I've never really been one to dwell on the past. I find it easy to conceptualize the new year ahead of me, but hard to remember what exactly happened in the past year. Because of this I tend not to read my old writing, unless I'm digging for an unfinished story that I can turn into something new. Lately I've been inspired by Crystal Moody of The Year of Creative Habits. Crystal is really good at talking about her process, and teasing out the seemingly inscrutable path of her own creativity.
I've been feeling more confident about my writing lately, and for the first time in a while I feel like I'm seeing real progress. My sentences, while still a bit long and flowery, are finally getting some variety thrown into the mix. While I'm still unsure about plot and pacing in a lot of ways, actually finishing stories has really helped me understand the nuts and bolts of creating a story. It's kind of a strange feeling, seeing yourself improve without knowing exactly how it happened.
Understanding my own progress is exactly what I'm going to try and do today. Hopefully my own triumphs and struggles can be of interest/usefulness to anyone else who, like me, isn't sure how they ended up where they are.
the early years
I've been writing for basically as long as I can remember. It probably began in ernest in the third grade, when a representative from Writers in the Schools came to our classroom every week and gave us writing prompts. That year I wrote a poem about the lamp on my bedside table (yes, really). I don't have the original on my computer, but I still remember the line that sparked the poem: "When it is day, my little yellow lamp is as peaceful as a pearl white swan floating on a clear blue lake." I was a big fan of similes. And adjectives.
It might seem like overkill to start at the beginning like this, but I'm trying to figure out how my writing has evolved, so I might as well give myself a point of reference.
I'm counting middle school as "the early years" because what good writing really comes out of middle school, anyway? One of the oldest documents on my computer is a poem I wrote during freshman year of high school. It exists, somewhere, on the website of a independent publisher I can't remember the name of because I placed in one of their contests. Here's an excerpt:
I watched the news last night
the blue light from our TV
making pockets of shadows
dance across the walls.
The anchorwoman, skin pulled tight
over wide cheekbones, hair plastered
into submissive curls
tells us a story, with the words
"Deadly Tornado" quivering over her
shoulder in front of a fake New York skyline.
It ends with the lines:
I get tired of listening to them.
I click the remote, the screen goes black,
and finally my world is silent.
Like most of my early writing, it has some interesting word choice and details, but otherwise the strokes are too broad, and I end on a classically teenager-y note, just wanting "silence."
Around this time I was also toying with a new story about a girl who lives next to a strange (aka magical) subdivision that no one is allowed in. I give you the opening lines of "Into Suburbia":
Emma sat cross-legged on the blue lawn chair in front of her house, her legs bent uncomfortably between the rough plastic arm rests. This was how she and Marcus spent most of their summers, underneath the minimal shade of the scrawny tree in Emma’s front yard, lulled into a half-sleep by boredom and heat. They sat like this for another half hour before Marcus sat up abruptly from his spot in the grass next to the lawn chair and extended a pale white arm.
“Here comes another one,” he whispered. They watched in silence as the beat up Chevrolet rolled down their street. It was going slow, as if the driver was searching for an address, and as it passed they saw it was driven by an middle aged woman, her hair done up in old fashioned curlers as if she were going to a Halloween party dressed as a grandmother. The two watched in silence as the car rolled towards the end of the street and stopped. The thing blocking its path was not a tree or a culdisac, but a huge wrought iron gate separating Emma’s neighborhood from some sort of gated community. She’d lived on this street her entire life and she’d never seen anyone pass through those gates. The woman in Chevrolet didn’t bother to get out of her car to inspect the gates, like some people did. Instead, she backed up and used the nearest driveway to turn around. Marcus and Emma exchanged glances.
“I don’t know what you expect, Emma,” Marcus said, standing up and stretching. “Every summer we spend hours out here in the heat, watching cars, and not one of them has ever gone through that gate.” Emma smiled. This was Marcus’s usual argument.
This is the first idea I had that was even remotely large enough to be a novel, and I actually made it through 16,000 words of it during Camp Nanowrimo one year. I have yet to re-read those 16,000 words...
My proudest achievement in high school is probably the following story. I wrote the first draft in a single sitting, something which rarely happens to this day. Here are the opening lines:
The call of a train whistle echoes through the night. The sound is mournful, alone. It seeps into the hollow place in my heart and stays there for a long time, vibrating. This is when it’s the hardest. I’m surrounded by darkness in the room with the blue walls and the glow-in-the-dark stars on the ceiling. John put them there for me, saying they would help me stay calm if I woke up in the middle of the night. But he forgot that stars fade, and right now they’re so dim I can barely make them out. I close my eyes, listening to his gentle breathing next to me. How can he sleep so peacefully? I wake at the slightest rustle of the curtains, the pat of the neighbor’s cat as he walks along the edge of the roof, the sound of a train in the night.
Woah! Look at that! Sentence variety! This is also probably the first time I strung three dependent clauses together without separating the last one with an "and." (See that last sentence) Somehow, this one little quirk stuck with me, and now I catch myself using it constantly, probably a little too much.
I've written quite a lot in college. Every workshop class I've taken is different, so it's hard to know exactly where my writing stands. I think it's on the upswing though.
I've been struggling with another possible novel idea, and this time the backdrop is a Neverland-esque summer camp.
They called it the summer house. No one knew what it’s purpose was before it became the summer house, or even who had lived in it before the campers arrived. What they did know was that one June day in the summer of their thirteenth year, they awoke in hanging beds on a screen-in porch with light pressing like honey against the backs of their eyelids, and no memory of how they had gotten there.
There I go with those long sentences again...
My poetry's gotten better since high school, but upon reading the two poems side by side, I realize that I'm not getting loose enough with my language. My poems still read a bit too much like prose, and I'd like to experiment more. Here's the stanza I'm most proud of:
Last night I dreamt of flying
over distant hills. They were blue,
perfectly pristine, and I had the strange
urge to dive downward, half
expecting the land to part likewater and envelope me.
Below is an excerpt from a recent piece of flash fiction. It could just be because it's fresh, but I saw something in this piece that made me think that maybe I've been improving, and prompted me to go back and look at my past work.
Her body is a taught string when he enters the room. They are at the house of someone she doesn’t know, someone richer than they are, and the mirror in the bathroom makes her feel small, like she’s standing in front of a waterfall. But she doesn’t have the coherency of thought to think about waterfalls now because when he looks in her direction her whole body vibrates. She wonders if the other guests notice it. They look at her strangely, and she looks back at them like a frightened deer.
There's something about this that just feels right: right amount of sentence variety, right amount of simile and metaphor.
This post is already too long for it's own good, but here are some things I learned from this exercise:
1. You can learn way more than you think you can from your old writing. I can still remember how I felt about "The News" when I finished writing it, and now I look at those last lines and cringe. Comparing it to my new poetry, though, I didn't see as much improvement as I expected.
2. Progress is always slow, and it's almost always invisible until you go looking for it.
3. I'm still moderately interested in some of the stories I started when I was younger. With a little work, I think some of them could be expanded.
4. Stories, for me, always begin with language. There's usually an idea behind the language, but the ones that I end up finishing have a kind of momentum (a voice, maybe?) that drives the story forward.
At first I was scared to write this post. Putting your work, especially your old, far-from-perfect work, out there is hard. I'm trying to come at it from a place of objectivity, so that we can look at it together. This exercise isn't just for me. It's for anyone who is unsure if they're on the right path. Writing isn't as straightforward as some other disciplines. There are no benchmarks to quantify success, and even the term "good writing" is up for interpretation. Every person's path is different, but sometimes it's nice to know that we're all plodding along, reaching our own milestones, making our own tracks in the snow.