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Habits of Creative Practice 3

The Rothko Chapel, Houston, Texas
Character gives us qualities, but it is in actions - what we do - that we are happy or the reverse... All human happiness and misery take the form of action.
- The Poetics, Aristotle

Technique is...any selection, structure, or distortion, any form or rhythm imposed upon the world of action; by means of which, it should be added, our apprehension of the world of action is enriched or renewed. In this sense, everything is technique which is not the lump of experience itself, and one cannot say that a writer has no technique, for being a writer, he cannot. We can speak of good technique and bad technique, or adequate and inadequate, of technique which serves the novel's purpose, or disserves.
- Technique as Discovery, Mark Schorer

So you, my writing friend, have your idea. You know the thing that you want to put down in print, the idea that keeps you up at night. Now what? The twin foundations of the book are character and plot. Construction of the book depends on technique. Do you know the architecture you have in mind? Do you possess the skills you require for the task?

I don't think enough can be said for the developmental power of reading and observation for writers. Reading well, and deeply, is the writer's avenue into effective technique: finding elements of craft that serve storytelling in unique ways. Reading the works of others is the best way to understand the subtle relationship between story and structure. What do you shade in, and what do you leave out for the reader to intuit? Many times the best experience as a reader is one in which the writer has deliberately opened the door to speculation and contemplation. Created a dialog that leaves a slice of mystery in our hands, as readers, to interpret and define the tale in accordance with our own intellect or experience. Often the hardest aspect of good novel technique is refraining from overselling an idea because the anxious writer is obsessed the reader not miss his or her point. If the writer's technique is solid, the foundation of the story will be sufficiently grounded. There will be no doubt in the reader's mind what the architecture of the novel represents. But it is the unexpected, the views from within the story, that are born from thoughtful construction of plot and character. That is the pleasure of good writing.

Observation and deep reading nourish character development, roots and histories gathered from random information from the world - including the writer's own interior landscape. Snippets of overheard conversation spark a story theme, bits of history polarize characters, human privacies and anonymous dramas suggest tone and detail. We find our characters and establish their authenticity from what is reflected around us. A writer needs to both study the world and study storytelling to build a book readers will relate to in the privacy of their minds and come to own in uniquely personal ways. We love a book because it resonates for us, not because it was a technical marvel or an example of perfect history. We fall in love with a story because it shares our own secret perception or questions the world in a meaningful way. Writers come to these truths by marrying observation and techniques of revelation and contradiction.

A creative practice that works well for me begins with an initial immersion in the world around me. I leave my study and drop in on life. Grocery aisles, vacation beaches, airports, bank lines. What are people wearing, reading, eating, arguing about? This period of observing and notation allows me to connect with the landscape of humanity in all its richness and humor, its pathos and chaos. The story I want to tell begins to form. The characters step on stage. And then I begin to read widely around the topic of my idea. Are there plays on this idea, previous classics, new authors, essays, paintings, music? By immersing myself in the subject, I learn what I need to know and see ways in which employing different techniques filters the story. Perhaps I find I love the first person style of telling this kind of story best. Or maybe it comes together as an ensemble of voices. Reading helps me understand what has been said as well as what has been left out. Reading offers inspiration and exposure to new ways of craft. Writers are continually inventing the medium in new and innovative ways. Borrowing from what works is a strong beginning.

At this very moment I am immersed in reading. I have the idea for my new novel and I've been out in the world gathering details and notes. I'm reading to find my way into that first paragraph, tilling the soil to lay down that first line. This dance of idea and framing is expressed by this lovely passage from John Fowles in his work "Notes on an Unfinished Novel"-

The novel I am writing at the moment [provisionally entitled THE FRENCH LIEUTENANT'S WOMAN]...started four or five months ago with a visual image. A woman stands at the end of a deserted quay and stares out to sea. That was all. This image rose in my mind one morning when I was still half-asleep...

These mythopoeic "stills" (they seem always to be static) float into my mind very often. I ignore them, since that is the best way of finding whether their early are the door into a new world.

So i ignored the image; but it recurred. Imperceptibly it stopped coming. I began deliberately to recall it and to try to analyze it and hypothesize it. it was obviously mysterious. It was vaguely romantic. It also seemed, perhaps because of the latter quality, not to belong to us today. The woman obstinately refused to stare out of the window of an airport lounge; it had to be this ancient quay - as I happen to live near one, so near I can see it from the bottom of my garden, it soon became a specific ancient quay. The woman had no face, no particular degree of sexuality. But she was Victorian; and since I always saw her in the same static long shot, with her back turned, she represented a reproach to the Victorian age. An outcast. I didn't know her crime, but I wished to protect her. That is, I began to fall in love with her.

And so story is born.

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