“So what’s your story about?” I ask.
“Oh it’s about this TOTALLY insane party,” Willbehuge says, “and this guy who gets so totally wasted on weed and jello shots. And he’s, like, wandering around, looking for his girlfriend but he can’t find her. And there’s all these really fucked up things going on like people going down on each other RIGHT THERE and stuff. And then he finds out she sneaked off to one of the bedrooms. With another GIRL! Isn’t that just insane?”
“Is it autobiographical?” I ask.
“Well, I mean…yeah. But I totally write it in third person, so I can describe what happens in the bedroom.”
“Yeah. I can’t decide if I should have the guy join them or not. I mean…I totally did in real life, totally—I’m not even lying—but, I mean, I want it to be realistic.”
“A plot might not hurt either.”
“What do you mean...?”
When a high school or college student is talking about prewriting, they’re doing things like “talking with your partner for five minutes” or “making an idea wheel.” This is great if you are writing an expository essay on something you haven’t thought much about before, and expository writers may even continue using some of these techniques. However, I must admit that I shudder to think of some PhD drawing little circles in colored pencils with main ideas written in them before pounding out a literary essay for a peer reviewed journal. It’s just too horrible to contemplate.
For a fiction writer, things are a little different. Prewriting might involve having written a similar thing before, having a life experience, months of research, reading extensively, and of course doing stuff...as a writer. That’s why we’re going to call this “sponging” instead of prewriting because it’s part of a larger mosaic of what might loosely be called prewriting. If it helps you to think of this as a protracted form of prewriting, go right ahead, but I might make a few jokes about calcium deposits in your brain.
I returned to college at thirty, and I had to work to pay the bills, so I wasn’t able to take 15 units a semester and knock it out in four years like some of my classmates. I also wasn’t out on my own for the first time in my life. By the time I got through junior college and was sitting in my creative writing classes, I was in there with people literally half my age. And while they were fun to look at—especially in boots—and especially in skirts and boots—their writing often focused on their own penultimate experiences, which involved things like drugs and getting drunk. They thought it was very edgy to have their characters get high and say fuck a lot—some even (*gasp*) wrote about kissing same sex partners and the funny feelings that gave them in the pants. Oh my. The risqué edginess of it all. (It’s best if you read the last sentence like Ben Stein.) Mostly though, the instructors, me, and the one other returning student in the class would get glassy eyed whenever someone shared one of these stories. Not that there aren’t great stories about getting drunk and high and kissing same sex people, but they don’t rely just on the shock value to be interesting. These things don’t shock people over about 23 because they’re old news. I’ve been to Burning Man; in order to even get me to BLINK, your story would have to be about taking a wrong turn because you’re too high off a Hippy Flip to think straight, and walking into a tent with a full-blown gay orgy, and having a man insist on massaging your package while he gives you directions to where you are actually trying to go.
The problem is that most instructors don’t really understand how to deal with this type. Somewhere between "Get over yourself!" and "This isn't actually a STORY," is what I think they want to say, but they don't quite know how to articulate it nicely. They end up giving crap advice like “Go live life!", thinking that by twenty-five this shit should be out of the students' systems; however, this is forgetting that their job is to teach writing instead of passing judgement on content and that there are marvelous examples of great fiction about washing dishes or cleaning the house or any one of a dozen things that a ten-year-old will have experienced, never mind a twenty-year-old. Plus this turns into recursive process because twenty year olds have this blind spot where hearing the words “live life” gets translated into “party like it’s 1999!” The 20 year old who hears, “this is blasé; go live a little” thinks, “Shit, what do I have to do, get hooked on heroin?? Well okay then...”
What the instructors aren’t sharing is that it isn’t the events that are important. The student needs to return to life with the tools of a writer and soak in life from that entirely new perspective. Yes, we may have to wait to have our first real break up, or the first death that really hits us where we live. But these experiences don’t MAKE us good writers; they merely enrich the perceptions of those who already are.
Fortunately Dorothea Brande can come to our rescue (again). You don’t have to have particularly extreme experiences, you just have to have them while absorbing the world as a writer. You don’t need to scale Kilimanjaro, become a raging alcoholic, or have a threesome on crack cocaine...while driving a jet plane...into a mountain...with bears...with lasers...in order to have “experienced life” and thus be ready to write. What you have to do is be like a sponge, soaking up the world from a writer’s point of view. No one cares about another college freshman at their first frat party, but a writer can make that a literary masterpiece. Pulling a poignant moment from something banal or finding beauty in its opposite is why we read writers—we delight in their ability to see the world from a completely different perspective. That’s why artists are so WEIRD!! And that’s why we love them. We revel in how they make us look at something we’ve passed a thousand times a day with a sense of beauty and wonder. Yes, we will probably read someone’s account of their Russian Roulette orgy atop of Mt. Everest while having their teeth pulled without Novocain and fighting Ugandan rebels. We will read that because it’s a new perspective on life. A party with “hella weed” is not a new perspective on life.
However, what a good writer can do is create that same sense of wonder from the Everest dental slaughter orgy while their character is doing nothing more interesting than cleaning out a cat box. THAT is what you have to do. Go absorb the world through a writer’s eye. Sponge every last detail up and look for things no one else can see in the most ordinary of circumstances.
This is basically the thing I’m always going on about here that I like to call “Doing shit...as a writer.” Working in cannery isn’t interesting. But John Steinbeck made it a masterpiece. You don’t have to go work in a cannery to be a writer, but you do have to experience the world through a writer’s eyes and sponge up the experiences. You can work a manual labor job as a writer. Go to a party as a writer. Watch a movie as a writer. Virtually anything you can do, you can also do it by walking into the situation like a big writer sponge. As you accumulate these moments, you become better prepared when you sit down to write something. You collect a pool of meaningful experiences to draw on that can be reconfigured, recombined, and redesigned to fit what you are doing.
Now, I want to warn you…you are coming close to a place that is strong with the Dark Side of the writer-force. Be careful you must. You can do things as a writer that will make you a better writer, including watch movies and stuff, but a writer deals in words. A writer deals in the combinations of words and the reorganization of those twenty-six letters that create beauty and meaning. Your universe is words. So even though you can derive intense benefit as a writer from watching a movie or TV, if for one moment you think that you can become a good writer by ONLY watching movies and TV go back and read the last part of this essay until such wanton stupidity is expunged from your brain. I see a lot of young writers trying this. They don’t read much and instead basically just watch TV. Guess how much good writing they’ve done? Did you guess none? You have learned. You may learn something about dialogue, dramatic tension, characterization, plot arcs, and these are good lessons to learn. But writers peddle in words, not imagery and sound, so those lessons are lost if you can’t convert them seamlessly into language. They are lost if you don’t know what WORDS will put those lessons to the page. Watching a movie “as a writer” is not your “out” for reading. Read you must young
Once you get really good at doing this “...as a writer” stuff, you can actually comb back through old memories and reevaluate them with that lens. You can make that first kiss tingle the top of your readers’ scalp like the touch of a dozen tiny fingers, or make your readers feel the pain of teen-age rejection burning at the pit of their stomach like they swallowed a hot stone. Common experiences become extraordinary in a writer’s hands. It takes training that part of you for a good long while in your moment-by-moment existence, but as it becomes second nature to look around the world and notice things that would make for good writing, you can then plug that rubric in as you sift through the memory trunks of your own mind for moments from your past. Now you’re cooking with gas!
The reason this is like prewriting is that each of these memories and events experienced is like a Lego block. Each is a small piece of something bigger that can be recombined and reconfigured to build a moment entirely different from the one it came from. A bit of heartache, some rejection, a sense of loss, and you can describe a break up even though you’ve married your high school sweetheart. Once you get enough blocks your bucket, you can think of any moment, and all you have to do is build it. You don’t need to have lived the fall of the Narkarnian Battlecruiser Fleet to describe it in a way that puts a lump in a reader’s throat. You don’t need to have slain dragons to get a reader’s heart pounding through the scene. You don’t NEED to experience a plane crashing into a mountain of ill tempered bears to have lived enough to write. You can create a world scintillating kinds of details that can slice eyeballs and pierce eardrums once you’ve sponged enough.
This is why sponging is much like a long period of prewriting. Once you’ve done enough of it, you may be able to sit down and write, right off the cuff about something—even something you’ve never personally experienced. It’s also why writers never stop sponging in much the same way people rarely stop collecting Lego blocks. It's why they enjoy new experiences. It's the writer equivalent of getting a new pack with the specially designed folding wing piece. And this is what instructors are trying to say when they say "live life. "Go collect more damned Legos. You're trying to build a Star Destroyer with nine blocks and a flat piece." It doesn’t mean you shouldn’t write until this point—there’s lots to be said for training and practice. But it does mean sometimes you might find you don’t quite have the right sized Lego block for what you’re trying to do. That’s where the beauty of those who’ve gone before you comes in because you can always do research, which is its own form of prewriting. [One that I will cover on Monday.]