Rescue Me…or My Reader.

Post Date: August 30th, 2008


“We explain to the reader exactly how to read the story. In doing so we smother any subtlety in the piece and insult the reader. We’re so afraid that he or she will miss the point or that the story isn’t good enough to make the point on it’s own that we throw in the “here’s the moral” section toward the end.”

Kimberly Culbertson, “Helicopter Authoring”

Today’s Word Count for the Novel: 267,392. 1430 words gone!

Page Count for the Novel: 944 (As I prepared a manuscript for submission and was asked for 1” margins, I got rid of 1.25 right/left margins on this manuscript, and funny how that helped! But all we really care about here is the word count.)

My friend, an actress and a writer, shared an observation that some artists indulge rescue fantasies. These fantasies depend on a dualistic view of the artist’s life: either you remain enslaved at your current workplace or someone magically “discovers” you as you slave at your art in anonymity eating your ramen and refried beans. There’s no in between. Your choices are work-work-work (which equals money but misery) or art-art-art (which equals joy but penury) but never the two shall meet. Either you sell out or you fail; it’s an Occam’s Razor equation.

I subscribe to the old-fashioned, Faulknerian school: If you can, keep your day job at the post office and apply seat of the pants to seat of the chair in the wee hours and late at night. Or, if you’re too unhip or just plain exhausted to stay up late, then get to workin’ on those nights while others gad about.

By the way, my friend and I tried to recall a term for “butt to chair” our fiction writing professor Ehud Havazelet mentioned back in 1987 and all I found on Google was “siedfleisch,” which I believe means “simmering meat” in German. Ehud, could you have meant that? One’s derriere must needs feel the heat if the writing is to go well. Otherwise the writing isn’t honest.

I can’t get discovered unless I put my work out there, and I can only put my work out there if I do it. The rescue fantasy plays out in reality every time we avoid the paper or the keyboard. We rescue ourselves from the hard work of self-discovery, one of the big reasons artists stray. Staring at yourself in the mirror and facing all the pain and ugliness art stirs up is a great reason to run away — very far away. Never mind the fact that working by one’s lonesome and correcting all the flaws that crop up in that manuscript, why, that’s not much fun but sweaty, angsty, and destructive, about as alluring as scrubbing floors with vinegar: virtuous it may be, environmentally sound, but stinking to your own personal brand of hell.

Yet again: That rescuing agent or editor can’t appear till you build it.

Likewise the rescue of American kids nationwide, occurring right now as thousands of helicoptering parents release their children onto college campuses, it’s the same delusion, really. A helicopter parent believes that if forced to work alone, the child shall fail. Wouldn’t it all be better if a fairy godmama stuck around and handled registration, move-in, first day of class, you know, everything?

I like how Kimberly Culbertson, editor of Relief Journal, turns this cultural phenomena back on us writers who are guilty of treating our artistic works as babes incapable of survival. (You could argue that the rescue-fantasy artist doesn’t even grant her babe conception; she hovers over the ideas in her mind but births nothing. “See, I’m gonna write this book one day…”) Culbertson explains how authors hover over their works with heavy moralizing.

Telling the point (as if there were just one) prevents a reader from growing along with our manuscripts. I’ll take this concept a step further: I helicopter parent in my writing with

— all kinds of editorial commentary, the tell-all mental meanderings of this or that character, which is no substitute for action;
— painting parts of scenes the reader can fill in with his own imagination; and
— crafting top-heavy symbolism threatening to tumble over and bruise the reader as she’s strolling through. Never mind the dangers of overwrought metaphors. (Hey, it’s Friday night and I’m tired.)

I could go on; I’m building a list of my helicoptering faults. On my desk is a quotation from Charles Baxter that reminds me of my protagonist’s interior monologue knowing WAY too much all the time:

“Nobody cares, in fiction, what a character thinks until a character acts on those ideas. You can think anything you want to and it won’t matter until your ideas begin to have certain dramatic consequences.”

Art doesn’t require superheroes flying in at the last second. In fact, it’s decidedly workaday, unglamorous, and slimy with perspiration. So is life. Kids and artistic works need to live it. Let them breathe, let them stretch, let them skin some knees. They’ll find their way.

Today’s Writing Goal: Cut at least another 1,000 (aren’t I cocky) and move a huge scene later in the novel because right now it interrupts momentum like a boulder in the road. Writing Prompts: Please note that writing prompts should always be pursued in emotionally-safe environments with the supervision of someone who interested in encouraging good writing, self-awareness, and reflection. A wonderful resource is Pat Schneider’s Writing Alone and With Others.

© Lyn Hawks. Writing prompts for one-time classroom use only and not for publication in any form elsewhere without permission of this author.

Elementary: Up On High

Have you ever flown in a plane or a helicopter? Have you ever stood on something that is several feet high? Then you know what it’s like to look down on people, places, animals, land, and things and see how much smaller they are. How did you feel when you were up there?

Pretend you are in a plane, a helicopter, or on top of the tallest building you have ever seen. Now imagine that you can fly anywhere to help someone or something. Write a short story after thinking about these questions:

— Who or what will you help?
— Why?
— How will you help them?
— Did it work? Why or why not?
— What will happen next?

You can also imagine the opposite story: picture that you are the person on the ground. Who or what will come help you, and why? How do you feel about it?

Secondary and Adult: Up on High

Are you an introvert or an extrovert, meaning, do you tend to get your energy from being alone, or do you get your energy from being around people? Or are you a person who truly enjoys both states of being?

Write about a time when you or someone did what’s called “helicoptering”: hanging around, hovering, trying to help another person.

— Express your feelings and the feelings you imagine the other person had.
— How did the situation unfold?
— What choices did people make? What were the consequences?
— Would you experience that situation again if you could? Why or why not?

4 Comments

  1. Anonymous says:

    Lyn:

    Your latest post is worthy of submitting to writer’s journals or publications. Is is very pertinent to the struggling writers and authors. Have you thought about that?

  2. Lyn Hawks says:

    Thanks! I do want to “essay” on craft for some publications. I also hope to return to the classroom someday and continue to teach creative writing. That’s a direct way to make a difference and build a community where the struggle can be transformed to become a supportive and joyful process, whenever possible.

  3. bobmust says:

    Your hubby might tell you the same thing, but writing, like music, is – or can be – a form of magic. The non-writer tends to think it just comes – from the muse, or by inspiration.
    We artistic types eventually learn there are tricks to draw a reader in, to stir emotions, to prod readers to seek resolution to life’s quandaries. But we only learn them with, as you say, butt to chair, fingers to keyboard. After a while they’re mundane tools – but at the same time (if done right), they have effects far beyond technicality or discipline.

  4. Lyn Hawks says:

    Hi, Bob,

    Yes, “tricks” is the word! Someone told me that Annie Dillard once said readers might be surprised at just how “calculating” authors are in setting up story; that when you craft your piece, you have all kinds of nuts, bolts, flying buttresses to keep the thing stable and cohesive (able to withstand temblors and critics), and other intentional strategies to establish character or move the plot along.

    While we wouldn’t do this writing thing without some magic, we need to admit there’s a ton of necessary calisthenics and tough love in the process. Maybe I was a nun in another life who “fretted not” in her “convent’s narrow room,” because to me there’s great joy in the solitary, detailed labor.












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