Saturday, January 14, 2012

New GroupThink vs. the Writer in Isolation -- and a place in between.

The New York Times ran an oped yesterday, "The Rise of the New GroupThink." I appreciated some parts of it very much -- I especially liked the promise in the title of the author's byline “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking.” -- but other parts felt like they were drawing on old models that hadn't actually been erased by the Rise of New GroupThink and the article felt like it was encouraging reverting -- especially as this applies to writers.

But before I dig in, let me first say that I worry about the erosion of the skill of being alone. My students don't seem to ever be truly alone. They walk in, thumbs pumping on phones, and leave, thumbs pumping. First, I worry about the loss of the skill set of relating to people in person. While texting to someone far off, they're ignoring the person sitting next to them in those moments before class starts. It takes me a long time to create a community in a classroom of texting strangers. Work? To get college students to be social?

And then, too, I talk about how and when we humans often get our best ideas -- I talk about Thomas Edison, sitting by a fire with ball bearings in his hands and pie pans below so that when he fell asleep the ball bearings would hit the pie pans and he'd wake up and write whatever he was thinking. I talk about Grant Wood, the painter of "American Gothic," having to leave the city because he got his best ideas while milking cows. Alone. Contemplative. Drifting. Associative thought ... idea.

But, also, once those ideas are hatched and mulled, we talk about them, hash them out, draw maps on the board ... We collaborate. Why? Because the stories are better. I'll explain why ... but first:

As a young writer, I was taught to write in solitude, emerge with something whole, collect criticism, and hole up again. This model broke down for me over time. I found it inefficient and creatively limiting as a writer and as a teacher. It didn't play to my natural instincts and so, over time, I've changed the way I teach writing and the way I write.

Writing a novel -- as the sole author -- is solitary. You can't write 300 pages and not feel alone -- like the sole survivor on a ship at the helm (in a storm, approaching icebergs).

Throughout my life, I've heard writers say that you shouldn't talk about your work -- that it ruins the writing. Maybe this is just a very easy -- almost superstitiously-based -- way to shut up aspiring writers who only want to talk about the project they find themselves hip-deep in -- young writers who really aren't looking for tips and warnings from those who've sailed through a number of storms and hit a fair share of icebergs. (Sometimes it's hard to listen to -- like hearing another person's dream, which sometimes I love and sometimes I loathe.)

But I took it to heart and didn't discuss my work until finished. In a poem, fine. In a short story, doable. In a novel?

I think about when I was studying French in France. Why would I do homework at home? Why not do it on the Metro while surrounded by people who are specialists? I mean wouldn't you do your math homework on the bus if you knew the bus would be filled mathematicians? If I'm surrounded by smart storytellers, why not ask their opinions about a novel that I'm mired in?

When I started to get desperately stuck as a novelist, I began the habit of coming to my husband, rambling about my issue (with little context), and he'd ramble back.

He says one thing and I say, What? Were you even listening? He says something else. I say that won't work ... He says a few more things until I lift my hand and say, "Stop. I got it." Sometimes what I've come up with is related to what he's saying, sometimes not. It's that he's shed a new light on it and I'm seeing different shadows.

I need a fresh head, fresh eyes. Someone not mired in the word by word of it all. He provides.
(I've recently heard novelist Marisa de los Santos talk about a very similar relationship with her husband, children's book author David Teague.)

Just yesterday, I described the entire plot of a novel to my parents -- to the mid section -- and asked them what they thought might happened, told them what I thought might happen, offered options. We talked for well over an hour.

I have a close friend and now a reader I truly trust -- who does this work-for-hire editorially, Heather Whitaker. Early on a project, I ask her what she thinks. Why early? Well, she's brilliant and the work is still really supple in my mind. I'm open to huge suggestions early on.

Am I too open to suggestions? I don't think so. I've always been able to discern -- more or less -- when an idea feels right, on a gut level. Maybe not at first mention, but if it is the right suggestion, it won't go away.

The older I get as a writer, the easier it is for me to throw pages away, sections, even entire novels -- because I don't actually throw them away. I collect them. I put them in my junkyard where they get all kinds of fecund with wear and weather and rot -- until they're good and usable elsewhere. I have faith -- established by experience -- that no writing really goes to waste. If nothing else, it's taught you how to write it -- and that is transferable.

It's harder, however, to convince a writer at work on only their fourth or fifth short story of all time to make major changes once they've written a whole draft of 15 pages. They labored. They don't know it's not a waste.

Some not unusual responses to a story by a young writer:

Wonderful, but it's the plot of a 350 page novel, not a short story. Yes, yes. Nice scenes. One problem, it really starts on page 9. I see what you were going for, but why not tell this story from this other character's point of view? See how it all becomes much more organically suspenseful?

Now, take that same new writer, and ask them to think, jot, collect memories, tie them together, imagine, invent, plot, scheme, map, and then come in with only a first page and an idea for the rest ... well, at that point, they can appreciate the comments above. They're not damning them to start from scratch -- which is what it feels like after the 15 pages of words are committed.

(By the way, I make them go through a very specific process for the first story they write for class. The second story can be written any way they see fit.)

A few other thoughts on the article.

1. I thought that open classrooms were a feature of schools built in the 70s primarily and most of them have since been cordoned off because it was clear they weren't working. (The upper parts have to be kept open a little for circulation, but they're no longer fully open.)

2. Donuts. I think what I'm saying actually fits with what Susan Cain writes here about the donut breaks at Hewlett Packard. Getting halfway through a novel and then asking for other people's thoughts isn't anything close to GroupThink. I'm not writing novels by committee -- see ship above.

But I do believe deeply in the donut! I can stew in my office -- stuck -- endlessly. But if I walk out and talk to Dave, donuts or not, often the confusion lifts and a new tack is found. Yes, I get a lot of ideas when I'm alone. But I've also been very aware of the people I'm with when I get ideas while not alone. Because not all of my ideas are hatched in solitude. (Four kids, two dogs ... alone isn't always easy to come by -- my process hasn't been allowed to be built on concepts like solitude, no interruption, quiet ....)

I've noticed that the grad students here who create smaller critique groups and commit to them over time and geography do well. Books emerge from these clumps of dedicated friends/critics.

The writer in isolation -- good old Walden Pond -- is a very powerful cultural concept. It's still holding strong. NewGroup Think hasn't touched it. And I think, actually, that some writers might benefit from some interaction. One could at least try a discussion as an experiment with a fellow writer you know and trust -- especially if brooding lonesomely and fully stuck.