Saturday, June 24, 2006

Conversing with Text

Just a step away from talking to yourself is this notion of talking to text. We're lucky to have a site of National Writing Project in our area (Bisti Writing Project–that's pronounced Biss-TIE, not BEE-stee!) It's a wonderful group of teachers who write and they're kind enough to let this writer who teaches hang out with them. We're in the middle of our summer institute right now and one of the pieces of writing we're all working on a "conversation with text." Such a simple idea. Read something. Write in response to the something you've read. Naturally I'm getting glassy-eyed trying to decide what text I want to respond to, and how. Today, I think I'm settling on a George Orwell collection of essays, Why I Write. But then there's also Emma Larkin's Finding George Orwell in Burma.

Why Orwell? you might ask. He didn't think much of the children's books of his time. In a 1936 essay he wrote, "Modern books for children are rather horrible things, especially when you see them in the mass." Wonder what he'd have to say about–hmm, let's see, picture book gems by Madonna!

Possibly it's that other George (the Shrubby one) who's making my thoughts turn to Orwellian themes. Here's a passage from Orwell's essay, "Shopkeepers at War."

"...the...moneyed class, unwilling to face a change in their way of life, had shut their eyes to the nature of Fascism and modern war. And false optimism was fed to the general public by the gutter press, which lives on its advertisements and is therefore interested in keeping trade conditions normal."

Ah, Eric Arthur Blair, where are you when we need you?

Sunday, June 11, 2006

Talking to yourself

I want to talk about one of the terrific things about being a writer. Okay, so there are a few of them. But this one is a big deal. When you're a writer, you're allowed to do this thing that they scolded you for when you were a kid–you're allowed to talk to yourself and people around you indulge this marginally neurotic behavior. You even (with luck) get paid to live in your own head from time to time. Which is how come (by talking it out with myself) I came to subscribe to a theory about the different selves that live in a writer's head.

It's not new. Dorothea Brande wrote about it in the 1930s, in Becoming a Writer. The theory involves a creative half and a managerial half–you've heard of this, I know. Take heart, Anne Lamott fans. I frame the venerable concept in bird terms.

The mockingbird is the creative half of your writing self. It exists to energize you, enable you to create. It takes songs from the entire range of its experience and trills them into your ear, letting you think you have the ultimate answer to your fictional ultimate questions. If you let it carry on uninterrupted it does really well for awhile. Then it gets a little...shall we say, self-absorbed. If you continue to let it run wild it can write you a gloriously wonderful and fatally flawed first draft–and then it won't shut up.

That's where you bring the crow on. The crow, unfettered, rips your work to shreds. But you need it–desperately. Trust me. We all need the crow. We have to tame it, though. Let it tell you what's wrong, but don't let it take the heart out of the story.

The trick is to alternate the two personas. The trouble is, I forget this stuff from one book to the next. A bit like forgetting labor pains. Which is one of the reasons I began this blog, so it could be what a third-grader in one of my writing residencies this year called a "rememory." Me, I could always use an extra rememory.