Sunday, May 18, 2014

Four Questions on Writing

The Darwins tagged me for a writing meme.

Dorothy Sayers once noted that writing requires three elements, which she called the Idea, the Energy, and the Power. Very good writing -- such as we get in Dante or Austen or Dickens -- almost perfectly balances the three in an equilateral triangle, while all other writing falls away from the ideal into a scalene triangle, usually strongly dominated by one. People who fall to the temptation to let Power dominate turn all writing into a reflection of themselves; they are always expressing something, even at the cost of everything else. People who fall to the temptation to let Energy dominate make writing entirely a matter of the technical work; writing workshops tend to encourage people like that, because writing for them is always about the things they are doing. People who give in to the temptation of letting Idea dominate tend to try to impose their conceptions directly. Every writer tends to be tempted by one more than the others; much of my answers to the following can be explained in the single sentence: My most serious temptation in writing is to let Idea dominate over everything else.

1. What are you working on?

I'm working on an awful lot, actually. I have a novel, Aegidius, which was a bit of lark, undergoing occasional revision; I have another novel, Tanaver, for which I have a few chapters, which I eventually intend to get done; I have a short story, "Ambassador", that I am in the middle of writing, just getting back to it. I am writing a book on early modern accounts of how we know that a world outside our minds exists, which is just starting to come together. I have notes going for about three other works for down the road, should their time ever come (including one on Jane Austen's moral philosophy), and I am preparing to work on a paper on Nicolas Malebranche's theory of motivation. And, of course, I occasionally write poetry. Ideas, you see; they pour down until I'm soaked and finally swept away.

2. What makes your work different from others' work in the same genre?

I tend to like complicated philosophical puzzles, so there's always more going on in the story than there might seem to be. The big challenge, of course, is keeping the puzzle from making the story unreadable. Much the same is true of poetry, although I am slightly more careful of technique in poetry; writing a poem is for me much more of a conceptual exercise than anything else.

3. Why do you write what you do?

It just sort of happens. I don't generally set out to do things because I find them interesting, although sometimes I do. The fact of the matter is that I would be writing something anyway -- I am a compulsive notetaker, and go through a little pocket notebook of 400 pages every few months (from which my occasional Dashed Off posts come -- I transfer some of them here so that I can find them more easily if I need them), not counting the ordinary things I put up on the blog. Notes start linking to notes and building on other notes, and eventually it heads in a direction. Extraordinarily inefficient, but it is, as I said, what will happen regardless, so there's not much to be done about that.

4. How does your writing process work?

I find revision massively easier than anything else in the writing process, except for simply coming up with ideas. So when I write I throw something down and revise. And revise. And revise. And revise. And sometimes throw it all out and start anew, because a new set of ideas have come along that change everything. Extraordinarily inefficient here, too, and it's not actually a good way to do some things (like writing academic papers, where I continually have the problem of the paper being thoroughly obsolete by the time I feel like I'm done with revision, since I've already come up with a new and better way to see the topic). I do very little planning; I usually know the essential story already in my head by the time I start, and it's just a matter of finding the way to get it down somehow before it gets flooded out by other ideas. The one exception to all of this is Siris itself, since everything here is just thrown out and at best lightly revised -- new poem drafts are usually second drafts, and while I do a lot of revising, it tends to be detail-work, and only very rarely a significant change to the poem itself. It all would be better if I had the technique better to begin with -- but that's slower going than coming up with yet another new thing to do badly. But I'm in rather less hurry than most people when it comes to writing, I think. What gets done will get done, and what won't, won't.


  1. Itinérante11:05 AM

    May I ask a one more question? If so the question is: do you have someone on your mind when you write stories and/or poems? Or you just write for yourself?
    In all cases, again, I really enjoy it here! Thank you!

  2. branemrys11:22 AM

    I mostly just write for myself. Other people are sometimes occasions for what I write -- but even then what I actually end up writing will often be more a matter of what works in the story or poem than anything to do with them.

  3. Leo Carton Mollica12:52 PM

    I know I'm possibly its only fan, but... I really do miss Tanaver.

  4. branemrys12:57 PM

    It's not dead; it has just been crowded out for a while.

  5. MrsDarwin5:07 PM

    I'm a Tanaver Fan, too! I'm eager to see where you'll go with it, although I've lost all standing to nag anyone to finish liveblogging a story.

  6. MrsDarwin5:18 PM

    It's fascinating that you should mention Mind of the Maker, because as I was writing my answers to the meme I'd pulled Sayers off the shelf and was flipping through to see into which trinitarian excess I fell. I got caught up in reading it, though, and realized if I was ever going to post that I needed to set the book aside and write. But of the top of my head now, I would guess I'm a power-centric writer, when I err too far in any one direction. I'm tempted to go back to Sayers to pull some quotes on that, but if I get caught up that again, no one here will get dinner tonight.

    Thanks for answering! I'm glad I succeeded in my evil plan of discovering the status of your fiction projects.

  7. MrsDarwin12:42 PM

    Hm. I'd put down MotM before I reached Sayers's in-depth assessment of the three types, so my father-ridden pick was based on remembering her mention of the Father types as ones who conceive grand mental projects and and underestimate the effort required to bring them to fruition (like the fellow who thinks he has a book in him, if only he had a desk and a chair). On the other hand, I am often very aware of my audience when I write -- not tailoring to them, but reading and re-reading and editing a piece to make sure that what comes across is exactly the impression I wanted to convey. And I do kill my darlings, which is not very paternal. Now I have to go back and actually read all of MotM from cover to cover and get my types straight. Thanks, man.

  8. branemrys6:33 PM

    Well, one wickedness deserves another.


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