Writing about writing can be as racy as the next blog-worthy topic. Hey, I weave in cute stories about my kids and moving tributes to my past and even some political panic. (Okay, political panic is only the subtext. See if you can pick it out.)
So: you meet a friend for coffee. You chat, have a brioche, catch up on who she’s dating and what she doesn’t like about her job and what your kids have learned how to do (oink in a grunty little way when you ask, “What does a pig say?”). You get a refill of chai latte to go, exchange hugs, and leave to go grocery shopping.
This is not a scene. Nothing happened.
I don’t mean to say that you shouldn’t meet your friend for coffee or that she shouldn’t complain about the people she’s dating (new people, same complaints). It’s true that I did have a wonderful wise friend who advised me at one of my birthday parties to get new problems every ten years. However, one can live a perfectly decent life–maybe even a better life–with very little scene. (See my very first blog, which is about plot and how unavoidable it becomes over a lifetime.)
No one wants to read your everyone’s-happy-and-nothing-changes book. Even you.
Tell me if you’ve managed to sustain your everybody’s-happy-and-nothing-changes life for very long . . . Or do you go in and mess that up just for excitement? But sure, we WANT things to turn out well. That’s what keeps us reading as the characters get into deeper and deeper s***. We hope that the terrible thing that’s coming won’t come; as the good people that we are, we are rooting for these characters. But if it doesn’t come, if nothing comes, if everything gets better and everyone is out of danger, we’re going to put that book down and never look at it again. Harsh but true. If it’s the last page of your book, then you’ve done your job, and you can let us put it down and go on our way. But if it’s page fifty or page two, go back and stir things up, people.
Even Pema Chodron’s books are full of the struggles she faced and still faces, from her husband leaving her to her monastery disciples or whoever fully rebelling against her leadership style. How do you think she learned all those coping mechanisms for dealing with pain and suffering?
So open those plot-veins and keep that blood flowing.
I was a kid who, on the one hand, frequently put on original theatrical productions, rigging costumes out of the bizarre items the seventies left in my mother’s closet while, on the other hand, spending significant time sitting on my front step filling in workbook blanks. Loved those. I suppose (sorry to Felicia who wanted me to change problems every ten years) that I have been struggling with this creativity/ order dichotemy for a long-a** time.
But in writing, the two come together–or at least they take turns . . . So if you have that mechanical inclination, here’s what you can look for:
Go to the beginning of your scene. How’s everybody doing? Give them little emotional tags: happy, sad, scared, confident, proud. That sort of thing. Now go to the end of your scene. How’s everybody doing now? Are the happies still happy? Have the proud been humbled? Are the frightened still banging knee-caps? Are the confident all shook up? In other words, has anything happened?
If not, you’ve got some work to do.
If you are frightened of work, go dig outhouses in the desert. Don’t be a writer. Annie Dillard, in The Writing Life, talks about the physical labor that is writing, walking around a nine-foot table until you have to go home and soak your feet. She says (and I’m working from post-partum memory here), if you want to be metaphysical, throw pots.
So you go back and you make sure your scene turns. Let those suckers (your beloved characters) wander unsuspecting toward what is about to happen. Surprise them. Mess with them. Change them.
You cannot do this in real life. In real life, somebody else is in charge, and while I am praying all the time now, for one little boy in particular and the world in general, I feel like an editor who can’t convince my client that something different needs to happen in this book. Of course, the stuff I’m praying for doesn’t offer the best plot choices. I want “hope” not “change” and healing not drama and for the happy to stay happy and only the scenes that are going badly to turn.
So I am going to try to make a deal with this writer-client I’m talking to in my head about what’s going on around me: if I convince writers working on the page to inject some really terrible events into their fiction, to turn lives upsidedown and wring the fates like so many dirty rags, how about you lay off the drama-trauma out here in the world for a while, and I promise, I promise, we’ll enjoy the heck out of it in books.