Friday, January 26, 2007

On Writing and Other Compulsions

Lately I've been struggling with the question of whether I have what it takes to write and publish fiction. For a very long time this has been not simply a dream, but an almost unconscious expectation of mine.

I make my living, such as it is, from writing nonfiction. From my days as a mediocre technical writer, to my rather more successful years as a textbook writer and editor, to my current phantasmal existence as a ghost writer and freelance editor for everything from elementary school science to high school history, writing has paid my bills since I received my undergraduate degree.

So on a fundamental level I know I have the basic skills and discipline needed to communicate in writing. I understand the process of revision. I've stared at many a blank page with a deadline looming and produced something that passed muster.

I also have what might be called a hyperactive imagination. I read a lot of nonfiction on a fairly wide range of topics. Everything I read suggests ideas to me for settings or characters. I find it hard these days to read anything without thinking about how to fold, spindle, and mutilate the more interesting anecdotes or facts into some kind of narrative or imaginary milleu.

The same thing happens to me walking around. For while I tend to be oblivious to much of my environment, certain details will jump out at me and change in my head. When I was in college there was a very large tree outside the window of the main library whose branches and leaves used to dance wildly in the wind. It always made me think of a great Chinese dragon gyrating to its own music. I used to collect weathered brown leaves from that tree like so many scales Beowulf might have stepped over on his way to face his doom.

Years later I went for a hike by myself in Muir Woods. I lost track of time and walked for hours, which was a bit foolish as I hadn't brought nearly enough water. Yet I can't remember what the redwoods themselves looked like. The only sensations I recall are the smell of their peeling bark and the brilliance of the shafts of light that pierced the canopy here and there like spotlights. The only specific memory I have is of suddenly coming upon a spider dangling in midair, suspended above the path by an invisible silken thread that stretched up into the vault of trees. The thought of that spider still amazes me. On one level I'm certain that my memory must be faulty, that surely there was a nearby branch I've forgotten. But this how I remember it.

And this is me: surrounded by majestic trees hundreds of feet tall, I am engrossed by a spider the size of my thumbnail.

So surely I can harness the escapist energies of my wandering mind to the wheel of my professional craft and turn out a vessel that can hold a reader's interest like so much precious oil or a draught of wine.

Except I can't seem to hold my own interest. When I turn my mind's eye loose from an assignment, it wanders. Every shiny idea it comes across seems suited to fit into the mosaic of whatever story I think I have to tell. So the task becomes overwhelming. And when I seem to solve the puzzle, to figure out how it will all slide together and form a recognizable whole, I'm no longer drawn to it.

I have not yet found the story that I feel compelled to write. Instead I feel only the compulsion itself, voices in my head that won't be silent. And I wonder if I want to write because I want someone else to tell me those voices are not worthless, that they have something of value to offer, if only entertainment. Or if I've simply internalized the voices of all the people who have told me since I was a little boy that I wrote well and had a vivid imagination. Writing would satisfy those voices as well.

So I'm not sure that the words "I want to write (story/novel/poem) X" are really being spoken in my own voice. Not yet. And I have to decide if a lifetime of wandering imagination is its own reward or if it has to take some tangible form on the page to have been worthwhile.

No comments: