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.