deadline or think you should or hope to make lots of money. Write because you have to, because you have no choice. Fire like that usually ignites fire in whoever reads what you wrote.

But fire rarely accomplishes the whole deal. Yes, many of the most glorious lines are born without labor pains, like Aphrodite arising from the seafoam. But every serious writer knows that you’ve got to manage all those other lines. As Ernest Hemingway said about revising the ending of Farewell to Arms thirty-nine times, it’s about “getting the words right.” Or, as Joseph Pulitzer put it, “these ten or twenty lines might readily represent a whole day’s hard work in the way of concentrated, intense thinking and revision, polish of style, weighing of words.” And here’s Elmore Leonard on the climax: “If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.”

Tip: There’s something magical about translating passion into language, then translating passionate language into words so startlingly clear and vivid that they sound effortless.

Except the sensation of effortlessness, like a fabulous musical comedy or garden or quiche or basketball game demands enormous effort. It just doesn’t show.

Are there strategies for accomplishing "emotion" + "tranquility"? For the fire:

·         Neither censor too much nor little.
·         Don’t try to sound like anyone but you.
·         Run a little wild: flirt, giggle, tease, endanger, glorify.
·         Take risks: pick a dangerous, glamorous, unlikely possibility. Follow it.

For the ice:

·         Be patient. Excellence is a slow uphill climb.
·         Be rigorous. Don’t talk yourself out of what you know you ought to fix.
·         Be aware of the rules. It’s great to break them, but only intentionally.
·         Be confident. If you want this badly enough, you can earn it.

Don’t let the ice douse the fire. Use it to temper the right amount of light and heat.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.