Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Writing and Leisure


June. Roses bloom, strawberries ripen. Graduating seniors swelter in their robes while somebody important urges them to do, to strive, to achieve. Nose to the grindstone, shoulder to the wheel, as graduating seniors have been urged since time immemorial.

Unless they happened to be from Hiram College, Class of 1880. No fiery speech exhorting them to get out there and give it their all. No, what they heard instead was this:

“It has occurred to me,” said their commencement speaker*, “that the best thing you have, that all men envy, is perhaps the thing you care for least. And that is your leisure. The leisure you have to think in, and to be let alone; the leisure you have to throw the plummet with your hands, and sound the depths, and find what is below… I congratulate you on your leisure. I commend you to keep it as your gold, as your wealth…”

The leisure you have to think in. Even then, a scarce commodity. Scarcer now, what with those 15,000 applications for our iPhones. (Hey, I bet it takes hours to sort through all those).

But what does this have to do with writing fiction?

Fiction requires space. Fiction requires time. What non-writers don’t know—and what writers ourselves sometimes forget—is that the writing itself is only part of the process. An even greater part is simply thinking. Imagining. Listening. Seeing. Paying attention to the story in our heads, paying attention to the details of the world. (Oh, not practical details, like when the phone bill is due. Please. No, I mean like how spiderwebs gleam gold in certain slants of sun. Like how a dog’s eyes dilate just before it bites. You know…critical stuff.)

The leisure to throw the plummet with your hands, and sound the depths, and find what is below… Is there any better description of fiction writing than this? Sound the depths, and find what is below…

The novelist John Gardner once described a scene he wrote in which a character is offered a cocktail. The character had two choices: accept the drink, or decline. It was a simple, trivial detail, with no impact on the action of the scene. But Gardner couldn’t decide if she should accept the drink or not, and it paralyzed him. Unsure if he could even finish the book, he left off writing and plunged into physical chores. After three days, suddenly he knew exactly what the character would do…not only about the cocktail, but about everything else, too. He’d figured out the kind of person she really was. But in order to solve the problem—in order to even realize what the problem was—he had to give himself room and time.

Leisure. Kind of a dirty word in our culture. Brings up a mental image of beaches and funny-colored drinks with little umbrellas in them. In our anxiety to produce—so many words a day, so many pages a week, so many books a year—it’s tempting to hammer out any contrivance that will make the plot work, even if it means selling our characters short. It’s tempting to race to The End and call it done, and ignore the deeper threads and connections that beg to be teased out.

Embrace leisure. Keep it as your gold, your wealth. When the story is stuck, when you feel something isn’t quite right, when you hear whispers of something deeper lurking, step back. Give yourself the luxury of room and time, and let the story speak to you.

Your fiction will be all the richer for it.


* James Garfield, then a presidential candidate, soon to be President of the United States…for four months, until he was shot by an assassin. Not a novelist, but a great lover of books. And, apparently, of free time.

10 comments:

Melissa Marsh said...

Christine, this is an AMAZING post. Wow. Care if I share it on my Facebook?

I am a big proponent of leisure time. Being so busy I can't keep track of my life is not how I want to live. I make sure that I have time to rest and relax, time to think and dream and ponder. If I didn't have that time...my soul would be an absolute mess.

Christine Fletcher said...

Melissa, I'm honored--share away!

Years ago, I made a major decision to quit full-time work so I could have more time to write. Some people thought I was insane. It was the best decision I ever made...not only for my writing, but for myself. The sacrifices have been well worth it. I don't mind living on a budget, but I DO mind not having time to draw breath and think. You're right--who wants to go through life without the time even to appreciate what we have?

Joanne said...

Hi Christine,
I clicked over from Melissa's blog. Wonderful post, I enjoyed reading it at my leisure! It's so true that much of writing is not even the actual act of writing, but all the contemplating that happens before and during. This is some of the best writing advice I've seen, and really is advice that isn't seen often enough.

lkmadigan said...

Always a good reminder to let the unconscious do its work.

Walter Rowntree said...

You are developoing wuite a following in Pocatello. Your fan club here wants you to take as much leisure time as is necessary to crank out a couple of books a year
("..the way a dog's eyes dilate when..." ROFL!)

Christine Fletcher said...

Joanne, thanks. I've found in my own work that there's a fine line between giving myself room and time, and procrastinating...maybe I'll tackle that in a future post.

Lisa, that's it exactly. Annie Lamott likens the subconscious to a kid making art in a basement; every once in a while, a finished piece is handed upstairs. But the kid needs time to work!

Walter, LOL! Say hi to the fan base in Pocatello, let them know I'm crankin' away as leisurely as I can :)

Lisa Nowak said...

I'd like to say that I've been too busy enjoying my leisure to read blogs, and that's why it's taken so long to respond to this post, but that would be untrue.

I agree wholeheartedly that good writing requires time and can't be hurried. I consider it a yin experience, a meditative act. If I can't have time to stretch out, relax, and be at peace in my creative process then things just don't work.

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