Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Deb:Je Ne Sais Quoi

Fill your paper with the breathings of your heart.  ~William Wordsworth


Ethereal, bewitching, seductive - thus have reviewers praised Alaska author Eowyn Ivey’s best-selling debut novel The Snow Child

If that sounds like love, so too does the way Ivey’s book was conceived. In her day job at Fireside Books in Palmer, she came upon a children's book retelling of the Russian folktale The Snow Child. “I got this funny feeling right then,” Ivey said in a recent Anchorage Daily News interview. She ditched the novel she’d been working on for two years and started in on an adult version of the tale.

That “funny feeling” sounds a lot like the “intangible something” Rebecca Sherman of Writers House brought up in a recent discussion among agents hosted by Publishers Weekly, referring to the je ne sais quoi that draws her – and readers – to certain books. I am, by the way, a sucker for French - my minor in college. The loose English translation "an indescribable something" is a poor substitute for "I know not what," which hits the mark precisely, whether you mean writing or romance.

Can you fall in love with your writing project? Should you?

Idaho farmer James Castle used ink mixed from spit and soot to make art. Though illiterate, deaf, and untrained, he kept at it for decades, his art driven by passion and empathy, the pursuit of the tangible by way of the intangible. He didn’t discern. He didn't weigh the market. He didn’t try to get noticed. Yet his creative work eventually found its audience. “As it happens, his art – produced over more than six decades – communes with many of the twentieth century’s most salient aesthetic trends, even as it seems to have been very much a private means of understand his home and family,” says Bookforum reviewer Albert Mobilio. Castle's labor of love struck a chord.

Projects with real staying power feel different in the same way that deep love feels different from a crush. That “funny feeling” has to carry us through the long process of perfecting the work.

In solidarity with the students I taught in various classrooms during a recent writer’s residency, I wrote fifteen times from the same prompt, in ten-minute spurts. It was a lot like speed-dating. Though the prompt quickly became redundant, significant flashes emerged here and there – images, slices of character, snippets of scene. Some may find their way into a project that's emerging out of one of those funny feelings that disarmed me, out of the blue. You never know where you’ll find love, or a taste of it.

How can we know for sure that a project is not just viable but the one? In the initial rush of inspiration, our brains spin wildly, as they do when we’re in love – a dopamine high, fueled by norepinephrine that keeps us up nights spinning characters and plotting twists and chasing research. It’s only when we settle into a relationship with a project that we’re able to judge the depth of that first woo-woo feeling, to tell whether it has the staying power to carry us over the long haul, to determine whether our inspiration is not just attractive but unshakable.

Of all the emotional clichés, tough love is most apropos to the work of the writer. In revision, we must be brutal, objective, and tough - none of that warm fuzzy stuff. Yet it’s that funny feeling, the intuition, the passion, the je ne sais quoi that carries us through, that makes up for the trials and the pain and the risk.

Faithful and loyal, we can spend years with a project born out of feeling. But if we find ourselves married to it, we risk all. Not that we can’t commit wholly and completely, but if and when things get stale, when the writer’s no longer growing or discovering or excited, when the feeling is gone, gone, gone, then it could be time to break things off, to shove the manuscript under a bed as Ivey did with her first novel. In doing so we must believe fully and resolutely that nothing is wasted. The years spent with a draft that we ultimately ditch teach us about writing in the same way that failed relationships teach us about love.

We do fall in love, and we must.

Try this: Carry a notepad, either old-fashioned or electronic. Note random thoughts, flashes of inspiration, without concern for whether anything will come from them. You may jot down hundreds of images, snatches of conversation, and ideas before one begins to haunt you, coming to you as you fall asleep and again in the mornings when you wake. That’s your essay, your story, your book.

Check this out: As with love, when it comes to writing, most of us would prefer to just let it happen. But when we need a push, Julia Cameron’s The Right to Write is at the ready. “Writing is sensual, experiential, grounding,” Cameron says. “We should write because writing is good for the soul.”


1 comment:

Michael E. said...

And your agent as the parental voice of reason? "This love cannot survive in the real world!"