Monday, June 16, 2008

Help Helps

I am a big fan of the focus group, the consensus, and the communal project. Of course in the public sphere, but also at work, at school, and when picking out clothes--wherever people I respect are willing to offer an opinion, I'm usually willing to work with it, or at least consider it before putting that halter top back on the rack. I like to play life as a team sport; it seems to reduce the margin for error when you have lots of brains on the project, instead of just the one, which can get sort of caught up in itself (well, mine can) either with chutzpah or insecurity. The alleged focus of this blog being what it is, here I'm talking about the role of other people's opinions in my writing. (but really, if you have a free afternoon, I'd be happy to let you pick out all my clothes).

Team playing doesn't seem obviously to apply to writing, which at some point has to be a human alone with a pen/pencil/keyboard/tarred stick. But then, eventually, it's all typed or tarred--it's either done or it isn't, and if you don't know, perhaps someone else can tell you. Well, I know it doesn't work that way for every writer, but quite often, someone can tell *me*.

I've been lucky in the someones in my life, the people who are willing and able to read my work insightfully and give me some of that insight to use in future drafts. I try to avoid showing early-phase stories to non-writers, because they tend to say unhelpful things like, "Wow, this is great!" or "I didn't really get it..." But in terms of editors, teachers, and fellow writers, I've been more than lucky. The two hours a week that I can go sit with fellow-writer Kerry Clare and write in frequently interrupted silence is invaluable, though writers of the quiet garret variety think we're slightly mad. I however, like solidarity, and sympathy, and that fact that K always calls me on it when I'm not making sense.

I've been getting feedback and critiques of my writing for years, but another team-writing aspect--research--always seemed a step too far. Sure I'm always bothering people about what their jobs are like, or their commutes, or what they ate for lunch and where you buy that sort of thing. And, sure, there is a certain joy for me when the job interview or the date goes so irretrievably bad that I'm free to ask question after question of this person I'll never see again about what it's like to be an HR manager, a real estate agent, a pompous jerk. And yes, I did talk my dear friend Scott into spending an entire Saturday teaching me to play a game that I needed to fill in a tiny part in the plot of a story.

That game day, last fall, is as far as I've gone with the research so far. Yes, laziness is a part of that, I suppose--not wanting to go beyond a quick web search or phone call to a friend before I got to the meat of writing. Weirdly, though, I think there is also a bizarre sort of selfish independence there--not wanting to start doing extensive reading or interviews on a subject, because then that subject would start to take up more of the fabric of the work. Other ideas and voices would being involved, leaving less room for the bits that are truly mine.


As if anything's mine-all-mine after writers, editors and friends have all piped up and said, this bit's funny don't cut it, but I don't understand why he kisses her, and that dog changes colour, and also this symbolism is forced and phony could you do something about that? At that point, showing up in someone's office with a notebook and a list of factual questions is the only responsible thing to do. If I'm going to enlist so many people's time and intellects to make the story *good*, I'd better get it *right*, too, and often I can't do that all alone, with or without search engines.

And so, off I go. To Montreal, on what is mainly a mini-vacation, but will involve a notebook, a map, an appointment with experts. I'm looking forward to putting new people on the team, adding to the playbook, not expanding this metaphor any further. I'll let you know what I find out. (I'll experiment with the world of wireless in Montreal, but I may be postless until I return next week)

Stay with me / go places

PS--Help in all forms--I just realized the subject line, something that I say all the time, is not my own; it's a line from a poem by Judith Viorst. Go, team!

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