Excuses: Thoughts On Writing Fiction and Poetry

Writers look for excuses. Facing a blank piece of paper, or computer screen, at the beginning of a project can be unsettling. Anxiety? Self doubt? Apprehension of success or failure? Whatever the underlying motive—every writer has her or his own reason—a writer often finds relief in acting on the excuse to avoid writing.

For the past few weeks, I have found myself brain-wandering, then feet wandering away from my desk and towards household chores rather than writing. There is a review to write for an artist, a poem I am stalled on (finding a transitional line and maintaining the first stanza’s meter into the second stanza has proven to be an elusive undertaking), besides an essay to write for this monthly column. The extensive research for the book, completed by a friend, beckons for attention. Instead of working on it, I catch myself staring out the window at the ducks on the frozen pond. At the same time, though, I search for the inspiration for creative work. My Muse seems to have taken an extended holiday. My proofreader and good friend with whom I could discuss ideas over coffee is gone, quietly slipping away in dementia. Creativity on any level has been elusive.

Writers by nature are private people. Privacy is needed to do the work. When a writer isn’t alone, he or she remains creatively engaged through observation. Observation doesn’t always entail gathering material by watching others move through their daily routines. For myself, I sometimes watch my characters move through a social situation that I happen to find myself attending, or I find them engaging me in conversation while on solitary walks. I know this is true for other writers too. Writers tend to take their characters with them, though the reverse is equally true, which is more dangerous. A writer must control his characters and not be controlled by them. Listen to the characters as they reveal themselves, yes, but let them take control of a story and write unedited, no. Perhaps what is most startling for many authors is when readers assume the narrative voice of a story is the author’s. In other words, when readers fail to distinguish between an author’s voice and her narrators. A writer translates experiences, turns his or her experiences inside out to tell a story.

A friend recently asked, “Where do ideas come from?” My immediate response was they emerge from observing and interacting with life around us. Reading is essential to the development of ideas. In his essay “Reading” Willard Spiegelman observes that, reading allows us to “discover parallel worlds.” Horizons are enhanced, and enlarged as the mind and talent are nurtured. Inspiration and originality for a writer comes from observation and interpretation. A unique voice and style develops from imitation. Gradually, through discipline and experimentation, emulation of a favored author gives way to a writer having her or his own style.

Finding Forrester After viewing the film Finding Forrester in 2000, a former professor of mine wrote encouraging me to see the film. “I was reminded of you,” he penned. I did. It wasn’t by chance that I watched it again a few days ago. I needed inspiration to face the blank page.

Written by Mike Rich and directed by Gus Van Sant, Finding Forrester is about Jamal Wallace (Rob Brown), a talented black teenager. Intelligent, he hides his talent and creative interest to fit in with his peers. Acting on a dare from his friends, he breaks into the apartment of the reclusive author William Forrester (Sean Connery). Their encounter in Forrester’s shadowy cocoon marks the beginning of a friendship that will transform both men. Jamal’s talent on the basketball court combined with his intelligence lead to a scholarship at a private high school. Forrester mentors Jamal, nurturing the young man’s natural writing talent.

In one scene, Forrester places a typewriter in front of Jamal. “Start writing,” Forrester says as he begins pounding the keys of his own typewriter. While the typewriter clicks away beneath the older man’s fingers, Jamal stares blankly, paralyzed by the question of what to write. After a few minutes, Forrester hands Jamal an unpublished manuscript, telling him to begin retyping the essay until his own words begin to flow.

Bailey White

Bailey White

In her Georgia Writers Hall of Fame interview, Bailey White advises young would-be authors to chose a favorite author, then “write imitatively for awhile, gradually you develop your own style.” As a fiction writer and National Public Radio commentator on All Things Considered, Bailey White isn’t encouraging plagiarism. Instead, she is presenting a means for development. White’s advice is equally helpful when contending with writer’s block. Every author or poet has imitated a favorite writer at one time or another. Writers know to keep these imitative pieces tucked away. Plagiarism is one method of suicide for a writer.

George Watson, a fellow at St. John’s College, Cambridge, has written in his essay “Rhyme And Reason”:

Elizabethan schoolmasters taught boys to translate and imitate classical poems: one stage in the precise role of imitation in its long and exciting history. The Romantics agreed with them. The difference between a bad artist and a good one, William Blake scribbled in his copy of Joshua Reynolds, is “the bad artist seems to copy a great deal, whereas the good one really does copy a great deal.…” (T.S.) Eliot insisted that a poet achieves originality by allowing dead poets to “assert their immortality most vigorously.”

Watson’s point concerns metrical imitation. Rhyme is a means of placing constraints on poets. However, his observation applies to all genres of writing. Imitation can be a means to discipline, inspiration and motivation for both the novice and the most seasoned writer.

Shelby Foote

Shelby Foote

There are times ideas are like the morning dew on meadow grasses and wildflowers in the early hours of a spring morning. Excuses are the warm sunlight burning those ideas off. Ideas are fleeting; they easily evaporate. Excuses are what one acquaintance refers to as the intervention of the real world. Perhaps for the non-creative person that may be true. For myself, excuses are a means of avoidance. I find myself wandering down the property to the pond, or organizing files, baking or cooking, doing laundry, or reading seed catalogues. Shelby Foote, the novelist and Civil War historian, would write 700 words a day, stop even in mid-sentence, and then resume where he left off on the following morning. This allowed for him to maintain his ideas. A lesson learned, but regretfully not applied recently.

Over the past two days, when ideas are elusive and excuses plentiful, I find myself curling into a chair with a cup of coffee and a book. One morning reading Roger Asselineau’s biography of Walt Whitman. On another morning my sensibilities were awakened by coffee and the poems of Gerald Stern. In the privacy of the morning stillness, I have rediscovered “parallel worlds.” After following Bailey White’s advice by taking a small dose of imitation (that will never be seen), I click away at the keyboard like the mythical William Forrester. Slowly, keystroke by keystroke, I am inspired and again ready to apply the lesson learned from Shelby Foote without looking for excuses.

Photo Credits

Finding Forrester – Theatrical Release Poster from Wikipedia

Bailey White – National Public Radio Photograph

Shelby Foote – Wikipedia Creative Commons

Writer’s block – Flickr Creative Commons

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