Thursday, August 28, 2008

How I Write

Ah, class has begun. Today, a soliloquy on how I write. Since it's written in the way I write, it makes no sense at all.

Last year, I read “The Trial,” a novel by Franz Kafka. Though it’s called a novel, it is in fact incomplete. Kafka completed part of the novel before he died, but left behind as well many fragments that, for years, scholars have argued over, trying to determine where they might fit into Kafka’s narrative. In the edition I read, the editor collected these fragments as well as the completed portion of the novel, and arranged them as most scholars believe they were intended to be ordered by the original author. As I read the novel and the fragments, I saw a writer who approaches fiction writing pretty much the same way I approach it – starting with an idea, an image, a quote, a situation, and then building out from that seed until a section or a chapter of the novel is finished. Like Prof. Hailey, I’m exploring. I think of it as a penicillin mold growing from several spots of varying sizes on a Petri dish – they don’t necessarily come together uniformly, but they come together in a manner that connects each spot and, on the whole, creates an interesting pattern of randomness and order.

I’ve also used this approach to create some multimedia texts for the Uncharted website – dabbling in creating web videos to tell the same kind of story I’m trying to tell with text alone.

I ramble (obviously). I rarely outline. I’m currently working on a fiction novel, and the most outlining I’ve done is to plan, five chapters ahead, what each chapter will focus on. I tend to let my fiction writing grow organically, like penicillin. I stew over it. At the same time I’m a rapid prototyper – I like to bang out a piece of writing, then re-write, re-write and re-write until it works. I set it aside, then re-read it and re-write it. Some portions are perfect, in my view. Others need help. So I keep stewing.

Most of my professional career has been spent in journalism, where such “penicillin writing” as discussed earlier works in some cases (where narrative or storytelling is called for), but not in all. For most of what I wrote for the papers, I used another metaphor – the inverted pyramid, a style which commands journalists to structure their stories in a way that presents the most important information first, with importance diminishing as the story gets longer. But again, these stories were rarely written in a linear fashion. I tend to start at the beginning, but if the last bit I write is in the middle, that’s okay. Things eventually fit together like a puzzle. Sometimes the prototype goes through a few iterations. Sometimes, depending on deadline, it does not. I have noticed that the quality of writing does not necessarily increase as the number of iterations increases. Some things I bang out, I think, work fairly well with only minor tinkering. Other things, however, call for the bone saws.

Now I write procedures used to process and package radioactive waste, using linear and looped approaches to make sure every little piece fits together in a way that makes logical sense. Still, portions of the procedure grow and are then merged with other portions, in ways that make for a randomly-patterned whole that works perfectly for its intent. But since there can’t be any gaps in logic, these are more tightly-structured than a penicillin piece. These are more like Lego bricks, perfectly interlocking so that no holes are left. I admit to some outlining here, because there are certain tasks that have to be achieved and in a certain order. But again, the outline is sparse, not detailed. The procedure I’m the most proud of is one that I wrote as I worked with operators on the equipment, as they figured out how best to use it.

Prof. Hailey writes that “Different genres call for different metaphors.” I have found, however, that different genres don’t necessarily make me write differently, sometimes to my detriment, but mostly in ways that are successful.

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