Sunday, July 21, 2013

Scratch and Sift

How familiar is this? You attend yet another writer's conference, and the keynote speaker has just regaled the audience on how she wrote her breakout first novel, which of course not only became a bestseller, but also launched a movie franchise. She tells us that she'd never written before, except maybe a sweet little article for a parenting magazine. But one morning, after a pitiful night's sleep due to 3 sick children and a dog that ate her husband's socks, she awakened with the entire plot for the book. Complete with sparkly skin. And she's never read books about leprechauns, either.

It had just come to her.

Maybe she was also down on her luck, living on food stamps, and one dream later, she's wearing Prada to walk the dog. She demurs, she giggles, she tells us we just have to pay attention to our dreams because an absolute fabbie story is just waiting to pop out with the morning bowl of cornflakes.

I don't know about you, but I find these inspirational stories kinda depressing, and more likely to send me to the gentle comfort of cheesecake and vodka than to my notebook. Because Ima Bess Eller didn't mention the seven drafts that she went through or the edits her editor demanded just to make the book saleable. No, as far as I know, that best seller was birthed from her forehead like Athena springing from Zeus. And perfectionist that I can be, I don't want to start something that doesn't arrive fully written.

This week, I signed up for a design class taught by WeeksRingle. In the intro, she mentioned Twyla Tharpe's book, The Creative Habit, and shared Ms Tharpe's idea of "scratching". Chickens walk through the yard - at least the free range ones do  - scratching for corn. They don't know for sure if there is grain. Sometimes they pluck up a pebble or stone. But they still continue to scratch and sample, seeking all day long for something tasty.

Like chickens, artists, choreographers and yes, even writers, must learn to be continuous scratchers, living in the expectation of the spark of an idea. And then not to be bound to that idea, either, because sometimes an idea is simply the doorway to the next one. 

Back in the day when dinosaurs roamed the earth and I was in high school, my creative writing teacher had us read. All the time. To see how other writers handled words, conveyed ideas. We looked at theme and cadence, at conflict and arc. Then we would do writing exercises. My writing teacher had no expectation of any story or poem arriving fully formed. Nor was every idea that we scratched about with meant to become a completed story. I can't tell you where the transition was made in my mind. Perhaps my procrastination forced my perfectionism's hand, or vice versa. But I love the freedom in trial and error, even if I haven't the patience always for gathering and trying and drafting and thinking. But I think my writing will only get better if I allow myself to just scratch about and see where an idea might carry me. 


  1. Marjanna - This resonates with me, big time. When and where did I get the idea that perfection was necessary? Or even desired?

    At RWA Nationals last week, I attended a session on fear and how to overcome it. And perfectionism is, apparently, a fear of failure. Rats! The answer (annoyingly) is we all get through it in our own ways. Not so very helpful, eh?

    The presenter had us write down three positive things we feel when we think about our writing. As folks shared their lists, the presenter told as that - to a person - we had all lost the worried frown between our brows and exchanged it for a smile and better posture.

    I'm thinking that when I get into a head game of perfectionism, I might try this exercise again, to see if that magical corn kernel appears and is enough to sustain me as I do a little more scratching.

  2. thanks, Keely. Yeah, perfectionism sounds so wonderful, until it isn't. I really love this idea of scratching, of doing what Weeks Ringle calls "maquettes" - small projects that explore an idea or design. Perhaps to perfect a new skill - or in writing terms, to explore a scene or emotion or character.
    I also think perfectionism, at least for me, is because I don't want to work too hard. My sister mentioned an artist who had an entire notebook full of research, cartoons, sketches, ideas, in preparation of a completed painting.
    Maybe some authors pooh pooh the idea of creating backstory or creating a collage or idea box as needless procrastination. But maybe, just maybe, this is the work and prep we need to ground and grow our stories?

  3. Nice post, Marjanna. I agree...peeking and scraping and letting the subconscious mind do its thing. Ideas seem to sprout sometimes fully formed, but for my money, they're usually churning for quite awhile. Except for one...when at RWA, Lavinia and I and Yvonne were in a cab and went by a storefront called "Wicked Heroes Bar"! Wootwoot!!! Totally rocking title for a novella collection!!!! Thanks for sharing your journey...

  4. omg. "Wicked Heroes Bar"??? That's fantastic, Marsha. Didja stop in to drink a long, tall one? I'll look forward to seeing that idea come to fruition!

  5. I'm so glad you said that about the "overnight success stories" being depressing. I thought I was the only one who felt that way! :-)

    Probably only 1 in every 10,000 cases of success can be classified as "overnight." In the other 9,999 instances, it's that old saw about "it only took me ten years to become an overnight success."

    So yeah, let's scratch and sift our way to personal artistic satisfaction. That's the start - and end - point of all lasting success, anyway.

  6. Misha, the key is to work for our goals, to try any idea, from the headline on the newspaper to Marsh'a bar in Atlanta to how some guys butt looked in those jeans as he walked by, and see if it leads to something. That I must get in the habit of following any idea. There's a story that Cole Porter was having lunch (dinner? drinks?) with someone, and in the course of conversation, bet this friend that he could write a song based on the next comment out of anyone's mouth. And the friend (host? concierge? hairy acrobat?) came up and said "Miss Otis regrets she's unable to lunch today" From this, he wrote Miss Otis Regrets, which has gone on to be sung by a myriad of stars from Edith Piaf to Kirsty MacColl.
    Not so much divine inspiration as rising to meet a challenge. That seems to be how I can live in a creative lifestyle. (Oh, if only it were all bass guitars and angels' wings)

  7. Great advice, Marjanna.

    It puts me in mind, too, of the people who insist on asking writers, "Where do your ideas come from?"

    I always think, "Where DON'T they come from?"

    And a conversation like that makes me a tiny bit concerned for those folks, because you're right. Ideas, good and bad, are all around. We just have to scratch and sift as you say!

  8. Marjanna ~ Excellent post. You are so right. You need to give yourself the freedom to experiment and scratch around, see what forms, what comes or doesn't. Loved this image of chickens pecking and scratching in the barnyard. Very apt. Thanks for sharing your wisdom and insights with us. Nice grist for the mind mill. ;0)