Sandra Rodriguez Barron, The Art of Detaching"
The Art of Detaching
The goal of writing fiction is to write a story a total stranger would enjoy. And let’s face it, readers today are ruthless. Downloadable samples of first chapters make it even more important to hook the reader right away. The reader holds no obligation to the writer, and yet we as writers have every obligation to him. The best way to please our audience is to strive to see the work through their eyes, to let some part of you imagine that you are them. This role play, if well managed, can be one of a writer’s best tools in every stage of writing, from inventing to revising.
I’m working on a third novel. While three-quarters of it is still thinly drafted and a huge mess, I’ve polished the first half over and over because I needed the foundation to be strong before I could move on. Over the last month, I’ve revised the first few chapters so many times I’ve lost count. What I normally do at this stage is a bit strange. I email the “finished” document from my desktop to my Kindle account as an alternative to printing. I curl up in my big comfy chair, read my work on a tablet, then use the highlight or notes function to mark it up and make the edits on the desktop later. Editing a whole novel in this manner would completely inefficient, but it’s a terrific tool if you keep it focused to a particular section. It’s the only way I can truly see mistakes on the page after I’ve worked on it for so long because there’s a point after which I start to go blind. The added benefit to reading it in Kindle or iBook format is that I can experience it like a stranger would if they downloaded it from the Apple Store or Amazon. If clothing can dramatically change the way a person looks, why not use the same idea for writing? It’s all about altering the context. I make corrections and repeat this process until my eyes can slide over the piece without interruption. Eventually I will have an unobstructed view into the secret life inside the story.
We all know that the creative free spirit is sacred, and should be allowed to write whatever it wants. Our inner muses and editors should never fight, distract, disrespect, or infringe upon one another. So how can we effectively manage these distinct resources? It helps to give some thought as why we may sometimes cling to the words, structures or narrative choices that just aren’t serving the story as well as it should.
1. Ego. Self-consciousness in can be deadly. If the work is too closely tied to the writer’s identity, the writer will have difficulty seeing the work objectively. It takes a great deal of humility to follow an aesthetic vision and still be able to incorporate valuable feedback from draft readers.
2. Heart strings. Perhaps you are writing a novel about a young woman who is mentally ill. Your sister happens to be mentally ill. Your story is critiqued or rejected for publication and you are devastated. It feels like someone just punched you in the gut. This means you have not yet separated the universal from the personal. You haven’t broken out of your cocoon of pain in order to connect with a reader because you’re holding on for dear life. The process by which a story enters the mind and heart of a reader requires that the author get out of the way.
3. Time. When we hear advice, we often block it because all we can think is, ugh, more work. I don’t have the time! We’re already thinking about where it will be published. What we’re clinging to is the investment of time. We want it to start paying dividends right away. But allowing a story or novel to fully develop always takes more time than we think.
So how can a writer shift, both creatively and emotionally speaking, between creator and cold-eyed consumer? Here are 7 more suggestions on how to cut the umbilical chord between you and your creative offspring at various stages.
1. Practice on someone else. Making recommendations to other people’s writing is a great workout in the skill of detachment. In the traditional writing workshop, the work is discussed like an orphaned bundle left on a doorstep, without the writer’s hovering input. You don’t have to be enrolled in a writing program to participate in a writer’s group, you can create or find one.
2. Use your senses. Have someone read your work out loud to you. Close your eyes and listen. Return the favor if possible. You can also record it on your phone. Listen in the car and pretend you’re listening to an audio book. I’ve heard of writers asking friends to act out/dramatize their scenes to test dialogue and action for authenticity. These ideas go back to what I said earlier about creating detachment by changing the context.
3. Build inventory and let it cool. Thomas Mann wrote, “Time cools, time clarifies; no mood can be maintained quite unaltered through the course of hours.” So write about your life and thoughts today and everyday. Then walk away from it. Read it a month or year or decade later, and you’ll think, wow, I wrote that? Pluck the little jewels and use them in dialogue or as a first line or central idea. Follow it wherever it takes you. If it comes from your center, it will attract other thoughts and sentences like a magnet. In order to have “cooled” material a year from now, you have to build the base of creative inventory now.
4. Work on something else. When you’re stuck, work on something else, especially in a different form or genre. Even if you’re not stuck, it’s still to a good idea to schedule breathing space into your writing schedule to give your mind and emotions a break and to replenish your creative energy.
5. Focus elsewhere. Try a word counter app such as NanoProgress to get a target number of words down on page by a certain date. By turning it into a game, your attention is on a word count, not on quality. Another method I’ve heard of controlling emotional outflow is to use a white-on-white font during the free-spirit stage. The paradox here is that we do our best work when we’re not trying to do our best work.
6. Spread the love. Molecular biologist Francis Crick is often quoted as saying, “The dangerous man is the one who has only one idea, because then he'll fight and die for it.” The more story drafts and seeds you have planted in your creative garden, the less invested you are in each one. The more pages you have, the more willing you are to weed out the paragraphs or scenes or chapters or drafts that aren’t thriving, so you can give your energy to the ones that are.
7. If all else fails, re-read something that will make you fall in love with language all over again. Ever been to a perfume store where they give you a bag of coffee to sniff between fragrance samplings? Beloved works can have that effect. It re-sets your senses to neutral when you are feeling confused, burnt-out, over-stimulated, or overwhelmed.
Eventually, we must sever ourselves completely from our work in order to go write something else. This process is like crossing a series of bridges from fierce devotion to a kind of fond estrangement. In the reader’s hands we deposit our book. All we can do is be thankful, and hope that it will have a long and wonderful life without us.
SANDRA RODRIGUEZ BARRON holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Florida International University. She is the author of The Heiress of Water, which won first place for debut fiction at the 2007 International Latino Book Awards, and was a Borders Original Voices selection. Her second novel, Stay with Me, was a finalist for the 2011 Connecticut Book Award. Sandra is the grateful recipient of support from The Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, The Greater Hartford Arts Council, the National Association of Latino Arts and Culture, and the Connecticut Commission on Culture & Tourism. She lives in Milford, Connecticut, and currently teaches at Western Connecticut State University’s MFA Program in Creative Writing.
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