Thursday, May 8, 2008

Working in the head instead of on paper

I'm having a terrible week by any objective measure, but I think good things are still happening for the book.

One, I needed to prioritize other work, so I'm already away from the book. Two, I've been procrastinating on that other work, so that has postponed when I'll get back to the book. Three, I've been having trouble sleeping for a few nights, last night being the worst. So I'm running on fumes now and probably won't make much progress on anything important today.

On the plus side, at some level I've continued to chew on problems in my story and to dive deeper at least in my mind. (It's character development that's bothering me, and I'm trying to imagine more fully what he would be feeling and doing at crucial moments, especially in the chapters I'm dealing with right now.) I'm so tired, who know if any of what I'm coming up with will stick.

Which brings up the issue of taking notes on what I've been thinking about. In every previous attempt at a big writing project I've always compulsively kept notebooks, character journals and scratch pads nearby wherever I went, next to every chair in the house, and next to my bed of course. I'd use those to record every impulse and brainstorm that came to me, as if any one of them might be the miraculous seed from which the rest of the book would grow--or if not that, at least a handy compost pile.

During this project, I've taken a very different approach. It was actually inspired by an interview I read with Elvis Costello about songwriting. He said he would get ideas for melodies and would rush to a pay phone and call his home answering machine and sing the tune to himself to follow up with later. And after awhile, he said, he learned that it was wasted energy--that he could never do as much with those audio notes as he could with the song ideas that just stuck in his head without any note taking. That the only songs worth finishing were the ones whose original inspiration he didn't forget anyway.

All along in this book--including at 3 and 4 and 5 a.m. this morning when I couldn't sleep--I've done something similar, enjoying a kind of lazy holiday from reaching for the notebook and turning on the lamp and trying to capture the brainstorms I'm having. I'm going on faith that whatever was really important and useful that came to me about my character will still be with me the next time I sit down to work on the chapter. That the only stuff worth using in all that ran through my head last night is the stuff that does stick with me.

I have taken some notes from time to time, but the exceptions prove the rule--I haven't actually done anything with those notes. I don't look back at them and follow up with the direction I had given myself. That writing, instead of acting as plans for the future, have functioned better as a kind of thinking through writing. Sometimes instead of contemplating silently it's better to contemplate with the pen moving over the paper--it's a different kind of meditation and discovery. But the writing itself is instantly disposable. Something in it my survive but only because it has become part of my concept of the book, not because I refer back to it to follow up on later.

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