Sunday, April 23, 2006

Writing: Why is it so goddamn hard?

Anyone who’s tried it knows what I mean. You get an idea in your head, an idea of such transcendent coolness that it would be a crime to let it go undocumented, and so you rush right out to your independent neighborhood coffeeshop, eagerly clutching your notepad or your laptop or whatever. You’re going to bring the idea to life. With your pail of cappuccino and your command of the English language, you’re going to shepherd your idea from a mere series of synaptic firings to a glorious story, what with adjectives and verbs and subtle-but-rich metaphors. You turn off your cell phone and shut out the rest of the world–even the cute girl/guy two tables over. It’s gonna be just you, your inspiration, and the page. The writer’s immortal struggle, in other words: wresting form from nothingness, seizing a fistful of beauty and wisdom from chaos and transforming it, shaman-like, into well-shaped paragraphs, punchy dialogue, and sentences that aren’t even the least bit overwrought.

But first, before you make your grand pronouncements on life and the frailty of human relationships, you have to get Ted, your gentle-spirited and eminently-believable main character, out of bed and into a taxi to the airport. How do you accomplish this? After a few minutes of pondering and earnest cappuccino sipping, you decide that simplicity is best and so you scribble out:

One morning, Ted woke up and took a taxi to the airport.

For a millisecond, you’re pleased. Your sentence is quick, direct, and unquestionable. It gets the job done in as few words as possible. And isn’t that what writing is all about? Isn’t the magic in the story itself, and not the language used to express it? You believe all this to be true, but–before you start in on your next sentence–doubt creeps in.

Isn’t it a bit dull? Shouldn’t your first sentence have a little more kick to it? Everyone knows you’ve got to hook your readers right away, otherwise they’ll toss you aside in favor of Danielle Steele or Stephen King or some other popular hack who can’t possibly navigate the deep waters of emotion and spirituality that you’re at home in. Yes, it’s painful, but you’re going to have to make concessions to their “dazzle me” mindsets. Even visionaries have to pander some, you decide, and so you set yourself to the task of “sexing up” Ted’s trip to the airport. But how? Thinking hard over the possibilities, you scratch out your previous sentence and wait for the answer to lunge out at you. Eventually, you jot down:

On an ordinary, if damp, April morning, Ted woke up and took a taxi to the airport.

But that sucks. There’s no rhythm and too many commas. So you change it to:

One drizzly morning on the wrong side of April, Ted woke up and took a taxi to the airport.

Yet that only sucks worse. Plus, you’re slowly coming to realize that you’re “top-loading” the sentence. Fortifying yourself with a big swig of lukewarm cappuccino and a furtive glance at the cute girl/guy, you hunker down and finally come up with this:

On a morning not at all like any other, Ted awoke slicked in his own sweat and set out immediately, via taxi, for the airport.

But why, your nagging creative conscience asks, is the morning “not at all like any other”? Why specify that the sweat he was slicked with was his own? Does he really have to be slicked with sweat? Couldn’t he be drenched with it? Or even soaking with it? And, moving right along, was Ted in such a rush that he didn’t bother to shower? Did he change his underwear? Because, if not, you need to remember to have people on the airplane reacting to how bad he must smell. But, if he does shower and change, can you really use the word “immediately”? Wouldn’t “quickly” or “hurriedly” or “shortly thereafter” be more accurate? Still, isn’t “immediately” more, well, immediate? Even putting aside all that, aren’t you scanting the taxi ride? Isn’t the cabbie worth at least at least a phrase? You feel guilt then, a deep and keening guilt for all the ancillary cab drivers in all fiction. But you’re an author. You’re accustomed to sublimating your emotions into literary material. With that in mind, you plunge back into your wordsmithing soul, confident that you can wrangle together a real first sentence, a first sentence to shine through the ages and make all those who doubted you into gibbering, humiliated buffoons. After some strain and some false starts and a whole array of intense facial expressions, this is what you come up with:

On a broken-open April morning, Ted awoke slicked in sweat and set out in a hurry for the airport, via a taxi driven by a pleasant, copper-colored man originally from Rangoon.

You like that sentence until you actually read it all the way through. Then you realize that it’s a disgrace to the writerly craft. It is, in fact, the worst sentence ever written by anyone anywhere. That must make you, its humble creator, the worst writer ever to live. You are awful. You are a failure. You should be ashamed of yourself. You sip your cold cappuccino in awe at your own badness. You ought to stop fooling yourself. Maybe you should give serious thought go going back to school. As you berate yourself, you gaze down at your long, shitty sentence. Suddenly, you see a way out. Furiously, you write:

On a broken-open April morning, Ted awoke soaked in sweat and set out in a hurry for the airport, via a taxi driven by a pleasant, copper-colored man originally from Rangoon.

This, at last, is something you can work with. Of course, it’s not perfect, but was Turgenev ever perfect? Was Borges? How about Balzac? Did Balzac worry so much about a single sentence? No, Balzac didn’t. He wrote a book every three weeks and, at that pace, you can’t care too much about all the pretty details. You should be more like Balzac, you tell yourself. Don’t get hung up on the small stuff. Think of the big picture. Think of how moving it will be when Ted’s plane touches down in Brussels and he rushes straight to the home of the girl who he met on a train once, long ago, long before he gave up all his dreams to chase a futile, inhuman vision of “success”. That’s what you should be focusing on, isn’t it? The scene where he throws his arms around his beloved Hildegaard and kisses her madly as he declares his eternal love for her in pidgin Flemish, not this piddly “first sentence” shit.

But regardless, something strikes you as not quite right about your story so far. And, since you’ve only written one sentence, the problem has to be there. You read it over and over again trying to deduce what it is. You set your pen down and gaze off into the murky distance, disappearing into your most profound artsy-fartsy zone. You’re thinking of aesthetics. You’re taking pride in your refusal to settle for anything less than perfection. You’re wondering if you’ve got to do your laundry tonight. You’re impressed by the cute girl/guy’s ass and you’re happy they’re facing the other way, so he/she won’t be creeped out by the way you’re staring her/him.

By now, you have to pee. You have to get things rolling. You take another look at your sentence. Obviously, it’s problem is that it’s too long. You whittle it down thusly:

On a damp April morning, Ted awoke with a start and set out straight for the airport, via a taxi driven by a copper-colored man from Rangoon.

But that’s kind of a mess, isn’t it? You could do better. You could tighten it up some. Why, after all, do we need to know all that about the cab driver. The cab driver isn’t going to come back later in the story. Harsh as it may seem, for your purposes the cab driver just needs to drive the cab, nobody cares if they’re from Burma or Brooklyn or Bangladesh or wherever. In fact, you don’t even need to mention the driver at all. If you write “taxi”, the audience will naturally assume that there’s some sort of driver. You don’t have to make it explicit. That’s the mistake too many authors make: not trusting their audience enough. You’re not like that. You’re a trusting author. You try this instead:

On a damp April morning, Ted awoke with a start and took a taxi straight to the airport.

But why say “straight” to the airport? Do people usually make stops when they take a taxi to the airport? No, no they don’t. So that’s superfluous. Also superfluous is the “damp” and the “April”. Does the reader really care what month and what meteorological conditions the story takes place in? Sadly, they do not. You better jettison it:

One morning, Ted awoke with a start and took a taxi to the airport.

But this whittling only makes the “with a start” stand out. Why does he wake up with a start? Did he oversleep his alarm? If I was catching a plane to Brussels to reunite with the lost lover who also symbolizes my betrayed youth, you probably wouldn’t oversleep, would you? No. Who would? So this “start” is ambiguous, isn’t it? Best to do away with ambiguity. Ambiguity is one of those things people always say they like, but they don’t really. They like to know exactly what’s going on. You want there to be no question. This is why you put pen to paper once more and write:

One morning, Ted awoke and took a taxi to the airport.

At last you have it! You would congratulate yourself if only you didn’t have to pee so bad. You’re strutting all the way to the bathroom, your head held high. You’d wink at the cute girl/guy if they’d ever deign to look over at you. They’re a fool. They don’t know what a raw hunk of sex appeal and sensitivity they’re blithely ignoring. You have created. You are a creator. It is exhilarating. It is glorious.

And the best part? You only have to repeat this process another 749 times before you have a story.