Sunday, March 7, 2010

Controlling the Silent Notes

Have you had one of these days at work recently? A day with a full desk, a dozen ongoing tasks, at least 3 immediate ones, access to email, jefe leaning over your shoulder, and the attention span of a three-month old golden retriever combined with the energy level of your average possum? Classic symptoms of adult-onset attention deficit inactivity disorder - ADID.

Yes. This was me on Friday. Currently, my office is whichever fine dining or drinking establishment that comes equipped with outlets and wifi. This allows me to move about and get refills, look at sale merchandise, or perhaps order another orange scone. And my current task - this combines the dozen ongoing and the three immediate - is to fill in 20 thousand blanks.

Each blank, of course, is a word. A word that must be plucked out of thin air (or as Dr. Galvin insisted, my collective past) and placed carefully on the page. Of course, there will surely be the requisite thes, ands, hes and mobiles, plus a smattering of queridas and Dios' (sometimes accompanying madre de). There will be phrases like "golden eyes gone molten" and "with shaking hands." Easy-peasy, some would say. They are the same ones who exclaimed how on earth I could possibly write a novel "complete with character arcs" with only 50 thousand words. As though that weren't enough to get the characters across a street let alone to evolve. Of course, right then, on Friday, I almost wanted to throw in a scene or two of them walking back and forth across some street or boulevard because I couldn't find the next sentence that would move the story forward.

I sat there, staring up into Saint-Exupery's cluttered atmosphere and wondered how I could possibly make that chaos into not only coherent sentences, but satisfying scenes that culminated into a happily ever after. (HEA, for those in the know.) Because much is dependent on that HEA. You may even feel a little pitty for the 20K blanks for having so much riding on them. The reader's satisfaction and trust. The writer's ability to pay rent. The editor's trust in the writer...

Last night, I attended a Berta Rojas concert, a classical guitarist from Paraguay. It was extraordinary. Amazing. Before Rojas performed each piece, she would first still the strings. Because if she didn't, they would hum, softly. And that hum is not part of the song. Maybe only she could feel them as she held the guitar, but as soon as she stilled them, the air became silent.

She would begin each song with a silent guitar and end each song with a note's full vibration. When she finished and struck the final note, she allowed it to continue and continue, and her face and her body would curl into her instrument and I would want to shout Is that it? because the anticipation was too much and I didn't know if I should clap or breathe or listen harder. I had to wait for her to raise her head because even if I could no longer hear the note, Berta could still feel its vibration and until it was completely silent, the song had not yet ended.

When I look at those 20K blanks in my immediate future, I feel as though the page is humming. I am past the mid-point of my novel, the stakes have continued to rise, and my characters need to be twisted even tighter so that the climax will carry the reader straight through to anticipating my next book. I think my ADID has stymied my ability to differentiate between the need to simply lay my hand across a page and silence the past whispers or find the actual thread of my last note and coax it into an audible sound. I realized, listening to Berta Rojas play, that like her and her guitar, I am the only one in control of my pages; I can silence them or fill them with words. Or I can get up and get another refill of Pepsi.

What do you do when you find yourself in this place - of knowing that you are the only available to complete the task, that you actually can complete it, but are immobilized by what is riding on its outcome?


  1. I have no answers. But at least, at your office, you get to be the boss of you. (Yes, that IS the sound of jealousy, playing in the background . . .)

    And it sounds like a lovely way to spend an evening.

    Here's to 20,000 blanks getting filled in . . . you can do it!

  2. M - GREAT post. Are the 20k a districation from your distraction? A dilema, for sure. Here's to coaxing out the final movements of your literary syncopated symphony!


  3. Marjanna ~ What a beautiful metaphor (the Rojas performance/silencing the hum)! And so true. Since I'm all wrapped up in figuring out how to teach creative writing and composition this term, I've been reading lots of pedagogy on writing. And one of the best nuggets I walked away with from reading Released Into Language by Wendy Bishop was that knowing your process can set you free. If we allow too many other voices (or other people's rules) to speak in our heads, we'll never be able to write what we need to write. Too many rules-- when they're not your own or they don't work for you--stifle your creative flow.

    So I'm in total agreement with the analogy you've created. Silence the hum on the page before you begin your next writing session. Awesome! I do something similar (or try to most days). I call it silencing my internal editor--that part of my subconscious that tries to impose rules on my writing by whispering all the discouraging reasons why the words I'm getting onto the page are wrong and awful. I found that if I can silence that voice in my head, I can produce the pages I need to make progress on my current writing project and effectively thwart my own ADID. :)

  4. Yvonne,
    The problem with being my own boss is I can be a very negative one. On the other hand, I do let my worker sleep late and am fairly flexible about the dress code, though I rarely allow pj's and certainly everything has to make an attempt at matching...
    Oh, and after today's work, I have filled in 1K of those blanks!

    What is a districation? (and thanks for the midday Toast! I drink to final movements!)

    I think because I don't plan out my stories, I get lost in the possibilities. And I have to remember, novels are about the best parts (or worst) of someone's day. Not about walking from the car to the house, filling the sugar bowl or answering the phone at work.
    But sometimes that's the hum for me. The hum of all the things my characters might be doing. And I have to silence those. OR, perhaps something does need to happen on that journey home from work - perhaps it takes all their concentration for Lucien and Phoebe to even make it from the car to the house... :-)
    But I have to make that distinction and sometimes that takes a lot of effort, especially on a Friday... when the sun is shining brightly for the first time in 6 years.