It’s all so simple in theory: Take an idea and put it on paper. Or jazz it up a bit and put it into pixels. The computer screen has never been so well read. Yet in practice it’s much harder. These ideas don’t come to me as a collection of words–that transcription happens later. In fact, oftentimes, when ideas are their freshest, words only get in the way.
Have I ever told you I never wanted to be a writer?
Sometime before I was ten, or definitely before I was eleven or twelve, I was quite the imaginative and hyper child you’d never think I would’ve been. I’m far too quiet and cerebral for it to be obvious unless you knew me. I’d spend hours outside, pacing–I paced everywhere, mind you–immersing myself in the worlds of Pokemon, Digimon, Charmed, Cardcaptors, and any other TV show or series I loved. Harry Potter: I’d wish for a wand and consider all the classes I’d take at Hogwarts. Pocahontas: I’d imagine what it’d be like to live as an Indian and hunt with a bow and arrow. Or sometimes strange conglomerations of all of it that were so bizarre they resist description.
It’s the personas I developed from these imaginings that eventually became the foundation of the mythology I cling to and desperately long to write. But like I said: I never wanted to be a writer.
I wanted to make movies.
These stories came to me as images and highly visual experiences. There was color and flashes of light and people–so many people! At one count, my story had over a hundred characters–and at least half of them were main characters! I’ve cut back on the main protagonists quite a bit since then, but the abundance of characters in an entire mythology still exceeds that of a standard novel.
Regardless, I’d spend hours pacing (like I said, I paced everywhere) around the back room of the kitchen at my synagogue when my mom worked there or in the social hall or on our patio out back. Just thinking. Indulging myself in experiences that took me deeper and deeper every time.
Finally I’d had enough. I needed to let these ideas out or they were going to consume me. Since making movies as a twelve-year-old was out of the question, and since I had recently become a much more avid reader than before (ingesting volumes of mythology–Greek, Roman, Norse–and fantasy novels as fast as I could get them), writing seemed like an obvious endeavor. “I like to read,” I told myself, “so why not write a book?”
It seemed so simple then.
I almost don’t feel like revealing that I’ve started this particular story at least five times and have written over a quarter of a million words towards it but have yet to feel an ounce of satisfaction in the stories that I’ve told. It just keeps changing. I need to know more before I progress onward.
Anyways, I was talking about the simplicity of writing. It’s not so simple. Got that. As new writers we’re bombarded with dire advice–“show, don’t tell”; “pause at the comma, don’t comma at the pause”; “avoid exclamation points at all costs!”–and until we’ve written a few hundred thousand words here and there, it’s hard to sort through all these admonitions and find not only what works, but what works for us.
One bit of advice I’ve given a lot (and that others in my writing circles have given me) that I haven’t seen so many times in professional writing guides is that what you know as the author doesn’t always make itself known to the reader. It’s very easy to get so caught up in a scene that you leave out critical details without ever realizing it–because unlike a reader, you see the whole picture. That tiny little bit you miss means nothing to you, but it could change the world to your audience.
I think I read somewhere that the reader sees only ten percent of what the author knows. The published product is only the tip of the iceberg–and this is what lends great depth to characters and stories. With a deeper understanding of situations and motives, plots come to life more fully than otherwise. However, without a balance of what knowledge is given to the reader and retained by the author, it can quickly become unraveled and all of this depth and be cast into confusion. Avoiding this is essential.
Thankfully, “Method and Madness” not only mentions this catastrophe of perspective, but also gives an exercise to help writers realize the distinction between what others see and what authors know. It’s a three step process: Imagine something you know very well. Write a paragraph about what others know about it, and then write another paragraph on what you know about it that no one else knows.
So with no further delay, let’s go!
What everyone knows about Patrick Vicencio is that he’s an odd man. Walks on the beach in the winter. Wears wool sweaters and cardigans. He’s not a handsome man, not a face you’d remember, and he speaks in short sentences, little quips that either frustrate or enlighten. He rides the train. Drinks tea in tiny cafes. He’ll be your friend for life–but he’ll pass from your life and you’ll forget him completely. It’s obvious no one remembers him. There’s not much to recall.
What I know about Patrick is that he plays people like others play chess. He lines them up over a series of turns until one more move makes him win the game–but his terms of victory aren’t his opponent’s defeat. When he calls out “Check mate” (though he’d never call it out; he’d much rather smile quietly as he retreats into another game) is less about the “check” than the “mate.” He pairs people up and passes from their lives, confident that what will grow between them will be far better for each of them than what he’d have with either. He prefers it that way. I don’t know where he comes from, not any more than he’d let me know, but he’s not native to our time, our place. He hails from a species not wholly human–but probably far more human than we are. His compassion, his depth. It sets him apart–and perhaps for all it is, it’s what lets him be a part of everything so well he disappears as easily into the background as he appears in the first place.
Curious, isn’t it, but at least you can see my point–I know far more about Patrick than I would expect others to see–but why don’t you tell me? Read his story–Across the Sea and Sideways–and tell me what you think. Does he come across as I perceive others perceive him? Does my deeper description seem true to his character–and does knowing this change the way you read the story? Not only will answering these questions be an activity in observant reading (which is itself necessary for a writer to learn and grow), but it’ll also be a great exercise in crafting critical analysis (another necessity).
So off you go! Read a story. I’ll read some too. We’ll meet again soon.