Saturday, January 18, 2014

Make a Caricature of a Tricky Audience

All of us anticipate future audiences, carrying on imaginary conversations in our heads as we write. Those imaginary conversations are part of intrapersonal or inner dialog. I am anticipating You right now as I type this syllable.

No matter our genre, we are fiction writers, making up this character of the Imaginary Audience (who is not present in the space and time in which we actually write).*

This imaginary conversation will impact our writing experience: the degree or nature of that impact is really up to us. For some people, this imaginary conversation is part of the fun; for others, it is a hindrance because the Imaginary Reader makes them self-doubt, erase, delete, backtrack, or altogether not start.

Here is a technique to deal with a tricky audience. It highlights how much imaginative work we put into our fake conversations. Once you get your Caricature, whenever you find yourself hesitating, pull it out of your mental pocket and take a good look at it. Remind yourself that the Present moment is wonderfully vacant and open--free of such imaginary creatures.

I suggest first taking notes to the prompts and then compiling them into full sentences. The making of a paragraph will help you reflect and gain insights into your relationship with the tricky audience. Ask yourself, what do these details and images possibly symbolize about my relationship to this Reader? For instance, the fact that her nose turns red like a stove burner: could I be worried about my Reader's anger?

1.       Think of an occasion where you had to write something.

2.      You start to visualize someone—maybe a group of people—having a judgment or opinion about this piece of writing you’re about to start.

3.      This person appears in your room.

4.      What does his or her face look like?   Make their head very large, like a caricature.  Then describe their body as very tiny.  Make their clothing absurd—maybe too small.

5.      Exaggerate some ugly feature on their face.

6.      They start to say something to you about your writing.  What’s the first sentence they say?

7.      They have an ulterior motive for what they’re saying.  What is it?

8.      You notice on this person’s right shoulder is a tiny figure of someone who has bothered them about their own writing: the person you’re caricaturing has a tricky audience of their own in the past. Who is it? How has that tiny person impacted your own tricky audience?

9.      Something strange happens to the next sentence they say.  Distort some part of it.  Make it ludicrous, unreasonable.  What is it?

10.  They get frustrated.  What do they do next?

11.  Let another sentence come from their mouth.  Have it also go out of their control.

12.  Add a few details about their face, expressions, as they change as this keeps happening.

13.  Put this person in some sort of container.  What sort?  Describe.

14.  Something disgusting or scary is also at the bottom of the container: what is it?

15.  Now what are you going to do with the container?**


* We evoke or create this Reader, as theorists such as Walter Ong, Lisa Ede, and Andrea Lunsford have pointed out.
** The possible extreme fate of the container is something I picked up from Ann Lamott.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Starting Out is Like a Vertical Treadmill

Invention (or the starting-off phase of writing) can be like a treadmill, a plank at a steep incline.

Today, I have several writing projects in this stage, and I am finding it very amusing.

The work feels like a significant exertion though it's not necessarily an unpleasant situation. I'm aware that this is how it often feels when I am starting a new piece of writing. The incline of starting carries around the cliche in English of "an uphill battle." It also contains the conceptual metaphor of ascent and possible transcendence.

I know myself as a writer pretty well by now, so I understand that it's not usually audience concerns that make starting an exertion but rather contact with the unconscious. That is, I don't usually worry about the impact of my nascent words on an imaginary audience in the future--those worries are not the source of strain. With new ideas there is always the shadow of the unconscious. (This is even the case with the scholarly writing I do--not just creative writing.) Exertion comes from forcing contact with the unconscious: it's the inaccessibility Freud describes in his term "motivated-non-knowing."

I've come to understand that this treadmill is my all-too-human desire for mindlessness.As Elaine J. Langer puts it in her discussion of Freud in Mindfulness, unconscious forces are connected to mindlessness. (That's fine; we all need a healthy dose of mindlessness.) They "continuously affect our conscious lives yet, without extreme effort such as is required in psychoanalysis or various spiritual disciplines, we can not recognize or change their influence.”

Sometimes my treadmill is accompanied by a surreal image: the actual running floor of the machine is transformed into a continuous fingerprint, expanding and fluctuating like some sort of fun house mirror. I understand this image as related to identity and the self in writing.
I also think of the neat packaging of the 5 canons in the Greco-Roman tradition (invention, arrangement, style, memory, delivery). The "exact moment" in which we start a piece of writing is much more fluid than any neat category. Who knows when you actually started? Perhaps in a dream you had last night. Perhaps four notebooks and two years ago (or longer). Perhaps even when you gripped a pencil and formed your first letter as a child.

If a person is intimidated with starting a piece of writing, they are, in the words of Suzuki, "adding something extra" to the experience. Just observe the moment the draft begins to surface. Don't be scared. Every present moment of writing contains shards, marks, and strings of Beginning as well as Ending.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

New Year 2014 Wishes for Your Writing

Ola Wilberg

May each moment of your breathing

Be a field of asterisk-words, word-flowers.

May your writing

Be the cessation of suffering.