Monday, December 10, 2012

Borrowing Words: or, Why it’s good to get out of your head now and then.

One of my scenes was annoying the heck out of me. Allegedly, in the scene Jake and Liza would argue, and as a result, useful plot-related things would develop, and it would be great. But would the scene cooperate with my grand plan? Oh heck no. On paper, the characters just made faces and then galloped away from each other like a pair of startled calves.

Me doing story work.
So I opened a blank document and rewrote the scene via dialogue. Now the kids just insulted each other and then ran away. NOT HELPING.

Then I remembered something Ron Koertge said at my first residency five years ago – that sometimes he opened a dictionary, chose out five words, and wrote a scene using these words.

Sounded good, so I got out Fowler’s Modern English Usage, which was at hand, and instead of choosing five words, I picked a word for every line of dialogue. (Though I wouldn’t use the super-nerdy words like “inter alia” because geez, these are middle school kids, not Truman Scholars.)

So I wrote the dialogue again. Wow! Jake and Liza were still flinging insults, but these insults were more interesting! Though we still didn’t have, say, a throughline for this scene.

By now (due to all this writing and writing) I had finally figured out what these two goofballs wanted from this exchange, so I did this exercise one last time. At last! A dialogue with an actual point! And, even better, it didn’t look like the same stuff I’d dredged out of my head a million times before.

Thoreau said it best: “It is remarkable how easily and insensibly we fall into a particular route, and make a beaten track for ourselves. I had not lived there a week before my feet wore a path from my door to the pondside; and though it is five or six years since I trod it, it is still quite distinct. It is true, I fear, that others may have fallen into it, and so helped to keep it open. The surface of the earth is soft and impressible by the feet of men; and so with the paths which the mind travels. How worn and dusty, then, must be the highways of the world, how deep the ruts of tradition and conformity!”

Borrowing words from other people is one way to step out of the ruts, writing-wise.You have to surprise your brain into going in a direction you don’t expect. (Of course the “ruts of tradition and conformity” are everywhere – in subject matter, in cliché, in the direction of the story, in the roles that girls and boys are expected to play in the story, etc. etc. ad lib. But one subject at a time, please.)

Of course your editor side is all like, “You can’t go around scrying words all day! You might destroy the direction of your story!”

Dear Muse, please send us Oreos from heaven.
Well, that editor can go stuff it. When I was an undergrad who hung out with the gamers, I knew a guy who had a bag full of runes that he liked to pour out and “read” on occasion. “I know it’s not magic,” he said. “It’s more of a way to figure out what’s going on back there in my unconscious mind.”

And scattering a handful of words in front of you to see where they lead is just like that. Sometimes your deeper mind is up to something, but your yammering front brain likes to steal the whole show. If you use all the tricks you can, sometimes you can get the attention of the quiet gal in the back, and she’ll surprise you with some good stuff.

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