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Habits of Creative Practice 5, Structure and Technique Revisited

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

A series of essays I write on creative practice explore technique and muse and approaches that block or contribute to successful writing and personal productivity. Our frustrations as writers (or any artist in creative practice) arise in cycles, often anchored to the same problem, situation, or struggle we have wrestled with in the past. Recent reader email and blog comments have queried me about suggestions on better linking the inspiration for a story to planning the structure that will best translate the idea to the page.

A post first published February 19, 2014 is my jumping off point ("Habits of Creative Practice 3") to explore this idea further. What do I mean by technique and the tools we employ to build narrative?

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 we have our idea. We know the thing that we want to put down in print. We've thought long and hard on this idea that keeps us up at night. Now what? We need an architecture. Structure influences narrative style. What ways and means of storytelling best serve our idea? Does the topic belong in an essay? Narrative nonfiction? Short story or novel? We map out the twin foundations of our book: character and plot. Importantly, now is the time to set aside worry we lack the skills required for the task. We read, right? Constantly and widely? We've absorbed more than we know.

Not enough can be said for the developmental power for the writer of reading and observation. Reading well, and deeply, is the writer's avenue into understanding and developing technique, learning elements of craft that serve storytelling in unique ways. Reading the works of others is the best way to observe the subtle relationship between story and structure. What does the writer shade in, and what does he or she leave out for the reader to intuit? The best experience as a reader is one in which the writer has deliberately opened a door on speculation and contemplation. Created a dialogue with the reader that leaves a slice of mystery in our hands, an idea or truth to interpret that defines the tale in keeping with our own intellect or experience. Often the hardest aspect of good technique is refraining from overselling an idea because the anxious writer is anxious the reader not miss his or her point. If the technique is solid however, the foundation of the story will be sufficiently grounded. There will be no doubt in the reader's mind where the architecture of the story is leading. That said, it is the unexpected - the views opened to the reader from within the story, born from thoughtful construction of plot and character - that comprise our pleasure in good writing.

Observation and deep reading nourish our sense of character development, build our library of root behaviors and histories gathered from the world, including our own interior landscape. We find characters and establish their authenticity from what is reflected around us. Snippets of observed conversation spark a theme, bits of history polarize character interaction, human privacies and anonymous dramas nuance story tone and detail. A writer needs to both observe the world and study storytelling to build narratives readers will relate to, come to own in uniquely personal ways. We love a book because it resonates for us, not because it is a technical marvel, or an example of perfect history. We fall in love with a story because it shares our secret perceptions or questions the world in a meaningful way. Writers define these truths by marrying observation and effective techniques of revelation and contradiction.

How then do we accomplish this, build our repertoire of story-building tools? One tip that works well for me begins with notebooks of observation, immersion in life around me. I leave the solitude of my study and drop in on life. Grocery aisles, vacation beaches, airports, bank lines. What are people wearing, reading, eating, arguing about? Connect with the landscape of humanity in all its richness and humor, its pathos and chaos. As I tune in to the dramas around me, the story I want to tell begins to form. The characters step on stage. Second tip: begin to read widely around the topic of your idea. Are there plays on this idea, previous classics, new authors, essays, paintings, music? By immersing myself in the selected theme or subject, I learn what I need to know, and see ways in which different narrative approaches might better filter the story. Perhaps I find I love the first person style for telling this story best. Or maybe it comes together as an ensemble of voices. Reading widely helps me understand the strengths in differing narrative styles and offers exposure to new ways of craft. Writers are continually re-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 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 bell-tone of a first paragraph, laying down that first line. This dance between 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... Indeed, mythopoeic "stills" (they seem always to be static) float into my mind often. I ignore them, since that is the best way of finding whether their early hauntings 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.

How will you tell your story?
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My Hearth Always Burned Brightly, Friend


- Tomb Inscription, CE 477, Ager Tusculanus, Italy

I ask you as you pass by
Take a moment's pause and read
The lines I've dictated and
Ordered to be written.
The earth rests lightly on me
Which is as it should be,
And I lie quietly, encased in marble.
I've repaid my debt.

I always had a cluster of friends,
I disturbed no one's bedchamber, and
No complaint was lodged against me.
My dear wife lived with me
In harmony and always virtuously.

I performed the tasks I could,
Always gave place without recourse to the law.
I had just one friend who did all things honorably.
He surpassed all others in virtue:
Titus Flavius hermes, a court officer of quaestorian rank.
In those days my hearth always burned brightly, friend.

- from the translation offered by Paul Shore in "Rest Lightly: An Anthology of Latin and Greek Tomb Inscriptions," Bolchazy-Carducci Publishers, 1997.

Then and now.

Centuries and tides of history separate the long-departed life of this Roman citizen and those of us living today in the 21st Century. This tomb inscription, from the slim but intriguing book of Latin and Greek tomb inscriptions translated by Paul Shore, "Rest Lightly," is particularly notable for its depiction of Roman domestic tranquility.

We take for granted that much about humanity and culture has changed over the millennia, but note the importance - and significance - of those virtues and values that have not: love, loyalty, righteousness, charity, peaceableness. I am struck by the deceased's abundant gratitude for a life well lived, and his outspoken adherence to a code of ethics and noteworthy friendship. Here is a man who honors the simple gift of a life without regrets. Here is domestic life conducted in harmony, with abundant affection and loyalty.

Could we ask for more?

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A Single Wave

Wednesday, 11th April, 1804
"What a beautiful object a single wave is!" wrote Coleridge in his notebook. "I particularly watched the beautiful Surface of the Sea in this gentle Breeze! every form so transitory, so for the instant, and yet for that instant so substantial in all its sharp lines, steep surfaces, and hair-deep indentures, just as if it were cut glass, glass cut into ten thousand varieties, and then the network of wavelets, the rude circle hole network of the Foam."

Samuel Taylor Coleridge, late 18th to early 19th century British poet, and beloved friend to William Wordsworth, wrote those words on board the Speedwell slipping down the Channel on a voyage to Malta. Coleridge had undertaken a sea-going journey in desperate spirits, a man who had "abandoned poetry," as he claimed to Wordsworth, and "being convinced," he bitterly added, "that I never had the essentials of poetic Genius, and that I mistook a strong desire for original power." (c.f. Alethea Hayter, "A Voyage in Vain: Coleridge's Journey to Malta in 1804," Faber & Faber, Ltd, 1973).

Hayter reflects on Coleridge's notes of his sojourn to the Mediterranean: "On his voyage to Malta he was never weary of watching the patterns of the waves as they lifted into crests of foam and sank in wrinkled slopes down to deep troughs, and swelled again in dimpling ripples to flash sun-glints from their summits." Coleridge, Hayter continues, tried to evoke the various surfaces of the sea "in phrases and notes scribbled into his notebook. Many of them were images of minerals - the waves had the sheen of soapstone, bright reflections such as he had seen on fireplaces of plumbago slate, the exquisite purple of tinted drinking glasses, shimmers of brass and polished steel and tin alloys."

In the Inland Northwest it is winter. The deep cold and the low gray skies lay a still hand on my pages. I find myself these last months in reflection; without "poetic Genius" as Coleridge put it, to create. To make something of nothing. The exquisite "nothings" of nature, the unseen part, possess undeniable splendor. Nature gives us all that we need - yet the silver frost and unmarred snow left me empty. Too much stillness, perhaps.

This week during my own sun-drenched sojourn here on the island of Maui, that "beautiful object a single wave" has also captured my attention. The rolling ocean has given me inspiration, encouragement the creative spark is not dead. Wave upon wave. Momentum and iridescence. Teals and mallard greens, pearls and garnets; colors that rise and curl and splinter white on the iron red of the broken shore. These waves sing, not unlike the whales spouting and breaching further out in Wailea Bay.

Waves carry the music of their endlessness and ceaselessness, an unchained melody not unlike breath and the unending breeze.

Coleridge set out in hope, yet "arrived in resignation" as Hayter observes, having failed to reclaim his younger energies, to recharge his creative vision or regain his idealistic self. Yet no voyage is in vain. Experience is our wage: we are paid in scribbles and phrases, sketches of somethings from endless nothings.

Fare thee well!
Health and the quiet of a healthful mind
Attend thee! seeking oft the haunts of men,
And yet more often living within thyself,
And for thyself, so haply shall thy days
Be many, and a blessing to mankind

- from Wordsworth's "Prelude," thought to be a tribute to Coleridge

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Time for Books

by Louise Gluck

As I turned over the last page, after many nights, a wave of sorrow enveloped me. Where had they all gone, these people who had seemed so real? To distract myself, I walked out into the night; instinctively, I lit a cigarette. In the dark, the cigarette glowed, like a fire lit by a survivor. But who would see this light, this small dot among the infinite stars? I stood awhile in the dark, the cigarette glowing and growing small, each breath patiently destroying me. How small it was, how brief. Brief, brief, but inside me now, which the stars could never be.

This paragraph of poetry slays me.

Louise Gluck's (my apologies for the missing umlaut) 2014 National Book Award collection, "Faithful and Virtuous Night," will change the way you think about poetry. Each page in this slim book offers singularities of stunning language. Words break away in your thoughts. Images linger, haunt, cross into the interior. From the page in your hand to the wonder expressed back to the stars. The words, the lit cigarette. Brief, brief. Each breath patiently destroying me. This transmutation of language is what we crave. We secretly hope the books and poems we carry in our hands from work to table to bed will reach inside us in ways the grand physical world cannot. We crave writing so good it speaks from within; so precise, so startling the words marry wonder. We want books that change the way we comprehend the world. In her poems Gluck fiercely, delicately dissects the anatomy, the impact of language.

Do you want to read this year more than last? I do. There have been many year-end "Best of -" lists for books and authors in a year of well-deserved awards and accolades. But the real problem - carving out time for these wonderful books and poems - dogs me every year. What do I give up to find more time to read? Answering email? Classic movies? Leaving the house? The Strand Bookstore's Reading Resolutions for 2015 (above) is perfection. THIS I can do, and I'm excited to see where this approach will take me.

A decidedly practical guide to finding more time for reading was posted on Twitter recently by author Austin Kleon, who read 70+ books this past year. His tips are both tongue-in-cheek and perfectly serious. They adapt to both print and e-readers.

HOW TO READ MORE by Austin Kleon (Twitter: @austinkleon)
1. Throw your phone in the ocean
2. Make a budget, buy books you want to read, make a stack of them that you walk past every day (library is great, too, of course)
3. Carry a book with you at all times
4. If you aren't enjoying a book or learning something from it, stop reading it immediately (flinging it across the room helps give closure)
5. Schedule 1 hour of nonfiction reading during the day (commute/lunch break is good)
6. Go to bed 1 hour early and read fiction (it will help you sleep)
7. Write about the books you read and share with others, as they will send you more books to read

Have I inspired you to start a new book this week? Drop me a note and tell me what tips worked for you. Read to wonder.

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